During the course of church history there have been a great many commentaries written about the books of the Bible, particularly the epistles of Saint Paul. One can scarcely read any of the Church Fathers without running into lengthy commentary on the Pauline corpus, which is no surprise given how central his letters were to the New Testament. I would like to take this opportunity to share a bit of ancient wisdom from one of these ancient commentators in the hopes that it may bless your soul and cause you to think on these important topics. The Church Father in question is known only to us as Ambrosiaster. He lived sometime during the fourth century AD, and his writings demonstrate that his theology was decidedly pro-Nicene, which allows us to deduce that he wrote his commentaries sometime after that council during the reign of Pope Damasus I (whom he names as currently reigning). Ambrosiaster (“Star of Ambrose”) was not the author’s name, who actually wrote the commentaries anonymously, but was applied to him because for many centuries it was believed that Saint Ambrose of Milan penned the commentaries. Modern scholars believe, however, that Ambrosiaster’s style is so markedly different from that of Saint Ambrose that the two cannot possibly be the same man. The name has therefore served as a placeholder for the author’s true identity, which may never truly be known for sure (though many names have been put forth by scholars over the years). Regardless of his identity, his commentaries are very important because they provide a glimpse into the thought of this period in time, as well as providing a witness of an early Latin text of scripture that was different from that of Saint Jerome’s Vulgate.
I want to share a passage or two from Ambrosiaster’s commentary on Saint Paul’s epistle to the Romans to give you a glimpse into this author’s view of the foreknowledge of God, and how that ties into the topic of God’s justice. He is commenting on Saint Paul’s text in Romans 9, concerning Jacob and Esau.
Paul proclaims God’s foreknowledge by citing these events, because nothing can happen in the future other than what God already knows. Therefore, knowing what each of them would become, God said : The younger will be worthy and the elder unworthy. His foreknowledge chose the one and rejected the other. And in the one whom God chose, his purpose remained, because nothing other than what God knew and purposed in him, to make him worthy of salvation, could happen. Likewise the purpose of God remained in the one whom he rejected.
According to Ambrosiaster, God’s choice of Jacob over Esau was made in accordance with his foreknowledge of what kind of person each child would later become. God therefore chose Jacob to be the inheritor of the Birthright because he knew, in his infinite wisdom, that Jacob would better appreciate and take care of that honor and would better serve to be the vessel through which he could bring the Messiah into the world. There is no room in Ambrosiaster’s thought for a view such as Open Theism, which would logically have to admit that God did not, in reality, really know what sort of person that Esau would become or what type of person Jacob would have become. God would have had to have waited for them to mature before finding out the answer to this question.
But before someone accuses God of arbitrarily choosing the fate of these men, Ambrosiaster says the following: “However, although God knew what would happen, he is not a respecter of persons, and condemns nobody before he sins, nor does he reward anyone until he conquers.” For Ambrosiaster, though God foreknows the future he does not reward or condemn anyone until that person actually merits the outcome according to the conditions of justice. Ambrosiaster further elaborates on this idea in the following passage:
God knew those who would turn out to be people of ill will, and he did not number them among the good, although the Savior said to the seventy-two disciples who he chose as a second class, and who later abandoned him: Your names are written in heaven. This was for the sake of justice, since it is just that each person should receive his reward. Because they were good they were chosen for this service and so their names were written in heaven for the sake of justice, as I have said, but according to foreknowledge they were among the number of the wicked. For God judges according to his justice, not according to his foreknowledge.
And again Ambrosiaster says the following:
There is no respect of persons in God’s foreknowledge. For God’s foreknowledge is that by which it is defined what the future will of each person will be, in which he will remain, by which he will either be condemned or rewarded. Some of those who will remain among the good were once evil, and some of those who will remain among the evil were once good.
The problem is solved, because God is no respecter of persons. Even Saul and Judas Iscariot had been good at one time. Scripture says of Saul: He was a good man and there was none better in Israel. And of Judas Iscariot the apostle Peter says: he was numbered among us and allotted a share in this ministry of performing signs and wonders. How could someone who was not good have a share in the Savior’s ministry? In the plan of God it was decided that he would be considered worthy for the time for which he was chosen, like the seventy-two I mentioned above.
Ambrosiaster later goes on to reference both Kings Saul and David as other examples of how God’s foreknowledge and justice work together. His explanation of how they work together is one that I had thought about before but never actually heard or read another person articulate prior to reading it within his commentary. I found it to be a very good explanation, and it is at least as good as any other view that I have so far encountered in my studies of the topic.
1. Ambrosiaster, Commentaries On Romans and 1-2 Corinthians (Ancient Christian Texts) (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 75.