Is grace simply an attribute that can be abstracted from its source, and thus become a quality that we can manipulate or manage under our own resources? Or is grace only really conceivable as an activity rooted and personified in the life of God in Christ for us?
I have grown up, as maybe you have, in a Reformed/Arminian-shaped Thomism that thinks of grace as a quality, a thing, depersonalised stuff that has been dropped into my humanity just waiting to be activated and worked out in my life as an elect Christian person. And through habitually activating the power of this created grace in my life, I can reach beatific vision and acquire eternal life (or so the tale goes).
To be honest as I write this, I am actually wondering if people even think like this anymore? I am wondering if the Evangelical life has enough pause in it to even reflect on such things? Does it really matter to anyone anymore whether or not grace is a quality, a thing versus being a person whose name is Jesus? I’ll just assume this still does matter, and offer what a young Thomas Torrance thought of this as he wrote his PhD dissertation on The Apostolic Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers. He wrote:
[I]n the New Testament charis (χáρις) becomes a terminus technicus. While other meanings are still current, there is a special Christian sense of the word coined under the impact of Revelation to convey something quite unique. No doubt existing ideas are caught up within the word, such as kindness, gift, etc., but charis is such a new word (in fact a καινη κτíσις) that it cannot be interpreted in terms of antecedent roots or ideas. Rather it is to be understood in the light of a singular event which completely alters the life of man in basis and outlook: the Incarnation. God has personally intervened in human history in such a way that the ground of man’s approach to God, and of all his relations with God, is not to be found in man’s fulfilment of the divine command, but in a final act of self-commitment on the part of God in which He has given Himself to man through sheer love and in such a fashion that it cuts clean across all questions of human merit and demerit. All this has been objectively actualised in Jesus Christ, so that Christ Himself is the objective ground and content of charis in every instance of its special Christian use. Typical passages are [Torrance here offers these passages in the NT Greek, I will offer the NIV translation of these in its place]:
Romans 5.15: 15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!
Romans 5.21: 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
I Corinthians 1.4: 4 I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.
2 Timothy 2.1: You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.
Romans 16.20: 20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.
Thus in its special New Testament sense charis refers to the being and action of God as revealed and actualised in Jesus Christ, for He is in His person and work the self-giving of God to men. Later theology thought of charis as a divine attribute, but it would be truer to the New Testament to speak of it less abstractly as the divine love in redemptive action. Grace is in fact identical with Jesus Christ in person and word and deed. Here the Greek word charis seems to pass from the aspect of disposition or goodwill which bestows blessing to the action itself and to the actual gift, but in the New Testament neither the action nor the gift is separable from the person of the giver, God in Christ. Even apart from the other characteristics of the word in the New Testament, this basic fact means that the Christian charis completely outdistances its etymological roots. There is doubtless a linguistic but no theological point of contact with charis in classical and hellenistic Greek. [Thomas F. Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers, 20-1.]
In typical Torrance form, he argues from his methodological commitment that genuinely Christian thought was/is so apocalyptic and ground breaking in mode that it breaks in on (Greek in this instance) concepts in such a way that the word, ‘grace’, is taken from its original contextual usage, pretexted and retexted in a newly given (i.e. Revealed) conceptual universe of Christian jive. In other words, there is no lexical analogy in the Classical or Koine period of Greek that can be appealed to in order to unpack the theological and conceptual force that charis takes on as it is commandeered by the in-breaking Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. So we look to Jesus as the key for understanding its Christian (versus Greek) meaning.
The impact of thinking of grace in this way is that it is not viewed from a starting point found in humanity by itself; instead God’s freely Self-determined life is allowed to shape how we ought to understand grace. Not as a thing that we can control, but as a person who stoops down in accommodating love and gives his very life (Godself) for ours (which is what original creation itself comes from). This presupposes a conception of grace that by way of theological order (and just chronology for that matter) places God prior to us, and grace/covenant prior to creation (instead of vice versa). If we place creation (and thus Law) prior to grace/covenant (God’s life), then God’s free life of love shaped sovereignty is placed at our self-determined whim, and he becomes a thing who we can manipulate by our self-conceived form as a ‘pure-humanity’ of sorts (i.e. a humanity that is not logically conditioned by its necessary relation to the image that it bears/mirrors in Jesus Christ Col. 1.15ff).
The liberating thing about conceiving of grace as someOne who is outside of us (extra nos), and non-contingent upon us (and our appropriation of Him) is that the burden of salvation is lifted from our shoulders and placed on the shoulders of His Self governing life. We are free to look away from ourselves, and our works/peformance; and thus opened up to peer, as it were, into the holy of holies of God’s life. Thus through this gracious Spirit created unioning of divinity with humanity (ours) in Christ’s we are free to participate in God’s life, and thus be poured out as drink offerings on the sacrifice and faith of others. If we think of grace as a quality (the classical view), or attribute, we are again brought under the bondage of performing (through the enablement of “grace”) our salvation, and persevering in our good works.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. ~Galatians 5:1 (NIV)