Grace and Salvation as Personal, not Impersonal: Against Scholastic (Calvinist, Arminian, and Roman Catholic), Moralistic Therapeutic Deist, Palamite and Other Theories of Salvation

The Apostle Paul writes in his epistle to Titus: 11 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men,12 teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, 13 looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, …” We have a blessed hope and a glorious salvation, and it is personal, it is a person; it is God Immanuel, God with us in Jesus Christ our Savior!

cyrilThere has been a tendency, and in some major quarters in Protestantism (post Reformed orthodoxy, or more popularly known as classical Calvinism or scholastic Calvinism) to reduce ‘speak’ about this ‘blessed hope’ of ours down to impersonal language;  and further a reduction of salvation to a forensic transaction that ultimately, I would contend depersonalizes salvation. As Evangelical (Calvinist) Christians we want to get away from this tendency; we want to focus on biblical reality, and revealed theology wherein the ‘metaphysics’ that we appeal to as the basis of our theological exegesis of the biblical text is grounded in the Text’s reality, in Jesus Christ (who happens to be a person, the second Person of the Trinity). When we do this we will avoid speaking of grace as something that we cooperate with, and we will avoid thinking of grace as a quality that we are given, through which we are enabled to activate faith in Christ. Unfortunately this is indeed what the classical Calvinist has done with Grace (gratia); note Reformed orthodox scholar, Richard Muller as he gives us the scholastic Reformed definition of grace:

gratia: grace; in Greek, χάρις;  the gracious or benevolent disposition of God toward sinful mankind and, therefore, the divine operation by which the sinful heart and mind are regenerated and the continuing divine power or operation that cleanses, strengthens, and sanctifies the regenerate. The Protestant scholastics distinguish fiveactus gratiae, or actualizations of grace. (1) Gratia praeveniens, or prevenient grace, is the grace of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon sinners in and through the Word; it must precede repentance. (2) Gratia praeparens is the preparing grace, according to which the Spirit instills in the repentant sinner a full knowledge of his inability and also his desire to accept the promises of the gospel. This is the stage of the life of the sinners that can be termed the praeparatio ad conversionem (q.v.) and that the Lutheran orthodox characterize as a time of terrores conscientiae (q.v.). Both this preparation for conversion and the terrors of conscience draw directly upon the second use of the law, the usus paedagogicus (see usus legis). (3) Gratia operans, or operating grace, is the effective grace of conversion, according to which the Spirit regenerates the will, illuminates the mind, and imparts faith. Operating grace is, therefore, the grace of justification insofar as it creates in man the means, or medium, faith, through which we are justified by grace…. (4) Gratia cooperans, or cooperating grace, is the continuing grace of the Spirit, also termed gratia inhabitans, indwelling grace, which cooperates with and reinforces the regenerate will and intellect in sanctification.Gratia cooperans is the ground of all works and, insofar as it is a new capacity in the believer for the good, it can be called the habitus gratiae, or disposition of grace. Finally, some of the scholastics make a distinction between gratia cooperans and (5) gratia conservans, or conserving, preserving grace, according to which the Spirit enables the believer to persevere in faith. This latter distinction arises most probably out of the distinction between sanctificatio (q.v.) and perseverantia (q.v.) in the scholastic ordo salutis (q.v.), or order of salvation….[1]

This definition of grace might sound good if you are a philosopher who has been trained in scholastic philosophy and theology for years and years, but for people of the Book, people who are simple Bible readers we are looking for something else, something more Revealed, something, well, more simply Biblical.

But to say what I just said might be misleading. We aren’t looking for something less theological, but something more theological. What I mean is as we read the Bible we are looking for the inner-ground the inner-logic or ground upon which the Bible begins to make sense. My contention is that Jesus Christ is the One who makes every passage of Scripture make sense; and in our particular case (per the topic of this post) he alone should be considered to be the One who serves as the very domain of Salvation, as the very embodiment of grace that serves as the reality and ground upon which we are saved.

Before we ever got to the Protestant Reformation, scholastic Reformed theology, medieval scholastic Tridentine Roman Catholic theology, Palamite Eastern Orthodox theology, we had theologians like Cyril of Alexandria. Donald Fairbairn, in concluding remarks to an essay he wrote for the theological journal of the Thomas F. Torrance Theological Fellowship, Participatio, wrote this about Cyril’s understanding of justification[2]. I will quote Fairbairn at length, as what he writes implicates everything we have been discussing thus far; it indicts and implicates not only the post Reformed orthodox view of grace and salvation, but some conceptions of Greek Orthodox views, as well as Roman Catholic conceptions; it confronts any view of salvation and God’s grace that depersonalizes grace by abstracting or decoupling grace from its very reality and embodiment in the second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. Here is Fairbairn at length:

From what I have written, it is clear that there are important similarities and differences between Cyril’s understanding of justification and that of Protestantism. Cyril repeatedly writes of the believer’s righteousness as one that is given by another, by Christ, from the outside. This emphasis on Christ as the source of the Christian’s righteousness is similar to the Protestant understanding of the passive nature of the Christian’s righteousness. Cyril, as much as Luther or any Protestant subsequently, sees the righteousness or holiness of the Christian as that which belongs to Christ and which Christ actively grants to the believer, who passively receives it through faith and grace. But as we have seen, there are also differences between Cyril and many classical Protestant writers. Cyril does not adopt a forensic framework as the dominant aspect of his soteriology. He does not distinguish justification and sanctification to any great degree at all. And he certainly does not make justification the central idea of his soteriology. Thus, Cyril stands as a caution against the potential dangers of a theology that is too exclusively forensic or makes the justification/sanctification distinction too sharply.

When one examines Cyril’s relation to modern Eastern Orthodoxy, we find that there are also similarities and differences. The participatory nature of salvation shines very clearly in both Cyril and modern Orthodoxy. But on the other hand, two things about Cyril’s understanding of participation stand in partial contrast to some expressions of modern Orthodoxy. First, the basis for Cyril’s understanding of participation is not the qualities of God (whether they be the energies, as in later Palamite theology; qualities such as incorruption and immortality that dominate the attention of many Greek patristic writers; or even qualities like righteousness and holiness on which this article has focused), but the person of Christ. For Cyril, participation is at heart personal. We become righteous when we are personally united to the one who is righteous, to Christ. (Notice again that this exactly parallels the fact that we become sons of God when we are united to Christ, the true Son.) Second, the very fact that participation is at heart personal means that it is not fundamentally gradual or progressive. The outworkings of union with Christ are indeed gradual, but union with Christ himself, effected in baptism at the very beginning of Christian life, lies at the heart of Cyril’s concept of participation. To say this even more directly, for Cyril even deification is primarily the present state of the believer, rather than the culmination of a process, and his teaching on justification undergirds this fact.

At this point, readers from both Protestant and Orthodox traditions may object that their tradition does in fact emphasize personal union with Christ. This is true. There are some – perhaps many – voices within both traditions that possess such an emphasis. But my point is that in both Protestantism and Orthodoxy, the centrality of personal union with Christ tends to be obscured by these other emphases: forensic justification in Protestantism and a more mystical and/or progressive approach to union with God in Orthodoxy. I ask my readers to recognize these tendencies, even though the mistakes to which they can lead are sometimes successfully avoided.

With that caveat registered, I suggest that as one looks at these two sets of similarities and differences between Cyril on one hand and either Protestantism or Orthodoxy on the other, they expose a false dichotomy that has perhaps hindered dialogue between the two groups. Protestants, schooled in on-going disputes with Roman Catholicism, are often quick to point out the difference between imputed righteousness and imparted or infused righteousness, and the classical Protestant concept of justification is closely tied to the first of these, in opposition to the second. It seems to me, though, that Protestants sometimes extend this dichotomy into an opposition between imputed righteousness and participatory righteousness, thus unhelpfully applying concepts borrowed from anti-Catholic polemic to anti-Orthodox polemic. (Whether those concepts are appropriate even in dialogue with Roman Catholics is another question, but one I will not address here.) I believe Cyril’s thought demonstrates that this is a false dichotomy. Instead, Cyril teaches us that participatory righteousness – or better, our participation in the one who is himself righteous – is the very heart of imputed righteousness. To say this in Protestant terms, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the Christian when the Christian is united to Christ, who is the righteous one. But to say the same thing in Orthodox terms, participation in Christ, because it is a personal participation granted to the believer at the beginning of Christian life, implies that his righteousness becomes ours.

As a result, I suggest that a deeper consideration of Cyril’s doctrine of justification can both challenge Protestants and the Orthodox, and help to uncover latent common ground between them. Protestants need to recognize that justification is not merely or even mainly transactional, but primarily personal and organic. We are united to Christ as a person, and as a result, his righteousness is imputed to us. The forensic crediting of righteousness grows out of the personal union. At the same time, the Orthodox need to recognize that the gradual process of deification (even the continual reception of life-giving grace through the Eucharist, one of Cyril’s greatest emphases) is grounded in an initial personal union with Christ, and thus, both righteousness and deification are at heart gifts that Christ gives us when he gives himself to us. Perhaps both Protestants and Orthodox can then recognize that as Christians, we are righteous, holy, and even divine, because – and only because – we are in Christ. And if we are righteous, holy, and divine in Christ, then throughout Christian life we will progressively become more and more who we already are.[3]

As we can see there is serious depth to what Fairbairn has written, and all that you just read from him is his conclusion to the preceding body of his essay where he supports all of his conclusions from dealing directly and textually with Cyril himself. Fairbairn, I believe, strikes a collegial and irenic tone, but what he has written strikes a coarse blow to conceptions of salvation, that again, depersonalize and overly philosophize conceptions of salvation and grace. As you can see in Fairbairn, he is an equal opportunity critiquer, not just of certain strands of Greek Orthodoxy, not just of strands of Protestantism, but of all traditions within Christian reality that would attempt to make salvation a discussion about philosophical ‘qualities’ rather than a discussion about how God in Christ is salvation, is grace.

We have luminaries strewn throughout the history of the Christian church, like Cyril and even Calvin (with his conception of duplex gratia or double grace view of salvation) wherein salvation is framed according to their reading of Scripture, by the person of Jesus Christ himself and not by legal, juridical, forensic categories. The emphasis, then, as Fairbairn has noted, should be one of participation in Christ when we conceive of salvation. That salvation is an alien reality outside of us, that comes to us as God in Christ penetrates our humanity with his vicarious humanity, and by union with him we become the benefactors of God’s great salvation that He is for us in spirit and in truth as we are adopted into His family as His daughters and sons as we participate in the anointed humanity of Jesus Christ for us (as He in Himself and by nature is the Son of God).

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastics Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 129-30.

[2] Fairbairn’s essay will also be included with the rest of the essays that made up Participatio’s Vol. 4 (2013) edition in a forthcoming edited book dedicated to the theology of Thomas F. Torrance and Greek Orthodoxy.

[3] Donald Fairbairn, “Justification in St. Cyril of Alexandria, With Some Implications for Ecumenical Dialogue,”Participatio Vol. 4 (2013): 142-44.

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2 Responses to Grace and Salvation as Personal, not Impersonal: Against Scholastic (Calvinist, Arminian, and Roman Catholic), Moralistic Therapeutic Deist, Palamite and Other Theories of Salvation

  1. Cal says:

    I suppose this is all a cart before the horse issue. Instead of praising the King who brings us salvation in the many frameworks Scripture presents (juridicial, cultic, militarily (against satan), we’ve oft quick to focus on the gifts. It’s the like the brides-maids getting into a quarrel over what’s best in the Groom, the money, the sex, the beauty, the talents, and forgetting all about the fact that the Bride is marrying the Groom, not money, sex, beauty, or talent!!

    I very much enjoyed this. I’m now curious to explore Cyril more.



  2. Bobby Grow says:


    Yeah, I do think all of these other ‘metaphors’ dare I say should follow the ontological reality of God’s life in Christ for us.

    I haven’t done any primary reading of Cyril (well a little in seminary/Patristic Theology class), but Fairbairn makes me want to at some point.


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