Augustine, Barth, Time, Eternity, Timelessness, Grace, Election, Human Agency: Small Matters

If God is outside of time, if God creates time as Augustine and the tradition contends—to one degree or another—then it would follow that some form of determinism is the way that God must relate to the world. That he has in-built into the world system a set of causal relations (the classical philosophers offer the categories here) wherein his timelessness is untouched and his world is conditioned by this sort of Divine touch. If Augustine’s doctrine of creation, which is what we are referring to, is the basis for understanding how creation operates vis-à-vis her Creator, then what we must be left with is a decretal God who is not personally active in creation, per se. In other words, if Augustine is correct, God’s relationship to the world is inactively active and must be encountered, even in the incarnation, only through the causal conditions dictated by a creation created under the conditions required to keep God timeless and creation ‘timeful.’

We will unpack this further as we engage with Colin Gunton’s treatment, and critique of Augustine on these points[1], and then attempt to constructively apply these insights (Gunton’s) into alignment with asking questions about human agency in the drama of creation; more particularly in the drama of redemption/salvation (as we end up referring to Barth’s theology). What you will notice, as we engage with Gunton, is his emphasis upon Pneumatology and understanding that as the personalist relief that Augustine’s doctrine of creation and God do not seemingly present.

In sum, Augustine tends to conclude that because creation is the act of the timeless God, then all God’s acts must be conceived to be timeless. The outcome for him is that God’s act of creation is understood to be instantaneous, and the days of Genesis demythologised away. He would not have liked ‘creationism’ either. However, if the divine creation of all things is simultaneous, it is difficult to take the order of time and space seriously as the good creation of God. Symptomatic is Augustine’s tendency to hold that the fact that activities and events take time is a sign of their fallenness, making a gnostic equation of materiality and fallennes dangerously close. ‘The discursiveness of thought and speech, the necessary division of discourse into a temporal succession of a multitude of parts, stands as a testimony of the Fall and thus to the separation of the rational soul from the perfect unity of God.’ If we are not to fall into that trap, we must do what Augustine failed to do and consider more closely what might be the shape of divine action in time. . . . We have seen that Augustine’s christology is centered on the eternal Son, and is neglectful, in this context, of the incarnation. But to understand the relation of the eternal God to time and history, that is precisely what we cannot neglect. Here is the life of a man which, as a narrated whole, from beginning to end, is also, and without diminishing its character as human, also divine act. This is a divine act, an act of the eternal God, which is, so to speak, stretched out in time.[2]

We see the dilemma as laid out by Gunton with reference to his construal of Augustine’s doctrine of creation. We also see that Gunton has set himself up to offer a solution to the ostensible lacuna offered by Augustine’s theology in regard to thinking time and eternity in relation to God’s interaction therein. Gunton notes the role that Christology and the incarnation ought to have for Augustine, but because of Augustine’s prior thinking on a timeless God, Gunton contends that Augustine does not have the necessary and categorical conceptual realities to allow him to arrive at the sort of fulsome biblical picture we ought to come to when thinking about God’s relationship to the world in time. As one reads further with Gunton he offers a nice quote from Barth which helps to correct this lack in Augustine. I’d like to share that section, but because of space-limitation I will bypass that and share Gunton’s own proposal as he seeks to help Augustine’s lackluster doctrine of creation as that relates to God and salvation.

Here is Gunton abridged once again:

The Spirit is the one who enables the creation to be truly spatial and temporal by relating it to God the Father through the one who took our time and space to himself in order to redeem it.

Determinism is accordingly best avoided not by reading time back into God but by focusing on the action of the Spirit who is the giver of freedom and the one who enables the created order to be itself: to become what it was created to be. And in that regard, a note of eschatology cannot be far behind. To speak of the work of the Spirit in relation to creation is to speak of the created order eschatologically: that is to say, to direct or thoughts to the end. And the point of this is that we cannot understand the beginning without some orientation to the end. Already on the seventh day of the Genesis account an eschatological dimension may be present, especially in the light of the fact that that day comes in later tradition to be treated as a type of the coming Kingdom of God. Creation in the beginning cannot finally be understood without its directedness to an end, because it has to be understood as God’s project, a project in which he freely and graciously involves us, his personal creation.[3]

Gunton’s response to Augustine’s dilemma—created because of Augustine’s idea on the relationship between time and eternity—is to emphasize hard the reality of the Holy Spirit and his ability to transect creation and un-creation through the mediated reality and singular person known as Jesus Christ. I’m still waiting for Gunton to fill his thoughts out further in later chapters.

Ultimately there is some level of mystery between how the timeless God becomes timeful in the incarnation; how the mediation between God and humanity in the singular person of Jesus Christ does not become atomically ripped asunder as the twain meet. Gunton lays the burden of this union upon the creative and recreative activity of the Holy Spirit.

But what is more interesting to me is how Gunton’s emphasis upon the eschatological and the Holy Spirit implicates how human agency operates in a world where there is a hard ontological distinction between the Ultimacy of Creator God, and his creation. How does determinism get voided in such a world? Some, in fact many Calvinists celebrate the idea of determinism, and the attending decretal God (who relates to the world through decrees and the Aristotelian theory of causation therein). Gunton is attempting to offer a constructive proposal while at the same time remaining within the lines of the traditional-metaphysics that Augustine among others presents the church catholic; a tradition that seeks to understand a creation that is perfected by grace as that is presented through Christ by the Holy Spirit.

So we have the traditional-metaphysical, and then we have something like what Karl Barth offers. Some people, some Barthians, want to label Barth’s approach, in particular, and the modern approach in general as postmetaphysical. But of course this is mistaken (at least in Barth’s case). Getting beyond that, at a material level, Barth maintains that God’s grace is constantly contradicting ‘nature’; it is within this contradiction wherein new life is found precisely because God’s grace is God in Christ for us. Note George Hunsinger:

Human Cooperation Does Not Effect Salvation

Barth does not deny that human freedom “cooperates” with divine grace. He denies that this cooperation in any way effects salvation. Although grace makes human freedom possible as a mode of acting (modus agendi), that freedom is always a gift. It is always imparted to faith in the mode of receiving salvation (modus recipiendi), partaking of it (modus participandi), and bearing witness to it (modus testificandi),  never in the mode of effecting it (modus efficiendi). As imparted by the Spirit’s miraculous operation, human freedom is always the consequence of salvation, never its cause, and therefore in its correspondence to grace always eucharistic (modus gratandi et laudandi). These distinctions apply both objectively and subjectively, that is, not only to salvation as it has taken place extra nos, but also as it occurs in nobis. Since to be a sinner means to be incapacitated, grace means capacitating the incapacitated despite their incapacitation. Sinners capacitated by grace remain helpless in themselves. Grace does not perfect and exceed human nature in its sorry plight so much as it contradicts and overrules it.

What happens is this: in nobis, in our heart, in the very center of our existence, a contradiction is lodged against our unfaithfulness. It is a contradiction that we cannot dodge, but have to validate. In confronting it we cannot cling to our unfaithfulness, for through it our unfaithfulness is not only forbidden but canceled and rendered impossible. Because Jesus Christ intervenes pro nobis and thus in nobis, unfaithfulness to God has been rendered basically an impossible possibility. It is a possibility disallowed and thus no longer to be realized . . . , one we recognize as eliminated and taken away by the omnipotent contradiction God lodges within us. [Karl Barth, “Extra Nos-Pro Nobis-In Nobis,” Thomist 50 (1986): 497-511, on p. 510.]

In this miraculous and mysterious way, by grace alone — that is, through a continual contradiction of nature by grace resulting in a provisional “conjunction of opposites” (coniunctio oppositorum) — the blind see, the lame walk, and the dead are raised to life (cf. Matt. 11:4).[4]

In Barth we move beyond conceiving of God’s timelessness, instead we think of God in terms of his graciousness; graciousness is the very basis and point of creation’s reality as that is found in God’s choice to be for creation in the Son (election). Further, as the Hunsinger quote indicates, for Barth grace is the space wherein a God-world relation is given reality. There is no competition then between time and eternity in this space since the space charted in advance, in the Christ (Eph. 2.8-10), is an always already relational space wherein the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have fellowshipped for eternity. For Barth’s theology, we are brought into this space just as the Son is both the electing God as he elected our humanity for himself and graciously brings us into this union by his faith and repentance for us.

Mystery is not elided in Barth, it’s just that the mystery is grounded in the concrete reality and givenness of God’s life for us Jesus Christ. Grace is the relational ground upon which creation finds fertility to be what it is before God; to be free for God just as God has been free in and for himself by his nature as the One God in Three. I think this is the movement that Gunton wants to move within as well. In part of his discussion I didn’t share he presses into Irenaeus in order to get beyond the ‘other-worldliness’ of Augustine’s notion of the timeless God. The issue that needs to be continuously honored is the Creator-creature distinction. For Barth he modulates that through focusing on how Christ brings those two realities together in his singular person. He doesn’t answer the how, but he does engage with the what and the who, and in that engagement he offers a concrete way to think about God’s relationship to the world without falling prey to the determinism that plagues so much of the classical theistic complex (because he avoids speculation about the timelessness of God for one thing).

I realize this post is somewhat fragmented in certain ways. But hopefully you’ll be able to make something out of it as you think about who God is and how he relates to the world. Further, hopefully you’ll be able to see how it is possible to get passed a deterministic understanding of God, and be able to think of human freedom vis-à-vis God through the relational and gracious terms laid out by Barth. What you should bear in mind is that there is mystery all around. The question for me is: where is the mystery grounded? Is it grounded in discursive speculation (Augustine) about who God is, or is it grounded in God’s concrete Self-revelation of himself for us in Jesus Christ?

 

[1] I should note here that I am not unaware of the fact that there has been a renaissance within Patristic theological studies that Gunton himself was not privy to. In other words, the way Gunton read Augustine was in fact based upon a reading that has come under critique. So read his critique and development of Augustine advisedly. That said: I don’t think what I am sharing from Gunton is totally disputable. I think his description of Augustine’s understanding of eternity and time is not all that controversial; although his conclusions and drawing out of its implications may well might be. Be that as it may I am still using his work to make a basic point about determinism in Christian theology. I think Gunton’s emphasis on the Spirit is an important corrective, and helps, even still, to fill out a way Christian theology, even under traditional terms, has capacity to offer a personalist understanding of a God-world relation wherein human agency can be grounded outside of a universe that seems to require a determinist/decretal understanding of the God-world relation.

[2] Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical And Systematic Study (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), Loc 1191, 1197 kindle.

[3] Ibid., 1231, 1238.

[4] George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 165-66.

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Against Being ‘Curious’: In the Augustinian and Websterian Mood, A Pastoral Reflection and Exhortation

I am not going to say much, other than that this helps me. I am a sinner, and I still sin, frequently in fact. The only difference between me and the world is that I am a saved sinner (simultaneously justified and sinner); nevertheless, I still think in ways that terminate nowhere else but in the self, and by absolutizing material reality in a way that never gets back to material reality’s origin. Like the world I think foolishly (at points), and like ancient Israel, I have my high places. So what helps me, and maybe it will help you too, is Webster’s discussion of the vice of curiosity. Here is what he has written:

Curiosity involves the direction of intellectual powers to new knowledge of created realities without reference to their creator. In curiosity, the movement of the mind terminates on corporeal properties of things newly known, without completing its full course by coming to rest in the divine reality which is their principle. In effect, curiosity stops short at created signs, lingering too long over them and not allowing them to steer intelligence to the creator. So Augustine against the Manichees:

Some people, neglecting virtue and ignorant of what God is, and of the majesty of the nature which remains always the same, think that they are engaged in an important business when searching with the greatest inquisitiveness and eagerness into this material mass which we call the world … The soul … which purposes to keep itself chaste for God must refrain from the desire of vain knowledge like this. For the desire usually produces delusion, so that the soul thinks that nothing exists but what is material.

Curiosity, Augustine says elsewhere, is ‘eating earth’, penetrating deep and dark places which are still time-bound and earthly. Or again, in another idiom, curiosity is the ‘lust of the eyes’ (1 Jn 2.16), so called, Augustine says, because its origin lies in our ‘appetite for learning’, and ‘the sight is the chief of our senses in the acquisition of knowledge’. It is that ‘vain and curious longing in the soul’ which, ‘cloaked under the name of knowledge and learning’ is in reality a greed for ‘new experiences through the flesh’, a disordered ‘passion for experimenting and knowledge’ – flocking to see a lacerated corpse, attending a theatrical spectacle, letting contemplation be distracted by watching a lizard catch flies. Curiosity terminates on surfaces.[1] 

I fall into the trap of curiosity more than I would like to admit! But I seek, by the Spirit, to live a life of (as Torrance would say) ‘repentant thinking’. Living a life that moves and breathes from the Spirit’s breath, the breath that animates the humanity of Jesus Christ for us. There is a depth dimension to Christianity and this life that most Christians will never experience in this life (and I am not supposing that the alternative is an elitist gnostic kind of Christianity!), because we are too curious and not contemplative and critical enough in our daily walks with Christ. As James writes “14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” Curiosity is the desire that terminates in sin and death. We so often give into this curiosity, and hardly ever do the hard work of actual Christian contemplation. We go the way of the world, we are just too curious.

 

[1] John Webster, The Domain of the Word (London and New York: T&T Clark A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 196.

*I originally posted this May 3, 2013.

Augustine’s Theory of Atonement: Divine Child Abuse?

John McGuckin describes the basic premise of Augustine’s theory of atonement, and how that has impacted the Western church ever since. We often hear this Augustinian (and now Calvinist) sentiment derided; i.e. under the charge of God the Father being a cosmic child abuser of his Son in the atoning cross-work. As McGuckin also notes, though, there were multi-valent models of augustine1atonement theories abound during the patristic period; and as he notes (rightly, I believe), this is because of the diffuse nature of Scripture’s witness itself. Here’s what McGuckin has written:

In the West the idea of substitutionary sacrifice, to appease the anger of God, remained the dominate and most vivid idea of the atonement. The idea was prevalent in the North African writers Tertullian and Cyprian, and when it was restated by Augustine (in more balanced and philosophical terms) it was set to enter the Western church as the primary motif of atonement theology for centuries to come. It is conveyed in Augustine’s statement: “Since death was our punishment for sin, Christ’s death was that of sacrificial victim offered up for sins” (De Trinitate 4.12.15). Many modern patristic theorists have attempted to bring some order into the sprawling images of atonement we find in this literature, describing various “schools” or theories (physical theory, Christ the Victor, and so on). The simple fact is that the patristic writing is organically diffuse on the central mystery of Christ’s economiastic preaching. The writers used many images, often a combination of them, all of them devolving in some sense or another from the rich poetic tapestry of scriptural texts about the work of Christ. To impose systematic order on this wildly vivid kerygmatic witness is often anachronistic and inappropriately scholastic.[1]

It is the Augustinian model itself that has so deeply funded what we see taken over in the penal substitutionary theory of atonement given development particularly in the Federal or Covenantal wing of Reformed theology. Often this is also connected to Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement, but really the only relationship there is the idea of satisfaction; i.e. not much material linkage, theologically.

I’m not going to comment too much on all of this, other than to say that those committed to the Augustinian theory, in the main, are going to have a difficulty appreciating the ontological theory of the atonement that we promote as evangelical Calvinists.

[1] John McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology(Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 39.

The Apostle Paul and Saint Augustine on a Theology of ‘Things’: Against the Horizontal

I don’t know about you, but life seems to have an almost mesmerizing ethos to it, such that it almost begins to take on certain motions. The older we get the easier it is to simply fall into patterns that have come to identify us; things that become familiar and comfortable to us (even if they aren’t the healthiest of patterns). It is easy to get lost in the motions of this life, pursuing certain ends augustine(whatever those might look like for each of us), and gravitating towards certain ‘things’ that seem to have attractiveness to them; and sometimes these things become ends in themselves, or other times become things we are grabbing onto that we think will get us to better even more desirous things. And we too easily get caught up in things instead of keeping our eye on the giver of all ‘things’ (good that is); as such we lose perspective, fall prey to patterns and things that we find identity and comfort in.

The Apostle Paul tells us how we ought to engage with this world, though, and it is odds with simply going through the motions of this life or grabbing onto the ‘things’ of this world as identity forming things. He writes,

But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, 30 those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they did not possess, 31 and those who use this world as not misusing it. For the form of this world is passing away.[1]

Saint Augustine has this insight on keeping perspective as we engage with the things of this world (this is actually Matthew Levering’s commentary on Augustine’s understanding of ‘things’ res):

… Augustine therefore sets the following rule regarding things: “Some things are to be enjoyed, others to be used, and there are others which are to be enjoyed and used.” To enjoy a thing is to cleave to it with all our heart. When we seek a thing in order to enjoy it, we make it our ultimate happiness and we consider it the resting point of our desire. If we can obtain the thing that we hope to enjoy, we think that we will be blessed and at rest, so that we will not wish to seek further things. Thus, something that is to be enjoyed must be loved strictly speaking for its own sake and not for the sake of any further good. By contrast, to use a thing is to love something but not for its own sake. When our ultimate happiness rests in something, we love other things for the sake of the thing in which our ultimate happiness rests. Other things help us to obtain our goal, and we love them in reference to that ultimate goal. When we love something but do not rest in it because it cannot make us fully happy and blessed, we love the thing in its reference to what we hope to enjoy. In other words, we use the thing on our path toward the happiness that we hope to enjoy. It is important, therefore, to know what things to enjoy and what to use. All too frequently we seek to enjoy, or place our ultimate happiness in, things that cannot bear this weight. We must learn instead to use these things rather than to cleave to them for their own sake. Otherwise we will find ourselves loving created things above God. In our journey back to our Creator God, we need the help of many things in order to reach our true goal. Augustine compares the human person to a wanderer who is attempting to return to his homeland. The wanderer needs carriages and ships to return home, but if the wanderer got attached to the journey with its carriages and ships and began to love these things more than his homeland, he would no longer want to return home. This is the situation in which many of us find ourselves; we are alienated from the homeland that would give us true happiness, because we have become attached to this world. This world is good, but it is not the infinite good for which we were made, and so it cannot give us happiness. God made it so that we, and others, can use the things in it to journey to him. By means of “the things that have been made,” we should strive for union with God’s “invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity” (Rom. 1:20)[2]

Both Paul and Augustine warn us against living horizontal lives only. They warn us about getting caught up in the motions of this life as ends in themselves, and instead admonish the wanderer to remember that this is not our home, nor are the things in it (the world); but that we should use (and even enjoy) the things of this world as if indeed they are ‘passing away’. They want us to remember that there is a transitoriness to this worldly wilderness and that we ought to work at not getting lost in it (no matter how normal or mundane that might seem or look to us as we compare our lives against those around us — this is part of the point, we should not be using this world as our standard for value or perspective, we should be looking to God in Christ alone!)

Pax vobiscum

[1] I Corinthians 7.29-31, NKJV.

[2] Matthew Levering, The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to His Most Important Works (Baker Publishing Group, 2015), 23.

Jürgen Moltmann on Karl Barth’s Predestination at Princeton

For Karl Barth the doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel; he writes (in CD §32): ‘the doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all the words that can be said or heard it is the best: that moltmannGod elects humanity; that God is for humanity too the One who loves in freedom’. This is a beautiful thing, really. It stands in relief to what many an Augustinian believes about predestination; not that the Augustinian doesn’t try and persuade herself that (in its medieval expression) double predestination isn’t a beautiful thing. No. It stands in relief precisely because it does not have to tell itself that it is a beautiful thing; it simply is. The Augustinian assures themselves that because they are one of the elect for whom Christ died and gave his life, that they should be grateful to be counted as such. J.N.D. Kelly makes the Augustinian position clear:

The problem of predestination has so far only been hinted at. Since grace takes the initiative and apart from it all men form a massa damnata, it is for God to determine which shall receive grace and which shall not. This He has done, Augustine believes on the basis of Scripture, from all eternity. The number of the elect is strictly limited, being neither more nor less than is required to replace the fallen angels. Hence he has to twist the text ‘God wills all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2, 4), making it mean that He wills the salvation of all the elect, among whom men of every race and type are represented….[1]

Augustine’s position became the norming norm of how this doctrine continued to develop and be conceived. By time it got to Calvin, who adopted the basic gist of Augustine, it had developed into a full blown conception of double predestination where there were the elect and reprobate (for some this became a matter of active and passive action on God’s part, but nevertheless it was there). Understanding the problem, theologically, that this presented (insofar as it caused anxiety in a person’s self-perception relative to whether they were elect or reprobate) Barth critiqued Calvin’s view (and the whole company) this way:

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[2]

If you would like to hear more about this, about Barth’s view of predestination/election then you can watch Jürgen Moltmann deliver his paper on this topic at the Karl Barth Conference 2015 currently underway at Princeton Theological Seminary. Thanks to my friend Jason Goroncy for pointing us to this video of Moltmann.

 

 

 

[1] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (San Franciso: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978), 368-69.

[2] Karl Barth, “CDII/2,” 111 cited by Oliver D. Crisp, “I Do Teach It, but I Also Do Not Teach It: The Universalism of Karl Barth (1886-1968),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 355.

 

Augustine or Barth? You Choose

Is Karl Barth the rescuer of the modern Protestant church; is that how he is being appealed to by some Protestants, as Thomas barthcalvaryAquinas was for Tridentine (Roman Catholic) theology? What about Augustine? Was and is Augustine underneath most, if not all Western theology (Roman Catholic and Protestant alike)? If he is, and I would contend that in general, he is, then what makes Augustine’s theological categories more sacrosanct than those of Barth or even Aquinas? Has Augustine become so wedded, so conflated with Reformed Protestant theology (even Lutheran), not to mention Roman Catholic, that it is hard for us to critically make this distinction? Maybe we just don’t want to.

Phillip Cary just recently wrote a post somewhat critiquing Barth and the role that he has been given by Protestants as a kind of rescuer of failing Protestant theology (at least as that is perceived among some sectors). Cary writes:

That is the kind of modernity we don’t need. It is an unhealthy situation when a brilliant mind is put in the position of rescuing the Church and rebuilding its theology. This is not just a Protestant problem. Thomists in modernity have seen in Aquinas “an ark of salvation”—as the blurb on my copy of the Summa Theologica attests. It was a great service to the Roman Catholic Church when scholars of ressourcement such as Henri de Lubac and Jean Marie Daniélou retrieved the writings of the Church Fathers and thus restored Thomas to his position as one great theologian among many, not the sole standard of sound doctrine. (source)

I guess this kind of assessment still leaves me wondering; why Augustine, but not Barth? I can’t help but think about the kind of  impact Augustine has had upon Western theology; like I already intimated it is so ubiquitous, I think, that Augustine’s presence is almost absent, even when it his voice that is the most prominent in so much of theological discourse.

So why is it okay for the theologoumena (theological opinion) of Augustine to be so critically determinative for so much of the theological enterprise and not someone else of the same kind of stature (i.e. Barth, Aquinas, et al)?

I’m not sure Cary would say that it is okay for Augustine to serve in the kind of role that he has for the church, but then he turns around and chides Barth for (at least the role Barth ostensibly has been placed in by some) functioning in the same type of role that Augustine has in the determinative type of capacity he has for the Western church? It seems as if Cary is advocating for ressourcement, but I couldn’t help noticing that he forgot to mention Augustine. Maybe Augustine is so present for Cary that he does indeed keep Augustine in a separate category of his own; I don’t know.

But if we are choosing traditions, I choose Barth’s.

 

The Relationship Of Nature And Grace In The Theology Of Thomas Aquinas Juxtaposed With Augustine

If you would like to read this paper in a Word.doc format via Dropbox, click this: link

THE RELATIONSHIP OF NATURE AND GRACE IN THE THEOLOGY OF THOMAS AQUINAS

Presented to Dr. Ron Frost*

Patristic Theology

By

Robert A. Grow

December 10, 2002

 

 

 

NATURE AND GRACE IN THE THEOLOGY OF THOMAS AQUINAS

QUAESTIO

aquinasThomas Aquinas’ methodology for doing Christian theology was to integrate Aristotelian philosophy (and categories) with Christian doctrine. It is through the scholastic methodology of dialecticism (i.e. quaestio-questions, videtur quod-thesis, sed contra-antithesis, and responsio-synthesis)[1] that Aquinas endeavors to integrate Aristotle with the teachings of the church. And in fact Aristotle affected Aquinas so much, Aquinas ends up offering an epistemology that is more philosophically inclined, than biblical and theological. A window for viewing this is to look at how Thomas saw the ‘metaphysical’ reality of grace, interfacing with the ‘physical’ reality of nature.

This study will examine Thomas’ view of grace and nature, and their relationship one with another. Saint Augustine will be used, briefly, functioning as a “foil.” He will offer the counter view of Aquinas, thus magnifying the context in which Thomas is working.

The methodology of this paper will be to follow the scholastic methodology of dialectic (cf. outlined above). The quaestio is: What is Thomas’ view of nature and grace? The videtur quod is the above stated assertion: That Aristotle greatly impacted Thomas’ view of nature and grace. The sed contra will be offered via looking at Augustine’s position relative to this issue. And the responsio will be the concluding comments (i.e. by the author of this paper on the above videtur quod and sed contra positions.)

 

Videtur Quod

Thomas’ Definition of Nature

In order to understand Thomas’ view of nature, one must start with the Creator (i.e. cause) of nature–God. Thomas believed that God is the first cause of all that has existence–namely nature. He states about God:

The most widespread of all effects is existence itself; so it must be the effect proper to the first and most wide-ranging of causes, namely God. In other words, creation is an action peculiar to God himself.[2]

God is the unmoved mover, the first cause of all that exists in Thomas’ mind. In other words, all that exists must find its origin in God. This is of logical necessity, not Thomas’ comment here, “But God’s proper effect in creating is what every other effect presupposes, namely existence itself.”[3]

Accordingly, Thomas believed that as God is the creator of all existence, that existence is fully derivative (i.e. not an emanation–Platonism) of God as the first of the effect. And therefore all of creation is interconnected with its ultimate goal of its createdness–that being God. Thomas writes,

All things deriving from God are ordered to one another and to him. And that is what makes the unity of the world. Material plurality cannot be a goal, for it has no determinate limit and what is without end cannot be an end.[4]

Therefore it follows from Aquinas’ as well as Aristotle’s thought that “the first principles of things are within things themselves.”[5] In other words, the derivative interconnectedness of nature is a result of God being who He is; and that is creator.

In step with what has been stated above, Thomas believed that whatever a thing is (i.e. being), it must “act” in line with what the thing is. In fact the one (i.e. being) presupposes the other–i.e. acting. Therefore, Thomas states, “Since what things do reflect what they are, God creates inasmuch as he exists; and his existence is his substance….[6] This statement is reflective of all of nature as derived from God (in Thomas’ thought). In other words, each effect is created as a cause. And whatever the “thing” is, it will act in the sphere which it was affected to act in. Steven Ozment remarks,

…the reader is struck by Aquinas’s sense of the connectedness of reality. In place of gross dualism comes detailed integration: being is in act; form is in matter; the soul is in the body; universals are in particulars. The emphasis shifts from spiritual transcendence to spiritual immanence. No longer are the world of things and the processes of sensation short-circuited. Knowledge begins with sensory experience of the visible, physical world.[7]

            Thus given the interconnectedness of all of reality (i.e. starting with God), and likewise the functioning of each created thing in its “createdness” within a hierarchical order, Thomas assumed that there are “real” relations between God, man, and the world. Ozment makes this point clear:

The assumption that real relations existed between God, man, and the world made possible Aquinas’s confidence in a posteriori proofs of God’s existence; finite effects led necessarily to their origin, because they were really connected with it. The same assumption underlay Aquinas’s distinctive views on the “analogical” character of human knowledge and discourse about God. According to Aquinas, one could speak meaningfully of one’s relationship to God by analogy with one’s relationship with one’s fellow man because a real relationship existed between the values of people shared and those God had prescribed.[8]

In other words, man via experience and sensory intake of data could come to the conclusion, analogically, what God is like. In fact this is a way that man can proved that God exists. Not through a priori abstractions (i.e. Augustine) that posit God’s existence, but through rational analogical reasoning; starting with man’s being (i.e. universal man is in the particular man), and working one’s way up the hierarchical chain back to the first cause: God.

Thus man falls within the sphere of nature, and man’s place in nature, like all of other nature is to find its end in God. According to Thomas man is capable of accomplishing this, as seen above, via analogical reasoning. Therefore, there must be a high premium placed on man’s intellectual capacity. Without such a capacity Thomism is in trouble. Because man then would not be functioning within the framework of his “createdness” and the interconnected hierarchy of Thomism would crumble–the weak link being man.[9] In light of this view of man’s reasoning ability, note Thomas’ comment:

We even needed reveled instruction in things reason can learn about God. If such truths had been left to us to discover they would have been learnt by few over long periods and mingled with much error; yet our whole well-being is centered on God and depends on knowing them. So, in order that more of us might more safely attain him, we needed teaching in which God revealed himself.[10]

Here Aquinas makes it clear that reason is indeed a powerful mode from which man can ascertain certain things about God. Yet there is also admission that reason must be aided by revelation if it is going to have a fuller-orbed understanding of who God is (this point will be covered more thoroughly in the “grace” section of this study). Nevertheless, reason is unfettered and free to function at the full capacity for which it was intended via the mind of God affected at creation.

Thomas continues on with his discussion relative to man’s reason, and the capacity it has to know; to know not only physical things, but when presented with the right material (i.e. Divine revelation), metaphysical spiritual things. Thomas has great confidence in man’s reasoning abilities. Note how he jumps from the “physical sciences” to the “metaphysical” sciences:

Theology as God taught it differs in kind from the theology of philosophers. Sciences are differentiated by different ways of knowing things: astronomers prove the earth round with abstract geometrical argument [from the shape of its shadow], physicists prove it from earth’s concrete physical properties [:gravity attracts matter into a ball]. So something that is the subject of a naturally learned discipline when known by the light of reason becomes the subject of another science when known by the light of God’s revelation.[11] (emphasis mine)

Again, it is observed that Thomas is using his analogical reasoning to come to the conclusion he comes to here. And that is that man’s science is like God’s science, but man merely needs to have his reason aided by the light of revelation.

Aquinas further substantiates the similiary between these “two sciences,” he is discussing how God is defined in this “metaphysical science,”

However, we cannot argue from a definition of God in this science, because we do not know how to define him. Instead we argue from his effects, be they nature or grace. In certain natural sciences we do the same, proving things about causes not from their definitions but from their effects.[12]

He clearly draws a parallel between physical and metaphysical ways of knowing, via analogical thought. It is also telling to note the language of “nature and grace.” These correspond to the two ways of knowing God. Both are valid, it is just that where nature leaves off, grace (i.e. revelation in Scripture) picks up and carries the mind into the sphere of the heavenlies. The important thing to note here is that there is no disconnect being made between the natural mind, and the spiritual mind. It appears that Aquinas believed that the natural mind has all of the capabilities necessary to apprehend spiritual verities only aided by the revelation of Scripture; but not necessarily illuminated by the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, as we have noted previously in this paper, Thomas believed that God is the first cause (i.e. unmoved mover) who has affected all creation. And that God has done this, merely because He is God. Thus His creative activity is consistent with who He is. Likewise, all things that God has effected into existence are themselves causes who within their “createdness” effect movement within the interconnected hierarchy of being (i.e. God, angels, humanity, animals, vegetation, etc.). Ultimately, each movement within the “collective” sphere of being finds its end of movement in the “Unmoved mover”–God.

It has also been observed that Thomas places great trust in man’s reason, and that this, for Thomas, is necessary and justified via man’s functionality within his createdness. It has also been seen that given the derivation of each effect from the ultimate cause–God. Universals are found in the particulars that ultimately lead back to God’s mind from whence the universals were particularized in effect. Given man’s ability to reason within his sphere of createdness, man via experiential sensory knowledge is able to reason from the universals they experience in the particulars of nature. Consequently man can analogically reason their way back to God, the cause of the particulars. But this can only be done insofar as their natural reason will take them.

Given the fact that there is “real connectedness” between the physical and metaphysical spheres, all that man needs to be able to understand and apprehend God, is given by the aide of “grace” (i.e. deposited in Scripture). After all, the physical sciences and the metaphysical science are only different in kind; Thomas argues. Thus, man’s intellectual capacity is adequate to discern the spiritual sphere, because all reality is interconnected. Then what is the function of “grace,” and how does it interface with “nature?” To this discussion this study now turns.

 

Thomas’ Definition of Grace

Sin

Before the issue of grace is discussed, there is a more fundamental issue to explore. That issue is to understand how Thomas defines sin, and how he sees his definition of sin affecting man and creation.

When looking at his definition of sin, notice that again, Aquinas makes human rationality and reason the fulcrum and standard by which to judge sin. In other words, by defining sin via violation of such a standard (i.e. human reason), Thomas makes intellect (i.e. mind) immune from the consequences of sin. For anything outside of the lines of human reason is sin, and ultimately being driven by an immature sense-nature out of touch with the mind. Thomas communicates that there are three things that oppose the virtue of goodness in a person:

So three things oppose virtue: sin (or misdeeds), evil (the opposite of goodness), and vice (disposition unbefitting to one’s nature). Whatever accords with reason is humanly good, whatever goes against reason is humanly bad. Human virtue that makes men and their deeds good befits human nature by befitting reason, whilst vice goes against man’s nature by going against reason. Man’s nature is twofold: he lives by his reason and he lives by his senses. It is through sensing that he learns to reason, but many men never mature beyond the level of sense. Vice and sin result from our following of sense-nature against our rational nature. And going against human rational nature is going against eternal law.[13]

Therefore, sin ultimately is a movement that goes against the rational.

The effects of this sin, at the fall, have in fact affected the rational for Thomas, but it has not been destroyed nor functionally hindered. In all reality, the mind (i.e. rationality) continues to stand in opposition to the faculties of the will and passion (i.e. the heart/affections). Yes, the mind is wounded or weakened by the other damaged faculties, but it is still fully intact in its createdness:

In the original integrated state of man reason controlled our lower powers perfectly and God perfected the reason subordinated to him. This state was lost to us by Adam’s sin, and the resulting lack of order among the powers of our soul that incline us to virtue we call a wounding of nature. Ignorance is a wound in reason’s response to truth, wickedness in will’s response to good; weakness wounds the response of our aggressive emotions to challenge and difficulty, and disordered desire our affections’ reasonable and balanced response to pleasure. All sins inflict these four wounds blunting reason’s practical sense, hardening the will against good, increasing the difficulty of acting well and inflaming desire.[14]

The key language to hone in on in the Summa, is the wounding of nature. This is the core of the core of Thomas’ definition of sin. It is only a wounding of nature, not the death and incapacitation of man’s nature (cf. Rom. 3:10-18). Each of the faculties (i.e. mind, will, and affections) have been weakened, thus there is a need to restore them back to their complete form; which is in God. And the “wound” requires only medicine for restorative purposes:

Sometimes however men willingly suffer minor impoverishments so as to gain a major enrichment, and then the sufferings are medicinal rather than punitive. As such no particular sin is their cause, unless one say that the very need for medicine is due to our damaged nature and so is a penalty for inherited sin.[15]

Therefore ‘grace’ will be defined by its necessity determined by the character of sin, and its necessity according to Thomas is medicinal (i.e metaphysical first-aid kit approach), and not a need for a radical and brand-new life giving balm approach (i.e. like recreation).

Grace

Grace for Thomas is an external entity that God implants in the disordered person; in order that man might be enabled to perform at his fully integrated (i.e. before the Fall) level. Thomas states that man is in a disordered state since the fall occurred, and needs to be enabled by grace to live as unto God.

Now this nature is disordered, however, man falls short even of the goodness natural to him, and cannot wholly achieve it by his own natural abilities. Particular good actions he can still perform in virtue of his nature (building houses, planting vineyards and the like); but he falls short of the total goodness suited to his nature. He is like a sick man able to make certain movements by himself, but unable to move like a man in perfect health until he has had medicine to heal him.[16]

Interesting that Aquinas’ view of sin does correspond to his definition of grace. Man needs to be healed, note that he is only sick. In other words man’s reasoning abilities are still in place and moving; they are just not moving at a hundred percent capacity.

Grace according to Thomas is a quality that comes from God implanted in the heart to enable him to live in a completed state. A state that really is a completion of man’s reason, as grace comes in and takes him into the sphere of the metaphysical–God–thus completing man’s existence. Note Thomas’ definition of this kind of grace:

Strictly speaking, a supervening quality is not so much in existence itself, as a way in which something else exists; and so grace is not created, but men are created in it, established in a new existence out of nothing, without earning it: Created in Christ Jesus in good works.[17]

Remember the interconnectedness that Aquinas sees occurring in reality. Thus what he is really saying here is that analogically grace is not a created quality; because Christ is still the first cause here from whom this grace comes. The new existence is equivalent (i.e. for Thomas) to the accident, while the “out of nothing” is equal to the “exist” (i.e. or essence) of man. Therefore, grace is a created quality and externally implanted in man.

Steven Ozment makes the same point when he notes on Thomas’ understanding of grace:

According to Aquinas, grace is in the soul as a reality connatural to man otherwise, saving acts of charity would be done involuntarily and, as it were, by another. Although its ultimate origin is divine, the love by which people love God and their fellow man in a saving way is a created love, a truly human habit.[18]

Therefore, according to Ozment’s assessment, grace is a “created love” a “truly human habit.”

This is in fact a great example of how Aquinas employed Aristotelian philosophy to explain Christian doctrine. Ozment comments:

Aquinas found a solution in Aristotelian philosophy. Grace, he argued, is in the soul not as a substantial form, but as an accidental form (forma accidentalis). In Aristotelian philosophy a substantial form denotes the essence of a thing, that which makes it what it is or in terms of which it is defined. Man’s substantial form, for example, is his reason; reason makes man a unique creature and defines his nature. An accidental form, by contrast, while very much a part of an individual, remains nonessential to its definition as the particular thing that it is.[19]

Thomas then has the mechanism in Aristotle to talk about the “Christian grace,” but at the same time leave man unchanged in his essence. Thus his “reason” remains intact and his person so defined in its createdness.

Therefore grace is not seen as something that destroys nature, but that which completes nature. Grace is merely “super-added” to man as a habitus[20] which brings man into the fulcrum of his createdness vis-à-vis in relation to God. What Aquinas is able to do is to keep man as man, and nothing of “substance” has changed in man. Thus the interconnectedness of reality is salvaged, and Aristotle’s Unmoved mover (i.e. God) remains unmoved. Ultimately, for Thomas, “… grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it, a subtle formula that both enhanced the secular world and justified ecclesiastical paternalism and self aggrandizement.”[21]

Thomas’ view of grace has been observed to be a “medicine” that comes along as an “accidental” quality, to aid man in living a life that pleases God. This grace does not change man’s essence, but supplements it, thus bringing man in all of his createdness to another level. That level being not the “natural” “physical” levels, but the “supernatural” “metaphysical” levels; which ultimately are concurrent realities, as the universals are in the particulars. And via analogical reasoning and the hierarchy in reality, man’s capacity of understanding goes so far, and then “grace” (i.e. Scripture, sacraments, etc.) comes in and brings him all the way up the hierarchical chain back to God. Thus nature is completed in God, and grace is that “created quality” which allows this to happen.[22]

 

Sed Contra

augustinejeromeWhile Thomas’ view of God was shaped and informed by Aristotle, St. Augustine’s view of God and thus knowledge was shaped and informed by Platonic realism. When Augustine became a Christian he brought into his Christianity Platonic thought the he tried to integrate into his Christianity. Ozment states:

Augustine shared much of the Platonic cosmological and epistemological scheme, but he transformed it in fundamental ways by integrating his Christian beliefs, into it, particularly in the belief in a Trinitarian God who was incarnate in Jesus Christ. According to Augustine, to have true knowledge, one must not concentrate on the sensory world outside oneself, but retreat into the eternal world within oneself, through which one can rise above oneself to truth.[23]

In contradistinction to Aquinas, Augustine is saying that man’s knowledge of God is not based on the a posteriori reflection of sensory experience, but the opposite; it is based on the a priori internal reflection of the soul, which is then by the indwelling internal Word[24] (i.e. Christ) able to transcend the “senses” and know God through union with Him. This, according to Ozment, is a very Platonically informed epistemology, albeit Christianized.[25]

Nevertheless, Augustine believed that man, in the beginning, was in a beautiful state:

His starting point is a glowing picture of human nature as it comes from the Creator’s hands; he carries to its highest pitch the growing tendency to attribute original righteousness and perfection to the first man. Adam, he holds, was immune from physical ills and had surpassing intellectual gifts; he was in a state of justification, illumination and beatitude…. And his will was good, that is, devoted to carrying out God’s commands, for God endowed it with a settled inclination to virtue. So his body was subject to his soul, his carnal desires to his will, and his will to God. Already he was wrapped around with divine grace….[26]

Therefore, according to Augustine (according to Kelly), man was in great shape, and man in his original creation was in a state of grace. But man fell from this position before God.

After the fall, according to Augustine, man became enslaved to sin which is a “love of self” displacing the “love of God.” He sees sin affecting man with great magnitude, note Kelly’s comment:

Nevertheless the corruption has gone far enough. The most obvious symptom of it, apart from the general misery of man’s existence, is his enslavement to ignorance , concupiscence stands, in a general way, for every inclination making man turn from God to find satisfaction in material things which are intrinsically evanescent.[27]

Augustine believed that ignorance of God flowing from love of self, is the main hindering block that stands between God and man. He does not mean that man is now in bondage to sin in the sense that he has lost free-will. Rather, given man’s fallen state and his free-will the only choice he will make is that which benefits himself and not relationship to God.[28]

Thus Augustine’s view of humanity is not an optimistic one, but a pessimistic one, left to their own vices. Kelly comments:

Little wonder that on his view the whole of humanity constitutes ‘a kind of mass (massa=”lump”) of sin’, or a ‘universal mass of perdition’, being destined to everlasting damnation were it not for the grace of Christ.[29]

Man, according to Augustine, cannot reach out to God via their “reason.” Rather, God must reach down to man through his grace; which will effectively transform man back to relationship with God. Kelly comments on Augustine, “without God’s help we cannot by free will overcome the temptations of this life.”[30]

Grace from Augustine’s perspective is not something that is given as an “accident” but as a free arbitrary gift from God. No man can merit the gift of grace by his reason, but grace is that which originates from God’s gift to man. Thus good works are performed because of this grace, not by man’s createdness thus meriting the gift of grace to take him into the “metaphysical plane” (i.e. Aquinas). Kelly gives a good summary of Augustine’s view of grace:

But grace of whatever kind is God’s free gift gratia dei gratuita. The divine favour cannot be earned by the good deeds men do for the simple reason that those deeds are themselves the effect of grace: ‘grace bestows merits, and is not bestowed in reward for them’. No worth-while act can be performed without God’s help, and even the initial motions of faith are inspired in our hearts by Him.[31]

Augustine’s conception of grace, like Aquinas, is defined by his definition of sin (i.e. anthropology). For Augustine, grace is not a co-operative venture by which man co-operates with God thus producing  good works meritorious towards salvation. Because in Augustine’s conception man is in a pitiable state, and thus any hope for man is not initiated by man but God. Augustine’s sphere of operation is not in the intellect, but it is in the heart. And when God acts upon the heart with his grace, then man can respond to God and thus men appropriately.

 

Responsio

It has been noted that Aquinas’ view of reality is informed heavily by Aristotelian metaphysics. In contrast, we have seen that Augustine’s view is concentrated in a Platonic epistemology. Consequently their anthropologies and theology is shaped differently as well. God in Thomas’ view is the Unmover mover who creates because that is consistent with His being. Augustine’s view of God is that He does move out (i.e. albeit a Platonic notion), and graciously bestows grace and knowledge of Him to man.

Thomas’ anthropology is to view man as having a “wounded soul,” but that in all reality his intellect (i.e. what defines his createdness) has enormous capacity to know God apart from the “grace of God,” given the interconnected analogous nature of the universe. Augustine views man as being enslaved to concupiscence and thus man (i.e. even though he has freewill) will always choose self and not God.

Thomas’ view of grace is that it is a created quality implanted within the soul of man. He believes that grace serves only as an aide and supplement to “human reason” to advance man to the heavenly science of God. Thus man is not inherently evil, he only needs God’s grace to complete man; bringing him to his logical end, and that this the “first cause,” God. Thus grace is part of the created qualities of the universe, which enables man to co-operate with God, and gain merit towards salvation. This view of grace keeps Thomas’ view of the interconnected hierarchy of the universe intact. It does this by leaving man with all of his createdness intact, and bring in a created grace that does not challenge the createdness of man, but super-adds to his nature (i.e. accident). Thus man is un-changed, and the universe functions the way Aristotle (i.e. Aquinas) says it does.

Augustine’s view of grace is that it is a free gift of God, and without it man is helplessly condemned to destruction. Grace changes and transforms the heart (i.e. thus changes nature), so that man might have relationship with God. Grace causes man to look away from self, and back to God. Grace for Augustine works within the sphere of the heart, and changes the heart to long after God not self.

Aquinas’ view of nature and grace is “man-centered” (i.e. elevating human reason), while Augustine’s view is “God-centered” (i.e. elevating God’s initiative and the heart).

Ultimately, both saints have a philosophical construct informing their theology. The problem with Aquinas’s position is that his construct, of necessity, centers on man; for he must protect the unchangeable nature of man, thus protecting the hierarchy of movement back to the Unmoved mover God. Augustine’s construct does not require such a defense; rather his position has the flexibility within it to allow the Scriptures to dominate his thought rather than philosophy (i.e. although he communicates within Platonic categories). Thus his picture of nature and grace is much more fluid with what Scripture communicates about this topic than is Aquinas’ position. Aquinas’ view of nature and grace is seemingly and completely informed by Aristotle; and he squeezes Scripture into Aristotle’s mold much harder than does Augustine with Plato.

Thus it must be concluded that Aquinas has been influenced too much by Aristotle, and his concept of grace and nature (although internally consistent) should be rejected. It should only be rejected insofar that it does damage to the revelation of Scripture. And as this paper has demonstrated he does much damage to understanding who God is, what nature is, and how grace effects nature. In the opinion of the author of this study Augustine is much more in line with Scripture, and his conception of grace and nature should be accepted (i.e. relative to Aquinas).[32]

 

 

 

*Here is how Ron Frost summarily commented on my paper as he gave his concluding constructive criticisms at the end: “I appreciate your work – it’s creative (taking a fresh approach to the topic) and engages Thomas directly. Nevertheless you need a broader base of dialog for a research effort. A major task is to show how your thesis engages the present state-of-things. Keep digging!” Points well taken Dr. Frost, and just know that if I had had more than two days to write this paper I am sure I could have provided more depth of engagement with various scholars in the field :-). I received 188 out of 200 points for my grade on this paper, which I think is a 97%.

[1] Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250-1550 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 6.

[2] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae A Concise Translation, ed. Timothy McDermott (Westiminster: Christian Classics, 1989), 86.

[3] Ibid., 86.

[4] Ibid., 90.

[5] Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250-1550, 49.

[6] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae A Concise Translation, 86.

[7] Steven Ozment, Age of Reform, 49.

[8] Ibid., 54.

[9] Note Etienne Gilson’s discussion on this point. Etienne Gilson, The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Edward Bullough (New York: Dorset Press, 1986), 236.

[10] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Concise Translation, 1.

[11] Ibid., 1.

[12] Ibid., 3.

[13] Ibid., 249.

[14] Ibid., 270-71.

[15] Ibid., 273.

[16] Ibid., 308.

[17] Ibid., 313.

[18] Steven Ozment, Age of Reform, 32.

[19] Ibid., 32.

[20] See Robert E. Brennan, ed., Essays in Thomism: The Role of Habitus in the Thomistic Metaphysics of Potency and Act, by Vernon J. Bourke (New York: Sheed&Ward, 1942), 103-09.

[21] Steven Ozment, Age of Reform, 12.

[22] In all reality, Thomas talks about the “wounding of the soul,” but this appears only as an attempt to integrate the effects of sin into the human condition. At a functional level it seems that reason potentially can operate at an unfettered level. If it is destroyed or tainted then what defines man’s essence is hindered or obliterated thus making man not man. Likewise, the enablement notion of grace (i.e. Thomas) speaks of man’s ability to “co-operate” with God in gaining merit and ultimately salvation. This whole approach is anthropocentric, and in the end exalts “reason” (i.e. man) to a level that functionally leaves God out of the picture, until the “end.”

[23] Steven Ozment, Age of Reform, 46-7.

[24] Ibid., 47.

[25] Ibid., 47.

[26] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1978), 362.

[27] Ibid., 365.

[28] Ibid., 365-66.

[29] Ibid., 366.

[30] Ibid., 366.

[31] Ibid., 367.

[32] Using the dialectic methodology with this study did not carry through to the end. Instead I became a Christian Humanist and employed their methodology of ‘yes’ and ‘no (i.e. responsio section). Augustine’s view is the most consistent with Scripture.

The Puzzle of Salvation: Crystallizing the Difference Between Augustianian Salvation & Barthian [Evangelical Calvinist] Salvation

George Hunsinger, in his really superb book How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, sketches the difference between Augustinian (classical) salvation, and what Barth offers as a better (in my view) puzzlealternative. In this sketch what emerges is very profound, and should help to crystallize further what Myk Habets and myself (and I have been frequently on my blog here over the years) have been trying to articulate in regard to what we have been calling a ‘Christ-conditioned’ or (pace Barth) ‘Christ-concentrated’ approach to a doctrine of God, and then subsequent things like in regard to salvation in particular. What emerges in this sketch — at the end of it — is the stumbling block point for so many of the people I have engaged with around this particular question over the years; and usually it stumbles people because they are still trying to appreciate evangelical Calvinism, they are still trying to appreciate Barth through Augustinian and classical categories of conception — I hope what I am about to share from Hunsinger on Barth will finally help to make clear why trying to read us (the Evangelical Calvinists and Barth) this way simply will not work, and in the end always terminates in frustration and not fruit. So without further ado, here is Hunsinger on Barth and the difference in approach between Augustinian trajectory and Barthian trajectory:

Three things are to be noted about the universalist direction evident in Barth’s objectivist soteriology. First, the salient difference between Barth’s position and more traditional views has primarily to do with the locus of mystery. The great puzzle for more traditional views like those of Augustine or Calvin is why God should decide to save some but not others. Regardless of where the decision is thought to be taken—whether in predestination, in the cross, in the convergence of grace and faith in the individual’s spiritual life, in the last judgment, or in some combination of these and similar factors—it is still understood to be primarily a mystery about the inscrutable good pleasure of a deity who loves but does not save all (or who condemns all yet still saves a few). By contrast, the great puzzle for the Barthian view is more nearly anthropological than theological in location. The divine disposition, decision, and work for our salvation are presented in unequivocal terms. No disposition, decision, and work of God are to be found elsewhere than in Jesus Christ, who died to cancel our past, rose again to establish our future, and pleads for us to all eternity.

The mystery pertaining to God as such is not the puzzle of an inscrutable decision to save some, but not all. It is the mystery of an unfathomable mercy that (at great cost) saves all, not just some. But there is still a puzzle of what might be called the “dark mystery,” and it corresponds to the puzzle embedded in the more traditional views. The dark mystery for the traditional view is, as noted, that God does not will to save all. For the Barthian view, however, it is rather that not all human beings will to accept God’s salvation. The dark mystery is that human beings inexplicably (i.e., “inexplicably” within the terms of Barth’s tlnelogy [sic]) are all by appearances actually capable of rejecting the divine disposition, decision, and work in their favor. It is the puzzle of our rejection of grace, the mystery of sin, but here raised to a very high pitch, since salvation is somehow effectively rejected even though it fully avails for those who reject it. This is not the place to explore the intricacies of Barth’s conception of sin as a dark mystery. The point is simply that the problem of an inexplicable puzzle has been shifted but not eliminated. The puzzle for the more tradition view is that God’s will seems to be truly inconsistent. For the Barthian view it is that the human will to reject the divine grace, while actual, would appear to be truly impossible. It is Barth’s contention that the gospel finally leaves us with just this mystery, and not with some other “very different mystery” (IV/2, 520). [1] George Hunsigner, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 129-30.

I often come across things like this, and when I am reading them I think: “Sweet, this is awesome, if I share this with folks, this ought to clear an awful lot up in regard to where I am coming from in terms of my Evangelical Calvinism.” Then to my chagrin, usually the response is opposite. I would have come to think it is because of what I already mentioned in the prologue of this post; viz. that folks are trying to think scholastically and not dialectically about such things. In other words, folks are still so trained and conditioned by their Augustinian and classical way of thinking about these kinds of questions, that trying to negotiate with what Barth is saying, and what we Evangelical Calvinists are saying in these regards, again, becomes a point for frustration and often times, caricature, instead of an actual appreciation for what Barth and us Evangelical Calvinists, at this point, are trying to communicate — and so the result is that we keep skipping off of each other, and never are able to enter into the same door, to inhabit the same space, wherein actual table-talk and Christian fellowship can prevail (which does not finally mean ultimate agreement about such things). Further, I think another thing that hinders (and it probably should at some level), is that we have inherited the classical/traditional Augustinian approach to a doctrine of salvation so uncritically through our churches, bible studies, and hymns (and choruses); that any other or alternative ideas that might be offered to what we are used to, are automatically considered non-Biblical, and even against the gospel itself.

What I would like to ask of us, is that we would really consider the conceptual stuff itself; on its own merits. This of course will require way more than just reading this blog post (or even multiple ones). You owe it to yourself to genuinely and critically consider these things. If after that you still can affirm the more Augustinian tradition course in regard to thinking about this particular question and salvation in general; then of course, by all means, continue moving forward in that direction. But I have been attempting to (over the years) do this (i.e. critically consider these alternatives), and what I have concluded is that Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance et al. really do offer a better more Christ concentrated way forward relative to the question under consideration in this post, and then of course, in general, in regard to a doctrine of God (which implicates everything else that follows!).

I hope this post has clarified some things. If it hasn’t, then please tell me why it hasn’t. The point of departure among us, in the end, will be an issue of heremenutical variance and prior theological commitments (which is what I just said above). Just bare this in mind.

The Psychology of Predestination: Two classes of humanity, and its impact.

The doctrine of predestination for Christians always causes their little antennae’s to shift into hyper-activity. It is a controversial issue, no doubt. And this issue has a long, albeit pretentious pedigree, and sourced, at least in the Latin side of the church, most prominently from that indefatigable saint of the most prodigious sort, St. Augustine. And so we note this reality as we venture into this little sketch of mine, but we note this kind of genetic and historical theological reality only to pass into a psychological and even, theo-anthropological consideration; and apply this toward the real life existential co-habitation of society at large, and culture nearer to home.

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What am I talking about? Let’s turn back to Augustine, so that we might move forward.  Augustine articulated his view (and what has served as a categorical/conceptual touchstone for following generations and traditions into the present) on predestination unto Christian salvation in this way, and as described by famed patristic scholar, J.N.D. Kelly:

The problem of predestination has so far only been hinted at. Since grace takes the initiative and apart from it all men form a massa damnata, it is for God to determine which shall receive grace and which shall not. This He has done, Augustine believes on the basis of Scripture, from all eternity. The number of the elect is strictly limited, being neither more nor less than is required to replace the fallen angels. Hence he has to twist the text ‘God wills all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2, 4), making it mean that He wills the salvation of all the elect, among whom men of every race and type are represented. God’s choice of those to whom grace is to be given in no way depends on His foreknowledge of their future merits, for whatever good deeds they will do will themselves be the fruit of grace. In so far as His foreknowledge is involved, what He foreknows is what He Himself is going to do. Then how does God decide to justify this man rather than that? There can in the end be no answer to this agonizing question. God has mercy on those whom He wishes to save, and justifies them; He hardens those upon whom He does not wish to have mercy, not offering them grace in conditions in which they are likely to accept it. If this looks like favouritism, we should remember that all are in any case justly condemned, and that if God makes His decision in the light of ‘a secret and, to human calculation, inscrutable justice’. Augustine is therefore prepared to speak of certain people as being predestined to eternal death and damnation; they may include, apparently, decent Christians who have been called and baptized, but to whom the grace of perseverance has not been given. More often, however, he speaks of the predestination of the saints which consists in ‘God’s foreknowledge and preparation of the benefits by which those who are to be delivered are most assuredly delivered’. These alone have the grace of perseverance, and even before they are born they are sons of God and cannot perish.[1]

This doesn’t sound surprising or shocking to most Western Christians in our day and age; indeed, this is rather common fare among the neo-Reformed (and of course, the classically Reformed), and even contemporary Arminians (I mean in regard to the conceptualization itself, not its affirmation by the Arminian). Evangelical Calvinists, such as myself, repudiate this Augustinian trough; and we do so through a re-casted Christ concentrated or conditioned conception of election (which we have articulated elsewhere). But this isn’t really where I want to continue to reflect; instead I want to engage in a theological thought experiment, presume Augustine’s umbrella (for its various diachronic expressions, and precisions), and act as, indeed, this is actually the case.

The thing that got me thinking this way was as I was at work last night, I was thinking about the sanctity of life, and just the sheer value of each person’s life – like my co-worker’s lives. But it donned on me, if God has predetermined to only salvifically love a portion of my co-workers, or only a portion of the masses of people traveling down the freeways and highways that connect our burgeoning population centers; then, clearly, this implies, in the negative, that God does not value the other people (the reprobate seems appropriate here) all around me. So in a real sense (not just a perceived one), in an ontological sense, some people, some of my co-worker’s are less valuable to God than I am (as I am a Christian, and so presumably one of the elect who God chose for salvation before the foundations of the world).

When I allowed all of this to hit me, psychologically and existentially, last night; what this did to me was rattle me! Not that I haven’t been rattled like this before, but more pointedly, it rattled me to the realization of how perverse of a notion this actually is. And the psychology of it, serving as an undercurrent as it does (for those who actually maintain this position), can be quite insidious. It means that there are actually people who just sub-human (because they will never be able to be at rights with what it really means to be human – which is to be at rights with the God who created them). And so ethically such an undercurrent, such a psychology could help to foster a milieu in which there is an elite class of people over against a poor and popper class of people – the upwardly mobile (in a Western context), and the downwardly desperate.

One profound thing, in the dominical (Jesus’) teaching that thoroughly marginalizes this calcification of two classes of people is that Jesus inverts the whole paradigm. For Jesus the ‘elect’ are in fact the downwardly desperate, not the upwardly mobile. For Jesus, there is no privileging of an ‘elite elect’ caste of people for whom he came to purchase and die. If this is so, this is just one of many problems that undercuts any psychology or ontology of humanity wherein there is an elite elect class of people from the very beginning. God’s category starts with the poor and destitute, the reprobate among us; and the exaltation and ‘wonderful exchange’ starts there, not in an elect class of people that works into and out of the mass of Augustine’s perdition. The mass of humanity, the mass of perdition is God’s elect. And the particular in this mass is Jesus’ universal humanity for all, not for some.

In the end, I am thankful that I can look at all of the people I work with and know that each of them has equal value to God; and that I am not any more of a person than they are. I might be saved, and they might not be (at the moment); but their value comes from the same ground that all of our value comes from – from the vicarious humanity of Christ, which is for all of us (we are all destitute, except for the grace of Christ).


[1] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Revised Edition (New York: Harper Collins, 1978), 368-69.

‘The Mystery of God’, Knowing God Even If He Appears Unknowable

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I just started reading Steven D. Boyer and Christopher A. Hall, The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 3-244.; in the introduction they begin to break down the compound hallboyerword Theo-ology, and use this as an occasion to explicate the kind of impulses that will be driving them throughout the rest of the book. Mystery and God are on tap in this volume, and so this should make for an interesting read, especially for someone, like myself, who is more committed to a kataphatic instead of an apophatic way of doing theology; for someone who is more committed to revealed theology rather than natural theology. That said, there is a strong bent within someone like Karl Barth’s theology toward apophaticism; that is the mysteriousness and impenetrable conclave that God’s life represents for us mere mortals. Indeed, maybe, and in fact in reality, there must be a strong apophatic bent, if indeed a Revealed theological approach is going to be truly appreciated; indeed further, it is only by emphasizing God’s ineffable reality wherein Revealed theology has its real place—a locus that displaces our ground of rationalizing about who God is, and allowing Him, kata physin (as Thomas Torrance would say ‘according to His nature and being’), to Reveal and shape for us exactly who He is, by His own Self-definition in His dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ. So if apophatic theology, if mysterious theology is rightly conceived, it will actually magnify and enhance the kind of Revealed theology I am interested in, and not diminish it into some sort of a priori inner mystical experience or aesthetically pleasing theology style.

And so Boyer and Hall write this:

If theology is really to involve the fullest logos applied to the truest theos, then it begins to look as if “getting the right answers” or “solving the puzzles” cannot be the authentic task of the theologian. There will, of course, be “right answers.” To abandon the distinction between truth and falsehood would be not to maximize logos, but to sacrifice it from the very outset. Yet the rightness of the answers will have to consist in something more than descriptive fidelity, since there will be no ordinary, created object to be simplistically described. God is not a puzzle, and to relate rightly to him is not to analyze or classify or master, but to worship. It is in this spirit that the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition has always insisted that, while correct theological formulations are crucial to one’s being a Christian, no amount of correct formulating can make one a theologian. A theologian, in the technical sense, is a person who has seen the very face of God. Following such a definition might quickly thin the ranks of “theologians” in our seminaries and colleges. [Boyer and Hall, The Mystery of God, xvi.]

We see Boyer and Hall end this paragraph with a kind of Augustinian idea. That is, that a true theologian will have a moral purity blazoned within them by the purifying fire of God’s always present and penetrating eye. And so we do see an inward, moral, component to the kind of theological mode that Boyer and Hall are going to attempt to develop for us as we work through its pages (that is if I have the time to blog much more from it). It will be interesting to see if this mode gives way to the kind of Revealed theological approach I am interested in, or instead into an approach that ends up being more ‘naturally’ formed by way of depending on reflection and experience of God revealed as Creator and Redeemer. We will see.