Grace Oecumenical


by Fr Alvin Kimel

Back in the 1950s in France a group of theologians from various traditions met regularly for ecumenial dialogue. The results of their conversations were published in the theological journal Irénikon. The meetings were chaired by Charles Mœller. The participants represented the Catholic, Reformed, and Orthodox traditions. Because of the popularity of the 1953 discussions on grace, it was felt salutary to publish a book summarizing the contributions: The Theology of Grace and the Oecumenical Movement (1963) by Charles Mœller and Gérard Philips. The book is a model of ecumenical engagement—irenic, constructive, insightful.

Deification, created grace, and extrinsic grace are the three terms that are characteristically used to describe the views of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and the Reformation on justification and sanctification. The authors note that at first glance it is difficult to see much common ground between the three traditions on the nature of grace. The problem is compounded by misunderstanding and confusion. Catholic theologians typically “get no further than the over-simplified picture of justification in Protestantism which hides the sinner under the cloak of Christ, but leaves him in his sin.” Protestant theologians typically misconstrue the Catholic notion of created grace as a “‘thing’ that is at man’s disposal, like a kind of accumulator of divine energy with the human will operating the switchboard,” while Orthodox theologians reject the proposal of “something both supernatural and created, affirming that only God can give God, and that no created reality, whatever it may be, can be commensurate with him.” And both Protestant and Catholic theologians suspect the Orthodox view of deification “as implying a dangerous exaltation of man, brought about by overlooking original sin.” Yet, the authors insist, the experience of ecumenical discussion has confirmed their conviction that these “three views of grace are not so irreconcilable as might appear.”

The Orthodox position, particularly as expressed in Palamism, is concerned to assert the deification in Christ of the whole man, “not only of the soul, but also, and perhaps above all, of the body.” The Catholic position begins with the indwelling Spirit, the Spirit present to or in the soul of the regenerate human being. “While therefore,” writes Mœller and Philips, “Eastern theology is chiefly preoccupied with finding out what, in God, makes Him able to give Himself, that of the West is concerned particularly with what it is, in man, which allows him to receive God.” This insight, I think, is particularly important.

We should not be surprised by differing formulations of the mystery of grace. The authors explain:

Christianity is, in fact, a complexio oppositorum, which asserts in one breath two truths that at first might seem very difficult to reconcile: on the one hand, all Christian confessions grant that God truly gives Himself to man, and that He alone can do this, because His creature is in this respect utterly powerless; on the other hand, this gift would be a sham if God did not in reality make man live by His own divine life. There is a paradox here: in one sense, everything comes from God, and in another, everything comes from man, because no one is saved or damned who has not willed it. St. John’s phrase expresses this two-sided aspect of grace—that we should be called and should be the sons of God [1 John 3:1]. In other words, any theology of grace must insist both on the primacy of God who justifies and sanctifies man, and at the same time on the reality of regeneration. (p. 4)

In subsequent posts we will look at how each tradition works out the affirmation of the primacy of God and the reality of regeneration.

30 April 2007


“The starting point for the theology of deification,” writes Charles Mœller and Gérard Philips, is the real and deifying presence of Christ in the world and in the Church” (The Theology of Grace and the Oecumenical Movement, p. 6). Deification is grounded in the hypostatic union: God the eternal Son has assumed human nature in its entirety and thus become the New Adam. Salvation is union with the God-man:

From this point of view, salvation appears as the assimilation of human nature to God; to be saved, man must cease to belong to himself. If this radical transformation of a man’s humanity is to be a real one, it requires that the soul should be utterly dispossessed and laid open to the direct influence of the power that deifies it. (p. 6)

In response to the Neoplatonic agnosticism of Barlaam—Moeller and Philips suggest that opposition to Neoplatonism is as important in the East as opposition to Pelagianism is in the West—St Gregory Palamas maintained that the Christian enjoys “the most certain knowledge of God because it is God who is the agent in revealing Himself therein” (p. 6). The God who is beyond all being truly communicates himself to man. Here is the import of the Palamite distinction between the incommunicable divine essence and the communicable divine energies. The distinction allows theology to assert the profound truth that God shares himself with humanity:

The gulf between the creature and the Creator makes it necessary that the divine energies through which we see God should not themselves belong to the creation. … Of course, the essence of God remains in itself unknowable, for only the three divine hypostases share in it. There is simply a total participation in the divine energy, that is, in that mysterious mode of God’s presence by which He reveals Himself and acts in the believer. The difficult Palamite doctrine of the energeia, at once distinct from God, and yet uncreated, is a systematic way of expressing a simple truth: that the divine life is really given to us. The choice of the term ‘uncreated energies’ emphasizes first that God reveals Himself by acting, which excludes any idea of ‘passion’ in God, and secondly, that since the communication of the divine life is ‘uncreated,’ there can never be any question of making it, by any means whatsoever, the reward of human ‘merit.’ (p. 8)

The authors cite a wonderful passage from Palamas, which was shared with the ecumenical group by Fr John Meyendorff:

Since the Son of God, in His ineffable love for mankind, has not only united His divine hypostasis to our nature, and taking a body with a rational soul, has appeared on earth and lived among men; but, more, than this—Oh how splendid a miracle!—He unites Himself to the human hypostases themselves, and mingling Himself with every believer by the communion of His holy Body, becomes one body with us and makes us into a temple of the whole Godhead; for the fullness of the Godhead dwells corporeally in Him; how then should He not enlighten the souls of those who partake worthily, surrounding them with light through the divine splendour of His Body which is in us, just as His light shone on the bodies of the disciples on Thabor? It is true that then the body that possessed the source of the light of grace was not yet mingled with our bodies; it enlightened from outside those who approached worthily and caused the light to enter their souls through the sight of their eyes. But to-day it is mingled with us, it dwells in us and, naturally, it enlightens our souls from within. … One alone can see God; that is, Christ. We must be united with Christ—and how close a union it is—in order to see God.’ (pp. 34-35)

In this passage we see Gregory’s concern to join together theosis and the hesychastic experience of God.

Given the insistence upon the gift of God himself in theosis, Orthodox theologians believe the “doctrine of uncreated energies excludes any idea of something both supernatural and created, of a habitus” (p. 8). Mœller and Philips, however, believe that Palamism is ultimately reconcilable with the very different approach of scholasticism to the mystery of grace:

Without going into the details of this discussion, it is enough to say that the distinction between uncreated and created energies can be expressed in Western terminology by the distinction between the natural and the supernatural. The desire of the scholastics to lay down a doctrine of created grace is explained by their different point of view: the East is concerned … with what it is in God that makes it possible for Him to give Himself; while the West is also concerned—though not to the exclusion of all else—with what it is in man that makes it possible for him to receive and take to himself God and His divine life. In other words, the East has never attempted a philosophical explanation of deification; and yet if it were satisfactorily described, the doctrine of the habitus would probably be less unacceptable to them; in the same way, catholic theologians, anxious to explain as much as possible about the recipient of divine life, obviously do not deny the ‘uncreated’ character of the life itself; they merely introduce distinctions that are useful to them, but which the East has always distrusted, especially when they are taken from the philosophy of Aristotle. (pp. 8-9)

The absolute primacy of God acting in grace is clear in Palamism: God gives God, and only God can give God. It is also clear that Palamism strongly affirms the reality of regeneration: the Christian is truly transformed by the uncreated energies of God. As the authors explain, “It is Christ, God and man, who is present in the being of the redeemed man; it is the mysterious uncreated energies which become as it were the ’soul’ of the Christian’s life” (p. 10).

30 April 2007


We begin with St Augustine. Of course. His reflections on the mystery of grace have been determinative for Latin Christianity, for good and for ill. He taught the Church that the Christian life is completely dependent upon the gratuitous love, mercy, and power of God, from beginning to end. But he also directed the Church down paths (absolute predestination, limited atonement, infant damnation) which have subsequently proven deleterious to the preaching of the gospel. The past 1500 years may be understood as a purification of Augustine’s legacy. That purification began a century after Augustine’s death, with the Second Council of Orange in A.D. 529, continued with St Thomas Aquinas and the subsequent debates between Bañez and Molina, and intensified with the 19th and 20th century Catholic rediscovery of the Eastern Fathers. With the dogmatic confession of the universal salvific will of the God, so clearly enunciated in the decrees of Vatican II and the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II, this purification would seem to be complete. Augustine’s theological greatness remains, but his reflections on grace have been integrated into a wider and more ecumenical Catholic vision.

If the Eastern Fathers speak of the deification of the whole man in Christ, St Augustine speaks of the Holy Spirit of love indwelling the hearts of God’s people. His approach to grace may “be summed up by the words Spiritus in anima, the Spirit present to (or in) the soul of regenerate man” (The Theology of Grace and the Oecumenical Movement, p. 3). We are called, says Augustine, to love God and our neighbor de Deo: God the Holy Spirit loves in us and through us. As Charles Mœller and Gérard Philips explain: “God causes us to believe and hope through the virtues of faith and hope; but He makes us love ‘through God’; it is God in us who loves our neighbor” (p. 12). Augustine has no understanding of created grace. His concern is the uncreated grace of the Holy Spirit who indwells the souls of the baptized and who unites them to his love.

What about baptized infants? By baptism they are truly indwelt by the Spirit, yet because they are not yet capable of faith, they are not yet capable of knowing him; they do not yet possess him in love. “Baptized infants are already indwelt by the Spirit,” the authors state, “but this indwelling is not yet in actuality” (p. 12).

In the 12th century Peter Lombard reasserted the position of St Augustine in his Four Books of Sentences: “The Holy Spirit is the charity by which we love God and neighbor.” Mœller and Philips elaborate:

In I Sent. distinc. 17, Lombard states that there is no virtue of charity, for it is replaced by the person of the Holy Spirit. The Master of the Sentences does not, of course, deny that it can be properly said that a man makes an act of love. The acts of faith and hope, he says, come from the virtue present in us, but the act of love comes from the Spirit Himself, without there being in man a habitus of love.

This opinion is inspired by faithfulness to St Augustine, albeit subject to a considerable misunderstanding. Struck by the text ‘God is love’ Lombard tries to give due weight to the transcendence of love; he has failed to see that it is possible to speak of a habitus of love that is at the same time a direct participation of the Holy Spirit. In any case, Lombard knows nothing of any created habitus. Richard Fishacre, an Oxford Franciscan, followed Lombard in this opinion and even spoke of a parallelism between the hypostatic union and union with the Spirit in grace; this theory is curiously reminiscent of Palamas. (p. 15)

The Augustinian/Lombardian thesis was subsequently discussed and analyzed by the great scholastics. In what sense is it correct to say that the Holy Spirit directly loves in and through us? Do we not participate in this act of love? Does not the gift of uncreated grace necessarily entail a created modification of human being? Is not the human tabernacle changed by that divine reality which it tabernacles? Thus enters the controverted notion of created grace.

The authors devote several paragraphs to St Bonaventure, which are worth quoting in full:

The thought of St. Bonaventure is of the greatest interest. He says that he will not spend time over uncreated grace, because the Scripture discusses it adequately, and his intention is to elaborate a more precise theology. That is why he abandons the opinion of Peter Lombard for a sententia securior, that of created grace.

The two principal foundations of St Bonaventure’s view are very remarkable, for they show that the idea of created grace is in no way opposed to the primacy of God in saving and justifying in a permanent action. The first is that we must speak of a created habitus, in order to emphasize the fundamental impotence of man, and exclude the righteousness of works. Whereas later, scholasticism and the notion of created grace were attacked in order that Pelagianism might be the more surely avoided, the fact is that the historical development of the idea came about primarily as the result of an effort to avoid Pelagianism: St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas both say that if there were no created grace, one might think that man by his own works gives himself grace. Created grace, therefore, manifests the indigentia hominis; that is why a man must be given a disposition to receive justification.

This reasoning implies that created grace is not in any sense considered as a sort of ‘autonomous possession’ of a man, permitting him in a way to do without the continual saving activity of God; on the contrary, it is always produced by God Himself, ‘present in the soul.’ This view of the matter is also found in St. Bonaventure—and it provides the second foundation of his reasoning. Arguing this time from the point of view of God, St. Bonaventure explains that the love of God, giving itself, is effective, producing a change in man. Consequently, the disposition, the created habitus is the result of the presence of the God of love. In other words, gratia creata is the result of the continual influence of the divine light; the soul possesses the Spirit, or rather, is possessed by Him. St. Bonaventure sums all this up in the striking formula, which succeeds in avoiding any ambiguity, ‘Habere est haberi,’ to possess (a habitus) is to be possessed by God. (pp. 17-18)

The intent of created grace, therefore, is to clearly assert the regeneration of the human being by grace: man becomes a new creation. And so the authors explicate the position of Aquinas:

The love of God works effectively—a man is changed if the Spirit dwells in him; the habitus is the result of this; there is no question, therefore, of a habitus being required in advance, or produced by any other causality that that of God Himself at the very moment He gives Himself. One must speak in this case of a reciprocal causality, an idea that expresses the unbreakable union between God sanctifying and the soul really changed by God’s entering it. In other words, the idea of created grace simply expresses the reality of regeneration; it is in no way an intermediate reality, a thing, complete in itself, which man possesses as his own. …

St. Thomas realizes that this habitus (this dunamis) operates like a kind of continuous impulse, and that the idea presents certain difficulties—it is neither a simple action, nor a temporary impulse on a particular occasion, but a continuous impulse from which actions result. In other words, the habitus is an active tension set up by God at work in man; and this is not intermittent but continuous; it is like a pattern formed of one unbroken line and not a series of separate figures. What is involved is not a series of actual graces (there is very little suggestion of this in Western thought in the Middle Ages), but rather, if one might use the term, an ‘impelling disposition’; better still, the habitus is nothing less than the will of God expressing itself unceasingly within the complex reality of the being of man.

It will be seen that underlying these ideas of Aquinas is the theory of the participation of the soul in the divine life, through the continual action of God. He conceives not of an inert object, or fixed state, cut off, as it were, from its source in God, but a permanent dynamism, built into the very foundation of our being, and causing there a permanent disposition (an inherent disposition, in the words of the Council of Trent); but which has no reality except through the presence and activity of God Himself. (pp. 19-21)

Tragically, under the influence of nominalism, the created habitus was reduced in late medieval reflection precisely to a “thing” sitting between God and man: “Because nominalism could conceive of no real contact between the creature and the Creator, it presented the habitus as an intermediate being, a separate entity in itself, possessed by man apart from the influence of grace” (p. 21). Martin Luther saw this nominalist reification of created grace as intrinsically Pelagian and rightly protested. We must commune with God, not with a created object. Tragically, trapped in the same nominalism, Luther found it very difficult to assert an ontological transformation of man by God in his gift of grace.

The Council of Trent avoided the scholastic terminology of habitus and gratia creata and instead preferred to employ the terms inhaerens, infusa permanens, capax augmenti. Mœller and Philips summarize the Tridentine dogma: “the righteousness of God, but shared by man” (p. 22). Against Pelagius, the council asserts that righteousness comes from God, freely and gratuitously; against Luther, the council asserts that righteousness transforms man and truly becomes part of him.

2 May 2007


After reviewing the history of Latin reflection on uncreated and created grace in their book The Theology of Grace and the Oecumenical Movement, Charles Mœller and Gérard Philips propose that a renewed Catholic theology of grace must preserve the following five elements:

First, God’s love is effective. It does not leave him as he was but transforms him. The philosophical expressions of the scholastics are only an attempt to give full weight to the reality of regeneration. “If the scholastics laid less emphasis than the Greek Fathers on our participation in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” the authors write, “they do show more fully the extent of the ontological change in man; grace produces not simply a new basis and aim of morality, but brings about an ability, created in man; which is only to express in philosophical terms the ‘new creature’ in regenerate man” (pp. 24-25).

Second, the change affected in man by God’s love endures. The dynamic nature of the scholastic habitus is that it is neither a state that we possess independent of God nor a single act of grace in us: it is something in-between, ever dependent upon our living union with God. When we speak of an increase of grace in our lives, we do not mean “an increase in the quantity of the state of grace (seen as a thing, like a sum of money increasing at compound interest), but simply to be governed more by the Spirit, to be more receptive to Him” (p. 25).

Third, God acts directly in the habitus. It is neither a barrier between man and God nor some sort of intermediate object:

The habitus, so St. Bonaventure says, does not make us possess God, but makes us possess an action that guides us towards Him, in the sense that we are set free (from our compassion and faults) on account of having made that act of love—which never ceases to be caused in us by the love of God. In the same way St. Thomas, speaking of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, makes use of the words Quibus fruimur [divinis personis], which means, not that they are an object we enjoy, but that they are an instrument by means of which (this is the meaning of quibus) the enjoyment of the divine persons is possible, and it is only through the divine persons that we enjoy the divine gifts as well; for the other way round, the gifts are merely means. The soul ’sees God in God.’ (p. 26)

Hence it is more accurate to say with St Thomas Aquinas that God gives himself to us in the gift of grace rather than with St Albert the Great that God gives himself with it.

Fourth, the habitus is vital and dynamic. Even our ability to make an act of love toward God is itself “the result of the continual presence and activity of God.” God is the active cause of our free acts. “He makes us act (He ‘works in us both to will and to work’) without its being possible to say that God alone acts (’with fear and trembling work out your own salvation’)” (p. 27). This action of divine grace within us is continuous—such is the depth of the transformation effected by grace.

Fifth, merit is personal and ontological. An individual is not rewarded by God because he has accumulated merit, as recorded on a bank ledger; he is not rewarded because of something he has acquired, which he subsequently cashes in. Merit is an ontological condition: one is rewarded because of what, by the grace of God, one has become and now is. Hence the evangelical truth of Augustine’s dictum that when God crowns our merits he crowns his own gifts. Properly understood, merit is a dimension of the work of the Holy Spirit within the life of the believer. “Merit is therefore essentially inseparable from the work of the Spirit in us,” write Mœller and Philips, “bringing about an exchange of love and friendship; so merit becomes what it is in us that makes us worthy of God” (p. 28).

What then is created grace? It is an active receptivity to God, a receptivity created and constantly renewed by God in direct union with the human soul. Mœller and Philips, however, acknowledge that the term “created grace” may not be the most fortunate expression. As the history of theological reflection demonstrates, it is all too easy to divorce created grace from uncreated grace and to treat it as a commodity or impersonal energy. Catholic theology must always remember that created grace is grounded upon the dynamic presence of the Holy Spirit, who indwells the souls of the just.

3 May 2007


“Grace cannot be a thing we possess; it is always inseparable from a person who loves, who gives Himself, who brings us into communion with Himself.” This, say Charles Mœller and Gérard Philips, is the essential point of the Reformation (The Theology of Grace and the Oecumenical Movement, p. 30).

Compared to other chapters in the book, the chapter devoted to the Protestant understanding of grace is brief, too brief. Their principal concern is to demonstrate that the Reformed believe in the reality of regeneration. In this chapter the authors attend to the understanding of justification and sanctification as elaborated by John Calvin. The following citation from Calvin is determinative:

You cannot receive this justification without receiving sanctification at the same time. … We may distinguish them, but Christ contains both inseparably in Himself. Do you wish to obtain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ: but you cannot possess Him without being made a partaker of his sanctification, seeing that He cannot be torn in pieces. (p. 30)

Justification and sanctification, therefore, are inseparable and complementary, not parallel. Both are communicated to the believer by incorporation into Christ. But neither may justification and sanctification be confused. Justification is “absolute, perfect, and extrinsic”; sanctification is “relative, imperfect and intrinsic” (p. 30). Justification alone, precisely because “it rests on a decision by God without any consideration of human acts,” provides the foundation for the absolute certainty of the believer. From this faith arise obedience and grateful love:

When Calvin stresses that what is brought about by the judicial pronouncement of justification is external and imputed, he is trying to make crystal clear that God’s act is a completely free gift, and that it is eschatological in nature. It always remains a free gift; and as for the realization of redemption, this is still awaited. Reformed theologians are very ill at east with what they call ‘the theology of glory.’

In his doctrine of sanctification, described in the chapter of the Institutes entitled ‘De vita hominis Christiani,’ Calvin takes it for granted that the union of God with man (salvation) is the foundation of the whole of the Christian’s life. The direct result of this union is the sanctification by the Holy Spirit, of the man who gives himself to God in faith. The Holy Spirit acts throughout the life of the believer, transforming him little by little into the image of Christ. The gift of the Spirit has a creative, life-giving and real effect on the man who denies himself and puts his trust in God. (p. 32)

The Protestant construal of grace must be understood within the cosmic setting of God’s plan. Satan is the great adversary, prince of the world, bent on the destruction of humanity through the accusation of sin and infidelity. By his one sacrifice on the cross, Jesus has taken upon himself the sins of the world, propitiated the just anger of God, and liberated mankind from the tyranny of the Evil One. When sinners believe on Christ and enter into communion with him, they are justified before God, reborn in the Spirit, and receive strength for the ongoing battle with Satan and sin, in the knowledge that their victory is achieved.

It is clear that the polemical charge of antinomianism cannot be properly directed against the Reformed. Reformed Christians confess the real regeneration of the believer by the Spirit. “The true mark of the Reformation,” the authors state, “is a joyful acceptance of what is freely given, and a growing readiness and willingness before the creative work of the Spirit” (p. 33). Reformed theologians resist the use of “merit” to describe the process of sanctification; but “they would accept the term ‘created grace’ if it could be taken as equivalent to the biblical passage where God is said to ‘work in us both to will and to work’ (energeia), because in this way it would be seen more clearly how this is always a free gift from God’s point of view, and with what joy and trust man puts himself at God’s disposal” (p. 33).

3 May 2007


In the concluding chapter of their book The Theology of Grace and the Oecumenical Movement, Charles Mœller and Gérard Philips address the differences between the Christian Churches on the mystery of grace. All the confessions agree on the primacy of God and the gratuity of grace. All agree that divine grace truly transforms the human being. Yet they describe the life of Christian living in different terms:

An Orthodox would say that the change made by grace makes a divine life possible; a Catholic, a holy life; while a Protestant would stress the battle against sin and the Devil. The encounter between God and man, in the process of salvation would be described as a ’synergism’ (Orthodoxy), an ‘enduring creation’ (Protestantism), or ‘actuation créée par acte incréé’ (Catholicism). (p. 37)

[The translator notes that the French phrase actuation créée par acte incréé is impossible to adequately render in English. He suggests the following possible translations: “God’s uncreated act supplies a created actualizing to the creature” or “The creature is perfected in its nature by an uncreated act.” (p. 29)]

The authors believe that each of the formulations are acceptable and express an important dimension of Christian life and the mystery of grace. The confessions diverge, however, on the question of created grace:

For Catholicism, the fundamental distinction is between nature and the supernatural, and the problem of grace results from the nature of man; for the Protestant, on the other hand, grace is essentially ‘what comes down towards the sinner.’ In short, one side contrasts natural and supernatural, the other, sin and grace. The Orthodox, with differences of detail we cannot describe here, would tend to adopt the second view-point. (p. 38)

Ultimately, Mœller and Philips believe, the differences between the Christian traditions lie in the employment of different philosophies in the articulation of the faith, specifically, Platonism and Aristotelianism. It would be simplistic to say that Eastern theology is Platonist and Latin theology is Aristotelian, for features of both philosophies can be seen in Eastern and Western theologies and each tradition has adapted and changed philosophical categories to make them suitable for theological expression. But the authors believe that Platonism and Aristotelianism have profoundly shaped the respective anthropological visions of Orthodoxy and Catholicism:

An Aristotelian anthropology sees man as a self-sufficient unity enclosed within himself, his highest functions or actions never surpassing the limits of ‘nature.’ His elevation to a supernatural state would therefore appear as an elevation to an action or mode of action which he cannot attain to in his natural state. It would also be seen as the production of a quality giving the ability to carry out such an action; a quality which without changing the soul, would be supernatural, although created.

On the other hand, Platonist anthropology, even as corrected by the Greek Fathers, in order to deal with the dynamic aspect of Christianity, sees in man a being capable from the very beginning of reaching the highest degree of spiritual life, union with God, although unable to reach it by his own efforts.

What in the Aristotelian formulation is ‘nature,’ always appears as a deficiency to the Platonist, but this means that there is no barrier between man and the supernatural; one might say he has a potentiality to ‘move’ towards his goal; his essence is to ascend towards the highest end. He is essentially free in doing this, and fails or succeeds according to his own decision. There is an ‘existentialist’ element in the Platonist conception of the Greek Fathers, while according to the Aristotelian idea, freedom is an extra faculty given to man.

In both cases, however, there is a divine intervention. It can be looked at either in its uncreated source, or in its created effect, bringing about perfection in a creature, and consequently a created perfection. Those who see in grace the introduction of a new faculty, see it in its effect; those who see in it the re-establishment of the God-like condition of man, lay more stress on the divine, uncreated character of this progress towards deification. But the former cannot forget that the presence of the Holy Spirit (uncreated grace) comes before created grace; nor the other, that grace works in a creature and produces created effects. (pp. 39-40)

I lack the training and knowledge to assess the argument of this long passage. I am reminded of E. L. Mascall’s book The Openness of Being (1971). Mascall argues that all finite beings, by their ontological dependence upon the self-existent Deity, are inherently open to “fresh influxes of creative activity from God”:

The view that all finite beings depend for their very existence as well as for their particular natures on the incessant creative activity of God implies that, while they are relatively autonomous, in that God conserves in each its own particular pattern of finite activity, they are, by the very fact that they are dependent and not self-existent realities, open to fresh influxes of creative activity from God, which will not destroy their spontaneity but will elevate and enhance it. Nor is there any antecedently specifiable limit to such influxes; anything that a finite being receives will be finite, but there is no greatest finite quantity. As the scholastics say, grace does not destroy nature but perfects it. By their very dependence upon God, finite beings are inherently open to him; an absolutely autonomous and incapsulated finite entity would be a contradiction in terms. A created universe—and there can be no other—is necessarily not only a finite but also an open one. Nature has, simply as nature, a potentia oboedientialis for the supernatural. (p. 146)

Mascall contrasts this theistic understanding of God and nature with the philosophies of antiquity, which “thought of every being as a limited incapsulated entity, all of whose potentialities were included in it at the start” (p. 145). All truly Christian understandings of God and creation, whether Eastern or Western, Platonist or Aristotelian, Palamite or Thomist, must express a fundamental openness of the world to the creative and recreative activity of the transcendent Creator. This ontological openness to God grounds the deification of human beings and their elevation into the divine life of the Holy Trinity. Because human nature is not closed in on itself, it can receive from God new and unimagined graces, powers, and possibilities; indeed, it can receive God himself.

The Reformers rejected scholasticism and all notions of created grace and returned to St Augustine and a more biblical understanding of grace. Yet as much as they honored Augustine, they did not embrace Augustine’s vision of deification, which he shared with the Eastern Fathers. “It is difficult,” Mœller and Philips write, “to see why the perfectly Christian and biblical stress they put on the uncreated nature of the divine operation that justifies and sanctifies … did not lead them to the reality of the whole process of deification which begins in faith but will be manifested in glory” (p. 41).

Mœller and Philips suggest two reasons for this truncation of the apostolic tradition. First, the dominating presence of Augustine himself—but not the whole Augustine but an Augustine divorced from the wider patristic tradition and reduced to his idiosyncratic positions. By their rejection of scholasticism, the Reformers missed the important qualifications and purifications of Augustine that had been made by Bonaventure and Aquinas:

Through the great Doctor, the Reformers remained in contact not only with a large part of Christian Platonism, but also with the Bible itself. But at the same time, the Reformers, receiving their Platonism through the medium of certain theories peculiar to Augustine (on concupiscence, the concept of original sin, and anti-pelagianism), took it over in a reduced form, without its ‘realistic’ developments, and only saw the Bible in the light of certain somewhat constricting preconceptions. … But we have always had the impression that St. Augustine is one of that kind of thinker, at once a genius and yet incomplete, whose influence is always of very mixed value. There is no doubt that it weighed very heavily on the theology of the West, and it was only where Augustinian thought was balanced and completed by that of the Greek Fathers (as in St. Thomas, and more and more in Catholic theology nowadays), that it could show its more wholesome effects. The absence of St. Augustine in the East was, to our minds at least, a blessing there, while his work so dominated Western theology in the Middle Ages that it took a very long time to recover its balance. (p. 43)

Second, the Reformers were themselves fettered by the same philosophical views that had perverted late scholasticism, namely, nominalism. The Reformation formulation of extrinsic grace is unconsciously rooted in an philosophical system that makes it very difficult to conceive of real relations between the transcendent deity and his finite creatures. The authors quote Louis Bouyer:

What, in fact, is the essential characteristic of Ockham’s thought, and of nominalism in general, but a radical empiricism, reducing all being to what is perceived, which empties out with the idea of substance, all possibility of real relations between beings, as well as the stable subsistence of any of them, and ends by denying all intelligibility to the real, conceiving God Himself only as a Protean figure impossible to apprehend. (p. 44)

When the world is perceived through the glasses of nominalism, it is impossible to imagine the divinization of humanity.

Mœller and Philips raise one final provocative consideration. What is the soteriological role, if any, of the glorified humanity of the risen Christ in Reformed christology? Certainly it was necessary for the pre-resurrection Christ to be human—the sacrifice of Calvary requires one who is truly God and truly man—but does Reformed soteriology need a human Jesus after his ascension? The authors elaborate:

We wonder whether Reformed theology perhaps implies in its theory of grace a Christology somewhat deprived of its human elements. … When our Reformed brethren speak of God who saves and who alone saves us, of Christ who on the Cross reconciles the justice and the love of God, of the Spirit who brings into being in us joyful obedience to God’s call, we get the impression that it is always simply God, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost. We get no clear picture of the exact part Jesus’ manhood plays now in the process of salvation; and we feel that if the chief part in the life of the Christian is not played by the manhood transfigured, then the Incarnation of Jesus might as well have ceased; admittedly, it was essential to the sacrifice of the Cross, and made it possible to hear the Word of God in human terms; but after the Ascension, Protestant thought seems to treat its function in the ‘economy’ as ended, to dispense with it, and from then on to consider only God giving salvation in Jesus.

In short, what we believe is that Protestantism does not deny that Jesus’ manhood plays any part now, but sees it chiefly in the light of the doctrine of the Spirit: this manhood seems to have ‘become Spirit,’ that is, the almighty power of God; it has, as it were, gone back to being the ‘Spirit of Yahweh,’ which ‘breatheth where he will,’ which carries out what He wills, and is simply the Creator’s own power. It is true that Protestant exegesis of Dominus autem Spiritus est no longer accepts that the glorified Christ has ‘become’ the Spirit, identifying them; but it is possible that something of this tendency still lingers on. In other words, we wonder whether the glorified manhood of Jesus has not been unconsciously allowed to evaporate into a kind of mysterious and irresistible force exerted by God alone. It would be interesting to ask what Reformed theologians mean when they say that the Holy Spirit forms Christ’s likeness to us—does this mean the manhood of Jesus or His divinity? It sometimes seems to mean only His divinity. (pp. 47-48)

I am not familiar enough with the christology of Calvin and his heirs to be able to evaluate this critique. I am reminded of the 16th century Lutheran/Reformed battles, with the Lutherans accusing the Reformed of Nestorianism and the Reformed accusing the Lutherans of Monophysitism. Calvin strove to maintain the salvific necessity of union with the Jesus in his risen humanity, but this theme was quickly lost in Reformed theology. And it is most certainly the case that the Reformed tradition has found it very difficult to experience sacraments as anything more than symbolic, as opposed to deifying, events. Might this not be because the glorified manhood of Jesus Christ serves no soteriological purpose, that it is nothing more than an empty cipher? What seems to be decisive for the Reformed is the divine person of Christ, now speaking to us his extrinsic word of pardon and grace. What need now for his body and blood? What need now for the Church? It is encouraging, though, that since The Theology of Grace and the Oecumenical Movement was written, Reformed theologians such as T. F. Torrance, James B. Torrance, and Colin Gunton have sought to recover the sacred humanity of Christ Jesus and a sacramental understanding of the Church.

Charles Mœller and Gérard Philips conclude their book with these words:

“One fact consoles us in this sorry dispute about grace: all Christians admit these two articles of Christ’s revelation: ‘Without me you can do nothing‘ and ‘I can do all things in Him who strengtheneth me.’ There is no room for fear, between separated brethren, when they try to find out what the other believes of Christ, because in His salvation the sinner, the transcendent God who alone can save, and deified man, are miraculously united. For ‘Christ is our Peace.’”

3 May 2007


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