Monday, February 14, 2011

The Doctrine I Made Up

The discussion on Dan's post concerning a pastor withholding a congregational blessing on a child born to a couple not married has, it seemed, come to the nub of the issue - what is grace? Over the course of several comments yesterday, I made clear that grace is both the character of that love that the First Epistle of St. John says is God, and is the act within us that turns us toward God. Precisely because it isn't a "thing", but is the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity working within us to make that turn toward God. Without that divine act, that Divine Person, acting in us, we could not do this on our own.

The response I got was, in essence, that I was making this up: "your apparent notion [of] "grace"(emphasis added). I made the repeated observation that this was not my apparent notion, but was an ancient, revered doctrine, rooted in the writings of St. Paul, and fleshed out by, among many others, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley. I should also point out that I have a thick paperbound portion of the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas entitled On Nature and Grace.

This morning I picked up a slim volume by St. Augustine, two incomplete works on the Epistle to the Romans, edited and translated by Paula Fredriksen Landes. One is a set of propositions, essentially talking points rooted in St. Paul that Augustine set down over the course of his discussions and disputations with the Manichaeans, who were appealing to St. Paul for their dualistic cosmology. The only volume of actual commentary on Romans, covering, barely, the first few verses, was set aside due to various other obligations, and when he turned back to it, he realized the work would be far too time consuming. Furthermore, as Fredriksen Landes points out in her introduction, Augustine's mind had changed on the nature of human free will. Set forth in the propositions was a view of the will free to choose faith. Later, after thought and various experiences, particularly with the Pelagians and Donatists, he would change his mind, and see even faith as a gratuitous act of God for and in us.

Indeed, it was his controversy with the Donatists that, in many ways, echo the dispute at Dan's over congregational blessing of a children born out of wedlock. During the last, great, systematic persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, many not just laity but clergy and even bishops had renounced their faith in the Christian God at the point of Roman swords. After the persecution ended and the Church returned to legal status, the Donatists insisted that those particularly in the hierarchy who had renounced their faith should not be allowed to return to their offices, even after doing penance.

Augustine responded with a series of writings in which he affirmed that penance was necessary, but that once complete, those clergy who had renounced their faith should be welcomed to full communion with open arms to their previous offices. Not because what they had done wasn't bad or horrible. Rather, because God's grace overrode any human disgust at what the Donatists called "traditors". This expansive view of how we should live as a gracious community toward even those who deny their once-professed faith has been passed down, particularly through the Reformers.

So, it seems I didn't exactly make up this view of grace. In fact, it should be pretty clear that, having first been worked out in the white heat of controversies in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, yet rooted in the Scriptural witness of St. Paul reflecting on the work of God in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, it goes all the way back to the beginning, as it were.

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