Grace: Redefined ?

September 26, 2010

Is “Grace” a dirty word?

By its dictionary definition, grace means “beauty of form,” or “a pleasing or attractive quality.” Other definitions include “favor or good will,” “mercy,” and “pardon.”  In Christian theology, Grace usually adapts these definitions to become God’s Love, God’s favor, God’s pardon, God’s influence, or as the good folk(s) who posted it on Wikipedia word it [under Grace (Christianity)] “a spontaneous, unmerited gift of divine favor for his [God’s] children- a favor most manifest in the salvation of sinners.” Overlooking the obvious lack of inclusive language which in a “dictionary” definition in 2010 borders on theistic silliness, the Wiki for this obviously comes down very specific on one (which isn’t the only) traditional interpretation of this “grace” concept.

As a religion student, I have experienced an overload of grace these past few weeks–in concept that is. Studying Medieval Theology in one course and  Reformation and Catholic Renewal Theology in another course, I’ve been pouring over the nuances various Christian intellectuals have devised in working out what this grace thing is all about and who it is truly for. In other areas, say in my study of Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism, I’ve yet to find a strong parallel to the concept; is Grace in this manner unique wholly to Christian thought?

There’s a world of difference between “God’s Love, freely given” and “God’s favor, freely given.” Favor translates to preference, as in “chosen,” as in: God picking one person (or group) over another. This is an old concept, one that predates the towering thought of Augustine whose radical approach to the doctrine of grace shadowed over every version to emerge after in theological quandaries of grace; the idea of God “choosing” and having favor for one over another is actually found in scripture itself, notably “Jacob have I loved but Esau I hated.” Paul quotes that Genesis passage in his letter to the Romans, a letter that was pretty much the sum total of Martin Luther’s theology and arguably Calvin’s as well. The concept of election is one of the many threads that runs throughout the entire Old Testament and that concept was given a baptism and thus seen through a Christian lens in the letters and documents that became the New Testament.

Yet…election as expounded by Christian thinkers starting with Augustine in 4th century CE is something quite different than election as followed by most Jewish thinkers, believers, and expounders of the Hebrew scriptures. Election for the Israelites meant they were chosen by God to be a special people. That choseness resulted in responsibility; that election held those in Covenant with God to be keepers of Torah and to be the people through whom God would transform all of the world. As I understand it, the Israelites were elected to be held to a higher standard, to be set apart, to live and be the way that God’s love would be shown to all of the world. The status of being God’s elect for those descendants of Abraham and Moses came with an obligation to do justice for all–to be mindful of the stranger, the outsider of the clan and people, but not with the goal of bringing that outsider into the faith; typically in history Jews have not thought others must be Jewish to be in right standing with God.

So, as I mentioned earlier, as of yet I haven’t found a true parallel to the Christian concept of grace in other faiths. In Islam, the law can be held by any who submits to God–one isn’t expected to wait to be chosen, one simply must submit to the One true God and keep God’s commands and ultimately “salvation” comes through that submission. In Hinduism (though that’s somewhat of a misnomer since Hinduism is a wide range of beliefs and practices amongst its sects), karma isn’t based on anything arbitrary–you pay the price for your actions, you are not chosen to be born a certain way. In Buddhism, enlightenment is not a random outside placed benefit, it is something one must strive for. And as just discussed, Judaism sees election as a responsibility more than a reward.

Christian theology starting with Augustine did something quite different, however. Augustine wrote in favor of free will and one’s personal involvement in salvation early in his career, but claimed that grace simply wouldn’t allow him to hold to such false perceptions–in the end, Augustine submitted to what he felt was a rather hard doctrine but one that was true and reflected the Sovereignty of God–grace for some, but not all. For Augustine, Grace became the will of God. Grace is God’s favor for some–God’s act of placing a person in a particular time and place, that they might be born in a context in which they would hear the gospel, accept it as true, live it out, and persevere until the end. Grace became an all encompassing act, one reflecting God’s utmost sovereignty; God has such complete control and acts in such particular attention to the details that no one will attain salvation without God arranging every detail in a way that they will hear and accept the one exclusive and particular truth. Furthermore, no one can know who is truly given that gift of grace because for it to be real it must “persevere” until the end of that persons life; one might be dying in a hospital bed yet be undergoing a transformation born of grace and the rest of the world would not know it; one might lead a perfectly moral life until the day they die yet “slip into sin” that very day, hours before dying and thus ruining the whole run. Yet all the while, these events are ultimately through the actions of God. No one can choose to do the good in Augustinian thought–one can, in their human sinfulness inherited with birth, only opt for evil. The act of doing good, the act of accepting truth and persevering is a gift of God–it is Grace–and it is given freely by God with no personal merit earning it . One cannot even prepare for God’s grace–it comes when it does and it is irresistible. A person can neither reject nor pursue it. This works out to justice for Augustine because only God is good and due to Augustine’s conception of original sin, we are all born deserving hell and damnation so the very fact that God opts to “elect” even a few is merciful.

Now, Augustine’s view of Grace, though radical at the time of it’s introduction, became the norm in most aspects; it was from that perception that all later Christian thinkers worked, either in favor or in opposition to it. Prosper of Aquitaine worked tirelessly in defending and spreading this view at the beginning of the medieval period before developing his own unique view which separated Grace into 4 categories (running the gamut of general grace which is love for all to the real saving grace which is only for a few). Eventually near the end of the Medieval period, those like Julian of Norwich hinted at a universal grace which would result in the love and salvation of all in the end (though Universal Salvation had already been teased at and worked on by, to name one person, the brilliant early Christian theologian Origen who was later declared a heretic). Then came the time of the Reformation and grace became a key concept in the division between the Catholic Renewal and the formation of Protestant churches. When the dust settled, protestants like Luther and Calvin held tightly to a freely given, unmerited grace that is irresistable and for some, not all; this grace is saving and a person cannot work towards or even prepare themselves for it. Grace works to make our sinful self appear righteous to God since Christ “stands in” for us through his living sacrifice (which opens the whole can of atonement since it assumes substitution atonement is the correct view from the start, an issue there isn’t space for here). For Luther, you can never be good enough so the idea that Grace is random and free and not contingent on any good works was very freeing; his anxiousness and certainty of burning in hell could be abated and he could relax in the knowledge of his own justification and head to the pub for beers. Calvin held to the same basic theory but rather than relaxing as a result of believing it instead began the process of Puritanically structuring Genevan society to reflect “proper” Christian piety to display the affect and proof of justification. Now for Catholic Renewal Theology, on the other hand, as expressed at The Council of Trent and in books like Teresa of Avila’s autobiography, a person must do a bit of work in their own justification. Those like Teresa wrote of “preparing” one’s self for spiritual depth by praying no matter how difficult it might seem. The Catholic Church came down on the side of salvation coming through both faith and works, that a person must prepare themselves for receiving Grace. Even though that preparation is aided by God it still involves the choice and active participation of the individual.

Okay…so wading through and contemplating these various looks at Grace and salvation, trying my best to understand them, I began pondering how odd it is that a word that sounds so compassionate can mean so many things that are exclusive, cold, and even distant.  I’ve written on this site before about things like salvation and even posted my own reformulation of the main articles typically contained in a statement of faith, and I realize my ideas and opinions take on a much more pluralistic view of things so much of traditionally exclusivity I reject out of hand. I also realize that in the past, even in earlier articles on this site, I’ve rejected positions without attempting to fully understand them. When I first jumped back into studying religion and theology, I came down fast and hard on disproving or discrediting a lot of traditional views in favor of the “correct” ones I had discovered; a lot of that came from my own hang-ups, of seeing the drastic difference between the type of theology and church I had found after years of not having one and the type I thought I had known and rejected. To be honest, my raking over the coals of a figure like John Piper occurred when I didn’t fully understand the basis of the theology he was trying to reclaim, specifically that of Augustinian Grace.  So looking now at Augustine and trying to be objective, I will say that there is beauty and care in it; the idea that God moved every molecule to choose you as an individual must seem like pure awesomeness to one who accepts it. It pictures a detailed and fully involved God who is concerned with every detail and the belief that you are one of God’s chosen must give an incredible since of “somebodyness” to a person, especially someone who has and is facing terrible situations. Furthermore, this theory can fit nicely together in a package with scripture, church, and service. The idea that this concept can be found in scripture is not false; it links together nicely and it is certainly a thread there to see and hold to. I think a view of inerrancy in conjunction with a theology that holds biblical authority at the highest works well with this theory.

But…I don’t think this theory is a must, certainly not in the way that Augustine did. He felt it caught him and forced him to declare it even though he personally felt it to be a cold and hard doctrine. I see many other threads that run through scripture–the care for the stranger, the struggle for liberation, the radical inclusiveness of God’s love, the importance of good works, the here and now ever present yet needed-to-be-worked for Kingdom of God, the healing ministry of Jesus, etc. Everyone has a canon-within-a-canon, that set of passages and books that highlight a persons theology and if the Predestination and Original Sin crowd have Genesis and Romans, I hold even stronger to James, Luke, Exodus, sayings of the prophets and particular Psalms, etc. Furthermore, since I feel Scripture is holy more because it has become so through communal history and I believe that it is only in instances where the Spirit moves through a reading of it that it truly becomes the word of God, I certainly don’t put it at the top of my list of authority nor do I hold to a theory of inerrancy. I reject original sin for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that I don’t hold to a literal Adam and Eve story (and yes, I’ve heard more post-modern views that attempt to keep it even in recognizing that story as Mythic). I don’t doubt humankind’s ability to do tremendous evil, and I certainly see that being born into systems of oppression and injustice assuredly start us off in a world of sin, but I do not start at Augustine’s starting point which assumes we all deserve damnation (well, I don’t hold to a traditional hell view either).

So I’m seeking a redefinition of the word Grace; where too often in the past it has come to signify exclusiveness, particularity, and the damned, I see it better defined by its other definitions- “beauty of form,” and “God’s love.” Grace is an inherent goodness of God; God by God’s very essence is the quality we perceive as love in the purest sense. God runs through all of creation and God is creation and all of creation came from that first spark of creation when God divided out and God continues to divide and spread and move outward, creating galaxies. Grace emenates from God and is there all the while, waiting for us as humans to recognize it, open ourselves to it, be filled with it and thus be filled with the Spirit; Grace is the beauty and goodness of God and God’s creation that not even the vileness of injustice, opression and sin can truly destroy. Grace is there for all of us if we choose to let it take us over. Once it does, we are free from the shackles of misguided goals and systems and our ultimate goal is then salvation of self (peace, contenment, love) and the work for justice so that all might receive that same gift. Grace is here and now and also afterwards in whatever truly awaits those it fills.



2 Responses to “Grace: Redefined ?”

  1. david said

    Good read. For me God’s grace is mercy, and love, and favor. And I think that God’s grace is exclusive, and inclusive. I believe that some aspects of God’s grace is given to everyone. God loves all, God gives life to all (even if you look at that in a very general way), and God is open to everyone. But God is not who makes God’s grace exclusive; people are. I believe that God has shown us the right path through Christ. So in that act, God has extended full favor and mercy to all. God has given us full reconciliation for wrong doing that we have in our lives. But it is up to us to step into the light of that reconciliation. I think of Jesus sitting at meal inviting all to join him. But not all join him. It is not God who keeps them out. It is themselves.

    • dmhamby2 said

      Thanks for reading. What you’re getting at is essentially what I’m saying–that Grace is there if we choose to accept it. That’s in contrast with a lot of Christian thought b/c such thought assumes that if we can choose to except this grace of our free will then we are earning it and that is impossible since we can do no good without God’s help; but I think to shorten free will makes God a deity who moves us around a chess board whereas I see God as the One unifying true presence made manifest in love. The only divergence I would take from you on your point is that “God has shown us the true path through Christ.” I see the correct path through Christ as I understand and experience Christ, but I leave the possibility that others might find that path through Torah, Qur’an, etc.

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