How God’s Grace interacts with your life

The Supernatural: how God’s Grace interacts with your life – Spring 2015

The three articles below are Fr. Alan’s notes from the Adult Faith Formation sessions that met in May 2015.

Session One – May 3, 2015

Recently, a parishioner asked me, “What is the Catholic Church’s perspective on the evangelical protestant claim that human nature is irreparably depraved and completely alienated from God?” This series of Adult Faith Formation sessions is an attempt to respond to that question.

The evangelical position on the total depravity of human nature resulted primarily from reflection on Paul’s comments on sin and Grace in the Letter to the Romans. Prior to the legal troubles that led to his death Paul was planning a missionary journey to the province of Gaul. He wanted to acquire provisions for the journey from vendors in the city of Rome, and wrote to the church in Rome in order to establish his credentials as a legitimate preacher of the Gospel. The Letter to the Romans was Paul’s statement of his understanding of the Gospel message.

He wrote, “For if, by the transgression of one person, death came to reign through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one person Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:17) He was explaining how both Jews and gentiles had been unfaithful to God. Both Jews and gentiles, therefore, were in need of forgiveness from God in order to live the righteous life to which God called all people.

Paul was speaking about the universality of salvation. The forgiveness of sins made possible by the death of Jesus is universal in two senses. First, it is divine forgiveness that is needed by all people and, second, it is a new covenant of forgiveness that remains valid for all time. Paul was depicting Jesus as both the fulfillment of the Covenant with Moses and the fulfillment of the religious sensibilities of gentiles.

The modern day evangelical interpretation of this, and similar, verses from the Scriptures is the result of social conditions at the time of the Protestant Reformation and an inadequate understanding of the Scriptural texts. Luther and Calvin saw in these Scriptural passages a divine judgment on humanity as deserving of spiritual death. Evangelical proselytizing today is a direct development of Calvin’s theology of the total moral and spiritual depravity of human nature. If you have ever been posed the question: “If you die tonight, are you certain that you will go to heaven?” or “Are you saved?”, you have had an experience of Calvinist theology. Calvinism assumes the eternal damnation of all people, but proposes the possibility of escape from the punishments that all humans deserve as a result of simply having been born. Today, this perspective is the primary line of division between protestants and Catholics.

The question about the moral and spiritual state of human nature did not originate with the protestant Reformation, nor was it resolved by the Reformation. This fundamental question has been raised and addressed in each successive generation of believers. The question is both fundamental and recurring because it asks not only about the nature of being human, it asks also about the Divine nature; these two realities define our existence, but elude our grasp.

The current Catholic responses to this fundamental question are the products of both Continental European theologians and English-language theologians, although each group approached the question in their own, unique way. In order to understand the contemporary responses to the question, it is necessary to understand a little of the history that led to our contemporary situation. The history of the theology of nature and Grace begins with the preaching of the Apostles as recorded in the Christian Scriptures.

The Christian Scriptures were written as individual addresses to particular church communities. As such, they are not abstract descriptions of the Christian Faith. Rather, they are responses to particular issues. They are, however, responses based on the apostolic and sub-apostolic Church’s shared experience of Jesus as Risen Lord. Each biblical author expresses a particular view of human existence. Even if it is tacitly held, or merely unexpressed, there is a theological anthropology (an abstract understanding of human nature), that underlies each Scriptural text.

Despite their unique circumstances and individual characteristics, there is general agreement among the Scriptural texts about the fundamental nature of human existence. The Scriptures describe human persons as innately capable of being in a righteous relationship with God, but existentially burdened by the sin of faithlessness. The background of this understanding of human existence is an image of God that is also very consistent throughout the Scriptural texts. God is the faithful One who continually and repeatedly offers a Covenant of fidelity to human persons.

In the Scriptures, God models and exemplifies the covenant fidelity to which human persons are called by divine election. Not only does God invite human persons into a permanent relationship of exclusive faithfulness, God makes such a relationship possible by being both the standard and the guarantor of fidelity.

The covenants with Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and the Patriarchs, Moses, and finally, in the death of Jesus, are multiple iterations of a consistent image of the Divine nature and a consistent understanding of human potential. In the various Scriptural texts, Divine nature is reliably faithful, but human nature is in need of divine help in order achieve actual faithfulness. This very consistent point of view both underlies the Scriptural texts, and is a prerequisite for understanding and interpreting the Scriptures. We will examine briefly the thought of two theologians who produced uniquely brilliant abstract explanations of these ideas which are so central to understanding the Scriptures.

During his ministry as Bishop of Hippo, Augustine was faced with several pastoral and theological challenges that grew out of conflicting notions of how God’s Grace interacts with human nature. In formulating responses to local issues within his diocese, and issues facing the larger Catholic Church community, Augustine relied on a commonly held view of the created world. Neo-platonism is a rather foreign pattern of thought to most people today, but during Augustine’s lifetime it was the equivalent of the technological mindset predominant in our society. Today, when we have a problem or question, we turn to the internet or an app or medical technology or some other technological source for an answer. Intellectual and practical questions in late antiquity were structured according to an understanding of the created world as existing within a hierarchy of spiritual and physical powers.

All existing things were ranked in something like a “caste system” according to their supposed closeness to, or distance from, God. Angels ranked close to God, martyrs ranked farther away, and saints a little farther still. Sinners and the unbaptized were so far away from God that they ranked as roughly equivalent to inanimate objects. Satan and the fallen angels were the farthest away from God that was possible for a thing to be, and yet still exist.

Neo-platonism’s hierarchy of existing things created a spectrum that ranged from Eternal Good to everlasting evil. The two poles of the spectrum (Good and evil), both exerted their respective power over all existing things. Using this intellectual framework Augustine described evil as being something like a spiritual gravitational force that weighed people down. Sin and evil drew a person downward, and away from God. As a person got farther and farther from God, the force increased, drawing them more quickly toward everlasting evil. In contrast, Augustine described God’s Grace as counter-acting the ‘gravity’ of sin; Grace lifted human nature away from sin, and toward God.

Augustine’s personal experience of sin and repentance led him to understand God’s Grace as both a motivating force in one’s daily life and as the principle of order that made sense out of all existence. Reflecting on his own experience of repentance and conversion he wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” (Conf 1,1) God’s Grace was the spiritual force that created human nature, and the energy that continually draws human nature toward God.

Thomas Aquinas took this profound insight from Augustine, and developed it in order to address the intellectual and pastoral questions of the middle ages. Thomas lived at a time when Neo-platonism was no longer viewed as being as useful as it had been in Augustine’s lifetime. Both intellectuals and the uneducated during the middle ages struggled to understand precisely how God’s Grace drew a person away from sin and toward God. Augustine had offered a compelling description of the goal of Grace, but an incomplete explanation of its actions.

Thomas developed what might be called today a “psychology” of Grace. He said that Grace has multiple possible effects, depending on the state of the person who is being affected. In Thomas’ theology of Grace, Baptism offered sinners the previously unknown possibility of faith. The reception of Holy Communion, and devout practices, developed the divine gift of faith in the baptized person. On-going repentance promoted the growth of virtue and the person’s capacity to know and love God.

Thomas’ theology of Grace produced the term “Supernatural.” Today, the word “supernatural” is most often used as a reference to the occult: experiences that are inexplicable or violations of the laws of nature. This common understanding of the supernatural is a serious obstacle to grasping what Thomas had in mind when he invented the word.

For Thomas, all existing things were the product of God’s Grace – all that exists is created by God. In addition to the grace of creation God sent Grace Incarnate into the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Because these events of Grace (or actions of Grace), have already taken place, it is not possible to speak about the world as being merely natural. Because of the existing dispensations of Grace, the world is already lifted up from its natural state.

The fact that the world is already Graced, at least as an offer of forgiveness through Baptism, causes human existence to be supernatural, that is, elevated above pure nature. The supernatural effects of Grace continue through the Sacraments and the life of faith. The fact that the world is already elevated above its natural state means that the world now exists in a supernatural state, and with a supernatural destiny. Both, the state of elevation above nature, and the growth of that elevated state, are things that have to be consciously pursued; they don’t happen without human cooperation.

In Thomas’ psychology, then, Grace elevates nature, but in order for this to happen to a particular person a conscious effort must be made to cooperate with Grace. At this juncture, it is necessary to define more precisely what is meant by the word “Grace.” In the Scriptures, in subsequent post-Apostolic tradition, and in the many theologies that followed, “Grace” was a reference to God and the divine actions that bring salvation to believers. “Grace” is God; specifically, it is God’s solicitous and benevolent actions performed freely for the benefit of God’s People.

Grace as created effect in the human person was a notion that Thomas developed in order to describe in detail how the Divine nature interacts with human nature, but Thomas never lost sight of the primary meaning of “Grace” as uncreated, that is, God. In the centuries that followed Thomas’ theology his emphasis on Grace as personal encounter with God was displaced by an obsessive fascination with the created effects of that personal encounter, but that discussion will have to wait for our next session.

Session Two – May 17, 2015

As is often the case with the work of genius, the theology of Thomas Aquinas was treated with suspicion during his lifetime. Thomas’ work eventually gained the approval of theologians and the Church’s leadership, but by that time there were few people with the intellectual capacities to understand Thomas’ work fully. As a result, his commentators often fixated on one or another aspect of his work without an appreciation for the nuanced relationships between the various elements of his theology.

Under the influence of commentators on Thomas the Catholic theology of Grace became increasingly obsessed with the created effects of Grace. God offers human nature a supernatural destiny through Baptism and the Christian way of life. That supernatural destiny is discovered and pursued when individual believers grow in their faithfulness to God, in their understanding of the articles of belief and in their capacity for moral rectitude. The growth in faith and conscientious behavior is both a created effect of Grace and leads to further created effects of Grace. These created effects are appropriately called graces, but their existence and meaning is entirely dependent on Uncreated Grace, which is the loving God whom the believer encounters on a personal level in the Sacraments and the Christian way of life.

The Church’s theology of Grace, as taught and understood from the Fourteenth to the Twentieth Century, was little more than a catalog of the created effects of Grace. The personal encounter with God that was called “Grace” in the Scriptures was reduced to a manic pursuit of “graces,” the individual effects of receiving Sacraments, practicing pious devotions and performing charitable acts. The “graces” of Sacraments, devotions and good works were categorized, numbered and valued as if they were the proper subject of accountancy rather than of faith. It was in this world of “graces” as commodities that Martin Luther found himself desiring, but not finding, a personal encounter with Jesus the Savior. Martin Luther was a theology professor at the University of Wittenberg. He taught theology at a time when a philosophical perspective called Nominalism was the prevailing mindset.

Neo-platonism, which was the predominant philosophy used by Catholic theologians until the middle ages, identified some ideas as having eternal existence because they existed in the mind of God. Truth, beauty and goodness, for example, were universals, that is, unchanging ideas that were embodied in various ways in existing things. Aristotle, whose thought was introduced to Catholic theology by Thomas Aquinas, also relied on the concept of universals in his explanation of the similarities and differences between existing things. Human nature, for example, was a universal in Aristotle’s philosophy. Human nature was expressed differently in each individual human person, but all human persons shared the same universal nature.

The idea of universals made it very easy to explain how one human person could be male, and another human person could be female, but each can be called legitimately “human.” Males and females are not identical, but they share the same human nature. Universals also made it easy to show the continuity between the created good that humans can comprehend and accomplish and the eternal good that is God. Both humans and God are good, but not in the same way; in both instances, however, the word “good” has a similar meaning (as a universal).

Nominalism rejected the possibility that universals could actually exist in themselves. Nominalism said that there is no human nature and no eternally existing goodness; rather, abstractions such as truth, beauty and good were nothing more than abstract terminology that could be applied to individually existing things. This had far-reaching implications for the possibility of talking about God, salvation, Grace and Revelation. Nominalism created an image of God as distant, capricious, and consequently, difficult to please.

Martin Luther did not equal Augustine’s genius, but like Augustine, he had a very sensitive conscience. Whereas Augustine was able to cope with his sensitivities by focusing on the Grace of God poured out in the death of Jesus, Luther was less successful – due in no small part to the prevailing mindset of Nominalism. Augustine described Grace as bringing increasing freedom to the human will which opened itself to God; that increasing freedom allowed the person to grow both in love of God and the ability to live a life pleasing to God. Luther considered human will to be in irremediable bondage to evil; the inability of the human will to be free from sin made it impossible for a person ever to please God.

Luther’s eventual departure from the Catholic Church was the result of his perspective on Grace and salvation. He read the Scriptures from a decidedly Nominalist point of view. He interpreted the Scriptures’ comments on justification not as statements about a covenant relationship offered by God, but as an arbitrary pronouncement by a capricious God. Because both God and God’s plan of salvation were arbitrary, there were no alternatives except to perform the required actions uncritically. Luther’s doctrine of forensic justification was the result of the confluence of his sensitive conscience and an interpretation of God’s will as being arbitrary. Luther said that being “justified by faith” (Romans 3:28), amounted to having one’s sentence of eternal damnation commuted as a result of laying hold of the grace that belonged to Christ alone.

The Catholic Church’s eventual response to Reformation theology was entrenchment. Luther had complained publicly and loudly about the Papacy’s practice of selling indulgences in order to raise money to pay for the completion of the new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The Church’s response to Luther and Calvin was to continue to emphasize the necessity of good works (as opposed to justification by faith alone), in order to attain eternal salvation. It should be pointed out at this juncture that both Catholic theologians and the Reformers held similar views of God. Both interpreted the Scriptures and the Faith from a Nominalist perspective. The difference between the two parties was the terms they chose to define as the means by which Grace was acquired. Their shared arbitrariness, however, created no mutual ground on which to discuss their differences; each went in their own direction.

The Reformers settled on an understanding of Grace and salvation as commodities that could be acquired by a single act of will, that is, “being saved.” The Catholic Church also understood Grace and salvation as commodities, but as commodities that had to be acquired continually in order to remain valid. Protestant salvation was “once and done.” Catholic salvation could expire at any moment if not regularly updated. In the Reformed churches, the result of this was the sort of high-pressure proselytizing that makes people look through the peep hole on their door before opening it on Saturday mornings. In Catholicism, the result of this was the version of the Catholic Faith taught by the Baltimore Catechism.

Question 109 of the Baltimore Catechism asked, “What is grace?” The answer was, “Grace is a supernatural gift of God bestowed on us through the merits of Jesus Christ for our salvation.” This, of course, begs the question as to how one acquires grace. The answer to Question 117 was, “The principal ways of obtaining grace are prayer and the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist.” Echoes of the thought of Thomas Aquinas are perceptible in these definitions, but the questions and answers of the Baltimore Catechism are completely devoid of the nuance and brilliance of Thomas’ theology. Grace came to be understood as a thing (a supernatural gift), that could be obtained at will (by performing prayer and the sacraments). This is about as far removed from the Scriptures’ understanding of Grace as is possible to imagine. The Scriptures used the word “grace” to denote God’s solicitous providence; the “Grace of God” was experienced by believers as care and guidance initiated by the Divine will to save God’s People. The Catholic Church (and the Reformers), had re-invented grace to be something that needed to be, and could be, acquired by individuals through their own effort.

Both the Reformers and the Catholic Church held a similar image of God: distant, arbitrary and difficult to please. Their view of human nature, however, differed significantly. For the Reformers, human nature was morally depraved and spiritually incapable of pleasing God. For Catholicism, human nature was duty bound to perform the repetitive actions that delivered measures of grace.

In the first session I said that the interaction of the Divine nature and our nature determines our experience and existence. Protestantism and Catholicism, therefore, are two distinct experiences and existences, although there are some similarities between the two. The differences are easy to perceive, even if they are not easily understood. The Protestant notion of “getting saved” differs from the Catholic Counter-Reformation’s notion of “working out one’s salvation.” The difference, however, resides in the longevity of the choice. For Protestants, a single choice is sufficient to acquire salvation; for the Catholic Counter-Reformation, it is a choice that must be made repeatedly. The similarity between these two formulations of Grace and salvation is also worth considering. Both Protestantism and neo-scholastic Catholicism view Grace as a thing to be obtained from God; this idea is a tragic misunderstanding of what the Scriptures say, and it had tragic consequences for Christianity. We’ll consider those in the next session.

Session Three – May 31, 2015

In the previous session I described the unfortunate turn that Church and society took after the close of the middle ages. There was a major shift in the way people understood themselves and the world; that major shift in consciousness produced a radical change in the way people viewed God.

By the time of the Reformation God was viewed as distant from the world, capricious and needing to be appeased. Martin Luther reacted to this very threatening image of God by interpreting Paul’s Letter to Romans as saying that Grace belonged to Christ alone, and that a sinful individual could come to salvation solely by relying on the Grace that belonged to Christ.

Luther’s notion of “forensic justification” is the foundation of evangelical proselytizing today. Questions such as, “Are you saved?” and “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” derive from an understanding of salvation as having the sentence of condemnation for one’s sins commuted by appealing to the Grace that pertains to Christ.

While Luther found solace in this notion of salvation as forensic justification, there are some major flaws in the theory, principal among which is the notion that one can choose salvation as an option. Luther viewed human nature as hopelessly mired in sin and liable to eternal condemnation. Grace could have no transformative effect on human nature because human nature was incapable of doing anything to please God.

There is a logical contradiction involved in this theory: if human nature is incapable of pleasing God, then human nature’s laying hold of the alien grace of Christ is no more capable of being meritorious than any other human act. Luther’s forensic justification is a mental construct with no basis in the Scriptures and no internal coherence. Luther was not the only one, however, to misunderstand the Scriptures.

The Catholic Church’s view of Grace from the time of the Reformation until the middle of the Twentieth Century was equally divorced from the Scriptures, and just as nonsensical, as Luther’s. In Catholic neo-scholasticism, grace was a series of accomplishments to be obtained by performing pious acts. Catholic spirituality at the time was not substantially different from that of the Jerusalem Pharisees that Jesus condemned for their self-righteousness. (Luke 18:9-14)

Catholic neo-scholasticism made salvation a prize that could be earned by one’s persistent accumulation of personal accomplishments. This differed from Luther’s “once for all” theory of forensic justification, but it was just as arbitrary. It shared one further, crucial characteristic with Protestant beliefs; it made Grace and salvation into things to be acquired.

Protestants “get saved” by “accepting Jesus Christ.” Catholics “work out salvation” by “getting graces,” according to neo-scholasticism. These very warped understandings of the life of faith collided head-on with western consumer culture in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. The result of understanding Grace and salvation as things to be acquired is clearly visible in our society today: Grace has become a consumer commodity, God has become a provider of consumer goods and the Church is looked upon as a vendor of religious goods and services.

Protestant forensic justification and Catholic neo-scholasticism created the conditions for their own demise. Organized religion has been in decline for quite a long time. The decline is the result of several influencing factors, one of which is the commoditization of Grace. When the purpose of religion, faith, spirituality, prayer, or Sacraments is reduced to “getting graces,” or “getting saved,” then God is reduced to being nothing more than a provider of consumer commodities and people are reduced to being nothing more than consumers. It should be surprising to no one that fewer and fewer people are interested in traditional Christianity. We live in a consumer society. We are taught to shop for the best commodities at the best prices. When religion is commoditized, people will shop around for the products that suit them best.

Catholic parishes are the target of shoppers on an almost daily basis. On a routine basis people call our parish office to inquire about the requirements for infant baptism, a church wedding, First Communion for grade school students and Confirmation for adolescents. If they don’t find the product they want, they shop elsewhere.

There is a much more adequate alternative to consumer Christianity, but it’s not very popular because it requires a serious commitment to repentance as an on-going practice. I mentioned in the first and second sessions that Catholicism views the world as conditioned by Grace. Human persons are created with an innate capacity to hear God’s Word. In the person of Jesus, the Word of God took on human flesh and made an irrevocable offer of reconciliation to all people. In the Incarnation human potential was perfectly fulfilled, and the promise of perfect fulfillment was made to all who make the effort to believe in Jesus.

Salvation is not a commodity to be acquired or an accomplishment to be attained. Salvation is the fulfillment of the human potential to hear God’s Word and respond appropriately. In the Scriptures, the fulfillment of human potential is seen in the covenants offered by God to God’s People.

The first reading this Sunday provides a good example of the covenant relationship to which God calls people through the Scriptures. The Book of Deuteronomy says, “This is why you must now acknowledge, and fix in your heart, that the Lord is God in the heavens above and on earth below, and that there is no other. And you must keep his statutes and commandments which I command you today, that you and your children after you may prosper, and that you may have long life on the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you forever.” (Deuteronomy 4:39-40) This is a description of covenant faith, a relationship created by God’s action (Grace), and sustained by Grace, for the benefit of human persons and ratified by obedience to God’s commands.

The obedience that people owe to God is not an obedience that is imposed; rather, it is obedience as gratitude. Deuteronomy asks, “Ask now of the days of old, before your time, ever since God created humankind upon the earth; ask from one end of the sky to the other: Did anything so great ever happen before? Was it ever heard of?” (Deuteronomy 4:32) The appropriate response to God’s graciousness is gratitude expressed by discerning and following God’s will. This is not Grace as “getting saved”; nor is it “getting graces.” It is a relationship with God that is based on mutual love and fidelity.

Both “getting saved” and “getting graces” are focused solely on getting; the religion of the Scriptures is about giving. The covenant described in the Scriptures is one in which the covenant partners are obliged to pay debts owed to one another. In the covenant, God promises peace and reconciliation, and we promise faithfulness to God and one another. Sadly, this is a foreign concept to those for whom religion is about getting something from God.

The next time someone asks you if you’ve been saved, or if you would like to get some graces, you can try to explain that God is not a provider of consumer goods and that religion is not a commodity, but you will probably be wasting your time. Instead of responding to a question that is based on a misunderstanding of the Scriptures and a consumer’s view of God, I recommend that you respond with a simple statement about your gratitude to God for God’s goodness to you. Your response might not be understood by all who ask, but it is the only appropriate response to Grace.

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