The Reformation and Beyond

By the late Middle Ages some theologians, such as Jean de Mirecourt (taught in Paris between 1344 and 1347, and died sometime after 1349) and Gabriel Biel (¿.1420—95), so stressed God's omnipotence and sovereign freedom that the issue of predestination once again came to the fore: God saves whomsoever he wants and can seem arbitrary in choosing the elect. Endless calamities, such as war, disease, and the Black Death (or bubonic plague), questioned humanity's power to shape and give meaning to life. Once earthly existence turned out to be so insecure, individuals saw that they could count only on the divine stability of the life to come. Fourteenth- and fifteenth-century popular spirituality implored God's mercy and tried by all possible ways and means to lay hold of the Kingdom of God 'by force' (Matt. 11: 12). Devotions mushroomed, and the urge to accumulate merits through meritorious actions could not be contained. These developments stimulated further a widespread feeling of insecurity that radically challenged faith in baptism and its salutary effects. If individuals could not be sure of the very life they were leading, could they ever be sure of the life to come?

128 M. O. C. Walshe, Meister Eckhart. Sermons and Treatises (London: Watkins, 1981), ii. 241.

131 Ibid. 260.

We must recall also the revitalization of cultural, political, and religious life brought by the Renaissance, a loosely defined but powerful movement that arose in fourteenth-century Italy and emerged in France, England, and Germany in the second half of the fifteenth century. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Lorenzo Valla (£.1406-57), Pico de la Mirandola (1463-94), and other leading writers showed a profound understanding of human nature and dignity; this encouraged the retrieval of Platonic thought in fifteenth-century Florence. The positive evaluation of the human condition and destiny remains permanently visible in many works of Renaissance art. Valla, for instance, explored the interplay of divine foreknowledge and human freeedom in the context of the mystery of predestination or our being elected for salvation through the eternal foreknowledge and will of God. When writing in the sixteenth century on human freedom, both Erasmus of Rotterdam and Martin Luther referred to Valla's seminal work.

An Augustinian Friar, Luther inherited from the current Augustinian theology both a sense of God's sovereign freedom in granting grace, and a radical pessimism about the bondage to evil of human beings. In the controversy with Erasmus who emphasized the significance of human freedom, Luther published in 1525 The Bondage of the Will. He argued:

If God's grace is wanting, if it is taken away from that small power [of free will], what can it [the human will] do? It is ineffective, you say, and can do nothing good. So it will not do what God or his grace wills. Why? Because we have [now] taken God's grace away from it, and what the grace of God does not do is not good. Hence it follows that free-will without God's grace is not free at all, but is the permanent prisoner and bondslave of evil, since it cannot turn itself to good.132

The Reformers reinterpreted Augustine's understanding of humanity as a massa damnata (a condemned body) as a massa perditionis (a body that is lost). Calvin explained 'natural corruption' as follows: 'All man's faculties are, on account of the depravity of nature, so vitiated and corrupted that in all his actions persistent disorder and intemperance threaten because these inclinations cannot be separated from such lack of restraint.' He summed up his position as follows: We teach that all human desires are evil, and

132 M. Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. J. I. Packer and O. R.Johnston (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Revell, 1998), 104. The Word of God, Calvin believed, 'cannot penetrate into our minds unless the Spirit, as the inner teacher, through his illumination makes entry for it'. Only then can Christ 'engraft us into his body so that we become partakers of every good' (Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), i. 582).

charge them with sin—not in that they are natural, but because they are inordinate.'133 Through sin, not only had humanity's God-given likeness been lost, but also it had become hopelessly corrupt and no longer an image of God. Since the human will is utterly under the sway of sin and cannot do anything good, salvation comes exclusively through God's action.

According to the major Reformers, original sin (see Ch. 5 above) had so deeply damaged our human nature that we remain steeped in sinfulness and commit sin in every action. Luther and Calvin used strong, even lurid, language about our depravity. But there is room for a generous reading that seems closer to what they intended and, for that matter, to what Catholic saints and some outstanding biblical figures (e.g. Isa. 6: 1—7) have sometimes said about their own human weakness and wickedness. The closer we draw to God in our spiritual lives, the more we will become aware of and even terrified by the overwhelming divine holiness that rises infinitely above our tainted and limited nature. How then can God's justifying grace reach us sinners? Luther preached that Christ's righteousness is legally ascribed or imputed (rather than imparted) to us. Internally we remain sinners but externally we are 'acquitted' by God through faith in Christ's redeeming merits.

Sadly a solemn Catholic response to Luther came late and appeared a year after his death, when the Council of Trent produced its decree on justification in 1547 (DH 1520-83; ND 1924—83). The bishops, gathered at Trent, did not choose between Augustine's more pessimistic and Aquinas's more optimistic interpretation of the human condition but highlighted the gratuitousness and relational character of God's grace. Trent's decree therefore agreed with Luther and other Protestant Reformers by acknowledging the utter primacy of divine grace, love, and saving power in the whole process of justification. Even if human beings can 'reject' the illumination of the Holy Spirit, by their own free will they cannot 'take one step towards justice in God's sight'. They must always be 'awakened and assisted by divine grace, if they are to repent of their sins and be reborn through baptism' (DH 1525—6; ND 1929—30). The righteousness that makes human beings acceptable to God comes through faith in Christ and not through any human works. When human beings accept divine grace, they do so through the gift of God.

133 J. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion , i. 604.

The Tridentine decree on justification differed from the teaching of Luther and other Reformers in three ways. First of all, the grace received through baptism intrinsically transforms or regenerates sinners through the power of the Holy Spirit. Justification brings not only 'the remission of sins' but also an interior 'sanctification and renewal through the voluntary reception of grace' (DH 1528; ND 1932). In spite of the 'depravity of the human condition, every person remains free to accept fully God's gifts of faith and grace; through baptism, God truly justifies the believer. Second, the justified can and should observe the commandments. They can grow in justifying grace, and through the strength imparted by Christ perform good works that merit for them eternal life. The Council of Trent described as follows the life of the justified: 'Jesus Christ himself continuously infuses strength into the justified, as the head into the members ...2and the vine into the branches.; this strength always precedes., accompanies, and follows their good works which, without it, could in no way be pleasing to God and meritorious' (DH 1546; ND 1947; italics ours); traditional theology consequently refers to this gift of God as 'prevenient grace'. What the Council of Trent taught here corresponds to what, in Ch. 1, we saw Augustine enunciating: when God crowns our merits, he in fact is crowning his gifts. Third, this positive result of Christ's justifying grace means that human beings do not remain in permanent bondage to sin. Even before justification human beings' free will, while weakened and distorted, was in no way 'extinct' (DH 1521, 1555; ND 1925, 1955). After justification they can freely co-operate with God's grace and do not necessarily 'sin in all their works' (DH 1539; ND 1940). They can live out to the full their communion of mind, heart, and will with God.

These last paragraphs set out perhaps too starkly the differences between differing views of grace that emerged at the Reformation. Although often seen as mutually exclusive, the Catholic and Lutheran approaches, for example, may be interpreted as complementing rather than contradicting each other. Despite important differences in terminology and emphases, a consensus is possible. In 1967 the international Catholic—Lutheran theological dialogue began. Three decades later, its 'Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification', which contains forty-four common statements covering basic tenets regarding justification, was accepted by the Catholic Church and the World Lutheran Federation and signed in Augsburg on 31 October 1999. Some differences still remain: for instance, about the interplay between divine grace and human freedom.

Before leaving the Council of Trent's decree on justification, the most important piece of official Catholic teaching on God's grace, two items call for mention. First, biblical quotations and references pervade the text; it clearly intends to take its stand on what God revealed in Christ about the life of grace—a revelation recorded and interpreted by the scriptures. Second, one chapter of the decree reflects a revived influence of Thomas Aquinas, which began around 1500. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Catholic theological life had declined, secondary issues took the limelight, and Aquinas's writings were widely neglected. Cardinal Thomas Cajetan (1469—1534) and others made Aquinas once again a leading authority in the Catholic church; the Summa Theologiae became the standard textbook for theological students. Hence it is not surprising to find the Council of Trent following Aquinas in listing various 'causes' of justification: namely its final, efficient, meritorious, instrumental, and formal causes (DH 1529; ND 1932). Trent picked up this Aristotelian-style language, but it almost never reflected Thomas in assigning our redemption to the 'efficacy of Christ's death and resurrection (DH 1534; ND 1936; emphasis ours). Usually Trent's decree on justification appealed only to 'the merits' of Christ's passion (DH 1529-30; ND 1932-3).

After the time of Trent, some Catholic circles persisted in thinking about grace in three less than fruitful ways. First, the perennial challenge of reconciling God's dominion and human free will roused strong debates between the Jesuit and Dominican orders on the 'aids' that divine grace gives to human freedom. A Spanish Jesuit, Luis de Molina (1535-1600), developed a new theory about the relationship between freedom and grace. In giving grace, God knows and takes into account the decisions that human beings would freely make in any situation in which they might be placed. Molina called this divine foreknowledge 'middle' knowledge, because it is more than a knowledge of mere possibilities but less than a vision of actual future events. Dominicans, in particular Domingo Banez (1528-1604), strongly opposed Molinism. In emphasizing God's sovereign freedom, Banez spoke of divine concurrence in human action as 'physical pre-motion', an idea that does not seem to leave space for true human freedom. Between 1598 and 1609, an official commission, De Auxiliis, met in Rome but failed to resolve the issue. Pope Paul V put an end to the discussion and explicitly forbade Jesuits to brand Dominicans as Calvinists and the Dominicans to call Jesuits Pelagians. Since the 1970s Alvin Plantinga (b. 1932) and others have revived interest in and stirred up fresh debate about the theory of Molina.134 This is a fascinating example of some modern heirs of the Protestant Reformation, who are outstanding philosophers, making common ground with Catholic thinkers.135

A few decades later Cornelius Jansen (1585—1638), bishop of Ypres, revived some pessimistic ideas from Augustine about the human condition and destiny. Jansen tipped the balance towards God's sovereign and seemingly arbitrary action by claiming that divine grace irresistibly determines our decisions and that Christ died not for all but only for the predestined. Pope Innocent X in 1653 condemned some of Jansen's extreme ideas (DH 2001-5; ND 1989), and this was done again in 1656 and 1690. Despite their stress on the power of God's grace, Jansenists preached a strict morality and encouraged a scrupulous approach to the reception of the sacraments. They understood Holy Communion to be the reward for virtue rather than 'bread for the wayfarer'. Jansenist scrupulosity cast a long shadow, even well into the twentieth century among many French, Irish, and other Western Catholics. It was not until the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church that an official document provided a helpful working approach to the mysterious interplay between divine election and human freedom. It did so on the basis of God's eternal existence being present to all moments of time: 'To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of predestination, he includes in it each person's free response to his grace' (no. 600). Predestination, consequently, is more of a reflection on the presence of God's love in all history, rather than an authoritarian exercise of God's will by means of which he arbitrarily prefers one person to another, and predestines the elect to heaven and the reprobate to hell.

A second less-than-happy feature of post-Tridentine reflection on grace was the widespread tendency among Western Catholics to speak of grace as if it were a 'thing'. This unfortunate language, which had already emerged by the late Middle Ages, lost sight of the relational and historical dimensions of God's grace, so important in Patristic theology, and persisted down to the twentieth century in manuals of theology. Going beyond a somewhat useful distinction between 'habitual' grace (or grace

See T. P. Flint, Divine Providence: The Molinist Account (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998).

Their rediscovery of the power of Thomas Aquinas's thought has also brought some brilliant Protestant Christians into debate among themselves and with their Catholic counterparts.

as a relationship continuing through time) and 'actual' grace (or the divine help given for a particular human act),136 such theology focused attention on the created reality and particular effects of grace rather than on the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

A distinction made by Thomas Aquinas and other medieval theologians between the natural and supernatural orders, or between what is due to our created nature and what derives from the free gifts of divine love, supported a third limit in post-Tridentine Catholic thinking about grace. In the area of faith and reason, the First Vatican Council (1869—70) distinguished between 'natural' knowledge of God and 'supernatural' revelation. In the light of what St Paul says in the first chapter of his Letter to the Romans, it contrasted the 'way' to 'know' God that comes through the 'natural light of human reason' with 'another, supernatural way', due to divine revelation (DH 3004—5; ND 113—14). To be sure, the Council distinguished, without separating, the natural and the supernatural 'ways' or orders. But one lacked a firm statement that God not only wishes to save all human beings but also has already, through the Holy Spirit, made Christ's saving grace effectively present in the lives of all human beings without exception. We owe such teaching to the Second Vatican Council's Gaudium et Spes (the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 22) and the 1979 encyclical of John Paul II (Redemptor Hominis, 13). Through Christ's saving grace and the coming of the Holy Spirit the world has already been 'supernaturalized'—that is to say, 'Christified' and 'spiritualized'. The 'natural' order is a mere abstraction: the one and only order is the one created by God (as we have seen in Ch. 5), the real order of divine grace. In an outstanding fashion, Henri de Lubac (1896—1991) and Karl Rahner (1904—84) helped prepare for Vatican II's teaching by making it clear that all human beings live in a world of grace.137

Various forces conspired to renew Western Catholic thinking about grace by restoring a sense of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and our personal union with the crucified and risen Christ. The highly personal devotion to the 'heart' of Jesus, which was encouraged by the visions of St Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647—90) and pervaded Western Catholicism from the nineteenth century, Pope St Pius X's encouragement to

136 See E. Yarnold, The Second Gift. A Study of Grace (London: St Paul, 1974), 50—76.

137 The major study that unravelled the issue of the 'two orders' was H. de Lubac, Surnaturel. études historiques (Paris: Montaigne, 1946), trans. R. Haughton as The Mystery of the Supernatural (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1967).

receive Holy Communion frequently and to make one's First Communion at an earlier age (instructions issued in 1905 and 1910, respectively), and the image of the Church as the body of Christ, which climaxed with Pius XII's 1943 encyclical, Mystici Corporis, prompted a sense of grace entailing a loving relationship with Christ. Pope Leo XIII's 1897 encyclical, Divinum Illud., initiated among Western Catholics a 'rehabilitation' of the role of the Holy Spirit in their lives as graced by God. Yves Congar documented the story of this rehabilitation,138 signalled officially in the documents of the Second Vatican Council (e.g. Lumen Gentium, 4; Unitatis Redintegratio, 15) and more fully expressed by John Paul II in his encyclical Dominum et Viviificantem. Although not often interpreted this way, we can read his first three encyclicals, Redemptor Hominis of 1979, Dives in Misericordia of 1980, and Dominum et Viviificantem of 1986 as being a trinitarian teaching on the life of grace—meditating on the Son, the Father, and the Holy Spirit, respectively. Divine 'self-communication', a recurrent theme in Dominum et Viviificantem, highlights the way the life of grace entails first and foremost a personal relationship with the tripersonal God. It almost suggests glossing the cherished Eastern term for the grace of God, 'divinization', as 'trinification'.

This last paragraph has highlighted individual contributions to the renewed appreciation of the life of grace, reflected by Vatican II and by earlier and later papal documents. But from the end of the nineteenth century various movements also helped revive a more personal insight into the life of grace: the liturgical, biblical, patristic, and ecumenical movements. The official liturgy of the Church, both East and West, enshrines a prayerful sense of the grace of God, 'without whom nothing is holy and nothing is strong' (Collect for the seventeenth Sunday of the year), and with whom we can live now and reach our eternal home in the life to come. The biblical movement let more and more Catholics recognize the radically personal nature of God's dealings with sinful and graced men and women that the scriptures record and interpret. A renewed contact with Irenaeus, Origen, Athanasius of Alexandria, the Cappadocians, Augustine of Hippo, and other writers from the early centuries of Christianity also reinvigorated a personal sense of God's grace. Nothing if not biblical, these authors vividly expressed what the forgiveness of sins and a graced

138 Y Congar, I believe in the Holy Spirit , trans. D. Smith, 3 vols. (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1983).

union with the tripersonal God involve. In particular, the study of such Greek Fathers as Athanasius and the Cappadocians encouraged further contacts with the Christian East, both Orthodox and Catholic.

To Western Catholics and other Christians who want to deepen their understanding of what the grace of God means, we offer these pieces of advice: listen to and reflect upon liturgical texts, especially those in use at the Eucharist, baptism, and the sacrament of reconciliation. Then prayerfully read the scriptures and the ancient Fathers, before sharing in an Eastern liturgy. Let what you hear, see, and smell lead you into the mystery of God's self-giving. In that best of all ways you will grasp the new life into which God desires to usher the whole human family. Finally, surrender any suspicion that God's gift of grace encroaches on human freedom. It is wrong to take divine grace and human freedom as opposed or even in inverse proportion, as if more grace entailed less freedom. The lives of luminously saintly men and women shows that the truth is quite the opposite: free self-determination grows in direct proportion with their nearness to and graced union with God.139 It is sin, not grace, that curtails our freedom and harms our life.

0 0

Post a comment