Main Menu  

Open menu

The Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Two models

'Grace means gift': charis. God's gift. The angel said to Mary: "hail most favoured (gifted) one.''

Two vastly different 'models' of God's grace have jostled each other throughout the Christian centuries. that of Paul. Augustine and Luther; and that of Aquinas and scholasticism.

There are three vitally important features about the vision of Augustine, who towered over the thought of Europe for a thousand years, an achievement which no one else has remotely approached. The first is the priority of heart over head. of love over understanding: the secret of man is that he is driven by the search and longing for the perfection of God. whether he knows it or not: this is what leads to all his specifically human and spiritual experience- passion. love. creativity. life; indeed. one must add. lust. hate. destruction. death. The second Augustinian feature is that he treated grace in terms of moral psychology. not of Elevation of man by God's gift. to a supernatural state: the problem for him was where we get the stuffing and resources to fulfil the good that we see and aspire to. and to overcome our fleshly passions. Only God could provide. The third. and closely allied. feature is that. for Augustine. God's grace is a matter of our experience-the power that replaces 'make me chaste. but not yet'' with the warm hanging to share the holiness of God. (He did construe the go­go element in man which creates and achieves, his libido to use Freud's term. too much in terms of sexual drive and conquest.) This is the romantic tradition in theology.

The classical model is so cold by comparison. and cannot even claim the compensation of beauty. as Bach might against Brahms. The classical tradition puts the emphasis on knowledge, contemplation, the vision of God. Nature of itself lives. chews its cud and dies: it is quite incapable of knowing God and sharing his life. Grace is God's gift that 'elevates' nature from the best it can do (as in the pagan literature and living of Greece and Rome) to a higher level of faith (intellectual vision) and charity (will) able to relate to God, transforming the 'soul' progressively so that it will, in the future and after death, be able to share the life of God (union). These are supernatural virtues (faith and charity, hope a bit of a Cinderella, as there was no third faculty of the soul after understanding and will for hope to elevate). The natural virtues are very admirable. but quite irrelevant to salvation.

Why, oh why, did the systematic theologians cease to listen to the mystics and spiritual writers. and even have the nerve to suspect them of 'systematic' heresies such as pantheism and quietism? The second feature of the classical tradition is that the effect of grace in enabling us to do good. primary in Augustine, is at most secondary: indeed, in some scholastic authors there is nothing weak, corrupt, enfeebled at all about nature and its virtues: it just exists irrelevantly on the ground floor. producing splendid natural virtues no doubt. which have no bearing on supernatural life. The good pagan's failure appears to be a description of the majority of the human race.

And the third contrast with Augustine is that grace. God's gift.. is not something we experience: it is a sort of supernatural electricity, investing our faculties and our actions with relevance to divine life. For it is the grace of Christ which is saving, and that is something nature's best efforts cannot attain.

Thus it came about that grace came to be thought of as an entity, a thing. God's heavenly cupboard was inexhaustibly filled with it by the merits of Christ (his death), and God dispensed it somewhat mysteriously. even arbitrarily in a false interpretation of gratuity. to some and not others. to some 'more than' others. A gift. entity, a thing, which raises us to the supernatural order and shapes, trains, us for eventual union with God.

It would take another Centrepiece to say what this did to sacramental theology. The sacramental 'system' became a grace­dispensing machine. like a soft drinks dispenser: put the right coin in and put a cup under, press button A, B. C .... and you get soup, coffee, lemonade. Similarly, the good works the Lord does in us came to be thought of in external, impersonal and quantitative terms as merits, the celestial bank­balance we can cash after death; and not in the personal terms of interior relationship with God and union with him now in a shared life.

God's gift of himself Salvation and sanity came in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with the turning of the classical model on its head. That model concentrated on created grace, the effect in us of the saving work of Christ. and put this first: touches of and impulses to our mere nature which 'elevated' it and organised it for union with God: created grace the cause, union the effect. The recovery of patristic theology reversed this. The true catholic tradition is that God's gin of himself. uncreated grace, is primary, and the change in us and of us is the secondary and created effect. Once more moral psychology and spiritual experience were relevant to salvation; once more the loving, unremitting pressure of God was seen to be the whole context of our experience of being human. If only we had stuck to Paul-but that's still another Centrepiece.

So, in the grace­dispensing model it is essential to ensure that the system is correctly wired and connected to source (validity). Otherwise the current doesn't flow. It's all or nothing. It works or it doesn't work. It cannot be a case of more or less. But if God's self­giff is always there, gratuitous and spontaneous. initiating,

offering a relationship. then there can be a more and a less of our response, a more and a less of life in the Spirit. through the Son, with the Father. There simply cannot be a baptised Christian community incapable of celebrating the eucharist. because someone way back unwittingly cut the flex or pulled the plug out. There cannot be a Christian community which is either wholly and perfectly the Body of Christ. or not at all; only communities becoming the Body of Christ.


And that is what marriages and families are. And interchurch families are communities growing in their response to the unquenchable dominating healing life-giving self­giving of Christ's Spirit. allowing themselves to be drawn more and more fully into the eternal life of the Trinity. They are families whose whole dynamism is to heal the wounds and mend the divisions of the Body of Christ: families quite capable of celebrating the eucharist within themselves for their own nourishment. but wishing their special gin to avail for the unity of all God's people: indeed, driven by God s love which they share towards that goal.

The grace of our Lord Jesus and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit is with you all. These are three ways of saying the same thing.

John Coventry. S.J.

Published by the Association of Interchurch Families, England



Articles View Hits