What is grace? Back in the 1950s a group of theologians in France met regularly for ecumenical dialogue. The results of their conversations were published in the theological journal Irénikon. The participants represented the Catholic, Reformed, and Orthodox traditions. Because the discussions on grace were so well received, Charles Mœller and Gérard Philips decided to share them with the wider Church: The Theology of Grace and the Oecumenical Movement (1961). The book is a model of ecumenical engagement—irenic, constructive, insightful.
Deification, created grace, and extrinsic grace are the three terms that are characteristically used to describe the views of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and the Reformed. The authors note that at first glance it is difficult to see much common ground between the three traditions. The problem is compounded by misunderstanding and confusion. Catholic theologians typically “get no further than the over-simplified picture of justification in Protestantism which hides the sinner under the cloak of Christ, but leaves him in his sin.” Protestant theologians typically misconstrue the Catholic notion of created grace as a “‘thing’ that is at man’s disposal, like a kind of accumulator of divine energy with the human will operating the switchboard,” while Orthodox theologians reject the proposal of “something both supernatural and created, affirming that only God can give God, and that no created reality, whatever it may be, can be commensurate with him.” And both Protestant and Catholic theologians suspect the Orthodox view of deification “as implying a dangerous exaltation of man, brought about by overlooking original sin.” Yet, the authors insist, the experience of ecumenical discussion has confirmed their conviction that “the three views of grace are not so irreconcilable as might appear.” The Orthodox position, particularly as expressed in Palamism, is concerned to assert the deification in Christ of the whole man, “not only of the soul, but also, and perhaps above all, of the body.” The Catholic position begins with the indwelling Spirit, the Spirit present to or in the soul of the regenerate human being. “While therefore,” writes Mœller and Philips, “Eastern theology is chiefly preoccupied with finding out what, in God, makes Him able to give Himself, that of the West is concerned particularly with what it is, in man, which allows him to receive God.” This insight, I think, is particularly important. We should not, the authors explain, be surprised by differing formulations of the mystery of grace:
Christianity is, in fact, a complexio oppositorum, which asserts in one breath two truths that at first might seem very difficult to reconcile: on the one hand, all Christian confessions grant that God truly gives Himself to man, and that He alone can do this, because His creature is in this respect utterly powerless; on the other hand, this gift would be a sham if God did not in reality make man live by His own divine life. There is a paradox here: in one sense, everything comes from God, and in another, everything comes from man, because no one is saved or damned who has not willed it. St. John’s phrase expresses this two-sided aspect of grace—that we should be called and should be the sons of God [1 John 3:1]. In other words, any theology of grace must insist both on the primacy of God who justifies and sanctifies man, and at the same time on the reality of regeneration. (p. 4)
In subsequent posts we will look at how each tradition works out the affirmation of the primacy of God and the gift of sanctifying union in Jesus Christ.
P.S. I trust that all Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants can at least agree that Grace Kelly was a luminescent, oecumenical beauty! And as my friend Fr Stephen Freeman repeatedly likes to remind us, we are saved by beauty! And if anyone is wondering whether I would sink so low as to post a photo of a Hollywood celebrity just to attract new readers … well … I am a blogger … 🙂