Herbert McCabe, Robert Farrar Capon, and the Mystery of Divine Love

“It is very odd,” writes Fr Herbert McCabe, “that people should think that when we do good God will reward us and when we do evil he will punish us” (Faith Within Reason, p. 155). It’s not surprising, of course, that those outside the Church might think of the Deity that way. After all, that’s what Gods do—reward and punish.  Yet Christians should know better. There is so much in the gospels that tells us that the living God does not easily fit into the retributive model. Orthodox readers will immediately think of the famous words of St Isaac the Syrian:

Be a herald of God’s goodness, for God rules over you, unworthy though you are. Although your debt to Him is so very great, He is not seen exacting payment from you; and from the small works you do, He bestows great rewards upon you. Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good,’ He says, ‘to the evil and to the impious.’

How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong: I choose to give unto this last even as unto thee. Or is thine eye evil because I am good?’ How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it, and thus bore witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice?—for while we are sinners Christ died for us! But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change. (Ascetical Homilies 51, p. 387)

The gospel of Jesus Christ turns upside down our inherited notions of divine justice. Consider the parable of the prodigal son. After squandering his inheritance and being forced to feed pigs for pauper’s wages, he finally arrives at a recognition of his desperate situation: “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants'” (Luke 15:18-19). There are two things that need to be seen here, says McCabe: (1) the consequences of the young man’s sins upon himself and his relationship with his father and (2) his recognition of these consequences: “The vital thing is that the son has recognized his sin for what it is: something that changes God into a paymaster, or a judge. Sin is something that changes God into a projection of our guilt, so that we don’t see the real God at all; all we see is some kind of judge. God (the whole meaning and purpose and point of our existence) has become a condemnation of us. God has been turned into Satan, the accuser of man, the paymaster, the one who weighs our deeds and condemns us” (McCabe, pp. 155-156).

The problem is with the son, not with the father. The father is who he has always been. Day after day he has prayed for his son’s return, and when he finally espies him coming down the road, he puts aside all dignity and rushes to embrace him. He cuts short the prodigal’s carefully worded confession and orders that the insignia of sonship be restored to him. The father never was the paymaster and stern judge that the son assumed he was, nor was the son ever in danger of losing his status as son, despite his selfishness and debauchery.

The younger son in the story has escaped hell because he has seen his sin for what it is. He has recognized what it does to his vision of God: ‘I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired servants’ (Lk. 15.21). And, of course, as soon as he really accepts that he is a sinner, he ceases to be one; knowing that you have sinned is contrition or forgiveness, or whatever you like to call it. The rest of the story is not about the father forgiving his son, it is about the father celebrating, welcoming his son with joy and feasting. This is all the real God ever does, because God, the real God, is just helplessly and hopelessly in love with us. He is unconditionally in love with us. (p. 156).

Fr Robert Farrar Capon, who like McCabe was deeply influenced by St Thomas Aquinas, offers a similar interpretation of the parable. Capon proposes a two-step process of death for the younger son. The first occurs in the far country, when “the prodigal finally wakes up dead. Reduced to the indignity of slopping hogs for a local farmer, he comes to himself one dismal morning and realizes that whatever life he had is over” (p. 138). He cannot conceive of reconciliation with his father (“I am no longer worthy to be called your son”), and so he concocts a new plan for his future (“treat me as one of your hired servants”). He will become a paid worker on his father’s estate. So he begins the journey home, intending to enter into a contractual relationship with the man who raised him as son and heir. “But what he does not yet see,” comments Capon, “is that, as far as his relationship with his father is concerned, his lost sonship is the only life he had: there is no way now for him to be anything but a dead son” (The Parables of Grace, p. 138).

It is only when the prodigal arrives home that the second step in the death-process occurs. Though Jesus does not tell us what the son was thinking when he saw his Father come rushing toward him in love and joy, we do see the result: the son deletes from his scripted confession his request for employment. His father’s munificent welcome has demonstrated the impossibility of that request:

The father simply sees this corpse of a son coming down the road and, because raising dead sons to life and throwing fabulous parties for them is his favorite way of spending an afternoon, he proceeds straight to hugs, kisses, and resurrection. … In the clarity of his resurrection, the boy suddenly sees that he is a dead son, that he will always be a dead son, and that he cannot, by any efforts of his own or even by any gift of his father’s become a live anything else. And he understands too that if now, in his embrace, he is a dead son who is alive again, it is all because his father was himself willing to be dead in order to raise him up. (p. 139)

Repentance thus becomes recognition of death; and absolution, resurrection to new life. All transactions are tossed aside. Corpses must wait for the gift of a new future:

As far as Jesus is concerned, all real confession—all confession that is not just a fudging of our tattered books but a plain admission that our books are not worth even a damn—is subsequent to forgiveness. Only when, like the prodigal, we are finally confronted with the unqualified gift of someone who died, in advance, to forgive us no matter what, can we see that confession has nothing to do with getting ourselves forgiven. Confession is not a transaction, not a negotiation in order to secure forgiveness; it is the after-the-last gasp of a corpse that finally can afford to admit it’s dead and accept resurrection. Forgiveness surrounds us, beats upon us all our lives; we confess only to wake ourselves up to what we already have.

Every confession a Christian makes bears witness to this, because every confession, public or private, and every absolution, specific or general, is made and given subsequent to the one baptism we receive for the forgiveness of sins. We are forgiven in baptism not only for the sin committed before baptism but for a whole lifetime of sins yet to come. We are forgiven before, during, and after our sins. We are forgiven before, during, and after our confession of them. And we are forgiven for one reason only: because Jesus died for our sins and rose for our justification. (p. 140)

All that is left to do is slaughter the fatted calf and get on with the feasting.

Note the profound agreement between McCabe and Capon. If God loves us unconditionally, then we must rethink our understanding of repentance and forgiveness. It cannot be the case that our repentance secures the divine forgiveness, for God forever meets us in the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. As McCabe pointedly states: “His love for us doesn’t depend on what we do or what we are like. He doesn’t care whether we are sinners or not. It makes no difference to him. He is just waiting to welcome us with joy and love.” (p. 157).

What then does the forgiveness of God mean within the context of his unconditional love? Clearly it does not mean what it means in social intercourse. When we forgive someone in ordinary life, it’s because they have hurt and insulted us; but in the plenitude of his immutable Being, God cannot be wounded, damaged, or offended by our sins. Hence when we speak of God forgiving us, we are speaking figuratively. McCabe explains:

God, of course, is not injured or insulted or threatened by our sin. So, when we speak of him forgiving, we are using the word ‘forgiving’ in a rather stretched way, a rather far-fetched way. We speak of God forgiving not because he is really offended but accepts our apology or agrees to overlook the insult. What God is doing is like forgiveness not because of anything that happens in God, but because of what happens in us, because of the recreative and redemptive side of forgiveness. All the insult and injury we do in sinning is to ourselves alone, not to God. We speak of God forgiving us because he comes to us to save us from ourselves, to restore us after we have injured ourselves, to redeem and re-create us. (God, Christ and Us, p. 122)

McCabe’s construal of divine forgiveness only makes sense within a theology of salvation that is personalist, relational, ontological. To be forgiven is nothing less than rebirth in the Spirit and elevation into the trinitarian life of God. That is why he can repeatedly say that contrition is the gift of forgiveness. McCabe has purged from the soteriology of Aquinas all hints of juridicism and retribution. There is no dark side in God, no antinomy between the God of love and the God of wrath. There is only the infinite charity and self-giving that is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

God in Jesus Christ loves humanity absolutely, irrevocably, unconditionally, eternally.  Consider the implications …

(Return to first article)

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15 Responses to Herbert McCabe, Robert Farrar Capon, and the Mystery of Divine Love

  1. Paul says:

    In what ways are Capon and McCabe channeling Aquinas?

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  2. danaamesd says:

    I think I read somewhere (though can’t remember where) that McCabe was a significant influence on N.T. Wright.

    The post reminded me of something else I read recently: when a group of disadvantaged people who had no previous Bible knowledge were told the story in the parable of the Talents, they viewed the master in the story as the villain. There are commentaries out there on the Internet about how, in our materialistic culture, we have read the parable upside-down, and usually view the third servant as the villain because he didn’t do anything with what he had been given, but actually Jesus makes the third servant the hero, because that servant was not caught up in economic shenanigans involving usury and taking advantage of the weak. The master throwing the third servant out, in this reading, is seen as the powers that conspire against someone (perhaps Jesus himself) who is not buying in to the system. I think there’s something to be said for this approach, especially, as one commenter noted, in an honor/shame culture there are different values than in a materialistic one, and also that Jesus did not say at the beginning of this story that the kingdom of heaven is like this. I think the usual reading needs to be re-examined, especially in the light of how seeing God as a hard paymaster, reaping where he does not sow, seems to be our default image of him.

    Dana

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  3. Chris says:

    Great article. I’m glad I read it.

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  4. Morgan Hunter says:

    I love McCabe’s reflections on God’s unconditional love, but at the same time they seem in profound contradiction to his monergistic view of salvation. How can someone speak so eloquently of God’s boundless love and then say that He doesn’t love a good many of His creatures enough to save them from eternal misery? In the essay I read, McCabe justified this by saying that God is under no obligation to save us, but thinking of it in terms of obligations seems to miss the point in precisely the way he criticizes here. It makes me think of a comment I read on a previous article on this blog, where someone speculated that Augustine realized that double predestination was the only logically consistent alternative to universal salvation in view of creationex nihilo…

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I’m glad you brought this up, as I’ve been thinking about this question, too, with reference to the universalist hope. If one is a Thomist who confesses the universal salvific will of God, how does one avoid universalism? Heck if I know. I imagine that McCabe believed that the question had been settled by the Magisterium.

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  5. Nicholas says:

    How wonderful to see Fr. Robert Capon quoted here!

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  6. Edward De Vita says:

    Father Aidan and Morgan,
    I would remind you of these words of Father McCabe which were quoted in a previous article on this blog:

    “But we have to work very hard indeed to achieve such private enterprise. It is a difficult thing to reject the gift of God who is so deeply in love with us. It is difficult to harden our hearts against such love. Again and again God brings us the grace of contrition for our sin; again and again we refuse him as he humbly begs us to come back to him. It is very hard to hold out for a lifetime against such love; and perhaps nobody ever does. It is not hard, though it is always painful, to relax and to let ourselves be led by God’s love towards our happiness, to play our part in the predestinate plan of God, to go with Christ and in Christ into divinity itself, into the love which will be our joy and delight in eternity.”

    It would seem that Father McCabe was not the hard Augustinian predestinarian that some might suppose.

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  7. Edward De Vita says:

    By the way Morgan, if I have understood David Hart correctly, creation ex nihilo rules out an Augustinian double predestination. One of the key points in his essay is that creation is not truly complete until the eschaton. He takes this argument from St. Gregory of Nyssa, but I think that it can be argued from the philosophical principles we find in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas. Every agent acts for an end, and the end is the good. To the extent then, that the end is defective (i.e., not good), the agent cannot be said to have achieved the end. If I were to make an automobile that does not move, it can hardly be said that I have truly made an automobile. Similarly, if any remnant of evil remains at the end, then creation cannot truly be said to have been accomplished. In this view of things, salvation is not something different from the initial creative act of God; rather it is the fulfillment and completion of that creative act.

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  8. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    [Chuckling] It’s inevitable! A non-transactional understanding of grace immediately raises questions of monergism, synergism, and predestination. If it didn’t, I’d be worried. 🙂

    A couple quick comments:

    1) McCabe genuinely believes in free human acts, but he does not believe in autonomy, as if the creature enjoys ontological independence from God (which is why he rejects free-will theodicies):

    There are those who think that God had to allow for sin in order that we could exercise our freedom; but this view is preposterous. The assumption behind it is that our freedom somehow lets us escape from God—as though we were free in spite of God. But, of course, our freedom is the greatest manifestation in us of God’s creative love. Our free spontaneous acts really do exist. So they are created and sustained in us by God. God is not a coercive force outside us. He makes us ourselves, and especially ourselves in our freedom. He makes us ourselves, and especially ourselves in our freedom. We are not free in spite of God but because of God. Any other view of God is idolatrous, making God a being within creation, a rival to his free creatures. (God, Christ and Us, pp. 32-33)

    2) In his essay “Predestination” in God Still Matters, McCabe emphatically rejects any suggestion that God predestines anyone to eternal damnation. “The notion,” he writes, “that anyone can be predestined to hell is totally unscriptural and, therefore, foreign to the Catholic faith” (p. 183). But Catholics do believe in predestination—namely, predestination to heaven. The doctrine, therefore, “is all about the love of God and the glorious freedom of the sons of God” (p. 183).

    I cannot adequately summarize McCabe’s understanding here in the comments section, but a critical point should be made:

    Predestination exists in eternity and only in eternity, in the eternal timeless mind of God. It is not before or after or even simultaneous with anything. When we plan something and then carry out the plan, there is first the plan and then later the execution. But this cannot be so with God. God has no lifetime, no before and after. There are not times or dates to the thoughts and acts of God. His predestining Jesus to ascend into heaven does not come before his bringing Jesus to heaven. Nothing in God comes before anything else, they are all the one thing which is simply the eternal timeless life of God himself. So we must not take the ‘pre-‘ in ‘predestination’ literally. What is predestined happens but it doesn’t happen later than its predestination because predestination is only in the timeless mind of Gode. It is always wrong and a muddle to say ‘What I just did must have been predestined thirty years ago’ because predestination, like the thought of God, has no date at all. It does not mean that we move in predestinate grooves that are there beforehand, like tram lines. (pp. 184-185)

    In response to Tom Belt’s query (in response to the first article) about God “responding” to the world, I think McCabe would offer something like the above. McCabe would say that it doesn’t make any sense to think of God as responding to our acts because God is not a temporal being. Remember: God is the transcendent source and cause of our acts (at least according to McCabe). It’s not as if God sets a stage upon which we then autonomously act out our lives (that’s deism). At every moment God is creating us from nothing as freely acting.

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  9. Mike H says:

    Two fantastic posts Father, thank you. And some great comments.

    It was George MacDonald who really introduced me to a personalist, relational, ontological conception of salvation rather than a judicial/forensic one. Before that, I simply lacked the ability to see things in any other way. Afterwards, I lacked the ability to NOT see it. But that lack has created a lot of problems and tension because (1)the retributive/forensic is such a dominant lens and (2)that lens is often tied to a “literal” reading of particular parts of scripture and tradition.

    Among other things, these posts get me thinking about hermeneutics and epistemology because there are situations where a significant recalibration would be needed.

    I get that what constitutes a “literal” reading isn’t exactly straight forward. And I’m convinced that there is both a genuine multi-vocality and an irreducible complexity within the pages of scripture, and that this is simply a feature and not a bug.

    But take this quote from McCabe:

    ”Sin is something that changes God into a projection of our guilt, so that we don’t see the real God at all; all we see is some kind of judge.

    Yet these angry judge and “conditionality” images (and there are more than a few of them) are really present within the pages of scripture and within the tradition as you touched upon in your 1st post. I don’t think that “conditionality” is something that people are just inexplicably projecting on to the text. Is the solution really just as clean as “being too literal?” Matthew 6:14-15 (if you don’t forgive others then God won’t forgive you) is really just about our experience of forgiveness? It’s not that it doesn’t make sense within a certain paradigm. In fact, that makes perfect sense if you view it through an already established non-appeasement lens, but it’s that lens itself that is the issue. It just seems to me that there could have been relatively straight forward ways to “literally” address some of the conditional type language and images within the pages of the scriptures without even going very far out of the way to do so.

    Would McCabe or Capon suggest that there is “projection” going on within scripture itself to some degree?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mike, I cannot recall if McCabe anywhere speaks about hermeneutics, with reference to the topic of grace. Capon, on the other hand, acknowledges that the Bible speaks in conflicting ways, and we simply have to make a choice:

      I am fully aware that the Scriptures are paradoxical—that God speaks with a forked tongue—and that every lovely thing he says on the side of leniency can be matched by a dozen stringencies that will curl your hair. But I am also convinced that each of us has to make a decision about such utterances. (Between Noon and Three, p. 118)

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  10. Fr. Kimel, you say on your page “Readings in Universalism” that Fr. Capon is not even a second-rate theologian. This may be so; his theological works certainly are nothing like the kind of writings typically called “theological,” but I have to say that his absolute insistence on the uncoditional love of God for all, the sovereignty of grace, and the sufficiency of Jesus’ death have brought me to an encounter with Gospel in a way that all the theological writings I have read before never did, however technically better or more well written they may have been. After reading his words for the very first time, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” The things I have read from people like Fr. Capon, Brennan Manning, George MacDonald, and what you have shared from Fr. McCabe (alas, I have not yet had the time to read more of his work than what you share) proclaim the Gospel message with such force and love that I am compelled to place them in the top tier, above those who were, perhaps, more brilliant and more correct.

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