Thursday, May 6, 2010

Grace Leading into Faith

Next week I will begin to probe the troubled waters of the Justification debate. However, I felt that one more post was merited to transition between prevenient grace and Justification.

The span of life between prevenient grace (which begins at, or even before, birth) and the graces that flow from faith, is a live area of debate. Some Christians (John Wesley among them) have produced writings that at least appear to claim that non-Christians can do nothing good, or do nothing to please God. These Christian thinkers in various ways, and to varying degrees, have claimed that prevenient grace is not sufficient for a human to do anything pleasing to God; faith is required for any such acts. Often these claims revolve around holiness, and the fact that any form of holiness must flow from an explicit faith relationship to God. Another characteristic of this line of thought is that there is a clear and impassible barrier constructed between holiness and the development of virtue, or any form of virtue ethics.

Well, there are quite a few claims here, most of which I either seriously question or outright reject. This line of theological reasoning often flows from a misguided desire to keep the speculations of philosophy separate from the truths of the Christian faith. There are fears (often quite justified) that if one allows philosophical concepts to be applied to faith categories, the Christian faith will be reduced to a stale philosophy. There is little else that I more ardently desire to avoid in my writing; however, I think the insights of virtue ethics (which predates Christian theology by several centuries) are too true and theologically applicable to simply write off or avoid. I will treat this issue in greater detail when I get to the topic of sanctification, but even now a few preliminary comments are helpful. This is because the process of developing virtue usually begins before Christian sanctification proper.

Even a toddler can understand certain moral issues. Hitting is bad, stealing is bad, sharing is good, obeying your parents is good. Virtue (or vice) is being developed long before any explicit faith is exercised. Now, since the development of holiness closely resembles the development of virtue (a claim I will better substantiate later when I get into issues of sanctification), does this mean that people can develop some measure of holiness even before they come to faith?

Although my thinking on these issues is still fairly plastic and open to change; I am leaning towards affirming this reality. Of course, there may be types or degrees of holiness only available to those who have come to lives of explicit faith. But is it realistic to say that no measure of holiness is present in a person who has not yet come to explicit faith? An example will clarify this dilemma.

Imagine two people. The first grew up in a remote and impoverished Hindu village. For her entire life she had never heard one thing concerning Jesus or the Gospel, yet she followed nearly all of Jesus' teachings as if she had. She loved her neighbor as herself, returned good for evil and daily sacrificed for those even more impoverished than herself. As a result she daily grew in virtue and became more Christ-like than the vast majority of Christians. She died through starvation because she gave her only food to a poor child who had none. Now imagine a second person. She grew up being spoiled in a wealthy home in an affluent American neighborhood. She gradually developed vicious habits learning to steal from those that had less than her and horde all of her plentiful material wealth. She got into a first rate college through her parents connections, but decided to neglect studying in lieu of partying. She continued faithfully developing vices, adding promiscuity and drug addiction to her already characteristic selfishness and avarice. Far from helping the poor she would steal from them whenever she could do so without being exposed as the monster she was certainly becoming. Her drug addictions and horrible character led to a loss of employment and an isolation from family and friends. Eventually she finds herself strung out on drugs and homeless. In and out of shelters, she never thanked anyone for their charity; daily she continued to grow in her viciousness. Eventually her drug abuse landed her in a hospital bed, dying. Bottomed out on her death bed, she is visited by a priest. Because she has bottomed out in despair, and now staring death in the face, she is finally able to see the abject evil of her ways. The priest leads this women to a death bed repentance and the first feeble acts of faith in Jesus Christ (just before she dies).

It is obvious which person died more virtuous. The question is, which women died more holy? If holiness is primarily about: being filled with love, having a rightly ordered heart, loving the right things in the right degrees, the development of mercy, the diminishment of pride, an utter desire to help others and an utter lack of (what my astute friend Kyle has termed) “self-curvature”; if holiness is about these things, then does not the first woman die much more holy than the second? It seems holiness is not necessarily perfectly correlated to explicit faith, but it does seem to be well correlated with the development of virtue.

It is at this point that I can offer an olive branch to the reticent Christian who wishes holiness to be the sole possession of those who have faith. Perhaps it would be best to say that the first woman’s holiness did in fact flow from faith, only it was an implicit faith (see my former posts on faith for more on this topic). Upon this realization things fall into place quite nicely. The first woman appropriates God’s prevenient grace (which she has increasing access to through her faithful acceptance and appropriation of it) in implicit faith and as a result grows in holiness throughout her life. It is not as if the first woman somehow does it on her own, apart from God. She does not even develop holiness apart from faith. She merely develops it apart from an explicit faith, a part from an explicit belief in who Jesus Christ is.

If I am correct in my reasoning (and I am certainly open to finding out otherwise) then the first woman experiences something not unlike sanctification. Perhaps there is a pre-Christian analog to this process that all Christians experience. I will leave you to consider that provocative tidbit until I arrive at the topic of sanctification in a few weeks. Next week we are on to the exciting topic of justification. Until then . . . peace.


Kyle said...

I've given this more thought recently, and I'm right there with you. Wesley actually takes a mediating position between yours and the typical Reformed position (that all good works prior to explicit faith/justification are "splendid sins"), but his position, at the end of the day, is kind of unintelligible.

Wesley essentially argues that good works prior to justification are good "in some sense" because they flow from prevenient grace, but not good "properly speaking" (Wesley loves this phrase!) because they do not flow from sanctifying grace.

But the problem here, which you are basically hitting on, is that it is unclear what is different between true, heartfelt morality and holiness. For instance, in the Bible, we read: "He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8).

While holiness may be MORE than mere morality (it has a dimension of relationship to God), it is certainly not LESS than morality - a point C.S. Lewis makes, too. It is the SAME grace, with the same effect, that is appropriated with implicit faith, and it seems to me that it is equally sanctifying - God is setting apart that person for His purposes, even if that person is only dimly aware of it.

I do believe that God's full revelation is needed in order to be entirely sanctified - which is why God did not stop short of His decisive revelation in Christ. And, like so many other areas, purgatory solves this problem! =)

P.S. "Self-curvature" is not my phrase, but Luther's! =) We can learn from this crazy man yet!

Adam said...

I am glad we are in agreement. Another key area of Scripture is the Gospel of John. Dr. Dongell lectured on this and came to the (well supported) conclusion that the most essential nature of holiness (at least as John presents it) is love, specifically active love.

If this is the key to holiness I see no reason why non-Christians might not grow in holiness through the acts of love that characterize implicit faith.

Pre-Christian sanctification! Very interesting indeed. Thanks for the extra texts and thoughts in support of this idea.


Kyle said...

I think Dongell is also right that it is our reception and deep sense of God's love for us (through the means of grace) that actually changes us and enables us to love. The interesting question would be, how can this grace be communicated to non-Christians apart from Christian revelation, the cross, etc?

I think the answer is general revelation. God's love can be discerned, indeed felt and received, through creation, providence, and moral conscience. Not as fully as explicitly Christian revelation, but it is on the way.

Beautiful sunny days, night skies, and powerful examples of deep morality certainly gave me the power to do good before I was a Christian. And it only makes sense that the clearest revelation of God's love (Incarnation, Atonement, Trinity) would prompt and enable the fullest response of holiness in us.

Kyle said...

By the way, I think one of principal fears many Protestants have of this (our) teaching is precisely that it seems to render the explicit Gospel, and the need of grace, void.

But if grace is available to those outside the faith, the second problem evaporates, and if we highlight the fact that the decisive revelation of God is necessary for full transformation, then the first problem evaporates.

So expect this opposition, and be quick to point this out!