Some Help From St. Augustine

But God made you without you.  You didn’t, after all, give any consent to God making you.  How were you to consent, if you didn’t yet exist?  So while he made you without you, he doesn’t justify you without you.  So he made you without your knowing it, he justifies you with your willing consent to it. Yet it’s he that does the justifying… (Augustine, Sermon 169.13)

John Wesley quotes this passage from Augustine in his sermon entitled, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” itself based on St. Paul’s admonishion in Phil. 2 to “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.”  In the he explores the connection between God’s work of salvation and our own effort to make that real in our lived existence; biblically, this comes from the dual convictions (both from Paul) that God works in us towards salvation but that we, too are expected to play a part.

This whole notion, of course, is anathema for the hard-core Reformed folks.  (Incidentally, does anyone know what Calvin said about this verse from Philippians?)  For the double predestination gang, God wills us from the foundation of the world either to damnation or salvation.  We don’t get a hand in it; it is totally and completely a work of God upon us.  As Jonathan Edwards wrote, most terrifyingly, we are all stretched out over the abyss of Hell, the wrath of God raging against us, and only his unmerited grace will save a few of us from this fiery pit.  Awesome.

For Arminians like myself, though, this is problematic.  We see God’s grace, the enactment of His love that works for our salvation, not as “irresistible” (as the Synod of Dort put it) but as a gift.  Certainly, it is a gift that must be received with joy, unwrapped, and used, but an undeserved gift nonetheless.

In some ways, this concept bears a closer family resemblance to the Orthodox spiritual tradition than the Western.  The Eastern notion of theosis, of becoming God-like, is quite akin to the Wesleyan emphasis on holiness/sanctification and our somewhat unique doctrine of Christian perfection.  The East tells us, “God became man so that man might become God.”  This is stronger than, say, John Wesley would put it, but expresses essentially the same activity.

But then I’ve been reading Barth, and Barth, with the Reformed tradition from which he came, emphasizes the initiative of God over the work of humanity.  Known for his rabid christocentrism, Barth, like Bonhoeffer, is not friendly to the pietist tradition (kissing cousins to us Wesleyans) which he sees as a kind of semi-Pelagianism.  I love Barth’s project (though I am an amateur Barthian), but I’ve been concerned over how to gel this with Methodist theology.

Only an intellectually restless recent seminary grad like myself would worry about this, but, well, it drives me crazy when things don’t fit together.  So I’m working on it.  They say “build a bridge and get over it.”  I think this Augustine quote is a step in that direction, a good sized piece of that bridge.  I find it profoundly helpful for Augustine, the (perhaps misused) great-granddaddy of Reformed theology, to be expressing so clearly a sense of grace that works with us rather than arbitrarily on us.

Wesleyans would call this “cooperative grace.”  In other words, grace that must be enacted, lived; it is essentially the act of receiving a gift (the giver of the gift is the prime actor, and the gift cannot come from oneself – but still, the gift can be rejected).  Gifts, afterall, can be abused, forgotten, tossed aside, or trampled upon.

So it is with grace.  God will not save us against our will; He loves us enough to let us have our way, even if it is harmful to us.  (Think of God’s “hardening the hearts” of various characters throughout the Scripture.)  No, “God doesn’t justify you without you.”  Randy Maddox, probably the greatest Methodist theologian working today – and one of my teachers – calls this “Responsible Grace.”  The response matters.  It is a small part – but it is our portion.
Thank you, Augustine.  Bite me, John Piper.  Amen.

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2 thoughts on “Some Help From St. Augustine”

  1. Pastor Mack:

    Two quick thoughts. First, Wesley does have what amounts to a doctrine of irresistible grace. You can see in his doctrine of the spiritual senses. Here is how it works. Our spiritual senses are so thoroughly disabled that we can not even begin to see and hear the things of God. Consequently, the journey of salvation can not begin until the Holy Spirit rehabilitates our spiritual senses. This move is clearly irresistible. The Spirit can not say, “Would you like me to rehabilitate your spiritual senses?” Well, actually, the Spirit could say such a thing, but we would be unable to hear it. So the first move is entirely on God’s side. Moreover, it is very difficult to see how we could resist it. Of course, after the senses are rehabilitated, then resistance is possible.

    Second, as for getting Barth to gel with Methodist theology, well, let’s just say that you might find Sarah Coakley to be of considerable help here. The problem with getting Barth to gel with Methodist theology is that Barth’s theology lacks the kind of robust pneumatology that is at the heart of Methodism. Coakley grounds Trinitarian theology and doctrine in the work of the Spirit within — more specifically in the Spirit’s work of wordless prayer (Romans 8). There is, in my judgment, a strong resonance between Coakley’s work on the Trinity and John Wesley’s theology. I have worked this out a bit (without reference to Coakley) in my essay on “Wesley’s Theological Emphases” in The Cambridge Companion to John Wesley.” I have also worked it out with respect to Charles Wesley in “Charles Wesley and the Revival of the Doctrine of the Trinity: A Methodist Contribution to Modern Theology,” in Charles Wesley: Life, Literature, and Legacy.”

    Keep up the great blog!

    Grace and peace,

    Jason

  2. Jason, thanks for stopping by and for the thoughtful comments. It’s so rare to have people who know what they are talking about on the blogosophere – including myself!

    About Wesley’s de facto doctrine of irresistible grace: this sounds quite like prevenient grace, right? Wesleyan believe that grace is active in all of us before we can know of God. And surely we cannot resist that of which we are unaware.

    Thank you for the suggestions re: Barth. I’m only somewhat familiar with Coakley; I think I read some of her work on kenosis. But I’ll have to check out the essays you mention.

    It strikes me too, though, that Barth has entire categories of thought that don’t “fit” within Methodist doctrine – election, in particular, comes to mind. At least, with the way I was taught to think about reformed theology, anything “reformed” should be anathema. I can’t help it, though; my teachers liked and were influenced by Barth, and I couldn’t help but have similar leanings.

    I recall seeing you at the WNC Annual Conference last year signing books. Will you be there this year? I’ll have to say ‘hi.’ Thanks again.

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