THEOLOGY OF SOVEREIGN GRACE

Dennis Potter and Augustine's theology of sovereign grace
Playwright Dennis Potter and his incisive if ironic observations on Christian Evangelicalism

When crime detective writer Philip Marlow, the semi-autobiographical character in Dennis Potter’s “Singing Detective” was asked what he really would have liked to have written about, he replied somewhat ironically:

“I would like to have praised the loving God and all His loving creation – and to have seen hosts of translucent angels ascending, spinning shafts of golden light into the deep blue caverns of heaven”.

Whilst lacking Potter’s literary flourish, I am privileged to be doing something along those lines – more specifically, revealing the thoroughly intelligible nature of God’s goodness and the generosity of His providence towards humanity as a whole. I wish such a task could be undertaken in an ambience of sweetness and light but regrettably polemic and controversy are unavoidable. For in order to show God for what He truly is (comprehensively and comprehensibly adorable), some traditional biblical interpretations and the doctrines that arise from them must be revisited. That especially applies to those of Augustine and the Protestant Reformers who believed the 4th/5th century Bishop to be Paul’s most faithful interpreter. Given that God is indeed sovereign it is also necessary to show that the existence of evil and suffering (in which God through His Son lovingly participated) actually serve a purpose within God’s Plan of Loving Goodness to raise the sons of earth beyond Adamic innocence to the sublimity of the divine.

The theology of sovereign grace

Polemic will have been evident in the previous post, also touching upon St. Augustine’s theology of sovereign grace. Vatican II (1960s) had surreptitiously rescinded the Catholic Doctor’s more draconian doctrines regarding the dire prospects for anyone outside the Catholic Church and the souls of unbaptized infants. The vastly broader benign providence of “Lumen Gentium” was a substantial doctrinal development. It had been impacted by the 19th century Evangelical turned Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman, humanly speaking the greatest influence in my spiritual journey. However, whilst other errors remain, such broader providence cannot be underpinned from Scripture, so it is unlikely to gain traction with Evangelicals. The latter tradition are also perfectly entitled to adapt and refine the earliest statements of their founders, but the purpose of this post is to challenge those of my former ilk to review Luther’s 28 theses upon which that tradition has been founded. And as you will see, Augustine and his theology of sovereign grace is at the heart of the matter.

Whilst the Heidelberg theses are not the articles of the Reformed Faith or Protestant Church, they are as Luther affirmed in his introduction what he believed Augustine’s theology of sovereign grace to be intimating. And in view of his legitimate “distrust of human wisdom” they reflect what Luther believed the Holy Spirit had imparted to him concerning how the apostle Paul should be interpreted. But his interpretations apart from needing to be valid in themselves must also be capable of integration with the rest of the New Testament, otherwise Paul effectively becomes the inventor of Christianity. He absolutely is not – that idea results from a misinterpretation of his epistles, especially Romans.

The distinctives of Paul’s Gospel

However, as a result of the 13th apostle’s late conversion and to what the resurrected ascended Jesus and the Holy Spirit imparted to him, he did have some new revelation which on a couple of occasions he describes as “my gospel”. But that was not to overturn the moral and juridical teaching of Jesus and the twelve, rather it pertained to the constitution of the people of God: “the MYSTERY which had been hidden from the past ages and generations, but now has been revealed to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what the wealth of the glory of this MYSTERY among the Gentiles, that is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col1:26-27).

That passage along with Ephesians 3 vv3-11 and Romans 11 (vv11,12,15,30) are the starting point and focal point of what I am in the process of disclosing, for their providential implications are wondrous indeed yet have been  quite eluded. In the case  of the Western Church (Catholic and Protestant) that was through a misinterpretation of other aspects of Paul’s teaching, whilst the theology of the Eastern Church has always been less systematized and dogmatic, more accepting of mystery, of which there is plenty in the bible as that earlier statement of Paul indicated. However, Luther’s pronouncements are dogmatic and so they do need to be assessed in themselves as well as squared with the rest of the New Testament – the teaching of James, the writer to the Hebrews and Jesus Himself being the most troublesome flies in the ointment, not least the Judge of the Earth’s own teaching on final judgement (Mt25:31-46). But for this post (split into two or three parts) I am focusing on Paul’s teaching and what Luther made of it.

That is bound to be irksome for many, so I restate my motives another way: to demonstrate from Scripture God’s goodness, love and justice in terms of how human beings have been divinely programmed to understand such qualities. That involves the recognition of a role for natural law, especially the faculty of conscience and the exercise of human reason. Also, by observing how Scripture actually defines these qualities, most especially love, being the essence of God and the outworking of faith. Given that humans were made in the image of an invisible God, that must pertain to His nature. And in the case of the One whom Luther aptly described as “the Proper Man”, the Nazarene carpenter’s apprentice was also without sin. As the Lord affirmed to Philip, although His glory was veiled, the historical Jesus’s nature, instincts and inclinations were a perfect reflection of those of His Father, and that applied even during His earthly ministry (Jn14:9). Philip had wanted to know what God was really like; “Show us the Father, that will suffice us”. “But how long have I been with you, Philip? If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father”.

Jesus’ reply challenges fundamental assumptions about both divine and human nature, in particular how the Former regards the latter. The fact that the Lord’s glory was veiled does not affect His nature or His attitude to people – He just appeared far less scary (cf. previous post). So, the historical Jesus was not the compassionate face of God, He was His express image. But then think of how He dealt with His disciples and their sinful frailties. In the only two references to the matter, Peter was more concerned about his own deficiencies than the Lord was (Lk5:8) whilst joker Nathanael was described as a man without guile (Jn1:47). Such has nothing to do with the imputed or imparted righteousness of Christ or indeed the defilement of Adam’s guilt. It is the Son of Man’s tolerance of human weakness resulting from Adam’s misdemeanor that Jesus responds to. So, is it always “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild?” By no means, at times He vents His righteous fury when confronted with genuine evil, hypocrisy and lies, warning of punishment in Hell.

In other words, the One who is to judge the Earth acts like man at his best: loving, filled with compassion and tolerant of human weakness, but One who shall come crashing down on hateful, hurtful compassionless liars that He describes as children of the devil (Jn8:44). Failure to do so would not be an act of love but injustice and indifference to the suffering of others. Our loving Creator’s intention is that all of Adam’s seed that are genuinely human (1Jn3:12) come to adore Him, not merely “to thank God for His great glory” but to love Him for His intelligible goodness and the wonders of His providence.

Returning to Luther and how he regarded the Creator, it is more a case of “we are here, God is there; we are this, God is that”. Love and justice mean something different to God than they do to man. Such would have to be the case if Luther’s teaching was to be reconciled with God’s own assessment of Himself in Exodus34:6-7, let alone the points already made about the historical Jesus. Hence his paradoxical notion that what the bible might mean by love, kindness and goodness and the like, mean something different when applied to God.

The mystery of providence 

The outworking of Augustine’s two-pot sovereign grace theology reinforced by the Protestant Reformers is cosmic catastrophe on a scale no fictional horror writer could ever contemplate. The Arminian Evangelicalism more prevalent today fares little better – an inexplicably harsh Cosmic Chess Master being replaced by an incompetent, uncaring Overseer. It is also based on a false premise: the seemingly reasonable assumption that a loving God would wish as many people as possible to come to Christ as Savior and that He had given us the innate capacity to do so. That is refuted by the bible on both counts (Rom8:29 & Jn6:44 inter alia). Even if that were not the case it would mean that God had (at the least) overseen cultural, religious and ecclesiastical developments that He knew would result in vast swathes of humanity having no opportunity to hear a faithful account of the gospel to which they could ever respond to avoid perdition.

All is resolved once the true nature and purpose of salvation is disclosed. Firstly, that the source of man’s problem is not his God-given eternal soul but the temporary vessel or “tent” it inhabits whilst in mortal flesh (Rom7:24-25). Secondly, “the saved” are not the totality of souls who “go to heaven when they die” but those being sanctified in the present so that they may serve the living God whilst in human flesh. As for their future – “Rejoice, for the Wife has made herself ready” for marriage to the Lamb (Rev19:7). Far from detracting from God’s sovereign grace, such a perspective enhances it, for clearly no one apart from Jesus Himself could innately deserve such honor.

As for the rest of the world, remaining sinful in nature during their earthly life, they could never earn the right to be received into God’s eternal Kingdom or have the joy of being re-united with those they had loved and lost. Yet such shall be the case, at least for all who in the language of second century Christian writers “attend to moral discipline, paying heed to the natural precepts of the law by which man can be justified” [“Irenaeus against heresies” Book IV chap 13 para 1]. The Creator being “a God who accepts those who imitate His own qualities of temperance, fairness and philanthropy and who exercise their free will in choosing what is pleasing to Him” [first apology of Justin chaps. 43 & 46]. Such was the language of those who had received the faith from the Apostles or their near successors. The idea of natural precepts being subsumed within the understanding and outreach of the very early Church is also indicated by the witness of Church historian Eusebius (see my earlier post on the unity of doctrine within the 2nd century Church). Such is how the forensic (pardoning) dimension to Christ’s Passion avails for the many; the participatory (sanctifying) benefits being the preserve of those who worthily partake of His body and blood so as to have spiritual empowerment in the present and be raised, or if alive bodily transformed on the last day (Jn6:54; 1Cor15:51).

Only when such a pre-Augustinian perspective on free will (to choose good, not to respond to the gospel) is reinstated, and the Christ-related dimension of natural law understood (for it is Christ’s internal enlightenment and has reference to His Passion); only then shall God’s caring providence towards humanity as a whole be vindicated and the scope and efficacy of Christ’s saving work appreciated. It will be perceived as a “theology of glory” but one that is predicated on a theology of the Cross: A divine Savior’s suffering to deal with human sin – suffering in which those who shall one day be His Escort and come to share His throne must in measure have participated (Rev3:21; Rom8:17; Heb2:10).

And then then we have the 28 paradoxical statements of Luther and Beyer which I intend to comment on briefly in the next post but can be perused HERE

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