How did Grace become a pharmaceutical?

My heart and mind are bursting Image result for inklingswith enthusiasm today after having two separate sessions with two different groups discussing my book on Grace and its implications for life and ministry.  My purpose with these groups is to prove the truthfulness of what Eugene Peterson said to me once, “All theology is experience-able.”  This should particularly be the case when dealing with a subject so relevant as Grace, and even more so when intrinsic in the definition of Grace is our participation in the life, love, and activity of God.  Today was
proof of the relevance and I look forward to how this will continue to unfold.

My intention is to blog through the book as these conversations in community continue.  This will enable others to join in the conversation.

The introduction provides a very brief background to T.F. Torrance, a rationale for a book on his concept of Grace, commentary on T.F.’s reception by the academy and the church, a note on his writing style, and a statement on the methodology and approach which I am taking in the book.  The purpose and goal of the book is to translate and exposit Torrance’s theology through the lens of Grace.  It, in effect, is a relentless pursuit of what I believe is the core of his thinking and theology, and not only that, the core of the gospel revealed in Christ send by the Father in the power of the Spirit.

The “meat” of the introduction is found in the section titled, “Background to Torrance’s Theology of Grace.”  This section brings to light the versions of Grace that Torrance understands himself to be combating.

Rather than going point by point through the material (you can buy and read the book if you want that), I’m going to drop in at a couple places along the way and do a combination of riffing on what Torrance is staying about Grace, and reflecting on the conversations I’ve been having with those who are on the front end of engaging with these ideas.

So….

What if we have misunderstood Grace?  What if, even in the Reformation, we have reduced it to something we can understand, manage, and control?  Torrance argues that our continual default is to naturalize grace by detaching it from the person and work of Christ.  Once Grace is detached from the person of Christ, it gets reduced to something instrumental, controllable, and impersonal.  In short, we turn it into a pharmaceutical (my term).  We turn it into a pharmaceutical when we treat grace like a supplemental add-on to the Christian life.  We say things and hear things said like, “…with the help of God’s grace…” you can do this or that.  Grace becomes our energy pill.  As a pharmaceutical, the Church and religious activities become the means by whiRelated imagech grace is dispensed.  We expect that by going to church, reading our bibles, fasting, praying, serving, etc…that we will “get” grace from that experience.

Forget the Catholics whom many Protestants so love to critique, let’s just look at how this plays out in the Protestant world.  Here’s a quote from page xxvi in the book:

  • “…the same errors and problems which plagued the Church before the Reformation reemerged afterwards; indeed Protestantism has shown an uncanny ability to replicate its own counterpart to nearly every flawed version of Grace which it opposes in Romanism. Torrance targets three particular snares which tend to besiege Protestantism: tendencies towards pietistic subjectivism, impersonal determinism and abstract extrinsicism.”

Pietistic subjectivism: Here we naturalize grace by melding it with common grace.  There is a mutuality between God and us and as we do our part and God does his part, progress is made.  We essential treat grace as something ‘infused’ into us, so we “grow in sanctification” and we “grow in grace” which is another way of saying, we get more of this thing, like muscle mass.  Now grace has become ours, because we’ve worked hard at it, we’ve trained for it.  Now it is “natural” to us when prior to our hard work it was not “natural” to us.

Impersonal determinism: Whereas pietistic subjectivism focuses on grace inside of us, impersonal determinism views it from the outside.  Here grace is treated as an impersonal force.  This is evident in both the theological position of limited atonement and also that of universalism.  Each in their own way imposes a deterministic framework upon God’s relation to humans, the former by limiting God’s gift of salvation to a pre-selected group, the later by forcing God’s gift of salvation upon everyone regardless of their own wills.

Abstract extrinsicism: Here grace is reduced to and controlled by legal categories.  This is grace on paper, where like an electronic bank transfer, grace is “imputed” to us, but that imputation takes place in ether world of “the cloud” and as such is abstract, distant, and external to us.  Grace in this form does not transform the person.  It bypasses the person, leaving them in the mire of their sin on an experiential level.  Cognitively, we know we are free and forgiven, but experientially we are still left on our own to fend for ourselves – until we die.

In one way or another each of these versions of grace convert “it” into a thing, “thingifying” grace into an instrument or pill that helps us live the Christian life.

Pick up any book on grace today and the assumed premise will be that grace exists as a fix for a problem.  How did we get here?  In short, we have not listened to Athanasius who sought to teach us that the incarnation did not take place because humans are bad, but because God is good.  We have reduced God’s gift of himself to a fix for a problem (humans are bad, sin must be forgiven), rather than recognizing it as God’s gift of himself so that we might participate in his life. (more on this next time)

I think this is where T.F. Torrance can become our best friend in leading us out of the quagmire of moralism, impersonalism, and extrinsicism that contaminates our gospel.  And finally, I’d like to think that my book could be particularly helpful there.  Here is the thesis as stated on p. xxviii:

  • “It is the argument of this book that this self-giving-for-participation movement of triune Grace functions as the presuppositional and allencompassing context materially undergirding and methodologically guiding the formulation of all of Torrance’s theology. Like leaven, Torrance’s concept of Grace permeates the whole and forms the basis upon which all other doctrines have their sustenance.”
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On being a political (and ontological) alien

PhotoWe returned to California for Christmas this year, in part to get our visas renewed as they were set to expire at the end of January.  Residing in a country while on a visa is a strange experience, all too common for many in our world, yet fairly rare for those like myself who grew up in the USA.  Don’t get me wrong, the people of Scotland have welcomed us with open arms, and among other things, we benefit greatly from the national health care here (they’ve fixed four broken arms for free already).  But the fact remains, from the government’s perspective, we are short-termers here who ultimately don’t belong once our visas expire.

As ‘foreigners’, we had to send off our passports along with loads of paperwork to the UK border agency who, behind the impenetrable walls of non-communication which only government agencies can muster, held our precious documents (in spite of our paying for ‘priority’ service) long enough so that we had to delay our return flights five days because you can’t enter a country in which you are not a citizen without a passport (not withstanding our kind Canadian friends).

This experience has got me thinking about different ways of viewing the Christian life.  The typical way we tend to think of our activities as followers of Jesus are are as things which we do, yet we don’t do alone.  We serve, we believe, we worship, we pray, we have faith…and God comes alongside us and helps us as we do it.  We do things with the help of the Holy Spirit.  In this way of thinking, God is our helper who enables us to live as we were meant to live.  If you were to examine much Christian-speak, this is pretty much how we talk about stuff.  Maybe this is how you have generally thought about it.  It is certainly how I often think and speak.

And yet, is this right? And more importantly, does this way of thinking and speaking serve us well?

Does this not foster an image of our existence in which we have our lives over here and God has his life over there, and under certain circumstances our paths cross, either through God’s active intervention or our exercise of faith?  And doesn’t this way of thinking suggest that our relation to God is basically extrinsic or external?  As if at the core, once all the fluff of our religious activities get culled away, the truth is that we and God don’t truly belong to or with one another?

Photo (1)This way of thinking reminds me of our visa status here in Scotland.  That visa in my passport is a constant reminder that i don’t truly belong here.  My life here and all that I do is done, not as a citizen, but as someone who doesn’t truly belong.  We may get to be here for a time and enjoy its benefits, but in the end, we have none of the rights nor permanence of citizenship.  We are outsiders.

But what if we were insiders?

What if the real truth is that everything we do as followers of Jesus is done ‘in Christ’?  What if Jesus, whom we Christians say is God as a man, is not just the ‘top up’ or ‘helper’ who perfects our imperfect acts of faith?

What if Jesus’ self-offering – his faith, his prayer, his worship, his service, his sacrifice, his obedience, his everything-that-we-Christians-do-to-please-God – is our personal answer to God?

What if there were nothing we could add to what Jesus has already done?

What if the life that Jesus lived and lives is so full of grace and so full of God and so full of us, that nothing we do is done on our own any longer?  And the focus, the priority, is all on Christ and what he did and what he is doing and what he will do?

What if we are already included?  What if we already belong?

What if we didn’t have to try to get God in on our stuff, or try to get in on God’s stuff?

What if we were already ‘in’?  

Wouldn’t that make all that we do simply a sharing in his life?  Wouldn’t that make all our actions, our faith, our worship, our prayer, our service…all acts of participation.  We get in on something that already is, and that already includes us.

It would be like living not as superficial visitors or vacationers on a temporary visa in the land of God, but as those who truly belong.  It would take us out of the realm of living like government-sponsored aliens and plunge us into the joy and mystery and intimacy of an eternal family.

image

As a citizen, as a full member of the family, I can cry ‘Abba’ and know I am a beloved child forever and always.

Now of course, like all analogies this one does break down if pushed.  But I think the difference between visiting and belonging is both fundamental and practical.  As a visitor I could be kicked out if i don’t meet the legal requirements required by my particular visa.  However, as one who belongs, the only mode appropriate to me is that of prayer, thanksgiving and praise.

I’ll give T.F. Torrance the last word on this one:  “We are with Jesus beside God, for we are gathered up in him and included in his own self-presentation to the Father.  This is the ultimate end of creation and redemption revealed in the Covenant of Grace and fulfilled in Jesus Christ….” (Space, Time and Resurrection, p. 135)