As a United Methodist, I’m at least encouraged to see church leaders getting hot and bothered over something other than sexuality.
Tchividjian had apparently strayed in his understanding of grace, specifically the doctrine of sanctification.
The notion of one Calvinist telling another Calvinist they’ve got their theology of grace all wrong surely has the ancient Church Fathers, notably St Thomas Aquinas, laughing in their graves.
After all, that Neo-Calvinists today are getting tripped up over issues of grace is not surprising since their namesake, Jean Calvin, screwed the pooch on the doctrine ago.
In Calvin’s severe theology, God’s work of grace and our human freedom are posed as mutually exclusive poles.
And, as anyone who knows their church history knows, Calvin argued that the work of grace is solely the work of only one of those two poles.
The work of justification and sanctification is the gratuitous action of God to which human freedom contributes nothing and plays no part.
Not only is God’s grace infallible- it gets what God wants- it is, ironically enough, coercive. It involves our will not at all; otherwise, Calvin believed it would be disqualified as a work of grace.
In other words, Calvin and much of the Protestantism that followed cast God’s work and human freedom as an either/or binary wherein the presence of one necessitates the exclusion of the other.
The gracious action of God requires the absence of human work while human freedom becomes, by definition, the absence of any action of God.
Thus, the familiar question: ‘Are we saved by God’s grace or by our works?’
For Calvin and many Protestants, it’s an either/or vexation.
It’s odd that it should so, however, since the Christian tradition prior to Calvin saw it not as an either/or but as a both/and.
According to Thomas Aquinas, God’s grace is both infallible and non-coercive. God will eventually get what God wants (friends that we call saints), but God does not do so against our will, without our participation.
God’s work of grace, Aquinas says, requires human consent, for consent is what’s required in any friendship.
But- and this where the either/or goes wrong- that human consent is itself the gracious work of God.
The gracious of God’s salvation requires human willing which is itself the creation of God’s gracious work.
Thus, to the familiar question: ‘Are we saved by God’s grace or by our works?’
Aquinas (and Augustine before him) answer ‘Yes.’ Both/And.
The work of grace is 100% the work of God, but paradoxically the work of grace is 100% human freedom because that freedom is what God’s gracious action creates.
To Aquinas, the either/or dichotomy of what became Calvinism produces a mistaken- even idolatrous- picture of God. It’s why Aquinas begins his Summa so ploddingly, unpacking exactly what God is and what is not God. The god of the mutually exclusive, either/or, God’s Action vs Human Action binary is not God. Is not the God Who Is. To suppose, as most modern Christians do, that what makes my actions free is that I’m the only agent responsible for them is to misunderstand the God who holds all things in being at all times.
After all, if I decided to pick up my dog and throw her out the window, you might say that I’ve done so of my own free will, that God had nothing do with it. Except in every moment of that decision and action God was actively holding me in existence (and my dog) and, apart from us, God was actively holding in existence the laws of gravity that would guarantee my dog met an unpleasant end.
God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.
For our every action, both God and we are the causes of them (which means evil is not a dilemma that can be explained away by citing ‘human freedom’).
The idolatrous problem with the either/or binary of Calvinism can be seen in the two options which it produced in the modern world:
1.) A loathsome god who, as Thomist Denys Turner puts it, is “a hands-on, interfering busybody’ acting apart from the actions of his creatures. This is the magic-genie god of Joel Osteen et al, but it’s also the angry, wrathful god who sends natural disasters to punish for political positions.
2.) The hands-off Deist god whose relationship to the world is evacuated of any presence and power exactly in those places our lives have their most meaning and value. This is the god of nearly everyone else.
In both instances, the either/or binary reduces God to the level of another creature within the universe, and in both human freedom is exclusive of God’s acting.
When God’s not acting, offering lucky parking spaces or sending down torment, God’s not acting.
But for Thomas the Church Fathers before him, it’s never either/or. It’s is always both/and because God is the God who just IS. Existence itself. God is nearer to me than I am to myself. There is nothing in the universe and no action of ours that is not free and uncoerced, yet simultaneously- and perhaps paradoxically- there is nothing in the universe and no action of ours of which God is not the cause.