Christopher Smith continues a train of thought on theological dialogue

I have recently been reflecting on priesthood, having preached at some important anniversaries on or around Trinity Sunday and preparing to preach at an ordination later this month. Of course, I turned to my hero, Eric Mascall, for inspiration. Although we often say that, in heaven, sacraments shall cease, there is an important sense (says Mascall) in which the liturgy will not cease:

‘For the worship of heaven is an organic, symphonic, differentiated and corporate worship; and it is significant that in the Apocalypse it is described under the figure of the Eucharist. So… in the general resurrection (which is the Resurrection of Christ’s Body the Church), there will be transfiguration but not destruction… And in this perpetual Liturgy, wherein the Church will for ever contemplate and adore the Father, gazing at him as it were through the eyes of Christ who is her head, everything will be transformed but nothing will be destroyed.’

As St Thomas put it in that well-known phrase which must have been in Mascall’s mind as he wrote that passage, ‘Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.’

The matter of grace has been a knotty one in theological discourse down the years, and when I say ‘down the years,’ I mean since St Augustine and Pelagius were thrashing it out in about the year 400 AD. And I just wonder, since I tossed out an inchoate desire for a symposium or conference with some of our more orthodox evangelical friends in my article last month, whether I might tempt them to a discussion on the subject.

If I am to attract evangelicals, I imagine (and forgive me if I’m stereotyping) that they will prick their ears up if I take two of the Thirty-Nine Articles as my starting point: Articles X and XVI. Article X in fact is taken from the writings of St Augustine, and reminds us that, because of the rebellion of Adam, we have no strength of our own to do good works, but that we can only do them with God’s grace going before us to give us that good will, that good desire, and working with us to put it into practice. We need the prompting of the Holy Spirit even to wish to do right. It’s what St Augustine calls ‘prevenient grace,’ grace that goes before us. ‘Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings with thy most gracious favour, and further us with thy continual help’—and St Augustine called the gift of that continuing help ‘co-operating grace.’ He took the term from the very end of St Mark’s gospel, where the evangelist says that ‘the Lord worked with them (Domino co-operante) and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it.’ It’s an idea which shines through the writings of St Paul again and again: ‘By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me.’ He wrote that to the Christians in Corinth, in the very familiar passage in which he so clearly affirmed the bodily resurrection of Jesus. And Article XVI deals with the fact that we may receive the Holy Spirit in baptism and then depart from grace by committing sin, but by God’s grace we can ‘arise again and amend our lives,’ and so (against the Anabaptists) it wrong to ‘deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.’

It’s worth reminding ourselves of something that we don’t often think much about, which is that we believe the created order of which we are a part to be real and dependent. We are not merely a train of thought in the mind of the Creator, but neither are we independent of that Creator. We are the creation—the continuing creation—of omnipotent and personal love. We need to have that in mind if we are going to think about grace, and it’s increasingly difficult to keep that point ‘live’ when we want to enter into dialogue about God with a civilization which has become radically de-supernaturalized in its outlook. This inability to see beyond the creature to the Creator would once have taken the form of pantheism, but now manifests itself as sheer atheistic naturalism. ‘The world is accepted as ultimate reality, but that ultimate reality is not conceived as divine.’

This is why we so often feel we are engaged in a dialogue of the deaf, not only with the secular world, but also with elements in our own church. I sometimes sit in the Chamber of General Synod and wonder whether we have any residual sense not only of interdependence with the wider church catholic, but even of our own dependence upon God Almighty! We have to accept our dependence on God before we are able to accept God’s grace, and only then will we be able to comprehend that Catholic understanding of grace, which is the real participation of the creature (us!) in the life of God. ‘And to pass from the finite to the Infinite,’ as Mascall put it, ‘we have not to depress the finite, but to surpass it.’