Monday, June 12, 2017

Prevenient Grace in St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation

In order to understand the concept of prevenient grace, one must first be aware of the history behind the doctrinal debates surrounding it. Pelagius (360-418) was an advocate of a radical theology of human freedom. To Pelagius, humans were inherently able to choose to do good. His view came with a rejection of the catholic idea of Original Sin. Pelagius was opposed by St. Augustine (354-430) who, in reaction to Pelagius, stressed the fallen nature of humanity and God's initiative in salvation. In the writings, of Augustine and the Council of Carthage, the doctrine of Total Depravity began to be codified. The Council of Carthage (418) affirmed nine beliefs in response to Pelagianism:
1. Death came from sin, not man's physical nature.
2. Infants must be baptized to be cleansed from original sin.
3. Justifying grace covers past sins and helps avoid future sins.
4. The grace of Christ imparts strength and will to act out God's commandments.
5. No good works can come without God's grace.
6. We confess we are sinners because it is true, not from humility.
7. The saints ask for forgiveness for their own sins.
8. The saints also confess to be sinners because they are.
9. Children dying without baptism are excluded from both the kingdom of heaven and eternal life.*
The doctrine of Total Depravity became the first point in the Calvinistic soteriological system of TULIP (Total Depravity/Unconditional Election/Limited Atonement/Irresistible Grace/Perseverance of the Saints). The Calvinist takes Total Depravity, that man's natural orientation is away from God and is unable to turn to him, and builds a soteriology that becomes inherently deterministic: man is unable to come to God so God, through his sovereign grace, has predestined some to receive grace. This Elect group is who Christ died for, not the whole world.

Wesleyan-Arminian theology opposes the determinism of Calvinistic soteriology but it does accept the doctrine the idea of Total Depravity. As humans, it acknowledges, we are unable to turn to God of our own accord. We are all born into original sin. Romans 3:10-12 (NRSV) points this out, "There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one."

But how do Wesleyan-Arminians acknowledge Total Depravity and claim people have free will? Answer: the doctrine of Prevenient Grace. According to the Roman Catholic Catechism (§2670), "No one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit. Every time we begin to pray to Jesus, it is the Holy Spirit who draws us on the way of prayer by his prevenient grace."

Prevenient Grace is distinct from saving grace and sanctifying grace. According to the United Methodist Church:
"[John] Wesley understood grace as God's active presence in our lives. This presence is not dependent on human actions or human response. It is a gift--a gift that is always available, but that can be refused. God's grace stirs up within us a desire to know God and empowers us to respond to God's invitation to be in relationship with God. God's grace enables us to discern differences between good and evil and makes it possible for us to choose good...God takes the initiative in relating to humanity. We do not have to beg and plead for God's love and grace. God actively seeks us!" 
The result of Prevenient Grace, according to John Wesley (Sermon 85) is, "the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning His will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against Him." 

Some deny the reality of Prevenient Grace because they claim it lacks biblical foundation (that's a post for another day) or because it's a new doctrinal development. However, we can see the concepts of Total Depravity and Prevenient Grace in the writings of St. Athanasius (296-373), though since he preceded Pelagius and Augustine, his categories on this topic were not as developed (heresy was the mother of invention to the Church Fathers).

Athanasius clearly acknowledge a proto-Total Depravity (On the Incarnation, I.4):

But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion...when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing.
Athanasius claims that humans are helplessly losing their essential identity as humans. He believes that God, then was placed in a "Divine Dilemma": he could either let humanity continue on its trajectory to non-existence (which he could not do on account of his love for humanity) or he could forgive humanity's sin without any kind of sacrifice (which would violate his justice). Neither alternative being doable, God sent his Son to take on flesh and take our punishment from us, "He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us" (On the Incarnation, II.8). Through this act of revelation, God has made himself knowable, providing what would later be described as Prevenient Grace (VII.43):
The Lord did come to make a display. He came to heal and to teach suffering men...for Him...the way was not merely to dwell here, but to put  Himself at the disposal of those who needed Him, and to be manifested according as they could bear it, not vitiating the value of the Divine appearing by exceeding their capacity to receive could not recognise Him as ordering and ruling creation as a whole. So He takes to Himself for instrument a part of the whole, namely a human body, and enters into that. Thus He ensured that men should recognise Him in the part who could not do so in the whole, and that those who could not lift their eyes to His unseen power might recognise and behold Him in the likeness of themselves.
God makes the first move. Through the Incarnation and by grace, he has made himself intelligible to us.

Tradition is important and a vital tool which helps us understand God's Word. Here, Athanasius articulates a soteriology that has much more in common with Wesleyan-Arminianism than competing soteriological systems. Prevenient Grace is not novel. It fits much better with a catholic soteriology.

*Point 9 from the Council of Carthage is included to complete the list. It has little bearing on the discussion at hand.

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