Friday, 9 March 2012

The Detachment of Grace from the Person of Christ

Luther once wrote critically of spiritual enthusiasts (Ger.: schwaermerei) who seemed to have swallowed the Holy Spirit "feathers and all". If Luther were a systematic or historical theologian instead of a professor of Old Testament with a happy knack for conjuring up memorable word images, he might have put it the way T.F. Torrance does here:
"Early in the history of the Church the understanding of grace came to be affected by notions of charis long rampant in Hellenism. In classical times 'grace' or charis could be thought of as a supernatural quality conferred by the gods on legendary heroes making them 'godlike'' could refer to an objective endowment, to a mystical power affecting even inanimate objects, to a pneumatic potency infused into the soul, or to the divinity that dwells upon Caesar endowing him with the power to confer divine blessings. ...In the New Testament grace is regularly associated with the Person and work of Christ, and is only twice brought into connection with the Spirit (Heb. 10:29; James 4:6), but later on grace was often used in detachment from the Person of Christ and then thought of as an independent principle or as correlated only with the Spirit. This facilitated its lapse into the Hellenistic notion of pneumatic potency... ...grace came to be treated as something akin to magical power. The connection of grace with the Spirit is not itself theologically unsound, for grace must surely be understood in relation to the Holy Trinity, but detachment from intimate relation to the personal Being of Christ,...could, and often did, lead to serious error. Notions of 'spiritual grace' are found in Protestant as well as in Roman pietism."

T.F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction, p172.

A long sustained Lutheran critique of Reformed theology is that it separates Word and Spirit and therefore Christ and Spirit, thus setting the stage for Pietism, Methodism, Pentecostalism and other hyper-spiritual aberrations in the Christian life that continue to plague us today. When it proclaims dogmas apart from the Word of God and promotes apophatic mysticism as a genuine path to experience and knowledge of God Rome also exhibits this "enthusiastic" tendency, which is "as old as Adam".

Torrance, at least in the quote above, seems to be squarely on the Lutheran side of the argument and traces the origins of this enthusiasm to the negative influence of Hellenism on early Christianity. There are some profound implications in what Torrance writes but I find my mind dwelling on a particular aspect of this subject. By "Hellenism" above I think Torrance means the popular Hellenistic religious milieu of the day rather than the refined Greek philosophy of the academy, including the belief in "pneumatic potency" ascribed to inanimate objects that seems to be behind the episode reported in Acts 19 where Pauls' body is touched with aprons and handkerchiefs (or pieces of cloth associated with his trade as a tentmaker and which he had thus used?) which are then taken away and used to heal the sick and exorcise the demon possessed (cf the legend of Veronica's handerchief in popular RC piety which features in Mel Gibson's film "The Passion").

Which episode raises an interesting question: since Luke ascribes the healing power of these objects to a divine power that comes through Paul personally ("Jesus I know and Paul I know, but who are you?"), how is what is reported in this episode different from the the popular Hellenistic belief that "holy people" or "holy objects" had spiritual power (a belief which persists in Christianized form to this day wherever the bodies of saints and various holy objects, icons and places are ascribed miraculous powers)?

Accepting as a matter of course that Luke's report is true, the best explanation I can come up with is that 1) the power operative here was indeed divine power and not a counterfeit of either human or demonic origin; which possibly means that 2) God condescended to the popular beliefs of the Ephesian people both out of mercy and to give extra weight or testimony to the truth of Paul's preaching given that the Ephesians were a superstitious and idolatrous lot. This might also explain the continuance of similar phenomena on the mission fields to this day.

Of course, what the episode in Acts 19 does not give us is a commandment or mandate to replicate the practice (thus I conclude that the similar practices of the Romans and the Orthodox past and present are at best erroneous and at worst idolatrous) . It strikes me that the absence of a command to "do this" is probably related to the unique place of the Apostles in the history of salvation as personal emissaries of Christ (cf John 20:22).

Recommended for further reading:
Holy Spirit: Shy Member of the Trinity by Frederick D. Bruner (Augsburg, 1984)

1 comment:

joel in ga said...

A thorough study of clothing in the Scriptures would be useful. I find it striking that Christ's clothing, made from ordinary material, participated in the Transfiguration. In view of that, it is not surprising that the hem of His garment or cloths touched by saints could work miracles. A 'con-ascension' to popular beliefs?