Sunday, July 15, 2012

Definitions of grace over time and in different contexts, part 1: The Greek Conceptions of Grace

In conjunction with some comments I’m going to make regarding T.F. Torrance’s “The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers” (Wipf & Stock Publishers; 1996 Reprint edition), here, briefly, is the first of two broad categories of definitions of how the word and concept have been understood, “In Greek Culture”. Within this category, there are a number of different shades of meaning, observed at different times and within different bodies of literature. (“TDNT” is Kittel’s “Theological Dictionary of the New Testament” (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Company, Trans Geoffrey Bromily, © 1974, vol. IX).


In Classical Greek (Torrance):

in its original and fundamental sense is applied to what awakens pleasure or secures joy. It is the quality giving pleasure or thrilling the aesthetic sensibility. This is radical to nearly all uses of the word from the earliest times. So applied, charis comes to cover a very wide range, variously meaning grace, charm, elegance, loveliness, attractiveness, etc., whether as a property or effect (the two are never really separated), whether in some thing or movement”. “Actual instances are in reference to bodily beauty, works of art, beautiful words, the charm of song, the delight of the Dionysian vine, the sweetness of sleep or life, the glory of victory or of a noble death, the grace of a person, and the grace that is added to virtue, etc”. As well, “the word is used of divine favour. As such, it is prayed for, hoped for, while sacrifices are offered to gain it: In the end, charis can be used even of an offering or sacrifice (1-3).

In Hellenistic Greek (Torrance):

In Hellenistic Greek nearly all the classical forms continue. However, it also “tends to take on a more objective nature than it did in similar connexions earlier. Sometimes the word can mean an ornament” … In classical times, charis was very often regarded as a divine gift, a use which is continued, but here the idea of endowment or possession is being pulled over the idea of a quality giving pleasure. A typical and frequent instance of the word is that employed in the inscriptions found over the old baths: “Cypris with her Graces and her golden-arrowed boy bathed here, and gave grace in payment”. In another sense, “charis comes to be practically equivalent to mystical power, and its use is widened to include almost any beneficial supernatural influence or potency. To a certain extent this recalls the supernatural glamour conferred by the gods on the legendary heroes of Homer, the Cyprian charm of love, and the Dionysiac potency of the vine, all of which were mysterious, inexplicable forces, and were referred to the demonic. It is not surprising therefore in an age when mystery cults were the rage to find charis extended to denote magical dynamic, or some supernatural transferrable quality… The general idea seems to be a pneumatic potency bringing charm and prosperity. It must be remembered, however, that this use of charis is rather later than the period in which the Christian sense of charis arose and became quite normative” (3-6)

In Philo (Torrance):

Charis in Philo is essentially a Hellenistic expression used in the setting of Judaism. Most of the ordinary Hellenistic usages are found here too, but the interest does not centre round them so much as round those instances in which charis is made the mould for Judaic thought and modifies it or is modified accordingly. In that he uses Greek as his medium Philo inevitably falls heir to the inability of Greek thought and language to express justice and mercy as differentiations within the unity of a single thought or word. The dialectic between δικαιοσύνη (justice) and ἐλέος (mercy) is so deep-going in Philo that he even suggests that the two words Lord and God are used to express this distinction in the modes of divine activity… There are times … when Philo like some other Judaistic writers suggests that God’s direct agency appears only in doing good, while His judicial and punitive agency is left to subordinates or angels…

That tendency may well be illustrated by the problem of the need of sinners for divine aid. If it was unfit, as Philo held, for God to come into contact with sinful men even by punishing them, it was also unfit for God to come into contact with them by aiding them to overcome their sin. They need this aid, and so in the early stages, thinks Philo, that must be mediated by angels or divine words. Perfectly sinless must be the man who wants to find grace with God.

[Citing Philo’s De Mund. 168]:

“When evil began to get the better of virtues, the overflowing springs of the charities of God were closed, so that they might not bring supplies to those felt to be undeserving of them” (6-10).

In Philo (TDNT):

The complex character of Philo’s thought is reflected in the word χάρις… God’s χάριτες are all His good gifts, and χάρις is the power behind them. χάρις is not a specific, definable gift. Its content derives from the total understanding of God’s rule as Creator, Preserver, World-governor, and Redeemer. Ability to receive the gift varies … But the systematic stress is on the fact that God is always active… χάρις is the endowment of man by creation; the new thing in Philo is his development of the notion of the δυνάμεις [the idea of ‘power’] to the point of hypostatization [‘regarding an abstract thing as if it were a material thing’].”

“The view of grace reaches a climax in the doctrine of redemption. This is marked by Philonic ambivalence. Man can purify himself and yet he is incapable of this. The impossible is possible for God… There is no merit … God’s gifts are also perfect … Yet Philo can say that χάρις is only for the righteous … One must be worthy of it, otherwise it vanishes. In view of this some see in Philo a ‘Catholic’ vacillation between grace and man’s own work, while others speak of Hellenistic-Jewish synergism to the degree that grace is in fact a help in the attainment of virtue. It cannot be maintained, however, that outstanding individuals do not need grace. Rather, God grants individuals perfection in order that they may have virtue without their own effort. The normal situation, of course, is that man should exert himself [in order to receive grace]. But even here one can at most speak of a synergism only outwardly. Nor would such an objectifying consideration of man’s activity really do justice to what Philo has in mind. For the struggle for virtue in Philo carries with it as a constitutive factor that it is God’s achievement and not our own. Man begins when he recognizes and admits his nothingness and the way of virtue is the actualization of this confession. Thus the understanding of virtue has changed completely in comparison with the Greek view, not just by way of development, e.g., by combination with Jewish concepts, but by leaping to a new level of reflection. I experience myself by confessing God. In the light of this starting point, we do not find a systematic unity of all statements about man and his abilities. We have rather a central point which gives the varied statements their reference and produces a new, consistent and subjective style of thought in which the alternative of χάρις and self-activity is resolved. The emphasis on distance, or sin, thus becomes distinctively radical. The greatness of grace stands out in relief against this background. He who is pious in the sense of confession and self-renunciation is impelled by divine forces, and protected against evil. Hence he never leaves the sphere of χάρις.” (389-391)

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