Wednesday, July 18, 2012

T.F. Torrance on 1 Clement and the Doctrine of Grace (part 1)

Referring to T.F. Torrance’s work, “The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers”, I’ve posted two selections that trace the definitions of the word “grace” (χάρις in Greek, or “charis”) as used in different contexts:

1. χάρις in Classical and Hellenistic Greek usage, including Philo.

2. χάρις in Old Testament and New Testament usage.

This is the first of two follow-up comments on my comment #322 at Called to Communion, where I quoted T.F. Torrance’s summary of 1 Clement’s use of the word “grace” (χάρις in Greek, or “charis”):

Clement definitely thinks of charis as referring to a gift of God without which the Christian would not be able to attain to love or salvation. But there is little doubt that this is held along with the idea of merit before God; for grace is given to those who perform the commandments of God, and who are worthy. He may use the language of election and justification, but the essentially Greek idea of the unqualified freedom of choice is a natural axiom in his thoughts, and entails a doctrine of "works" as Paul would have said. In all His dealings with men, God is regarded as merciful; but the ground for the Salvation He gives is double: faith and ... [ellipses in original]. And so Wustmann is justified in saying of Clement’s theology: “Whoever does the will of God, him shall God bless...” Like the whole mass of Judaistic writers [following Philo’s usage], Clement thinks of God's mercy as directed only toward the pious; and if he uses the word χάρις, as in Philo, it carries with it the same principle (pgs. 54-55).

That’s Torrance’s conclusion about 1 Clement. Following that comment, I added, “That concept of being rewarded for being worthy before God [before God will give you grace] is not a concept Paul used; later writers would call that “Pelagian”. But here is “Pope” Clement, a Pelagian before Pelagius.”

I’ve been asked (Bryan 450 and other places) to show “where in St. Clement’s writings does he show himself to hold a Pelagian conception of grace or salvation?”

Now, the “Pelagian before Pelagius” is my comment. Torrance did use the word “Pelagian” in his work, but it was applied to his analysis of the “Shepherd of Hermas”. He says, “As a matter of fact, behind his whole position there are elements which clearly anticipate a Pelagian doctrine of man. Such a sentence is revealing. If you lay it down as certain that the commandments can be kept, you will easily keep them and they will not be hard. But if it comes into your heart that they cannot be kept by man, you will not keep them” (see Torrance pg 121).

Perhaps Clement does not go so far as being “Pelagian”. But Torrance’s argument deals not with the individual writers (both Clement and Hermas wrote in Rome during the years, roughly 96-130 AD), but with the whole range of “Apostolic Fathers” who lived and wrote during the years between the death of the Apostles and the writings of Irenaeus, who is considered in the Cullmann articles I’ve cited to be much more “orthodox” in his theology. And they all have this same quality, which he says “Perfectly sinless must be the man who wants to find grace with God” (as with Philo, quoted here, pg 7 in Torrance)...

In our era, we are aware of how the meanings of words can change over time. For example, if you were to see the word “gay” in two different pieces of writing, for example, one in 1890 and one in 1990, you would easily take two different meanings away. The word χάρις, or charis, or “grace”, has a very long history and a number of different shades of meaning.

Torrance’s analysis of the word is 35 pages long; the TDNT (“Theological Dictionary of the New Testament”, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Company, trans. Geoffrey Bromily, © 1974, vol. IX) article on χάρις runs some 30 pages. While Torrance goes into more detail, the TDNT surveys more sources. To be sure, these are not the only sources providing examples of usage of this word over time and in different sources, but they are two of the more significant ones that I am aware of. These are not complete, and many more could be given. What I’ve provided, I think, is sufficient to show how these usages worked for the sake of this discussion.

The two broad categories I’ve provided show the divergence in meaning that Torrance illustrates.

The first, Hellenistic usage (including Hellenistic usage and Philo) shows broadly how the concept was used in Greek thought. Philo of Alexandria was a Jewish philosopher, a contemporary of Christ’s, with a wide acquaintance with the works of Greek philosophy. Josephus (“Antiquities of the Jews”, xviii.8, § 1), called him “a man eminent on all accounts” and “one not unskillful in philosophy”. Just here, briefly, I’ll note that among other things, “grace” may be seen as a form of payment, and in Philo the concept even reaches to the point that (in Torrance’s words), “Perfectly sinless must be the man who wants to find grace with God”. TDNT echoes this notion: “Philo can say that χάρις is only for the righteous … One must be worthy of it, otherwise it vanishes”.

On the contrary, in the Biblical conception, both Old and New Testaments, the concept of grace involves “unsolicited and unaccountable love”. “God’s ‘lovingkindness’ is the fundamental relationship upon which the whole structure of Israelite society rested. Includes [the concepts of] mercy and forgiveness, but the true significance of the hesed of God, is that it is everlasting, determined, unshakeable”. “Though the mountains depart and the hills remove, God’s mercy remains true”. In the New Testament, grace is purely God’s initiative; it is God’s initiative in Christ; “in Christ the divine will has been perfectly fulfilled on our behalf”; it completely takes man by surprise (that is, no effort on man’s part is required to earn this initiative), and it is “the primary and constitutive act in which out of free love God has intervened to set our life on a wholly new basis”.

So, these are the two different definitions of grace: in the first, one must be deemed worthy of it before one receives it, and in some cases, one must be perfect before one can receive it; in the second, it is completely God’s initiative in Christ to give it freely, by surprise, and permanent.

For those who are not inclined to trust my summary here, I’ll refer you to my links above for more thorough treatments, although it would really be beneficial to consult both Torrance and TDNT themselves.

Pelagianism defined

It will be worth pointing out here how “Pelagianism” is defined, too, and also to note the resemblance between Pelagianism and the Hellenistics/Philonic definition of “grace”. According to CCC 406, “Pelagius held that man could, by the natural power of free will and without the necessary help of God's grace, lead a morally good life”. And the Catholic Encyclopedia says “In opposition to Pelagianism, it was maintained at the General Council of Carthage in 418 as a principle of faith that Christian grace is absolutely necessary for the correct knowledge and performance of good, and that perfect sinlessness is impossible on earth even for the justified.”

In Philo, one must be worthy of God’s “graces” before one can receive them. In Pelagianism, man can and must “lead a morally good life”. The two are close in concept.

What remains now is to work through 1 Clement to see how he uses the concept of “grace”.

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