Friday, September 21, 2012

How the early church lost its understanding of grace

Salvation is all grace.

Bavinck begins his discussion of “The Scriptural View of Salvation” (pgs 491 ff.) noting that “In the Old Testament already, it is God who immediately after the fall, out of grace, puts enmity between humanity and the serpent and brings humanity to his side (Gen. 3:15). It is he who elects Abraham and the people of Israel born to him to be his possession (Gen 12:1; Exod. 15:13, 16,; 19:4; 20:2; Deut 7:7f.), who makes a covenant with them and gives his laws to them (Gen. 15:1; 17:2; Exod. 2:24-25; Deut 4:5-13), who gives the blood on the altar for atonement (Lev. 17:11), and does all that is needed for his vineyard (Isa. 5; Jer 2:21). To be sure, Israel incurs some obligation with the law, but the covenant relationship “did not depend on the observance of the law as an antecedent condition; it was not a covenant of works, but rested solely in God’s electing love” (493-494).

In Christ, God consolidated His own reign in the The Kingdom of God, with the ascension (2 Cor 3:17-18) and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, who dwells “at Christ’s initiative in the church as in his temple” (500).

Here, Bavinck picks up the “historical-theological” account of salvation through the earliest church:

That faith in Christ was the way to salvation was, of course, a certainty in the church from the beginning. Believers, after all, knew themselves to have been placed in a special relationship to God and continuously preserved in it by his grace. They were the elect of God adopted by Jesus Christ to be his own people. By the agency of Christ they had taken refuge in his mercy and were the new people with whom God had established his covenant. And this Christ not only was the revelation of God by whom they had learned to know God but also gave his blood for their sins. He gave himself up to purify them by the forgiveness of sins, to vivify them by his wounds. In that way, then, he is the Lord and high priest of their confession, the object of their faith who also continually preserves them and builds them up in the faith.

He speaks of “grace” being “anterior to our works”, and traces this through Justin and Irenaeus and Origen. “The moral corruption of humanity and the necessity of the grace of the Holy Spirit have been even more strongly expressed by the Latin fathers (Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrose), on whose pronouncements Augustine therefore based himself. Tertullian says, ‘This will be the power of the grace of God, more potent indeed than nature, exercising its sway over the faculty that underlies itself within us—even the freedom of our own will.’ From Cyprian come the words that are repeatedly cited by Augustine: ‘We must boast in nothing since nothing is our own.’”

Yet in those first centuries, the doctrine of the application of salvation was not at all developed and in part already steered in wrong directions early on. Although there are a few “testimonies of evangelical truth” here and there, on the whole the gospel was soon construed as a new law. Faith and repentance were generally regarded as the necessary way to salvation but were ultimately the product of human freedom. Though salvation had objectively been acquired by Christ, to become participants in it the free cooperation of humans was needed. Faith as a rule was no more than the conviction of the truth of Christianity, and repentance soon acquired the character of a penance that satisfies for sins. The sins committed before one’s baptism were indeed forgiven in baptism, but those committed after baptism had to be made good by penance. Penitence was frequently still viewed as sincere contrition over sin, but the emphasis shifted increasingly to the external acts in which it had to manifest itself, such as prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and so on, and these good works were viewed as a “satisfaction of work.” Soteriology was altogether externalized. Not the application of salvation by the Holy Spirit to the heart of the sinner but the achievement of so-called good—often totally arbitrary—works was regarded as the way of salvation. Christian discipleship consisted in copying the life and suffering of Christ, which was vividly portrayed before people’s eyes. Martyrs, ascetics, and monks were the best Christians (508).

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