Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Theological Surprise

As I did a couple of years ago with a post on Calvin, I’ll try today to confine myself mostly to statements about my impressions of the theology I’ve read lately. It means I’ll be exposing my ignorance more than I would if I blustered through with theological statements of my own like a person who knows what he’s talking about. But I can live with that.

I’ll have to start with my impressions of the Catholic kids I knew growing up. They were strange and exotic from the start, because they didn’t go to school with me. But even in day-to-day details their culture stayed consistently foreign to my sensibility. The boys were generally mean kids, and I was always disconcerted by the weird contrast between their neat outfits of white shirts and black ties and their rough-and-ready, aggressive attitudes. The girls were nicer, and their plaid skirts were completely fascinating. Most importantly, a thick veil of mystery hung between myself and their beliefs. I knew they had to take a religion class in school, but it seemed to me that for most of them religion remained merely an academic subject – a subject lagging somewhere behind algebra in terms of interest to the students. They talked about confession and church attendance as rituals to be observed; I don’t remember them talking about hymns they liked or trips they took with the youth group or life-changing experiences or any of the other things I and my Protestant friends were more used to talking about when discussing church. If their beliefs had a moral effect, it seemed to me a negative one.

So with that shaky basis of knowledge constructed during the impressionable years of my youth, any surprises I’ve experienced about Catholicism later in life could simply be credited to my own blind spots. Maybe everyone else knows these things. But if you had given me two cards a few years ago – one that said YES and one that said NO – and asked me to place them on the words “Catholic” and “Protestant” in such a way as to correspond to the respective camp’s answer to the question “Has any man ever been able to earn eternal life on his own?” I would have assigned NO to the Protestants and YES to the Catholics. (I apologize for the convoluted nature of that contrived scenario. While writing it, I imagined myself as a contestant on a theological game show: “Come on down! You’re our next contestant on The Doctrine Is Right!”)

But I’ve been reading Aquinas’s Treatise on Grace lately, and he surprised me yesterday by answering that question with a resounding NO. According to Thomas, salvation comes by grace alone: God makes the first move, turns the sinner’s heart to Himself, and justifies him as he consents with a movement of faith. He makes it very clear that no sinner can turn his own heart to God, and that faith does not earn eternal life. But to complete the picture, clarify any possible misunderstanding, and tie up one important loose end, the divine doctor addresses Adam in his state of innocence. Without the stain of sin, could Adam have merited eternal life on the basis of his pious action? And again his answer is clearly NO. God made man in such a way that he is intended for eternal glory yet incapable of reaching his proper goal on his own power. Eternal life is out of man’s reach not just because of his corrupted nature, but even by his original created nature. Sin did not create our need for God’s help but only increased it. My game-show performance becomes an even greater embarrassment when I remember that Calvin says explicitly that Adam could have raised himself to eternal life before the Fall.

But again, I’m just surprised at what I’ve found. There are some problems in taking Aquinas to represent the doctrine of the Catholic Church as a whole, much less the beliefs of individual Catholics like those mean kids struggling through religion class. And there a big problems with taking Calvin to represent Protestant theology, as if that could ever be unified. But a player who placed the cards contrary to my way could have made at least one good case in support of his decision.

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