Thursday, August 26, 2010

Just a little piece left to us?

I have nearly finished Beauty for Truth's Sake by Stratford Caldecott, and I intend to review it in the next few days. But since I've been blogging a lot on Calvin, one particular passage has been gnawing at me. It has nothing to do with the main argument of the book, but nevertheless Caldecott takes the trouble to spell it out with some force, so I feel the urge to respond.

He makes the following statement with regard to human effort and divine grace:
As St. Paul says: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church" (Col. 1:24, my emphasis [that is, Caldecott's]). This sentence has often been taken by theologians to refer to our cooperation with God in our own salvation and deification.... As the Catholic Catechism puts it: "God grants his creatures not only their existence, but also the dignity of acting on their own, of being causes and principles for each other, and thus of cooperating in the accomplishment of his plan." It is represented in the Catholic Mass by the drop of water with which the priest slightly dilutes the cup of wine that is about to become the blood of Christ. This is the tiny and indispensable human contribution needed if heaven is truly to descend to earth, and earth finally to be integrated with the everlasting Trinity.
This passage, as it contributes nothing to the argument of the book, might as well have been put there entirely to irritate Calvinists. I note, with some irony, that the very next sentence reads, "Speculations like those I have mentioned in this chapter will appear forced to many."

All that aside, I wanted to make a serious point about this line of reasoning, as I find it very common not only in Catholic thinking but in most non-Reformed Christian thought. God's grace plays a huge role, but the contribution of man gets just a drop--that oh so precious drop appears to make all the difference in the world. Why can't the Calvinist just acknowledge that one drop? Why must he strip human beings of every contribution to God's work of grace?

Before I answer the question, why don't we press the question further? Why do Calvinists even get out of bed every morning? For heaven's sake, why did Calvin strain himself to death (literally, I think) working as a clergyman in the newly Reformed Church? If he didn't even believe one drop of contribution was left to man, why did he appear to put in so much effort? Many who consider these questions conclude that the Calvinist must simply be irrational, or strangely obsessed.

But now let me hint at an answer. It is telling that Catholic teaching leaves here only a drop of human contribution. If it were more than that, this would sound like an affront to God's grace, and would violate so many passages of Scripture that seem so clear on God's grace being preeminent. So man, it is thought, must out of humility be content with his little drop for which he can claim credit.

The Calvinist, on the other hand, leaves nothing to himself, but in this way he paradoxically takes on everything. Consider a few quotes from St. Paul:
"But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them--though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me." (1 Cor. 15:10)

"I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me." (Gal. 2:19-20)

"I can do all things through him who strengthens me." (Phil. 4:13)
Paul is not talking about adding his drop of water. No, he can accomplish all things, he can work harder than any of them, even to the point of being crucified with Christ. Yet not one of these things happens apart from God himself. It is only because Paul is united with Christ that he is able to accomplish so much.

So it is by embracing the most profound humility that one actually obtains the greatest empowerment. The Calvinist sees himself as nothing, but therefore gets to see all of the good that he does as nothing less than divine. And this is perhaps the most incredibly presumptuous, most absurdly arrogant thing a man could possibly think about himself--that his actions are actually the works of God--unless that is exactly what God promises to be true.

Union with God cannot be separated from the Calvinist's view of grace. The Christian must be a total paradox--capable of nothing but capable of everything, wretched and human yet sanctified and clothed with divinity. The joy of Calvinism is that one can not only worship God as sovereign and transcendent, but actually participate in his transcendent life. (Otherwise how could he possibly conceive of prayer as so vital?)

No little drops for the Calvinist. One might say it's all or nothing, but that would be a misunderstanding. For the Calvinist, it's all and nothing.

1 comment:

  1. I can't substantiate it, but Doug Wilson and a couple others claim Napoleon once said he'd rather face ten thousand armed men than one Calvinist who thought he was doing the will of God.


I love to hear feedback!