God's grace in the world or not?

Tom Wright describes how 'Leslie Newbigin, whose name you will know, a wonderful man I was privileged to know in the latter years of his life, was once asked whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about some issue. He said, "I'm neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead."'

I am not too well so I am in bed with my laptop, not an uncommon thing, reading some articles on Schleiermacher and Barth and various blogs and a bit about Stanley Hauerwas, whose name I keep coming across.

I am thinking about my father's theological insights, we have quite an email dialogue going on. Reading Schleiermacher is helping me to understand my dad's doctrine of God. I am also thinking about my recent conversation with David Ould and all of this in light of the last essay I had returned, which they are asking if they can put in the library (!) and whether I will always think what I articulated in that essay.

Such are the rambling thoughts of a woman with a horrible cold and too many things to read. I am trying to decide whether my perception of God's action in the world and in the lives of those who do not worship him, is shaped by theology, doctrine, or is also, in part, the product of an optimistic nature (mine).

You see Stanley Hauerwas seems to propose something rather less than an optimistic view of the world. In my last blog-post, I rather carelessly asserted that the world recognised the equality of women before the church. In a statement like this - world, equality and church all need expanding upon. It is too crass. It includes thoughts that Jesus broke social taboos to promote an equality between people which had the Roman Empire unsettled to no small degree and that the early church had its female preachers and teachers but then the later church, as we know, promoted a theology of womanhood leaving a lot to be desired. In fact female desire was what it obsessed over and blamed women for. See here.

But I digress...a little. In David's response he cited a world that 'does not know Christ nor has no desire to please him'. I wonder whether I can confidently claim such a thing. Theologically, I think that I should and I suppose if we return to desire again, the 'world' does desire many things and many are not about pleasing Christ, however, it would seem that unconsciously some of the actions of this very world do please him, or at least that has been my experience. I remember being a discordant voice in a bible study group once for voicing what I perceived as the progression we had made in the last 50 years in terms of our treatment of one another. I was pleased to read in Tom Wright's 'Simply Christian', "People sometimes talk as if the last 50 years have seen a decline in morality. But actually these have been some of the most morally sensitive, indeed moralistic, times in recorded history. People care, and care passionately, about the places where the world needs putting to rights."

Over the summer I developed much reason to believe that the world, as I hint, even if rather naively with my reasoning about women, can exhibit the compassion of the God that created it, even if it does not attribute such action to God. With an open attitude to the idea that God's grace is at work in the world and through people who do not yet submit to Christ's Lordship, I worked with a ministry seeking partnership with secular care agencies who might not proclaim the faith, but do exhibit the behaviours of a compassionate God by his common grace. Spina explores the biblical narratives where, 'outsiders... do something that promotes the agenda of [God], their outsider status notwithstanding... and magnify the emphasis on God’s sovereignty and grace.'2

But it would seem that Hauwerwas entertains that:

“The world” is a culture of unbelief, hatred, and violence. The church is a gathering of people constituted by the death and resurrection of Christ in such a way that they lead lives so altered by the sanctifying power of the cross that they live by the law of forgiveness and the perfection of virtue. They are ruled by the Sermon on the Mount, and, since the church is the embodiment of the eschaton in time, it achieves the perfection there required of it. It is a “Messianic community” where the kingdom of God “takes visible, practical form.”

Karl Barth writes proposing that 'the power of God can be detected neither in the world of nature nor in the souls of men.'3

However Barth goes on to believe that the church can be the inner circle of the Kingdom of God, and the state the outer.4 During my summer ministry experiences, I learnt that with a creation-centred theology, I could enthusiastically pursue relationship with secular agencies as I reflected on ever-increasing circles of community and God's grace in the world. I was left hope-filled.

Pleasing God? Common grace? At work in the world - yes. 
I still have much to learn about how I articulate these things.

1 Tom Wright, Simply Christian

2 Spina, The Faith of the Outsider, 10

3 Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 36

4 Green, (ed.), Karl Barth : theologian of freedom, 265


David Ould said...

hi Rachel,

First, a small thing - it was me and not my brother who wrote that comment. However, it is worth taking the time to distinguish between us. You will find that we are quite different in many ways.

What is probably worth considering here is not simply a doctrine of grace, but also a doctrine of sin. It is the latter, notwithstanding the former, that prompted me to make the comments I did originally.

In particular, I am struck by the strength of these sort of clear Biblical texts,

John 1:10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.

Romans 8:7 the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so.

Colossians 1:21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of {21 Or minds, as shown by} your evil behavior.

and so on.

istm that a proper doctrine of sin simply excludes the notion that the world (given its utter hostility to the true God revealed in the person of Jesus) would please Him, let alone desire to do so. The Bible's consistent testimony in these things is of the world's rebellion.

You speak of common grace, but I think you're a little confused in what you mean by this. So, it is certainly true that,

Matthew 5:45 ...[your Father] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

That is common grace, but it is somewhat removed to any suggestion that the world would, somehow, speak prophetically for God, let alone understand Him. Common grace is God being gracious to the world, not through the world in the way that you suggest.

I remain utterly unconvinced from the Scriptures that what you suggest could happen is even possible. I'd be delighted to be persuaded otherwise but, at the moment it seems to me that it is only your own position on this specific issue and your natural optimism (as you put it, and don't hear me saying that is necessarily a bad thing) that leads you to that conclusion. The natural outworking of that, however, is to suggest that you're not making a substantive Biblical argument.

Rach said...

I agree with you, this is absolutely what I am working through - wondering how much of this way of thinking resides within me.

Very perceptive

Rach said...

But David how do you read Romans 2:14 - 15? Looking at the NICNT, John Murray on page 73 believes that the law of God confronts non-Christians and registers itself in their consciences by reason of what they natively and constitutionally are so that they do things which this law prescribes and this doing is by natural impulse.

I am hoping to write an essay on Brunner, Barth and point of contact theory and common grace. Hopefully this will help to further develop my thinking on these things.

Rach said...

Having this conversation about these things over at facebook with Pluralist

Adrian John Worsfold Every time I try to comment in those blogs under 'Google Account' it chucks away what I have written.

Schleiermacher is a phenomenologist, basically, who sees the reality of God rested in the mental constructs we make (phenomenology!) and so part of the world, part of culture.

These days we have these conservative postmodern types of either evangelical or Church bias who reject objectivity in the world or human mind, so it becomes a limited drama of the scriptures or the Church to be acted as outputs. Karl Barth wouldn't have seen himself as grandfather of postmodernism, but he is just as Schleiermacher is grandfather of liberal theology.

Personally I'm with F. W. Newman, brother of John Henry, who preached against the moral perfection of Christ. Once you get that, so much is invented; indeed all this stuff about God's grace working on the secular (how can you be so superior?) is no more than fancy.

Rachel Marszalek Interesting Adrian - I will put this into the blog comments if that is okay - it might start conversation - you are making me wonder about how deeply ingrained within Evangelicalism is the idea of the depravity of 'man'. I had a great deal of difficulty with this doctrine when my faith became a living faith, which is the way I describe it for lack of other words. The theological idea of God's common grace allows for my optimistic view of human nature.

Superior? Hope not. Barth began his sermons dwelling on his own sinfulness.

David Ould said...

Hi Rach,

Sorry, realise an answer to your v important question is still outstanding. Having a massive week and want to do it full justice (which will, I think, mean a blogpost of my own).
Appreciate your patience.

Rach said...

Bless you, have a good week.

David Ould said...

Hi Rach,

realise it's almost a month since I promised a post. A broadband blackout and week at Uluru are now out of the way. I'll get to it!

David Ould said...

Rach, it's finally up. Here.

Thanks so much for your patience.

Anonymous said...

Some thoughts of my own on this debate of yours:
Just which church are you talking about?


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