Saturday, February 18, 2012

Nature vs. Grace, or Sin vs. Grace? 

I recently returned from my second trip to the Philippines.  I was reading a good deal about the Two Kingdoms Theology from David VanDrunen and Michael Horton before and during the trip, and also discussing this theology with many of the people I was traveling with.  It’s a hot topic right now in the Reformed world and the trip to the Philippines gave me a wonderful opportunity to see the debate in a new light.

The Philippines is a beautiful country full of beautiful people.  It is also a country plagued with many difficult challenges.  Their traffic is a constant source of stress and inefficiency- as an illustration of the magnitude of this problem, a 120-mile bus trip took us about six hours, mostly because of the slow traffic and bad roads.  This was not an isolated experience.  They also have serious problems with corruption in their government and often severe pollution in their water and air.  Although there is a great deal of wealth in the country, there is also a very large proportion of the country living in extreme poverty.  I saw large slum settlement everywhere I went- what appeared to be many thousands of families living in shacks crowded very close together.  Finding a job can be very difficult especially for anyone over the age of about 40 or so.

 I thought a great deal about the condition of the Philippines and other poor countries while I was there and since.  I believe that it comes down to issues of worldview.  The typical Filipino outlook on the world is that they need to be rescued from their fate by some hero- the rich, the government, or foreigners.  This worldview essentially reflects a dichotomy in their minds between nature and grace.  Nature is the world as it actually is, and their need is to be rescued from that state of nature by some higher power.  That this should be their worldview is unsurprising, and not meant as any insult to the Filipinos, since this is in fact the default worldview of everyone.  We view our environment or our natural state as the problem and look to God, or the gods, or supermen in society to rescue us from this state.  This is the natural worldview of the pagan religions which view the cosmos as an essentially malevolent, or at least harsh and indifferent, environment, and where by the proper sacrifices and ceremonies we might induce the gods to protect us from this harsh environment.  The pagans as a rule huddled in their forests and were terrified of what was in the dark, offering sacrifices to appease the gods whenever they so much as built a house or dammed a river in order to survive.

The Philippines is about 85% Roman Catholic.  The Roman Catholic religion essentially sees the same dichotomy, between nature and grace.  God’s grace, delivered to us through saints, through the church, through the sacraments, delivers us from a state of brute nature.  Roman Catholics essentially see nature as the problem.  The way God created us is insufficient; it is necessary to add His special grace to our essential nature in order for us to transcend our nature and live in a state of bliss.  This is why Roman Catholicism does not fundamentally change the worldviews of nations into which it spreads; looking at Latin America or a country like the Philippines, Roman Catholicism simply exists as a thin veneer over the culture already there.  They change some of the names, but they do not change the fundamental outlook on life.

Of the remaining 15%, a large proportion is Pentecostal.  Pentecostalism essentially sees the same worldview, a worldview where salvation is achieved by escaping nature through the grace of God.  The major difference between Pentecostalism and Roman Catholicism is really a pretty small one; they just see the form that grace takes differently.  They see it in ecstatic experiences and transcendent supernatural gifts, tongues, healings and prophecies.  They look for salvation in being transported out of God’s creation into a heavenly transcendent state.  Once again, the underlying worldview remains intact, and nothing really changes.

The Reformation sees salvation in fundamentally different terms, fundamentally Biblical terms.  The real dichotomy is not nature versus grace; it is sin versus grace.  When God created human beings, He said that it was “very good.”  The problem is not nature; the problem is sin.  Adam rebelled against God and plunged the race into a state of sin, a state of alienation from God.  The true dichotomy then is not between nature and grace, but between sin and grace.  The grace of God does not free us from the bonds of nature, it frees us from the bonds of sin.  The effect of this is to bring us back into harmony and fellowship with God, and also to bring us back into harmony with nature- our own nature and the nature of the creation in which we live.

Countries which were strongly affected first by Christianity and then by the Reformation saw a number of profound transformations.  In particular the way they view labor changed.  This is what we describe as “the Protestant work ethic.”  The basis of this ethic is the idea that man was created to take dominion of the creation through his labor, and that this is not a burdensome or unpleasant chore.  It is a joyful task that Adam was given, to emulate God’s own creative work in Adam’s limited and creaturely way, to bring continuing order and improvement to the creation which God had made.  The problem with labor is sin.  When God curse Adam, He said that Adam would now till the ground by the sweat of his brow and that creation would rebel against man by bringing forth thorns and thistles.  Man would now be out of harmony with the natural creation and with his fellow man, reflecting his alienation from God through rebellion.  The problem therefore is sin.  The problem is not the nature that God created; the problem is man’s rebellion against God which resulted in man being out of fellowship and harmony with that nature.

Jesus proved that by taking on the human nature in its entirety and in that human nature obeying God perfectly.  He demonstrated that God did not make a mistake when He made His creation, or when He made man.  He was the faithful servant, and in being the faithful servant, He redeemed the very concept of humanity.  He suffered to pay the price for our sin, and He obeyed perfectly to satisfy God’s expectations of humanity.  By faith in Him we are reunited to Him and all of the benefits which He earned are now ours to enjoy.

At this point we must avoid the mistake of thinking that the effect of Christ’s work was to restore us to Adam’s mandate.  Adam’s mandate was completed by Christ.  He was the faithful servant and accomplished all that God demands of humanity.  We are not freed from our sin in order to now be able to earn our salvation; our salvation is entirely complete in Christ.  But neither does this mean that Adam’s mandate is irrelevant; Adam’s mandate simply describes what it means to be a human being, to be in dominion over the creation which God has made.

One of the benefits of Christ’s work is that we are brought back into fellowship with nature.  Out of this Protestant mindset came an explosion of scientific understanding, political freedom and economic development.  People no longer looked to kings or emperors or popes to save them; they looked to the salvation of Jesus Christ, which gave them the ability to get back into fellowship with the creation and with their fellow man.  They realized that creation is not supposed to be a big scary unknowable thing; it was created by God, for man, to be understood and carefully husbanded by man.  So they began to set out to understand it.  They set out to learn how to steward it more faithfully.  The renaissance, the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, the information age- all of these things came out of this fundamental change in the way people viewed creation, and it was the Protestant understanding of the world that brought all of this on.  Catholic piety taught that the holiest men withdrew from the world, withdrew from labor, and went to monasteries and hermitages to contemplate spiritual realities [edit: or, insofar as they engaged the world, did so only through "religious" activities such as evangelism and charity].  Protestant piety taught that the man of God would be active in the world in every field, would work at trades, raise families, be active in government, all as different ways of becoming what God had intended for him to be and which Christ had enabled and empowered him to become.

This is not of course to claim that all of those involved in this process were Protestants.  Many of them were not even Christians.  But they benefited from the Biblical worldview which Protestants taught.  The western world today continues to benefit from the left-over capital of this worldview even as this worldview is largely lost.  And as the worldview is lost, we see these societies decaying and losing the solid basis for the prosperity that once was gained through work.

Which brings me back to the Philippines.  It is my impression that people in the Philippines mostly do not view work as the way to prosperity.  They believe that the world is a malevolent place.  Work is done merely to get by.  But in order to truly become wealthy, it is necessary to have the right connections, to know the right people.  Roman Catholicism and Pentecostalism do nothing at all to change this worldview.  The worldview will change only through Biblical Christianity.  That Christianity will show them that as each one of them is united to Christ by faith, their understanding of their own nature and their relationship to the creation and to their fellow man will change, so that they recognize that they are to take dominion over the creation, insofar as they are able.  As they do this, more and more of the society will learn to live in relative harmony with nature and with one another, and the result will be that they will begin to experience just a small taste of the blessings that God has for us in heaven when all of the effects of sin are fully blotted out.  This has been the source of all of the prosperity of the west; not natural resources, or superior genes, or accidents of history, or exploitation of others.  The prosperity of the west is the result of a Christian worldview, and is therefore replicable anywhere else in the world.

This also means that the prosperity of the west is something that can be lost, and will be lost, unless we recover this worldview ourselves.

Next I want to look at the implications of these truths for the Two Kingdoms theology as it is now being taught by Horton, VanDrunen and the rest at Westminster Seminary in Escondido.  Update:  Part 2 posted.

I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts because so far you still sound like a Two Kingdom guy. You even took the Two Kingdom position on Adam's mandate. And I don't think Two Kingdom theology denies that Christianity impacts society at all. In fact I think it can expect society to be changed by the preaching of the gospel and the changing of hearts.

So I am waiting for your next one.
I am waiting for the next one, too. This is one of the paradoxes of Scripture, perhaps. Those who seek God for material blessings are asking Him to bless their idols; but He certainly does add material blessings--as He chooses--to those who seek Him and obey Him. I think worldview is very important, but the real foundation of godliness may lie at a deeper level.
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