Sunday, 17 April 2011

Divine Grace

I've always admired John Wesley as a theologian. The upright Fellow of Lincoln 'submitted to beome more vile' as he put it, and went field preaching at the urging of his friend George Whitfield. Whitfield wasn't too much of a thinker, but he'd seen a need, and responded to it.

The 18th Century was a time of upheaval in England. Agricultural enclosure had been going on for a couple of centuries, but inventions such as Jethro Tull's seed drill (1701) needed larger fields to be fully effective. As enclosure proceeded, land was, in modern terminology, privatised, and mostly passed into the possession of the wealthier farmers. Many people were left landless, and either became agricultural labourers, joined the army or navy, or moved to where work could be found in the mines or the factories which were beginning to appear. In the process, a new underclass appeared.

The Anglican Church, organised on the parish system, was too inflexible to cope with population movements. People like the miners of Kingswood, near Bristol, where Wesley preached, were effectively beyond its reach. I used to live on the St Austell Moors in Cornwall, an area where there was almost no population until the china clay pits were opened in the second quarter of the 19th Century. There was no Anglican church until the last century. As new villages developed, the Methodists moved in, and as 19th Century Methodism was so strongly teetotal, there isn't a pub in the whole area.

This created a problem for the Calvinism of people like Whitfield. The western church had taken predestination for granted since Augustine in the 4th Century; grace was irresistible, and if you were saved, it was because God had you on his little list, drawn up before creation. If you weren't, it served you right anyway; you were a sinner. That worked in medieval times, and continued to do so as long as the church could reach the entire population. Wesley and his friends found themselves in a new situation.

People were still Christian; the Bible story - or at any rate the Bible as read by the church - was taken for granted as history. Accounts of people crying out in early Methodist meetings might suggest that some were going in real fear of death and hell. If so, it's not surprising. So crowds flocked to hear preachers when they came. We read accounts of people coming from miles around; in one case, a man was converted while leaning of his gatepost listening to George Whitfield preach a mile away. Representatives of the church were going out to where the people were, presenting the message in a new way, and faith came to life for many of those who heard. It's an inspiring story, but Wesley was more than an evangelist; he was a thinker.

In the previous century, Jacobus Arminius had come up with new ideas, challenging the view that salvation is fully determined by God, with no free contribution by ourselves. On the old Augustinian theory - Calvin and the other reformers we essentially reworking Augustine - salvation was an arbitrary matter of the divine will. Those outside the church, who Wesley now had to deal with, were likely to assume they were excluded from God's elect. Wesley's thought on the matter was eventually summarised in his 'alls', though I believe they were actually written by William Fitzgerald a century ago:

All men (taking men as inclusive of women; you could get away with it back then) need to be saved.

All men can be saved.

All men can know they are saved.

All men can be saved to the uttermost.

Salvation, then, was open to everyone. Wesley accepted the tradition of the Western church, which is extremely pessimistic about human nature, but nobody was so terrible that they were outside the possibility of God's grace. I'm not so keen on the third 'all'. Undoubtedly, many people in those meetings did have tremendous emotional experiences, but the end result has been a tendency in some traditions to believe not only that salvation is a single, forensic, event, in which God forgives us for our sins and redeems us, but that it has to be an emotional experience. I think that goes far too far.

Wesley, however, was surely correct in seeing that salvation is more than this; it's an ongoing process. To him, there was the possibility of 'Christian perfection'. These days, it's not a helpful expression. 'Perfection' has come to refer to something absolute, which can't be bettered. Once, however, it referred simply to maturity; a 'perfect insect' is the mature stage, the adult. Christian perfection was a state in which we don't knowingly commit sin. He encouraged others to claim it, but never did so himself.

However, from the perspective of our very different position today, I think there are problems. As long as everyone's a Christian - let's remember that Wesley's famous conversion was a theological one; he'd been a Christian long before - free choice works. But these days, a child of devout Christians is far more likely to have a meaningful opportunity to accept God's grace than someone born to militant atheists, and the child of devout Muslims, born in a village in Saudi Arabia has virtually none. The offer of salvation has become a lottery, at best.

Then we tend to assume that the birth of a child is down to God's will. So God wills that someone be born into a Muslim environment, then they go to hell for being a Muslim. If we're not careful, we drift into a slightly subtler version of predestination.

Then there's a weakness in traditional Arminianism, which becomes evident in the language some preachers use. God, it's said, 'can't' force us to accept salvation. How can we use language like that of an omnipotent being? If we're not careful, we end up proclaiming a pretty feeble deity.

At the same time, if God either can't or won't force us into heaven, death can, and does, force us into hell. Dying allegedly cuts us off permanently from the offer of salvation. Once again, of course, God had always been assumed to determine the time of our deaths. So, again, we're in danger of sliding into predestination. Even if we manage to avoid this somehow, we've still made death at least as strong as God, if not stronger. We like to claim that 'Christ has conquered death', but the Arminian Christ hasn't done a very good job of it.

Not only do we have problems with a God who, if he hasn't determined the time of our dying, is unable to reach us through it, but we have ethical difficulties as well. Why would a just God prescribe infinite punishment for finite sin? It's almost as bad as the Augustinian God throwing unbaptised babies into hell.

But how do we know that death is the end of hope for those outside the church? It's an assumption, larded out with selected Biblical snippets. But we can just as easily select other texts which point the other way. Jonah, for instance, is quite sure that God heard him from the fish's belly, treated as a metaphor for she'ol, or the grave. I don't like speculating about what happens after death. God knows; we don't. But I can't help wondering whether Origen was closer to the truth than orthodoxy, with his idea that all creation will be saved, with the Devil himself bringing up the rear. If death doesn't cut us off from God after all, then we may be free to reject God, but he has all eternity to work on us. Perhaps there are strange aeons when even death may finally die.

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