Saturday, October 18, 2008

Sola Gratia

I recently finished reading Between Noon and Three: Law, Romance and the Outrage of Grace by Robert Farrar Capon. The book has set me spinning, but unfortunately, since I had to return it to the library, I no longer have it with me. So I’m going to wing it.

The central touchstone is indeed the outrage of grace. Capon attempts to lead us to a visceral confrontation with this outrage by engaging in a parable of a couple caught up in an extramarital affair. He does this knowing full well that it will offend our sense of rightness and justice unless the narrative somehow punishes the two parties for their waywardness. You know, someone dies as a result, or catches a disease, or one partner finds out and slays them both, or whatever scenario could invent that would balance the moral scales. He does this simply because that he knows the we all love to be moral accountants, tallying up the sin beans, so we can balance the books in the end.

Then he goes a step further. In the parable, the man (whose name is Paul) realizes that philandering is simply part of who he is. It is an ingrained mental and emotional habit. He is, in fact, tired of it. He would like to stop. He has come to despise himself for the deceit, and ultimately for the lack that such behaviour creates in his life. He wants to stop, and he would like to convince himself that he could, but realizes that in fact he is virtually powerless to do so. The taste of the moment is too sweet, even though he knows full well the bitterness that engulfs it. He is, to his own mind, dead. He can no more stop philandering than a dead man can stop being dead.

Outrageous indeed. But wait. There is more.

What if the woman (whose name is Laura) knows all this about him. What if, knowing that he will cheat on her also, she simply accepts this, and loves him completely and without reservation. What if this acceptance, this loving is no mere acquiescence of a woman who is really a doormat, but an active engaged choice by one who, in so doing could redeem Paul and all his cheating philandering deadness, and accept him as a real lover. What if, because of this, no matter what he did in the past, or does in the future, they remain complete in their happiness because she wills it so, and allows it to be so.

Do you see where this is headed? No? OK, look at it this way. Paul is us. Laura is Jesus. Now do you see it? It’s a parable. Compare it now to the parable we commonly call The Prodigal Son.

Now THAT’S outrageous.

The rest of Capons book, about two thirds of it, is dedicated to answering all the questions that this scenario raises. As our internal moral theologians scream for some sort of justice, Capon repeatedly returns to one word: Grace.

He is not squishy about it. He fully recognizes and embraces the outrage of it all. He makes what I feel to be a reasonably solid case from scripture. He actually answers many questions that have been rising up in my heart for a few years. And do not mistake this for some sort of pan-universalist soteriology. He grapples with the hard issues. What about hell? What about damnation? What about Romans 6? It’s all included.

We want to rage about cheap grace. The challenge is that for us, the recipients it is cheap. It was expensive for the One Who Gives Grace, but He has done ALL the work. Indeed, He has only ever been the only one who could do any of the work. Ultimately, nothing we could do, good or bad, affects God’s will to redeem us. Dead people can do nothing to change their deadness. Even if we could do something, it would not change our deadness. But as when Jesus called the quite dead Lazarus out of the tomb, like Lazarus we can do nothing except rise and come forth as commanded. We are raised from the dead, in Christ, because God has willed it so.

The outrage comes because we have allowed or inner Moral Theologian/Sin Bean Counter to dominate our conversation about what Jesus has really done. The discussion has too long been listing to the side of Grace Plus. Capon states very clearly that if he seems to be going too far to the Grace Alone side of things, then it is merely a long overdue counterbalance.

I won’t recapitulate the entire book here. I recommend reading it, and I would delight in discussing it. It may be joining my Most Influential List if it holds up after a few more readings and some lively discussion. I’m sure I raised more questions than I answered here. I am still wrestling with some of them myself. Expect more on this.





solarblogger said...

I haven't read that one yet, but in my experience, Capon tends to hold up. When read somewhat carelessly, he'll pull you in, and then later you'll suspect that maybe you capitulated too easily. But when you actually do crack the Bible to see whether his claims fit, they do. There could be more questions to answer in the long haul, I'm sure. But he is an author to be reckoned with.

Jared said...

Interesting read. One of the stronger atheist arguments in my opinion is the objection that if God infallibly knows the future as most Christians claim, then it is not logically possible for us to do anything other than what God knows we will do. So, it doesn't make sense for him to hold us accountable for our actions or send someone to atone for sins. Does he try to address this in the book?

Dubbahdee said...

Yes, Capon does address this. As I mentioned, the last 2/3 of the book is essentially given over to answering the objections his parable raises - though it focuses mostly on the objections raised by the religious. You may or may not feel that his answer is satisfactory.

I'm curious about how you came to my blog. Are you an atheist yourself, or just raising the question?

Thanks for the comment.