Monday, August 20, 2007

A gospel of doing nothing?

When I first began theological studies from a conservative Protestant background, I quickly found a universally accepted truth was that salvation was "by faith alone", it was "by grace" and that it was our duty to "rest" on "Christ's finished work". It was considered important to realize that we could "add nothing" to "Christ's atoning work". It was important that we didn't try to "save ourselves" by "human effort". It was extremely important not to add the least bit of "works" to salvation, otherwise you'd be like those (heretical) Roman Catholics and teach (evil) "Works Based Salvation".

Paul's writings about "by grace through faith not works" were considered "irrefutable proof" of this view. Anyone who said anything different was being "unbiblical" and "straying" from the Bible's teachings. Salvation by "human effort" was how "human religions" worked, and all humans who are "in the flesh" inherently by their psychology wanted to try to save themselves, whereas the fact that Christianity relied on God alone for salvation separated it from other religions and caused it to be "nonsense" and "foolishness" to the "natural man". I found that in some quarters there was even worry that our very belief in and acceptance of Christ's finished work for us might be considered something we do, as a work based on human effort that saves us. Thus, some thought that we ought to think of even our faith in Christ's finished atoning work as something given graciously to us by God.

However, now that I've learned a bit more than I once knew about both Pauline theology and the Church Fathers, it is with amusement that I look back on such ideas and claims.

Advances in biblical scholarship in the last thirty years have well and truly refuted the "irrefutable evidence" of Paul's grace, faith and works language... ironically it turned out that grace didn't mean grace, faith didn't mean faith, and works didn't mean works. The New Perspective on Paul has thus cast Paul's writings in quite a different light to the ideas above. Far from being the apostle who rejects the value of human effort, it in fact turns out that not once in any of his writings does Paul reject or deny the value or saving value of human effort to avail before God, and in fact he regularly affirms it.

Studying the early Church Fathers has been no less interesting. I find it reasonable to assume (contrary to some Protestants) that Christianity didn't suddenly disappear out of the world the moment that the New Testament was completed, and that post-NT Christian writings accurately depict the major doctrines of early Christianity. There's a quote by Clement of Alexandria (~200AD) that succinctly summarizes what appears to have been universal early Christian doctrine: "God desires us to be saved by our own efforts." (Stromata 6.12.96) As is attested in the numerous writings we have from the second century church, Christianity worldwide was a religion of "works based salvation".

It was with great amusement then, and also a little frustration and sadness that I recently read this article which made all the claims I had originally been taught as a conservative protestant about how the true gospel is about us trying to cease from human effort and rely on God's salvation. In the article he writes "We do not need a better set of how to's, or a better teacher, or a better therapist." which brought to my mind all the early Christian writings which boasted about Christianity providing precisely these three things. It is really quite amazing, when I reflect on it, that Christianity has come in such a full circle that this writer, in the belief that he is proclaiming the true Christian gospel can be attacking the very essence of original Christianity.


Blogger Adam said...

thought you might find this interesting...

Blogger Andrew said...

Oh dear. Yes, that article is interesting in a making me sigh and roll my eyes kindof way.


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