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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Faith, Fellowship, and Command

The basis of Adam and Eve's fellowship with God and the role of the command not to eat from the tree raises interesting questions for us as believers. Just what, exactly, establishes our fellowship with God? To observe the command not to eat from the tree, and to observe the result that occurred from the eating from that tree, one might come to believe that the status of man's relationship with God has an ethical basis.

The result of such musings has corrupted a true understanding of what it means to receive life from God. We begin to talk about Adam and Eve's moral capabilities; we say: "posse non peccare et posse peccare," that is, they had the ability not to sin and the ability to sin. We begin to talk of their powers. We begin to talk of a donum superadditum, a superadded grace that gave Adam and Eve certain moral capabilities. All of this points, even if it is denied, to an understanding that life in pristine communion with God is established on an ethical basis. It is to talk of what Adam and Eve could or could not do to remain in their relationship with God, thus making man, not God, the source of the communion between them.

Many problems arise from this understanding. First of all, it makes moral capability into a substance and power that man has in himself. This raises a troubling question: If Adam and Eve's ability to remain in a proper relationship with God was determined by their nature, something they had in themselves, why didn't God make their natures stronger so that they could resist the temptations of Satan? And, if God had done this, what implications does this have for free will? I first puzzled over this, oddly enough, when reading Milton's Paradise Lost.
One of two conclusions become clear, 1) this is an inadequate understanding of fellowship with God and another must be looked for, or 2) we chalk it up to a divine mystery.

The answer, I believe, is sitting right under our noses, and that is, God's grace through faith. Specifically, the Lutheran understanding of faith. Faith is the only way we can uphold that 1) Fellowship with God is completely a gift from God, 2) uphold that Adam and Eve had free will, and 3) It was not Adam and Eve's nature that determined if they continued to have fellowship with God.

If this were otherwise, a few Lutheran teachings would be compromised. One thing this would mean is that sanctification would have to be, whether we like it or not, to whatever extent, a matter of a gratia infusa, an infused grace. It would be a grace that would be instilled in us that would correct and heal our natures and make them strong enough at a certain point so that we could return to the pristine fellowship with God that Adam and Eve enjoyed. It would be a grace that we, as we grew in moral capacities, would be weaned off of so that we could stand on our own two feet before the face of God. This would also mean that, as man's nature is healed, he would begin to be able to believe in God by his own power; faith would, at a certain point, no longer remain monergistic. These things would not only be true of the consummation of our restoration with God, it would also be true of the sanctification process this side of the grave.


Paul Althaus writes:

"Human ethics can never play the role of securing or preserving man's position before God. This position is something given to him by God's love; it is not earned, nor can it be earned. And this is true not only at the outset, but always; God's saving grace is always prevenient grace. Ethical righteousness as a pathway to salvation is not only an impassible, but also a forbidden, pathway. For to follow this pathway would be to surrender the relationship of childlike trust."

Althaus tells us that to make our thinking and action the determining factor of our status before God is to fall into the same sin of Adam and Eve; he writes: "It is an expression of his sin, indeed of the basal sin by which he fell and continually falls away from trusting faith in God's love."

If fellowship with God is a gift, then, according to a Lutheran understanding, it can only be received with the open hands of faith; it cannot be enacted and/or preserved through our action. If fellowship with God was enacted and/or preserved through our action, it would cease to be a gift from God. Therefore, fellowship with God is a matter of faith, not of ethics.

Written into this gift of fellowship with God is the shape of the divine life before God, man, and the rest of creation. This is not a condition placed on top of fellowship with God (e.g. Yes, you have fellowship with God, but you must also do. . . if you desire to remain in this fellowship), rather, it is an expression of what it means to live in meaningful and self-giving relationships, reflective of God's own self-giving. It is not even a give and take situation; the life of self-giving is an outflowing of God's own love towards us. There is no disjunction here; God's love toward us is the same love that is expressed through us back towards God, neighbor, and in faithful stewardship of God's creation. In the pristine state of fellowship with God, there is no distinction between indicative and imperative. The gebot (command), as Althaus states, "is present as the reverse side of the offer [Augebot] with which the eternal love of God originally encounters man. Love's offer says: God wants to be for me; he wants to be my God. He has created me as man, and this means, for personal fellowship with him--for participation in his life in the partnership of love. Just as he, my God, freely gives himself to me, so he calls me also, in his offer, to free self-giving. Thereby he calls me to be his image. Such is his love."

In man's pristine state, there is no distinction between what God wills and accomplishes towards us (indicative), and what he wills and desires from us (imperative); all is wrapped up in the single and undivided will of God towards us, that is, the gift of divine fellowship with him and the rest of creation. As David Scaer writes:

"The law in its earliest expression is a positive statement of God's relationship to the world and the world's relationship to God. In this form the law is more indicative than imperative. It is more description than it is requirement. To say it better, in this form the law's imperative nature and the indicative of God's and man's relationship to each other are perfectly harmonized. . . The distinction between indicative and imperative is theologically unjustifiable for saints as saints." (“Sanctification in Lutheran Theology,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 49, no.
2-3 (1985), 186.)

In his pristine state, man's recognition of God's love towards him in creation, his promise to sustain and provide for his life, and the promise of fellowship with himself and with fellow man is no different than man's recognition that God, in his commands for us, desires only our blessing and benefit. Althaus writes: "Thus the command promises life; it is a commandment eis zoen (Rom. 7:10). It calls me into life with God; that is, into freedom. . . and into love, which is true life." Therefore, to question and reject God's commandment not to eat from the tree is to question and reject the life God offered them. David Scaer writes:

"He was prohibited from stepping out of this positive relationship with God. But this prohibition is not arbitrarily superimposed on man to test him, but was simply the explanation or description of what would happen to man if he stepped outside of the relationship with God in which he was created. The indicative was its own imperative. . . By stepping outside of the created order, man brought calamity upon himself. The act provided its own consequences. In attempting to become like God he placed himself outside a positive relationship with God, so that now God was seen as the enemy placing unjust demands upon him." ("The Law and the Gospel in Lutheran Theology," Logia 3, no. 1 (1994), 30.)

Consequently, to reject God's command is to reject God himself, to question whether God has the best intentions for us. It is fundamentally an expression of a lack of faith, a lack of trust in God's love and care for us. The fall of man is not a reflection of a default in the nature of man, and thus in God's ability to create, but rather affirms the fact that as beings that are created free, we have a question that is ever before of us: whether we will have faith in God's gracious favor and will towards us (both indicative and imperative), or whether we will reject God's favor and will.


Piotr Malysz writes:

"Humans are created to love God, their fellow man, and God’s gift of creation. By definition, they are social and vocational beings, relating to others in such a way as to further their good through God appointed means. In so doing, they surrender their being in all its individualism only to gain it back, in, with and through the being of another. Only by receiving and giving can they realize their humanity. Only thus can they be human beings.

"It has already been indicated that love consists in self-giving. Naturally there can be no love under coercion. Thus with its origin in the divine love, human existence is one of freedom. God did not create automatons but beings that were beautiful, interesting and worthwhile for their own sake—individuals with the capacity, of their own free will, to reflect the love received. A loving relationship by nature implies an option for un-love. Love as self-giving implies the possibility of rejection. It is in this context of what love is that the presence in the garden of the tree of knowledge of good and evil finds its purpose. To Adam and Eve was entrusted all that God had created with the exception of one tree, of which they were expressly forbidden to eat. In negative terms, the tree presents itself as an alternative to God's love; it makes the possibility of choosing un-love, or self-love, a real one. In positive terms, it underscores the free and self-giving character of the divine-human relationship, pointing to the centrality of love in the constitution of man. From man's perspective, it makes love possible. Finally, it points to the fundamental significance of trust as an inseparable aspect of love. Adam and Eve knew their creator intimately in his self-sharing. All they were and all that they had came from him. It would seem there surely was a significant basis for trust. And yet, incomprehensibly but in how familiar a way, they gave credence to the serpent's deceitful promise." ("Third Use of the Law in Light of Creation and the Fall," Logia 11, no. 3 (2002), 13.)
He writes: "There can be no love under coercion." As beings that are created free, there must always be the possibility to reject God's offer of the divine life. This is not ethically determined but rather reflects the necessity of freedom to mark relationships of self-giving love. For this reason the imperative must always remain. Althaus writes:

"The command is grounded wholly in the offer; it is wholly borne by God's gift to us. It is this gift that stands at the beginning: God's wanting to be for us. The offer, not the command, is primary. But precisely because this is an offer made in love--love that seeks me as a person--this offer, this gift, necessarily (with the necessity of God's love) becomes also a summons. God cannot be my God in a saving way unless I let him be my God. Otherwise the nature of the personal relationship, as God himself intends it, would be contradicted. He calls me to trust him above all things."

The option for un-love must always remain a real one; we cannot be and remain truly human, living in a meaningful relationship with God if, for whatever reason, we are not able to reject God and his love. This is what separates us from the rest of God's creation, it is what makes our expressions of love toward God and neighbor meaningful.

It might be objected, here, that this means nothing else than that fellowship with God is ultimately determined by man's decision to accept God in faith or reject him, thus making fellowship ethically determined. This objection, though, is a misunderstanding of faith, and how it is created and sustained.


If Adam and Eve's power and ability to remain in fellowship with God is something that was written into man himself, into his nature (posse non peccare), the posse peccare would be either a deficiency of that nature or would be its own (negative) power and ability. To say such is to misunderstand what nature is. It is true that man has a heart, mind, and will whose intentionality determines whether we are slaves to sin or are sons of God, the question is where does the quality of heart, mind, and will come from? Was the quality of Adam and Eve's heart, mind, and will, something that they had located in themselves, written into their very natures at creation? If so, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that the fall was a product of a qualitative deficiency in Adam and Eve's nature, and thus a deficiency in creation itself.

All of this is to misunderstand the character of the life Adam and Eve received from God. If fellowship with God is determined by a qualitative nature inherent in Adam and Eve, it can only be continually realized by Adam and Eve's autonomous moral exertion. Creation and fellowship with God can no longer be a gift that is received. Even if fellowship was originally a gift, through creation, its continued realization would be determined by man alone.

Roman Catholic theology has avoided an implication that there was something deficient in the nature of man by making a distinction between the image of God and the likeness of God. The image of God is seen as the faculties identified with man's rational capacities. The likeness of God was a donum superadditum, a super added gift given to man up and above his nature that made him capable of remaining in his pristine relationship with God. Saint Augustine writes: "Man was, therefore, made upright, and in such a fashion that he could either continue in that uprightness—though not without divine aid—or become perverted by his own choice." Even this, though, implies that something was lacking in man's creation. It paints a type of synergistic understanding of fellowship with God--partly man's naturally given abilities, partly God's divine gift. On the other hand, what this avoids is an understanding that man was not given enough "stuff" to remain in pristine bliss; what this upholds is that man alone is at fault for the fall of mankind.

It is this author's opinion that pristine fellowship with God never devolves from being pure gift into being continually realized only through autonomous moral action. And as gift, as with all of God's divine giving, it can only be received with the open hands of faith. Emil Brunner writes:

"Human existence was originally disposed for the reception of this gift, not for meeting an obligation by means of our own efforts. It is thus that we come to understand ourselves once more--our being according to the Imago Dei-- in the light of the New Testament, since we are renewed unto this image, through the Word that gives, through the self-sacrificing love of God, through a purely receptive faith." (Emil Brunner, Man in Revolt: A Christian Anthropology, trans. Olive Wyon (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2002), 104.)

What we call man's "nature" in pristine bliss is not something that is self-realized as something he has in himself, rather, it is only realized through relation to God's continual self-giving love. Brunner writes:

"Man ought not to understand himself in the light of his own nature, nor should he regard himself as due to 'something,' but that he must understand himself in light of the Eternal Word, which precedes man's existence, and yet imparts Himself to him. Man possesses--and this is his nature-- One who stands 'over-against' him, One whose will and thought are directed to him, One who loves him, One who calls him, in and from and for: love. And this One who confronts man, and imparts Himself to him, is the ground of man's being and nature." (77)

We mentioned earlier man's heart, mind and will. It is true that in paradise our parents' heart, mind, and wills were directed toward and were in complete harmony with God's will. It is also true that man's heart, mind, and will, in his fallen state, is directed toward sin and is in complete contradiction to God's will. We agree, therefore, that both man in pristine bliss and man in his fallen state has a heart, mind and will. What is the distinction between these things? Is it a matter of moral energies? Was it a matter of Adam and Eve's heart, mind, and will being more powerful than a fallen heart, mind, and will? It is a matter of determining if these "moral energies" were something that man had in himself, in his nature, or if they were the continual gift of God's grace working through the Word, accepted through faith.

The Reformed theologian, G. C. Berkouwer, writes against this understanding of a self-enclosed nature, without relation to God's work:

"Every view of man which sees him as an isolated unity is incorrect. There have frequently been attempts to draw a picture of man through an elaborate and detailed analysis of man an sich, in himself, whereby man's relation to God was necessarily thought of as something added to man's self-enclosed nature, a donum superadditum, a "plus factor." But the light of revelation, when dealing with man's nature, is not concerned with information about such a self-enclosed nature; it is concerned with a nature which is not self-enclosed, and which can never be understood outside of its relation to God, since such a self-enclosed nature, an isolated nature, is nothing but an abstraction. The relation of man's nature to God is not something which is added to an already complete, self-enclosed, isolated nature; it is essential and constitutive for man's nature, and man cannot be understood apart from this relation." (G.C. Berkouwer, Man: The Image of God, trans. Dirk Jellema (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1984), 22-23.)

As such, God grace does not add to nature, nor does it discredit nature (two things a donum superadditum admits), rather, God's grace constitutes true nature as it was intended. The correct understanding of man's heart, mind, and will in pristine bliss tells us that their qualitative nature was not found as existing in man himself, but as coming through God's gracious will towards us, received through faith.

This is no less true of faith itself. The gift of faith does not add to nature, nor does it discredit nature, rather, true nature can only be received through this same gift of faith:

"Faith is not a gift in the sense of a donum superadditum added to human nature as a new organ. This would mean that an unbeliever is less of a human than a believer. Such a notion is the result of cutting off faith from total concreteness of human life. It may seem to honor the miracle of this gift the more, but actually it does injustice to the gift itself. Faith is neither a newly created human organ nor a new substance which is infused into the level of human existence. If it were, it would be scarcely distinguishable from the Roman donum superadditum. We cannot get at grace by compiling a studied list of anthropological data. The whole man beginning at his heart. . .is embraced by this immutable and miraculous divine grace. This is the miracle of the Spirit that remains indescribable although the attempts to describe and define it are legion. Istead of calling faith a new organ or a donum superadditum, the work of the Holy Spirit has been described as the great change of course from the way of apostacy to the way of the true God." (G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Justification, trans. Lewis Smedes (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979), 191.)

This is what distinguishes fellowship with God that is based on ethics and fellowship which is based on grace received through faith. Far from being a matter of ethical powers inherent in man, the issue becomes a matter of whether man is directed toward, and thus receives his life from, God in faith, or whether he turns away from God due to mistrust and lack of faith. The former is the gift and fruit of God's grace alone, the latter is the fruit of man's mistrust and misunderstanding of God's nature as love.

The latter is not a fault in nature, rather, it is the rejection of nature, the life Adam and Eve received right from the mouth of God. Emil Brunner writes:

"Man's being as man is both in one, nature and grace. The fact that man is determined by God is the original real nature of man; and what we now know in man as his 'nature' is de-natured nature, it is only a meagre relic of his original human nature. Through sin man has lost not a 'super-nature' but his God-given nature, and has become unnatural, inhuman. To begin the understanding of man with a neutral natural concept--animal rationale-- means a hopeless misunderstanding of the being of man from the very outset. Man is not a 'two-storey' creature, but--even if now corrupted-- a unity. His relation to God is not something which is added to his human nature; it is the core and ground of his humanitas. That was Luther's revolutionary discovery." (94)

Growth in sanctification that will be consumated in heaven is a growth in grace; it is not a growth of human nature so that, eventually, man no longer needs God's grace. The closer we grow towards God, the more we forsake "our own" powers and rely more and more on God's grace. Brunner writes: "The maximum of [man's] dependence on God is at the same time the maximum of his freedom, and his freedom decreases with his degree of distance from the place of his origin, from God." (263) We hear from William Lazareth: "Our growth is by way of God’s grace and not by our works; we grow theonomously more and more (and not autonomously less and less) in our total dependence on God’s unmerited favor." And again: "The more we grow, the more dependent we become on the gifts granted by the ethical governance of the indwelling Holy Spirit, who always accompanies the church’s holy Word and blessed sacraments." (Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 201; 211.)

This is the only way that fellowship with God can remain gratia purum, pure gift. Once fellowship with God is turned into something that is determined by something man has in himself, with his own action and thinking, fellowship no longer remains gift. Just like Adam and Eve, it would be a matter of saying: Now that you are saved (created, for Adam and Eve) by grace, now retain this restored fellowship with God by works. On the other hand, as a gift, the option for its rejection remains a real one. To reject the gift is to turn away from God's will--whether indicative or imperative. To reject and break God's commandment was to reject God himself and his will for Adam and Eve's lives in fellowship with him. In breaking the commandment, Adam and Eve express their lack of trust that God's will for them has their best interests in mind. It is a turning away from childlike trust in God's promises, and a placing of their faith in the "serpent's deceitful promise." This is the only way to understand God's will for mankind; it is either accepted in childlike faith that it seeks only my life, or it is treated with suspicion and must be explained away through theological schemes and formulas.


Augustinian Successor said...

Good one, Joel! I have moved away from a "covenantal" understanding of Adam's relation and standing before God as best espoused in the concept known as the "Covenant of Works" which finds confessional legitimacy and expression in the Westminster Confession. It jsut smacks of Pelagianism, and makes the Rome's take pales in comparison.

Augustinian Successor said...

In fact, the standard Reformed and Presbyterian understanding is unbiblical, and unpatristic! Rome is closer in this regard, which upholds the priority not only conceptually but existentially also of grace. For all its promotion and staunch defence of predestination, Reformed theology is fraught with inner contradictions, not least as contained in the idea of the Covenant.

Joel Woodward said...

Yeah, I just googled "covenant of works." BRRR!!! its cold in there!