Grace and Nature

I have used this blog in the past to muse publicly on what I am reading. It’s been a while since I’ve done that, but I’m returning to that today.

The book I’m working on today is James Payton’s Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings (IVP Academic, 2010). Payton is a Presbyterian pastor (if I read that right) and a professor of church history at Redeemer College in Ancaster, Ontario. It exists in that land between scholarly and popular, with a skew more toward the popular, as he uses it in university courses he teaches and intends it for congregations as well.

He has this to say about the rediscovery of Aristotle by the West, whose writings had not been well preserved in the monasteries of Western Europe:

But [Aristotle’s] works, all focused on the world here below and all of which followed the same pattern of logical analysis and categorization, offered both a curriculum to used and a way of thought to be followed. Monastic leaders decried learning about the world God had made through the works of a pagan, but philosopher-theologians enamored of the possibilities Aristotle proffered for better understanding the world argued that Aristotle could serve as a reliable guide. The defense offered in the thirteenth century by Albert the Great and his student Thomas Aquinas was that we should distinguish between the realms of nature and grace. In the former, all that was needed in order to learn appropriately was using human reason rightly and humbly. Since Aristotle laid out the patterns for using reason rightly, and followed them himself in his multifaceted exploration of the realm of nature, his works could be utilized to study the world of nature God had made. Where Aristotle had transgressed the limits of reason to propound notions which violated the teaching of scripture–for example, the eternity of matter–Christian learning must humbly decline to follow the pagan philosopher and follow Christian teaching instead.

In due course this basic perspective carried the day. It was a significant development: for the first time, nature and grace were contrasted as realms or spheres. (p. 44)

“Nature and grace were contrasted as realms or spheres.” I find myself wondering a few things with this. First, how much of the Christian understanding of “two kingdoms” is a result of this medieval synthesis? I realize this is identified as a Lutheran doctrine, but it really is a Christian doctrine justified by scripture but, I’m betting, having very different roots. You can justify with resort to scripture, but I’m not sure scripture is all that clear on the matter. As an example, much is made of made of this exchange in Matthew 22:

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his talk.  And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.  Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”  But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?  Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.  And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”  They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. (ESV)

A whole edifice of theology has been built on this quote (and a few others) claiming separate “spheres” for God and Caesar. But it’s not clear from the passage that anything aside from the coin itself actually belongs to Caesar. I don’t see the love, loyalty and duty owed to civil government that theologians have grown from this soil.

Anyway, as I read this book, I’m going to keep thinking about this matter of Aristotle and what Payton describes as contrasting realms of nature and grace in Western thinking. I’m not sure we can get rid of these ideas, as Aristotle in the foundation of thought in the West — of modernity, for better or worse — and you cannot destroy or alter the foundation without wrecking the entire structure. I’m not sure I’d want to in any case. There is also much good in it.