Thursday, June 09, 2011
Laymen's Guide to the Thirty-Nine Articles
The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith and calling upon God. Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us that we may have a good will, and working with us when we have that good will.
Ea est hominis post lapsum Adae conditio, ut sese, naturalibus suis viribus et bonis operibus, ad fidem et invocationem Dei convertere ac praeparare non possit. Quare absque gratia Dei, quae per Christum est, nos praeveniente ut velimus, et cooperante dum volumus, ad pietatis opera facienda, quae Deo grata sint et accepta, nihil valemus.
This seems to have come from the Confession of Würtemberg.
Fr. Robert Hart
Following naturally from the subject of Original Sin in Article IX, the next several Articles are grounded in the reality of our condition and predicament, and proceed to the subject of grace. We cannot appreciate the grace of God unless and until we appreciate what it means to be born in sin as fallen creatures. When this Article speaks of grace, it is essential that we understand both the need for it, and the only Source from whence it comes.
But first, let us pay attention to our true condition. The Article does not say we have no free will. Anyone reading a menu in a restaurant knows that free will is a property of his own rational nature and is affected by his tastes. It is not necessary to believe in such a notion of Predestination (a subject that lies ahead) that we blame God for every wrong turn we ever made. Indeed, it requires grace to be made holy; but, it does not require anti-grace to be a sinner. For that, we need only to be left to our own nature in its marred condition. We are not characters in a story, with every line written for us, and every choice made for us. That is not a true understanding of either free will or of Divine Providence (in fact, a definition of Providence in which free will is denied to rational creatures, presents an insufficient picture of the power and wisdom of God).
But, what our free will cannot accomplish is righteousness, nor can it produce holiness. Is it a small thing that Jesus Christ, when speaking to people who had gathered out of every village and town to hear Him, who were as good as people can be (demonstrated by their following Him and listening as disciples) were treated to these words: “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” (Matt. 7:11) These words did not come with the stern tones we hear in His reproaches of the “Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites,” the “woes” in Matthew chapter 23. Indeed, here He speaks gently and comfortingly to many disciples who went out of their way to hear Him, and yet says, “if ye then, being evil…”
What was this but the Great Physician giving us the needed diagnosis? “If ye than being evil…” We are fallen creatures. Did not the people in this crowd exercise their free will in following Him, going out wherever He led them before He sat down and began to teach? But, even this good and right use of their free will did not erase the reality that each one of them was a sinner.
In the seventh chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul speaks on behalf of every true believer who, having intended as much as is humanly possible to obey God, comes to see that he cannot measure up: “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.” (v.18)
Even in good works, sin is present. That we shall see also in more detail when we look at Articles XII and XIII. Before we get there, we need to understand something even more basic.
The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith and calling upon God.
Is this telling us not to prepare ourselves, or not to do good works? Read that way it can provide an excuse for laziness and disobedience to the commandments of God. On the contrary, we would sin by not doing these things. But, even our performance of them, were it the best we possibly could do, could not make us righteous. In fact, trusting our strength is itself a manifestation of sin, most obviously that of pride.
It would all look completely hopeless if we did not have the second sentence of this brief Article.
Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us that we may have a good will, and working with us when we have that good will.
There we see that word, “grace.” That is the whole difference. However good our good works may be, God’s standard of “good” is too high for even our best efforts. Righteousness by His true and perfect standard exceeds our reach. We cannot achieve it. That is not because His standard is unjust. In fact, it is because His standard is just, in fact perfectly just. This is why no one can understand the doctrine of grace unless and until he understands Original Sin.
Grace (χάρις - charis) is bigger than merely a synonym for mercy. The very existence of life is the first grace, for God's creation of life is a gift, a gratuity, given by the generosity of the One Who is Wholly Other from every created nature. God did not and does not need us. Our creation was a gift, which is another word for grace.
After the Fall all mankind became a sinner, incapable of righteousness.
As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. (Romans 3:10f)
And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God. (John 3:19-21)
The reality is that something lives within each of us, something that hides from God and the full light of His truth. In the above passage from the Gospel According to John you will notice a contrast; there is the plural “men” (meaning human beings) and the singular “He that doeth truth.” This is “the Man” from the first Psalm, the One of Whom it is rightly said, “His delight is in the law of the LORD.” He alone was righteous by His own will and nature, He alone whose free will was entirely free; not liberated or set free, but free naturally and always.
In utter contrast to Jesus, “Ye then, being evil,” absolutely and fully need the grace of God. Even the best you can do on your own has “the nature of sin” to mar and ruin it. But, the grace of God goes before us and works with us. And, that grace – alone (sola)- makes both us and our best efforts acceptable to God.
Fr. Laurence Wells
Article X is ironic in that the content of the Article almost seems to be the diametrical opposite of the title. With the heading "Of Free Will," the article proceeds to inform us, "We have no power." The picture of human nature tersely stated in about seventy words is less than flattering. This article is not only controversial among Christians but moreover constitutes a bold challenge of all non-Christian thought.
The topic of the Will and its freedom has greatly exercised non-Christian thinkers, who are divided into two opposing parties. There are those who believe that man's capacity for making decisions is more or less illusory and therefore have no moral significance. Then there are those who opine that the human Will is quite real and subject only to natural constraints such as the law of gravity.
The late Dr George Buttrick, sometime Preacher to the University at Harvard, told a story of a sophomore who related to him a dormitory bull session in which this issue was debated. The consensus among those wise young men was that determinism is true. Buttrick asked the young man, "Does that hold for the outcome of your debate?"
The Christian religion, as set forth in Biblical revelation, is massively disinterested in this controversy. It consistently assumes that God, the Creator who was before all things, is absolutely sovereign in all things. Simultaneously, it assumes that human beings make real decisions involving real options and that our decisions have real moral significance. The Scriptures never acknowledge any contradiction or even any tension between these two aspects of one truth. Neither philosophical determinism nor voluntarism nor any intermediate theory holds any foothold in the Word of God. And the debate which goes back to the pre-Socratics and still entertains secular speculative thinkers is simply irrelevant to the issue of Article X.
In spite of its title, the Article does not offer any general discussion of the freedom of the human will. The Puritan Westminster Confession of Faith moves in that direction, describing the human Will in the famous "fourfold state of man," that is, Man as (1) created, (2) fallen, (3) regenerated, and (4) in our final state of glory. That was no Protestant invention but derives from
's formula: (1) posse peccare, (2) non posse non pcccare. (3) posse non peccare, and finally, (4) non posse peccare. Whereas many are anxious to assert the reality of the Will here and now, the Augustinian tradition suggests that in heaven, when we will have no ability to commit sin, the freedom of the Will will be extinguished altogether! St Augustine
But our Article is more modest in its scope. It is limited to the human condition "after the fall of Adam," and subsequently "the grace of God by Christ preventing us." (As we all know, "preventing" meant "going before" us, not "deterring" us.) It says nothing about the human will before the Fall nor in our final heavenly state. The philosophical riddle only emerges when the Fall of man is denied or unknown.
The bondage of the human will and our enslavement to the power of sin is mentioned more than once in our Prayer Book. In the Penitential Office, we find a Collect containing these words: "we be tied and bound by the chain of our sins." That Collect goes back to the Gregorian Sacramentary. In the Collect for Lent II, we admit that "we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves." Here is another ancient prayer from the Patristic period. More examples can be introduced, but we will only remark that the razor blade which rips the Articles from our Prayer Book will very soon cut more deeply into our entire liturgy.
In Romans 7:15--24,
wrote, St Paul
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate. Now if it do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
While that seems perfectly clear, we must mention the debate among exegetes as to whether this describes the human condition before or after our new birth and the gift of new life. The latter interpretation commends itself to me, as I still find myself a "wretched man" constantly struggling with sin. But in either view, the bondage of the will is a fact Paul understood. And in either view, this has nothing to do with philosophical speculations over determinism and voluntarism. It is an issue for the doctrine of salvation, a problem which the Gospel addresses.
We should not fail to notice the larger context of the clause we quoted from the Collect on page 63. Here it is:
O God, whose nature and property is ever to have mercy and to forgive; Receive our humble petitions; and though we be tied and bound with the chain of our sins, yet let the pitifulness of thy great mercy loose us; for the honour of Jesus Christ, our Mediator and Advocate.
This "chain of our sins" is subordinate truth, mentioned only in the context of God's mercy and forgiveness. But if that "chain" is denied or forgotten, then the Gospel of Christ our Mediator and Advocate becomes trivial.
The great evangelical truth of the bondage of the Will, asserted by Paul, Augustine, and our own Common Prayer tradition, is no insult to human nature. It does not portray human existence in Thomas Hobbes' words, "nasty, mean, brutish and short." It rather envisions man as God's creature, still bearing His image in a ruined state, even so the object of redeeming grace, someday to learn that "His service is perfect freedom," (quem servire regnare).
Paul's final cry for help at Romans 7:24 states the helpless human predicament, a dilemma the philosophers have no ability to solve. "Who shall deliver me from this body of death?" The solution will come gloriously in Article XI.