When I was growing up my grandparents had an in-ground pool in their backyard. It was the place to be on a hot summer afternoon in Oregon. Here the whole extended family would gather around good food and the coolness of the swimming pool. We all loved these days.
As the family enjoyed each other in conversation, you can easily imagine the adults’ full attention was drawn away from the youngest of kids. One of these times, I, a young toddler, rode my tricycle around the pool until I rode it into the pool without anyone noticing. As the story goes, when my grandmother saw me face down in the pool she jumped in to save me. The only problem was that she couldn’t swim either. Her cry for help and the sound of the splash grabbed my father’s attention and he jumped in to save both of us.
If we rewind the story just a couple moments back to the point when my father heard the splash and cry for help, at that moment in time he had two options. One option was that he could save his mother and his son by throwing some kind of flotation device to us. The device would give my grandmother the ability to float and swim to the side of the pool on her own. Or he could jump into the pool so that he himself could be the swimmer and save us from death.
Let me posit this episode as a possible picture to speak about the differing views on the nature of grace. That either grace is a flotation device given from afar that enables one who cannot swim to swim, or that grace is a person jumping in to save and be depended on for everything. This contradistinction is the Rubicon between Christian traditions formed by systematic theology and biblical theology. Systematic or scholastic traditions start with certain philosophical presumptions and categories about God and humanity. These presuppositions are supported with proof texts from the Bible. Whereas biblical theology attempts to let the story of God’s pursuit of a people for himself shape the way we speak of God, man, sin, and grace.
In terms of grace, this distinction is best seen by beginning with Peter Lombard (c.1096-1164). He, in his Sentences, asked, “Is the love by which we are saved a created habit of our soul, or is it the very person of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us?”(Lombard, Sentences 1.17; in Ozment, The Age of Reform, 31). Lombard, in agreement with Augustine’s use of Romans 5:5, states that the “Holy Spirit is the love by which we love God and our neighbor.” That grace isn’t our nature to offer charity or a new habit given to us by the Spirit, which enables us to consistently live a life of love. Rather, the gift purchased by Christ according to Augustine is “plainly the Holy Spirit who is God and the third person of the Trinity…” (Sentences, 1.14.46). In other words, the Spirit doesn’t give us a lifesaver that enables us to swim when we can’t. Instead Christ jumps in and unites himself to us by the Spirit, just as the Father is one with the Son by the Spirit (Sentences, 1.17.65).
Thomas Aquinas’ commentary on Lombard’s Sentences rejected the notion that the Spirit is the gift given because this would mean our love would not be in our control nor responsible for our good acts. Also, if this were the case, according to Aquinas, it would mean that God would then have to jump into the pool of creation, which would be an absurdity when God and creation are incommensurate – that is, two natures that cannot correspond. These conclusions aren’t based on Scripture, but are presuppositions based in Aristotle’s view of God as the unmoved mover and humanity as independent self-moved choosers. Therefore God, from a transcendent distance, throws a lifesaver, i.e. he gives the capacity to swim to people who don’t have the ability to swim.
To put it in terms of sin and righteousness, Aquinas and Aristotle assumed that the practice of righteous deeds makes one become righteous. But here’s the problem, sin keeps me from practicing righteousness consistently long enough to form a habit of righteousness. So God gives me the habit of righteousness by the Spirit. However, we find Jesus said that a bad tree only produces bad fruit. Not until a bad tree is made into a good tree can good fruit be produced. Jesus assumed that being actually leads to doing, not the other way around.
Listening to Jesus’ words the Reformers rejected Aristotelian categories and sided with Lombard. Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Cranmer all rejected the use of habitus as a way for God to give grace without jumping into the swimming pool. From Luther’s commentary on The Sentences to Cranmer’s tenth article in the Forty-Two Articles of Religion, grace was the person of the Spirit pouring the love of God into our hearts, who truly unites us to Christ.
One of the countless ways this makes a difference is in our prayer life. Often I hear and pray for God’s help, but what is meant by “help” counts for everything in the extreme. If help is just God giving me some kind of power or ability from a distance to face the difficulties of the day, I’m back to thinking of grace as a commodity or the life jacket. But if I mean “help” in the sense “I need you Jesus today more than ever, please help walk through the day with you because I can do nothing apart from you,” I’m relying on a person and not a flotation device.