I asked, in so many words, yesterday: “does the fact that God causes even fallen persons to will vs. some false beliefs and actions mean that we should make room for the concept of some kind of “preparatory grace” in the way that we speak about God to one another?”
No, it does not.
One reason for this is because we must realize there is a kind of theology that seems to want to talk primarily in terms about man’s virtues and nature apart from Christ – and to build theological systems accordingly.
For example, some Protestants have been able to find a quote from the well-known Roman Catholic apologist James Akin where he seems to be willing to speak about man’s salvation not only apart from faith in Christ, but apart from any belief in a Creator whatsoever:
“It’s also possible for a person to die in God’s friendship even if the person didn’t consciously know God during life. Someone could, through no fault of their own, be unaware of God or not have ever been given sufficient evidence that they concluded God is true, through no fault of their own, and if they otherwise cooperated with his grace, then God won’t hold their ignorance of him against them. So, it’s possible for an atheist to be saved, it’s still through Jesus Christ and through God’s grace, but they can still die not knowing God and still be on their way to heaven as long as they otherwise cooperated with his grace.”
As one commenting on this comment said: “This is justification by works alone, without faith, and contrary to Scripture.” As Todd Wilken points out, an excellent case can be made that this is 49 year old RC teaching (Wilken asserts that it is, and can anyone blame him?)
But is this not to side with the fall, and to let philosophy trump theology?
Luther certainly thought so. Early on, he identified the problem that, I submit, leads to the possibility of Christians saying things like Akin said. Ronald Frost gives us an idea of what has happened here:
“Luther’s challenge was more profound than many of his peers realized at first. The two systems were at complete odds with each other. In Augustine’s model of the human will, the affective component is primary, so that the love of God is the motivating feature of salvation-God draws the elect to himself apart from any initiative on their part towards God. This was a thoroughly unilateral model of salvation. In the Aristotle/Aquinas model, by contrast, the will is self-moved. That is, the will works most effectively apart from any influence of the affection. In adopting this model, Aquinas assumed that the self-moved will is a necessary feature of salvation which, in turn, led him to adopt a cooperative doctrine of salvation – a doctrine that Luther rejected. This was the “hinge” of Luther’s reformation activism.” Frost, R N. 1997. “Aristotle’s Ethics : The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?.” Trinity Journal 18, no. 2: 223-241. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 23, 2013). See here as well.*
But now we come back to our question once again. Can fallen man do anything that is good when “only God is good” as Jesus said? Again, externally to be sure! But can some actions by some fallen men perhaps be more “pure” than others? Are some more righteous because of their particular natures and/or the habits they have developed? Well – here is the key question that must be asked here: “Why do we want to know this?” For practical reasons? For reasons related to building our systematic theologies? More specifically, do we want to take credit for the good that we do so that God will notice us and give us what we deserve – even though, on the other hand, we know that we deserve nothing from Him?! Why is it not enough to simply say that God, in Christ slain from the foundation of the world, is the source of all goodness and fallen man, lost in Adam’s capitulation to Satan, is the one responsible for all evil? According to his fallen nature, man will reject all God desires to give (see I Cor. 2), and even if God were to do a perfectly good work in fallen man, man, when made conscious of this fact, would take credit for it – or at the very least, take credit for actively choosing by their own free will to not reject God’s work in them! It is, after all, our fallen nature to consider ourselves “good persons” who are really not fully in need of a Savior. (I made similar arguments not long ago at the First Thoughts blog, in a post titled “Non-Lutherans Reading Luther: What Makes ‘Good Works’ Good?”)
But the glory must remain Gods.
Therefore, why not, when it comes to the defining matter being able to stand justified before Him, simply confess that all is by grace and say “what do we have that we have not received”? That He gets all the glory for our regeneration and we get all the blame for our degeneration… (our lack of faith, fear and love of God). This is what Lutheran theology does.
Here are some final words from Luther on the matter of being, doing, and the human will, from his well-known Galatians commentary:
[The scholastics] want to prescribe a work before the good will, although in philosophy it is necessary for the person to be justified morally before the work. Thus the tree is prior to the fruit, both in essence and in nature. They themselves admit this and teach that in nature being precedes working and that in ethics a good will is required before the work; Only in theology do they reverse this and put a work ahead of right reason…. In theology… “doing” necessarily requires faith itself as a precondition. This is how you must answer all the passages of Scripture about works, in which our opponents stress the words “working” and “doing”: These are theological terms, not natural or moral ones. If they are natural or moral, they are taken according to their usage. But if they are theological, they include right reason and a good will, which is incomprehensible to human reason, blinded as it is at this point; and another reason must come into being, which is the reason of faith. Therefore “doing” is always understood in theology as doing with faith, so that doing with faith is another sphere and a new realm, so to speak, one that is different from moral doing. When we theologians speak about “doing,” therefore, it is necessary that we speak about doing with faith, because in theology we have no right reason and good will except faith.” (AE 26:261-263)
So is “obeying [one’s] conscience” enough? It depends. Pope Francis recently said “to listen and to follow your conscience means that you understand the difference between good and evil.” (see here) Obviously, if your conscience is telling you to listen and assent to things that are false that is not good. However, if in hearing Christian proclamation one finds oneself not only listening to the message of Christ, but believing Him by the power of the Holy Spirit – His words of conviction (of being a sinner in the stead of Adam) and pardon through His work (crushed for our iniquities, risen for our justification) – that is not only a “good thing” relatively speaking, but again, the Good Thing that “sets loose” all the other good things.
In the final post of this series, I will show how I dealt with a particularly good question regarding this topic from one of my students.
*(UPDATED): In his Inventing the Middle Ages (New York: Quill, 1991), Norman F. Cantor discusses at length Etienne Gilson’s attempts to bring Augustine and Aquinas together:
“Throughout his life Gilson agonized over the question of whether or not Thomism represents a break with the thought of St. Augustine. He shilly-shallied back and forth on this issue. Indeed, he said various things about it at different times. Whether Thomism is an intellectual revolution against Augustinianism or a reinterpretation of Augustinian doctrine in a new Aristotelian intellectual ambience and language remains one of the persistent conundrums of medieval studies. It is my view that Thomism was an almost clean break with Augustinianism and that Gilson leans much too far in trying to picture a continuity between these two great medieval intellectual and religious systems. This is still a particularly difficult issue for Catholic scholars to deal with because Rome wants continuity, not rupture, within the development of Catholic theology. Regarding medieval thought as conditioned by conflict between the Augustinians and the Thomists gives legitimacy to intellectual dissent within the Catholic Church today. That is the Roman conviction. Therefore, for all this vanguard liberalism as a Catholic thinker in his day, Gilson in respect as a Romanist-leaning conservative who did not appreciate the full extent of the intellectual upheaveal of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries.” p. 332-33.
Image credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_walking_on_water