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Thursday, April 13, 2006 

Merit and Grace and Nature
Topic: Theology

The venerable Dr. Peter Leithart reflects on some of his recent thoughts regarding recent goings-on amongst some of the Federal Vision crowed.[1] He senses that there is a coming (or already inaugurated?) Copernican Revolution on the horizon concerning how Reformed Protestant theology looks at merit and nature under the category of grace. Dr. Leithart thinks that Reformed Protestant theology has fallen away from its creational emphasis, its distinct-from-Rome view that nature is inherently good, and has thus smuggled in damaging concepts dealing with merit that obtain during the Edenic administration, thus corrupting human nature.

He begins by questioning why said theologians - who are generally anti-merit - are being labeled "neo-nomians" and legalists. Dr. Leithart assumes that since this is not the intention of the men writing such theology, that they must all suffer from being misread. The Copernican Revolution that is on the horizon, then, is a correct understanding of this new theology that brings us back to a proper view of the goodness of creation, and the grace poured out on humanity there.

He sets up the problem as so:
Much Western theology, including Reformed theology, has assumed that nature provides the context for and positions grace. Reformed theology has understood the covenant of grace in the context of the covenant of works; the mercy and grace of God intervenes in a world governed by a just God; we become sons of a kind Father after being made as servants of a good Lord. Grace only makes sense if there is a prior nature, and specifically if there is a prior fallen nature.
Here, Dr. Leithart does something many of his compatriots fail to do: he correctly summarizes the theological category of grace, not the charis the biblical authors use. In this distinction, everything we receive from God that is not judgment is grace: air, food, law & order, rain, no earthquakes in my hometown, etc.[2] However, the theological category of grace only operates in the context wrath and judgment - of not getting what one deserves. For this precise distinction, Dr. Leithart ought to be commended for steering discussion in such a helpful manner.

To what then does he posit regarding this distinction? He continues:
But what if we say that grace/gift is the deepest and widest possible context? What if we say that there is no "nature" that is not always already, in its deepest reality, gift? Then nature is positioned within and contrextualized by gift and grace. God does not intervene graciously into a world that operates by strict justice; His intervention for salvation is an intervention in a world where all - literally all - is already gift. He is our Creator-Father who creates us to be brothers to His only-begotten Son through the Spirit...

...Of course, we must say that all is gift if we profess creation, but the fact that this Copernican Revolution is controversial shows how far Western theology has been from a fully creationist theology.

This is not to deny the reality of God's Lordship or His justice. By the doctrime of simplicity, God's justice and Lordship cannot be anything but His goodness and graciousness. And so another deep level is theology proper: Is God essentially Lord, and only "accidentally," at a second moment, a gracious Lord? Or is God Lord precisely in His goodness and grace?
Now this honestly, to our depths, puzzles us. Dr. Leithart here genuinely perplexes us. The proceeding feels like tip-toeing into the lion's den smelling of steak.

The reason for such apprhension is because there seems to be such glaring inconsistencies to Dr. Leithart's argument, one thinks it couldn't possibly be true. He would like us to realize "that there is no 'nature' that is not always already, in its deepest reality, gift[...] nature is positioned within and contrextualized[sic] by gift and grace." With trepidation, then, we respond (meekly): ".... um .... ok." What in the world is tricky about the good doctor's statement? Why would we not want to affirm that? From the rooftops, then: "Nature is gracious!"

When God intervenes in a world that is purely gracious - for salvation - why is He intervening? If all is gift and grace, what need is there for intervention? It seems that Dr. Leithart's system is too static, unaccounting for the absolutely inconceivable - Adam, in the face of all this gift and grace, rebels. That's fine if the Federal Vision refuses to see any legal/merit character to prelapse Eden... the point is that man has taken what is holy and good and corrupted it. God's Law has never NOT been gracious, but that hasn't stopped humanity from taking the gift of a new ax and chopping our legs off with it. Dr. Leithart's account is off tempo for the glaring lack of anything dealing with the plunge of humanity out of nature. It does no good whatsoever to go on and on about "a world where all - literally all - is already gift" when the people receiving the gift are noetically and ethically and ontologically fractured. This is why McDonald's puts warnings on their Happy Meals: small parts may cause choking, and what was intended as a gift may become a curse.

At this point, thorough confusion on the part of this author has set it. Everything in Dr. Leithart's last caveat about God being just as well is taken with a hearty amen and agreement. It does not in any way seem to detract from our argument nor add to his. We also affirm that "God [is] Lord precisely in His goodness and grace." But how can Dr. Leithart not account for our objection? There no chance in hell we are presenting anything he has not given careful thought to. As already echoed numerous times: general perplexion is the theme here. To be clear: man was made upright and holy. We were created into a "gracious" relationship with God.[3] It is Adam's Fall that has changed things. Can someone please point out where we are missing it?

If someone like Michael S. Horton can be taken as representative for the opposition of Dr. Leithart, then they show points of marked agreement and disagreement. For instance, Dr. Horton is quick to agree with the high point humanity was created in. He notes,
The dialectical character of Calvin's thought is finally receiving deserved attention. His dim view of fallen humanity must be measured against his sometimes astonishing respect for created humanity. Utterly essential for Calvin - and instructive for us - is the refusal to locate the slightest weakness or defect in humanity that might make the fall and consequent need for redemption necessary from the start... Nature as nature is in no need of supplemental grace for its perfection...[4]

However, to the extent that nature is perfect, it is not the end goal. Dr. Horton is quick to point out that equally imperative to the Reformed tradition (especially in Vos' lineage) is the eschatology, even of creation. After citing Vos to this extent, he notes, "Thus eschatology is prior to soteriology: creation began with a greater destiny lying before it. Creation was the stage, the "beautiful theater," for God's drama, not an end in itself.[5]

An Einsteinian Shift
Rather than attempting an entire Copernican Revolution, perhaps a more modest shift would be more appropriate (and Einstein has really nothing to do with any of this). It is fully clear by now that several of American "Reformed" thinkers have a significant problem with merit. While we should not give up the term - it has its uses - perhaps now is not the time to fight this front; let us marshall our troops in another theater. Perhaps, after unity and cohesian have been restored regarding justification we can revisit this concept to reclaim it.

However, until then, we need to think about other ways of articulating important justification, law/gospel, and covenant language. What follows is a personal suggestion, and critique to its usefulness and faithfulness would be appreciated.

Instead of attempting to think of Adam's obedience in the garden as legal vs. gracious, which always ends up as merit, what if we learned to teach in terms of gracious works under different federation (i.e., representation). On this model, Adam is still required to believe and trust God in Eden, yet he is ultimately judged by his efforts at believing, etc. However, in the Covenant of Grace, we trust in Christ's deeds. In other words, the question becomes less about merit and more about whose good works are judged - mine or a mediator's.

So for Adam, he had no mediator to trust in, and thus had to believe for himself. Under God's covenant with Abraham, he and his seed were called to obedience, but ultimately were graciously provided a mediator to believe in, namely, Yahweh Himself as the smoking cauldron passing through the sacrificed animals. For Israel under Sinai, the challenge was to always see God as their mediator for fulfilling the Law, and their perennial mistake was to act as Adam, attempting to be obedient even as he had, yet with a sin nature. Under the New Covenant, we too are called to trust in the Good Work of the Better Mediator, while we still believe and work, working out our salvation with fear and trembling.

On speaking on this level, confusion inherent in "merit" language is avoided, while focusing on categories of federal headship, categories already clearly present to most novice of exegetes. Speaking this way provides lenses for understanding obedience in terms of 'mine' or 'mediated,' while obedience is never an option. Where does this schema break down? Thoughts and criticism appreciated.

[1]Who is the Federal Vision? That is an incredibly difficult question to answer. Usually, it is defined as a set of pastors and theologians who spoke at the Auburn Avenue Conference for Pastors when the sesseions were entitled, "The Federal Vision." However, Dr. Leithart mentions at least one man not apart of that group - Dr. Norman Shepherd - so our definition recognizes a bit of fluidity according to his post. Here then, this group will include anyone generally suspicious to merit language. Back

[2]In this sense, even at times judgment is a grace for God's elect, in the sense that those whom He chastens, He loves, and uses the rod to bring repentance and increased sanctification. Back

[3]Here we are using "gracious" for the sake of our brothers in the FV, not in the technical sense. Even Horton sees gracious lacunas in Eden; see below, Lord and Servant, p. 128-32. Back

[4]Horton, Michael S. Lord and Servant (Louisville, KY: WJK Press, 2005) pp. 98-99. He cites Calvin, Institutes 1.5.2; 1.5.3; 1.5.8; 1.5.14; 1.14.3. Back

[5]Horton Lord and Servant p. 95. Back


Awesome thoughts Brian! This discussion may be illuminated by distinguising between condign merit and congruent merit and formal/meritorious causes, though I'm sure you've thought of this as well. The whole concept of congruent merit, along with its nominalistic view of the covenant(s) should be done away with. God never condescends to reward man for a work that does not merit something in itself simply because God's nature cannot alow it. Man never merits anything before God de congruo because God's law is perfect (ie it is theoretically impossible). Meritum de condigno is theoretically possible (ie cov. of works). What does this have to do with nature and grace? Well, if Adam merited anything I am not sure how gracious it would have been. To be sure, we have to see creation and fellowship with God as gracious and that surely would have been the formal cause of his merit, but the meritorious cause would have been his own obedience, wouldn't it? Perhaps I have misunderstood Leithart and this has nothing to do with this, however. But it seems like Adam's probationary state in Eden and the theoretical notion of meritum de condigno which was present there for him receieves little attention in federal vision theology.

I like your proposal but I think the concept of merit is present throughout your entire presentation of it. Salvation is impossible without condign merit; I know you would agree. The church Universal has always trusted in the merit of another, from postlapsarian Eden onwards. However, I think you are right when you say that the emphasis should fall on federal headship instead of the merit that is rightly tied up in our trust in Christ. It is not that we trust in Christ's merit, per se (I don't even know what that means), rather we trust in Christ Himself; his merit is wrapped up in His person. The unio mystica, which is present by grace alone but merited by Christ, appropiates Him as Head over all.

I hope at least some of this applies and maybe even helps. Again, good thoughts on your part!

Thank you, that was just an awesome post!!!

Thank you, that was just an awesome post!!!

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Transplanted from the artic blight of Minnesota to the sunny paradise of SoCal, I am attending school and learning to say "dude." I like to think of myself as equal parts surf rash, Batman, heavy metal, Levinas, poetic license, and reformational. Other than creating blund blogs, I enjoy reading, sporting, and socializing with serious and funny people.
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