Nature Versus Grace: Why My Seminary Education was Confusing

In the Western world in the post-apostolic period, there was no more important thinker than Augustine (born A.D. 354), as his peculiar biography and form of thought have become the key influence for both Roman Catholic and Protestant theology. Because of his own difficulty in overcoming sexual lust, and because of his reading of a mistranslation of Romans 5 in which he understands that all have sinned in Adam, he concludes there is inherited guilt, total depravity or loss of free will, conjoined in his doctrine of original sin. All are conceived in sin and damned from the moment of conception. For “as soon as our first parents had transgressed the commandment, divine grace forsook them.”[1] Nature was from that moment literally “disgraced” as the grace of human nature was utterly lost. Thus, for Augustine, human nature is no longer such that humanity is free to obey the creator as the very possibility of not sinning is lost. Indeed, it is not possible for humanity not to sin or even to choose the good or to choose Christ, as all are guilty and depraved. The result of Adam and Eve’s transgression was, therefore, according to Augustine, a complete change in nature for the whole human race. The original righteous state of humanity has been replaced by “original sin”; a sin transmitted not by imitation but by mystical propagation. Nature knows no grace, for through our first parents it has suffered disgrace.

Augustine’s departure from the first 400 years of church teaching was acknowledged at one level in my education, but unbeknownst to me his understanding was smuggled in as the starting point of my theological education. Molly Worthen in her book detailing the crisis of authority in American evangelicalism mentions my old professor, Jack Cottrell, and describes him as among “specific individuals” who “smuggled Reformed thinking into Restorationist circles”[2] (I have detailed this here). Cottrell couches his theology in an extreme version of the Augustinian nature/grace split (logically entailing the extremes of Calvinism, which he attempts to overcome, while still holding to a version of original sin.). As a student I struggled to navigate this contradictory system of theology, which illustrates the profound and confused nature of this Augustinian departure.  

Creation Trumps Redemption

 Where orthodox theology turned to Christ as central in comprehension of all things, with Christ as the point of comprehension or the one in whom all things (history, creation, revelation and redemption) cohere (as in Col. 1:16-17 and Heb. 1:3), Cottrell posits a split between creation, redemption, revelation, and Christian experience. As he describes it, “In summary, we are saying that the Creator is the essential center of our lives; the Bible is the epistemological center; and Jesus Christ is the existential (or experiential) center.”[3] The presumption is that God as Creator is the ontological core, while Christ is added to this centrality. His role as revealer, creator, sustainer, the Alpha and Omega, is passed over for a God whom we presumably know through nature and law and in spite of sin.  

Cottrell presumes that it is not in Christ or in redemption that we encounter God’s original or true purpose: “Shall we interpret creation in the light of redemption, or vice versa?” Very much in the spirit of Augustine, he explains that redemption is added to creation and was not part of God’s original plan. We would not want, he explains, the undue “elevation of Jesus and his redemptive work as the touchstone or central fact around which everything else revolves and (by which it) must be interpreted.” Here he departs from the biblical principle that there is one Jesus Christ, the only Son of the one Father, who alone has made known (“exegeted,” Jn 1:18) the Father. He reduces redemption to the resolution of the sin problem, and misses that God had purposed from before the beginning to bring creation to fullness in Christ (Eph. 1:10).

Christ is Redeemer and Not Revealer

Cottrell is eager to refute what he calls the “Christological fallacy” or “the attempt to make Christ an epistemological principle, rather than the Redeemer he came to be.” Just as Augustine splits nature against grace – playing off salvation against nature – Cottrell will accentuate the split between Christ as Revealer and Redeemer, presuming that, while Christ plays a revelatory role, “there are many other ways in which God can reveal and has revealed himself and his truth to the human race. Thus our knowledge of God and his works comes to us from God as God, and not necessarily from God as Redeemer.” Though he allows Christ is “the highest revelation,” Cottrell relativizes this role under practical preference for the “many other ways” of revelation in creation and the Bible.

Christ is primarily redeemer, in Cottrell’s view, and this role is pitted against revelation, as Christ’s redemption (penal substitution) does not pertain to revelation nor does revelation pertain to redemption. Cottrell distinguishes Christ’s redemptive work from revelation and specifically the revelation of Scripture: “because of the reality of revelation and inspiration, this knowledge (primary knowing) comes to us in written form in Scripture,” in contrast to Christ. His conclusion: “The Reformers are still right: the Bible is our ‘formal principle,’ our epistemological principle. Jesus Christ is not.”

So, he pits the epistemological centrality of the Bible against the centrality of Christ: “If we mean what is epistemologically central, then the answer is that THE BIBLE is central.” He seems to deny the truth of John (1:8) and the truth presumed throughout the New Testament, that Christ provides both epistemological and redemptive access to the Father (the Bible knows no distinction between revelation and redemption). As Jesus explains to Thomas, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).

Nature and Law Precede and Determine Grace

Cottrell goes on to explain that God the Creator is central to our lives, both in terms of ethics and understanding. The will of God, he concurs with Luther, comes to us on the basis of law: “law (grounded in the creation-relation) must precede gospel (grounded in redemption).” True to Luther and Calvin (and the economy inaugurated by Augustine), he sees the economy of redemption and relationship to God as law based, so that Christ is doing nothing more than working within this legal economy. There is no shadow/substance comparison here (as in Paul and Hebrews) as the law is the adequate frame of salvation. There is no need to reorder or change the natural understanding of God and the given notion of law. What is needed is someone to keep the law, and we know Christ’s redemption on the basis of the law which comes to us through both nature and the Old Testament, and which he fulfills by keeping. This stands in contrast to the apocalyptic picture of cosmic re-creation through resurrection (pictured in John, Romans, Ephesians, Colossians, Galatians, and Revelation) which founds a new form of humanity on a different foundation.

Christ Provides an Experience

 Cottrell allows for a narrowed role for Christ’s centrality: he is “existentially (or experientially) central in our lives.” He clarifies that this pertains specifically to feelings: “our strongest felt relationship to God is the relationship we have with Christ our Lord and Savior. He is the One whom we know most about and to whom we feel the closest.” If it weren’t for the elimination of Christ from knowing, ethics, creation, and ontology, this focus on feeling might not be so damning, but Christ is accorded only this role of experience and feeling. We feel honor and gratitude due to Christ, and he is central in worship (which presumably must be feeling and not knowledge centered) and service, but we must not make too much of Christ. As Cottrell warns, “let us not demote Christ and distort truth by trying to make Him an epistemological tool.”

The Multiplication of Dualisms

The problems with this understanding – imagining that experience, knowledge, and redemption are separate realms; picturing law and nature as complete and adequate apart from God’s grace; the focus on the Bible as an independent epistemological source apart from Christ; indicate the inherent contradictions which Augustine bequeathed to Western theology. Cottrell seems to be a case in point of the confusion and splits caused by Augustine’s original sin. The dualities are irreconcilable and they seem to endlessly multiply, in that not only is nature ungraced or disgraced (as if there is such a thing as nature apart from God’s gratuitous gift), but epistemology is pitted against redemption, and redemption apparently does not include or require a revelatory component (if it is purely a legal exchange between the Father and Son). The soul is pitted against the body, the church is visible and invisible, and ethics is divided from redemption. Of course, at each intersection this is a blatant contradiction of Scripture and the early church.

The Deception of Sin is Disregarded

In the doctrine of original sin, the original lie foisted on the first couple and a continuing part of the definition of sin, is passed over. It is presumed that what is wrong in the world is not that people have been deceived in regard to the law, but that the law is an adequate measure of sin. In other words, Augustine’s original sin foists the original lie upon us. By focusing on sin and presuming that human nature is the problem, the cosmic nature of the problem is traded for an individualistic problem pertaining only to human interiority. People know enough to get into trouble but are incapable of doing anything about it.

The Cosmic Nature of Sin is Obscured

The problem here is not that Augustine takes sin too seriously, but he mystifies it, individualizes it, and reduces the problem and answer to human interiority (focused on the soul). But the failure of humanity in the first Adam is corporate (as is the resolution in the second Adam): it has cosmic consequences in the reign of death, the law of sin and death, and the subjection of creation to futility. The specific nature of this futility (the root meaning of the word), is that a lie reigns in place of the truth. The truth of Christ is not additional information to what has already been received, but the counter to the lie, an overcoming of the prevailing darkness, and a defeat of the reign of death.

Revelation Is Redemption

The twisted presumption that the revelation of Scripture stands apart from the redemption of Christ misses the presumed veil that covers those who would exegete Scripture or understand God apart from Christ. Paul pictures the “same veil” that Moses placed over his face as continuing to obstruct those who would read the law and Moses apart from Christ. “But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ” (2 Cor. 3:14). Only through the removal of the veil can the true meaning of Scripture and full glory of God shine forth. This does not occur by means other than the lifting of the veil through Christ. His redemption is revelatory; it is a seeing of God rightly, and this occurs only through “the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). In turn, this revelation is redemptive: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Co 3:18). The obstructing lie of sin has been removed and with it the truth of God in Christ is revealed in redemption.

The Gospel Precedes and Constitutes Scripture

Christ seems to bear no knowledge content for Cottrell apart from Scripture, which ignores how the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ opens the Scriptures to the Apostles. For the first generation, the Scriptures refer to the Hebrew Bible, which are now read in light of Christ (and not the other way round). The death and resurrection of Christ act as a catalyst in apprehending Scripture in a new way. The preaching of the Gospel enacts a new form of understanding or wisdom, which in light of the old wisdom would be dismissed as foolishness (I Cor. 1:18-24). The preaching of the Gospel is not dependent upon Scripture in the first instance, as it consists of the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ, but in light of this proclamation “the wisdom of God” is revealed. Now there is a means of making sense of Scripture as Christ brings about a coherence it does not otherwise possess.[4]

This exegesis of Scripture and God on the basis of the Gospel constitutes the New Testament. Christ is the hermeneutical lens, the means to wisdom, the ground of epistemology, and this ground is worked out in conjunction with Scripture. The point of reading the Bible is not to find the original meaning; quite the opposite – the point is to apprehend Christ, where the original meaning, taken as its own end, might obscure this reality.

Christ’s explanation of Scripture, with himself as center, to the two on the Road to Emmaus, is not lost to us but is recovered and expanded upon throughout the New Testament. Paul does not read Genesis as an end in and of itself – and his reading may in fact seem to distort the original story, but his point is to show forth the second Adam in conjunction with the first (e.g., Romans 5 & 7).  It turns out the two sons of Abraham represent two covenants (Gal. 4:24 ff.) and yet, there are not two such covenants revealed apart from Christ, prior to Paul’s explanation. The snake of Moses foreshadowed the crucifixion and the giving of eternal life (John 3:14). The Exodus, Passover, the Sabbath, the Temple, the sacrifices, the priesthood, and creation, have to now be read and understood in light of Christ. To reverse this, and to lift up Scripture over Christ is to lose the meaning and substance preserved in the Old and New Testaments through the preaching of the Gospel. Apart from a Christological explanation there is no coherence but only confusion and contradiction.

[1]  Augustine, City of God, XIII, xiii.

[2] Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press; 1st edition (November 1, 2013), 85.

[3] Jack Cottrell, “What is Central in our Lives?” Restoration Herald (November, 2014). All references to Cottrell are from this article.

[4] See John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology: The Way to Nicaea Volume 1 (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood New York, 2001), 25-28.