Sunday, May 18, 2008

Calvin, Augustine, and the Via Moderna

I've been thinking through Calvin's doctrine of justification in preparation for this symposium. Things are beginning to take shape. It is helpful, I think, to explore Calvin's doctrine of justification against the backdrop of the via moderna. For the theologians of the via moderna, the divine justice does not bind God in his relation to humanity. God simply grants the blessing of ontological renewal to whomever he chooses sans the atoning death and resurrection of Christ. God is so ontologically other in relation to humanity that strict justice cannot obtain. God is not bound by anyone or anything--neither sin nor righteousness requires him to respond in a fixed way. Theoretically, God could send a saint to hell and a sinner to heaven. Thus, in a very real sense, atonement is not necessary for the conceptual framework of the via moderna.

But Calvin rejects the medieval distinction between the "two powers" of God. For Calvin, God's nature is such that he is bound to honor that which is honorable and to condemn that which is condemnable. Man has sinned; justice must be served. This puts a gracious God in a bit of fix. He desires to be gracious, but it would not be fitting for God to grant the grace of ontological renewal to sinners. So how can God be both gracious and just? Enter the cross of Christ. Christ suffers the just consequences of our rebellion as our substitute and legal representative; justice is served. Now the way has been opened for God to grant us the grace of ontological renewal. Thus for Calvin, justification is not about how to become ontologically renewed, but about clearing the way for such renewal. Thus his doctrine of justification is focused on forgiveness of sins and legal status.

In many ways, it seems that Augustine anticipates the medieval distinction between the two powers of God. Like Ockham and Biel, Augustine's soteriology does not seem to require an atoning sacrifice as a prerequisite for God to act graciously toward us (he says something to this effect in his Enchridion, though I don't have the book in front of me). For Augustine, we are sick (ontologically corrupt) and in need of medicine (the divine life of Christ); nothing stands in the way of God freely offering us the needed remedy. Augustine's doctrine of justification skips right past legal categories and directly to ontological categories.

I'm of the mind that Augustine and the via moderna have it right when it comes to comes to God's utter transcendence. But unlike Calvin, neither Augustine nor the via moderna have a proper appreciation of the need for atonement. Is there a way to embrace the "two powers of God" distinction and yet have a robust atonement theology that makes ample use of Christ's death and resurrection? Yes there is, and I'll write more about that later.

1 comment:

Matt said...

I'm not sure if Thomas' theology of the atonement will suffice, but I'm not sure. He definitely emphasizes (like Augustine and many of the Fathers) the importance of the Incarnation as part of our redemption. Though...he definitely wants to say that Christ's death was "necessary" in a way that does not limit God (Thomas has the "two powers" too, contrary to popular opinion).

It might be a point of entry, at the very least.