Many thanks to Bryan Cross for introducing me to the wonders of paradigms. They continue to explain differences between Rome and Protestants. Jason Stellman reminds me of paradigmatic analysis’ benefits in a recent post on the place of good works in the Christian’s life. He invokes Chesterton to this end:
It is quite popular among many Christians to insist that any works done by believers, even if they are Spirit-wrought, cannot contribute to our receiving our eternal inheritance, for if they did, we would be robbing God of the glory due him for our redemption from sin and death. Chesterton rightly rejected this inverse porportionality between God’s work and ours, as though God’s glory were a zero-sum game according to which anything we contribute necessarily diminishes his divine contribution. Rather, he insisted, the key to asceticism (which comes from the word denoting the practice of an athlete for his sport) is the paradox that the man who knows he can never repay what he owes will be forever trying, and “always throwing things away into a bottomless pit of unfathomable thanks.”
In a word, the key to asceticism is love.
Chesterton illustrates his point by considering the romantic love between a man and a woman. If an alien culture were to study us, they might conclude that women are the most harsh and implacable of creatures since they demand tribute in the form of flowers, or exceedingly greedy for demanding a sacrifice of pure gold in the form of a ring. What such an assessment obviously fails to see is that, for the man, the love of the woman cannot be earned or deserved, and this, ironically, is why he will be forever attempting to do so.
When it comes to our relationship with God, it is equally wrong (indeed infinitely more so) to think that we by our acts of love and sacrifice can somehow buy his favors or earn his eternal smile. But this does not preclude our good works. In fact, our own asceticism and love are conditions, but only in a nuanced sense. They are not conditions in a quid pro quo, I’ll-scratch-your-back-since-you-scratched-mine kind of way, but rather they are the wondrous and mysterious conditions attached to a wondrous and mysterious gospel.
But again, what is missing from Roman Catholic or would-be Roman Catholic tributes to charity and agape is that nagging sense of sin that sent Luther for another look at the Bible. What if the relationship between the a person and God is not that between a man wooing a woman, nor even a husband in his wife’s dog house for forgetting to bring home the milk that the kids need for breakfast, but a husband who has had an adulterous affair and now facing a divorce attorney?
That would seem to be the human predicament — one not of finding God’s favor but of facing his wrath and curse for violating his law. Even Rome acknowledges this when it teaches that some people can’t go to heaven without stopping first in purgatory. In fact, it is odd that Rome would seem to teach that it is possible to please God (with the right amount of grace), that all sorts of mechanisms are available to assist believers in this endeavor, not to mention the treasury of merits, and then all of this is not enough to overcome a blight which requires further purging somewhere between heaven and hell.
So if Chesterton were to think about the relationship between sinners and God as one between spouses estranged by unfaithfulness — a biblical image if Hosea is to be believed — I wonder if he might be more interested in a quid pro quo arrangement. How about one in which a savior takes away sin in such a way that the betrayed wife now regards her unfaithful husband as she did on wedding day?