The most distinctive theological tension that is had in Protestant theology is the tension between faith and works. Once Martin Luther propounded the doctrine of justification by faith from the Apostle Paul in contradistinction to the works of the Law that he connected to the Roman Catholic system of penance and absolution of sins,
Wesleyan theology developed a distinctive response to this by Wesley’s emphasis on the doctrine of sanctification. Where when coming to faith, the God’s grace justifies the believer, the person has become freed from sin and the work of God leads them to become sanctified. Justifying grace and sanctifying grace are two of the linchpins of Wesleyan soteriology that address the Protestant tension between faith and works.
However, the third part of Wesley’s soteriology including the notion of prevenient grace that comes to a person prior to belief. The primary function prevenient grace has had within Wesleyan soteriology is to define an Arminian that accepted the Calvinist doctrine of Total Depravity while not leading to the conclusion that God only predestined a limited number of people for salvation. By positing that God was bestowing grace upon non-believers that restored a sense of free will lost as a result of the Fall that enabled them to repent and believe in Jesus Christ, Calvinist predestination was not the logical conclusion of Total Depravity. In essence, prevenient grace within Wesleyan theology allows a response to the tension between the spiritual weakness of humanity and the universal love of God.
However, in light of my own readings of the Gospel of John and Romans (particularly Romans 5), I would suggest that the doctrine of Total Depravity and the Fall is deeply problematic from an exegetical perspective, not to mention theologically suspect. The Calvinist doctrine of Total Depravity posits an ontological change in what it means to be human, pulling from Augustine’s own understanding of the Fall; because of sin, humans lost all ability to
If this reading of the Bible renders the doctrine of Total Depravity as either a) false or b) in need of a reformulation, what place does prevenient grace have in a Wesley theology that is re-situated to this theological interpretation of Scripture? If it no longer necessary as a logical axiom to traverse the gap between
In his sermon “On Working Out Your Own Salvation,” Wesley describes two modes of grace that precedes the saving, justifying grace that comes with faith: preventing and convincing grace. The former was connected to early notions of a nascent desire to please God and very rudimentary knowledge about God’s will and the sin the non-believer has. The later, convincing grace, Wesley describe as bringing “a larger measure of self-knowledge, and a farther deliverance from the heart of stone.” The tradition of Wesleyan theology has
However, it is important here to distinguish two different overlapping meanings of the word “learning.” Most people’s definition of learning will come from the idea of school, where people are taught on certain subjects to get a certain grade and pass. Given that this education is compulsory in the Western world up to a certain age, most people’s notions of learning are influenced by the setting. I am not referring to a formal teaching setting. I am actually referring to something closer to what happens in post-graduate research degrees, but without any need for professors, deadlines, evaluations, and all the reading. Learning as something we people do when we are a) interested in something and b) are given
Put in this light, we might tentatively reframe Wesley’s idea of prevenient grace as this: God providing people the desire, opportunity, and experiences/information to learn about Him prior to coming to faith. One of the common criticisms of prevenient grace is that it doesn’t seem to be easy to find in the Scriptures. By connecting it to the concept of enabling a free will to repent and believe, which at best is only minimally referenced in the Scriptures in a rather oblique manner, prevenient grace seem to be exegetically under-determined at best, wild speculation at worst. However, connecting prevenient grace to the concept of learning can be readily seen in the Gospel of John and in the Apostle Paul.
Firstly, John 6.44-45 predicates God’s drawing and teaching of people as occurring prior to them coming to Jesus. Through this, they would come to believe in Jesus who was God’s Logos/very wisdom embodied as a human person,1 allowing people to become children of God.2 Then, through continued observance of Jesus’ teaching, people would be set free from sin.3 Here, we can see learning, faith, and spiritual formation all functioning together.
Then Paul in 1 Corinthians 2.1-5 describes his evangelistic “method” as being bare bones, only entailing a narrative testimony about the crucifixion of Jesus and a powerful demonstration of the Spirit so that people would have faith in God.4 However, there was an expectation of maturity by which people could receive and learning wisdom as in 1 Corinthians 2.6-16. However, as Paul states in 1 Corinthians
However, there is one notable difference between the Johannine order and the Pauline order. In the Gospel of John, learning from Jesus precedes being set free from sin. However, for Paul, being able to learn wisdom follows a change of behavior.
However, here is an important place to clarify. We often think of learning as gaining some set of abstract knowledge that we can express verbally. But there are other forms of learning, such as tacit learning, where we may not be able to clearly express what we are learning, but it does nevertheless change how we think, feel, and act. We might refer to this more colloquially as unconscious learning. However, people can become conscious of such tacit learning, although it is routinely of a more shadowy, hazy type of recognition than that which has any sense of clear, analytic or linguistic precision associated with it. For instance, Dru Johnson observes the disciples seemed to come up with a tacit awareness after Jesus’ breaking of bread after their walk to Emmaus when they said. “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24.32)5 What is critical, however, is that people’s patterns of thinking, feeling, and action experience sort of change, particularly towards a specific object, person, topic, or focus of attention, such as God.
Furthermore, this form of learning doesn’t convey a form of learning that an analytic philosopher of epistemology would refer to as knowledge. For them, knowledge is a true belief that has obtained some sort of justification for belief. For many philosophers engaging in
Rather, this form of learning directs people in how they think, feel, and act, particularly in reference to God. It may in some instances culminate in a more analytic form of knowledge as part of an undergirding motivation for an Anselmian “faith seeking understanding.” However, this is a form of learning that precedes and enables faith as much as it is might strengthen and come to comprehend faith. It provides the underlying concepts by which we come to understand God’s will and character that moves us to trust Jesus to show us the way to God.6 It is the type of learning that determines the type of judgments we make, rather than learning of specific judgments themselves.7 Thus, through this manner in which human judgments are formed, people come to recognize Jesus as coming from God, enabling faith, and coming to recognize God’s will and one’s own behavior in comparison to God’s will, enabling sanctification.
Thus, by connecting Wesley’s notion of prevenient grace to the idea of learning, we provide a rich framework for understanding the normative manner in which God’s ultimate telos of forming humanity into the image of God in Jesus Christ, that is sanctification, occurs. Furthermore,
But as I said before, this is done as part of re-situating Wesleyan theology in a different context from the standard Western account of the Fall. Rather than prevenient grace being an act in which there is a metaphysical change to human nature, such as providing what we know as free will, the change that occurs with prevenient grace is predicated of God’s relation to humanity. God draws near, comes close. John 1.1-18 is the story of how the life found in the Logos, through whom all things were created, is embodied in a human person. The two effects of the Fall in Genesis, the deprivation of life and the distance from God, are remedied when the Logos became flesh. Even the Torah, which the Johannine prologue makes references to, and it’s tabernacle system later constituted within the Temple8 could be considered an early form of God’s nearing presence (but not so close, so clear, so intimate) that teaches and prepares people for faith in Jesus.9 As God draws nears, discloses Himself, and acts, God engages in a Divine pedagogy of human persons, remedying the epistemic absence of God’s distancing from the Fall, hindering any reliable knowing of God. Thus, in the end, prevenient grace isn’t so much about what happens to us as humans in our human nature, but what God does to us to guide us in our learning of Him and His will. Rather than God transforming human nature so that we can know God, learning of God through what only God can do transforms us to know God.
Consequently, this puts the standard Protestant tension between faith and works into the background, placing the emphasis upon the Divine pedagogy of human learning that precedes, enables, and even follows faith and sanctification. There is no faith without God’s disclosure and teaching, nor knowledge of God’s will nor the self-knowledge of one’s own sin that enables sanctification. Learning from God is the engine that drives faith and works.
- See my previous post, “The Gospel of John as the epistemic Gospel.”
- John 1.12.
- John 8.31-36.
- My research for my dissertation that 1 Corinthians 1-4 is deeply concerned about teaching/pedagogy, so 2.1-5 was almost certainly intended to describe the way Paul frame his evangelistic ministry so that people would learn about God, rather than about Paul’s and his own expertise in wisdom.
- Johnson, Dru. Biblical Knowing: A Scriptural Epistemology of Error (p. 116). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
- At the risk of drawing to provocative of a philosophical connection, we might suggest God’s prevenient grace provides a learning that is a spiritual equivalent to Immanuel Kant’s synthetic a priori judgments, where some form of concept is providing to make sense of some experience. I don’t want to suggest that this satisfies Kant’s understanding of synthetic a priori judgments, but only to highlight how learning from God might be considered a necessary precondition for coming to faith in Jesus as in the Gospel of John.
- In lectures as part of the Logos Institute at the University of St. Andrews, Alan Torrance lectured on the concept of self-authenticating revelation, exemplifying a Barthian influence. When God discloses Himself in Jesus, God doesn’t just give people knowledge of Himself, but also provides the criteria by which people can identify God’s revelation as coming from God. It seems from my memory, for Dr. Torrance, both criteria and content are contained in a single event. I have been toying with an alternative construal of mutual criteria accommodation, where God’s accommodates to human criteria for identifying God, but through coming to know God, their minds are training to identify God’s self-disclosure through different criteria. In both forms, the emphasis is on God’s action to disclose Himself such that people can reliably know Him, but whereas self-authenticating revelation contains criteria and content within an event, MCA would suggest there is a changing of criteria through a process initiated by God’s own accommodation to human circumstances. I would suggest the Incarnation is the accommodation par excellence through the person of Jesus, which leads to the transformation of human criteria for identifying God’s self-disclosure in the future through learning from Jesus.
- N.T. Wright provided multiple lectures to the Logos Institute that reflecting his growing consideration that the Gospel of John is to be understood through the lens of God’s presence in the temple.
- See John 6.44-45 and Galatians 3.21-26.