What’s Unique about Christianity?

Below you will find an essay of mine on the topic of Christian grace.  Please understand that this piece was originally intended for a different audience and therefore has some discordancies with the usual nature of this blog.  In my opinion, the writing style is rather ugly, but I do believe the inquiry is worthy of consideration, and therefore have concluded on posting the piece anyway.  It’s rather accessible (accessible is a word which here means “easy to read and understand”), which I imagine is a bit of a relief for some readers.

Here it is:

Christian Grace

The story is often told about the casual yet profound comment that C. S. Lewis made during part of some colloquial discourse at a British religions conference (“Did the Writers…”).  Lewis is said to have walked in on a few of his colleagues as they were arguing about what one unique contribution Christianity alone could claim to have added to the massive net of ideologies that make up the religions of the world.  When he heard them arguing, C. S. Lewis is said to have passively and whimsically responded that the answer was grace.

Of course C. S. Lewis didn’t mean that Christianity is altogether the only religion with a concept of grace.  Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find any major religion that does not have some concept of grace.  Grace is an essential part of the human mind, and therefore, must also play a very important role in human religion of all traditions.  But what C. S. Lewis may have been getting at, and may have had good reason for so thinking, was that the particular formulation of grace found in Christianity is the most strikingly distinguishing feature that sets Christianity apart from other religions.

In this essay, I will examine the validity of Lewis’ claim from this understanding of what he meant.  I will begin by discussing what is meant by the “Christian doctrine of grace,” and then briefly hold it against a small number of other religious and cultural contexts to begin to discover what, if anything, is truly unique about it.  This will by no means be a sufficiently thorough exploration to merit a definitive answer to the inquiry into the uniqueness of Christian grace, but it will begin to unpack some of the unique principles that distinguish Christian grace from other formulations and indeed Christianity as a whole from other religions.  This essay, then, is a brief inquiry into the identity of Christianity in the context of the larger world.

And so we must begin by asking: what is the Christian understanding of grace?  It seems this should be a rather elementary question that can be answered simply by paging through the Christian Bible, and indeed such a method of exploration should merit the most definitive answer to the question, but the issue has been made foggy by the many interpretations of the text that have been made throughout history.  Much of the Christian theological debate about grace is centred around the complexity of “covenant theology” (Mackinnon 143-145).  Covenant theology is the highly prevalent Christian doctrine that the Bible consists of two covenants: (1) the Old Testament Covenant, or the Covenant of Works and (2) the New Testament Covenant, or the Covenant of Grace.  Throughout history and across different denominations, these two different covenants have been assigned varying levels of importance.

The Covenant of Works, which is found in the Old Testament, is the covenant that God formed with his people by which they could acquire salvation through good deeds and obedience to his laws.  In the Old Testament, we find a God of justice and order, the very epitome of what the ancient Greeks referred to as dikê.  He is a God of rules, and one who punishes disobedience.  This is the basis of the Covenant of works; in many ways it is much more anthropocentric than the Covenant of Grace, in that it is focused on what humans do for their own salvation.

The Covenant of Grace is more theocentric.  This covenant, found primarily in the New Testament, is the promise that salvation is gained through grace.  In the New Testament, we find a God of love and grace.  In this sense of the word, grace means not only propitiousness, but unmerited acts of love towards humanity.  Grace, in the New Testament, is ultimately about the forgiveness and atonement that God grants humanity out of his love.

In Christianity, these two covenants have largely been at odds with each other, and much of the work in Christian theology has been spent in trying to understand how these two dichotic facets of Biblical dogma are to work together, or to what extent one ought to be rejected in favour of the other.  Malcolm H. Mackinnon traces some of the historical development of covenant theology in the first part of his article “The Weber Thesis Reconsidered.”  Mackinnon writes that while Calvin himself initially stressed a doctrine of sola fide, or “faith alone,” and thus rejected the Covenant of Works (considering the new testament a replacement of this), much of Calvinism differed greatly from its founding father, especially concerning this issue.  In general, the Puritans were obsessed with works, and not out of an irrational quest for phycological comfort as Weber had supposed, but as a result of the actual content of their doctrines, which rejected much of Calvin’s theology.  This is how Mackinnon explains the protestant work ethic (Mackinnon 143-145).

However, it should also be noted from Mackinnon that the extreme opposite end of the spectrum can be found in Calvin and, to some extent, in Luther.  Calvin saw the notion that one could earn one’s way to heaven through works as heretical and even blasphemous due to the way it belittles God.  For Calvin, the human will is incapable of doing good because it has been infected with evil since the fall.  God mysteriously foreordains salvation to an elect few, for reasons that humans cannot understand, unrelated to human deeds.  To claim that a human will can practice benevolence—or let alone earn its way to heaven—in spite of its fallen state is to claim that it is capable of divine action (Mackinnon 152-155).

But in between these two extremes was a covenant theology that tempered grace with justice.  Such a theology can perhaps be found in Perkins, who asserted that God requires humanity to work and act righteously, but out of his grace, accepts the very strife for righteousness as righteousness itself (Mackinnon 156).  In this way, human works are still insufficient and require grace, but they are also a necessary part of sanctification.  Indeed even Calvin, in his complete rejection of the Old Testament Covenant did not all together reject the works themselves.  Calvin insisted that works were merely an inseparable part of sola fide justification because anyone who truly wished to be forgiven and saved could not help but naturally do good deeds in response to God’s grace.  However, Perkins furthered this concept in that works were not only the natural response to Gods grace, but also a necessary requisite part of God’s grace in that they were the material which God graciously accepted as perfection, provided they were performed sincerely.

In my opinion, this latter theology seems more becoming of the Bible than the other more extreme views.  Even in the Old Testament, we find many references to God’s love and prophecies of his grace.  The ritual of slaughtering animal sacrifices for the atonement of sin, for example, shows us that even the Old Testament Covenant has some understanding of grace and the insufficiency of human works.  Additionally, we find mention of the importance of works in the New Testament, particularly in Paul’s letters to the churches. Indeed, the Bible is filled with examples of the two covenants working together rather than in opposition of each other, and I propose that the unique complementary function of these two covenants is precisely the source of Christianity’s distinct identity.

In Cristiano Grottanelli’s article, “A Comparative study of the stories of Ruth, Charila, Sita,” we are presented with a model of how various religions have successfully made use of both the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of grace (or their particular analogue of these covenants).    In the context of the three myths or stories that he presents, Grottanelli makes the interesting claim that “grace” (or mercy) is the same thing as “justice” (Grottanelli 22).  This is because each of the tales is about a kingly figure, who, out of his generosity, solves a crisis that a helpless woman is made to undergo.  Grottanelli contends that because the kingly figures are royal, and “generosity is a duty for him who is master over all” (Grottanelli 21-22), their exercises of generosity, or grace, are also exercises of justice.  Hence we have a primitive framework for the way in which grace and justice can work together found in several different traditions.  However, this framework is merely that—a framework.  While we might suppose that generosity is, at least in the human context, a duty of the able, the postulate gets a little shaky when applied to the divine context.  While a king’s benevolent display of generosity to a person in need may be called “mercy” in a human sense (particularly a royal sense), it is not so in the divine sense that we find in Christianity and many other religions.  The ancient Greeks saw generosity, particularly as it related to hospitality (xenia), as a part of one’s obligation to justices (dikê).  In this sense, the kings’ generosity is not really a gift of something undeserved.  Grace, in the sense of the New Testament Covenant, is about pardoning of debt, and so this model of generosity does not suffice to entirely reconcile grace with justice in the way that Christianity demands.

Another take on reconciling grace and justice can be found in David Kaylor’s article, “The Concept of Grace in the Hymns of Nammalvar.”  In his article, Kaylor examines whether grace is, in the Tiruvaymoli, spontaneous or a response to human devotion and deeds.  Kaylor concludes that grace is primarily spontaneous but submits that there is evidence for both cases found in Hindu literature.  Kaylor maintains, however, that all references to grace as a merited gift (that is grace, not in the Christian sense, but in a sense which excludes the undeserved aspect of it) are doxological rather than exhortative in their essential meaning, and therefore are less applicable as formal doctrine.  In many ways, this entirely spontaneous nature of grace is similar to Calvin’s formulation, where grace, while not entirely spontaneous, is at least mysterious and entirely unrelated to human acts.  However, the most essential element missing from this model is justice.  Obviously there are very formidable dogmas of justice all throughout Hindu traditions, but there is no instance of reconciliation between it and grace.  For this, we must turn to Christianity.

In Jesus Christ we find a means by which God, who is entirely just in nature, pardons sin without infringing on the integrity of his justice.  Because of God’s just nature, man’s sin should result in his metaphysical inability to remain in God’s presence, but this debt is paid through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, by which absolute justice is expressed simultaneously with absolute love.  From this model of reconciliation between justice and love should naturally flow, I think, the Christian reconciliation of covenant theology.  As we begin to understand, to some small degree, the kind of infinite love that God has for us and the sacrifice he makes for us, works follow naturally (as Calvin would have it), but also, as we begin to do better works and imitate Christ’s love, we begin to understand that love better (as the Calvinists would have it).  Hence, the two covenants of covenant theology perpetuate each other.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a twentieth century theologian, wrote in his book The Cost of Discipleship, “only those who believe obey, … and only those who obey believe” (Bonhoeffer 20).

As beautiful and unique as this doctrine is as a whole, it is also important to note that no part of it is found exclusively in Christianity; it is, rather, the manner in which all of the elements are combined that is unique to Christianity.  We need look no further than our own Indo-European language to find the origin of most of the components of the doctrine.  For example, the concept of a saviour who heals a large group of people from an ill brought on by misbehaviour can be linked to the ancient Greek concept of a soter, from which we get the word “saviour” and even the Christian theological word “soteriology.”  The theme of death and resurrection if also a ubiquitous part of world religions, an example being Adonis (on which, see C. S. Lewis, Miracles).  And of course, grace and justice are scattered all across other religions we have already referenced in this essay. But what is unique about Christian grace is that it is the culmination of each of these principles in a way that pieces them all together.  The fact that the component parts of Christianity are so deeply engrained in human thought should come as no surprise to us; indeed, as academics and humanists, we are required to expect human thought to be true, and so the fact that it is filled with the make up of Christianity gives Christianity all the more merit.

Works Cited

  • Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1998. Print.

“Did the Writers of the New Testament Get Their Picture of Jesus Right?”  Did the Writers of the New Testament Get Their Picture of Jesus Right? N.p., n.d. Web. 06 May 2013.

<http://www.christianity.co.nz/grace-13.htm&gt;.

Grottanelli, Cristiano.  “The King’s Grace and the Helpless Woman: A Comparative Study of the Stories of Ruth, Charila, Sita.”  History of Religions 22.1 (1982): 1-24. Web.  April 17 2013.

Kaylor, David R. “The Concept of Grace in the Hymns of Nammalvar.”  Journal of the American Academy of Religion 44.4 (1976):  Web.  April 17 2013.

Mackinnon, Malcolm H. “Part I: Calvinism and the Infallible Assurance of Grace: The Weber Thesis Reconsidered.”  The British Journal of Sociology 39.2 (1988): 143-177.  Web.  April 17 2013.

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4 thoughts on “What’s Unique about Christianity?

  1. Regarding the Old and New Covenants: “Behold, days are coming declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31: 31-33 NASB).

    The Old Covenant was not a covenant of works in that works could not save anyone. “there is no man who does not sin” (2 Chronicles: 6: 36; Also 1 John 1: 8). The New Covenant is the renewed Old Covenant written on hearts, not tablets of stone. A covenant requires the sheding of blood. (Genesis 15:9-21; Genesis 17: 1-13; Exodus 24: 4-8; Mathew 26: 27-28; HEBREWS 9: 1-28 and 10: 16-18).

    “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement” (Leviticus 17: 11 NASB).

    “And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9: 22).

    See 2 Corinthians 3: 1-3 regarding the Old and New Covenants.

    By the way, your poetry is brilliant. Are you a fan of Poe?

    • Thanks for pointing this out and including all the biblical references.

      These matteres were largely simplified and glossed over for the sake of accommodating the particular rhetorical intents of the essay.

      And thanks for the compliment; yes, I am a fan of Poe.

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