Every now and then I wonder why I started this series. Today is another such day, because I find the thirteenth of the Church of England’s articles of faith so viscerally unattractive. (I hope that my sense of repulsion has not totally affected my judgement!)
XIII Of Works before Justification
Works done before the grace of Christ, and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School-authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea rather, for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.
I have already argued in previous posts in this series that this whole discussion on faith and works is carried out on entirely the wrong basis, and neither the overarching concepts of the late mediaeval / early modern debate nor its specific formulations are historically well rooted in Paul’s writings, or indeed other parts of scripture.
Somewhere behind this article lies the fundamental assertion that one cannot earn God’s grace and love, nor bootstrap one’s way to salvation. Let’s take that as read. That assertion, although expressed differently by Jews and Christians, and indeed historically by Catholics and Protestants, seems to me to be central to the biblical vision. The overarching sweep of the scriptural story stresses God’s prior initiative and our lives as needing to be responsive: how else can a story of Creator and creature be told?
However, somewhere along the way, that positive affirmation gets lost in the wording of this article. Entangled in late mediaeval constructs, it (along with some other expressions of Reformation thought) obscures that central theme, while blaming the mediaeval schools for the obscurity. It turns God into some kind of morally deficient judge of a defective past creation, instead of the gracious sustainer of present creation, whose loving determination is to bring all created being to its redeemed consummation.
The mercy of a God who judges all human deeds abhorrent, unless they are performed by those that same mercy has brought to believe in Christ, is scarcely mercy at all. In fact, whatever the article actually says, that can’t be the totality of the Anglican reformers’ view, since they accept the salvation of the the faithful people of the Jewish covenants before Christ.
Going further, it seems to me that they have no real and practical concept of non-Christians, and neither make provision for, nor develop a theology of, God’s mission in the world. The assumption they make, living in a Christian commonwealth, is that every citizen is either believer, heretic or apostate. The root assumption is that everyone is baptised. This article probably needs to be read in that light as talking about what activates that baptismal seed within them: doing good deeds because we wish to be loved, or doing good deeds because we have discovered that we are loved.
In today’s world, however, that Christendom assumption is plainly nonsense, and so the wording of the article seems even more nonsensical, if not simply appalling. If we truly have a vision of God’s creative and redemptive work (two different perspectives on the same gracious and loving purpose of God) focused and known in and through the sacrificial love of the Son of God who shares our humanity, then no person lives, speaks and acts without the grace of God sustaining their being, or themselves ever being less than the determined object of God’s love.
How one comes to recognise that grace, and the ways in which people respond to that grace, are different questions for which the Church continues to need to work on its theology of mission — understood as embracing creation and redemption as its methods, and the perfection of new creation as its goal.
It seems to me, for example, that some atheists have been very palpable gifts of God’s grace to me, some by their friendship, and the goodness I have found in them, others by their protest against distorted pictures of God the church has wittingly or unwittingly perpetrated, others again by their pursuit of truth in the light of their reason and courage, in the face of a church that has not liked the challenge of uncomfortable truths.
I am not prepared to say that these are not good deeds pleasing to God. And I am certainly not prepared to say that these are anything other than the working of God’s grace (however much my atheist friends may dislike that assertion). I hope and pray that they might (somehow, somewhere, somewhen) come to know how to name the God of that grace with gratitude, but ultimately that is God’s business and theirs. In the meantime, mine is to bear witness to the God who makes himself known in Jesus of Nazareth, exploring ways to name him in word and deed which others may find both comprehensible and compelling.
In the light of my experience, some of the more generous reflections of our tradition, and above all a more hopeful reading of scripture, I have rather more sense of God as the one in whom we all live and move and have our being, who will not be so easily frustrated in his creative purposes, and who above all delights far more in his diverse creation than the wording of this article suggests.
(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)