A Theology of Grace in Six Controversies


A Theology of Grace in Six Controversies
By Edward T. Oakes
Eerdmans Publishing Company – £18.99/$28.00

As Maurice Blondel (1861 – 1949) once said: Every doctrine which does not reach the one thing necessary, every separated philosophy, will remain deceived by false appearances. It will be a doctrine, it will not be a philosophy.

How exceedingly true the above words ring – in as much that there are times when the all too obvious does indeed need to be clarified.

That in this instance, it has been brought to bear by the French philosopher Blondel, whose most influential work was L’Action – (aimed at establishing the correct relationship between autonomous philosophical reasoning and Christianity) really should come as no surprise. Likewise, the degree to which this altogether marvellous book by Edward T. Oakes, S.J., is simultaneously provocative and enlightening.

To say there are numerous instances throughout A Theology of Grace in Six Controversies, to which some form of provocation readily applies – the most very excellent of inspired titles itself – would be one of the utmost of understatements. In the chapter, ‘Sin and Justification for instance,’ Oakes quotes N.T. Wright by supposing that ”God’s purposes go far beyond individual salvation” when he writes: ”God is rescuing us from the shipwreck of the world, not so that we can sit back and put our feet up in his company, but so that we can be part of his plan to remake the world.”

I would hasten to add that this is something I wholeheartedly agree with; although said particular ”shipwreck of the world,” does appear just a little too submerged to be truly rescued. Alas, if even if it were, could the world itself actually be redeemed?

Oakes continues: ”We are in orbit around God and his purposes, not the other way around. If the Reformation tradition had treated the Gospels as equally important to the Epistles, this mistake might never have happened. But it has, and we must deal with it.”

Yes we must.
Herein perhaps, lies one of the most fundamental problems facing humanity today.

We do not work in conjunction with any of the above, because we have been side-tracked by far, far too much deviation. Or, dare I say it, temptation, which too is addressed by way of Oakes delving into the doctrinal thinking of Karl Barth: ”Temptation mercilessly reveals the yawning chasm between Is and Ought, between what is and what should be. We see the depths of this fissure from an insight into God’s justice and judgement […]. Every single feature of human life is lost before God if grace is lacking – a grace that the sinner cannot count on and to which he has no right whatever. No one who has really found himself trapped in the coils of temptation has ever been able to save one of his works from the fire of divine judgement. No one in such a situation would ever even dream of laying claim to any reward.”

With such a title heading as the aforementioned ‘Sin and Justification,’ not to mention ‘Evolution and Original Sin,’ is it any wonder I use the word provocative to describe this occasionally inflammatory, yet ultimately dense book of readings and teachings?

Throughout the six chapters of this book, (plus a further Introduction and Glossary of Terms), Oakes examines various issues relating to grace and points them back to that central question, illuminating and explaining what is really at stake in these debates. Maintaining that controversies clarify issues, especially those as convoluted as that of nature and grace, Oakes works through six central debates on the topic, including sin and justification, free will and evolution, along with original sin.”

And as a matter of profound interest, why is it always original sin? Why not pre-ordained sin? Calculated sin. Sin passed down through many a misguided generation?

Of the author, Aaron Riches (Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ) writes: ”Edward Oakes will be remembered as one of the finest American Catholic theologians of his generation. With A Theology of Grace in Six Controversies, he has given the church and contemporary theology a final offering – a work as daring as it is faithful, as provocative as it is irenic, as creative as it is traditional. This book promises to change the terms of the question concerning the relation of nature and grace. A must-read for anyone interested in contemporary theology.”

That Oakes pushes the theological boat out and doesn’t ultimately write from that of a particularly safe premise, does a lot to substantiate as much throughout this most complex and multifacted of books.

David Marx


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