Thursday, December 4, 2014

"God Ahead of Us: The Story of Divine Grace" Book Review

God Ahead of Us: The Story of Divine Grace by Paul O'Callaghan is probably the toughest book I've ever had to review. Why? Well for one, I am a Protestant and he writes as a Catholic. Therefore our understanding of certain key ideas like justification and (more importantly) grace are going to be different. In some cases the gap between our theologies seems too large to be crossed.

Second, I am not totally sure who this book is written for. It is too scholarly to be of much benefit for laity (maybe more advanced members in church) and yet there just isn't really a thesis advanced here to make it of much use to scholars. In other words, God Ahead of Us feels like a book without a home.

However, one of the largest things that makes this book difficult to review is how much I can affirm in this work as a Protestant, while simultaneous disagreeing with so much. Virtually everything I affirm would need to come with qualifications.

So let's begin in what I affirm...

O'Callaghan's basic argument is that all of God's workings in history flow from His grace. He states, "...God is the one who searches for human beings, placing them joyfully on his shoulders as the shepherd does with tired, wounded, and needy sheep (Luke 15:5)." (Loc. 100) Further, he says, "...Christianity has little else to contribute other than grace, although many other things derive from it and give it full expression." (Loc. 143). So far, O'Callaghan sounds like someone in the Reformed branch of the Protestant church.

To demonstrate this basic idea (that grace is central to Christianity) he explores how grace impacts various issues in systematic theology like predestination, vocation and holiness, justification, the Holy Spirit, sanctification, ethics and free will. I would imagine that just from the opening chapter, most within my tradition would celebrate what O'Callaghan is advocating.

But things get tricky as we go along. For one, the author seems to assume that while grace is based upon God's initiative, it is our responsibility to stay within God's grace. In other words, we can fall from grace. Further, because the author blends justification and sanctification into one act, moral transformation and the act of being declared just are literally inseparable. That is problematic because the author insists that it is our responsibility to practice true virtue in light of the grace we have received. But if my justification is tied to my own moral progress that I must make, then I fail to see how justification truly functions in a gracious way. The author states, "Right until the end of our lives we can make the sad choice of separating ourselves from God and losing the grace he has given us. Final perseverance is guaranteed to nobody." (Loc. 652) This again strikes me as the very antithesis of what grace is. Grace deals with us in our rebellion. Grace deals with us in our stubbornness. Grace is what causes us to persevere. So what it seems that the author is saying that grace functions as a "gift" because God did not need to offer us anything. Therefore, it is our responsibility to respond to this grace.

There were other times that the lack of precision in language confused me as to the author's beliefs. For instance he states, "Humans carry within themselves a mysterious and indestructible desire for God." (Loc. 631). Desire? I have no doubt that humans have a need for God and may even be aware of there need for something "other." However, Scripture is clear that we do not yearn for God and that we are rebels against the divine (see Rom. 3 and Rom. 5). It is precisely because we are rebels that God's grace shines so brightly! In was in His love and mercy that He freely chose to covenant with us and rescue us!

O'Callaghan's view of election could be viewed as a problem as well. He seems to follow Barth (although I do not think he states that he is following part) in a Christocentric model of election. What this means in his model is that Christ is elected and so all who are part of his Body, "partake of this predestination." (Loc. 311) Without diving into much detail on this contentious topic, I'll just say this: I find it hard to square this view of predestination with Romans 8:29-30. There, Christ has predestined us and therefore we are saved by God's plan worked out before time. Here, Christ is predestined and so we can believe and be saved. Some might argue that this is mere semantics. That is fine. But it seems to me that if we want to talk grace, we need to talk about how we ourselves are predestined before time to be in Christ as well as (if you wish to say it this way) the predestination of Christ.

So in conclusion, I think that my issues with this book flow out of a bigger issue: I am not Catholic. It is terribly unfair for me to give a negative review for a book where I was not the target audience. Further, I would hate to sound as if I am not desirous of being ecumenical. I desire unity in the Body of Christ, not division.

However, I feel like this book highlights the exact reason why there is a divide between Protestants and Catholics. Even when some within my own tradition are attempting to close the gap on the issue of justification (like the New Perspective on Paul) between Catholics and Protestants, I just cannot affirm what this book states. I feel as if every statement must be qualified.

But perhaps that is one of the goals of theology: dialogue. We serve a big God and our knowledge of Him is imperfect. Having these conversations are necessary. Therefore, I can affirm this book because it helped sharpen my own thinking on the issue of grace and what I mean when I talk about the grace of God. Isn't that what a good book is suppose to do?

I will leave off with a quote that I found particularly stirring from Paul O'Callaghan:

"Grace in other words is not something 'instrumental' that God 'invents' with a view to resolving contingent problems arising within human history. For Paul, grace is everything. It determines the entire course of human history. Humans are created in order to live in eternal communion with God, that is in the grace of God. The meaning of their existence, the beginning, development, and fulfillment of life, is to be found in grace." (Loc. 221-22)

I believe that we can all respond to that with an "Amen!"

*Thanks to Fortress Press for providing me a free copy of this ebook in exchange for an unbiased review*

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