J. Todd Billings compares Milbank's theology of gift with Calvin's theology of grace in a 2005 article from Modern Theology. He focuses attention on Milbank's criticism that the Reformation put such emphasis on the unilateral character of grace and so highlighted the passivity of the reception of grace that it deleted any notion of mutuality, reciprocity, or active reception. Billings's essay has two main aims: First, to show that Calvin escapes Milbank's criticisms and actually does include an element of reciprocity in his understanding of grace; second, to highlight weaknesses in Milbank's work by comparison with Calvin.
After a concise and lucid summary of Milbank's theology of gift, he turns to defending Calvin against the charge that he has eliminated mutuality. Billings suggests that it all depends, since Calvin works not from a generalized (and oversimplified) schematic of "gift" but from the biblical data. To the question "Is the gift actively or passively received?" Calvin would answer "Which gift are we talking about?" Billings discusses Calvin's notion of the "double gift" of justification and sanctification to show that, while Calvin does have a notion of unilateral gift and passive reception (justification) he also, inseparably, talks about a second gift/grace that is "participatory regeneration by the Spirit" (sanctification).
Billings criticizes Milbank for employing only the anthropologically derived categories of "unilateral" (pure gift) v. "exchange," noting that Calvin derives a richer vocabulary from the Bible itself. One of these categories is "covenant," which Billings, citing Peter Lillback, says is both unilateral and yet also bilateral, and in fact neither simply speaking: "Calvin also makes extensive use of the language of a mutual, bilateral covenant, particualrly when he wants to emphasize human responsibility."
Milbank's privileging of "exchange" also tends to fix an "exteriority in divine-human relations that is foreign to Calvin." Justification and sanctification come to believers because they are "one life and substance" with Christ, and he cites Philip Butin's characterization of Calvin's theology of union with Christ as "perichoretic." Thus, "it is not a matter of 'recoprocity' or 'passivity,' but a differentiated union of identities in a trinitarian concept"
Billings also responds to the charge that Calvin leaves behind participationist categories, and any notion of deification. Milbank claims that Calvin and the other Reformers work with only a "negative anthropology" that assumes "created nature must be destroyed rather than fulfilled in the 'new creation' of regeneration." Not so, says Billings; summarizing Calvin's treatise Bondage and Liberation of the Will, he concludes that Calvin's anthropology is "christologically-conditioned": "it is only through the empowering, activating presence of God that a human can do a work that is 'good' . . . . humanity finds fullness through faith in Christ, in whom God and humanity are reconciled and fully united." Calvin affirms "that the primal human nature is fulfilled through union with God, by partaking of Christ through the Spirit." Billings says that Calvin includes both notions of participation and of deification in his theology (a point that Billings is expanding upon in a forthcoming Oxford Press book).
He concludes that "there are important and perhaps surprising areas of commonality between Calvin's theology of grace and Milbank's emerging theology of the gift," including "the close connection between the receiving of grace and the active life of Christian self-giving and love; also, both seek to articulate the fulfillment of human nature in union with God, through the Spirit, by participation in Christ." Yet, Calvin's theology of grace is superior to Milbank's in the greater clarity he achieves with his notion of duplex gratia, and the greater variety and nuance he gains by using biblical categories.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Wednesday, November 14, 2007 at 01:35 PM
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