In response to an Evangelical Christian friend who is thinking about joining the Orthodox Church, I wrote the following comment on wholly personalized grace.
The excessive personalization of grace is a pitfall in modernist interpretation of Scripture. There are philosophical reasons for this that may be traced to Descartes’ famous comment, “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”). The philosophical realist would say the opposite: “I am, therefore I think.” This may seem like a semantic debate, but it is critical I think in assessing how it is that modern Christianity has fallen so astray from the faith and practice of the early Church. Stated briefly, if we follow this modernist philosophical trend, and submit ontology (I am) to personal experience and apprehension (I think), then it is a small step to say that what is real to me is only what I know and what I experience. Grace then is wholly personalized, or it is nothing at all. This is the mindset then that leads us from the Apostolic Church to the modern day Evangelical or Charismatic Movements. The result is the fall of ecclesiastical form and discipline and then doctrinal error. Or to be more precise, it is the fall of an ecclesiastical form and discipline handed down over the centuries to one that is made up by an individual for his own psychological and emotional wants. When that happens, then doctrine also must conform to the individual’s personal desire. If “God the Father” does not fit with my feminist, post-modernist approach to life, a person might say, then “God the Father” must give way to “God the Mother” or perhaps “God the Undefined and Confused.” The conservative Evangelical or Charismatic may shudder at the thought, but his underlining philosophical conceits are exactly the same as those practiced by the post-modernist “Progressive Christian.”
The main problem with this loss of ecclesiastical form and discipline is that it runs contrary to what Christ Jesus did. As recounted clearly in the Gospels, Christ Jesus is establishing the Kingdom of God. Like any Kingdom, the Kingdom of God has an order and a form to it which taken together constitute a distinct polity. Before the Second Coming of Christ Jesus, the transitional expression of and also conduit to this Kingdom is the Church. This means that, like the Kingdom, the Church is meant to have a distinct order and form. We say that the Church therefore is ecclesiological and that the faithful interface with the Church (the Body of Christ, the Communion of the Saints, the mechanism of sacramental grace) in her unique ecclesiastical polity. After the Second Coming, the Church will be superseded by the New Jerusalem as described in the Revelation of Saint John the Divine. The New Jerusalem is also a society with a unique form and order. This emphasis on form and order makes sense given that God saves man so that man may worship Him “in holiness and righteousness all the days of our life” (Luke 1:75). Worship is liturgical. It is orderly, set in time, communal, hierarchical. It is the microcosm of the society of the faithful.
This is the main reason why when Christ Jesus heals the leper He tells him to go to the Temple and to make a gift as Moses commanded (Matthew 8:1-4). Christ Jesus interfaces with the leper personally, but He instructs the leper to respond institutionally, ecclesiastically. He tells him to reaffirm to the Priest his obedience to the form and the order of the Temple worship as first commanded by Moses rather than calling attention to what Christ Jesus has done personally for him (“See thou tell no man”). Christ Jesus not only has healed the leper. He has invited him to be among the society of the faithful. That invitation is the true healing.
Christ Jesus speaks in parables to the multitude, but then provides plain explanation to the twelve disciples. When He sends out the same twelve to preach, He orders them to refrain from preaching outside of Israel. In both instances, we see Him focusing on the remnant, which is to say the core of the faithful. He is starting from the center (Himself) and building outward (the twelve, then the five hundred who witness His Ascension, then the people in the room who received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and so forth), or we can say that He is starting from the local and building outward to the universal, precisely because He is consciously building His Church. The Kingdom of God is likened to the mustard seed. Great things come from small beginnings, that is true; but more so what He is saying is that the Kingdom is a place with its own unique form and order. The mustard seed after all does not sprout into a cantaloupe. From its smallest stage the mustard seed has the natural design of its end point, and as it grows it naturally conforms to that design. God may interface with us individually, but He calls us to worship Him in communion with the preordained design of His Church.
The Church precedes Holy Scripture, for the fullness of the Body of Christ, the Incarnation of God, is in Christ Jesus before the first Gospel and Epistle that constitute the New Testament have been written. We do not deny that Holy Scripture is the inerrant and inspired Word, and as such the faith and practice of the Church cannot properly be contradicted by Holy Scripture. Nevertheless, the idea of Sola Scriptura in essence says that Holy Scripture precedes the Church. Sola Scriptura is the intellectual predecessor for wholly personalized grace, for the individual reader of Holy Scripture himself is said to embody the fullness of the faith and the practice of the Church in virtue of the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit. He is thus capable of rightful interpretation without any reference to the Apostolic Fathers, the Ecumenical Councils, even his own Bishop or Parish Priest. He is an island of grace unto himself. While I do not deny that the Holy Spirit is free to guide a person outside of the confines of the Church, this would be an extraordinary circumstance. The New Testament Gospels and Epistles make it clear that the normative practice is intended to be otherwise.
Why would Christ Jesus set out to create His Church, and inspire Saint Paul to be first and foremost a missionary Church builder, if His long term plan had been to dispense with the Church in favor of wholly personalized grace? Some will state that the “Church Period” is what is recounted in the New Testament and that we have passed that period into one that is more charismatic and personalized. If so, then why is the end point of salvation the society of the faithful in the New Jerusalem? Why take us on a detour away from the “Church Period” only to bring us back into an ordered, liturgical, and hierarchical society after the Second Coming? I would argue that there is no such intention and that the Evangelical and Charismatic Schools, however well intentioned, do not realize the extent to which they have been influenced by the modernist philosophers. As the mustard seed does not cease being a mustard at any point while growing to its full potential, so logically the Kingdom does not cease being an ordered society at any point while transitioning from the Church Militant to the Church Triumphant.