Paul Zahl’s theology of grace

Another newish book that I picked up almost on a whim is Paul Zahl’s Grace In Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life. Zahl was until recently dean of Trinity Episcopal Seminary, is a determined low-church evangelical and vocal opponent of revisionist moves on same-sex relationships. Despite some disagreement there, I’d read his Short Systematic Theology (and he means short – it’s less that 100 pages) and was intrigued enough to want to read more.

I’d describe Zahl as a kind of Episcopal version of Gerhard Forde. He is proudly “long on grace and short on law.” This book is an expostion of Zahl’s theology and its application to daily living that is rigorously grace-centered. He defines grace simply as “one-way love,” the love of God for human beings who have done nothing to deserve it.

Zahl unabashedly embraces the Law-Gospel hermenuetic in his approach to scripture. The law is the perfect picture of what human life should be, but it is unable to produce the obedience it demands. If anything, its demands incite rebellion. Consequently, the law takes the form of accusation: an accusation we experience in all the pressures and stresses of life as demands press down upon us:

What the law requires is exactly what men and women need in order to be wise, happy, and secure. But the law cannot pull this off. The problem with the law is not its substance. The problem with the law is its instrumentality. The law is not up to the task it sets for itself. If the law says, “Jump,” I sit. If it says, “Run,” I walk. If it says, “Honor your father and mother,” I move…to Portland. If it say, “Do not covet” (Romans 7:7-8), I spend all day on the Home Shopping Channel. (p. 35)

Only grace, God’s one-way love, can get us out of this jam. God’s unilateral forgiveness takes away our guilt and anxiety about not being able to measure up. And, as a bonus, grace produces the “fruits” of love that the law couldn’t. “The one-way love of grace is the essence of any lasting transformation that takes place in human experience” (p. 36).

One of the interesting things Zahl does is attempt to rehabilitate the theory of substitutionary atonement in a way that speaks a graceful word rather than a judgmental one. He has, he says repeatedly, a very low anthropology and a very high soteriology. Human beings are bound, curved in on ourselves, and unable to do anything to release the load of guilt and judgment from our shoulders. Only Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross releases us from this curse:

The atonement of Christ on the cross is the mechanism by which God’s grace can be offered freely and without condition to strugglers in the battle of life. Grace is not offered by God as a fiat. We all wish that the innocent had not had to die for the guilty. We wish that a different road, a road less traveled in scars, had been taken. But we have been told that this was the necessary way by which God’s law and God’s grace would be resolved. It had to be resolved through a guilt-transfer, making it “possible” — the idea is almost beyond maintaining — for God to give the full scholarship to the candidate least qualified to receive it. (pp. 117-18)

Not eveyone will be convinced by Zahl’s defense of penal substitution (I’m not sure I was), but it does preserve something that I think other atonement theories often miss. Too often, especially in liberal theology, the atonement is reduced to an example, or a way of life, which deprives it of its once-for-all efficacy that lifts the burden of guilt off the shoulders of poor sinners. Zahl’s surprisingly convincing defense of the un-free will and total depravity are the counterpoint to the all-sufficiency of Christ’s atonement. If the cross of Christ is just one more demand (“Live a life of radical justice and self-sacrifice!”), then it does nothing to free me from my sins and self-will.

The more original part of Zahl’s book may be his application of the idea of grace to relationships, in family, society and church. One-way love, not law and its threats and demands is the natural “fruit” of our justification. The image of fruits is particularly important in understanding the dynamic here. You don’t get a plant to produce fruit by pulling on its branches. You have to nourish its roots, in this case with the living water of grace.

In families the theology of grace takes the form of loving acceptance, not heaping demands on each other. Zahl applies this to relationships between spouses, between parents and children, and between siblings. He argues that many of the troubles that plague family life, from resentment, to control, to competition, are outgrowths of a legalistic approach to life together. Paradoxically, he says, the relativization of the nuclear family by Jesus actually constitutes its salvation:

The end of the absolute claim of the nuclear family, for which grace strictly calls, emancipates the nuclear family from the very nerve of neurosis, which is the projection upon human beings of what belongs only to God. The grace of God releases the possibility of non-demanding love among men and women who are united by human blood. This is the salvation of the famous nuclear family. (p. 186)

Zahl applies his theology of grace in particularly striking ways to social ethics. Zahl, a student of both Moltmann and Kasemann, jettisons the “two kingdom” ethics identified with traditional Lutheranism and comes to some surprising conclusions for someone identified with the “conservative” wing of Anglicanism:

“What is grace in relation to war and peace? It is to support no war ever under any conceivable circumstances, and it is peace in all things, the passive peace of Christ-like nonreactivity, bound ot the never-passive operation of the Holy Spirit” (p. 203).

“Total mercy, complete exoneration, and unconditional release: those are the marks of grace in relation to criminal justice” (p. 211).

“A theology of grace invites a non-romanticized preferential option for the poor. The picture of this is probably soemthing like a moderate, non-ideological, and non-utopian form of socialism” (p. 217).

“Just as this theology opposes the use of war in every case, it opposes the construction of malls in every case. One can imagine the construction of a “mall” that buys and sells in a normal and necessary way. One can imagine instances of a market that buys and sells, provides, and distributes. But the mall as we now know it is the “green tree” under which the firstborn of the Canaanites were sacrificed” (p. 222)

Finally, Zahl addresses grace in church. Here he’s at his most provocative, openly avowing a “low” or even non-existent ecclesiology. Ecclesiology is trouble, both because it is secondary to other more important topics, “such as the saving inherent in the Christian drama” (p. 226) and because it actually does harm to the extent that it “places the human church in some kind of special zone — somehow distinct from real life — that appears to be worthy of special study and attention. The underlying idea is that the church is in a zone that is free, or at least more free, from original sin and total depravity than the rest of the world, but the facts prove otherwise” (p. 226).

To say we have no ecclesiology is not just a negation. To have no ecclesiology is to have an ecclesiology. What sort of ecclesiology is this? It is a noble one. It puts first things first. It puts Christ over the human church. It puts what Christ taught and said over the church. It puts grace over the church. It puts Christ’s saving work and the acute drama of the human predicament over the church. It puts the human hope of change over the church. It places the Holy Spirit over the church. (p. 227).

The besetting temptation of the church is to elevate itself as an institution to a place of special prestige or power. In the impressiveness of its historical claims, or the purity of its doctrine, or the beauty of its liturgy it can become deceived into thinking that it’s an end in itself and has its foundation in itself. According to Zahl the church is properly seen as “a pneumatic, Spirit-led movement, always, like mercury in motion. Church is flux. A systematic theology of grace puts church in its right place. Church is at best the caboose to grace. It is its tail. Ecclesiology, on the other hand, makes church into the engine” (p. 228).

Zahl calls this an “eccleisiology of suspicion,” which denies that there can be any “original sin-free zones” in this world. Those who put their faith in the church rather than God are bound to be bitterly disappointed. “A theology of grace, with its ecclesiology of suspicion, is the tonic and antidote to the church behaving badly” (p. 231). In a time when the church has been behaving badly (on all sides at different points), this strikes me as something that needs to be heard.

Another noteworthy aspect of this book is that Zahl writes clearly and simply, with an almost whimsical tone. His text is littered with pop cultural references to old sci-fie movies, popular music, and even the plays of Tyler Perry, as well as examples drawn from everyday life. One is forced to wonder why more theologians can’t write like this.

Despite some disagreements here and there, my overwhelming impression of this book was that Zahl is preaching a theology of grace that is desperately needed in the church and the world. This thirst for grace may be indicated by the fact that the book carries glowing blurbs from Peter J. Gomes of Harvard University and J. Ligon Duncan of the conservative Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Liberals and conservatives have both embraced different forms of “political correctness” — whether that means fealty to the Millenium Development Goals or opposition to gay marriage and abortion — which threaten to overshadow the gospel of God’s forgiving grace. But Zahl argues persuasively that this the only meaningful possibility for genuine human transformation.

7 thoughts on “Paul Zahl’s theology of grace

    1. Jana Brazeal

      Both Zahl and Forde failed to see their error in making gay people an exception to their otherwise sound emphasis on grace.

  1. Yeah, that strikes me as a real blind spot in both cases. I remember reading an essay by Forde where he said a bunch of things that made perfect sense: that the law is for human well-being in this age and not about our ultimate standing before God, etc. And yet, when it comes to gay people he starts going off on this stuff about “the destructiveness, both physical and social, of homogenital sexual activity.” Which is empirically dubious to put it mildly!

    But in my case it had the ironic result of showing me how a Lutheran perspective on the law can actually make sense of a “revisionist” posture on the permissibility of same-sex relationships: since the law is for our well-being in the world, new knowledge, drawn from observation, about what is conducive to human well-being can and should result in a revision of or flexibility with respect to existing norms.

  2. Todd

    What Zahl consistently states is the truth of the law, but it’s ineffectiveness to engender what it demands. In this sense, Zahl would break with Forde strongly.

    Forde maintains a sharp distinction between the 1st and the 2nd use of the law. Therefore Forde condemns homosexuality on the basis of the first use of the law. (notice forde appeals to the social distructiveness). But Zahl equates the first and second use as having the same effect on the individual- both uses of law arouse resistance.

    Within this one has to say that homosexuality is considered wrong, but that the pastoral response is not one of judgment, but love.

  3. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Has Grace Made Me Gracious?

  4. Anna

    Could you tell me if this book is available as an audiobook? My husband has the book, and would need to read it urgently, but he has no time as he travels a lot. I thought I might surprise him by buying him an mp3 version, but I could not find it. Any suggestions welcome.

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