views updated May 21 2018


GRACE . The religious significance present in the Anglo-French word grace is both multifaceted and ambivalent. As a theological term, it may attempt to pinpoint the activity of God here and now, or it may disclose nothing less than the reality underlying all of religion and faith.

This almost transparent term points to the fundamental power and horizon of every revelation, to the ultimate religious question and statement in any religion, for grace stands primarily not for human virtue but for God's presence. Grace is a divine activity in human history and in human lives. The reality signified by esed ("loving-kindness") in the Hebrew scriptures and by charis ("grace") in the Greek scriptures can be found in the Dao, in the power of the Hindu triad, and in the radical absence contemplated by Buddhism. Occasionally one can find in these other traditions the same theological discussions about the mediation by grace of the divine in human freedom and suffering.

Christian theologians have filled volumes with definitions and classifications of grace. Because God remains mystery, the ineffable presence of the deity eludes precise definition, and therefore the ultimate meaning of the word remains mysterious. In theology, as distinct from the expression of religion in art (where grace is shown rather than defined), the word grace frequently denotes either too much or too little.

Moving back through the Latin gratia to the Greek charis, with its overtones of graciousness and liberality, the word grace assumed a Christian theological importance with Paul. But even for Paul, whose creative interpretation of Christianity began the turbulent odyssey of this term, the word has several meanings. Charis can mean a power coming from the spirit of Jesus active in a Christian (the charism of healing or preaching; 1 Cor. 12), but it can also mean the power of God to help one follow Christ despite the evils and difficulties of human life. And with Paul there is also a more objective meaning of grace. The foundation of all grace and of all graces (charisms) is the generous saving activity of God manifested toward humankind in the history and destiny of Jesus. God's grace is the gift of persevering, loving, purposeful generosity that becomes visible in a climactic way in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Charis means the favor of God, but that favor made active in the advent of Jesus Christ, particularly so in his words and deeds. God's loving generosity in Christ bestows not only forgiveness of sin but a new, death-surviving mode of existence. Jesus Christ is grace objectified, and in and after him the worlds of creation, time, and human personality have been radically (if invisibly) altered. Paul applied Jesus' phrase "the kingdom of God" largely in a concrete manner to Jesus himself, particularly through the triumphant guarantee of newness assured by Jesus risen from the dead.

In a significant phrase, Paul proclaims that while sin inevitably leads to death, the charisma of God to humanity is "eternal life in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 6:23). The following chapters of that letter describe this charisma: new freedom, familial intimacy with God, the capability to follow the new "law" of love, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in men and women, and God's advocacy on behalf of needy individuals (Rom. 8). Personal entry into this life is begun by baptism conceived as rebirth in Christ's death, burial, and resurrection. The event of Easter has both personal and cosmic results.

A final realization of charis for Paul comes from this very baptismal life. The new life of grace is not only a divine favor and an adoption but also a commissioning for action. Charismata, charisms, are powers of the Holy Spirit active in mature Christians, empowering them to act on behalf of the reign of God and the life of the church. Christians are not passive. Each Christian has through the baptismal spirit some active gift to aid the church either inwardly or in its mission of service and evangelization. Drawing on his metaphor of the body, Paul faces the difficult challenges of diversity and unity in the young churches and of leadership amid a variety of services. Nonetheless, Paul will not abandon this final realization of the new presence of God where grace continues through time to be present in human life and ministries of service (Rom. 12, 1 Cor. 12).

Historical Developments in the Theology of Grace

Eastern Christian theology was heir to thought forms of human participation in the divine and subsequently emphasized less the evil and ruinous counterpart to grace than the almost mystical capacity of the human person to become, through grace, a participant in the life of the triune God. In the first two centuries of Christianity, the church was largely Greek-speaking. However, by the end of the second century, with the influence of Tertullian in the West and Clement of Alexandria in the East, Greek and Latin theology had begun to take distinct directions. In the more Hellenistic, Neoplatonist world of the Eastern Empire the seeds of the New Testament teaching about a new creation, a new man and woman, and a human being who is the temple of the spirit of God found fertile soil.

The school of Alexandria in the third century, the great bishop-theologians of the fourth century, and monasticism and mysticism in the fifth to eighth centuries solidified and concretized Eastern theologya theology of trinitarian, divinizing grace renewed by Christ. In the East, Manichaean dualism and the Augustinian theology of a God redeeming a segment of the fallen world were overshadowed by a view owing much to Neoplatonism, which envisioned a single world in which the divine plan and presence was intertwined with creation and the Trinity continues that plan and presence through the effects of redemption.

After the sporadic but often intense persecution in the second and third centuries, the role of baptism as a commission for an eschatological life related less to the fading idea of martyrdom than to the newer opportunity of communal eremitical monasticism. Some monastic figures stressed the ascetic side, others the contemplative. With schools and theologies influenced by orientations based in the thought of Origen and Dionysius the Areopagite, the monastic life became a school of contemplation fulfilling in a special way the Christian vocation. Far from being simply training for visions and miracles, monasticism viewed grace as the seed or enabler of a God-bestowed contemplative outlook that, as it intensified, fostered not visions but apophatic faith in touch with the darkness of the divine essence. Furthermore, in the Eastern Christian churches, the liturgy became the sacramental place where grace reaches the concrete; in the liturgy, the social and the historical meet contemplatively the timeless icon, hymn, and sacrament of worship.

In the West, Christianity came to emphasize salvation from sin. With Augustine grace took on characteristics of an intermediate power sent from God to heal the effects of evil in human beings. Augustine's life and conversion led him to emphasize sharply the human person's proneness to evil and corresponding need for some divine assistance so that men and women might turn to God in faith and hope and to their neighbors in mercy and love. With Augustine, grace appears in a triad along with freedom and evil. Human freedom can mean freedom to choose this or that, but more often it means the freedom to choose God as the personal ultimate in a life. Evil can mean the fallen human conditioncharacterized, for example, by prison campsor it can mean the personal realization of evil in a sinful act.

Within Western Christianity the history of the controversies over grace illustrate the changing and perduring meanings of the word. In the first decades after Christ Paul asserted, against Jewish or Christian groups who based their hopes on external religious observances, the free and open salvation made widely accessible by God's recent entry into human history. Augustine upheld against the ascetic Pelagius (whose view of the positive capacity of human nature made a strict following of the Christian way more plausible) the pervasive infection of the primal fall. Augustine considered human choice without grace to be enchained, bereft of the contact of a divine activity (namely, grace) by which one could please and live for God. In Augustine, conceptions of the fall, the human sinful condition, and original sin describe the opposite of salvation, of true goodness and life. The view of the nature of grace as an intermediary, as a quasi entity of divine promise and power, began to appear.

In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas, who was at work on his synthesis of nature and society with Christian teaching, disagreed with his Augustinian colleagues over the need for grace. Thomas defended the natural potentialities of the human personality to do their workto know the truth, to seek the good. He considered original sin to be a serious wounding of the personality from within the emotions and the ground of the will but not an irrevocable termination of the image of God. He brought back into Western thinking the spirit of the Alexandrian school, a synthesis of nature and grace where every aspect of creation and grace has the potential to find its place in a harmonious whole.

Martin Luther, propelled by his rediscovery of Augustine and Paul, protested against the localization of divine power in things (e.g., indulgences and noncommunal liturgy) and denied that the forms and laws of the church had a monopoly over grace. Luther's theology of justification by faith permitted him to disengage grace from human control and to return its meaning to God alone. Despite the extrinsic nature of grace for Luther and its initial separation from virtue and service, it would not be correct to view Luther as unconcerned with progress in the Christian life, that is, with sanctification. For Luther, the Christian life is different from the life of sin: The Christian life is lived as the product not of law and effort but of an initial constituting and saving (justifying) grace. Calvin selected other emphases for his Reformed theology of grace, particularly God's sovereignty manifested in the divine transcendent plan for the elect.

The Reformation began a long period filled with controversies over the nature of grace. Essentially these were arguments over how human freedom in need of redemption was affected by truly divine grace. If grace is God's act or the exercise of God's power, how do the finite and the created participate in it? How can predestination and human freedom be reconciled?

The great topic of Baroque Roman Catholic theology lasting for almost two centuries after the middle of the sixteenth century was grace conceived as a finite, God-given force that converts, sanctifies, inspires, and saves. Corresponding to the culture of the times, with its new empirical science and Cartesian philosophy, grace had the characteristics of the subjective, the mechanical, and the theatrical. Italian and Middle European art and architecture of the period were frequently statements of a cosmic and mystical theology of grace: In a sacral world of light and golden divine symbols, great saints were depicted in their triumphant lives.

For Protestant communities as well as for Catholic religious orders the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were times of meticulous theological analyses of grace. Strongly held views on God's action and human psychological response (both at the time of conversion and during the span of a Christian life), similar to those of the Jansenists, Jesuits, and Dominicans, brought into existence Arminians, Methodists, and Pietists who debated the triad of divine action, human freedom, and sin.

The spirituality of the Jesuits reflects the Baroque (and later nineteenth-century) Catholic devotional analysis of the interior life as activated by modes of "created grace," that is, God as the principle of human transformation rather than God as God ("uncreated grace"). In the seventeenth century, the Jesuits, providing leadership to the Counter-Reformation, found themselves embroiled in controversies over freedom and grace on three fronts. The origin of the Jesuits' positive view of human efforts cooperating with grace lay with the great Reformation theologies. Within Roman Catholicism, the Dominicans judged the Jesuits' theory of human freedom to be exaggerated and their theology of divine foreknowledge to be inadequate, while the followers of Michel de Bay (Baius) and Jansen asserted that the Jesuits neglected the seriousness of original sin.

As the eighteenth century progressed, such theological controversies seemed dated and were swept aside by the rationalism and naturalism leading to the Enlightenment. If human nature was good, wounded by the past structures of society, it needed not a divine jostle but its own education to pursue the good. Grace is transformed, even replaced, by the human mind and will, a nature awaiting cultivation, and even by human history, where religion should be viewed as a facet of reason.

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophy provides a different interpretation of the active presence of God in history and life. The movement from Schelling and Hegel to Marx saw no need to preserve any separation of grace from nature and sin. Consciousness, freedom, and development become aspects of one reality, the enactment of the life of the ultimate, and in that process of enactment there is no supernature above nature.

After World War I some theologians began to rethink Christianity precisely as a religion of grace, but from modern perspectives on the self and freedom. Grace was viewed as a horizon of consciousness and history, as the challenge made by the holy against the demonic in life. Grace is the presence rather than the mechanics of God. For Paul Tillich, all aspects of human life could be theonomous, that is, transparent to the divine, rather than authoritarian or superstitious. As symbols of God, nature, religion, and art inspire a new being in believers, one that struggles with the problems of meaning, life, and morality. For Tillich's Roman Catholic counterpart, Karl Rahner, grace was no less than God as horizon and presence. God's activity in human life and history is universal and actively draws the world to a future that is the plan and future of God. Human life, open to and vivified by grace, is realized, preached, and exemplified particularly in Christ. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist, was convinced that the ultimate force driving the threads of evolutionspiritual as well as biologicalon earth was not instinct but grace. What the Gospel of John calls agapē, love, is in Christ the source and the goal of the cosmos. For Teilhard, religious history, like evolutionary history, is acted out over a long time. From the great religions of the world a central line emergesthat of Christ as the incarnation of God's gracious purpose. In the contemplation and discipleship of grace, a higher, developmental phylum introduces to the human race individuality-in-community and freedom-in-charity. Rather than the end of the world being close, the human race, for Teilhard, is only a few steps out of the cave.

In the thought of these three popular twentieth-century theologians, Tillich, Rahner, and Teilhard, one sees the modern, post-Kantian, and post-Heideggerian shift to the historical subject. Grace is both a divine presence and a developmental horizon of all history; Christ and the church are grace manifest, but they are not its exclusive repositories. In short, grace is viewed no longer as the change of God's will (Luther) or as a supernatural divine power agitating within human minds and wills (Council of Trent, 15451563), but as the patient, luminous, inviting presence of a transcendent and mysterious God intimately active in the pain and glory of life.

Prospects in Theology of Grace

Reinterpretations of grace reestablished grace as nothing less than the underlying reality of all religious enterprises, as the very presence of God. In this way it is the foundation for various schools of spiritualityOrigenist, Greek and Russian, Benedictine, Franciscan, Dominican, Anabaptist, Carmelitebut it also confronts and stimulates Christian ethics to put greater emphasis on issues of peace and justice in the world. Grace is perceived as the axis along which the kingdom of God confronts institutionalized evil.

The ecumenical movement, which began as the mutual acceptance of Christian churchesProtestant, Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodoxgradually discovered through scholarly investigations a remarkable lack of conflict between, for example, Luther's and Thomas Aquinas's interpretations of grace, and between Trent's and Karl Barth's. There are fewer doctrinal and theological differences than first assumed. Drawing on the tradition held by mainstream Christianity that God's active presence reaches an incarnation and a climax in Jesus Christ but is not monopolized by Christ, Christian theologians such as Karl Rahner and official Christian assemblies such as the Second Vatican Council have increasingly acknowledged the presence of grace in other world religions and in the struggles of individual lives in increasingly secular and agnostic contexts. For example, dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism is now not simply an exchange of similar words about ritual or theodicy but an exploration of different presentations and explorations of grace in speculative, monastic, and mystical traditions.

Realms as diverse as art, politics, and monasticism disclose different approaches to what Jesus called the kingdom of God and to what the history of Christian theology calls grace. In the realm of art is found the presentation in various media of the primal dialectic between sin and grace. Here grace emerges from the dramatic reiteration of an active unseen presence that reveals "the more" and its opposite, the violent exploitation of the holy, the beautiful, and the human. The structure of Gothic architecture, the oils of Fra Angelico and the engravings of Rembrandt, the formation of light by the Baroque, the planned abstractions of Kandinsky (which are there to make real "the realm of the spiritual") are struggles with the horizons of the holy, of the spiritual, of grace. Such novelists as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Graham Greene, Georges Bernanos, François Mauriac, and Flannery O'Connor have often had evil and grace as their themes. In such works, grace challenges in the most surprising ways the conventions of religion and society, and evil is presented as the almost necessary counterpoint to grace. Life becomes a chiaroscuro of evil and grace.

The Christian theological term grace, then, can refer at the same time to the most abstract dimension of religious power or human transcendentality and to the blood and sweat of ordinary everyday life. The record of theological controversies over grace illustrates its prominence as a religious problem and its ultimate mystery. The core of that mystery is God as active in history and in every human life.

See Also

Evil; Free Will and Determinism; Free Will and Predestination, article on Christian Concepts; History, article on Christian Views; Justification; Kingdom of God; Merit, article on Christian Concepts; Paul the Apostle; Redemption; Sin and Guilt; Transcendence and Immanence.


For a survey of the history of the theology of grace in Western Christianity, see Johann Auer's Das Evangelium der Gnade, vol. 5 of Kleine katholische Dogmatik (Regensburg, 1980). Roger Haight's The Experience and Language of Grace (New York, 1979) is a brief survey of the great theologians of grace. Hans Conzelmann's "Charis," in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Friedrich, vol. 9, (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1969), pp. 310350, illustrates the Christian origin and initial variety in the meaning of the word grace, as does Edward Schillebeeckx's Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord (New York, 1980). On the great theologians of grace, see Harry J. McSorley's Luther: Right or Wrong? (New York, 1969), on Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Luther; Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics, 13 vols., plus index, edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance (Edinburgh, 19361977); Paul Tillich's Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Chicago, 19511963), with the study on Tillich's Christian anthropology by Kenan B. Osborne, New Being: A Study in the Relationship between Conditioned and Unconditioned Being according to Paul Tillich (The Hague, 1969); Karl Rahner's Foundations of Christian Faith (New York, 1978) with the explanatory volume; Leo J. O'Donovan's A World of Grace (New York, 1980); and Leonardo Boff's Liberating Grace (New York, 1979), on Latin American liberation theology. For a contemporary ecclesiology of ministry drawn from biblical and systematic theologies of grace, see my Theology of Ministry (New York, 1983).

New Sources

Braaten, Carl E. Justification: The Article by Which the Church Stands or Falls. Minneapolis, 1990.

Butin, Philip Walker. Reformed Ecclesiology: Trinitarian Grace according to Calvin. Studies in Reformed Theology and History 2:1. Princeton, N.J., 1994.

Cassirer, Heinz W. Grace and Law: St. Paul, Kant, and the Hebrew Prophets. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1988.

McGrath, Alister E. Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. 2d ed. Cambridge U.K. and New York, 1998.

Osborne, Kenan B. Reconciliation and Justification: The Sacrament and Its Theology. New York, 1990.

Phan, Peter C. Grace and the Human Condition. Wilmington, Del., 1988.

Tamez, Elsa. The Amnesty of Grace: Justification by Faith from a Latin American Perspective. Translated by Sharon H. Ringe. Nashville, 1993.

Wengert, Timothy J. Human Freedom, Christian Righteousness: Philip Melancthon's Exegetical Dispute with Erasmus of Rotterdam. New York, 1998.

Thomas F. O'Meara (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 21 2018

grace / grās/ • n. 1. simple elegance or refinement of movement: she moved through the water with effortless grace. ∎  courteous goodwill: at least he has the grace to admit his debt to her. ∎  (graces) an attractively polite manner of behaving: she has all the social graces.2. (in Christian belief) the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. ∎  a divinely given talent or blessing: the graces of the Holy Spirit. ∎  the condition or fact of being favored by someone: he fell from grace because of drug use at the Olympics.3. (also grace period) a period officially allowed for payment of a sum due or for compliance with a law or condition, esp. an extended period granted as a special favor: another three days' grace.4. a short prayer of thanks said before or after a meal: before dinner the Reverend Newman said grace.5. (His, Her, or Your Grace) used as forms of description or address for a duke, duchess, or archbishop: His Grace, the Duke of Atholl.• v. [tr.] do honor or credit to (someone or something) by one's presence: she bowed out from the sport she has graced for two decades. ∎  [tr.] (of a person or thing) be an attractive presence in or on; adorn: Ms. Pasco has graced the front pages of magazines like Elle and Vogue.PHRASES: be in someone's good (or bad) graces be regarded by someone with favor (or disfavor).there but for the grace of God (go I) used to acknowledge one's good fortune in avoiding another's mistake or misfortune.the (Three) Graces Greek Mythol. three beautiful goddesses (Aglaia, Thalia, and Euphrosyne), daughters of Zeus. They were believed to personify and bestow charm, grace, and beauty.with good (or bad) grace in a willing and happy (or reluctant and resentful) manner.


views updated May 21 2018

1. In Christian theology, the expression of God's love in his free unmerited favour or assistance.

‘Grace’ then becomes a category for describing free and uncoerced actions in other religions, especially of Kṛṣṇa in the Bhagavad-gītā: see e.g. PRASĀDA; RĀMĀNUJA (for anugraha); PRAPATTI. As a concept, grace is of great importance for Sikhs, in Gurū Nānak's hymns and in all subsequent Sikh theology. Analogous to the benedictory glance of a human guru, this sense of God's loving favour is conveyed by the words praśad, kirpā, nadar, bakhśīś, bhāṇā, daiā, mihar, and taras. This concept of grace is not a denial of karma, but God's initiative can override the result of bad actions. However, the individual must strive to improve.

2. Short prayers of invocation and thanksgiving, before and after meals. They are natural and characteristic in Judaism. The Birkat ha-Mazon (blessing after meals) is a central liturgical practice in the observant Jewish home.


views updated May 17 2018

grace in Christian belief, the free and unmerited favour of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.

Grace in Christian usage also denotes a short prayer of thanks said before or after a meal.

The word is also used as a form of description or address for a duke, duchess, or archbishop: Her Grace, the Duchess of Omnium, Your Grace.
act of grace a privilege or concession that cannot be claimed as a right.
by the grace of God through God's favour, especially (translating Latin Dei gratia) appended to the formal statement of a monarch's title, and formerly to that of some ecclesiastical dignitaries.
grace and favour accommodation occupied by permission of a sovereign or government.
grace note an extra note added as an embellishment and not essential to the harmony or melody.
there but for the grace of God go I used to acknowledge one's good fortune in avoiding another's mistake or misfortune.

See also days of grace, graces, year of grace.


views updated Jun 08 2018

grace favour XII; prayer of blessing or thanksgiving XIII; pleasing quality XIV. — (O)F. grâce, semi-pop. — L. grātia, f. grātus pleasing (see GRATEFUL).
So gracious XIII. Hence graceful in casual use from XV till late XVI, when the present senses begin. graceless XIV.

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