‘Grace Upon Grace’: Christ, Mary and Human Dignity
by Fr Andrew Davison
Christian opinion over Mary tends to divide us into two groups. One group gives her high honour, though not adoration, which is God’s alone. The others find all this honouring offputting. ‘Mary’, they say, ‘is just a human being, after all’. They’re right: she is just a human being – but that turns out to be why Mary matters like she does, as I’ll eventually come round to saying.
I’ll start, though, with a figure from the turn of the fifth century, maybe from Scotland or maybe from Ireland: he is described as one of the ‘Scotti’, and they are difficult to pin down at this point. In any case, I start with the monk Pelagius. He bequeathed the only major heresy to have grown up in these Isles. Called Pelegianism, after him, the British will recognize it straight away: it’s school-of-hard-knocks theology; it’s blood, sweat and tears theology; it’s hard work and cold showers theology. And it manages to be both optimistic and judgmental at the same time. Pelagius thought that there’s nothing wrong with the world that can’t be overcome with enough determination. We can – each of us – sort ourselves out, with minimal help from the Almighty. That’s the optimism. The judgment comes because, on that basis, if we don’t reach perfection, that’s because we’re not trying hard enough. For Pelagius, there isn’t anything wrong with the world that can’t be solved with moral elbow-grease.
Christianity forever risks betraying itself and collapsing into moralism, and Pelagianism is one such collapse. Another danger is forgetting Jesus, which Pelagius also risks. What is Christ for him beyond a moral example? Ultimately there’s nothing a Pelagian can do with Jesus that we couldn’t do without him.
Theologians took umbrage with Pelagius, not least because a scheme with only a marginal place for Christ is only marginally Christian. They also objected on pastoral grounds: they knew the human heart, and how wayward it could be. As pastors, they knew about political feuds and family tensions. Pelagian optimism, and his judgemental side, for that matter, sat uneasily with those who knew a thing or two about the screwed up nature of human reality.
At the forefront of the pushback against Pelagius stood Augustine, a bishop in North Africa and the foremost Christian thinker of his times. His exchanges with Pelagians confirmed Augustine as the ‘doctor of grace’, as he has subsequently often been called. If doctor here really means ‘teacher’ – he was the teacher of grace – then medical association of ‘doctor’ isn’t out of place either. Augustine certainly set up a miserable picture of the human illness, but he set out an even more radiant account of the medicine. Augustine’s writing about God’s love for us, in spite of our faults, is his gift to posterity, not only in its theme but also in its lyrical expression.
Augustine’s message of grace is that God does for us what we could not do for ourselves. What our selfishness and ingrained pettiness left us unable to achieve, God achieved for us in Christ: God has done for us what we could not have done for ourselves; he is sorting things out.
And so we move on, from Pelagius and Augustine, to Jesus: to Jesus, whose divinity mattered for Augustine in a way that it couldn’t for Pelagius; to Jesus, who, in his divine perfection, could sort things out: ‘All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ’ (2 Cor. 5.18). Jesus brings the ever-springing freshness of divine life to us: ‘if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, she is a new creation’ (as Paul also puts it in that passage).
This is grace; this is God taking the initiative, not recoiling from our unpleasing qualities, but acting to make us pleasing. This is grace: God doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Many Christians leave it there. They praise God for his grace – that he did for us what we could not do for ourselves – as the beginning and end and centre of their praise. And endlessly worthy of praise it is too.
John’s Gospel, however, talks not just about ‘grace’, but about ‘grace upon grace’ (John 1.16) and I that phrase offers the perfect characterization of grace: it isn’t parsimonious; grace is no minimum offering. Grace is always fulsome: grace is always ‘grace upon grace’.
That brings me to the heart of why Mary features in the way that she does in classical Christian theology: if God’s grace is first of all doing for us what we could not do for ourselves, then next, and also, grace is God doing with us what he could have done without us.
I’ll say that again, to get it fixed in our minds. Grace is first of all God doing for us what we were unable to do, but, then, grace upon grace is God doing with us what he could have done without us.
I’ve quoted 2 Corinthians 5 already, and we see this dynamic there, of God drawing us into his work. God not only ‘reconciled us’, we read, but has also ‘given us the ministry of reconciliation’ (v. 18). Paul even calls us God’s fellow workers: ‘As we work together with him’, he says, ‘we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain’ (2 Cor. 6.1). God involves us: what he could have done without us, he chooses to do with us. What could be more dignifying than that? It’s grace upon grace.
That might help us to see why so many Christians make a fuss about the Blessed Virgin Mary. (My own college in Cambridge is half named after here: Corpus Christi and the Blessed Virgin Mary.) If there was ever an example of God doing with us what he could have done without us, it’s with Mary. If ever there is an example of God involving humanity in the work of redemption, it is with Mary, who bore for us the saviour.
We see that every time we recite the creed at the Eucharist, at least if you are an Anglican and you use our modern translation, which draws on the original Greek: ‘For us and for our salvation he… was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary’, we say, which brings out the parallelism in the original Greek ‘ek… kai…’, ‘from… and from…’ – he was incarnate from the Holy Spirit (God doing for us what we could not do for ourselves), and he was incarnate from the Virgin Mary (God doing with us what he could have done by himself). You will find a passage in the Athanasian Creed that makes exactly the same point.1
Let adoration, then, be given to God, who created without us but would not redeem us without us, as Augustine also said. And let honour be given to Mary – the handmaid of the Lord, highly favoured, blessed among women – because of the role God gave her in salvation, through whom God truly took up a human family tree.
Mary, we might imagine, does not crave the limelight, and would always have the spotlight turned back upon her Son. And rightly so, because Mary is actually only the second best example we have that what God could have achieved without us, he chooses to achieve with and through us, since Jesus is not only perfectly divine but also, himself, perfectly human.
This gives the lie, once and for all, to the idea that the sum total of grace consists in God doing without us what we could not do for ourselves. The Incarnation is the categorical, emphatic denial of that. The beauty of the Christian story is that grace is grace upon grace; it is always God’s gracious initiative but also something human. Newman put it better than almost anyone else:
O loving wisdom of our God, When all was sin and shame, the last Adam, to the fight And to the rescue came.
O wisest love! that flesh and blood Which did in Adam fail, Should strive afresh against the foe, Should strive and should prevail.
The whole business of God doing with us what he could have done without us circles around Christ. Next to him (quite literally next to him, in her arms in his infancy and beside him at his death), Mary has the most profound role in salvation. However, the pattern established with her is God’s pattern for all of us. Each of us has a part to play in ‘the ministry of reconciliation’; we too are given the dignity of being able to ‘work together with him’. As we think about the honour that it given so singularly to Mary, we see that honour is given also to us.
1Jesus, it says, is divine, as divine as his Father, from whom he received his divinity in eternity; and Jesus is human, as human as his mother, from whom he received his humanity, born in time. That is why the magisterial reformers, Luther and Calvin for instance, reacted so furiously when one of the more radical Reformers, Menno Simons, denied that Mary had any real role in the Incarnation. According to Simons, against the Biblical witness and falling foul of the creeds and fathers, Jesus was only ‘in Mary’s womb’ not ‘of Mary’s womb’. No!, Protestants replied just as much as Catholics, Jesus had his human nature from Mary – that archetypal example of grace upon grace, of God involving us in what he could have done by himself. For a firm patristic line on this question we might consider Gregory Nazienzen. In the same treatise that gave us his magisterial defense of Christ assuming all of human nature (‘What he did not assume, he did not heal’), Gregory also wrote that ‘If anyone should assert that He [the Son of God] passed through the Virgin as through a channel, and was not at once divinely and humanly formed in her (divinely, because without the intervention of a man; humanly, because in accordance with the laws of gestation), he is godless’ (Epistle 101 – truly, as an American might say, a ‘101’ introduction to the doctrine of the Person of Christ).
The Revd Dr Andrew Davison, Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at Cambridge University and Fellow in Theology at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, was installed as Canon Philosopher in St Albans Cathedral on 8th June.
His appointment, is part of an initiative to help strengthen the Diocese of St Albans in the area of apologetics: giving a reason for belief in the Christian faith.
Immediately after his installation, he delivered his inaugural lecture: Knowing and Loving God.
Fr Andrew said,
“On the largest scale, on the national stage, keeping traditions of Christian philosophy alive and healthy means that they are available and heard in our public life. Again, it’s not the whole of Christian mission, but it is part.”