The theology of gifts

Grace is a gift. But a gift has an interesting nature that is set apart from both fruits of labor (like wages, our children, or things we make in our shop) and from other goods that we get in a purely arbitrary manner (like lottery prizes, etc.)

Compare and contrast: (a) a wage, (b) a lottery payout, and (c) a gift. We’ve normed all three examples to be goods given from another, but the contrasts are more interesting.

Ways in which (a) and (b) are set apart from (c).  We’ll call the first two X and the gift G

1.) X is a matter of justice, G isn’t. This is why X, as a rule, is given according to preset rules and G is not.

2.) X resolves or takes away debts while G seems more to cause them.

3.) X is a largely impersonal exchange, which does not regard the person as such. Wages are usually given just for tasks, and lottery winnings are given with absolutely no regard for the person at all. G is never given like this. Even purely pseudo gifts are made with the pretense of recognizing something valuable in the person (Congratuations, Joe Blow, you’ve been pre-approved for a Amex Platinum card!).

Given this, here are some ways in which the ontology of gifts might solve some theological problems:

1.) The general Euthypho problem. The general Euthyphro problem is about the intrinsic goodness of things (usually moral actions) in relation to the divine will. If God loves them out of justice, then the goods must be independent of his act of will; if they have no such goodness, then God wills them to be good purely arbitrarilyBut the ontology of gifts suggests a middle course – things have an intrinsic goodness, but not one that can be conceived of as an antecedent claim on the divine will. On the other hand, the fact that the goods have no antecedent claim on the divine will does not mean that they are called good purely arbitrarily. This last mistake confuses a gift with a lottery winning.

2.) The Volunatarist/Fransciscan vs. Intellectualist/Dominican problem of grace. Along with a not unrelated problem of God’s antecedent will, this is the intellectual antecedent of the Reformation, and so lies at the heart of modern Christianity (for a very good brief treatment, read McGrath’s The intellectual origins of the Reformation, esp. p 80-81). Does grace reduce to justice, i.e. does God set us some system that allows us to perform actions in expectation of some reward (it would be, to be sure, a “supernatural” system), or is grace given apart from any system, and so in a more or less arbitrary manner? Clearly, once one has recognized the ontology of gifts the false dilemma becomes immediately apparent.

Grace is an entirely personal interaction (so far, the Reformers were right) but it is not purely extrinsic imputation or arbitrarily assigned righteousness. Again, Trent’s basic point was that grace was divine adoption, i.e. it was a gift not of something impersonal but of the most intimate of personal relations, namely a familial bond. Even on the natural level, so far as adoption is a gift it’s hard to imagine a gift that enters more intimately into a person.

While what we call grace is normally set apart from nature, it might be better to also see grace as the paradigm case of a divine gift, while nature is a less clear and less perfect instance of a gift.


1 Comment

  1. Martin T said,

    July 20, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    I really like this

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