Reflection: God’s Grace in Gilead and Reductionism

Marilynne RobinsonLast month I found a second hand copy of Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 novel, Gilead. The book is a collection of moving memoirs (for lack of a better word) written by an elderly man, whose heart is failing, to his young son, whom he will soon leave behind. John Ames, the father, never expected to have a young wife in his old age, let alone that he’d be leaving a child to the world in his flight from it. And so the warmly honest diary touches on many things, from grieved apology to wondrous reflections on human life and creation, to the painful recounting of his mistakes and pensive thoughts on his sermons and pastoral duties. Gilead is a tale of untold beauty.

One of the features in John Ames’ letter which I found myself rereading over and over was his theological musings. I want to quote one of them and offer my own brief reflection. As he approaches the close, John Ames writes, “the Greek word sozo, which is usually translated ‘saved,’ can also mean healed, restored, that sort of thing. So the conventional translation narrows the meaning of the word in a way that can create false expectations. I thought he [Jack Boughton] should be aware that grace is not so poor a thing that it cannot present itself in any number of ways.” What John Ames wants his son to bear in mind, and what struck me, is his caution to narrow and impoverish grace, for God’s initiative to save presents itself in a number of ways. When Jesus Christ saves people he gives life, affirming the goodness of creaturely existence and undoing the disastrous effects of sin.

In my experience, an all too frequent characteristic of Reformed theology is the tendency towards reductionism. Words and concepts are reduced so that they fit snugly within our larger systematic structure and ‘party line’ truisms. Michael Welker defines reductionism as, ‘limiting our understanding of an area to one guiding principle or single key at the expense of all other tools.’ N. T. Wright warns us against an overly reductionistic approach to Scripture. In his essay New Perspectives on Paul, Wright confronts those who would diminish the gospel to a system of salvation, ignoring that Israel’s Messiah was being proclaimed as the world’s true Lord who calls all people to faith. Grace writes us into the greatest story ever told.

Night SkySalvation is more wonderful than a system whereby God makes us right with him, for he remakes creatures for righteous living. Grace is much more than ‘God’s riches at Christ’s expense,’ it is the magnificent divine movement that captures sinful creatures and takes them from rebellion to glory. Being saved is not God’s extraction of sinners from a hopeless world; it is their experience of his new creation both around and in them, as the Lord renews what was broken. As Michael Horton says in The Christian faith, “Scripture does not present us with a choice between the personal and cosmic dimensions of the new creation” (p560). Behold, he makes all things new! That is the greatest tale of untold beauty.

Graham Heslop
I have an insatiable appetite for books, occasionaly dip into theology and am presently serving full time at Christ Church Umhlanga in Durban. Most often found on the beach, a soccer field, or my couch
  • Kyle Groger

    You should check out Kiuchi & Hartley’s comments on graded holiness in the life of Israel. I think you’ll find what they say rather stimulating in light of what you’ve written here.

    I know you can find Kiuchi’s in his Lev commentary. Hartley will either be in his Lev commentary, or his article in the IVP dict on the Pent

    • Why don’t you tell us what “graded holiness in the life of Israel” means, in brief?

  • Stephen Murray

    I really think you should draw a distinction when using the term “Reformed”. The distinction is between the historic Reformed tradition on the one hand and people/pastors/theologians with Calvinistic soteriology on the other. The latter group have co-opted the term to the point of robbing the term of significant meaning (and therefore making it really hard/futile to make statements about “Reformed theology” as you did above). I mean according to the latter John MacArthur and Abraham Kuyper are both deemed “reformed” and yet they are worlds apart in their theology.

    • Thanks Stephen, for calling me out an unhelpful generalisation (again!). Like you say, it’s almost meaningless to speak of “Reformed theology” because the term has become quite vague, or at least lacking precision. I’m really battling to figure out how to write without always including cumbersome qualifications to terms. Can you help me with some pointers beyond distinguishing the historic tradition from the more modern Calvinistic renditions?

      • Stephen Murray

        I guess a lot depends upon audience. Some of my “reformed” friends would be quite put out with me if I told them that they’re not actually reformed because they’re not Presbyterian or Reformed in ecclesiology, sacramental theology, biblical theology (covenant theology), etc. Some Reformed (capital R) folk wouldn’t even include Anglicanism in that reckoning due to the fact that they don’t line up in terms of ecclesiology. Then at another level one can talk about every Tom, Dick and Harry, associated with something like the Gospel Coalition, as being reformed. I know some people try and speak about being confessionally reformed to denote their historical connection to reformed theology through adherence to one of the reformed confessions (although not all agree as to which confessions constitute genuinely reformed confessions). So it’s a bit of a mess really. No easy way to talk about it. I tend to feel out the company I’m in and then at least I know how they’re hearing me when I say Reformed. So if I’m sitting with my friend from Westminster California then I know that when I say “reformed” he only hears “someone who is confessionally committed to either the Presbyterian Church tradition or the Dutch/Continental Reformed Church tradition”. But when I’m sitting with guys at an Urban Force event they’re hearing “people who like John Piper and Mark Driscoll”. So know your audience.

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