Volume 19, Issue 3: Presbyterion
Can a Nature/Grace Dualism Be Born Again?
A few years ago I read Harold Bloom's The American
Religion with great interest. He makes many points which I
thought quite compelling, the main one being that the American approach to religious faith is fundamentally gnostic. He, being
a gnostic himself (p. 30), thinks this is all to the good, while I, not being a gnostic, am not cool with it. At the same
time, since he is a gnostic, he does us all a valuable service by identifying his fellow gnosticsthe same kind of service that
was performed by the former Soviet Union when they opened up all their old KGB files, proving that Joe McCarthy was in
the main correctand according to Bloom his fellow gnostics are everywhere. They are found in Mormonism, the
Southern Baptist Convention, Adventists, and Pentecostals. This is far more than just a glib assertionhe has a lot of evidence
to support him.
On what might appear to be an unrelated topic, I recently finished Peter Leithart's very fine book on baptism,
The Baptized Body, and while I was reading it, the penny dropped, and I figured out one of the sticking points in my
discussions with Jim Jordan over the necessity of regeneration (covered somewhat in the following pages). This is a classic
illustration of how a set of paradigmatic assumptions, like a good outboard motor, can drive the boat even though nobody can see
the prop going.
Leithart said this: "For Baptist practice, redemptioninclusion in the new humanity that is the churchadds
a second layer of `religious life' to the `natural life' of creation. This is necessarily the case, since children begin
their `natural' life of physical and socio-cultural growth before coming to faith. This dualism of nature/culture and
religion means that Christ is not in a full sense the `New Adam' who inaugurates a race that will fulfill Adam's calling to
dominion" (p. 130).
On the next page, he wrote, "By positing a distinction between natural life and natural teleology over and
against supernatural life and supernatural teleology, and by suggesting that natural life (which includes cultural and political
life) had its own integrity that needs only to be `completed' by the supernatural addition of grace, scholastic theology wrote
the preamble to nature and culture's `declaration of independence' from God" (p. 131).
Now stay with me, because this is where it gets fun. As an historic evangelical I insist on the absolute necessity of
the new birth. And so I do. But what do Americans hear when they hear such words? What do American Christians hear?
The new birth is a supernatural act, but what kind
of supernatural act is it? There is a kind of "born againism" which is
gnostic, which Bloom celebrates, and which Jim Jordan is leaning against. There is another kind (I am convinced) which is not
at all gnostic, and does not need anybody to lean against it.
If you assume that in the supernatural act of regeneration God comes down and implants a grace node in your
heart, then this is a form of gnosticism, and it helps perpetuate that pestilent nature/grace dualism. But if you hold that the
act of regeneration is supernatural, and that the results are entirely "natural," then this is not gnostic.
For example, Jesus exercised miraculous power when He transformed the water into wine. The
act was one of supernatural power, but the wine that resulted was natural wine, and the water He started with was natural water. If the
master of the feast had been a trained
sommelier, he would have been able to tell by taste what vineyard that wine came from.
He would have been technically wrong, of course, because it actually came from the well in the town square, but you can't
have everything. The gnostic would want the miracle to start out with water, and wind up with ambrosia, the supernatural
elixir of the gods. In the biblical faith, the act
is the miracle. In gnosticism, the result
is the miracle.
So regeneration is an act of God's kindness and power, in which He changes me from one kind of human being
(with Adam for a father) to another kind of human being (with the last Adam for a father). Before, during and after the
process, I am a human being. In that respect, nothing changes. But with regard to who my father is (and regeneration
always assumes generation), everything changes. In respect to how it is done, it is a miraculous intervention of God's grace.
I am not born again because something alien to the nature of humanity was implanted in me. The
nature/grace dualism creates the temptation to think that way, and, at the end of the day, we are fighting off gnosticism. Rather, I
am regenerate because I was miraculously transferred from a deteriorating way of being human to another restored way
of being human. It is natural water to natural wine, supernaturally done. It is not natural water to supernatural
ambrosia, supernaturally done.