At a recent book fair I stumbled across Charles Williams' Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church in paperback for fifty cents. I call that a bargain. The first Charles Williams I read was something like three years ago, when I read All Hallows' Eve in preparation for the All Saints'/Halloween celebrations. I had only begun to learn about the Inklings (through my love of Tolkien) and had only heard vague things about Williams. Once I learned of his (non-fiction) theological writings, I was immediately attracted to the title for Descent of the Dove.
Descent is a popular history of the Church, elegant in its language, sometimes loose with its facts because quite unscientifically rhetorical in its argumentation. Nevertheless, the specialist can find a great deal of nuance on certain topics, all the more so because Williams prefers to frame Church history as a history of the Holy Spirit. I couldn't help myself from admiring the deep confluence of institution and Spirit that Williams' narrative illustrates. Williams has a knack for reintroducing familiar themes in fresh but traditional language (e.g., his persistence in calling Christ "Messias"). As such, his prose is inviting to the Christian of deep tradition or the novice who thinks s/he is quite familiar with the deep tradition, while also breathing new life into the all-too-familiar history.
The first paragraph is indicative of the shape of the whole, and I relished it from the first reading:
"The beginning of Christendom is, strictly, at a point out of time. A metaphysical trigonometry finds it among the spiritual Secrets, at the meeting of two heavenward lines, one drawn from Bethany along the Ascent of Messias, the other from Jerusalem against the Descent of the Paraclete. That measurement, the measurement of eternity in operation, of the bright cloud and the rushing wind, is, in effect, theology. (1)"
Like I said, elegant. I'm not sure I've found a better succinct definition of Christian theology. Filled with theological learning, but without either the dryness or precision of the academy, Descent does not fail to incite thought.
How could I resist discussing, however briefly, Williams' explanation of the conflict between Pelagius and Augustine? I dare to quote at length:
"That man, in the person of Adam, had fallen was common ground. Pelagius said, in effect, that (i) Adam had been created in a state of natural good, (ii) that he had somehow sinned, and set a bad example of sinning, so that a sort of social habit of sin had developed, into which men were introduced as they grew up before they were reasonable, (iii) but that any man at any moment could get out of this distressing social habit by simply being firm with himself--'have courage, my boy, to say no,' (iv) and that therefore no particular grace of God was needed to initiate the change, though that grace was a convenient and necessary help: which was always to be found by the right-willing man.
"Against this the Augustinian view--with the great help of Augustine himself--asserted (i) that man was created in a state of supernatural good, of specific awareness of God, (ii) that Adam had got himself out of that state by sin, and his sin was 'pride'--that is, 'the act of deserting the soul's true "principle" and constituting oneself one's own principle. [Nigel Abercrombie, St. Augustine and French Classical Thought]' He had, as it were claimed to have, and behaved as if he had, a necessity of being in himself. He had, somehow and somewhere, behaved as if he were God. (iii) His descendants therefore were not at all in a mere social habit of sinning; they did not merely sometimes sin; they were sinners, which was not at all the same thing. Nay, more, they had, all of them, been involved in that first original iniquity, and in its guilt. ...Thus, being all guilty, we all deserved, and were on our way to, hell by the mere business of getting ourselves born, though not, of course, for getting ourselves born. This was precisely the agony: to be born was good, but that good meant the utmost evil, life-into-death and death-into-life. ...[M]en were corrupt; they existed int eh night of dreadful ignorance and the storm of perverse love; they were for ever and ever sharers in that primal catastrophe which was the result of Adam imagining that he had a principle and necessity of existence within himself. (iv) It was therefore blasphemous and heretical nonsense to talk of man as being mildly and socially habituated to sin: he was in sin, and he could not get out by his own choice. he could not move but by grace, by that principle which was not in him. To Augustine Pelagius was practically teaching men to follow, to plunge deeper into, that old original catastrophe; he was almost declaring that man was his own principle, that he did his own good deeds. But all Christendom, and especially Augustine, knew that only Christ could act Christ. (67-8)"
"Exchange, substitution, co-inherence are a natural fact as well as a supernatural truth. 'Another is in me,' said Felicitas; 'we were in another,' said Augustine. The co-inhereence reaches back to the beginning as it stretches on to the end, and the anthropos is present everywhere. 'As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive'; co-inherence did not begin with Christianity; all that happened then was that co-inherence itself was redeemed and revealed by that very redemption as a supernatural principle as well as a natural. (69-70)"
Upon reading this, I had to stop four pages before the end of the chapter and ponder and savor and learn. This is precisely the argument I had been suggesting against a creational ontology which ignores the Fall and sin to its own detriment. Only Christ could act Christ. But if there is a necessity of existence (whether by creation or by autonomy) within the person, Christ need not act Christ. Depravity, while not so deep as to defile the imago, goes deep enough to re-orient the necessary principles of existence.
This is the part of Augustine I think the Reformed tradition misses. The part of Augustine they get right, I fear, is that which Williams presently describes:
"But if only Christ acts Christ, who acts Anti-Christ? If all our good doing is God's doing, whose is our evil doing? Ours? Yes. God, as it were, determines and predestinates himself to do good in certain lives; this is his grace. And what of the lives in which he does not determine and predestinate himself to do good? Well--he does not. Those lives then are lost? Well--yes. God saves whom he chooses and the rest damn themselves. 'His equity is so secret that it is beyond the reach of all human understanding.' It is of the highest importance to realize that, in that sentence, Augustine from the bottom of his heart mean 'equity' and meant 'beyond all human understanding.' (68-9)"
That is, I wonder if this is the mutation of Augustine to which I was reacting. It is precisely the predestination without the Fall. If we are to accept this view of election (a rather large if), we dare not do so without the Fall, for the Fall is the only thing that makes election merciful. Perhaps it is we who act Anti-Christ, or perhaps there is a principle of anti-Christ which acts anti-Christ in us. That is, election is a terrible prospect if not in some way determined by the prior (unworthy) action of persons involving the co-inherence with Adam. And this co-inherence is more than being "mildly and socially habituated" to sin. It has to do with the very necessity and principle of existence--that is, ontology.
The incomprehensibility of election/predestination is this: "The Equity of Redemption is immediately at work; it predestinates whom it chooses, and it does not predestinate whom it does not choose. But its choice is (beyond human thought) inextricably mingled with each man's own choice. It wills what he wills, because it has freedom to do so. Predestination is the other side of its own freedom. Words fall away from the inscrutable union, which can be the inscrutable separation. (71)" And so does human choice cooperate (we might say) with the predestination such that "only Christ could act Christ" and therefore, "'Perfection consists not in what we give to God but in what we receive from him.' [P. Rousselot, S.J. and J. Herby, S.J., Christianity and the Soul of Antiquity] (72)" But this reception is not primarily that of Creation, but that of Redemption; not in the main the grace of the created order, but the grace of the order of salvation.
His penchant for the journalistically dramatic aside, Williams offers in his Descent a wonderfully woven interpretation of the history of the Church. More importantly, I've found a new friend.