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The Law and Human Destiny


Thomas Aquinas might well have been the first in Western history to concieve of human psychology as habitus— that is, the “residum in man’s soul of his soul’s history” (to quote Erich Auerbach).  Sadly, modern theories of the human psyche have strayed from this seminal idea, and we have configured our souls in various clinical guises to which we sacrifice our awareness of  eternal destiny.  We do not, and perhaps cannot, picture ourselves in quite the same profoundly Christian unity as Dante did in his Inferno as each damned soul expresses a perfect concordance between his personal history and his fate.  Instead, as secular Christians, our histories matter only with respect to our present state of happiness, for, in a grave departure from our medieval betters, we have lost the over-arching concept of life as a constant march toward the soul’s eternal fate.

Of course, the Gospel even while it grants us full justification before God, never releases us from  the demands of living a virtuous life to the very end.  As John Calvin warns, our deeds cannot save us, yet, it is by our deeds that we are judged.  That great apocalyptic poem, Revelation, likewise testifies, “I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened… and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works”.  Bishop Hooker in his sermon, On Justification (late 16th century) expounds upon virtuous deeds as a necessary ‘duty’ which, although lacking all merit before God, nevertheless must be present if a soul is to be made ‘fit for heaven’.  Hooker neatly divides grace into two aspects: the grace that justifies and the grace that sanctifies.  The latter must never be construed as meritorious before God; it is, rather, a grace which carrys out God’s ultimate purpose for justifying us; namely, that we become righteous in both deed and Truth.

For many of us, the Law of God mandates a severe paradox: it cannot save us, but if we do not keep it, we forfeit our salvation; therefore, we usually prefer to think not upon on our eternal destiny, but only on the immediate and justified present with its warm assurances of an imputed righteousness (what Hooker terms ‘external grace’).  When it comes to the imparted righteousness that God extends to us via the Holy Spirit for purposes of regeneration (Hooker’s ‘internal grace’) we alternate wildly between feelings of despair and presumption.  The problem, of course, lies not in the biblical duty of sanctification itself (after all, God richly extends to us all the grace necessary to transform the sinful habitus); the problem resides only in our fallen desire to be autonomous: to either be justified and left alone to live as we are wont, or, to get to work on our personal holiness with a view to deserving God’s favor.   

As I recall Dante’s lost souls, I cannot avoid a painful spasm in my own, still living soul.  Like Dante, I pity the lost ones, and, like Dante, I also reckon them justly damned for the mercy they spurned.  But (painful glance) I have, often, neglected God’s mercy.  Then, it dawns: the terror of knowing that I could easily live the rest of my life refusing grace in the name of faith; embracing justification but refusing to obey God and all the while presuming my destiny secure. Then, like Dante, I immediately thank God that I am still living and that grace and time remain. 

There is no end to God’s Law (it is eternal), but there is a temporal end to mercy.  I do not think we bear this truth well: we have so distorted the Gospel that it has become a secular doctrine (Latin= ‘of the age’) that enables a guilt-free hedonism.  A true Christian sense of history actively maintains belief in the end of time; a belief that a judgement awaits in which our habitus, all that internal residue of our living in time, must be summed-up, perfectly interpreted, and then made permanent in either our salvation or our damnation.  This is our destiny; we can no more avoid it than we can refuse to die.  Yet, to end here could almost plunge us back into that helpless frenzy of despair and presumption.  Almost, but for the saving grace (both kinds) of God in Christ.

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