This essay is aimed at the American evangelical audience, or those among them still able to think clearly about the world around them. It assumes an entire subculture and vocabulary which, if you are not acquainted with, may make the article unreadable. Like all writings on this site, this page is subject to revision.
Last revised: August 30, 2020
The intent of this essay is to describe and distinguish two views of Christian spirituality and growth which, while capable of some compromise and mixture, I take to be ultimately in conflict. I will call the first sort of view “Means of Grace Theology.” I will call the second sort of view “Cumulative Grace Theology.” These are labels of convenience, however, and not intended (here) to address all the baggage those labels might carry with them.
Casting about for a way to describe these two ideas of Christan life, I haven’t come up with a better way than to give competing “central examples” from the Means of Grace and the Cumulative Grace viewpoints. It won’t surprise anyone who knows me that I have chosen teaching as the idea to give examples of:
“Devotion to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42) is often given as a central example of one of the Means of Grace. We might just as easily say that “devotion to the apostles’ teaching” is one of the things that Means of Grace Theology exists to explain, interpret, and provide a category for. In Means of Grace Theology, devotion to the apostles’ teaching encompasses many different behaviors, some of which are more or less central to the category. Cumulative Grace theology encompasses many of the same behaviors, but with a very different central set – enough that the two theologies are dramatically different accounts of the importance, priorities, and the very nature of true devotion to the apostles teaching.
The idea of “central” examples of a category should be easy to grasp. A cat is a fairly central example of a mammal. So is a cow. A blue whale, with its baleen, fish-like aquatic body, and its sheer size is a much less central example. Far less central to the category “mammal” is the platypus. (What kind of mammal has a bill?) In the same way “devotion to the apostles’ teaching” as a category of actions will presumably have more-and-less central members. A medieval scribe copying a manuscript of the Vulgate without paying attention to more than a line at a time (and not really paying attention to the meaning of the line he is on) might in some way be devoting himself to the apostles’ teaching. He isn’t devoting himself to it very directly or immediately, though: his actions are not a central example of the category. A central example of “devotion to the apostles’ teaching” is… well, that might depend who you ask. I’ll start with an easy example.
In its original context – in Jerusalem, after Pentecost – devotion to the apostles’ teaching was fairly simple. It meant going and listening to them. Given the way events unfolded, it had to have also included passing on and repeating the words to people who weren’t there to hear. Summarizing and paraphrasing for those who were less interested or had less time at the moment also count, but these are starting to sound a little more distant. Explaining the teachings to the confused or perplexed, defending their words to the skeptical or hostile – how central are these? That depends on your view of the category.
Someone who prioritizes word-for-word memorization is not devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching in the same sense as someone who prioritizes the explanation of concepts and meanings. Of course, the memorizer might only be memorizing to permit later transmission or explanation, and in that case they are admitting that the memorization is only secondarily a form of devotion to the teaching. There are those who memorize because they see the words themselves with a kind of veneration or piety that outshines the study of meaning. These are two competing ideas about “devotion to the apostles teaching.” Educated evangelicals are fairly unlikely to (explicitly and consciously) fall into the prioritization of mere rote memorization of the apostles exact words, but it makes a good example. Of course, as time rolls on and the word spreads out, what counts as a focused devotion to the apostles’ teaching gets more difficult than this.
To simplify matters, I will just skip past the definitions of “the apostles’ teaching.” The reader may take it as “the gospel,” “scripture,” “the New Testament,” “Christian doctrine,” or whatever body of content seems most plausible. The two conflicting views I am ultimately trying to describe differ much more in what devotion to the teaching means than in what all is included in the teaching itself.
What is a central example of “devotion to the apostles teaching?” If you answer anything like “going to church on Sunday so you can hear your pastor give his sermons regularly,” you are articulating what I mean by a “Means of Grace” theology of Christian life. If you instead answer something like "poring through dusty old books and cutting edge research (or whatever the best resources are that you can find) to decipher and communicate what the teachings actually say," then you are articulating what I am calling a “Cumulative Grace” theology of the Christian life.
One of these two is recursive and repetitive, in the way that eating, sleeping, and doing the laundry are. It is a treadmill, or a circular track one runs – presumably to grow stronger and faster, but only for some other task. The other is cumulative and progressive in itself, in the way that year-after-year of growing up is cumulative, or the classes in a well formed education are cumulative. It is a set of stairs, or a walk toward a destination. Of course you can point out that eating and sleeping are necessary underpinnings for a child to grow up, one day after another. This is true. Of course you can point out that working out is (undisputedly) a metaphor for aspects of the Christian life. This is true. Still, these are directly competing descriptions of what “devotion to the apostles teaching” might look like.
If you buy the Means of Grace view, you have a relatively passive account of this devotion – passive, not in the sense of not requiring any effort, but in the sense of merely requiring effort. Merely requiring one, in other words, to go through the motions, rather than continually working out which "motion" must be applied where, and what the exact details of the "motion" are to be. Passive, in other words, not in the way in which an athlete is active when compared to a sleeper, but in the way an author or reader is active when compared with a scribe.
If you buy the Cumulative Grace view, then the question isn’t “what are the means by which grace is transmitted, so that I merely have to stay within these boundaries to ensure I receive it.” This is not the question to which “devotion to the Apostles teaching” is (one piece of) the answer. Instead, the question is “How do I best go about maximizing understanding and communication of the apostles’ teaching (along with other things), because I have to figure that out, in my time and place and with the resources available to me.
Better explanation of the “day to day” workings of the two views.
On application to (almost) every other thing in the “means of grace” list(s).
Since I am deliberately coining a term anyway, I am tempted to call the alternative to “Means of Grace Theology” simply “Ends of Grace Theology.” This would both provide a tidy contrast between the two, as well as nicely suiting the tone of intentionality and priority that I hope to describe. I am worried, however, that framing the issue in that way might accidentally communicate that I am simply describing a “higher” focus than in Means of Grace Theology, or (worse) that by claiming the higher value word “ends” for one view I am trying to bias any discussion in favor of that view