Theological Meditations, Uncategorized

God Comes In Vindication: Barth, Athanasius, and Augustine on Salvation

The first reading for this week is taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, chapter 35, in which the Prophet Isaiah writes, “Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, He comes with vindication…” (Isaiah 35:4) God, in His plan of salvation, comes with all power and majesty. We know, from the New Testament, that this power and majesty was manifested in a paradoxical way: namely, in God becoming man, and not only as any human, but as a poor man who suffered unjust punishment on the Cross. But in that, God was at work defeating the forces of sin and evil. Jesus did occasionally do things which explicitly manifested what was more subtly and imperceptibly made known in all other aspects of His life (i.e., in the Transfiguration, the Resurrection, and in the authentic mystical experiences that have occurred since then). Nonetheless, in all things Jesus said and did, God’s power and glory was at work, albeit in a paradoxical form, under the guise of weakness.


Because the glory and power of God is at work within all things, we have no reason to fear, but must trust in God, Who in His coming destroys sin and restores man’s goodness, lost through sin: “Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then the lamb will leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.” (Isaiah 35:5-6)

This is something closely paralleled in the Gospel reading for this week, taken from Mark 7:31-37, which speaks of Jesus healing the blind man in the Decapolis. One thing to focus in on here is that the blind man immediately began to see when Jesus said “Be opened!” All things, even sin, are subject to God. God does not directly cause sin, but He does permit sin to occur. Nonetheless, if God does not permit a particular evil to occur, it will not occur, and if He does permit it, it will only happen to the extent that He permits it. And God only permits evil when and if it serves His will, the final end of which is intrinsically good, and in fact is the HIGHEST good. Thus, those who desire to rebel against God, those who intend to hurt their neighbor and offend God, are in fact, unwittingly, pawns in God’s larger plan. And when God’s plan of salvation finally defeats some evil, the defeat occurs whenever God so decrees it to happen. Evil is destroyed at the command of God. Thus, even that which runs counter to God’s larger plan is at the service of God’s plan.


By God’s larger plan of salvation, all people are brought from the depravity of sin to the glory of union with God. This gives us a reason to praise in God, to exhibit genuine spiritual joy. This is why we read the responsiorial psalm we did: it was taken from Psalm 146, which reads: “Praise the Lord, all my soul; I will praise the Lord all my life, sing praise to God while I live.” (verse 2) This joy, this glorying in the vastness of God’s plan of salvation, is not the same as arrogance or pride, and thus the second reading from James 2:1-5. The Apostle James exhorts the local Christians to “show no partiality” (James 2:1). More specifically, James told the local community to not give the rich preference solely on account of their wealth, while dismissing the poor. The rationale behind this, in light of the other readings, is that the rich are just as sinful as the poor, and are just as much in need of salvation as the poor. To give undue attention, preference or respect to the rich is for man to place his trust in himself, to overstate his own goodness to the point of denying that he is in need of any higher or greater good. This is the sin of pride, and this is what leads to sin in the first place. Authentic spiritual joy is incompatible with, and in fact is antithetical to such pride, for it trusts in God as the sole source of our salvation. We see this in Psalm 146: in the verse immediately following the one quoted above, in which the author commands their soul to praise God, they also write: “Put no trust in princes, in children of Adam powerless to save.” (Psalm 146:3) We should not place our trust in ourselves, or in any of the other things of this world, for our salvation. [1]


There are three theological giants of Church history whose thought shines light on this. One of them is one of the big thinkers of Protestant theology in the 20th century, Karl Barth. In his famed multi-volume work Church Dogmatics, Barth fights against a Hegelian reading of salvation history. The 19th century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel believed that humanity finds the truth through the thesis-antithesis-synthesis model: someone proposes a particular truth claim, another person or group proposes the opposite of this as the inevitable result, and from the tension between the thesis and the antithesis, the fullness of the truth is known (the synthesis). Some theologians applied this to salvation history: God created the world; sin arose in response against God’s activity in creation; salvation results from the cooperative tension between God’s act of creation and man’s sinfulness.


Barth rejects this formulation of salvation history. To say that sin is the inevitable reaction against God is to imply that sin is built into the created order. Barth accepts the classical Christian view of sin as privation: it is a turning away from God, and since God is the source of all being, it is a turn towards nothingness. For Barth, the covenant that God formed with humanity at creation precludes the Hegelian view, for it was meant to protect man from sin, show him the path by which man can remain in union with God. God’s salvific plan is thus a restoration of the covenant formed in creation. In creation, God makes us for Himself; in sin, we turn away from God; in redemption, God brings us back to Himself. He restores that which He created [2]. This seems to parallel the healing miracles: sickness is a sign of something gone wrong in the human body, which Christ then overcomes; likewise, sin is a sign of something spiritually and morally gone wrong, which Christ helps us overcome (something symbolized by his healing).


According to Barth, God works “one-sidedly” against sin – that is, He defeats sin, and causes all that is opposed to his loving plan for creation to drop out of existence. This is signified by the fact that the Bible, particularly the New Testament, uses a very specific set of theological terms or phrases to refer to the outpouring of God’s grace – for example, pleonaxein (“to grow” or “to increase”, cf. Romans 6:1-2, Colossians 4:15), uperperisseuein (“to overflow” or “to superabound,” cf. Romans 5:20), and uperleonaxein (“to be present in fullness,” cf. 1 Timothy 1:14). The use of such terms signifies “a kind of boundless astonishment” on the part of the author with regard to the manifestation of God’s grace [3]. This is rooted in the fact that God’s plan of salvation, God’s mercy, is the means by which God has chosen to manifest His glory. God’s glory is not lessened in any way if He chooses not to save us; nonetheless, God in His sovereignty chose to make His glory manifested through His mercy [3]. Because Jesus fulfilled God’s plan of salvation, God was vindicated in Jesus. This is what it means to be justified by faith: our trust in God is well-founded, since God’s declaration of righteousness takes place in the same event whereby God is vindicated against the forces of sin and evil [4]. This should hearken back to the first reading, namely that we should “fear not,” for God “comes with vindication.” He destroys sin and restores us to our initial goodness.


God is vindicated and glorified in Christ, and is further glorified when man acts in a manner worthy of salvation. And that is because our meritorious acts are themselves the result of God at work within us, and not merely the result of our own effort alone. Long before Barth, this was a truth emphasized by two great Church Fathers: St. Athanasius and St. Augustine. St. Augustine, in chapter 15 of his work On Grace and Free Will, notes how the fact that we merit salvation is the result of God’s grace moving and empowering us to do so. Thus, our merits are, paradoxically, gifts from God. Augustine writes, “If then your merits are God’s gifts, God does not crown your merits as your merits, but as His gifts.” [5]


St. Athanasius, the great defender of Nicene orthodoxy, speaks similarly. Fr. Khaled Anatolios, a Byzantine Catholic priest and professor of theology at Notre Dame University, outlines the Athanasian view on grace in his work Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought. According to Antolios, Athanasius’ view on grace is best reflected in his work The Life of Antony, which speaks of the life of St. Antony, the first major Churchman to promote monasticism. In the Athanasius’s view, Antony achieved a high level of holiness because “Christ had become His co-worker.” The co-working of Christ and the individual, according to Anatolios, was the leitmotif of the Athanasian view of grace. The term which Athanasius uses for “co-working” is synergia. The root of this word was the Greek term energeia, which, when translated literally, meant “work”. Athanasius used this term to refer to what Anatolios describes as “God’s primordial activity in the universe.” More specifically, it refers to God’s act of creating, organizing, and sustaining the universe. God’s activity is active, while human activity is passive: God is the source of all existence, and humans only insofar as they participate in the being or existence of God. God is the source of life; humans live insofar as they are enlivened by God. The same is true with our salvation. God, by His energeia, not only creates, but also recreates His creation in the act of redemption. Our personal salvation is the result or the fruit of what God did in Christ. Therefore, Anatolios can conclude that, for Athanasius, “the primary agent behind these manifestations of holiness is Christ Himself…” The same model that Athanasius holds for creation he also holds for salvation: God is the One Who saves and makes holy, we are the ones who are saved and made holy. When we act in a manner worthy of salvation, we do so by our own volition; yet, we use our will in a manner worthy of salvation because God is at work within us. God is, again to use the words of Anatolios, “antecedent to and causal of the activity of the disciples.” [6]


This shows how God is the principle of our sanctification and salvation. Yet, this in no way undermines the moral responsibilities that are part-and-parcel with God’s salvific plan at work within us. Barth, in typical Protestant (particularly Reformed/Calvinist) fashion, fears overstating the role of the human. Part of this, from a Catholic perspective, is understandable: humans are completely and utterly dependent on the grace of God for our salvation. Yet, this does not undermine the fact that humans have free will. The fact that humans make use of their free will in a manner worthy of salvation is the result of God’s grace at work within us; nonetheless, the conversion of the person away from sin and acts of obedience to the Divine commands are still acts of free will. Within Roman Catholic theology, a distinction is made between operative grace and cooperative grace. God’s grace is seen as “operative” at that initial moment in which God pours out His grace, at which point our sins are forgiven, the soul is united to God, the soul is restored to its original state of goodness, and as a result of this we are justified (made righteous in God’s sight) and given the strength to act in a manner worthy of salvation. God’s grace is called “operative” because it brings about the forgiveness of sins and the justification of the sinner by His own effort, without us having contributed to it in any way. Yet, cooperative grace refers to God’s grace as it functions within man’s actions. Man, due to the initial outpouring of grace, has it within His power to act in a manner worthy of salvation; yet, due to sin, His will is weakened, and thus He cannot act in a manner worthy of heaven without the assistance of God’s grace. So, the performing of good works is the result both of God’s grace and human free will: it is truly the human person who performs good works, but the human person performs these good works only with the assistance of God’s grace. Operative and cooperative grace are not two different types of grace, but rather refer to two different ways in which God’s grace operates in relation to human free will: God’s grace brings about the forgiveness of sins and the conversion of the sinner through its own internal operations; yet, the performing of good works results from the coming together of Divine grace and human effort. Karl Barth rejects this distinction, saying, “One what basis is there ever a cooperari [cooperation] in the relationship between the gracious God and sinful man which is not also and as sure a pure operari [operation]?” [7] What this means is that humans are so depraved that the performing of good works is solely or primarily the result of a Divine operation within us.


But, this is the entire point of Catholic theology: humans, through their own effort alone, can fall into sin, but cannot by their own effort make it out of sin. Sin represents a level of depravity which prevents man from overcoming sin by his own effort. Yet, the grace of God liberates us from sin, overcomes that depravity. Because of this, humans are granted by God a level of spiritual and moral freedom and strength to act as we ought, to be all that we can be. This is another aspect of Jesus’ miracle stories: Jesus gave the deaf man the capacity to hear. The deaf man actually had the capacity to hear. They could, through their own internal operations, do what they were made to do (hear noises); yet, since the man was previously deaf, he could not do this unless God’s grace healed him. Likewise with sin: once liberated from sin, we actually, by our own effort, act according to God’s Will; yet, we cannot do this unless God’s grace frees us from our sin, and guides us after the initial act of liberation.


You see this in the thought of St. Athanasius: the notion that human volition and Divine grace are somehow contradictory would have been completely incomprehensible to him. Later commentators who attempt to create such an interpretation are, in some sense, contrived. [8]


This truth was something that strongly played a role in St. Augustine’s view of salvation. It was Augustine who first made the distinction between operative and cooperative grace. In his work On Grace and Free Will, St. Augustine responded to a group of North African monks who took his view on grace to far, and severely watered down the role of grace. In response to this, St. Augustine wrote, in chapter 33, that “God perfects by His cooperation what He initiates in operation.” A little while later, Augustine explains what this means:


Forasmuch as in the beginning He [God] works within us that we may have the will, and in perfecting works with us when we have the will. On account of which the Apostle Paul says, “I am confident of this very thing, that He that has begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6). He operates, therefore, without us, in order that we may will; but when we will, and so will that we may act He co-operates with us. We can’t, however, ourselves do anything to effect good works of piety without Him either working that we may will, or co-working when we will. [9]



What this means is that it is God, by His own work alone, Who enables us to act as we ought. When we actually go to perform good works themselves, it is us who, by our own capacities, truly make the choice to act as we ought. Yet, this latter part still requires the assistance of Divine grace, which is the necessary factor in bringing to perfection that which God began within us. Thus, our attaining of salvation bears witness, ultimately, to the goodness, love and mercy of God, which in turn reflects the glory of God.




  1. To read this weeks readings in full, visit:
  2. Karl Barth, The Doctrine of Reconciliation. Translated by G.W. Bromiley, edited by G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrence. London: Continuum, 2004. Pg. 96-97
  3. ibid., pg. 95-97, pg. 107
  4. ibid., pg. 114
  5. St. Augustine, On Grace and Free Will, chapter 17. Translated by Peter Holmes and Robert Ernest Wallis. In The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5. Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887). Accessed on:
  6. Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought. New York City: Routledge, 2002. Pg. 173, 177-180.
  7. Barth, The Doctrine of Reconciliation. Pg. 103
  8. Anatolios, Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought. Pg. 73
  9. St. Augustine, On Grace and Free Will, chapter 33.

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