Sunday, December 11, 2011

Prevenient Grace

Prevenient grace?

At Mass on December 8, Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the Prayer over the Offerings used the term "prevenient grace" to describe God's intervention to keep Mary "untouched by any stain of sin."

Prior to our use of the new Roman English translation we prayed, "You kept her free from sin from the first moment of her life."

The expression "prevenient grace" does not fall trippingly off the tongue. The Council of Trent used the Latin "a Dei per dominum Christum Iesum praeveniente gratia" (rendered  "a predisposing grace of God through Jesus Christ" in the English translation I use of Trent, session 6, chapter 5.)

The theology behind Trent's "prevenient or predisposing grace" is the Catholic Church's conviction that "actual justification in adults takes its origin from a predisposing grace of God through Jesus Christ ...with no existing merits on their side" (ibid). Thus, those who had turned from God by sins are disposed by God's grace to turn back and become justified by freely assenting to that grace.

The term "prevenient grace" is probably more familiar among Calvinists and Methodists, who disagree with one another about the fine points of the concept. Calvinists hold that God's will alone brings salvation, rejecting the Wesleyan Methodist' belief that people must respond to the grace. Calvinists say that grace is either common or special,  and  special grace is given only to the elect and is irresistible. Wesleyans insist that prevenient grace can be accepted or rejected.

Further, Calvinists reject what they call "universal enablement," the idea that God offers salvation and justification to everybody.

The predominant use of the term "prevenient grace" in Protestant circles differs somewhat from the Catholic use of the term regarding Mary's Immaculate Conception.

The Catholic theology of the special prerogative given to Mary (to be "conceived without sin") does indeed imply a prevenient grace. This particular prevenient grace was given uniquely to Mary, given before and in anticipation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I never dreamed the new Roman English translation of Mass prayers would lead to such a maze of theologizing.

I hope to be better prepared next December 8th to enunciate that peculiar phrase, but I suspect I will still be wishing I could say, "You kept her free from sin from the first moment of her life." That seems to me easier to say and understand, and for me a lot  more joyful and prayerful.

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