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Modern Theology 21:1 January 2005

ISSN 0266-7177 (Print)

ISSN 1468-0025 (Online)




For about a decade, John Milbank has been developing a trinitarian theol-
ogy of grace using the language of “gift” and “gift-giving”. In the first part
of this essay, I examine a series of his early articles which articulate his gift
theology, as well as his account of opposing viewpoints.2 In these early
works, the Reformed tradition as such is never referred to, but Reformation
thinking in general is an invisible opponent which exemplifies a “donative”
or “unilateral” view of grace. Milbank criticizes doctrines in which grace is
“passively” received, along with its corollary in Anders Nygren’s “unilat-
eral” portrait of agape.3 After presenting Milbank’s early gift theology, I give
a possible response in terms of Calvin’s theology of grace.
The second part of this essay continues the same task with Milbank’s more
recent book, Being Reconciled, published as the first in a series of books where
Milbank’s “gift-giving” paradigm will be used to examine the major loci of
theology.4 In this work, Calvin, Luther, and “Reformation” theologies are
moved from the shadows to the sideline, as Milbank makes generally nega-
tive comments about how “Reformation” theology cannot provide an
adequate theology of active reception. As I continue comparing Calvin’s
theology of grace with Milbank’s theology of the gift, I hope to show how
Calvin’s theology is quite resilient in the face of Milbank’s criticisms of
“Reformation” theologies in which grace supposedly functions as a “unilat-
eral” gift “passively” received. Calvin’s theology of grace blends elements
of divine initiative with participatory mutuality, developed through a trini-

J. Todd Billings,
24 Quincy Street #1, Somerville, MA 02143, USA

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88 J. Todd Billings

tarian account of the double grace of justification and sanctification, and

a multivalent account of the doctrinal loci. Thus, Calvin shares more of
Milbank’s concern for “active” reception than one might expect. However,
the comparison with Calvin also illuminates Milbank’s heavy reliance upon
a narrow range of terms drawn from the anthropological gift-giving discus-
sion. This proves to be a weakness in that Milbank’s use of these terms and
concepts in a schematic way both diminishes the possible biblical complex-
ity of his account and distances him from his own patristic and medieval
In his first series of articles on gift-giving, Milbank sets out his main con-
structive proposal and his central arguments against other interlocutors on
the gift.5 Constructively, he wants to build upon a French anthropological
discussion about “gift-giving” that emerges from the work of Marcel Mauss.
For Mauss, gift-giving is a distinct sort of “economy” which serves as a tran-
sition between an economy of “total services”, with exchange from clan to
clan, and a market economy.6 Mauss believes that the virtue of the gift-giving
economy is that gift-giving practices can enable competing factions to make
peace by finding common ground in the mutual pleasures and mutual inter-
ests created by gift-giving. Against Mauss, Jacques Derrida has written in
Given Time that Mauss manages to speak “of everything but the gift”.7 For
Derrida, a gift should be an interruption of an economy of exchange,
whereas for Mauss gifts are necessarily involved in exchange.8 Anthropolo-
gists like Mary Douglas and David Graeber have offered a more positive
assessment of Mauss, looking upon his account of the bonds and relations
established through gift-giving as one of the few possible non-Marxist alter-
natives to capitalism.9 Milbank takes up Mauss’ discussion in seeking to
think through Christian redemption in terms of the gift, such that Chris-
tianity can help lead to a gift economy that is purified from its agonistic ele-
ments.10 For Milbank, a purified gift is a gift that replicates itself in cycles of
gratitude and obligation: gift-exchange involves “delay” and “non-identical
repetition” of the gift in gratitude, thus extending obligation as a new gift is
given.11 Milbank believes that Christian theology can point the way to these
purified gift-exchanges.
As an Augustinian, Milbank is fortunate to find that the language of the
“gift” already has a place in his tradition. “Gift” is a name for the Holy Spirit
in Augustine’s De Trinitate. While this language of “gift” does not provide
the overarching framework for Augustine’s trinitarian theology—a point to
which I will return at the end of this essay—it does play a part in the trini-
tarian ethic of love in Augustine, providing Milbank with a starting point.12
From there, Milbank extends Augustine’s account of the Trinity and its
corresponding ethic of love in distinctively gift-giving terms, saying that
through the Spirit persons are brought into the trinitarian “exchange”.13 In
addition, Milbank sees the doctrine of creation in terms of “gift exchange”.14
Although from one perspective, there is an “excess” to creation such that
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Milbank’s Theology of “Gift” and Calvin’s Theology of Grace 89

there will be an asymmetry regarding anything the Creator receives back

from the creature, the act of creation also creates receivers, creating the rela-
tionship between God and humanity. It implies “less an absolutization of the
unilateral gift, than an absolutization of gift-exchange”.15 From creation
through redemption, God gives, and brings humanity into a trinitarian gift-
exchange. Yet, in receiving this divine gift, the human is always involved in
a vital way: in “active reception”.16 That is, one gives the love one receives
from God to one’s neighbor even as one is receiving it from God. It is impos-
sible to receive God’s gift while refusing to give to one’s neighbor. The gift
“is not prior to but coincident with relation” such that they are inseparable—
interlinked on horizontal and vertical planes, so to speak.17 As such, “reci-
procity” is inseparable from receiving a gift.18
In this initial set of articles, Milbank opposes his position to two other
views. First, he argues against Kant and a long list of ethicists, including
Derrida and Levinas, whom he sees as carrying on a Kantian ethical legacy.
Milbank’s central claim is that these Kantian and post-Kantian figures make
“disinterested” self-sacrifice the high point of their ethic, encouraging uni-
lateral giving without payback, without reciprocation, even without recog-
nition of the “gift” as such.19 While there are certain aspects of Milbank’s
critique which do seem to apply to Derrida’s view of the gift, his repeated
references to Kant’s ethics seem to stem from a misinterpretation of Kant’s
Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.20 In the Groundwork, Kant fre-
quently contrasts the call of “duty” with “inclination” to clarify the finality
of duty.21 Kant’s point is that duty cannot be constituted by inclination or a
bare concern for mutual pleasure. Nevertheless, in analyzing the type of
obligation incurred by “duty”, Kant is quite willing to speak of the impor-
tance of reciprocity and mutual regard.22 Thus, while Milbank’s defense of
“reciprocity” has validity in itself, his corresponding interpretation of Kant
is uncharitable at best. Yet, Milbank is able to make a significant point
regarding Derrida: structurally speaking, Derrida’s gift is annihilated by
mutuality. Derrida openly admits this, for a “gift” which is recognized as
such incurs obligation, thus ceasing to be a free gift.23 In contrast, Milbank’s
“gift” is a mutual exchange, with “giver” and “receiver” becoming fluid cat-
egories. Unlike Kant, Derrida’s “gift” does exhibit a radically unilateral
Milbank’s second repeated interlocutor in these essays is Marion, with his
portrait of the “saturated phenomenon” as a model for revelation. The sat-
urated phenomena is a “gift” which overwhelms the receiver, surpassing her
concepts and expections.24 Marion describes an “excess” in the gift of reve-
lation that cannot be comprehended; the “distance” between the gift and the
receiver is irreducible, forcing one to speak in a non-predicative, apophatic
mode.25 However, although Marion is “exactly half right” according to
Milbank in his account of the divine donum, his portrait, too, is unilateral.26
Marion seeks to show how the intentionality of the receiver does not add to
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90 J. Todd Billings

or in any way constitute the phenomena of revelation. For Milbank, Marion’s

account reflects a view of the “will” with “an infinite capacity for ‘indiffer-
ence’ ”.27 In contrast, Milbank sees the will as caught up in ecstatic, active
reception by participating in the exchange of the Trinity and of the human
community.28 Milbank claims that there is an inherent danger in any account
of the human reception of divine gifts in which the human is merely passive.
Milbank detects a similarity between Marion and Derrida on the “unilateral”
character of the gift. Yet, unlike Derrida, Marion’s account does not involve
an a priori denial of the receiver and her response; rather, Marion’s focus is
how the “gift” of revelation appears—a gift with irreducible “excess”. Nev-
ertheless, however one assesses Milbank’s criticisms of Marion, it is clear
that Milbank has developed a critical account of the “gift” by which he can
criticize a range of theologies as cultivating “passivity” because of an under-
lying “unilateral” character to their notion of the gift.
How are we to think through Calvin’s theology of grace in relation to
Milbank’s proposal? There might be more than one way of doing this.
Certain recent account of Calvin’s theology place the language of gift at the
center—for example, Brian Gerrish’s eucharistic account of Calvin’s overall
theology in Grace and Gratitude. Another approach which makes gift lan-
guage central is the social-historical approach of Natalie Zemon Davis in The
Gift in Sixteenth Century France, analyzing the social practices in Geneva in
terms of Mauss’ gift-giving paradigm, and then seeking to link it with
Calvin’s theology. While each of these approaches have certain merits, I
sense that there is a danger of failing to remember that “gift” and “gift-
giving” are not, in fact, dominant theological terms for Calvin. Instead of
focusing on “gift” terminology per se, I think that examining several relevant
points about Calvin’s theology of grace can illuminate key commonalities
and differences with Milbank’s “gift” theology.
First, regarding Milbank’s idea of “active reception”, Calvin would have
a certain amount in common with Milbank, but would need to push him for
further clarification. For Calvin, it is crucial to distinguish between justifica-
tion and sanctification as two aspects of union with Christ—one fully real-
ized, and the other only partially completed. They are inseparable for Calvin,
being a “double grace” (duplex gratia) that is held together in the very person
of Christ. It is impossible to have one without the other; they do not come
in temporal stages. Furthermore, as one receives grace through the gift of
faith, one will necessarily be active in outward holiness, just as Milbank says
that one must be active in giving while receiving. Concerning justification
and sanctification, Calvin writes, “As Christ cannot be torn into parts, so
these two which we perceive in him together and conjointly are insepara-
ble—namely, righteousness and sanctification. Whomever, therefore, God
receives into grace, on them he at the same time bestows the Spirit of adop-
tion, by whose power he remakes them into his own image.”29 On the one
hand, believers are “passive” in receiving grace, in the sense that we add
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Milbank’s Theology of “Gift” and Calvin’s Theology of Grace 91

nothing to God’s grace that was missing—God’s grace is completely suffi-

cient. The pardon and adoption involved in justification is received extra nos,
from outside ourselves. Yet, Calvin makes it clear that this process of receiv-
ing grace has a second part (hence the duplex gratia), activating one for a life
of piety and love through the Spirit. Indeed, the ethical “ought” and the
anthropological “can” are fulfilled, for Calvin, only through regeneration by
the Spirit.30 Living “in Christ” is living a life of love, according to the third
use of the law utilized by Calvin.31
Thus, if one is searching for a theology of grace in which the reception of
grace in salvation will not be severed from being reborn for a life of holiness
through the Spirit, Calvin’s theology is a good place to look. Rather than
“active reception”, Calvin’s reception of grace might be better called “acti-
vating reception”. Yet Calvin’s clarity about issues like justification and sanc-
tification leave one wondering how long Milbank can avoid using more
precise terms in his own theology of the gift. For Milbank, the gift coincides
with relation.32 Thus, the divine gift “is itself grounded in an intra-divine
love which is relation and exchange as much as it is gift”.33 Moreover, the
divine gift is impossible without the “necessary reception of Christ by Israel
in the person of Mary”.34 Where exactly does this leave Milbank amidst the
myriad of theological options concerning the divine priority of grace and the
human “contribution” to salvation? For example, what would Milbank’s
attempt to think through the divine donum and the [necessary] human
response lead him to say about justification? Calvin does have clarity on
these issues—the first grace is pardon, extra nos, while the second grace is a
participatory regeneration by the Spirit.35 This occurs within a trinitarian
context. God is revealed as a gracious and generous Father because of his
free pardon of sin, which takes place through the believer’s union with
Christ by faith, the first grace. This same union with Christ also involves a
vivification by the Spirit to grow in love and holiness, the second grace. In
contrast, Milbank’s use of anthropological language—that “gift” coincides
with “relation”—simply does not have this soteriological precision.
Secondly, Calvin’s theology of grace calls into question one of the assump-
tions inherent in Milbank’s adoption of “gift” language in relation to grace:
that grace, and the divine-human relationship within that, can be adequately
characterized in terms of either “unilateral” giving or reciprocal “exchange”.
Calvin does not begin with such a schematic framework, turned into a trini-
tarian metaphysic. Rather, a central concern for Calvin is expositing the
variety of soteriological language used in scripture about God’s saving work
in humanity. Calvin’s exposition of certain scriptural concepts, such as elec-
tion, might seem to have a unilateral gift character. In election, God chooses
and secures the salvation of believers, apart from their worthiness. Yet, the
concept of “unilateral” giving does not adequately account for other bibli-
cal images that Calvin draws upon to describe God’s saving relation to
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92 J. Todd Billings

For example, Calvin has a complex and nuanced theology of covenant. On

the one hand, he emphasizes that in some sense, the covenant is unilateral,
with God fulfilling both sides of the covenant because sinful humanity could
not be left on its own to fulfill its pledge. However, as Peter Lillback has
pointed out, Calvin also makes extensive use of the language of a mutual,
bilateral covenant, particularly when he wants to emphasize human respon-
sibility.36 For Calvin, it is important that believers make a voluntary pledge
sincerely to seek to fulfill their side of the covenant. Yet, it is the Spirit that
makes this voluntary pledge possible. This is not a contradiction, but a mul-
tivalent biblical teaching which is neither simply unilateral nor bilateral. In
this way, Calvin refuses to see human and divine agency as two opposing
powers. The polarities built into Milbank’s language of “unilateral” giving
and “bilateral” giving preclude such insights.
In a similar way, Milbank frequently uses the term “reciprocity” to
describe a desirable alternative to theologies of God-human relations
characterized by “passivity”.37 Since Calvin does have a place for salvation
coming to the believer extra nos in justification, it may seem that Calvin
would be subject to this criticism. Yet, once again, have not Milbank’s terms
drawn from anthropological discussions led to an oversimplication? In
Calvin, justification never occurs by itself; it is inseparable from the active,
empowering work of regeneration enabled by the Spirit. On a deeper level,
there is also a sense in which the terms “reciprocity” and “passivity” imply
an exteriority in divine-human relations that is foreign to Calvin. Calvin
delights in speaking of how the union within the Trinity extends to include
humanity, such that, “Just as he [Christ] is one with the Father, so we become
one with him.”38 Calvin also speaks about the believer being united into “one
life and substance” with Christ.39 In Calvin, identities are not “fixed” in such
a way that sharing in another makes us less like ourselves. Rather, it is by
living in the Spirit, by participating in Christ, by becoming “one substance”
with Christ that we find our full identity as creatures. Commentators like
Philip Butin are right to call Calvin’s trinitarian account of divine-human
relations “perichoretic”.40 It is not a matter of “reciprocity” or “passivity”,
but a differentiated union of identities in a trinitarian context.
In summary for part one of this essay, Milbank’s concept of “active recep-
tion” of grace has certain commonalities with what I call a notion of “acti-
vating reception” in Calvin. Yet, concerning the nature of justification and
the human contribution to salvation, Calvin articulates a clear position
which differentiates yet unites justification and sanctification, emphasizing
the priority of divine grace for salvation. In contrast, Milbank remains vague
on these questions: “active reception” means that the gift of grace coincides
with relation, but it does not address the ground of justification and its rela-
tion to sanctification. Secondly, I have argued that Milbank’s account of grace
as a “unilateral” gift requiring “passive” reception or relations of mutual
“reciprocity” and “exchange” set forth false alternatives. These anthropo-
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Milbank’s Theology of “Gift” and Calvin’s Theology of Grace 93

logical notions assume an exteriority between agents that is inadequate for

describing God’s saving relation to humanity. Calvin’s attempt to appropri-
ate a variety of biblical imagery concerning the divine-human relationship—
including that of election, covenant, and the trinitarian incorporation of
humanity—complicates and moves beyond Milbank’s simpler scheme of
grace as “unilateral”, “passive”, or “reciprocal”.41

In his more recent work, Milbank extends and develops the ideas of these
early essays, explicitly criticizing Reformation theologies as theologies of the
“unilateral” gift. Milbank offers his central exposition in Being Reconciled,42
which presents a number of concrete theological-social proposals. He
extends the account of Christology which he gave in The Word Made Strange,
speaks of his program of Christian Socialism, and defends a privation theory
of evil. What holds these essays together? The language of “gift” serves as
one unifying strand, but even more so than in his previous works on the
“gift”, Milbank makes repeated reference to the notion of “participation”.
What is a theology of “participation”? The word is a surprisingly flexible
one in theological discussions, and it is not always clear in what senses
Milbank uses the term. On one level, Milbank seems to be appropriating the
notion of “participation as deification”; this doctrine is taught by various
patristic and medieval writers, and was recently re-attributed to Augustine,
contra Harnack.43 However, there are many different types of doctrines of
“deification”.44 Thus, the fact that Milbank includes deification in his account
of “participation” is not in itself a significant clarification.
In assessing the different possible senses of “participation”, it is worth
noting that theologies of “participation” have a history in Milbank’s Angli-
can heritage. On the one hand, “participation” has been used as shorthand
for a relatively loose set of Platonic metaphysical claims affirming some
sense of ontological “participation” of creation in the creator. Anglican the-
ologians as far back as Richard Hooker have used the language of “partici-
pation” in this way, later given prominence by the Cambridge Platonists.45
In the nineteenth century, these early Anglican traditions are drawn upon by
John Henry Newman in his Anglican years, who again revives the language
of participation.46 With Newman in particular, the language of participation
has implications for the theology of grace, offering a via media between
Catholics and Protestants. In Newman’s hands, a theology of participation
favors the Catholic side of the divide. His work on justification was funda-
mentally suspicious of Protestant claims about justification by faith alone.
For Newman and other Tractarians, such a “dry” doctrine of justification
(extra nos) has lost the participatory sense of faith as formed by love. Justifi-
cation and sanctification should be seen as inseparable, a single act.
In Being Reconciled, Milbank seems to follow Newman in his impatience
with a Reformed account of grace and his preference for language of “par-
ticipation”. Milbank, like Newman, rejects “all Protestant accounts of grace”
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94 J. Todd Billings

that affirm “mere imputation”, because “an account of the arrival of grace
must for me also mean an account of sanctification and ethics”.47 Further-
more, a theology of participation lacks the “negative” anthropology of
Protestants who set nature against grace, thereby disrupting the Platonic par-
ticipation of the creature in the divine. For Milbank, an essential point of the-
ological anthropology is that humans are created for union with God, and
he finds the doctrines of sin and human incapacity as framed by Reforma-
tion theology—particularly with their emphasis upon the bondage of the
will—threatening to this emphasis.
Juxtaposing Calvin’s viewpoint with this distinctively [high] Anglican the-
ological language about “participation” is a peculiar task. On the one hand,
it might seem as though Calvin could provide precisely the sort of theology
that Newman and Milbank are looking for: a theology of grace that is never
“mere imputation”, but in which justification and sanctification are held
together tightly in one act of grace, united in the person of Christ. Just as
Milbank cannot account for the reception of grace without speaking of sanc-
tification, neither can Calvin—as my earlier discussion of Calvin on the
duplex gratia indicated.
Yet, Milbank’s view involves a deeper objection to Calvin’s theology of
grace. According to Milbank, Calvin and others who deny the freedom of
the will before regeneration have a negative anthropology, emphasizing sin
in such a way that the created human nature must be destroyed rather than
fulfilled in the “new creation” of regeneration. In a particular section of Being
Reconciled, Milbank gives a sympathetic account of Augustine on the
freedom of the will, despite the widespread caricature of Augustine as
opposing nature to grace in his account of the will.48 Yet Milbank simulta-
neously argues against Reformation and post-Reformation “misreadings” of
Augustine, which appear to oppose grace to free will, and ultimately, grace
to nature.49 I am afraid that Milbank has corrected one caricature (that of
Augustine) to replace it with another (that of Reformation theologies).
Calvin’s view of the “bondage of will” is frequently misunderstood. The
central reason for this is inattention to his work that directly addresses the
Roman Catholic concerns about his “negative” view of humanity in redemp-
tion, Bondage and Liberation of the Will. It is also a work with great insight into
Calvin’s interpretation of Augustine and other church fathers, with more
patristic citations than any other work besides the Institutes. In Bondage and
Liberation of the Will, Calvin responds to the criticisms that his Roman
Catholic adversary, Albert Pighius, brings against the 1539 edition of the
Institutes. One of Pighius’s central concerns was how human nature seemed
to be diminished rather than fulfilled in the action of grace, giving an insuf-
ficient account of the human side of redemption. Pighius was particularly
disturbed when Calvin wrote: “whatever is of our own will is effaced [in
regeneration]”. While this passage is later qualified by Calvin in the Insti-
tutes,50 his response in Bondage and Freedom of the Will is insightful. “By ‘what-
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Milbank’s Theology of “Gift” and Calvin’s Theology of Grace 95

ever is ours’ I understand that which belongs to us. Moreover, I define this
as what we have in ourselves apart from God’s creation.”51 What Calvin is
trying to preserve is the Pauline language of the conflicted human will
(Romans 7), torn between the “old self” (which should be “crucified”) and
the “new creation” in Christ. Our own will—our fallen will—must be effaced
and even crucified in regeneration. But this must not be confused with the
original good will given to Adam in creation, for Adam was “united” to God
before the fall.52
In Bondage and Liberation of the Will, Calvin uses Aristotelian distinctions to
express this relationship.53 The substance of human nature was created good,
oriented toward union with God. Indeed, as Calvin notes elsewhere, this
original creation enjoyed a “participation in God”.54 Through the fall, human-
ity developed the accidental characteristic of sinning, which brings alienation
from God. This “sinful human nature”, then, is only “human nature” in a sec-
ondary sense, for the substance of human nature is good.55 In regeneration,
the substance of human nature is led toward fulfillment in Christ through the
Spirit. Grace does not destroy this primal human nature, but fulfills it. In
terms of the will, the original, created orientation of the will is fulfilled in
redemption. It is in this context that Calvin claims that human freedom must
be contingent upon the work of the Spirit, affirming with John’s Gospel that
“without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). For it is only through union
with Christ by the Spirit that the alienation which destroys human freedom
can be overcome. Thus, the work of God’s original creation is fulfilled in the
believer through the free will empowered by the Spirit.56
Yet, one may object, even if Calvin’s view of the will does not entail a neg-
ative view of created nature in relation to grace, is the human left with any-
thing beyond a “passive” role in sanctification? Milbank continues to press
his case against “passivity” in Being Reconciled, frequently associating it with
Reformation theologies in which grace and pardon have a “unilateral” char-
acter rather than one of “exchange”. On the question of “passivity” in Calvin,
Milbank would be correct about the “first grace” of justification if justifica-
tion occurred in isolation; but according to Calvin, it is impossible to isolate
the first grace from the second—justification is distinguishable but insepara-
ble from regeneration. Even a brief look at the pastoral aspects of Calvin’s
theology confirms that the human is not “passive” in receiving this duplex
gratia. For example, in his lengthy chapter on prayer in the Institutes, Calvin
makes a number of paradoxical claims. Initially, he asserts that humans
cannot pray rightly on their own.57 Right prayer involves reverence, thanks-
giving, yielding confidence in oneself, and praying with hope.58 Never-
theless, even though prayer is God’s work—both in enabling and
responding—it is a profoundly human work as well.59 In the opening pages
of the chapter, Calvin draws repeatedly upon Romans 8, giving a trinitarian
account of the Christian experience of prayer: the Spirit enables persons to
“confidently cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ ” as the Spirit also shows us Christ, through
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96 J. Todd Billings

whom God is revealed.60 Yet Calvin insists that we should not take this
emphasis upon the Spirit’s enabling us as license for laziness. We should not
be passive in the sense that we “give over the function of prayer to the Spirit
of God, and vegetate in that carelessness to which we are all too prone”.61
Believing that the Spirit helps Christians to prayer should “by no means”
lead one to “hold back our own effort”.62
Thus, through the Spirit, the Christian is empowered for growth in real
holiness (with real effort) in the practice of prayer. Yet, Calvin is always quick
to add, the “credit” and “honor” for this improvement—for these good
works—goes completely to God. Is this a negative, “passive” anthropology,
as Milbank claims? I do not believe so. Rather than a negative anthropology,
it is a christologically-conditioned anthropology, wherein it is only through
the empowering, activating presence of God that a human can do a work
that is “good”. As with the incarnation, humanity only reaches its fulfillment
when the human is united with the divine. Calvin is insightful enough to
realize that this christologically-conditioned account of grace has a negative
corollary (“without me, you can do nothing,” John 15:5). Both the positive
and “negative” aspects of this christological principle apply to all human-
ity—through Calvin’s concept of “common grace” and the imago dei (which
entails “participation in God.”)63 Yet humanity finds fullness through faith in
Christ, in whom God and humanity are reconciled and fully united. Calvin’s
emphasis upon the powerful effects of human sin does not lead to a “nega-
tive” anthropology. Rather, his concern for alienation from God by sin is part
of a larger soteriological account that seeks to remedy what sin disrupts: the
original goodness of creation, corrupted by sin, can be restored only through
union with God, in Christ, by the Spirit.
Considering Calvin’s emphasis upon union with God in Christ through
the Spirit, how does his theology relate to the language of “participation as
deification” that Milbank utilizes in Being Reconciled? On this point also,
Calvin may have more commonality with Milbank than is generally recog-
nized. Contemporary discussions of deification and theosis are plagued by
two opposing tendencies: on the one hand, some works use a late Byzantine
standard of theosis to evaluate and polarize Western theologians such as
Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, claiming that their distance from late
Byzantine terminology leads to fundamentally deficient notions of deifica-
tion.64 On the other side, certain recent works have failed to recognize the dis-
tance that genuinely exists between late Byzantine theologies and Western
theologians who do not share their categories or terms.65 In the midst of this
discussion, Milbank presents an account of “participation as deification”
whose strengths lie precisely in his Anglican eclecticism: he is happy to glean
insights from Maximus the Confessor alongside Augustine and Thomas.
Certain aspects of Milbank’s doctrine of deification—such as his interpreta-
tion of Thomas—are questionable on historical grounds.66 Yet, the way in
which Milbank creatively draws upon the traditions of East and West is
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Milbank’s Theology of “Gift” and Calvin’s Theology of Grace 97

nevertheless promising from the systematic perspective, for it emphasizes the

genuine complementarity of theologians like Augustine and Maximus the
Confessor, while not succumbing to some less plausible attempts to make
Western theologians sound like Maximus or Gregory Palamas.67
Perhaps Milbank should consider adding Calvin to his eclectic list of the-
ologians who give an account of how “the end of the gospel” is “to render
us eventually conformable to God, and, if we may so speak, to deify us”.68
While Milbank is skeptical about claims that Luther teaches deification,69
there is good reason to take Calvin seriously on the subject. Although Calvin
has considerable distance from late Byzantine notions of theosis, he draws
deeply upon the common sources for theologies of deification: scripture and
the church fathers. In particular, he makes extensive use of the Johannine
language of union, indwelling, and ingrafting; the Pauline language of a par-
ticipation in Christ by the Spirit; and the patristic developments of this lan-
guage by Irenaeus, Augustine and Cyril of Alexandria.70 While Calvin’s
account of deification has many “Catholic” dimensions, such as the beatific
vision and the affirmation of union without assimilation between Creator-
creature, he makes a distinctive contribution in his thoroughly Pauline
notion of “gospel”. Recent research has confirmed that the book of Romans
is absolutely central for the development and logic of the Institutes.71 Calvin’s
language of “participation” is shaped by his close reading and rereading of
this book, gradually extending the language of “participation” to a wide
variety of doctrinal loci, including justification, baptism, the Lord’s Supper,
the resurrection, the incarnation, the Trinity, the atonement, the imago dei and
“participation in God”.72 Calvin’s contribution on the issue of “participation
as deification” lies in the way in which he blends the appropriation of patris-
tic developments with careful biblical exegesis. In particular, Calvin’s
strongly Pauline understanding of the gospel—and his notion of the duplex
gratia emerging from this—provides a much-needed supplement to con-
temporary theologies of deification which risk forgetting Romans 1–3 in their
enthusiasm for Romans 6 and 8.73
In developing his theology of participation, Milbank has the opportunity
to counter the externalist tendency in the language he has drawn from the
Gift discussion. Theologies of participation tend to undercut the polarities
of “unilateral” versus “reciprocal”, even “passive” versus “active”. Indeed,
although Calvin is among the “Reformation” theologians that Milbank fre-
quently opposes, his theology of grace makes the union of God and human-
ity both the original and final telos of creation; Calvin’s anthropology is not
“negative”, but christologically conditioned, affirming that the primal
human nature is fulfilled through union with God, by partaking of Christ
through the Spirit. Calvin has much in common with Milbank’s concerns in
developing a theology of “participation as deification”. Perhaps Milbank’s
theological interest in the incarnation and participation will caution him
about making the categories of Gift so central to his future theological work.
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98 J. Todd Billings

There are striking commonalities between the concerns of Milbank’s the-

ology of the Gift and Calvin’s theology of grace. Perhaps this is indicative
of a tendency of Anglo-Catholic theologians to show hostility to the Refor-
mation, all the while remaining deeply dependent upon it in their sensibil-
ities. One of these commonalities between Calvin and Anglicans like
Milbank is a profound dependence upon Augustine’s theology. Indeed, in
Being Reconciled, Milbank makes no secret of seeking to reclaim Augustine
from Reformation interpretations.74 Furthermore, in terms of his theology of
the Gift, Milbank claims that Augustine is one of his main sources.
Yet, if one views the broad theological context of Milbank’s theology of
the Gift in relation to Calvin’s theology of grace, I think there is little doubt
that Calvin is much closer in many ways to their common theological
father.75 The difference in theological context between Milbank and Calvin
emerges from different ways of doing theology and different results
obtained from these methods. I see two major aspects to this difference.
First, for Augustine and Calvin, a theology of grace is always developed
within a broad context of scriptural exegesis, whereas for Milbank this
context is thin. Second, neither Augustine nor Calvin use the notion of “gift”
in a highly schematic manner, while Milbank elevates the language of “gift”
to the level of an overarching metaphysics to explain the Trinity, grace,
ethics, and more.
Calvin’s theological method incorporated a central cry of renaissance
humanism: ad fontes, back to the sources, related both to scripture and tra-
ditional sources like the church fathers. Although there is some difference of
method between his commentaries, the Institutes, and occasional treatises,
Calvin is consistent in his approach that the first task in theology is return-
ing to the preeminent source of theology: scripture. Previous generations
of Calvin scholarship have not always understood this; sometimes they
claimed that a “central dogma” was the starting point for a deductive
“Calvinist” system developed from that doctrinal foundation.76 But recent
scholarship has shown how deeply misguided this approach to Calvin’s the-
ology is: Calvin’s theology, particularly as seen in the Institutes, is a reading
of the doctrinal loci ordered on his reading of Romans, and supplemented
over decades of painstaking work in biblical exegesis.77 The result of this
“method” is a theology that is complex and multivalent: the variety in
Calvin’s biblical and patristic appropriations of the notions of “grace”,
nature, Covenant, the Trinity, justification and sanctification and “participa-
tion” cannot be forced into highly schematic language. Yet, Milbank’s ambi-
tious project seems to do just that: to read the doctrinal loci through the
schematic structure provided by the “gift” discussion, functioning as a
“central dogma”. In contrast to Calvin, Milbank’s theology of the gift offers
rather sparse serious attention to scripture; sometimes when Milbank does
claim to have reference to scripture, he simply gives another exposition of
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Milbank’s Theology of “Gift” and Calvin’s Theology of Grace 99

Milbank’s sparse attention to scripture stands in sharp contrast to the

approaches of his own theological mentors, such as Augustine and Aquinas.
In Augustine’s most important work for Milbank’s Gift theology, De Trini-
tate, Augustine takes an expansive approach to the interpretation of scrip-
ture, carefully citing and commenting upon a vast range of scriptural
language and imagery that may relate to the doctrine of the Trinity as given
by Nicea.79 When Augustine uses the language of “gift”, it is in this larger
scriptural context, textured and shaped by Augustine’s attention to scripture
passages which seem to be supporting his constructive case, as well as those
that do not. Milbank’s account of the gift lacks this basic engagement with
scripture as the source for theology; because of this, it misses the “complex-
ifying context” that scriptural engagement provides. Aidan Nichols makes
a similar observation about Milbank and Pickstock’s appropriation of
Thomas Aquinas: “what is missing from their work . . . is the awareness that,
for Thomas, the truth delivered by sacra doctrina is above all a biblical truth”.80
Milbank’s shortcomings on this point not only distance him from Calvin, but
from Augustine and Aquinas as well.
Secondly, and related to the first point, Milbank has utterly transformed
a rather narrow tradition of speaking of the Holy Spirit as “gift” into an
overarching paradigm for his gift theology—which would have been quite
foreign even to Augustine. For Augustine, “gift” is proposed as a “name”
for the Spirit to distinguish it as a person of the Trinity, since both “Holy”
and “Spirit” are attributes which apply to the whole Godhead.81 Augustine
was alone among patristic authors in using the term “gift” with regard to
the Holy Spirit in this sense. However one evaluates the success of Augus-
tine’s attempt, he nevertheless does not make “gift” or “gift-giving” the
central or paradigmatic categories for Trinitarian metaphysics—never
speaking as Milbank does of “exchange” in the Trinity, both eternally and
ad extra, and the relations as self-giving, gift-giving. When not only the
Holy Spirit is “gift”, but also the trinitarian relations are constituted by
“exchange” and gift-giving, a peculiar exteriority seems to develop among
persons of the Trinity, potentially pushing Milbank toward a more
“social”—and speculative—model of the Trinity than he desires.82 While
Milbank’s notion of trinitarian “exchange” has precedence in Hans Urs von
Balthasar’s doctrine of kenotic self-giving takes place between all three
persons of the Trinity, von Balthasar’s notion itself is without patristic
precedent.83 Even Thomas Aquinas, who draws upon Augustine’s “gift”
language with regard to the Spirit, uses it cautiously and does not give it
a central place in trinitarian metaphysics.84 Milbank has taken an important
yet subordinate theme in Augustine (a theme even more subordinate in the
Western tradition, not to mention its near absence in the East85), and made
it into his central paradigm for thinking through the doctrines of God, cre-
ation, and ethics. In this way, he takes advantage of the utility of concepts
like “gift” and “gift-giving” at the cost of the biblical complexity and spec-
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100 J. Todd Billings

ulative modesty with which Calvin—and also Augustine—approached

these issues.
In sum, I have sought to show that there are important and perhaps sur-
prising areas of commonality between Calvin’s theology of grace and
Milbank’s emerging theology of the gift. These include the close connection
between the receiving of grace and the active life of Christian self-giving and
love; also, both seek to articulate the fulfillment of human nature in union
with God, through the Spirit, by participation in Christ. At the same time, I
have sought to contrast Calvin’s approach with Milbank’s. In comparison to
Milbank’s claim that the Gift coincides with relation, Calvin’s duplex gratia
has much greater clarity in relating divine and human agency in the recep-
tion of salvation. Moreover, rather than seeing grace as “unilateral” or “rec-
iprocal” gifts, Calvin develops a nuanced variety of biblical and patristic
teaching about God’s saving relation to humanity which cannot be captured
by the simple contrast of “unilateral” to “reciprocal”. Ultimately, Milbank’s
schematic use of “gift” categories is foreign not only to Calvin, but also to
Augustine and Aquinas. Milbank’s limitations seem to come from trying to
do too much with too little: he uses anthropological language from the gift-
giving discussion to describe a trinitarian soteriology of the “gift”—but with
insufficient conditioning of these concepts through biblical exegesis, and
inadequate apophatic modesty in making the gift scheme central to trinitar-
ian metaphysics.

1 Portions of this essay were presented at Engaging Radical Orthodoxy, a conference at Calvin
College on September 14, 2003. I am grateful to Sarah Coakley, Benjamin King, Michael
Horton and Rachel Billings for their very helpful feedback in refining this essay.
2 John Milbank, “Can a Gift Be Given? Prolegomena to a Future Trinitarian Metaphysic”,
Modern Theology, Vol. 11, no. 1 (January, 1995), pp. 119–161; John Milbank, The Word Made
Strange: Theology, Language, Culture (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), chapter
2; John Milbank, “Gregory of Nyssa: The Force of Identity” in Christian Origins, ed. L. Ayres
and G. Jones (London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 94–116; John Milbank, “The Ethics of Self-
Sacrifice”, First Things, No. 91 (March, 1999), pp. 33–38; John Milbank, “The Soul of
Reciprocity. Part One, Reciprocity Refused”, Modern Theology, Vol. 17, no. 3 (July, 2001):
pp. 335–391; John Milbank, “The Soul of Reciprocity. Part Two, Reciprocity Granted”,
Modern Theology, Vol. 17, no. 4 (October, 2001), pp. 485–507.
3 Milbank identifies Nygren’s approach to agape as a “purism” regarding the gift, “which
renders it unilateral” and is thus “over-rigorous in a self-defeating fashion”. See “Can a
Gift be Given?”, p. 132, n. 31.
4 John Milbank, Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon, (London: Routledge, 2003).
5 See the articles in note 2.
6 See Marcel Mauss, The Gift: the Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans.
W. D. Halls, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990).
7 See Jacques Derrida, Given Time, I: Counterfeit Money, trans. Peggy Kamuf, (Chicago, IL:
University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 24, emphasis added.
8 For Derrida, the gift “must remain aneconomic” and “foreign to the circle” of give and take
exchange (ibid., p. 7; also see ibid., pp. 7–13, 24–27). In contrast, Mauss’ central point about
giving is that from an anthropological perspective, gifts do exchange. While gifts may

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Milbank’s Theology of “Gift” and Calvin’s Theology of Grace 101

appear to be “free”, they always incur obligation. Thus, Mauss’ The Gift seeks to discover
the logic behind this obligation. See The Gift, especially pp. 1–18.
9 Mary Douglas (see Preface to the 1990 Norton edition of Mauss); David Graeber, Toward an
Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin Of Our Own Dreams (New York: Palgrave,
10 While aspects of Mauss’ portrait of “gift exchange” may be romanticized, Mauss is very
clear that such practices often involve violence. Milbank recognizes that a gift economy is
not necessarily a peaceful economy; thus Milbank seeks to “purify” the gift economy from
the violence that it frequently entails. See “Can a Gift be Given?”, pp. 131–133.
11 Ibid., p. 131.
12 This connection is developed by Milbank in the final chapter of Theology and Social Theory
and is also well articulated by Rowan Williams in “Sapientia and the Trinity: reflections on
De trinitate” in Collectanea Augustiniana: mélanges T. J. van Bavel, T. J. van Bavel, Bernard
Bruning, Mathijs Lamberigts, and Jozef van Heutem, eds. (Leuven: Leuven University
Press, 1990), pp. 317–332.
13 “Can a Gift be Given?”, pp. 136–137, 144–154.
14 Ibid., pp. 124, 143–137.
15 Ibid., p. 137. “Soul of Reciprocity: Part Two”, p. 504.
16 Milbank coins the term “active reception” in his essay on Gregory and Nyssa and the Gift.
See Milbank, “Gregory of Nyssa: The Force of Identity”, p. 95. The phrase is helpful in
expressing Milbank’s constructive alternative to theologies of “passive” reception, a theme
dominating his essays on the Gift.
17 “Can a Gift be Given?”, p. 137.
18 Ibid., p. 136.
19 See Milbank, “The Ethics of Self-Sacrifice”.
20 Although Milbank makes many brief references to Kant in his “gift” articles, he presents a
sustained critique in “Soul of Reciprocity: Part One”, pp. 371–384. In the first part of this
account (pp. 371–377), Milbank makes it clear that his understanding of the notions of
“interest” and “feeling” in the Groundwork is foundational for his assessment of Kant’s
ethics. Milbank then extends this account of the notion of “interest” to Kant’s aesthetics in
the Third Critique (pp. 377–382), reading the First Critique in light of the Third Critique (pp.
382–384). While my account only directly addresses Milbank’s criticism of Kant’s ethics, I
sense that his understanding of the Third Critique and the First Critique would be quite dif-
ferent if he had a more nuanced understanding of the notions of “interest” and “feeling”
in the Groundwork.
21 See Immanuel Kant, Grundlegung Zur Metaphysik Der Sitten, ed. Karl Vorländer, Philosophis-
che Bibliothek, Bd. 41 (Leipzig: Dürr, 1906), especially pp. 395–401.
22 For an account of Kant’s notion of obligation which addresses the criticisms of the Ground-
work related to mutual affection and regard, see Christine M. Korsgaard, Creating the
Kingdom of Ends (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 55–67.
23 Derrida writes that “for there to be a gift, there must be no reciprocity, return, exchange,
countergift, or debt. If the other gives me back or owes me or has to give me back what I
give him or her, there will not have been a gift” (Given Time, p. 12). Thus, Derrida must
speak of the “forgetting and gift” as “the condition of the other” because anything recog-
nized as a receiver as a gift necessarily incurs obligation (pp. 17–18). Yet, for Derrida the
obligation is precisely what the gift seeks to overcome, for obligation always implies the
nomy of law, which is inseparable from economy (p. 6).
24 See Jean-Luc Marion, “The Saturated Phenomenon” in Phenomenology and the “Theological
Turn”: The French Debate (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000), pp. 176–216.
25 For more on Marion’s non-predicative form of apophaticism, see his reading of Denys in
Jean-Luc Marion, The Idol and Distance: Five Studies (New York: Fordham University Press,
26 Milbank, “Soul of Reciprocity: Part One”, p. 352.
27 Ibid., p. 353.
28 See especially, “Can a Gift be Given?”, pp. 132, 144–154.
29 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles; John T. McNeill
ed., (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1960), 3:11:6.
30 See Institutes, 2:2:26–27.

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102 J. Todd Billings

31 With Luther, Calvin affirms that the first use of the law is to reveal our sinfulness and thus
lead to repentance; the second use of the law is to restrain evildoers in civil society. (Insti-
tutes, 2:7:6–11.) However, Calvin also teaches a third use of the law which he considers to
be primary: guidance for Christians in living a life of holiness (Institutes, 2:7:12). In Calvin’s
hands, the third use of the law makes an ethic of love, justice and equity central to sancti-
fication. See Guenther H. Haas, The Concept of Equity in Calvin’s Ethics (Waterloo, Ontario:
Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1997).
32 “Can a Gift be Given?”, p. 137.
33 Ibid., p. 136.
34 Ibid.
35 Institutes, 3:11:4–6.
36 Calvin’s use of the bilateral covenant is particularly prominent in his sermons on Deuteron-
omy. See Peter A. Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant
Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), chapter 8. While Lillback does a service
in calling attention to this bilateral material, he does not give an adequate account of how
Calvin upholds a strong view of divine agency in the midst of this emphasis upon a bilat-
eral covenant. For a more satisfactory account of how Calvin holds together the unilateral
and bilateral covenant material, see Richard A. Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies
in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition (New York: Oxford University, 2000), pp. 154ff.
37 See especially “The Soul of Reciprocity: Part One” and “The Soul of Reciprocity: Part Two”.
38 My own translation of “et quemadmodum unus est in patre, ita nos unum in ipso fiamus”.
Sermon on 1 Samuel, 2:27–36 found in Ioannis Calvini opera quae supersunt omnia from Corpus
Reformatorum, G. Baum, E. Cunitz, E. Reuss, and E. Alfred, eds., (Brunsvigae: C. A.
Schwetschke, 1863–1900), 29:353.
39 Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:24 in Calvin’s Commentaries, trans. Calvin Translation
Society, John King et al. eds., (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1845/1981). See also Ioannis Calvini
opera quae supersunt omnia, 49:487.
40 “Perichoresis” is not a term that Calvin uses, but Butin uses it to describe the mutual
indwelling and interpenetration between the divine and the human in Calvin’s trinitarian
theology. See Philip Butin, Revelation, Redemption, and Response: Calvin’s Trinitarian Under-
standing of the Divine-Human Relationship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp.
42, 82–83.
41 While the first part of this essay responds to the use of key terms such as “passivity”, “uni-
lateral”, and “reciprocity” in Milbank’s early gift essays, one should note that he contin-
ues to use these terms extensively in Being Reconciled. Thus, although the second part of
this essay interacts with other aspects of Being Reconciled, my critique of the earlier work
applies to Being Reconciled as well.
42 Being Reconciled sets forth Milbank’s constructive project to be continued in later books
expositing a theology of the gift. In a forthcoming essay, “Alternative Protestantism”,
Milbank explicitly interacts with Reformed theology and Calvin. However, this essay
speaks in terms of the broad aims of Radical Orthodoxy rather than the specific concerns
of a theology of the “gift”. Since a general account of the relation between Radical Ortho-
doxy and Reformed theology is beyond this scope of this essay, I will only draw upon
“Alternative Protestantism” where it clarifies Milbank’s defense of his Gift theology. See
John Milbank, “Alternative Protestantism” in Creation, Covenant and Participation: Radical
Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition, James K. A. Smith and James H. Olthius, eds., (Grand
Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005).
43 Adolf von Harnack, History of Dogma, trans. James Miller, (London: Williams & Norgate,
1897), Vol. 3, p. 165. Gerald Bonner, “Augustine’s Conception of Deification”, Journal of The-
ological Studies, Vol. 37, no. 2 (October, 1986), pp. 369–386; Gerald Bonner, “Deification,
Divinization” in Augustine through the Ages, Allan D. Fitzgerald, ed., (Grand Rapids, MI:
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), pp. 265–266.
44 On the importance of identifying the differences between the various theologies which
claim to teach “deification”, see Gosta Hallosten “The Concept of Theosis in Recent
Research—the Need for a Clarification” and J. Todd Billings, “United to God through
Christ: Assessing Calvin on the Question of Deification”. Both essays are forthcoming in
Partakers of the Divine Nature: Deification/Theosis in the Christian Tradition, James Pain,
Michael Christensen, and Boris Jakim, eds.

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Milbank’s Theology of “Gift” and Calvin’s Theology of Grace 103

45 See Edmund Newey, “The Form of Reason: Participation in the Work of Richard Hooker,
Benjamin Whichcote, Ralph Cudworth and Jeremy Taylor”, Modern Theology, Vol.18, no. 1
(January, 2002), pp. 1–26. Unfortunately, Newey tends to caricature Calvin and “reforma-
tion” theology, so he does not see how Hooker and the Cambridge Platonists exhibit con-
tinuity with Calvin precisely in the language of participation which Newey traces.
46 See especially Newman’s Christmas Day sermon on “The Incarnation” in Parochial and Plain
Sermons (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1987) pp. 242–250.
47 Milbank, Being Reconciled, p. 138.
48 Ibid., pp. 7–12.
49 Milbank repeatedly points to the “Lutherans” as the example of this distortion, but also
uses language indicating that this critique applies more generally to common Reformation
and post-Reformation readings of Augustine. See Being Reconciled, pp. 9–10, n. 2; p. 214.
50 The addition is lengthy, but the first part is particularly significant: “I say that the will is
effaced; not in so far as it is will, for in man’s conversion what belongs to his primal nature
remains entire.” Institutes, 2:3:6.
51 The Bondage and Liberation of the Will: A Defence of the Orthodox Doctrine of Human Choice
against Pighius, trans. Graham I. Davies, A. N. S. Lane, ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996),
p. 212.
52 “It was the spiritual life of Adam to remain united and bound to his Maker.” Institutes,
53 See Bondage and Liberation of the Will references in Ioannis Calvini opera quae supersunt omnia,
2:263, 264, 284, 290, 4:331, 5:361, 6:381. Also see “Calvin’s Use of Aristotle” in Lane’s intro-
duction to Bondage and Liberation of the Will, pp. xxiv–xxvi.
54 Institutes, 2:2:1.
55 See Bondage and Liberation of the Will in Ioannis Calvini opera quae supersunt omnia, 2:259,
56 In “Alternative Protestantism”, Milbank does recognize a point of commonality with
Calvin on the notion that true freedom must be divinely empowered by the Spirit. See
“Alternative Protestantism”, p. 7.
57 Institutes, 3:20:1.
58 Institutes, 3:20:4, 8, 11. Calvin articulates a set of “rules” to right prayer in Institutes,
59 See especially Institutes, 3:20:4–5.
60 Institutes, 3:20:1.
61 Institutes, 3:20:3.
62 Institutes, 3:20:5, emphasis added.
63 Institutes, 2:2:1.
64 For an influential approach undergirding many East versus West accounts of deification,
see Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St.
Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976), pp. 130–34, 96–216. For the use of Gregory Palamas
“against” Thomas Aquinas, see Eric D. Perl, “St. Gregory Palamas and the Metaphysics of
Creation”, Dionysius, Vol. 14 (December, 1990), pp. 105–130. For an evaluation of Calvin by
late Byzantine standards, see the appendix of Joseph P. Farrell, Free Choice in St. Maximus
the Confessor (South Canan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1989).
65 This is the tendency of much of the Finnish school on Luther. See Carl E. Braaten and Robert
W. Jenson, Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther (Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdmans, 1998); Tuomo Mannermaa, Der Im Glauben Gegenwärtige Christus: Rechtfertigung
Und Vergottung Zum Ökumenischen Dialog (Hannover: Lutherisches Verlagshaus, 1989).
However, Reinhard Flogaus does seek to differentiate Luther more carefully from Palamas
while still affirming that Luther teaches deification. See Reinhard Flogaus, Theosis Bei
Palamas Und Luther: Ein Beitrag Zum Ökumenischen Gespräch (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck &
Ruprecht, 1997). For an account which overestimates the commonality between Calvin and
Palamas, see Joseph C. McLelland, “Sailing to Byzantium” in The New Man: An Orthodox
and Reformed Dialogue, John Meyendorff and Joseph C. McLelland eds., (New Brunswick,
NJ: Agora Books, 1973), pp. 10–25.
66 Milbank’s account of Aquinas on deification, for example, is Aquinas read through a dis-
tinctly Neoplatonic lens, with contemporary constructive concerns at the forefront. As
Christine Helmer notes about Truth in Aquinas, the most charitable (and helpful) way to

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104 J. Todd Billings

engage this approach is frankly to admit that aspects of it are historically questionable,
while nevertheless engaging the contemporary theological concerns that such a reading
raises. For both historical questioning and constructive engagement with Milbank’s reading
of Aquinas, see Christine Helmer’s review, “Truth in Aquinas”, International Journal of Sys-
tematic Theology, Vol. 5, no. 1 (March, 2003), pp. 93–95; Aidan Nichols’ review, “Truth in
Aquinas”, Theology, Vol. 104, no. 820 (July/August, 2001), pp. 288–289.
67 Both the Finnish School (see note 41 and 65) and Anna Williams tend to overestimate the
similarities between Western conceptions of deification and late Byzantine notions of
theosis. See A. N. Williams, The Ground of Union: Deification in Aquinas and Palamas (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1999). See also Nonna Verna Harrison’s review, “The
Ground of Union: Deification in Aquinas and Palamas”, St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly,
Vol. 45, no. 4 (2001), pp. 418–421.
68 See Calvin’s commentary on 2 Peter 1:4 in Calvin’s Commentaries and in Ioannis Calvini opera
quae supersunt omnia, 55:446.
69 This can be inferred from Milbank’s comments on Luther’s “Scotist” metaphysic. See Being
Reconciled, p. 214, n21. In “Alternative Protestantism”, Milbank expresses uncertainty about
the extent to which Calvin shares this metaphysic with Luther, but Milbank thinks Calvin
is probably less of a “Scotist” than Luther. “Alternative Protestantism”, pp. 6–7.
70 For more on these biblical and patristic elements of Calvin’s teaching on deification, see
J. Todd Billings, “United to God through Christ: Assessing Calvin on the Question of
71 Richard A. Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin, chapter 7.
72 There are many examples of participation language applied to a variety of loci. Here are a
few examples from the Institutes on the topics listed above: justification (3:17:11), baptism
(4:16:2), the Lord’s Supper (4:17:10), the resurrection (3:3:9), the incarnation (2:12:5), Trinity
(4:1:3), the atonement (2:16:12), the imago dei (2:2:1), and “participation in God” (1:13:14).
73 Contemporary discussion of deification/theosis has frequently followed Lossky in seeking
to avoid the “negative” tendencies of western accounts of sin and grace. However, rather
than giving an alternative, fully developed hamartology (in dialogue with Paul’s strong
language of Romans 1–3), contemporary accounts frequently move quickly on to the more
comfortable language of adoption, participation and indwelling (Romans 6 and 8). In con-
trast, Calvin combines a strong harmatology with a strong theology of participation.
74 See especially Being Reconciled, pp. 7–12.
75 Some readers may wonder whether a sola scriptura theologian like Calvin would think it is
worth the effort to argue that he is closer to a father like Augustine than another theologi-
cal interlocutor. Yet Calvin clearly did. Calvin’s chief burden in Bondage and Liberation of
the Will is not a scriptural defense of his position, but an argument that his account is a
better appropriation of Augustine and other fathers than Pighius is able to give.
76 See Muller’s account of the “central dogma theories” in Calvin scholarship in chapters 4
and 5 of After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition (Oxford; New York:
Oxford University Press, 2003).
77 Muller chronicles this change in Calvin scholarship in The Unaccommodated Calvin and After
Calvin, Part 1.
78 For example, when Milbank claims to exposit Paul in Being Reconciled, pp. 7–9, he never
returns to the language or the text of Paul but keeps with the language of Augustine.
79 See especially Augustine’s extensive review of relevant passages of scripture in Books 2–4
of De Trinitate.
80 Nichols, “Truth in Aquinas”, p. 289.
81 In Book 5, chapter 3 of De Trinitate, Augustine seeks to articulate distinctive names for each
person of the Trinity which express their eternal relation to the Godhead. The Son’s rela-
tionship to the Father is one of eternal relation, for the Son is eternally begotten of the
Father. What are we to say about the Spirit? The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the
Son (filioque), and is called the “gift of God” (Acts 8:20). Thus, Augustine proposes “gift”
as a possible name for the Spirit to express this eternal relationship of procession.
82 In The Word Made Strange, Milbank calls Moltmann’s social trinitarianism an “effectively
tritheistic” approach (p. 180). Milbank does not want to advocate a “social” trinitarianism,
and Milbank’s trinitarian theology of the Gift is quite distant from Moltmann; yet, the
notion of “exchange” and self-giving between the persons of the Trinity posits a mode of

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Milbank’s Theology of “Gift” and Calvin’s Theology of Grace 105

relation with a greater externalist tendency than traditional notions of “generation” and
“procession”. In addition, by adding “exchange” to the modes of relation in the inner-
Triune life, Milbank’s move has a speculative character that pushes the boundaries of
apophatic modesty.
83 See Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, trans. Graham
Harrison (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1988), Vol. 3, pp. 515–523 and Vol. 4, pp.
84 See Summa Theologica, Vol. 1, Pt. 1., Q. 38, Art. 1 and 2. Also see Yves Cognar’s, I Believe in
the Holy Spirit, trans. David Smith (New York: Seabury Press, 1983), Vol. 1, p. 90.
85 See Cognar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Vol. 3, pp. 84–88. An important reason for the near-
absence in the East of using the name “Gift” to express the Spirit’s eternal relation to the
Godhead is the Augustinian connection of the Spirit as “Gift” with the filioque clause. For
Augustine, the term “Gift” is appropriate because the Spirit proceeds from the Father and
the Son.

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