Charis: pagan and Christian

Peter Leithart passed on J.W. Hewitt’s contrast between Christian and ancient pagan concepts of the Greek word charis. Greeks and Romans believed that people could relate to the gods in the same way that they did to other people, and thus worship of the gods meant that the gods would “make return for worship.”

On the other hand,

Christianity cannot accept “the thought of any obligation of god to man for services received.”  He adds, “Do whatever you may in the way of service to God, you cannot earn his thanks, any more than the servant who serves his master at meat expects thanks therefor. With our best endeavors we are still unprofitable servants and we cannot earn charis from God,  in the sense of gratitude or thanks. What we do receive from God is charis in quite another and quite opposite sense – grace, something unearned and unearnable.”

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One comment

  1. “χάρις” or “grace” really means “kindness” or “bestowal” as in “you graced me with your presence.” It’s concrete, usually quite specific, like “graced me with your presence”, rather than being this abstract “favorably disposed” that often gets touted in Protestant-Catholic religious polemics. There is a sense of height, which is where the sense of freedom comes from (that is, most Protestant-influenced definitions use the word “free gift” or “free X” to translate the word, but this anachronistically imports Protestant-Catholic polemics into a scene where they don’t belong, and in which something else is happening); the sense I’ve always seen is that the bestowal comes down the social pyramid. The verb form is “χαρίζομαι”, which usually just means “kindly bestow”. (See p.778 of the smaller Liddell & Scott, also known as the Little Scott.) Thus, it’s closely related to “δῶρον” in Ephesians, &c. It shares a root with “χαρά” (joy) and “χαίρω” (gladness), which look like they are connected with reception of this bestowal. Our “Eucharist” comes from “εὐχαριστέω”, which gets translated as “thanksgiving” sometimes, but which, etymologically, clearly looks like “well-bestowed”: again, the pyramid of the social hierarchy expects gratitude from inferiors for what is bestowed out of the generosity of superiors, so that “thanksgiving” or “gratitude” is what is expected of inferiors who have been “well-bestowed”. The “gifts” of the Holy Spirit are not “δῶρα” (not anywhere that I can remember) but “χαρίσματα” (note the word “χάρις”, again). It’s a patronage relationship. The language from the ancient world is shot through with this kind of social-pecking-order stuff.

    Of course, for many people who have certain ideas about grace that look like a long-degraded bumper-sticker armchair form of what Luther and Calvin actually wrote, and who are not familiar with their mediaeval sources, the word “χάρις” is often taken to mean this abstract disposition of “favor”, as though it merely indicated the general comportment of the giver, rather than an act of bestowal; pagan Greco-Roman religion gets mapped onto Catholicism, or a caricature of Catholicism, and then this idea of grace becomes contrasted with that. In the _Iliad_, however, the gifts of the gods are simply “laid on” human beings, who do not and could not have asked for them. Saying that grace is free (in Christianity) or that it’s asked for as part of an exchange (in paganism) is a false dichotomy that maps Protestant-Catholic polemics onto the ancient world. The gods found things, set things in motion, lay gifts on humanity without humanity asking for it: the _Genius_ of Rome lays a destiny on Rome that she does not ask for. There are things the Greeks asked for from the gods, blessings sought through sacrifice and prayer; likewise, there are things that the early Christians asked for in prayer, namely, _grace_: in 2 Corinthians 1, “χάρισμα” is hoped for in response to prayer. The gods take initiative in paganism, and respond to the requests of their votaries; the Christian God takes initiative in the sending of the Son and the Spirit, and responds to the requests of his votaries.

    Evaluating what I just wrote via the historical work in the TDNT would be a worth project sometime.

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