Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life.

By Walter Cardinal Kasper, Paulist Press, Pp. 288, $29.95.

Review by Rob Price

“It’s all about grace,” tweeted an Episcopal priest, summarizing the radical law/gospel hermeneutic that has recently increased in popularity among mainline preachers from Mockingbird to Nadia Bolz-Weber. “Grace” stands as the great shibboleth in this neo-Lutheran discourse, providing an interpretive key that can be used in the service of moderate Republicanism and/or radically progressive sexuality. The radical understanding of “grace” can have surprising results. In one law/gospel sermon I heard on 2 Advent, St. John the Baptist was presented as a preacher of “law” because he demanded “fruit” (those nasty “works!”), while Jesus came along to preach “grace,” thank goodness. Exeunt the Baptist. Perhaps Herod was a Lutheran monarch in his heart.

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In addition to both flattening and bending the Scriptures and rendering their moral challenge mute, another critical weakness of this hermeneutic is that it makes “grace” carry a weight that it cannot scripturally bear, even in St. Paul’s writings. Granted, charis/grace is a key part of the apostle’s theology, as is agape/love: but the word, itself, is used nearly as rarely. Most often, “grace” is used by St. Paul to mean not a status conferred upon or applied to the Christian, but rather a power that flows from Jesus Messiah through the Christian in order to do ministry. A key example would be 2 Cor. 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” This has nothing to do with “justification” but instead with God enabling St. Paul to carry out his ministry to the Gentiles in the midst of his personal suffering.

A second problem is the “Two Kingdom” trope in Lutheran thought, where God rules through law and through grace. “Grace” is trapped in the turgid waters of the believer’s inner subjectivity and seems to die like a fish when it lands on the solid ground of life in the world. “What then shall we do?” seems a non sequitur in the world of radical “grace.” Practical ethical matters and political arrangements are the domain of law – in particular, the laws enacted on behalf of political conservatism or rejected on behalf of identity-based individualism. Law/gospel preaching offers little in the way of theological resources for resistance to state power, be it monarchical or majoritarian.

With Cardinal Kasper’s illuminating and eminently readable monograph, mercy holds together God’s own character, the Word of the Lord in both Testaments, and our own practical discipleship in the world.

Because God as Holy Trinity is relational, only a relational term like mercy – rather than a transactional one like grace – can reflect God’s self-revealed character, his “free and gracious turning toward the human person with care” (45). In a penetrating exposition of Exodus 3:14, Kasper notes that Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig translate the Divine Name as “I will be present as the one who will be there.” In the key moment of divine self-disclosure, the narrative reveals God’s identity not as a being, itself, but as one who acts in history (47). The grand sweep of the Old Testament shows God acting again and again to create a space for human blessing and flourishing and a deliverance from all that would oppose it. Thus, mercy is central to God’s character both as it is revealed and in its inscrutable otherness, since such abundance, peace, and goodness breaking out in the midst of Israel/humanity’s continued rejection of it is a possibility that remains inconceivable in human terms and capabilities. This total freedom to respond mercifully is the Old Testament’s witness to God’s grace as St. Paul would know it.

Kasper then interprets the Gospels to show that the work of Jesus, bound directly to his person as the Messiah, is essentially one of mercy: God’s splangthna (Mark 1:41), his compassion, is now expanded to all people in an ultimate (eschatological) manner (67). After announcing the arrival of the Kingdom, Jesus immediately enacts mercy in healing, deliverance from evil, forgiveness, and restoration from death. In his active, personal presence with and for God’s people, Jesus reveals God’s perfection precisely as his mercy (Matt. 5:48, Luke 6:36). At every turn, the cry for mercy and Jesus’s granting of it show the core of a dynamic personal relationship with the Father that the Son offers as a gift – a grace – of the Holy Spirit.

However, mercy is not only the characteristic of the relationship enjoyed by the believer with God. Jesus commands, “Go, and do likewise.” The love of God expressed in acts of mercy is neither purely subjective nor an abstraction but is to be shared and “gauged according to the concrete suffering and needy person who meets us on the way” (70). Jesus reveals the life of mercy to be a kenotic life (for himself and his followers): that is, a life for others. The biblical message of mercy, embodied in the self-offering of Jesus on the cross, which justifies us by grace, breaks us free of our subjectivity and enables us to be responsible once again for our grateful response to God. Mercy, then, becomes not just a quality of God but also a way of life for his faithful people.

Mercy as kenosis provides the link with God’s love and trinitarian life. Love as real and sacrificial gift of oneself is the life of God revealed in the Trinity. The pouring out of love in creation and Jesus’ pouring out of himself on the cross place mercy in God’s own heart: “Mercy is the externally visible and effectively active aspect of the essence of God, who is love” (88). Additionally, mercy is revealed as the source of reality, itself, the “ground of creation and of all salvation history” (97). When Christians adopt mercy as the primary means of proclaiming the Gospel, “Our neighbor experiences something of the miracle of God’s royal dominion” (133). Mercy as love-in-action is the unique witness of Christians, whom Kasper cautions to remember that every merely human ideology has its courageous martyrs to “truth” (135). Suffering love expressed in mercy is what Jesus has given his disciples to share with the world. The Church is revealed as both the object of divine mercy and its source in the world through sacrament (especially the Eucharist and reconciliation) and ministry.

Kasper’s treatment ends with the Church and the world precisely as arenas in which mercy can be effectively expressed. Given Cardinal Kasper’s renowned tension with Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), his treatment of “Ecclesial Praxis and the Culture of Mercy” and “Mercy and Canon Law” take on deeper resonances: the reader wonders if one is getting some oblique insight into a personal controversy (with Kasper’s book endorsed by Pope Francis on the cover!). However, his words ring true for any church and its role in offering mercy to a world thirsting for it. In foregrounding the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation, he reminds us that “no psychologist or counselor can say ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘Go in peace’” (166). And he admonishes, “A church without charity and without mercy would no longer be the church of Jesus Christ” (158). His chapter, “For a Culture of Mercy” takes on the Church’s witness in the context of the European modern welfare state, which he observes is at the point of collapsing under its own weight. Although modern welfare states can implement economic arrangements that provide a kind of “institutional solidarity,” they run the risk of being “soulless systems” that forget the greatest resource is not land, technology, or capital but the human person (184, 181, 187). American readers can certainly find resources here for applying mercy to our own political and economic culture in an attempt to make the life that Christians learn in the Church more porous with the one they lead in the world.

Mercy provides catholic Anglicans a way to challenge our Protestant brethren with a hermeneutic that is grounded throughout the witness of Scripture (including St. Paul, especially if one reads “grace” as an aspect God’s merciful response to the human condition), is firmly rooted in theological reflections on the Trinity (Kasper especially leans on St. Augustine), and dynamically connects the relationship of the believer to God in Christ with the relationship that disciples are called to share with their neighbors and the political arrangements that are most conducive to human flourishing. God’s mercy triumphs over all.

The Very Rev. Rob Price is Dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas.

About The Author

The Very Rev. Robert (Rob) Price is Dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas, Texas.

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David Svihel

I can appreciate the author of this review’s concern with certain forms of neo-Lutheranism and its flattening “law/gospel” hermeneutic, but to imply that said neo-Lutheranism represents “the Protestant” understanding of grace vs a more robustly biblical and catholic Anglican response is equally simplistic. If indeed the two options are the neo-Lutheran position or a ‘catholic’ Anglican position (catholic as defined by the Living Church) then by all means let’s all be catholic Anglicans. But to frame the debate in this way is to sell Lutheranism and by extension the Reformation short. The Reformers saw themselves as catholic and biblical in… Read more »