KANT ON GRACE: A REPLY TO HIS CRITICS
It has become almost a commonplace in theological circles that despite the Augustinian echoes sounded by his doctrine of radical evil and his discussion of the need for divine forgiveness in his Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone, Kant's understanding of salvation remains through and through Pelagian. Such was the verdict of Karl Barth; more recently, Gordon E. Michalson has made the charge that, ‘Kant's conception of grace and divine aid reintroduces an obviously Pelagian element based on human effort and merit’. Michalson has noted further that ‘if the implicit point of a Kantian view of morality and religion is to equate salvation with the individual achievement of virtue, then there seems to be little role left for a heteronomous grace or divine act to play’. And in a similar vein, Nicholas Wolterstorff has argued that on Kant's scheme God is morally required to forgive the person who has altered her fundamental maxim for the good; salvation is thus understood in terms of a system of rights – that is, it is something that the moral individual can expect as that which is her due. It is something that she merits. Wolterstorff reads Kant's project as ‘probing the implications of our human rights and obligations’, and argues that
If we have a moral claim on someone's doing something, then for that person to do that is not for the person to act graciously, but for the person to grant what is due to us, it is to act justly, not graciously. … Thus Kant cannot have it both ways: he cannot hold that we can expect God's forgiveness, since God's failure to forgive would violate the moral order of rights and obligations, and also hold that God's granting forgiveness is an act of grace on God's part. … God must be understood on the Kantian scheme as required to forgive. Of course this means that a gap begins to open between Christianity, on the one hand, and Kant's rational religion, on the other.
Against those who would dismiss Kant's project on the grounds that it is Pelagian, I hope to show that an analysis of the deep structure of Kant's views on divine justice and grace shows them not to conflict with an authentically Christian understanding of these concepts. To the contrary, Kant's analysis of them helps us to understand the implications of the Christian understanding of grace. An unfolding of these implications will also uncover the intrinsic relations that must hold between God's justice and his grace.
In the course of my argument I will show that Kant works with at least three different concepts of grace, all of them operating on distinct levels. Getting clear on what these concepts are and how they operate is of decisive significance if we are to understand correctly Kant's stand on divine aid. Accordingly, the paper will be organized into three parts. In my first section I deal with Kant's general conception of grace. An in-depth analysis of this most general notion should reveal why Kant is not Pelagian. In the second part of the paper I identify two more particular concepts of grace. While the general description still applies to both of them, they are distinguishable from one another in important ways. Not taking account of the differences between the two will make it very difficult to understand Kant's project in the Religion coherently. In fact, it is because the differences between the two concepts have been ignored that commentators such as Gordon Michalson have principally viewed the Religion as a failed attempt to weave together two world views, that of Bible and that of the Enlightenment. While I distinguish between these two concepts in my second section, there I focus on the one which I identify as practically useful. The third section is devoted to an investigation of Kant's understanding of the last of these concepts.