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Nature, Supernature, and Grace

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Underlying different doctrines of justification, and inseparable from them, are different notions of grace. The historical issues have been ably summarized by Roger Haight in his 1979 book, The Experience and Language of Grace.

Haight points out that doctrines of grace have differed partly because the reality of grace is being explored in different contexts. For Augustine, for instance, grace is worked out in the context of questions about sin, freedom, the will, etc., while in Aquinas grace is being examined in an ontological context that employs the categories of Aristotelian philosophy. For Aquinas, the pole at the other end of the spectrum from grace was not “sinEbut “nature.E Luther, more Augustinian than Thomist, works out his doctrine of grace is a radically “existentialEcontext. The clashes that result from these different contexts are well captured by the example of Luther’s famous claim that human beings are simul iustus et peccator. By this formula, Luther was giving expression to the experiential reality that believer both stand in the favor of God AND continue to sin. For Aquinas, this simul is simply impossible, since iustus and peccator are ontological categories; one either has grace or one does not, and there is no possibility of a combination of the two (p. 72).

Differences concerning the character of grace also depend in significant measure on how nature is understood. Augustine’s conception of nature was fluid and historical, concrete and existential: “For him, human nature usually stands for what human beings are at any given period of historyE(p. 56). Adam’s nature was pure and holy; fallen nature is corrupt; eschatologically, we have restored and fulfilled natures. What counts as definitively human is not static and fixed. For Aristotle, whose presence shadows the scholastics, “nature is the permanent principle of human being or being human; persons are human persons because of their nature of being human and this cannot change substantiallyE(p. 58). Nature is a principle of operation as well, with an inherent teleology, but a teleology proportionate to the preexisting capacities and limits of the nature involved. Scholastics using Aristotelian categories believed that man’s final telos is union with God or the vision of God. But this creates the dilemma of scholastic nature/grace or nature/supernature discussions: If nature is the fixed and closed reality that Aristotle says it is, how can man reach a telos that transcends his nature? As E. L. Mascall points out in his 1970-71 Gifford Lectures, published under the title The Openness of Being, the notion of the supernatural developed as a way of protecting the gratuity of grace (p. 151). If man has no inherent natural capacity for reaching the final end for which he is created, then that end must be a sheer gift from God. If there is some inherent capacity for the visio Dei, then it does not appear that the visio is wholly gratuitous. But if there is NO capacity of the vision of God, then the realm of grace/supernatural appears to be purely “externalEor “extrinsicEto what man naturally is. Grace appears not so much to elevate or perfect nature as simply to replace nature with a different (super)nature.

This problem arises almost completely from false and unbiblical assumptions about creation. The whole notion that nature is closed is a fundamental denial of creation ex nihilo, which means, if it means anything, that the creation is completely dependent upon the Creator, which in turn means that the creation exists only by virtue of Someone outside the creation. Created existence is thus, by definition, OPEN existence. This is what Mascall means by the “openness of being,Eand he expresses this neatly in a discussion of the meaning of the Creator-creature distinction: “Sometimes we are told that God is infinite and man is finite, sometimes that God is das ganz Anderes, the ‘wholly other,Eand both these assertions are true. They neglect, however, the basic fact in which the mutual otherness of God and man consists, namely that man is totally dependent for his existence on the incessant creative activity of the self-existent God. And the importance of this . . . is that, while it involves the greatest conceivable contrast between God and man, it simultaneously places them in the most intimate connection.E This “extrinsecism of natureEentails, Mascall argues, an extrinsecist understanding of grace: “it is not, as I see it, logically possible to hold that man is raised by God to a supernatural union with him and to hold at the same time that on the natural level man is entirely isolated from God.E And he points out that the two extrincesims often work together (p. 150). The whole problematic also assumes a degree of autonomy in the original created nature of man, some notion that he has “natural capacitiesEthat are somehow something other than gifts from God. Those natural capacities function as a limit on what man may become. Again, this is radically at odds with the biblical notion of creation, which says that man’s “capacityE(both in the sense of “abilityEand the sense of “volumeE is entirely dependent on God, and in no way constitutes a limit on God. As God pours His glory into His people throughout all eternity, there will never be a moment when we can say “Full; I can’t take any more.E Nor will there be a moment when there is no more to pour in, but rather there will always forever be an infinite reservoir of glory yet to be bestowed.

I’ve strayed from Haight; let me return. One of his most helpful discussions is about AquinasEviews on grace. Aquinas differs from both Augustine and Lombard in his understanding of the character of grace. Augustine sees grace as “a divine force, power or influence within persons, reordering their nature and enabling them to effect the good. Grace corrects nature and restores it to what it should beE(p. 57). Similarly, Lombard said that grace is the Holy Spirit is divine love. Grace is nothing but God Himself dynamically at work in us. Against this, Aquinas posed a dilemma: “If human acts of charity do not flow from and through an immanent and infused virtue within a person, the virtue of charity, then they will be the result of a natural virtue and will not surpass nature.E That is, the power to do good must come from outside the person, must be something more than natural capacity. On the other hand, if Lombard is right and the Spirit is the one producing the good acts in a person, then the acts are “neither voluntary nor meritorious acts; in fact, they will not be the acts of the person at all strictly speakingE(p. 60). From ThomasEAristotelian perspective, Lombard deprives acts of love of their personal character, and does violence to human freedom. This is not persuasive. If the Reformed doctrine of concurrence is correct (which I believe), then there would, on this argument, be no personal acts at all. Thomas' argument (if Haight has it right) appears to assume that only acts of a certain degree of autonomy can quality as personal acts.

In place of the notion that grace simply is the Spirit, Thomas posited that grace is a created habitus. A habitus “is an interior quality and permanent disposition of the soul. It is not an action or a movement; it is an immanent principle of movement and action.E Just as we have natural habits and dispositions, so also we can have “infused habitsEthat propel us to good works (p. 59). For Thomas, the idea of habitus protects the gratuity of grace (the habitus is given by God) and yet ensures that the acts of the person are really acts of the person, and he is not reduced to a sock puppet of the Spirit. Thus, for Thomas grace simply is an infused habitus, which elevates nature toward its supernatural end.

Several other points in Haight’s account of Thomas a worth noting. First, grace is a quality and accident rather than a substance: “Technically grace is a quality modifying the human spirit as a form or habit or disposition. One must be very careful here not to allow the imagination to make grace into a being. It is not something. Rather it makes human being be or exist in a different way. Grace, by modifying the spirit, makes a person exist differentlyE(p. 62). Second, grace is created; for Thomas, created grace is the same as elevating grace or habitual grace. Later scholasticism distinguished between this created grace and the uncreated grace that is the power of God Himself. (More on this below.) Third, for Thomas, grace is a new nature. As Thomas himself puts it, the habitus infused is “a gratuitous capacity supplementing the capacity of his nature . . . to perform and will the supernatural goodE(quoted p. 63). He claims too that ThomasEnotion of grace is supernatural: “The idea of the supernatural depends on a concept of nature that is closed to the end of human existence promised in Christianity. Thus one cannot escape, in Aquinas at least, the idea of something that must be added to natureE(p. 63). At this point, I have strong reservations about Haight’s portrait of Thomas. He makes glancing references to de Lubac, but the nouvelle theologie does not seem to have penetrated his account of Thomas very much. I’m not at all sure that Thomas would disagree with my criticisms of “capacityEand “limitEabove. In Thomas, habitual grace is not a self-operating principle, as if it were a deposit in the soul that God leaves to run on its own. On the contrary, the habitus is a mode of participation in God, in His goodness in particular. Yet “Because the divine life of God in human beings is not natural to them, it is not part of a person’s substantial nature. It can only be something accidental and not essential to us, and so Aquinas emphasizes that grace is an accidental form in the soulE(p. 65).

Haight offers some judicious criticisms of Aquinas and of scholastic theologies of grace in general. They tend to be “divorced from experienceE(p. 70). As an example, he cites ThomasEnotion of conversion, where Thomas distinguishes various kinds and operations of grace on a purely logical basis in such a way that the actual lived experience of conversion is obscured (one is reminded of some versions of the Reformed ordo). Further, he questions whether ontological categories can capture the mystery of grace (p. 71). Finally, he rejects the notion that the supernatural or grace is something added onto nature from the outside. As a result, in scholasticism, “grace seems irrelevant to human existence in this world precisely to the extent that it is supernatural, and the question arises of why human beings in their strictly human nature should not be indifferent to it. Moreover, if the very sharp distinction between what is natural and supernatural slides into a separation between these two orders, other separations naturally follow: between religious life and temporal ‘naturalElife; between the Church and the world; between salvation history and the rest of world historyE(p. 72-73). He closes by noting that “the validity of this supernaturalist language of grace . . . is dependent on the naturalism it presupposes. Once a closed system of natures with immanent and proportioned goals gives way to one in which nature and human existence are seen as radically open, to an indefinite future and even an infinite goal, the concept of the supernatural may be discarded even as the notion of utter gratuity must be retainedE(p. 74-75).

Back to created grace: Mascall discusses the history of the concept, emphasizing as Haight does that the purpose is (for someone like Bonaventure) to insist that good dispositions and good works are not the result of inherent human capacities but gifts from God; and to make it clear that the love of God changes the object of love. For Bonaventure, “the disposition, the created habitus, is the result of the presence of the God of love.E He puts it paradoxically: “habere est haberi.E This intriguingly undermines part of the original rationale for the notion of created habitus: Part of the point was to ensure that our dispositions and acts are genuinely ours, but if the “havingEof the disposition is a matter of “being hadEor “being possessed,Ethen in what sense is the disposition still “mineE In any case, Mascall also points to some of the more serious negative consequences: Habitus underwrote a doctrine of merit, since it ensured that good works were in some sense the works of the man himself; and habitus suggested that God was separated from His creation by a great gulf that is bridged by the intermediary of created grace (p. 226; I wonder, not for the first time, how much of the deviance of medieval doctrines of grace arises from a defective or underdeveloped pneumatology, and then wonder what would have happened if the schism of 1054 had never occurred). Mascall also cites the argument that the real problems with the notion of created grace arise in the late medieval period, when nominalism separates Creator and creature, and begins to treat the habitus as a genuine intermediary entity: “The consequence was that, in order to rule out Pelagianism, Luther rejected the very notion which had been originally introduced for that precise purposeE(pp. 226-227).

In modern Roman Catholic theology, Rahner was one of the chief writers to reflect on these questions, and Mascall provides a lucid summary of Rahner’s essays. Rahner’s position on the nature/grace issue is summarized in four propositions: 1) man must have a real potential for grace, and must be created with that potency; “the capacity for the God of self-bestowing personal Love is the central and abiding existential of man as he really is.E 2) Man must be able to receive this love as a free gift, so that this real potential is also a supernatural reality. Hence Rahner’s notion of a “supernatural existential.E 3) Nature, in its contrast to supernatural, is a mere “Restbegrieff,Ea “remainder-concept,Ethat does not exist in concrete reality since the human being we actually know is always the human being as already loved by God. 4) Man’s nature has an openness to the supernatural, yet this openness is never simply identical with the inner dynamism of human nature: “the scholastic concept of nature as applied to man has owed too much to the model of what is sub-human.E Mascall, despite some reservations about Rahner’s idiom and expressions, affirms his insistence of the gratuity of grace and supernatural, as well as man’s ordination to enjoy the beatific vision. Man can never reach this supernatural end by natural powers, but “it is not a disturbance but a fulfillment of his natural constitutionE(p. 237-238).

Rahner has also addressed the question of uncreated grace. Here the tradition poses a dilemma: On the one hand, for the NT “man’s inner sanctification is first and foremost a communication of the personal Spirit of God, that is to say, in scholastic terms, a donum increatum; and he sees every created grace, every way of being pneumatikos, as a consequence and a manifestation of the possession of this uncreated grace.E Scholasticism claims that we possess the Spirit “because we possess created grace,Ewhile the church fathers claim that “the created gifts of grace [are] a consequence of God’s substantial communication to justified menE(p. 239). The Scholastic doctrine rests on this reasoning: Uncreated grace, the presence of the Spirit, implies “a new relation of God to man,Ebut this is only possible if there is an actual modification in man himself (Rahner uses the odd phrase “an absolute entitative modification of man himselfE. Rahner addresses this dilemma by appeal to the theology of the beatific vision. He argues that the relation between God and man that comes about through man’s knowledge of the beatific vision does not result in any real modification of either God or man. Thus, the relation must be of the order of “formalErather than “efficientEcausality. This must be true of all grace, and not simply the glory of heaven. Thus, in Rahner’s words, “God communicates himself to the man to whom grace has been shown in the mode of formal causality, so that this communication is not then merely the consequence of an efficient causation of created grace. Thus it becomes clear that the proposition no longer holds good which maintains that man has uncreated grace because he possesses created grace; on the contrary, with Scripture and the Fathers, the communication of uncreated grace can be conceived of under a certain respect as logically and really prior to created grace: in that mode namely in which a formal cause is prior to the ultimate material dispositionE(pp. 239-240). He claims that this is consistent with the Tridentine doctrine of grace: “Created grace is seen as causa materialis (dispositio ultima) for the formal causality which God exercises by graciously communicating his own Being to the creature. In this way the material and formal causes possess a reciprocal priority: as disposition ultima created grace is in such a way the presupposition of the formal cause that it can itself only exist by way of the actual realization of this formal causalityE(p. 241). The point can be clarified by reference to Aristotle’s treatment of formal and material causality: The created grace is the matter that becomes “statueEby the imposition of form; which is prior? In one sense, the matter/material cause is the presupposition of the statue, but without an in-forming cause that is the presence of Christ, the created grace is not realized until the imposition of the formal cause. Rahner’s basic claim is clearly in accord with the Lombard-Luther position, he is also able to retain the scholastic category of created grace.

posted by Peter J. Leithart on Monday, May 16, 2005 at 10:09 PM

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