The tendency, especially among philosophers and theologians, to stress the exterior or superficial elements in some complex reality, or to give principal attention to the juridical or moral aspects of a problem rather than to the interior, constitutive, or ontological elements. It is not a definite school of thought on a particular problem, or even a clearly espoused position. Many theological questions have been treated in this way, and the tendency can best be described by seeing its application to three topics: grace, morality, and the Church.
Of all the theological tracts, the one on grace has, perhaps, been the most effected by extrinsicism. Pelagianism, an early heresy, involved essentially an extrinsicism. For the Pelagian, grace is not something needed to transform, elevate, and move man to salvation, but rather something that makes salvation easier. There is no necessary connection between grace and salvation for the Pelagian (see pelagius and pelagianism).
In opposition to the Catholic teaching according to which justification involves an interior renewal of man that removes grave sin, the early reformers—such as Luther and Calvin—thought of justification as something entirely extrinsic, not a freeing from sin, but a hiding of sin; not an interior transformation, but an acceptance of the sinner by God (see imputation of justice and merit).
St. Thomas Aquinas and his followers considered that by the very presence within man of habitual or sanctifying grace, grave sin is excluded, and man is made an adopted child of God, truly capable of works proportioned to eternal life. The nominalists in general rejected much of this teaching, tending toward a radical extrinsicism. For them grace is only a moral resemblance to God; there is no absolute connection of grace and adoption or grace and sinlessness, and men's works are not—even under grace—truly proportioned to supernatural life. They compared grace to money, worthless in itself, but given value by a legal decree of public authority. Scotus held a middle ground, i.e., that grace is connected with men's adoption but does not formally cause it (see nominalism).
In the area of moral, or ethical, conduct this extrinsicism can also be found. It is the tendency to give undue importance to the external expression of the law or to the merely exterior observance of the law. It is usually called by some other name, e.g., legalism or Pharisaism. The basic moral code of man is, first of all, interior. This is true both of the natural law, which is a participation in the intellectual creature of God's plan for ordering things to their goal (Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 91.2), and of the new law, the law revealed by God to lead men to Himself in Christ. This new law is essentially the grace of the Holy Spirit and only secondarily particular precepts or written laws (Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 106.1). It would be a mistake, of course, to ignore laws or regulations that govern even exterior conduct, but the underlying directive principle is essentially interior.
Frequently the nature of the Church is expressed inadequately because principal and almost exclusive attention is given to exterior elements: the visibility of the church, its social structures, laws, external conduct, etc. Part of this may be due to a reaction to early Protestants, who denied these important visible elements and social structures. It is true that these exterior elements do pertain to the Church, but it is, first of all, a community of life with God in Christ. The exterior elements are, as it were, the sacrament of this interior life. see church, ii (theology of).
Extrinsicism, then, is a tendency affecting much of philosophical and technological thought. In an extreme case it can involve heresy (e.g., Pelagianism, merely imputed justification). More frequently it involves a less profound analysis of reality, but even here it may cause serious difficulties, both speculative and practical.