Grace and Nature

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The relationship between grace and nature is one of the most fundamental problems of Christian anthropology. Grace is something really distinct from nature, wholly undue to nature, yet divinely given to nature. It confers on man a participation in the divine nature and divine life.

Historical Perspectives. The question of grace and nature's mutual relationship has taken shape in and through a long history. The summary of the principal positions of Catholic theology on the relationship gains significance and clarity from a survey of the more important moments in this history.

Augustine and Pelagianism. In polemic with Pelagianism, the Church made explicit her belief in the absolute necessity of grace if man is to attain eternal life or perform any action positively tending to it (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer [32d ed. Freiburg 1963] 225230, 370397, 155153). Pelagius's denial of original sin, and his consequent practical ignoring of the sinful condition of man conditioned the approach of St. Augustine (see pelagius and pelagianism). Augustine used by preference terms that proclaimed man's indigence. "Nature" was one such. The term derives from natus, a participial form of the verb meaning "to be born." Hence it can sustain the meaning of "that which belongs to a being's pristine condition." When Augustine spoke of nature in a proper sense, he had in mind that graced condition that should have been his and should have been passed on by natural generation. Thus he could write that man's nature is "wounded, hurt, damaged, destroyed" by the willful disobedience of sin (Nat. et grat. 53.62, Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 271 v., indexes 4 v. [Paris 187890] 44:277). Actually St. Augustine knew that man's natural being remained intact, and that freedom of choice was inalienably his. Centuries later this expression and his analogous usage of "free will" would be used in support of a pessimism alien to the doctrine of Augustine.

St. Thomas Aquinas. The introduction of Aristotelianism into the West in the 13th century brought the philosopher's clear and precise concept of nature into the Catholic theology of grace. St. Thomas is to be credited with exploiting this notion for its theological accuracy. He clearly affirmed that while grace now is necessary to heal wounded nature, its primary function, which it would have in any hypothesis, is to elevate nature to a share in the properly divine nature (Summa theologiae 1a, 95.4 ad 1). Grace is supernature, rooted in nature and making nature transcend itself. St. Thomas affirmed the existence in every intellectual nature of a capacity for this elevationa teaching that would subsequently find many different interpretations.

Nominalism and the Reformation. The Thomist synthesis did not gain the loyalty of the centuries immediately following. A juridic mentality and a nominalist philosophy were in the ascendant (see nominalism). Under these influences theological inquiry tended to fragment men's view of the ontological union and harmony of grace and nature. The results were diffused in the schools by the works of Gabriel biel. The grace of adoption was seen to consist in an arbitrary divine decree and hence to be an extrinsic adornment of nature. Mere nature's capacity to observe the moral law was extolled in a way that smacked of Pelagianism. The sense of grace as a participation in divine life practically disappeared. The Reformation burst into this atmosphere of nominalist theology. Although they were heirs of nominalism's concept of an extrinsic grace, and its ignorance of divinizing grace, still Martin luther and the reformers reacted strongly against its Pelagian tendency. Augustine's strong indictment of sinful nature was resumed and given new dimensions. Not only had sin destroyed the liberty of the children of God, but free will itself was henceforth capable of nothing but sin. The Church countered with the teaching and the anathemas of Trent, affirming the truly inherent character of justifying grace by which nature is elevated in Christ, and its authentic healing is begun (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 152531, 155461). An attenuated version of Luther's teaching appears in the works of baius and jansen and their disciples. The common note that binds them together is their inability to conceive of justifying grace as something that makes man transcend the order of nature. At best, grace is a medicinal agent that restores man to the primitive (natural) state that sin had destroyed. Particularly in correction of Baius the teaching Church intervened to establish the authentic gratuity of the order of grace (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 1921, 1923, 1924, 1926, 1942).

Contemporary Orientations. Passing over the intervening centuries to the 20th, one finds after World War II a new theological orientation that gave rise to excesses that compromised the transcendent gratuity of the order of grace. Theologians sought to probe the link that binds man's nature to a supernatural destiny. They judged the usual conception of this link to be vitiated by an "extrinsicism" that makes grace a mere superstructure added to nature and to be unable to explain how grace is inserted into nature and fulfills it. A number of historical studies appeared investigating the notion of the supernatural, the obediential potency (capacity) for the supernatural, and St. Thomas's teaching on the natural desire for the vision of God. This tendency came to be spoken of as the "new theology." It tended to affirmations incompatible with the absolute gratuity of the order of grace by making an interior ordination and openness to grace a constituent of man's nature, and hence reducing the notion of "pure nature" to an unrealizable abstraction. Pope Pius XII reacted strongly against this position, speaking of it as a "deadly fruit" of theological novelties. In the encyclical Humani generis he declared: "Others destroy the gratuity of the supernatural order, since God, they say, cannot create intellectual beings without ordering and calling them to the beatific vision"(H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 3891). Catholic theologians are continuing the task of penetrating the nature of man's actual destiny to the order of grace.

Theological Positions. The principal positions of Catholic theology on the relationship between grace and nature may be outlined under three headings.

Grace Elevates Nature. For Christian philosophy, nature signifies the essence of a thing considered as the fundamental principle of every activity and receptivity that belongs to it because of what it is. Nature is a fixed and well-determined reality with stable laws of a necessary character. A being must have certain determined constitutive elements, as well as its own powers, properties, and goals if it is to be of a particular nature. Although created nature comes into existence by a sovereignly free act of God, yet God cannot create a man without making him a finite intellectual being endowed with all the essential characteristics of human nature. Now, the fundamental revelation concerning grace is that the blessing God has granted the world through Christ constitutes a true divinization of sinful man. This emerges as the clear meaning of the Pauline and Johannine Scriptures concerning men's adoption as sons and heirs of God in Christ. The redemption means not only the remission of sin, but also a positive sharing of the divine nature. Man's divinization is revealed as an unfolding thing begun in faith, hope, and charity, and ending in the glory of face-to-face vision of God (1 Jn 3.12; 1 Cor 13.813). Obviously this completion is not within the scope of man's native powers; only a divine nature has natural powers capable of entering into an immediate union of knowledge and love with the divine being. Consequently, to divinize man means to elevate him to a level of perfection transcending his own nature. Since it entirely transcends the powers and exigencies of man's nature, divinizing grace is something to which nature can lay no claim. Arising in the mystery of God's self-giving love, grace can be received only in grateful wonder at the eternal miracle of love that it is.

Grace Heals Nature. Catholic teaching has always held that the nature of man is not totally destroyed by original sin. This is based on the Scriptures (Wis 13.19; Rom 1.1728), which credit man with the radical capability of knowing God by means of his natural reason. Were nature truly destroyed by sin, how would man be capable of responding to the divine call in faith, or how could he be held accountable for his refusal to respond? (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 155455.) While Catholic doctrine refuses to admit a total destruction of nature, it does not minimize the damage sin has wrought in man's nature (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 371, 400). There are two different explanations of this wounding. With Suárez and Bellarmine, many theologians teach that as a consequence of original sin mankind lost the supernatural gift of grace and the gratuitous preternatural gifts, but that its natural perfections are undiminished. The Thomist school emphasizes more forcefully the reality of sin's havoc by holding that the loss of original justice brings in its wake a profound diminution of nature's tendency to virtue (Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 85.1). The grace that divinizes man as man and does it progressively also heals the wounds of nature by restoring the elevation sin negated and by removing the obstacle that hinders nature's gravitation toward virtue. Only when divinization is total will its healing restore the equivalent of the lost preternatural gifts.

Harmony of Grace and Nature. The adequate distinction between grace and nature brings no artificial dualism with it. The Creator of nature and grace has ordered the creation of the world and of man to Christ, in whom and through whom all humanity is called to a participation in the inner life of God. This unity of the divine economy of salvation orders nature to grace, creation to Redemption. In the very structure of his nature man is "image of god"; there is in him an openness to grace that no lower creature has. It is because man is an intellectual creature that he is basically capable of beatific visionfor as intellectual he is open to the total breadth of being, which includes even the Supreme Being. Consequently, unaided natural reason could conclude that it is probably possible for man to be elevated to this undue, supernatural, face-to-face vision of God. Revelation assures us that this is a real possibility and meant to be fulfilled. Not all theologians understand in the same way this basic tendency of the finite spirit toward the supernatural. Some affirm a mere nonrepugnance to being elevated, i.e., apart from the free gift of grace there is no positive tendency or desire in the finite will to possess the being of God as its supreme beatitude, though there is a natural tendency or desire in the finite intellect to come to see the real essence of the First Cause of being, who is God. This appears to be the meaning of St. Thomas's references to a natural desire to see God (he never speaks of a natural desire for the beatific vision). Others (Scotists, Suárez, Alfaro), assuming that there is an innate human longing for perfect beatitude, note that the perfect beatitude of the intellectual creature can be had only in the satisfaction of his unlimited capacity for being and goodness. Nothing short of beatific vision can satisfy this natural longing, and hence they conclude that there is in man's nature an innate natural desire for the beatific vision, though it can reach its goal only through the gracious intervention of God. Finally there are those (Mersch, K. Rahner) who consider the problem in the actual historical situation of man. By the free determination of God, man was actually created in grace and has never had any real destiny other than a supernatural one. A determination of this kind must imply a real change in the creature (the "supernatural existential" in Rahner's terminology), otherwise the supernatural order labors under the liability of remaining artificially juxtaposed to the natural order. According to this view, although human nature as such has no exigency for the supernatural order of grace, the concrete natures of men do have such an exigency, and because of it the absence of grace in the unjustified is not a mere absence but a true privation. This notion may be implicit in Thomas Aquinas's suasio for the existence of original sin (C. gent. 4.52).

See Also: desire to see god, natural; habit; imputation of justice and merit; justice of men; pure nature, state of.

Bibliography: h. rondet, Gratia Christi (Paris 1948). j. alfaro, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 7:830835; "Trascendencia e inmanencia de lo sobrenatural," Gregorianum 38 (1957) 550. k. rahner, "Concerning the Relationship between Nature and Grace," Theological Investigation, v. 1, tr. c. ernst (Baltimore 1961) 297317. w. r. o'connor, The Eternal Quest (New York 1947). p. j. donnelly, "On the Development of Dogma and the Supernatural," Theological Studies 8 (1947) 471491; "Discussions on the Supernatural Order," ibid., 9 (1948) 213249; "A Recent Critique of P. De Lubac's Surnaturel, " ibid., 9 (1948) 554560; "The Gratuity of the Beatific Vision and the Possibility of a Natural Destiny," ibid., 11 (1950) 374404; "The Surnaturel of P. Henri de Lubac, S.J.," Catholic Theological Society of America. Proceedings 3 (1948) 108121. s. duffy, "The Graced Horizon: Nature and Grace in Modern Catholic Thought," Theology and Life 37 (Collegeville, Minn. 1992). d. j. m. bradley, Aquinas on the Twofold Human Good: Reason and Human Happiness in Aquinas's Moral Science (Washington, D.C. 1997). s. a. long, "On the Possibility of a Purely Natural End for Man," Thomist 64 (2000) 211237.

[c. regan]