Pure Nature, State of

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The term pure nature as it comes into modern theology is very much colored by the controversies over the teaching of baius and C. jansen. As it is customarily used, it describes a possible state of man contrasted with elevated or engraced nature, and fallen or sinful nature. In the state of pure nature a man would possess all the physical and spiritual realities necessary to constitute a human being: a body and a rational soul with all their properties and capacities. In addition to this, pure nature would have a natural destiny, i.e., an end proportionate to its created capacities. This natural end would be the love of God as author of nature above all things [see R. Garrigou-Lagrange, Grace (St. Louis 1952) 33]. While no Catholic theologian would maintain that any such state ever actually existed, a very large number have insisted that only by formulating the notion of pure nature as a genuine possibility can the absolute gratuity of the supernatural elevation of man be clearly understood and defended. For, once it can be ascertained what precisely belongs to nature, then the theologian is in a position to determine what grace is and, therefore, what must be affirmed as God's unowed gift. This approach has been used extensively against the teaching of Baius and Jansen. It is pointed out that since they deny the possibility of pure nature they make of God's gifts of grace something owed to human nature. Therefore the loss of grace through sin must necessarily corrupt the very nature of man.

In recent years, however, there has been considerable reevaluation of the notion of pure nature. Much of it began with the publication of H. de Lubac's historical study of the issue, entitled Surnaturel (Paris 1945). The extensive debate and discussion that followed the appearance of this book concerned itself with both issues raised by the book, although not always keeping them clearly separate. The first issue concerned the historical development of the notion itself. The correlative issue that Père de Lubac raised concerned the validity of the theological position maintaining that this notion of pure nature was necessary for the proper understanding and protection of the absolute gratuity of the supernatural [see P. J. Donnelly, "The Gratuity of the Beatific Vision and the Possibility of a Natural Destiny," Theological Studies 11 (1950) 374404]. These noteworthy issues require some elaboration.

Historical Issue. As to the historical issue, De Lubac asserted that the theological notion of pure nature found in modern theology was unknown to St. Thomas and his contemporaries. He saw it as being first formulated in the 16th century under the influence of Cajetan. In Cajetan's thought man cannot naturally aspire to what his natural powers cannot accomplish. It is possible, therefore, for an intelligent creature to exist without effective orientation to the beatific vision. Cajetan and those who follow him hold that such a nature could be satisfied by an end or destiny proportionate to its own powers. Others would hold that even if such a nature could exist without the vision of God, nevertheless it would have a conditioned desire for it. De Lubac, however, claimed that St. Thomas never considered the idea of a spiritual being as having any end other than the vision of God.

After a lengthy debate in the many articles Surnaturel engendered, it would seem to be clear that St. Thomas does not explicitly treat of the possibility of a pure nature with a purely natural end. He is concerned with a pure nature (in puris naturalibus ) in relation to the means of salvation, i.e., nature with a desire to see God but not having grace. A further question raised in the course of the debate was whether or not the internal structure of St. Thomas's theology excludes the possibility of a purely natural end. In the light of the evidence presented during the debate, it seems clear that St. Thomas's system does allow for this possibility [see G. de Broglie, De fine ultimo vitae humanae (Paris 1948)].

Theological Issue. The question of the necessity of the notion of pure nature to explain and undergird the gratuity of the order of grace is still under debate. It is clear, of course, as Pius XII affirmed in Humani generis, that God could have created intellectual beings not called to the beatific vision (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer [Freiburg 1963] 3891). The fact, however, of the possibility of not being called to the beatific vision is quite distinct from the possibility of pure nature, for in this latter case the use of the term nature presupposes a determined philosophical position on what precisely "nature" and "natural" are. It is this last point that has been challenged by a growing number of theologians in recent years as is illustrated by the following arguments.

In the first stage of the debate a few appeared to maintain that man's orientation to the vision of God is a necessary dynamism of a created spiritan element of its very nature. Hence, the notion of pure nature as commonly used in theology would have neither meaning nor relevance. Something is natural only in the sense of being contrasted to the divine. It is this position that seems to be the object of the statement of Pius XII referred to above. It was a view that never gathered much support since it makes no distinction between creation and creation in Christ and so does not preserve the special gratuity of salvific grace.

Coming to the fore in the course of the debate was another opinion: that since God has in fact called man to the beatific vision, then this vocation, itself a free gift of God, enters into the total structure of man's concrete nature. In the terminology of K. Rahner, it is a supernatural existential, which of necessity brings into being a resonance and a tendency to the vision of God [see K. Rahner, "Concerning the Relationship between Nature and Grace, Theological Investigations, v.1, tr. C. Ernst (Baltimore 1961) 295317]. In this perspective the distinction between natural and supernatural would be reformulated. It would begin by recognizing that there is nothing in man that is not affected by the supernatural sphere. Created human nature as it exists in fact would make it impossible to set down in any detailed way a definition of the distinction between the two natures. Thus, the conception of the notion of pure nature cannot be delineated without ambiguity. For it cannot be done with either completeness or surety. Hence, while nature as distinct from the supernatural is a genuine reality and a proper order, it cannot be defined exactly. Those who follow this opinion, therefore, would tend to give much less importance to the notion of pure nature than it has had for many modern theologians and theological manuals.

See Also: desire to see god, natural; destiny, supernatural; man, 3;; natural order; nature; obediential potency; preternatural; supernatural order.

Bibliography: j. alfaro, Lo natural y lo sobrenatural desde Santo Tomás hasta Cayetano (Madrid 1952). h. de lubac, Augustinisme et théologie moderne (Paris 1965); The Mystery of the Supernatural, tr. r. sheed (New York 1967). j. p. kenny, "Reflections on Human Nature and the Supernatural," Theological Studies 14 (1953) 280287. l. renwart, "La Nature pure à la lumière de l'encyclique Humani generis, " Nouvelle revue théologique 74 (1952) 337354. h. rondet, "Le Problème de la nature pure et la théologie du XVIe siècle," Recherche de science religieuse 35 (1948) 481521. d. j. m. bradley, Aquinas on the Twofold Human Good (Washington, D.C. 1997). s. a. long, "On the Possibility of a Purely Natural End for Man," The Thomist 64 (2000) 21137.

[e. m. burke]