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Supernatural realities figure on every page of the New Testament, as also ubiquitously in tradition. They appear under such key words and phrases as Redemption, salvation kingdom of God, everlasting life, Christ and life in Christ, holiness, faith, rebirth, adoptive sonship, indwelling Spirit, grace, charity, and mystery.

Besides, the supernatural becomes historically tangible and visible in Christianity, which surpasses (just as it is diametrically opposed to) all natural religions, because of its origin, its sublimity of means, and its orientation: they are man-made, man's groping toward the Infinite; it is God-given, the descent of the Father through Christ and the Church to deify man in view of the beatific vision. In the concrete, the supernatural designates Christianity itself and its treasures of salvation.

Consequently, the concept of the supernatural is on a footing of equal importance with the concepts Incarnation, Sacrament, and revelationwith which last it is closely connected. For the supernatural can be known only through revelation received in faith.

Like Incarnation, Sacrament, and revelation the word supernatural is, of course, current in modern theology, where, especially in the last three centuries, it has become a shorthand term of capital importance. It has acquired many nuances of meaning, as may be seen by consulting theological manuals, in which one will find numerous qualifying words and phrases such as simpliciter, absolute, quoad substantiam, ontologice, entitative, secundum quid, relative, quoad modum. There is a certain fluidity in their usage.

Our aim is quite simple: to throw into prominence what may be considered (not all will agree) the supernatural in its strictest sense. Taken thus, it may be provisionally described as embracing all redemptive gifts positively conducive to the winning of the beatific vision and given through Christ Jesus and the Church.


As background to the understanding of the strictly supernatural we offer a few notes on the history of the word and its meaning.

Word. Neither the adjective supernaturale nor the adverb supernaturaliter was used by the classical writers of ancient Rome. However, Cicero, Tacitus, and Seneca did have equivalent expressions to describe extraordinary effects: divinitus, supra naturam excedens.

The corresponding Greek adjective [symbol omitted]περφυής was used by classical authors for overgrown, enormous, monstrous, extraordinary, marvelous. Likewise the adverb [symbol omitted]περφυ[symbol omitted]ς was common enough for wonderfully, exceedingly.

In the New Testament, in the patristic writings of the first centuries, in the ancient texts of the liturgy, one searches for the word in vain.

With the Greek Neoplatonists the stable meaning of superior substance begins to emerge. St. Proclus of Constantinople (d. 446) and, more important, Pseudo-Dionysius (c. 500) head a long tradition of labeling all spiritual beingsespecially God but also angels and even human soulswith the Greek equivalents of supernatural.

In a famous text, St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444), breaking up the Greek adjective into its components of noun and preposition, gets very close to the modern notion of the strictly supernaturala fact that is not surprising when one recalls the exceptional richness of Cyril's theology of grace. Treating of our adoptive sonship, he presents it as our elevation through Christ to a dignity surpassing not only human nature but Nature tout court: ες τ [symbol omitted]π[symbol omitted]ρ φύσιν ξίωμα δι Χριστόν. The summons to the supernatural is: πρς τ [symbol omitted]π[symbol omitted]ρ φύσιν (In Joan. evang. 1.12, Patrologia Graeca, ed. J. P. Migne, 73:153; cf. Dial. 4 de Trin., Patrologia Graeca 75:882; St. Maximus, O, LXV ad Thal., Patrologia Graeca 90:769).

In the 9th century, through translations of the works of Pseudo-Dionysius made principally by John Scotus Erigena (c. 850), supernaturalis makes its debut in the theology of the West. It has the sense of superior being.

More than anyone else St. Thomas Aquinas deserves the credit of launching the word into theological circulation. Thus in a single article (De ver. 12.7) one can count upward of 20 usages. Sometimes St. Thomas employs the word in its Greek acceptation. Thus he presents the beatific vision as a contemplation of supernatural Truth where modern theology would prefer subsistent Truth" contemplatio patriae, qua supernaturalis veritas per essentiam videtur" (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 5.1 ad1)and God as the supernatural principle of our faith (ibid., 6.1). Far more commonly (a complete tally would hardly be feasible) St. Thomas applies supernatural not to superior substances but to surpassing effects.

However, only in the last three centuries did the word reach the first flight of importance as a technical term. Evidence for this assertion can be found by glancing through the indexes of the famous editions of the Fathers or of the medieval theologians: the word scarcely appears. Not till Pius V's condemnation of the 21st and 23d proposition of Baius in 1567 (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer, 1921, 1923) did the magisterium officially adopt it. Its apotheosis came in 1870 when Vatican I embodied it for the first time in a conciliar decree (Enchiridion symbolorum 3008).

Meaning. Outside modern technical theology, in popular speech and literature, supernatural is a word of wide application. Its chief content seems to be whatever is beyond the ken of the senses or unaccountable for in the categories of experiential observation and the physical sciences. All that is metaphysical or simply inexplicable to the rationalist, or transcendent, or outside the routine workings of cause and effect, is commonly dubbed supernatural. It is a label put indiscriminately on ghosts and spirits good or bad, on God, on miracles and prodigies, on the unnatural and the violent.

If one scans this list more closely, one will remark that supernatural phenomena divide into two classes: (1) that of superior substances; (2) that of surpassing effects.

The first class bears witness to the persistence in popular circles of the Greek tradition, which was also the prevalent theological usage up to the 13th century. As we saw, it crops up in St. Thomas, although it is especially the weight of his authority that swings the scales in favor of the second class. Henceforward this latter predominates in theological literature. From it develops the strictest technical sense. However, even after St. Thomas the first class keeps on rallying support. It recurs frequently among the mystics of the 14th century. In the 17th century it flares up in a sort of sickly brilliance with J. M. de Ripalda's theory of a supernatural substance. Most theologians showed good sense in rebutting Ripalda (15941648), whom H. de Lubac censured in withering terms [Surnaturel (Paris 1946) 294, 299].

As we understand it, the strictest acceptation of supernatural does not exactly square with either of the two classes above. It borrows from each, perhaps, but is a concept far richer in meaning than either.

In the strictest, technical sense, then, supernatural does not mean (1) superior substances such as angels or God taken in their lofty isolation, invisibility, and absoluteness; nor does it mean (2) merely wonderful, surpassing effects such as miracles and prodigies. Rather it is reserved to signify a new relationship of God to man, a fresh contact between Infinite and finite, a real descent of God to a personal creature.

In order to penetrate more deeply the meaning of this notion, we must pause over the correlatives of the super-natural, to wit, nature and natural.


The theology of the supernatural was bound to remain stunted until a satisfactory philosophy of nature had been evolved. This was achieved thanks to Saints Albert the Great and Thomas, under the aegis of Aristotle. Pre-Thomistic writers such as Anselm, Bernard, and Peter Lombard fight shy of the word supernatural, largely because of the inadequacies of their philosophy of nature.

History. Nature, before being established by the scholastic theologians as antithesis to supernatural, had gone through three main stages of historical growth. They may be rapidly and roundly sketched in as follows.

Greek Philosophy. With Greek thinkers, especially Aristotle, Nature and the universal laws springing from the inflexible essences of things were conceived as the sole and peremptory norm for every happening in the world. God was regarded either as wholly aloof from the world or as producing it according to inexorable necessity. Contemplating the beauty of Nature and its unswerving regularity, God might display a certain Olympian complacency; but never might He show toward individual men the slightest trace of selective, personal love. Such a philosophy, precluding in principle the very possibility of the supernatural, was radically pagan and anti-Christian.

St. Augustine. Realizing the need to remedy this deep defect, St. Augustine went to the opposite extreme. He refused to define natures by reference to the necessary laws of essences. Instead, he reduced natures to what God wanted things to be, to the mere objects of God's good pleasure. Thus, giving everything to God, Augustine easily accounted for miracles and for God's personal intervention in the world. But his philosophy labors under serious drawbacks: if created natures are not stable principles of action possessed of intrinsic necessity, we are living in the dreamworld of the nominalist philosophers (see nominalism); natural science and secondary causality vanish; and one cannot draw the essential line of demarcation between ordinary and extraordinary (supernatural) events.

Saints Albert and Thomas. The via media between the rigid, self-enclosed naturalism of the Greeks and the voluntarism of Augustine was laid down by St. Albert the Great and, above all, St. Thomas. On the one hand they admitted that natures are abiding principles of activity endowed with internal necessity; on the other they denied that nature contained all the clues to the understanding of the whole of reality. The personal God, in the initiative of sheer love, could always enter onto the stage of history, transcending the demands of nature and outstripping its forces. Thus was shaped a philosophy of nature in harmony with Christian revelation. A landmark had been reached. The theology of the supernatural was now able to advance.

Senses. Supernatural evokes natural, which in its turn evokes nature. We need to note a quartet of senses for nature-natural, because they all bear, though unequally, on supernatural.

Genetic Sense. This is what is given with nature from the start, or belongs to one from one's birth; the endowments of one's origin, even though some of these may in fact be transcendent. In this sense, common in early Church documents, man is considered not philosophically but historically, i.e., according to the condition of his actual creation. Thus Adam's original justice was natural (Enchiridion symbolorum 239, 389, 396; Augustine, Spir. et litt. 27.47; Leo, Serm. 12.1) and original sin was a wound inflicted in human nature (Enchiridion symbolorum 371, 400).

Specific, Abstract Sense. The ontological type communicable to many, the sheaf of essential attributes leaving out of account their realization in individuals, is the specific, abstract sense of nature. The value of this abstract concept calls for comment owing to recent controversies centering on the supernatural. In order to demonstrate the gratuity of the supernatural, a common procedure was to appeal to the hypothetical state of pure nature, in which man would exist fully equipped with all natural resources and end, but shorn of any supernatural influence whatsoever. Certain modern thinkers [H. de Lubac, "Le Mystère du surnaturel," Recherches de science religieuse 36 (1949) 80121] challenged such a procedure as futile: proving the gratuity of the supernatural in a state of pure nature does not prove its gratuitousness in the present order, where man, intrinsically affected by the supernatural, is necessarily totally other than he would be in any such phantom state. This attitude, while showing an excellent appreciation of the deep, inward resonance in man evoked by his call to the beatific vision, does not do equal justice to the abstractive power of the intellect with its ability to shape a single concept valid for human nature wheresoever found or howsoever postulated. For the supernatural, no matter how inwardly and deeply it influences and transforms human nature, cannot change it substantially but only accidentally. The example of sex is instructive: its influence is far-reaching and intrinsic; the differences between men and women are not only anatomical and physiological but also emotional and psychological. Yet the differences of sex are accidental, not substantial; and the abstract concept of human nature fits both men and women perfectly. Similarly, whether man is assigned a natural commensurate goal or a super-natural and surpassing one, the abstract concept of human nature is left unaffected.

Individual Sense. If there is little difficulty in forming an abstract concept of human nature, it is another matter when one tries to fashion a satisfactory concept of human nature in the individual, e.g., the human nature of Christ. The shadow of the supernatural lies across this path. The concept of concrete human nature must be built up from various sources: sensation, intelligence, self-consciousness, and history (this illustrates the forces and resiliency of a concretely existing nature). The fact that the last page of human history has yet to be written suggests a certain incompletenesswhich may not be serious. However, what is more troubling is the fact that the lives of all men have been led in a supernatural order; this has wrapped man around like the air he breathes and has affected him within and without. Hence when one studies existing human nature, one studies it as somehow supernaturalized. But to know the supernatural as such and delineate it against the natural is beyond unaided reason. Revelation is needed [J. P. Kenny, "Human Nature under the Influence of the Supernatural," Australasian Catholic Record 33 (1956) 1121].

Cosmic Sense. This is the universe and everything in itNature with a capital N: φύσις or τ φυσικά in Greek, rerum natura in Latin. However, different senses are attached to Nature according as one is a physicist or metaphysician. The former limits Nature to the sense-perceptible; the latter extends it to embrace the whole gamut of creation, the spiritual as well as the sensory. When the theologian speaks of the supernatural as transcending the demands of Nature he means Nature in the metaphysical sense.


As a proximate preparation for our definition, we must weigh the force of three assertions about the super-natural in the strictest technical sense: (1) It surpasses all the demands and forces of nature; (2) it involves something infinitely more precious than miracles or preternatural gifts; and (3) it connotes with metaphysical necessity a created gift.

First Assertion. To say that the supernatural surpasses all the demands and forces of nature is to make a complex statement.

Unowed to Human Nature. It means, first, that the supernatural is unowed or gratuitous to the particular nature of man. A grasp of what is unowed to man's nature is best gained by considering what is owed. Human nature needs: body and soulthese are structurally owed (constitutive debita ); spiritual and sensory faculties of actionthese are consequently owed (consecutive debita ), for without them man's nature would be nonsensically crippled; outside aids such as providence, concursus, proportioned goal, appropriate sanctions and rewards for right behavior (exigitive debita ). In none of these senses is the supernatural owed to nature. Casting this in parallel phraseology we say that the supernatural surpasses all nature's demands and forces.

Unowed to All Created Nature. Second, not only is the supernatural unowed to the particular nature of man, exceeding all his exigencies, it is likewise unowed to the whole of created Nature, exceeding all its exigencies. The carving of a "Moses" is beyond the capacities of the block out of which it is hewn. Nevertheless it is not super-natural. It is well within the scope of Michelangelo's genius. The supernatural surpasses not only the capacities of every individual creature, even of an archangel; it further surpasses the powers of the aggregate of all created natures and of the cosmos itself. Indeed it exceeds not only all actual creatures and creation but also all conceivably possible creatures and creations. Nothing created or creatable can be thought of that the supernatural does not outstrip.

Priority of Creation. It has been pointed out, third, that the supernatural implies a new relationship, a fresh contact between God and man or angel, a divine descent and union with a creature. Therefore, in the very concept of the supernatural in this strictest technical sense is implied the preexistence of its term and of the universe. Man cannot be elevated to the supernatural unless he exists. This does not necessarily mean that a time interval must separate man's creation from his elevation. Both may take place simultaneously. But creation enjoys a priority of order; unless one respects this, one makes man's elevation unintelligible. This priority is picturesquely and felicitously hinted at in Genesis, ch. 2, where Yahweh is presented as first creating man in a desert and then establishing him in Eden (symbol of a privileged condition). Both the patristic and the Thomistic traditions maintain that Adam received original justice at the very moment of creation.

Just as man's particular creation logically precedes his supernatural elevation, so a fortiori the general creation of the universe anticipates everything supernatural. Of course, without the preexistence of the world, man himself cannot be imagined: he is essentially an inhabitant requiring a habitat. But seeing that the creation of the world itself is presupposed to the supernatural, its creation cannot properly be described as supernaturaland this despite the fact that its creation manifestly exceeds its own demands and forces. If then earlier writers, such as St. Bonaventure, describe creation as supernaturalis mutatio (In 2 sent. concl. ad 1), they are employing the term in a broader sense where any effect whose unique cause is God can be so styled. The supernatural, being a relative notion, has to take for granted the existence of men, angels, and the cosmosas much as it has to presuppose the existence of God Himself.

Exigencies and Forces. Fourth, the supernatural surpasses both exigencies and forces taken together. Exigencies: the creation of a human soul is beyond the reach of creatures; nevertheless it is natural, because it is necessarily joined with the procreation of a human body; nature demands the soul's creation and infusion. Forces: a particular personal choice is outside natural exigencies; yet it is natural, because it is the upshot of the normal resources of a being endowed with free will.

Second Assertion. The supernatural in the strictest sense is something higher than miracles or preternatural gifts. A miracle (called by some authors supernaturale quoad modum ), e.g., the sudden mending of a shattered bone, restores a perfectly natural gift of health; the wonder of it lies sheerly in the instantaneousness of the recoveryexplainable only by an almighty efficient Cause.

A preternatural gift (sometimes listed as supernaturale relativum ) is one that, though unowed and therefore gratuitous, nevertheless perfects a nature within the range of the nature's own perfectibility. Adam's immunity from concupiscence and his bodily immortality are cited as examples. Bodily immortality means prolongation of a quite natural life; however, it comes gratuitously to a being naturally liable to decay. Preternatural gifts, according to Thomistic doctrine, spring from grace, which is strictly supernatural. Consequently the grace-endowed man has some ultimate summons both to integrity and immortality of the flesh. A preternatural gift, while it is bound up with the supernatural, is nevertheless far below it in excellence.

Third Assertion. As the supernatural spells a new descent of God to a creature, bringing about a new relationship and contact, it clearly gives birth to a new union. Now the very reality of this union exacts, with metaphysical necessity, some real change somewhere. Such change is unthinkable in God (Jas 1.17). Therefore it must be in the creature (C. gent. 3.51). But what is received in the creature must itself be created. Hence unless we are prepared to admit some created gift lodged in the creature, we jeopardize the very reality of the supernatural. Of course, we also sadly underestimate it if we leave out of account the Uncreated Gift involved. So sublime is the supernatural that nothing created suffices to explain it; one must postulate the Uncreated. The supernatural is a descent of God, a new contact with God, a new union between God and the creature. Justice must be done to both gifts: created and Uncreated. The former serves this vital function of being at once the disposition for, upshot to, and guarantee of the latter.

The created gift is the foundation of a new relationship between God and His spiritual creature. In one sense it may be described as absolute, for it is a quality inhering in the creature. In another sense, however, it is relativein so far as it is the foundation of a real relation (relatio realis ) of the creature to God. The relation of God to the creature is, on the contrary, only one of reason (relatio rationis ); the immutability of God forces us to adopt this position. The inequality of these relations (real from the creature's side toward God, logical only from God's side toward the creature) makes no special difficulty for the supernatural, for it is often paralleled elsewhere, e.g., in the relationship existing between Creator and creature, the Word and His human nature, Mary and Christ: on her side the mother-Son reference is real; on His (according to SS. Thomas, Bonaventure, and a host of others) it is logical only.


We have come, finally, to the definition itself of supernatural. After enunciating it, and explaining its elements, we shall go on to indicate those realities in which it is verified.

Supernatural Defined. In the strictest technical sense, the supernatural (1) connotes (2) the Self-gift (3) of the Three-Personed God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,(4) to a personal being (5) out of love and friendship. Each member of this definition calls for comment.

Connotes. We do not say is because we do not simply identify the supernatural with God's loving self-communication. Sometimes the two may be identical; at other times the supernatural is rather an exigency for, and positively conducive to, God's self-communication without precisely being identical with it. So a Catholic once in the state of grace but now in mortal sin has driven the Triune God from his soul; nevertheless he is still possessed of strictly supernatural gifts: faith, hope, and actual membership in the mystical body of christ.

Self-gift. The supernatural implies God giving God to a creature. The initiative is sheerly divine. The super-natural is primarily some body (God) and only see ondarily something (created gift). The created coefficient is wholly subordinated to the advent of the Uncreated. Those two elements mutually imply one another. Their interconnection, especially in the field of grace and glory, has been brilliantly set forth by M. de la Taille and K. Rahner.

Three-Personed God. The supernatural is not simply an episode of creation-history, or precisely an aspect of God's ubiquity, or an impersonal juxtaposition of Creator with creature. Rather, directly or indirectly, it pivots around a loving, personal union between Father, Son, and Holy Ghost on the one hand, and, on the other, a personal creature. It is wholly ordered to the cultivation by the creature of a trio of special relations, an I-Thou dialogue with each member of the Blessed Trinity.

Personal Being. God cannot thus give Himself to stock or stone, to tree or horse, but only to a personal being, e.g., angel or man. The infrapersonal world is not open toward, lacks obediential potency for, the super-natural. A fetus or a baby, though as yet incapable of making up its own mind, is nevertheless a person and, therefore, open to the supernatural. The choice of personal being rather than person in the definition is dictated by the hypostatic union, which, of course, is preeminently supernatural. In this union the Second Divine Person assumes a human, i.e., a personal or intellectual, nature.

Love and Friendship. This phrase underscores the salient difference marking off God's presence in the supernatural from His omnipresence in the natural order. By very title of Creator, God is everywhere, in the inorganic as well as in the organic worlds, in the sinner as well as in the saint, in hell as well as in heaven, in the damned as well as in the elect. By contrast, the supernatural belongs to another sphere and climate: that of chari ty and friendship. And because the Friend and Lover in question is almighty, the new union and friendship that He establishes between Himself and the creature can never be pegged down to the affective, intentional order alone. It is also real, physical, ontologicaland the proof of this lies, as we have noted, in the created endowment always given as an integral part of the supernatural (see friendship with god).

Realization. The supernatural in the strictest technical sensewhere is it realizedDe Lubac answers: it is above all the vision of God (243). A. Tanquerey speaks for many theologians when he contends that there are only three examples of it: Hypostatic Union, grace, and glory. Our own longer list is as follows.

  1. Incontestably the Hypostatic Union is not only supernatural but also the prime analogate of the supernatural.
  2. Beatific visionits right to a place on the list is beyond discussion.
  3. Deification here on earth, for this is the ontological prerequisite for glory.
  4. But if the two radical gifts (created and uncreated) of deification, forming reborn man's new quasi-nature, are supernatural, the same must be asserted about the other gifts that are structurally related to deification and serve as man's new quasi-faculties: the theological and infused moral virtues, the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost.
  5. Internal actual graces of illumination to the mind or inspiration to the will are clearly super-natural when given to one who is already an adoptive son of the heavenly Father. But they are also supernatural when, leading to conversion, they are given to an unbeliever or one in the state of mortal sin. They are then best conceived as a fleeting visitation of God to the soul, motivated by the desire for intimate friendship. This, indeed, is adumbrated in Rv 3.20. The imagery of the meal shared in by friends is a classical Scriptural illustration of heaven.
  6. Plainly one must list as strictly supernatural the visible Church, Christ continued down the avenues of history, His Mystical Body whose soul is the Holy Ghost (see soul of the church), treasurehouse of all redemptive grace, one ark of salvation.
  7. Likewise the Mass and the Sacraments, in which Christ is today operative and which bring grace and the Holy Ghost into souls.
  8. The sacramental characters are supernatural, because they link us with Christ the High Priest, give basic membership or higher status in the Church, and are the point of contact between the Holy Ghost as soul of the Mystical Body and each individual cell of that Body.
  9. Perhaps other elements of the Christian economy merit the title of strictly supernatural. Assuredly this is so of revelation, whose correlative is faith in man (see revelation, theology of). Here once again there is a wedding of Uncreated (the authoritative utterance of Subsistent Truth) with created (act or virtue of faith in man), of testimonium externum with testimonium internum. One recalls that for St. Thomas faith is inchoatio visionis (cf De ver. 14.2; H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer, 1532).

See Also: anima naturaliter christiana; desire to see god, natural; elevation of man; grace, articles on; grace and nature; justice of men; man 3; natural order; preternatural; supernatural existential; supernatural order.

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[j. p. kenny]

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