Oecumenical Grace: Catholicism and the Divine Life

After briefly reviewing the medieval Latin reflection on uncreated and created grace in their book The Theology of Grace and the Oecumenical Movement (everything in this little book is brief, too brief!), Charles Mœller and Gérard Philips propose that a renewed Catholic theology of grace must preserve the following five elements:

First, God’s love is effective. When God communicates his grace and love, it does not leave the human person as he was but transforms and elevates him. By their assertion of created grace, the scholastics were attempting to give philosophical expression to that participation in the divine life which only God can freely bestow. “If the scholastics laid less emphasis than the Greek Fathers on our participation in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” the authors write, “they do show more fully the extent of the ontological change in man; grace produces not simply a new basis and aim of morality, but brings about an ability, created in man; which is only to express in philosophical terms the ‘new creature’ in regenerate man” (pp. 24-25). Recall Mœller’s and Philips’s critical insight mentioned in the first article of this series: whereas Eastern theology is principally concerned with articulating how it is that God gives God (hence the distinction between the divine essence and divine energies), Latin theology is concerned with stating how the finite human being may be united to the infinite Creator.

This is why St Bonaventure and St Thomas Aquinas ultimately found the Augustinian proposal of Peter Lombard unsatisfactory. It seemed to imply that the Spirit can indwell and act in the human being without changing him. But both doctors understood that if man is to achieve the supernatural end for which he was created, namely, the beatific vision of God, then God must not only heal human nature of its sinful disorder but provide the capacity for a life beyond its natural powers. Henri de Lubac puts it this way:

The supernatural, one might say, is that divine element which man’s effort cannot reach (no self-divinization!) but which unites itself to man, “elevating” him as our classical theology used to put it, and as Vatican II still says (Lumen Gentium, 2), penetrating him in order to divinize him, and thus becoming as it were an attribute of the “new man” described by St Paul. While it remains forever “un-naturalizable”, it profoundly penetrates the depths of man’s being. In short, it is what the old Scholastics and especially St. Thomas Aquinas called (using a word borrowed from Aristotle which has often been completely misunderstood) an “accidental form” or an “accident”. Call it an accident, or call it a habitus, or “created grace”: these are all different ways of saying (even if one thinks they need various correctives or precisions) that man becomes in truth a sharer in the divine nature (divinae consortes naturae; θείας κοινωνοὶ φύσεως; 2 Pet 1:4). We do not need to conceive of it as a sort of entity separated from its Source, something like cooled lava—which man would appropriate to himself. On the contrary, we wish to affirm by these words that the influx of God’s Spirit does not remain external to man; that without any commingling of natures it really leaves its mark on our nature and becomes in us a principle of life. This scholastic notion of created grace, so often belittled today, does express the incontrovertible fact that “it is we ourselves, and our creaturely being, which the active presence in us of the Spirit makes divine, without for that reason absorbing us and annihilating us in God” [Louis Bouyer]. (A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace, pp. 41-42)

Here we see a concern shared with St Gregory Palamas—trying to find a way to speak of humanity’s deification in Christ that does not result in its absorption into anonymous divinity. On the other hand, Eastern theology has never seen the need to appropriate the notion of a supernaturally infused habitus of grace, perhaps because it cannot conceive of a graceless human nature. Created in the image of God, the human being is not only destined but ontologically constituted for participation in the eternal life of the Holy Spirit. This divine image has not been obliterated by the fall. Despite all sinful corruptions and bondages, fallen human nature remains dynamically open to communion with God and is only fully realized in this communion.

Second, the change effected in man by the indwelling Spirit endures. The nature of the scholastic habitus is that it is neither a state that we possess independent of God nor a single act of grace in us: it is something in-between, ever dependent upon living union with God. The alteration in human nature effected by the gift of sanctifying grace can never be subsequently lost, even by mortal sin. The human being is permanently changed. The habitus thus provides a solution to the question with which St Augustine wrestled: “What does infant baptism accomplish?”

Pastors need to be careful, Mœller and Philips warn, when talking about the “state of grace,” as they might be easily misunderstood—and have been so misunderstood—as implying  that the life of grace is a static condition, perhaps even something that we can own or control:

One might even ask here whether perhaps, in using the expression ‘state of grace,’ as preachers and moralists very commonly do, there may be a certain risk of misunderstanding. It is the habitus that causes the state to result in an act; our God-given knowledge and love and posed ready for action. Therefore grace can be increased, simply because when the union with God grows closer, His grace is more freely implanted. … So when the habitus grows deeper and more powerful, it is the union with God that is being made closer; in this sense, for one’s acts to be more supernatural, does not mean an increase in the quantity of the state of grace (seen as a thing, like a sum of money increasing at compound interest), but simply to be governed more by the Spirit, to be more receptive to Him. (p. 25)

Third, God acts directly in the habitus. It is neither a barrier between man and God nor some sort of intermediate object that we can contemplate on its own and use for our own purposes.  Our principal concern is the Triune God who gives himself to us in transformative and unmediated union.

The habitus, so St. Bonaventure says, does not make us possess God, but makes us possess an action that guides us towards Him, in the sense that we are set free (from our compassion and faults) on account of having made that act of love—which never ceases to be caused in us by the love of God. In the same way St. Thomas, speaking of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, makes use of the words Quibus fruimur [divinis personis], which means, not that they are an object we enjoy, but that they are an instrument by means of which (this is the meaning of quibus) the enjoyment of the divine persons is possible, and it is only through the divine persons that we enjoy the divine gifts as well; for the other way round, the gifts are merely means. The soul ’sees God in God.’ (p. 26)

Hence it is more accurate to say with St Thomas Aquinas that God gives himself to us in the gift of grace rather than with St Albert the Great that God gives himself with it.

Contemporary Roman Catholic theologians have striven during the past fifty years to emphasize the dynamic and personal aspects of grace, both in its uncreated and created dimensions. One of my favorite books is The New Life of Grace by Piet Fransen. Fransen moves beyond the metaphysical categories of scholasticism and seeks to express the mystery of grace in a personalist conceptuality, with an abiding awareness of its mystical and ineffable facets:

The Father, through His indwelling love, introduces us into the very life of the divine Persons. We are chosen to stand before the Father with the Son in the strength of Their mutual Spirit. Through grace, therefore, we become children of God in the Son. In theological language this is called the elevating aspect of grace, because of which a truly supernatural life arises in us. A moment ago we mentioned that we were unable by our own effort to free ourselves from the anathema of sin; now we have to say that it is absolutely unthinkable that we should raise ourselves by our unaided effort to the level of the divine life, which is God’s sovereign possession. Our elevation is an utterly gratuitous gift, the totally unexpected surprise the message of grace holds in store for us. …

It should be abundantly clear by now that created grace may not be conceived of apart from the divine indwelling. … Created grace is not something standing in between God and us; it is no path to approach God, no ladder to climb up to God, no means to God—at least, not primarily. But these are negative concepts; unless we go beyond such representations of grace, we shall make no progress in knowledge. The Eastern Christians are quite justified when they refuse to accept such descriptions of grace. They find it self-evident, to put it rather bluntly, that creaturehood plus created grace cannot possibly bring about a divine life or constitute a share in the divine life.

Created grace does not act as a screen between God and us since it comes into being only because of and within the gesture by which God unites us immediately to Himself. He gives Himself without an intervening medium; He comes to dwell in us and takes us back to Himself. Emile Mersche called this grace “un être d’union,” “a unifying being.” Created grace is at once the fruit and bond of the indwelling, originating in the indwelling and sustained by the indwelling; it raises us into an ever-deepening actualization of the indwelling on earth and in heaven. Latin expresses it more tersely: ex unione, in unione et ad unionem—arising from our immediate union with God, granted in that union and urging us to that union. We need a dynamic concept, one that lives because it is enveloped in “the divine life” which is none other than God himself. (pp. 101-103)

Thus formulated, it’s difficult to see why either Orthodox or Reformation theology would seriously object to Roman Catholic teaching on created grace, especially when presented within the model of participation in the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Whatever may have been the deficiencies of post-Tridentine Catholic construals of grace (and everyone admits they were deficient), such is no longer the case. Eastern Orthodox apologists, take note!

Fourth, the habitus is vital and dynamic. Even our ability to make an act of love toward God is itself “the result of the continual presence and activity of God.” God is the active cause of our free acts. “He makes us act (He ‘works in us both to will and to work’) without its being possible to say that God alone acts (’with fear and trembling work out your own salvation’),” write Mœller and Philips (p. 27). This action of divine grace within us is continuous—such is the depth of the transformation effected by grace. Grace is nothing less than transformative participation in the life in the Holy Trinity:

Essentially, grace consists in this: that God, the Blessed Trinity, loves us. The trinitarian love consists in the union of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit with us; or better, Their drawing us into the intimacy of Their own trinitarian life by uniting us with Themselves.

In conformity with the language of Scripture, this union is generally called the divine indwelling. We have called it also the mystery of God’s presence. God’s active, transforming union in love imprints the divine image on us; and here the well-known dictum holds good: “Amicatia pares invenit aut facit” (“Friendship is either found among equals it makes equals of those it finds”). The notion of divine image is just another approach to the basic conception of grace, which is that we share in the divine life. … All these various conceptions—divine love, presence, indwelling, image and likeness, sanctification and justification—are simply different approaches, through different symbolisms, to one identical reality: that through grace we share in the divine life (Fransen, p. 55)

Fifth, merit is a personal and ontological quality. Mœller and Philips acknowledge that the Latin notion of merit is foreign to the Eastern tradition and vigorously contested by the Reformation churches; hence it needs to be explained carefully, with attention to its personal dimension rooted in sanctifying communion with God

An individual is not rewarded by God because he has accumulated merit, as recorded on a bank ledger. Properly understood merit should be seen as an ontological condition: we are rewarded by God because of what we have become through our free cooperation with divine grace. Hence the evangelical truth of Augustine’s dictum that when God crowns our merits he crowns his own gifts. Merit is thus an expression of the work of the Holy Spirit within the life of the believer: “The life lived by the gifts of the Holy Spirit is simply the normal development of the habitus of grace. Merit is therefore essentially inseparable from the work of the Spirit in us, bringing about an exchange of love and friendship; so merit becomes what it is in us that makes us worthy of God” (p. 28). Fransen picks up this same theme: “Growth in grace is ordained by the Spirit toward its final fulfillment in Christ. This statement of fact is just another way for us to understand how grace on earth can merit heaven. Heaven is nothing else than the final revelation of what we have become through grace” (p. 220).

It is not surprising that the language of merit has virtually disappeared from the modern Roman Catholic pulpit. It is almost always misunderstood and is easily replaced by more biblical and evangelical terminology.

What then is created grace, as taught by the Roman Catholic Church? It is an active receptivity to God in the believer, a receptivity created and constantly renewed by God in direct and immediate union with the human soul. Mœller and Philips, however, recognize that the term may not be the most fortunate expression. As the history of second millennium Latin theology demonstrates, it is all too easy to divorce the created habitus from the living God and treat it as a commodity or impersonal energy. Catholic theology, insist the authors, must always remember that created grace is grounded upon the dynamic presence of the Holy Spirit, who indwells the souls of the just. Created grace has no meaning apart from the uncreated life of the Trinity who comes to sinners in infinite love, as Fransen makes clear:

Basically, the mystery of grace rests on the fact that God gives Himself to us. He grants us an immediate share in His life. He comes down to us, or to speak more accurately, He takes us up into His inner glory. We remain men, creatures and sinners, but as men we are enabled to share in His life because He gives Himself to us immediately, that is, without anything intervening between Him and us. (p. 100)

Deo gratias!

(Go to “The Protestant Gospel”)

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