Oecumenical Grace: Comparisons

In the concluding chapter of their book The Theology of Grace and the Oecumenical Movement, Charles Mœller and Gérard Philips address the differences between the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Reformed Churches on the mystery of grace. The Churches agree on the primacy of God and the gratuity of grace, and they agree that divine grace truly transforms the human being. Yet they describe the life of Christian living in different terms:

An Orthodox would say that the change made by grace makes a divine life possible; a Catholic, a holy life; while a Protestant would stress the battle against sin and the Devil. The encounter between God and man, in the process of salvation would be described as a ’synergism’ (Orthodoxy), an ‘enduring creation’ (Protestantism), or ‘actuation créée par acte incréé’ (Catholicism). (p. 37)

[The translator notes that the French phrase “actuation créée par acte incréé,” coined by Maurice de La Taille, is impossible to render in English. He suggests the following translations: “God’s uncreated act supplies a created actualizing to the creature” or “The creature is perfected in its nature by an uncreated act.” I’m sure the reader finds these renderings as illuminating as I do. (cough, cough)]

The authors believe that each tradition’s formulation of grace expresses an important dimension of Christian life. The Churches diverge, however, on the question of created grace. For Roman Catholicism the fundamental distinction lies in the difference between nature and the supernatural: man must be given created grace if he is to participate in the divine nature. For Protestantism grace is fundamentally the love and mercy that God showers upon sinners: God justifies the ungodly for the sake of Christ. Though the Reformed most certainly do affirm regeneration in the Spirit, justification remains a forensic, imputational event. Catholicism contrasts natural and supernatural; Protestantism, sin and grace. But what about Orthodoxy? The authors cryptically suggest that Orthodoxy shares with Protestantism the contrast between sin and grace, yet in a very different way.

Benedict and Bartholomew .jpgUltimately, Mœller and Philips propose, the differences between the Christian traditions lie in the employment of different philosophies in the articulation of the faith, specifically, Platonism and Aristotelianism. It would be simplistic to say that Eastern theology is Platonist and Latin theology is Aristotelian, for features of both philosophies can be seen in both traditions. Each has adapted and changed philosophical categories to make them suitable for theological expression. But the authors believe that Platonism and Aristotelianism have profoundly shaped the respective anthropological visions of Orthodoxy and Catholicism:

An Aristotelian anthropology sees man as a self-sufficient unity enclosed within himself, his highest functions or actions never surpassing the limits of ‘nature.’ His elevation to a supernatural state would therefore appear as an elevation to an action or mode of action which he cannot attain to in his natural state. It would also be seen as the production of a quality giving the ability to carry out such an action; a quality which without changing the soul, would be supernatural, although created.

On the other hand, Platonist anthropology, even as corrected by the Greek Fathers, in order to deal with the dynamic aspect of Christianity, sees in man a being capable from the very beginning of reaching the highest degree of spiritual life, union with God, although unable to reach it by his own efforts.

What in the Aristotelian formulation is ‘nature,’ always appears as a deficiency to the Platonist, but this means that there is no barrier between man and the supernatural; one might say he has a potentiality to ‘move’ towards his goal; his essence is to ascend towards the highest end. He is essentially free in doing this, and fails or succeeds according to his own decision. There is an ‘existentialist’ element in the Platonist conception of the Greek Fathers, while according to the Aristotelian idea, freedom is an extra faculty given to man.

In both cases, however, there is a divine intervention. It can be looked at either in its uncreated source, or in its created effect, bringing about perfection in a creature, and consequently a created perfection. Those who see in grace the introduction of a new faculty, see it in its effect; those who see in it the re-establishment of the God-like condition of man, lay more stress on the divine, uncreated character of this progress towards deification. But the former cannot forget that the presence of the Holy Spirit (uncreated grace) comes before created grace; nor the other, that grace works in a creature and produces created effects. (pp. 39-40)

I find this long citation exceptionally helpful, as it helps to explain why Roman Catholic theology has been so obsessed with the distinction between nature and the supernatural (Catholic theologians typically do not speak of “supernature”). If human nature is a clearly defined and closed reality, then something new must be effected by God to enable its participation of humanity in his divine life. Eastern theology, on the other hand, understands human nature as constituted by a fundamental openness to divine self-communication. This fundamental openness defines mankind as created in the image of God, nor has it been eradicated by the Fall. Consequently Orthodoxy cannot conceive of a dis-graced human nature. As Fr Stephen Freeman likes to remind us, we do not live in a two-storey universe. Perhaps we might expand the image to say that divine grace does not add a second floor to the human building; it restores us, rather, to the communion with the Holy Trinity for which we were originally created. “Created in the image of God,” Freeman avers, “human beings have an inherent transcendence” (Everywhere Present, p. 90).

In his book The Openness of Being, E. L. Mascall offers a Western correction to the Aristotelian constriction of nature: all finite beings, by their ontological dependence upon the self-existent Deity, are inherently open to “fresh influxes of creative activity from God”:

The view that all finite beings depend for their very existence as well as for their particular natures on the incessant creative activity of God implies that, while they are relatively autonomous, in that God conserves in each its own particular pattern of finite activity, they are, by the very fact that they are dependent and not self-existent realities, open to fresh influxes of creative activity from God, which will not destroy their spontaneity but will elevate and enhance it. Nor is there any antecedently specifiable limit to such influxes; anything that a finite being receives will be finite, but there is no greatest finite quantity. As the scholastics say, grace does not destroy nature but perfects it. By their very dependence upon God, finite beings are inherently open to him; an absolutely autonomous and incapsulated finite entity would be a contradiction in terms. A created universe—and there can be no other—is necessarily not only a finite but also an open one. Nature has, simply as nature, a potentia oboedientialis for the supernatural. (p. 146)

Mascall contrasts this Christian understanding of nature with the philosophies of antiquity, which thought of created beings as closed, incapsulated entities. What something is, with all of its original potentialities, is what that something will always be. A properly Christian understanding of human nature, argues the Anglican Thomist, must express an intrinsic openness to the creative and recreative activity of the transcendent Creator. This openness to God grounds the deification of human beings and their elevation into the divine life of the Holy Trinity. Because human nature is not closed in on itself, it can receive from God new and unimagined graces, powers, and possibilities; indeed, it can receive God himself. With this correction Latin theology draws a tad closer to Eastern theology on theosis.


The Reformers rejected scholasticism and all notions of created grace and returned to St Augustine and a more biblical understanding of grace. Yet as much as they honored Augustine, they did not embrace Augustine’s vision of deification, which he shared with the Eastern Fathers. “It is difficult,” Mœller and Philips write, “to see why the perfectly Christian and biblical stress they put on the uncreated nature of the divine operation that justifies and sanctifies … did not lead them to the reality of the whole process of deification which begins in faith but will be manifested in glory” (p. 41).

Mœller and Philips suggest two reasons for this truncation of the apostolic tradition. First, the dominating presence of Augustine himself—yet not the whole Augustine but rather an Augustine divorced from the wider patristic tradition and reduced to his idiosyncratic positions. By their rejection of scholasticism, the Reformers missed the important qualifications and purifications of Augustine that had been made by Bonaventure and Aquinas:

Through the great Doctor, the Reformers remained in contact not only with a large part of Christian Platonism, but also with the Bible itself. But at the same time, the Reformers, receiving their Platonism through the medium of certain theories peculiar to Augustine (on concupiscence, the concept of original sin, and anti-pelagianism), took it over in a reduced form, without its ‘realistic’ developments, and only saw the Bible in the light of certain somewhat constricting preconceptions. … But we have always had the impression that St. Augustine is one of that kind of thinker, at once a genius and yet incomplete, whose influence is always of very mixed value. There is no doubt that it weighed very heavily on the theology of the West, and it was only where Augustinian thought was balanced and completed by that of the Greek Fathers (as in St. Thomas, and more and more in Catholic theology nowadays), that it could show its more wholesome effects. The absence of St. Augustine in the East was, to our minds at least, a blessing there, while his work so dominated Western theology in the Middle Ages that it took a very long time to recover its balance. (p. 43)

Second, the Reformers were themselves fettered by the same philosophical views that had perverted late scholasticism, namely, nominalism. The Reformation formulation of extrinsic grace is unconsciously rooted in a philosophical system that makes it difficult to conceive of real relations between the transcendent Deity and his finite creatures.  Mœller and Philips are relying on the influential analysis of Louis Bouyer:

What, in fact, is the essential characteristic of Ockham’s thought, and of nominalism in general, but a radical empiricism, reducing all being to what is perceived, which empties out with the idea of substance, all possibility of real relations between beings, as well as the stable subsistence of any of them, and ends by denying all intelligibility to the real, conceiving God Himself only as a Protean figure impossible to apprehend.  In these circumstances, a grace that produces a real change in us, while remaining purely the grace of God, becomes inconceivable.  If some change is effected in us, then it comes from us, and to suppose it could come also and primarily from God amounts to confusing God with the creature. (Bouyer, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, pp. 184-185)

How can there be a divinization of humanity when humanity is reduced to the perceptible?  Within the context of the Reformers’ repudiation of created grace, the logic of nominalism virtually mandated a purely forensic construal of justification. Protestantism thus ended up breaking with the catholic understanding of salvation as ontological participation in the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Grace was reduced to divine attitude, and humanity’s relation to its Creator construed through juridical categories, even while ultimately negating those categories.

(Return to first article)

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6 Responses to Oecumenical Grace: Comparisons

  1. tsoigitli says:

    I’ve always thought of the Western emphasis on the particulars of justification, sanctification and glorification–when rightly understood, as I think Paul is definitely participationist in his justification theology, and the Reformers lean that way more than their successors do, as the New Perspective on Paul has been quick to point out–as mutually enriching to the Eastern emphasis on salvation as the process of theosis. On the one hand, salvation is not just a moment but a whole journey beginning with our justification and continuing on to our glorification in resurrection, and from there through all the ages. On the other hand, theosis does happen in particular stages, particular works–it happens through justification, it happens through sanctification, it happens through glorification.

    I’m interested in what the implications for these different understandings of grace are for ecumenism, and I’m also curious as to whether or not permitting pagan philosophies to influence the way we do theology robs us of a thoroughly biblical anthropology. One thing that I notice, for example, in all of these conversations about biblical anthropology is that they tend to ignore the fact that man is a thoroughly physical creature, and that this is a thoroughly good thing in Scripture’s eyes, such that one is not fully and truly human without being in a body. Platonism naturally doesn’t fit well in this scheme, as one of its central presuppositions devalues the physical in favor of the ideal, so I question its value for our theology. Perhaps future ecumenical endeavors in this area would do well to try to think more like Jews and less like Greeks; after all, What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      tsoigitli, as you are no doubt aware, Finnish Luther scholars (e.g., Tuomo Mannermaa) have argued that Luther taught a version of theosis. Their work has prompted vigorous debate about the proper interpretation of Luther, as one might expect.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      tsoigitli, I am personally skeptical of a return to biblical anything, as the Scriptural witness alone is uncorrupted by philosophy or that God did not intend his Church to philosophically reflect on the apostolic revelation, which of course means thinking and speaking the gospel within the categories we inherit from our culture. Like new wine the gospel breaks the old skins of our philosophical categories and generates new language and conceptuality (Hellenistic philosophy was never the same after Origen and St Gregory Nyssen baptized it).

      One of the problems I have with evangelicals like N. T. Wright (whose writings I have read to great benefit) is that they look on the Bible as a stand-alone document and do not realize how very modern their reading of it really is.


      • tsoigitli says:

        Fr. A,

        By no means am I arguing for a standalone approach to Scripture, nor by any means suggesting that a “return to a biblical worldview” means the abandonment of the Patristic witness. Your comment on Origen and St. Gregory is important, and I’m reminded that all of the Judaisms of the first century were indeed Hellenistic in one way or another. I think my major point probably revolves around the emphasis on the goodness of the physical, which the Fathers definitely retain, but my concern is that in these conversations we can sometimes fail to emphasize that a thoroughly human being is an embodied one, something that any good Jew knows well but that Greek philosophy tends to scoff at. As you note, the Fathers made necessary edits on Greek philosophy when they used it, to be sure, but I wonder if we’re framing the whole conversation eschatologically, as both scripture and the Fathers do: salvation is ultimately going to be expressed in a historical moment called Resurrection that is yet to come. That requires a deep theology of the physical that I think both Aristotleanism and Platonism fail to elicit but that is clearly woven into the New Testament and the Fathers. That’s all I’m wondering, is whether or not we’re framing our conversations the wrong way, or coming up with the right answers to questions they may not have thought to ask.


  2. PJ says:

    Man’s proper end is the vision of God. This alone fulfills his yearnings and desires, and so yields authentic beatitude. We may therefore say that it is natural for man to be supernatural! Man’s proper end at once accords with and transcends his created nature as a rational animal. The end to which he is called — participation in the inner-life of God — is disproportionate to the nature of any creature. Accordingly, his capacities to know and love must be augmented by grace. “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man…”

    By virtue of his creation in the image of God, man is ordered toward communion with the Holy Trinity. He is meant to know and to love God, not in his created effects, but in his uncreated essence. This is the heart of Christian hope: to see the very face of God. However, man is utterly unable to attain this vision unless his mind is enlarged by uncreated glory. Again, this can not but be the case, given his creaturely status. Therefore, we must be irradiated with the divine light. “In thy light we see light.”

    As St. Thomas teaches:

    “The natural power of the created intellect does not avail to enable it to see the essence of God … It is necessary that the power of understanding should be added by divine grace. Now this increase of the intellectual powers is called the illumination of the intellect, as we also call the intelligible object itself by the name of light of illumination. And this is the light spoken of in the Apocalypse (Apocalypse 21:23): “The glory of God hath enlightened it”–viz. the society of the blessed who see God. By this light the blessed are made “deiform”–i.e. like to God, according to the saying: “When He shall appear we shall be like to Him, because we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 2:2).”

    This is a very interesting and edifying discussion of these topics, by a friend of mind:

    Click to access SpezzanoDE042011D-Vol1.pdf


  3. Karen says:

    Thanks, Fr. Aidan. This is a very helpful article and series of posts. I look forward to reading more and passing them on to interested friends.


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