Nature and Grace

by Andrew Dean Swafford, SThD

It is rightly said that the topic of nature and grace touches almost any and every theological and even human question, for one’s appraisal of this issue transforms the way in which one understands the very encounter between man and God. For this reason, twentieth-century French theologian Henri de Lubac (1896-1991)—regarded as one of the primary inspirations of Vatican II—contends that this issue: “is at the heart of all great Christian thought . . . at the bottom of discussions with modern unbelief, and forms the crux of . . . Christian humanism.” Hence, the formulation of the nature-grace relation has far-reaching consequences, affecting no less than the meta-narrative—not just of Christianity—but of humanity itself.

In what follows, we will see that there are two basic aspects of the Christian mystery of nature and grace: (1) Christocentrism, which is to say that Christ is the center and end of all things; and (2) the necessity of distinguishing between nature and grace for the purpose of preserving the supernatural transcendence and gratuity of grace.

The Christocentric aspect of nature and grace appears in the opening of the very first encyclical of the late Bl. Pope John Paul II when he writes: “Jesus Christ is the center of the universe and of history.” This theme in fact goes all the way back to Sacred Scripture, as can be seen here in the Letter to the Colossians: “For in him all things were created . . . all things were created through him and for him . . . [and] in him all things hold together” (Col 1:16-17). And similarly, the Letter to the Ephesians states:

For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:9-10).

In the second century, St. Irenaeus likewise echoes this Christocentric Pauline theme:

So the Lord now manifestly came to his own, and, born by his own created order which he himself bears, he by his obedience on the tree renewed [and reversed] what was done by disobedience in [connection with] a tree; and [the power of] that seduction by which the virgin Eve, already betrothed to a man, had been wickedly seduced was broken when the angel in truth brought good tidings to the Virgin Mary, who already [by her betrothal] belonged to a man. . . . Therefore he renews these things in himself, uniting man to the Spirit. . . . He therefore completely renewed all things.

Contemporary patristic scholar Robert Louis Wilken comments on St. Irenaeus’ use of Ephesians 1:10 here, observing that Christ brings to “completion” what was originally begun in creation, suggesting that Christ is not just the beginning, but also the end of all creation—the one in whom creation reaches its final goal:

[St. Irenaeus] favors terms like renew and restore. . . . Drawing on the language of Saint Paul in Ephesians, he says that Christ “summed up” or “united” all things in himself (Eph 1:10). . . . Christ does not simply reverse what had been lost in the fall: he brings to completion what had been partial and imperfect.

Similarly, in the medieval period, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225- 1274)—though perhaps better known for his emphasis upon the distinction between nature and grace—also shares this same Christocentric perspective which is apparent in his correlation of the eternal Law with the Person of the Word (i.e., the Son). This association is significant since for Aquinas the very notion of nature and the natural order finds its ontological root in the eternal law—here correlated with the Person of the Word—in which case the “natural” order is itself Christocentric in its very foundation. In this light, St. Thomas writes: “among other things expressed by this Word, the eternal law itself is expressed thereby.”

St. Thomas is here stating implicitly—not only that the natural order does not exist apart from Christ—but that the very notion of the natural order is itself Christological. Such a view is incompatible with the very notion of secularism, if by this term one means a certain domain of reality somehow independent of Christ. This point is emphasized by twentieth-century Eastern theologian Vladimir Lossky (1903-1958) in the following:

The Eastern tradition knows nothing of “pure nature” to which grace is added as a supernatural gift. For [Eastern theology], there is no natural or “normal” state, since grace is implied in the act of creation itself. . . . “Pure nature” . . . would thus be a philosophical fiction. . . . The world [has been] created in order that it might be deified . . . [and] its center [is] in the Word, the hypostatic Wisdom of the Father. . . . For there is no “natural beatitude” for creation [and it] has no other end than deification. All the distinctions which we may try to make between the state which was proper to the first creatures, according to their natures, and that which was conferred upon them by their ever-increasing participation in the divine energies [i.e., grace] can never be more than fictions.

While Lossky clearly accentuates the Christocentric aspect of nature and grace, let us now turn to establish the importance of the second aspect of nature and grace, namely, the necessity of distinguishing between nature and grace, for the purpose of preserving the supernatural character of divine grace. This distinction can likewise be traced back to Sacred Scripture, as for example when St. Paul portrays the grace of salvation as vastly surpassing the created natural order: “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9; cf. Isa 64:4). Let us note that in order for grace to “surpass” the natural order, or be considered “supernatural,” we must presuppose some notion of the “natural.”

Though man is gratuitously created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26), this original creation is surpassed by man’s new creation in Christ (cf. 2 Cor 5: 17). Hence, the sublime grandeur of man’s supernatural participation through divine grace surpasses man’s original creation in imago Dei, since by the grace of Christ man now shares in the very filiation of the Eternal Son. For this reason, St. John the Evangelist can write the following: “See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God, and so we are” (1 John 3:1). While the original imago Dei is restored in Christ, the New Testament goes beyond this primordial restoration: in Christ man is now “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29)—man has become “a son in the Son,” as the traditional language of the Church has it. This salvation in Christ is quintessentially a supernatural work of divine grace, since it is a gift above and beyond the parameters of human nature, as classically stated here in the Letter to the Ephesians: “by grace we have been saved” (Eph 2:8).

The point we wish to emphasize at this juncture is that this distinction between the first creation and the new creation (or between nature and grace) is necessary for the purpose of preserving the supernatural transcendence of grace; this distinction between nature and grace further presupposes the independent coherence of the natural order—or else it could not be distinguished from grace.

Twentieth-century literary scholar and apologist C. S. Lewis pre-supposes this line of reasoning when he describes Christianity as a religion in which God encounters man from the “outside,” that is, in terms of God’s pursuit of man and not the other way around. In other words, supernatural grace comes to man from without, as something over and above his nature, and so Lewis writes:

To be frank, we do not at all like the idea of a “chosen people.” Democrats by birth and education, we should prefer to think that all nations and individuals start level in the search for God, or even that all religions are equally true. It must be admitted at once that Christianity makes no concessions to this point of view. It does not tell of a human search for God at all, but of something done by God for, to, and about, Man [i.e., God’s search for man].

Here Lewis’ point is that Christianity presents itself as a supernatural religion precisely because it is founded upon a divine entrance into the created order, from the top down, as it were, as a matter of divine descent, rather than man’s progressive ascent. But in order to understand grace as something “over and above” human nature, we must first have some prior conception of human nature—in relation to which grace then stands as “over and above.” For without a sense of the coherence of nature, as nature, grace necessarily loses its specificity: that is, without a coherent view of nature and the “natural,” the unique signification of the term “super-natural” becomes unclear. . . .

Corresponding to the two dimensions of the nature-grace mystery—Christocentrism and the necessary distinction between nature and grace—are two poles comprising the nature-grace debate more generally: extrinsicism and intrinsicism. They are so named on account of the closeness (or lack of closeness) with which they correlate the orders of nature and grace—or more specifically, the closeness or lack of closeness with which they correlate human nature with the gift of grace.

Extrinsicism emphasizes the distinction of nature and grace for the purpose of preserving the supernatural and transcendent gratuity of grace, over against human nature. Intrinsicism, on the other hand, holds that human nature is inherently open-ended and oriented to the supernatural order of grace, in which case man’s fulfillment lies only in and through Christ—with the result that a purely “natural beatitude” is simply out of the question—much as Lossky stressed above. For this reason, intrinsicism is more incompatible with secularism than is the case with extrinsicism; and in fact, the latter has been alleged to have subtly reinforced secularism in the modern era, on account of its emphasis upon the self-contained and independent coherence of the natural order.

Accordingly, as we mentioned at the outset, this debate has clear implications for secularism, and even for religious pluralism. As for the latter, in its extreme form, intrinsicism can serve as a catalyst for relativizing the uniqueness of Christ, as well as that of the sacraments—relativizing their status as privileged channels of grace. The reason is due to the fact that in its extreme form, intrinsicism correlates nature and grace so closely that it identifies nature and grace as one and the same—with the result that the order of grace ultimately becomes something that “bubbles” up from within human nature, quite contrary to C. S. Lewis’ comments above. If we were to follow this intrinsicist train of thought, it would ultimately imply that the grace of Christ is not substantially different from that of non-Christian religions, in which case the newness or uniqueness of Christ is thereby diminished.

While we should note that this more extreme form of intrinsicism is certainly not that of the Christian tradition rooted in St. Paul, it is still the case that the problems resulting here illustrate the importance of extrinsicist aspects of the nature-grace relation. For as we have said, if the term “grace” is applied so broadly that it covers all that might otherwise have been considered “natural,” the exceptional character of grace inevitably fades away. For this reason, a more specific awareness as to what constitutes the natural and supernatural orders—by way of their intelligible distinction—actually serves to preserve the singular uniqueness of supernatural grace.

Nature and Grace
(pp. 1-8)

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19 Responses to Nature and Grace

  1. armybill1959 says:

    Thank you for this and the larger discussion. I am only beginning to understand the terms of the discussion, but I can’t help but notice some analytical cant on the part of the author in this extract, e.g., no descriptions of the results of the “extreme form” of extrinsicism. That being said, I may have some leanings of my own, having read and been persuaded by Fr. Stephen Freeman’s book, “Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-storey Universe.” I am looking forward to your efforts to illuminate this issue. And on a related topic, thank you for your continuing effort on this blog! Your work is a bright spot in the largely unmitigated squalor of the internet.

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  2. TJF says:

    Not impressed. This same argument pops up in ECT vs. UR debates. I just can’t wrap my head around why something must be singular or unique for it to be of ultimate value. They think grace being ever present somehow waters it down? Limitless gift is the best possible outcome and if that is already the case then perhaps we are just wilfully refusing to see it. Extrincism thus is a theological construct specifically engineered to reinforce such sinful refusal and should be utterly abandoned in my view. Correct me if I’m wrong.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      TJF, I don’t think the debate is about a restriction of grace. I used to think that the debate was about whether all human beings have a desire for God, but apparently even today’s natura pura proponents agree that they do. For them, natura pura is purely an abstract construct that they find helpful in elucidating the nature/grace distinction. Hart, on the other hand, rejects the natura pura construct as misleading, if not worse. Check out the debate between Hart and Feingold.

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      • TJF says:

        I have read over that and am still mystified as is Calvin. Perhaps I’m overstating my case, but here

        Hart: Could there be a reality in which your actual intellect experiences no elicited desire, and does not concretely desire God as God?

        Feingold: Yes.

        Is where feingold loses me. I believe he also mentions something to the effect that extending grace somehow weakens it or limits it. It seems they see things as a zero sum game which is common in this world. But in the next?

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  3. Calvin says:

    “For as we have said, if the term “grace” is applied so broadly that it covers all that might otherwise have been considered “natural,” the exceptional character of grace inevitably fades away.”

    And if it doesn’t, if grace and nature aren’t ultimately a continuum, then the unavoidable fact is that grace is in fact unnatural to man. That for some reason the original creation is so defective that it is simply obliterated and something entirely foreign to it put in its place. That doesn’t speak very well of creator, nor is it particularly appealing to the created.

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  4. Owen-Maximus says:

    Swafford states well some implications of extrinsicism and intrinsicism but hasn’t shown divine grace to be “a gift above and beyond the parameters of human nature.” Instead, grace naturally fits humanity. It’s our indigenous habitat. In grace, we live and move and have our being. The Lossky quote says it all, I think, but Swafford disagrees. Is there such thing as an *independent* coherence of the natural order? This notion receives a fairly thorough shellacking in You are Gods. I do wish Hart would devote a monograph to his version of intrinsicism and religious pluralism. Roland in Moonlight hit the high points but Swafford (et al.) makes important points that need to be addressed (eg., election). The scandal of particularity looms large.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Perhaps Swafford addresses your questions in the book (or perhaps not). If you should end up reading it, do let us know what you discover.

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      • Owen-Maximus says:

        The book reviews indicate that he gives intrinsicism a fair shake, while leaning toward an extrinsicist conclusion. He follows German Catholic Matthias Scheeben down a supposed “middle way.” One reviewer writes, “Scheeben thus removes the eschatological concern, which is the real crisis that divides extrinsicism from intrinsicism, and returns it to what Scheeben sees as its natural place in the historical economy of salvation in Christ by the single act of the Triune God here and now.” Not sure exactly what this means, but normally around here, any tack that “removes the eschatological concern” is rightly met with some…hesitation. 🙂

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  5. Logan(mercifullayman) says:

    If we really wanna have some fun, you could take an existentialist route where grace is freedom(people have taken this philosophical/theological road). But what exactly does that freedom entail or look like? In a sense, it appears on the surface at least, that the tie in of grace as an “essential” characteristic or as an “existential” characteristic are where the battle lines are drawn. And, one could argue, that in the debate, the question of what exactly determines a reality as reality is the fitting question? Fantasmic construction, which we all do as fallen creators and subjective persons, can very much feel like a “real” reality. Yet, it is not actually real. Grace, in a sense, becomes the ability to create as one sees fit. You are allowed that space, and yet, while you also may shut off the valve that “feels” at the level of phenomenal. Origen isn’t that far off in how he understands grace to function as an act of providence. Just as the rain falls on the just and the unjust, so also grace, is a gift that is built into the fabric of each of us, whether we seemingly accept it or not, it does exist. And, even in our desires for our own good as selfish actors, we too find ways to make use of the grace that permeates everything from every level of creation.

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  6. Owen-Maximus says:

    Did Pelagius read the nature/grace relation better than St. Augustine?

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    • Logan(mercifullayman) says:

      I tend to agree with Berdyaev when he says we could listen to Augustine philosophically at times, but to never listen theologically (Lol). I would be intrigued to read Julian of Eclanum’s actual words, since they are lost in antiquity and we only get Augustine’s “rebuttal.” I have a feeling, that much like Teddy of Mopsuestia, there are some things that are completely bent and misconstrued, which may have actually stood out as completely valid points in refutation of the Augustinian notion.

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      • Owen-Maximus says:

        Not sure how easy it would be to peel apart Augustine’s philosophy and theology, but I see what you mean: for me, his mystical metaphysics are much better than his soteriology proper.

        I recently watched Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur, and there’s a scene in which Arthur (Clive Owen) extolls Pelagius as his favorite theologian. Accordingly, “freedom” is the inspiration in battle for Arthur’s mighty men. The film of course portrays the Roman Church as bullying the likes of Pelagius, the pope being blamed for his execution. (I don’t think we know how he actually died.)

        If British Christianity (and, apparently, Egyptian as well) provided such a welcome space for Pelagianism, then one wonder’s if the charge of tyrannical papal persecution doesn’t too far miss the mark.

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        • Logan(mercifullayman) says:

          I think there is always a specter of power that creeps into these discussions. The continuity of “councils” or the “faith” may require improper discussions as you well know, or conclusions. I mean, there is obviously a reason why P & J both fled east for support in those discussions. Yet, even with someone like Teddy writing against Pelagius/Julian later, there was something there that they found solace in contra the Augustinian/Roman notion of what was occurring. And his criticisms appeared to be wholly different in kind, than Augustine. Now, how far exactly they met in terms of seeing eye to eye, we can only surmise, but you don’t seek those intellectual protections if you don’t think they’ll stand the test.

          I’m probably the worst person to ask about papal/governmental tyranny in matters of faith. I am somewhat predisposed to Yoder’s “Constantinian Cataract”, as well as Berdyaev et al’s misgivings about what institutional Christianity at times has done. And while I see the merits of what is needed, I also see the negative all that may entail. (5th ecumenical, Charlemagne, etc.)

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          • TJF says:

            Where does Berdyaev develop this the most? Been wanting to read his works but don’t know where to start.

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          • Owen-Maximus says:

            I have often swallowed the pill of mindlessly accepting past institutional decisions. The almighty Wikipedia tells me Pelagius fled to the east, as you said, taking haven under the bishopric of Cyril of Alexandria in Egypt. That’s no small precedent! Maybe we’re allowed to believe, after all, that children dying without baptism are NOT actually excluded from eternal life. Viva Pelagius!

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  7. TJF says:

    Where does Berdyaev develop this the most? Been wanting to read his works but don’t know where to start.

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    • Logan(mercifullayman) says:

      I guess that’s kind of a loaded question. It kind of permeates all of his works. Freedom is the de facto form of existence. It is what were are all made for, but obviously, much like Schelling etc, that is a highly nuanced view of what it entails.

      If you kind of want the whole bag quickly: “The Destiny of Man” is supposed to be the chief work. I think it does require some background reading to really get where he’s going but it does give you a really good view of the general. “The Meaning of the Creative Act” is where the ground for the whole system begins. It then gets fleshed out from its writing through his death.

      “The Beginning and the End,” his work on Dostoyevsky, “The End of our Time,” and “Spirit and Reality” are my favorites outside of TDOM. He also spits some nails in “Truth and Revelation” but it does get a bit out there at times and may make you bristle.

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      • TJF says:

        Thank you! That is exceedingly helpful. I remember reading an essay where he basically said the Eastern Church is the closest to true Christianity but also showed it’s many problems, clericalism chief among them. It was the one where he says the grand inquisitor poem applies to all religions and even Orthodoxy not just the RCC so Dostoevsky didn’t go far enough. I was instantly enamored of him after reading that. Reflects my sentiments exactly.

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        • Logan(mercifullayman) says:

          Well he’s also running with Khomiakov’s idea of “sobornost” and pushes that further out than was originally viewed by both K and D in their times. He sees that in the East, there is a moment where Christianity could have stayed within the original confines of this kind of “spiritually aristocratic yet communal” worldview, and yet, power, as it often does, moves the dial. What is a perceived “good” thing, like a clerical structure, etc, gives way to a “bad” thing….the objectification of belief, which then loses its creative value and freedom.

          You also have to remember that he’s very much influenced, as many were, by Joachim De Fiore, and his idea of the Ages. He’s constantly harping on the fact that there will come a time with in the Age of the Spirit, things will circle back. He isn’t exactly in the same sense, dispensational as maybe Fiore was, but he, along with many of that time, are looking for epochal understandings that may illuminate a pivot for both humanity, the church, and society writ large.

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