David Hart’s critique of two-tier Thomism can be misleading. If we are acquainted with the ongoing debate swirling around natura pura and the desiderium naturale, we will be tempted to judge his arguments according to scholastic criteria and categories. This is not, I suggest, the most helpful way to read “Waking the Gods.” I note three clues:
- Hart’s insistence that he is “indifferent” to whose interpretation of St Thomas Aquinas should prove the most accurate. Translation: “I don’t not have a dog in the Thomist hunt. Let the academic chips fall as they may.”
- Hart’s comment that “from an Eastern perspective, the debate on the ‘supernatural’—epochal though it was for Catholic theology—can only seem a bit bizarre.” Translation: “I am not a Thomist! If you have never read St Gregory of Nyssa, Ps-Dionysius, St Maximus the Confessor, and Sergius Bulgakov, you’re going to have a hard time comprehending my arguments!”
- Hart’s choice of title for his essay, perhaps the biggest clue of them all—“Waking the Gods”!
The title immediately provokes attention, bewilderment, questions, objections, controversy. Is David Bentley Hart taking us back to the polytheism from which the gospel of Jesus Christ has liberated us? Of course not. Is he denying the contingent creaturehood of human beings? Again, no. Hart is speaking from within the Eastern patristic tradition.1 Western Christians, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, are often shocked by the language of theosis—it sounds so darn pagan—yet this language may be found throughout the writings of the Orthodox saints:
For God was made man that we might be made gods. ~ St Athanasius
A sure warrant for looking forward with hope to deification of human nature is provided by the Incarnation of God, which makes man god to the same degree as God himself became man. ~ St Maximus the Confessor
All that God is, except for an identity in being, one becomes when one is deified by grace. ~ St Maximus the Confessor
This [uncreated] Light penetrates us with the power of God, we become ‘without beginning’—not through our origin but by the gift of Grace: life without beginning is communicated to us. And there is no limit to the outpouring of the Father’s love: man becomes identical with God—the same by content, not by primordial Self-Being. ~ St Sophrony of Essex2
Yet despite the Eastern antecedents of Hart’s reflections on theosis, it may be the case that contemporary Orthodox theologians will find his arguments too radical. (Where is the Palamite distinction between the divine ousia and the divine energeia? Err, nowhere.) I suppose we’ll find out what they think of Hart’s approach to deification when they publish their reviews.
I propose, therefore, that the most helpful way to approach “Waking the Gods” is to think of it as a positive presentation of deification, albeit couched as critique of two-tier Thomism. It’s easy to get caught up in Hart’s objections to natural pura and the duplex ordo. Clearly he enjoys playing the scholastic game (especially when it gives him an opportunity to strike some mighty polemical blows), but don’t let that distract you—otherwise you’ll miss the forest for the trees. First try to piece together the Hartian understanding of humanity’s natural desire for God within the indivisible union of grace and nature. Remember: it’s “grace all the way down and nature all the way up.”3 We live in a one-storey universe. We are created by God the Father, for God the Son, in God the Holy Spirit and are divinely ordered to deifying participation in their Triadic life. The Fall has introduced a serious spanner into the cosmic works—namely, corruption, alienation, death—but the world abides as the theophanic manifestation and presence of the Trinity. Within this world human beings live in dynamic motion toward final unification with the God who is infinite Love. The LORD wills our good. Persistently, indefatigably, ardently, he lures and draws us to salvation in him.4 Our hunger for transcendent wholeness propels us toward the triune Creator who will be all in all.
I’m not going to pretend that I have coherent grasp of Hart’s thinking on this topic. As I mentioned in my first article, this is a difficult essay for me, given my ignorance of ancient and medieval philosophy. All I can do is identify highlights of his presentation of theosis and humanity’s natural desire for the God.
1) The cosmos is created for Christ.
If you have read “Waking the Gods,” you may be surprised that I should begin my list with the above statement; in fact, you may be wondering where Hart even discusses it in his essay. Well, it’s hidden away in one of the footnotes. The proponents of the natura pura hypothesize that God might have created a world in which human beings were not ordered to God as their supernatural end. This “might have” worries Hart. It intimates arbitrariness in God’s exercise of his freedom. The “might have” characterizes Thomas Aquinas’s reflections on a number of questions: Might God have created a different world? Might God have chosen not to become incarnate? To both questions Thomas answers yes. Hart explains his objection to the apparent voluntarism:
I realize that there are places in Thomas’s work where a certain interval of arbitrariness between God and his work in creation seems to emerge like a menacing specter from this or that shadowy corner, such as in his infralapsarian account of Christ’s incarnation, or in his seeming willingness to separate in principle the necessity of God willing his own goodness from the rationale determining the particular goodness he wills in creation. . . . [I]t must also be the case that there is nothing truly arbitrary in the way in which God acts and reveals himself, and that therefore he creates this world precisely because it is the world of Christ, the one world whereof the incarnation of the divine Logos is the mystery hidden from the ages, and therefore the one world wherein the consummate revelation of God to his creatures occurs.5
Our world is the “world of Christ,” the world in which God has has chosen to embody himself in deifying self-revelation. Not only is the cosmos created through Jesus, as the Gospel of John teaches us, but it is created for Jesus. Why? That humanity might become divine. Recall Hart’s fourth premise: “God became human so that humans should become God. Only the God who is always already human can become human. Only a humanity that is always already divine can become God.”6 For this reason we may not entertain the possibility that the divine Creator might have made a different world minus the Incarnation or a different kind of human being whom the LORD never intended for deification. The eternal decision to become incarnate logically precedes and founds the eternal decision to create a world from out of nothingness. Even if humanity had never fallen into sin and depravity, the divine Word would have assumed a body of flesh as the archetypal–eschatological Adam. Hart elaborates:
But for this union of divine and human, humanity would have no existence, since it would have no final cause. In the incarnate Logos, in the reconciliation of God and creation effected by the hypostatic union of the uncreated and created, the divine humanity that is the premise of creation is perfectly realized; and, in constituting the end toward which creation is oriented and in which it is established, this premise brings humanity into being solely as a mode of participation in the divine. In this perfect coincidence of the wholly eternal and wholly historical, the natural and constitutive transparency of humanity to God finds not only its axis, but the whole rationale of creation. This is why it is impossible to understand divine incarnation as merely a consequence of creaturely sin. There could be no creation at all but for the humanity of God and divinity of human beings; there could be no world but for the historical and cosmic achievement of that union in the event of incarnation, which is always already the perfection of deification. The infralapsarian logic of creation and divine incarnation that one finds in Thomas, for instance—which cannot even provide a coherent account of why God creates this world rather than some other, or of how in doing so he is not reduced to a voluntarist subject arbitrarily selecting from among an infinity of possible worlds, any of which is equally incapable of expressing the infinity of his goodness—is to be rejected without remainder. Only an understanding of creation as grounded in the event of Christ—only an understanding of this world as the one world of Christ—can make sense at once of the gratuity and of the rationality of creation. And that, of course, allows for only a supralapsarian theology of incarnation and deification.7
Behind Hart’s words we hear the words of Sergius Bulgakov:
God wants to communicate to the world his divine life and himself to “dwell” in the world, to become human, in order to make of humankind a god too. . . . Such it is in the interior life of the Trinity, in the reciprocal surrender of the three hypostases, and such it is in the relation of God to the world. If it is in such a way that we are to understand the Incarnation–and Christ himself teaches us to understand it in such a way (Jn 3:16)—there is no longer any room to ask if the Incarnation would have taken place apart from the Fall. The greater contains the lesser, the conclusion presupposes the antecedent, and the concrete includes the general. The love of God for fallen humankind, which finds it in no way repugnant to take the failed nature of Adam, already contains the love of stainless humankind. . . .
The Incarnation is the interior basis of creation, its final cause. God did not create the world to hold it at a distance from him, at that insurmountable metaphysical distance that separates the Creator from the creation, but in order to surmount that distance and unite himself completely with the world; not only from the outside, as Creator, nor even as providence, but from within: “the Word became flesh”. That is why the Incarnation is already predetermined in humankind.8
The Father creates the cosmos for his Son Jesus Christ for a single purpose—to awaken the gods!
2) Grace and nature are indivisible
Whether two-tier Thomism is accurately described as “two-tier” I leave to Thomists to decide. But clearly the adjectival term does not apply to Hart’s theology of nature and grace. The following passages bring out the indivisibility of grace and nature in the Hartian vision:
Perhaps, however, it would be best simply to note that—on the question of “grace” and “nature”—these pages advance an Eastern Christian view over against a particular set of Western Christian traditions. Indeed, if there is one thing on which all the great Orthodox theologians of the last century were agreed, despite all their differences from one another, it was that the entire problem of grace and nature (which was known to them almost exclusively from Thomist sources, many of them French) was a false dilemma created by an inept reading of Paul and by a catastrophic division into discrete categories of what should never have been divided. There is only χάρις, which is at once that which is freely given, the delight taken in the gift, and the thanksgiving offered up for it; and all those things that a distorted theology converts into oppositions or dialectical contraries or saltations—grace and nature, creation and deification, nature and supernature—are in fact only differing vantages upon, or continuously varying intensities within, a single transcendent act, a single immanent mystery.9
We immediately grasp the indivisibility of grace and nature. There are no moments when divine grace is absent; no moments when God needs to decide to be gracious or not. From beginning to end, at all times and in all places, God is actively at work by his grace to liberate creatures for the fulfillment of their natural and supernatural ends. All is comprehended, by grace, in the creatio ex nihilo (exitus et reditus):
What had become the “Thomist” position (which must be distinguished, incidentally, from any position we can confidently attribute to Thomas himself) was that a proper appreciation of the gratuity of salvation and deification can be secured only by insisting that, as the tedious formula goes, “grace is extrinsic to the nature of the creature.” That is to say, human nature has no inherent ordination toward real union with God, and—apart from the infusion of a certain wholly adventitious lumen gloriae—rational creatures are incapable even of conceiving a desire for such union. Even the unremitting agitations of Augustine’s cor inquietum are superadded spiritual motives that, in the current providential order of this world, happen to have been graciously conjoined to the natural intentionalities of created rational wills. But, so the claim goes, none of that need be the case. God could just as well have created a world in a state of natura pura, wherein the rational volitions of spiritual creatures could have achieved all their final ends and ultimate rest in an entirely natural terminus. The only longing for God such creatures would naturally experience would be an elicited velleity or abstract curiosity obscurely directed toward some original explanatory principle that might tell them where the world came from. Or, in some cases, for those who may have heard of the possibility of the beatific vision in the abstract, there might be an elicited “conditional” desire to see what it is like; but this would still not be the kind of supernatural appetite and superadded capacity that efficacious grace alone can infuse in a soul. And, even then, those ungraced spirits need never discover that principle or that possible end in itself in order to be wholly satisfied in their rational longings, since God thus “naturally” conceived remains the object of an only incidental inquisitiveness, adequately known in and through creatures. Moreover, supposedly, even in this world, where rational natures do bear the gracious imprint of a vocation to deification, human nature in itself remains entirely identical to what human nature would have been in a world without grace. Nature as such has no claim on grace, even where such grace is given, nor does it even have any awareness that such grace is desirable unless that grace is actually given. Hence the term “two-tier” Thomism: Nature is a circumscribed totality, a self-sufficient suppositum, while grace is a superadditum set, as it were, atop it, and only thereby super-elevating nature beyond itself. And here too one sees the effect of a certain Thomist tendency to see the Fall as humanity’s descent from a graciously elevated state (Eden) into the state of nature as God had created it in its integrity (including such essential features as suffering and death), as opposed to the Christian view that the Fall was the descent of humanity and the whole cosmos from their original and natural condition into an unnatural state of bondage to decay (including such accidental features as suffering and death).10
Hart’s understanding of grace as a continuum, both vertically and horizontally, makes clear the radical difference from the neoscholastic Catholic position. As Brian Moore has commented: “Grace is either the flourishing completion of nature, and thus interior to its natural telos, or it is an extrinsic addition as two-tier Thomism asserts.” The distinctions that the neoscholastic feels necessary to make in order to secure the gratuity of salvation are not only unnecessary but destructive to the economy of salvation. In God’s one eternal act of creation-redemption-deification, the sola gratia rules all:
At any rate, if nothing else, it seems clear to me that the early modern Thomist synthesis was the product of a long history of illusory dilemmas generated by false dichotomies. All too often, the debate was shaped by perceived antitheses and disjunctions where there were in reality only continuities, albeit as descried from sometimes inverse perspectives. Just as the ordo cognoscendi and the ordo essendi are one and the same continuum (as considered now from one pole, now from the other), so too perhaps are such seeming binary oppositions as nature and grace, creation and deification, the first gift and the second gift, the claims of the creature upon God and God’s gifts to the creature—not to mention sufficient and efficacious grace, or the antecedent and consequent decrees of God, or any number of other oppositions that this essay has not directly addressed. And the passage from one pole to the other, rather than involving an extrinsic addition to or intrinsic annihilation of anything, should be understood as occurring only along that continuum, and as progressing only by relative degrees of intensity within an original unity. There is no abiding difference within the one gift of both creation and deification; there is only grace all the way down and nature all the way up, and “pure nature”—like pure potency or pure nothingness—is a remainder concept of the most vacuous kind: the name of something that in itself could never be anything at all. Creation, incarnation, salvation, deification: in God, these are one gracious act, one absolute divine vocation to the creature to become what he has called it to become.11
Grace and gift, thanksgiving and rejoicing—such is our life within the first-storey universe, to the glory of God the Father.
I have more theological highlights to discuss, but they must wait for the next two articles.
 See Norman Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (2006).
 Sophrony Sakharov, We Shall See Him as He Is (2006), p. 172.
 David Bentley Hart, You Are Gods (2022), p. 19.
 “Spiritual beings in their deepest identity are lured to unity with God—even in some sense already possess this unity.” John Milbank, The Suspended Middle, 2nd ed. (2014), p. 56.
 Hart, p. 126, n. 10.
 Ibid., p. xviii.
 Ibid., pp. 111-112.
 Translated and quoted by Andrew Louth, “The Place of Theosis in Orthodox Theology,” in Partakers of the Divine Nature, ed. Michael Christensen, et. al. (2007), pp. 35-36. Underlying both Hart and Bulgakov is the magisterial thought of St Maximus the Confessor: “For the Word of God and God wills always and in all things to accomplish the mystery of his embodiment” (Amb. 7.22). See Georges Florovsky, “Cur Deus Homo? The Motive of the Incarnation,” Collected Works of Georges Florovsky (1976), III:163-170; Bogdan Bucer, “Foreordained from All Eternity,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 62 (2008): 199-215; Jordan Daniel Wood, “Creation is Incarnation,” Modern Theology, 34/1 (2018): 82-102.
 Ibid., p. xvii.
 Ibid., pp. 5-6; cf. Conor Cunningham, “Natura Pura, the Invention of the Anti-Christ,” Communio, 37 (2010): 244-254.
 Hart, p. 19.