I continue with theological highlights of David Hart’s essay “Waking the Gods,” included in his new book You Are Gods. If you have not yet read my article “The One-Storey Universe of David Bentley Hart,” you may find it helpful to read it first before continuing. Heck, just go ahead and read all the preceding articles in the series. It will only hurt for a moment.
Yet Another Theological Highlight
3) The hypothesis of pure nature is unnecessary to secure the gratuity of salvation.
Underlying the pure nature hypothesis is a properly evangelical concern to protect the gratuity of salvation. If the desire for the beatific vision is intrinsic to human nature, and if happiness and fulfillment is impossible apart from the satisfaction of this desire, then God owes the beatific vision to every human being he has brought into being, without exception. Salvation would no longer then be a matter of unmerited grace, no longer a gift offered to undeserving sinners, but a debt to be settled.
Lawrence Feingold paraphrases an analogy offered by St Thomas Aquinas that helpfully illustrates the relationship between nature, gift, and telos:
The notions of debitum naturae and grace are illustrated by an analogy that St. Thomas gives of a king who freely wills to make someone a knight. On the basis of this prior free decision, the king is now “bound” to provide him with a horse, without which he cannot be a knight. However, he is not “bound” to give him a horse with a special excellence, or special arms or other marks of distinction, for without these things one can still be a knight. These additional gifts augment the well-being and excellence of the knighthood that has already been willed, but are not necessary for its coherent existence. Thus these additional gifts are given freely, over and above what is due.1
The analogy posits a distinction between that which a knight needs in order to be a knight, without which he cannot fulfill his vocation—and therefore is owed to him by the king—and the gifts the king might gratuitously bestow upon the knight which would strengthen and enhance his life as a knight but are not absolutely necessary to his identity and success.
Now apply this reasoning to the human being. Various faculties, powers, and elements essentially constitute human nature (e.g., body and soul, reason, etc.), without which one cannot be considered a human being. One might also argue that a proportionate natural end is essential to evoke and direct action; otherwise, life would be incoherent and meaningless. When we add together all of these elements, we have a state of pure nature. Charles Boyer explains: “It is a state in which man possesses all that belongs to his definition, everything necessary for the exercise of his faculties, everything required to live reasonably and reach a proportionate end.”2 Note that in this philosophical analysis, nothing is said of humanity’s ordination to union with the transcendent Creator. Human nature qua human nature, claims the Thomist, does not require the beatific vision for its integrity and fulfillment; consequently, the supernatural desire for deification does not belong to the definition of man. We can easily conceive of a possible world in which the natura pura human would be capable of enjoying a natural happiness, without regret, discontent, or a yearning for a transcendent more. In this possible world God would be obligated to provide all the resources necessary to attain humanity’s natural end but no more. We might even think of this possible world as akin to the limbus infantium of medieval Latin theology. Unbaptized infants cannot be admitted to the beatific vision because they lack sanctifying grace. While St Augustine forthrightly consigned these infants to hell, later theologians postulated a different destiny, namely, limbo. Thomas Aquinas conjectured that the infants in limbo do not suffer from the lack of the beatific vision because they are ignorant of their supernatural calling and therefore ignorant of what they have lost. That God should summon human beings to a supernatural finality—thereby eliciting a desire and thirst that can only be satiated by deifying union—must therefore be judged as above and beyond the call of divine duty. He does not owe the beatific vision to human beings because their nature is not intrinsically oriented to supernatural blessedness. Grace is extrinsic, but once given the supernatural desire for God becomes interior to the person.3 The divine summons to blessedness and the reciprocal desire go hand in hand. Feingold writes:
The perfection of grace and glory, however, falls into the category of perfections that are maximally fitting to man and immeasurably augment his “well-being,” but which are not such that the nature cannot exist coherently and properly without them. Therefore, St. Thomas concludes that grace and glory are not given to man as something due to him, but by “pure liberality.” It follows that predestination to grace and glory is not due to man, but is caused solely by God’s goodness.4
The final sentence is clarifying. Given the Thomist triple commitment to (1) predestination to blessedness, (2) the anti-Pelagian sola gratia combined with a construal of original sin as privation of sanctifying grace, and (3) the dogma of eternal perdition, it is necessary for the Thomist to be able to say that the non-elect are not owed eternal beatitude in Jesus Christ and therefore are not unjustly treated by their exclusion from God’s predestinating decree. Similarly the bestowal of supernatural finality too must be understood as a second (third, fourth . . .) expression of gratuitous grace in addition to the divine act of creation; otherwise, divine justice would owe all human beings the blessing of the vision of God. Within the Thomistic system, the natura pura hypothesis makes an odd kind of sense. Feingold writes:
The gratuitousness of the gift of grace and glory does not come solely from the divine or personal aspect of the gift, considered in itself, but from its relation to the recipient, to whom it is not due. This means that it is not called for by anything imprinted in our nature itself, or constituting our nature. In order for God’s self-giving to be truly gratuitous with respect to our nature, it must not come to us as the fulfillment of an innate and unconditional desire imprinted on our nature.5
Hart’s response to the Neo-Thomist position is simple, direct, emphatic: because of the Christological foundation of God’s one gratuitous act of creation–salvation–deification and the indivisibility of grace and nature in our one-storey universe, the imprinting upon human nature of an absolute appetence for the beatific vision does not establish a debt which God owes to humanity. It’s all grace, from beginning to end. The seeds of the Latin confusion, Hart suggests, were sown by St Augustine with his contorted response to the challenges posed by the teachings of Pelagius:
Why should one assume that a wholly natural (which is also to say, wholly supernatural) progress into deification lies beyond the capacity of an unfallen rational creature? Why would one imagine that the capacity for the desire to see God is not also, apart from the unnatural limitations of sin and death, the natural capacity to achieve deification? Especially if one does not make the error of thinking that such an achievement must be either a work of grace or a work of nature, but realizes instead that such a distinction is a phantom of fallen consciousness? Even in this life, after all, something of the experience of real divinizing union with God can be vouchsafed to those who are devoted to the spiritual life—ἕνωσις, unio mystica, turiya, fanaa-fillah—and this evidently, however much a gift of grace, is also a real capacity of human nature when that nature is set free from the constraints of an unnatural limitation of consciousness. Every rational nature is already potentially infinite in its embrace of the divine nature, even if that potency can be actualized only as a kind of infinite epektasis.
In truth, this entire issue seems to pose a problem only if one is intent on maintaining precisely the kind of impermeable partition between nature and grace that a belief in creatio ex nihilo renders meaningless. Grace, to be grace, does not require a prior antithetical suppositum of something devoid of grace—pure nature or nature in itself—nor need it be a purely extrinsic gift at every level of its impartation; it need only be free in its entirety. Finite existence itself is always already nothing but the gracious effect of God calling creatures to himself out of nothingness. All those boring false dilemmas bedeviling Western theology since the Pelagian controversy—the causal priority we assign either to our own working out of salvation or to God working in us, either to God’s foreknowledge or to his sovereignty in election, either to the creature’s merit or to God’s, and so on—are simple category errors. Between the immanent and the transcendent, or the finite and the infinite, such rivalries of agency are not even cogently conceivable. An intrinsic rational desire for God would constitute a “right” to God’s grace only if our nature were our own achievement. Yes, in a sense God does manifestly owe his creatures grace, within the terms of the gift of creation; but that is a debt he owes ultimately only to his own goodness.6
Hart’s comment that the creatio ex nihilo renders a strict partition between grace and nature meaningless immediately generates the question “Why?” Recall premise #2 listed in the introduction to You Are Gods:
Nature stands in relation to supernature as (in Aristotelian terms) prime matter to form. Nature in itself has no real existence and can have none; it is entirely an ontological patiency before the formal causality of supernature, and only as grace can nature possess any actuality at all.7
Everything clear now? Probably not—most certainly not for me. Hart is directing our attention to the radical contingency of creatures. Considered in itself, a being exists only because God is continuously creating it. Summarizing the view of Aquinas, Steven Carroll and William Baldner comment: “The creature is always of itself literally nothing and therefore is in constant need of being created out of nothing.”8 I think this is what Hart has in mind. God does not first make a natural being and subsequently bestows grace upon it as a second gift. He simply creates an engraced being. The divine communication of grace, in other words, must be carefully distinguished from creaturely gifting within the created order, which presupposes already established recipients. As John Milbank puts it: “The creature as creature is not the recipient of a gift; it is itself this gift.”9 Further bestowals of grace might then be described as gifts to a gift.
Nor need we think that the desire for the beatific vision cannot be intrinsic to human nature because theosis requires supernatural assistance and gifting to achieve. All natural desires require their realization through powers and resources imparted by other beings and ultimately by the divine Creator. Potencies do not activate themselves.
A final cause must be logically implicit in the potency it actuates, true, but not necessarily as some wholly inherent and autonomous power of expression. And there is no logical reason to claim that an end that can be achieved only by supernatural assistance is not, for that reason, a natural possibility. Indeed, if this were the case, the very concept of natural potential would be meaningless, since any finite reality’s very existence is always already a possibility that has been enacted by a wholly supernatural gift of being. A potency can be thoroughly natural in itself even if proportioned to an end that the “whole power of nature” (as we know it, at least) cannot supply. There is no contradiction here. There would be a contradiction only if there were no reality at all corresponding to that natural potency, and so no real final cause implicit in it.10
Recall the magical transmutations of the rabbit. A rabbit, we learned, cannot be changed into a turnip or angel and still retain its identity because it lacks the potential to become either. If human beings can become gods, as the gospel assures us and our spiritual inclinations confirm, then this must mean that we are gods-in-the-making from the beginning of our existence: “Only a humanity that is always already divine can become God.”11 For this reason Feingold’s contention that the gratuitousness of God’s self-giving is compromised if it comes to us “as the fulfillment of an innate and unconditional desire imprinted on our nature” must be rejected. It presupposes a competitive disjunction between Deity and world that does not obtain. Grace only needs to be freely given to be grace. The natural desire for God is no less a divine gift than its transcendent fulfillment, nor is the gratuity of salvation jeopardized by the synergistic cooperation between uncreated and created agents, despite our inability to grasp the ineffable causal joint. “For all things come from thee, and of thy own have we given thee” (1 Chron 29:14).
It may be instructive to compare Hart’s statement that “in a sense God does manifestly owe his creatures grace, within the terms of the gift of creation” with the theological vision of the great 19th century storyteller and spiritual writer George MacDonald. In his unspoken sermon “The Voice of Job,” MacDonald develops the thesis that God does in fact have obligations toward his creatures; it this conviction, he proposes, that drives Job’s demand for an audience with the Almighty:
The grandeur of the poem is that Job pleads his cause with God against all the remonstrance of religious authority, recognizing no one but God, and justified therein. And the grandest of all is this, that he implies, if he does not actually say, that God owes something to his creature. This is the beginning of the greatest discovery of all—that God owes himself to the creature he has made in his image, for so he has made him incapable of living without him. This, his creatures’ highest claim upon him, is his divinest gift to them. For the fulfilling of this their claim he has sent his son, that he may himself, the father of him and of us, follow into our hearts. Perhaps the worst thing in a theology constructed out of man’s dull possible, and not out of the being and deeds and words of Jesus Christ, is the impression it conveys throughout that God acknowledges no such obligation. Are not we the clay, and he the potter? how can the clay claim from the potter? We are the clay, it is true, but his clay, but spiritual clay, live clay, with needs and desires—and rights; we are clay, but clay worth the Son of God’s dying for, that it might learn to consent to be shaped unto honour. We can have no merits—a merit is a thing impossible; but God has given us rights. Out of him we have nothing; but, created by him, come forth from him, we have even rights towards him—ah, never, never against him! his whole desire and labour is to make us capable of claiming, and induce us to claim of him the things whose rights he bestowed in creating us. No claim had we to be created: that involves an absurdity; but, being made, we have claims on him who made us: our needs are our claims. A man who will not provide for the hunger of his child, is condemned by the whole world.
Observe the flow of MacDonald’s logic. God has freely created human beings with needs and desires, the greatest being our need for God himself. These needs and desires, in turn, put the Creator in debt to us—not of course against his will but a debt freely and joyfully assumed by him in his making of rational beings. “There is no claim on God that springs from us: all is from him.” Not only has our heavenly Father given us the right to press our claims, but he wants us to do so boldly and persistently. (Luke 11:1-13; Matt 10:29-31; Luke 18:1-8). MacDonald’s language of rights and claims is striking and disorienting. Who are we to put God in the dock and demand an accounting, yet is that not what Job is seeking, to have his day in court?
For MacDonald, God’s free creation of humanity implicitly contains the promise of his absolute commitment to our good and well-being, a promise made explicit in his self-revelation in Jesus Christ. We may be mere clay, but we are clay for whom God died. For this reason he has given us the right to call upon him to fulfill his promises and satisfy his debts. Like a loving father, God delights both in our faithful petitions and his fulfillment of them. The rights he bestows upon us are but expressions of his absolute and unconditional love: “All our rights are such as the bounty of love inconceivable has glorified our being with—bestowed for the one only purpose of giving the satisfaction.” The LORD‘s promises flow from his unflagging love and faithfulness. “God could not be satisfied with himself,” MacDonald explains, “without doing all that a God and Father could do for the creatures he had made—that is, without doing just what he has done, what he is doing, what he will do, to deliver his sons and daughters, and bring them home with rejoicing.” In God mercy and justice are one. MacDonald therefore dismisses all worries of presumptuousness, for it is our Father who invites us to presume:
It is terrible to represent God as unrelated to us in the way of appeal to his righteousness. How should he be righteous without owing us anything? How would there be any right for the judge of all the earth to do if he owed nothing? Verily he owes us nothing that he does not pay like a God; but it is of the devil to imagine imperfection and disgrace in obligation. So far is God from thinking so that in every act of his being he lays himself under obligation to his creatures. Oh, the grandeur of his goodness, and righteousness, and fearless unselfishness! When doubt and dread invade, and the voice of love in the soul is dumb, what can please the father of men better than to hear his child cry to him from whom he came, ‘Here I am, O God! Thou hast made me: give me that which thou hast made me needing.’ The child’s necessity, his weakness, his helplessness, are the strongest of all his claims. If I am a whale, I can claim a sea; if I am a sea, I claim room to roll, and break in waves after my kind; if I am a lion, I seek my meat from God; am I a child, this, beyond all other claims, I claim— that, if any of my needs are denied me, it shall be by the love of a father, who will let me see his face, and allow me to plead my cause before him. And this must be just what God desires! What would he have, but that his children should claim their father? To what end are all his dealings with them, all his sufferings with and for and in them, but that they should claim their birthright? Is not their birthright what he made them for, made in them when he made them? Is it not what he has been putting forth his energy to give them ever since first he began them to be—the divine nature, God himself?
As far as I know, MacDonald was unacquainted with both the Eastern tradition of deification and the Thomist hypothesis of natura pura. Regarding the former, perhaps he might have welcomed it, given his understanding of salvation as oneness with the Father. Regarding the latter, he would have dismissed it with the same scorn that he denounced the Calvinism in which he was raised. He would have immediately recognized that the scholastic distinctions intended to secure the gratuity of grace are but a smokescreen to hide the replacement of the God of infinite love with a Deity who arbitrarily elects some to eternal bliss while passing over the rest to their inevitable damnation (negative reprobation). The Father of Jesus Christ loves humanity with an absolute and unconditional love that intends the salvation of each person. We may speak of this love as grace, if we wish, but only as long as it signifies love-in-action. If it does not, then the concern to protect the gratuity of grace is but devotion to despotic omnipotence.
 Lawrence Feingold, The Natural Desire to See God According to St. Thomas and His Interpreters (2004), p. 226; the analogy is from Thomas’s discussion of predestination in Questiones Disputatae de Veritate 6.2.
 Quoted by Noel O’Sullivan, “Henri de Lubac’s Surnaturel: An Emerging Christology,” Irish Theological Quarterly, 72 (2007): 12.
 Feingold vigorously rejects the Lubacian charge that the Neo-Thomist position suffers from an extrinsicism that generates a two-tier relation between nature and grace: see Feingold, pp. 481-485.
 Feingold, p. 227.
 Ibid., p. 386; emphasis mine.
 David Bentley Hart, You Are Gods (2022), p. 9.
 Ibid., pp. xvii-xviii.
 John Milbank, The Suspended Middle, 2nd ed. (2014), p. 48. Milbank continues: “The same consideration applies to a spiritual creature [angels and human beings]: as spirit he does not receive a gift; he is this gift of spirit” (p. 48).
 Hart, p. 8.
 Ibid., p. xviii. It is unclear to me how Eastern theologians will react to Hart’s formulation. They have their own concerns regarding the gratuity of deification. Compare this statement from St Maximus the Confessor:
Deification does not belong to what lies within our potentiality to bring about naturally, since it is not within our power. For no logos of that which transcends nature lies within nature. Therefore deification is not an accomplishment that belongs to our potentiality: we do not possess the potentiality for it by nature, but only through the divine power, since it is not a reward given to the saints in requital for righteous works, but is proof of the liberality of the Creator, making the lovers of the beautiful by adoption that which he has shown to be by nature. (Th. Pol. 1 [PG 91: 33A-36A]—quoted by Daniel Haynes, Grace and Metaphysics in Maximus Confessor , p. 10.)
Also see Vladimir Lossky, “The Doctrine of Grace in the Orthodox Church,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 58:1 (2014): 69–86.