Is Christian Life Unnatural? De Lubac's Development

Kathleen Sweeney FAITH Magazine November – December 2011 
Kathleen Sweeney offers a very accessible approach to a central problem of modern western Christian thought, namely the relationship between nature and grace. She brings out the significant contribution towards a solution made by Henri de Lubac's recovery of the Greek Father's insight that we are made for divinisation in Jesus Christ, God made man. Our June 2008 issue was largely dedicated to discussing the way in which Edward Holloway suggests developing this vision further (it can been seen at

). Ms. Sweeney is a freelance writer and graduate of the John Paul II Institute in Washington.

"God in the beginning of time plants the vine of the human race; he loved this human race and purposed to pour out his Spirit upon it and to give it the adoption of sons." St. Iranaeus, Adversus Haereses

The sexual mores of our day throw out a challenge to Christians with an assumption that the requirements of Christian life impose an unwelcome stricture on "natural" uninhibited sexual expression. Other periods of social history perceived Catholic teaching in particular as an obstacle to economic or political "progress" that would enhance human life. Beneath these attitudes is often a belief that the practice of Christianity somehow squelches our human nature and freedom which usually tend toward something more "human" or "realistic." This has left some practising Christians feeling that the struggle is too exhausting or the challenge too lofty so they give up and drift away, or else they explode in anger and enmity against Christianity.

There is frequently a misunderstanding of what human nature is and what its relationship to God's gift of grace is. Sadly these misunderstandings about nature and grace distort people's understanding of Christian life, raising questions such as: Is grace at odds with our humanity? Or is it our human nature that is an enemy? We then hope to answer two questions: Where did such misunderstanding come from? What is wrong with this picture?

How Nature Got Lost

The ideas at the origin of this problem are present deep in late medieval history in the thought of the Franciscan friar from England, William of Ockham, (1287-1347), who challenged the integrated view of the relationship between grace and nature with his philosophy of nominalism. Ockham rejected the real existence of a human nature because he had concluded that one can only know particular individuals and that universals that can be applied to multiple individuals, such as human nature, or the essence of a dog or a tree, or properties such as white or black, square or round were only names that we create in our mind. As a result, nominalists did not consider human nature to have any real objective and permanent existence. Thus anything that might be considered as "natural" to humanbeings became a matter of subjective interpretation.

Ockham was concerned to maintain the absolute omnipotence and freedom of God. Because of this concern, he believed that any patterns in creation or permanent natures in things would limit God's freedom. He rejected much of Greek philosophy in particular Aristotle's teaching that human beings exist as a stable substance whose nature is a rational animal and whose rational soul is the principle of unity and organisation of the human person. According to Aristotelian metaphysics, particular persons differ in accidental qualities but all share the same essential nature which has real existence in each existing human being. The classic definition by the Christian philosopher Boethius, who formed a bridge between Greek philosophy and medieval Christian philosophy, is that the human being is "anindividual substance of a rational nature," which became a standard definition.

A key to understanding the problem created by Ockham is the concept of analogy of being which was developed in detail by St. Thomas Aquinas and other Christian thinkers, most recently augmented by Hans Urs von Balthasar. Since the creature shares in a finite way in the gift of "being" granted by the Creator who is Absolute Being, there is an analogous relationship of similitude at the same time that there is radical dissimilitude. Because being is the source of goodness and perfection, the creature also possesses a finite goodness and perfection that reflects analogously the Perfect Goodness of Divine Being. The difference, however is always great: man's existence is totally dependent on God's act of creation whereas God's existence is eternal, infinite, omnipotent and dependent onnothing else. At the same time, we know from the book of Genesis that man contains something similar to God because he is created as an image of God. This is particularly reflected in his gifts of reason, freedom of will and relationships of love. Moreover, God gave Adam and Eve the further gift of grace to share in His divine life. This was lost through their sin of disobedience, but God clearly intended from the beginning to create man's nature to be receptive to the grace of participation in divine life.

Ockham's approach, however, made an equivocal comparison between man and God, i.e. God and man were totally different and there was nothing in common between them. Man can know nothing about God through his use of reason because nothing in man's experience was anything like God's reality. This set up an opposition between God and man, between divine knowledge and will and man's reason and free will. With an equivocal concept, man has nothing good in common with God's goodness and can know nothing about it. In fact, anything good in man was thought to subtract from God's glory and power. This was a zero-sum equation, an either-or opposition that replaced the Catholic "both-and" approach to man's relationship with God. Since man could do nothing good of himself, according to Ockham,revelation and faith are the only sources of knowledge of right and wrong or of God's will. This meant human reason could have little or no role in support of Christian faith.

Reform Undermined

It is ironic that the positive reforms that Protestant leaders sought in the 16th century were undermined by the faulty medieval philosophy of nominalism. French Catholic theologian and convert from Lutheranism, Fr Louis Bouyer, comments:

"If the Reformers unintentionally became heretics, the fault does not consist in the radical nature of their reform....The structure they raised on their own principles is unacceptable only because they used uncritically material drawn from that decaying Catholicism they desired to elude, but whose prisoners they remained to a degree they never suspected. No phrase reveals so clearly the hidden evil that was to spoil the fruit of the Reformation than Luther's saying that Occam was the only scholastic who was any good. The truth is that Luther, brought up on his system, was never able to think outside the framework it imposed, while this, it is only too evident, makes the mystery that lies at the root of Christian teaching either inconceivable or absurd."[1]

Martin Luther and John Calvin both absorbed the nominalist idea that God is unapproachable by reason. Biblical faith could be the only connection to God because of the equivocal understanding of God's being and man's being, and the conclusion that it was not possible for man to do anything good or positive in any way without subtracting somehow from the power and glory of God. Luther had not studied Thomas Aquinas but received most of his academic theology through the commentaries of Gregory Biel who was a prominent nominalist. Biel had accepted Peter Lombard's view that original sin involved a fundamentally disordered desire instead of the definition held by St. Augustine, St. Anselm and St. Thomas Aquinas that original sin is rooted in privation of grace, and does not fundamentallycorrupt our nature. Luther believed that every time we are tempted by a disordered desire, even if we resist it, we are sinning. Man thus is in a constant state of sin.

The nominalist theory that there is no existential reality to properties surfaced in Luther's belief that grace does not have any real existence as an internal property given to man by God, a spiritual reality that enters into us and affects us. Instead grace was considered by Luther as an attitude in God that covers our sins and does not count them against us, an external legalistic condition that does nothing to change us internally. This idea of external justification has no basis in Scripture which consistently speaks of the "new creation" or "new man" brought about through baptism. According to Fr Bouyer,

"Occam, and following him Biel, thought out the idea, without precedent in tradition, that justification, properly speaking, consists only in the acceptance of man by God, and that this acceptance in itself is independent of any change in the person justified....that God could also 'justify' the sinner and leave him in his sin."[2]

The only way to salvation for man was his faith in God's promise of salvation. But this faith could not be expressed as an act or "work" of man. The Church had always taught that man cannot come to believe in God's revelation and salvation without God's grace first softening our heart and enlightening our mind to lead us toward Him. But Catholic teaching considers that the grace of baptism really exists in us as a share in divine life, a real gift of God that changes us, that makes us new creatures reborn to a new life. Sanctifying grace, in Catholic theology, is a stable disposition that quickens our spirit to act in union with the Holy Spirit and gives us the gift of faith that works through love and is active. Luther held to a more external understanding of grace as God's action inseeing the person with faith as righteous and not seeing that person's sinfulness. He states, for example: "God imputes this faith for righteousness in his own sight... They are received into grace."[3]

Like Ockham, Luther emphasises God's omnipotence and freedom as being in opposition to man and rejected a universal human nature. Specifically, Luther denied that man has free will: "There can be no 'free will' in man, or angel, or in any creature... If we believe that Satan is the prince of this world,... it is again apparent that there can be no 'free-will'."[4] Luther concluded "that man without grace can will nothing but evil."[5] Catholic understanding of original sin is that it only weakened human nature and did not destroy the basic inclination of the human will toward good and of the human reason toward truth; therefore, man can use his will and reason in cooperation withGod's grace which will perfect these faculties of human nature in directing them toward their true purpose to give glory to God.

Calvin was even more insistent on the principle of the total depravity of human nature, which is a staple of the belief of Protestants who follow Calvinist theology.[6] Thomas Aquinas taught in this regard that grace restores the freedom of the will where it had been in bondage to sin, so that the person can cooperate with God's grace willingly and with joy; the mind also is freed to receive greater light and participate in God's creativity. In this way, human nature is internally brought to its perfection, not manipulated by external power. It is relevant also to realise that God who is Perfect Being does not create negative states or non-being. Since sin and evil are an absence of good, of being as well as of grace, God cannot be responsiblefor these negative states or man's lack of grace.

Protestants were not alone in being influenced by nominalist thinking. Catholic theologians were also under its influence. Fr Bouyer points out that this prevented them from detecting the philosophical errors in aspects of Protestant teaching and distinguishing these from the positive elements. This led to unfortunate and unfruitful polemics, extending the schism and fragmentation of Christianity. Since man could not abandon his own development and activity, many turned to a humanism focused on the improvement of man's life on earth while leaving the unfathomable God in his heaven.

Univocal Tendencies

The empiricism and scepticism embedded in nominalism came to the fore in the 17th and 18th centuries and many gradually drifted away from Christian faith. Under nominalist influence, there was no basis for understanding what is universal in human nature, and the chasm between God and man appeared unbridgeable. Some concluded that only rationalistic philosophy and material reality could be a source of knowledge, since God was extrinsic to life and unknowable by reason. Others followed a univocal understanding of God and man: that God and nature are the same, (i.e. a form of pantheism,) and man is simply a part of universal eternal being. Hegel is an example of univocal thinking. He concluded that the history of the world is simply the unfolding of the divine mind, that divine reason andcreated natures are one and the same with no distinction. Without analogical thought, the swing from the equivocal separation of transcendence and immanence to the other pole of their univocal identity becomes inevitable.

Some univocal tendencies appeared in 20th century Christian thinkers who sought to encourage dialogue with non-Christians by emphasising a universal ethics that paralleled Christianity in the moral sphere. Speaking in terms of a humanity that was making "progress," such thinkers risked the danger of confusing human progress with the Kingdom of God. A tendency to collapse nature and grace into one reality (a univocal identity) made grace too immanent within an unredeemed nature, ignoring the universality and timelessness of Christ's Redemption as central to man's history and identity.

The Fathers of the Church and medieval theologians never taught that there is a natural order of man that could parallel God's salvific work in Christ. They consistently maintained that in the one historical order that exists, God created humanity for one destiny, the supernatural one of sharing in divine life. Man from the beginning has experienced sin and the need for grace to restore him to the supernatural destiny God originally intended for him. This destiny is not extrinsic to man's nature but is embedded in it, even though it requires God's gratuitous gift of grace to realise it.

The Paradox of Man's Destiny of Grace

French theologian, Fr Henri de Lubac, S.J., during mid-20th century discussions of this topic, took up the challenge of the paradox that man is called to a destiny he is incapable of achieving on his own without the freely given gift of God's grace. The following is a summary of his important and needed development of the theology of nature and grace.[7]

De Lubac points out, first of all, that man as a spiritual being has an intrinsic openness to the infinite, even though as a created being he is finite and incapable on his own of filling this open space within himself. His calling to have a share in infinite divine life is not extrinsic to his nature, but is an internal capacity for God - the "capax Dei." God gave man not only the gift of being but also, de Lubac maintains, "upon this being he has given me, God has imprinted a supernatural finality; he has made to be heard within my nature a call to see him."[8] These are two separate gifts which logically precede and make possible the actual gift of grace offered to man's free will. The finality of man, embedded in his nature, is to share inGod's life, yet he must be offered and must freely accept the gift of grace to pursue this end. His intellect is ordered to the vision of God, and his will to the relationship of love with the Lord.

At the same time, "between nature as it exists and the supernatural for which God destines it, the distance is as great, the difference as radical, as that between non-being and being; for to pass from one to the other is not merely to pass into 'more being' but to pass to a different type of being. It is a crossing by grace of an impassable barrier." Having a capacity for this is not the same as receiving actual participation in divine life. "The longing that surges from this 'depth' of the soul is a longing 'born of a lack.'"[9]

De Lubac clarifies that man cannot know that his desire is for the beatific vision. "Man needs revelation, then, in order to know distinctly what is his last end." The book of Genesis tells him he is made in the image of God. Since the source of the image is infinite in depth, the image bears something of this depth, something beyond the limits of human reason. St. Maximus the Confessor asserts that the rational creature does not naturally know "those deep and strong roots" which only in the opening of grace operating in his being does he come to understand that he cannot entirely understand himself.[10] St. Augustine confirms that, "there is something of man which the inner spirit of man itself does not know."[11] Man is a mystery to himself. The nature of his soul is spiritual without the limits of matter, and closer to the angels than to inferior animals. It has a potency which leaves it unsatisfied by anything less than God Himself. "Certain depths of our nature can be opened only by the shock of revelation," de Lubac declares.... It is by the promise given us of seeing God face to face that we really learn to recognise our 'desire.'.... The bride only knows herself when she answers the bridegroom's invitation," de Lubac says, drawing from Paul Claudel who further said, "He will instruct her and teach her who she is, for she does not know.... It is Jesus Christ who reveals within us someone whom we do not know, it is Christ who speaks our soul to us."[12]

Nevertheless, man's intellect, which is never satisfied with knowledge already possessed but is always pushing on to know more, gives a hint of this "more" of our hidden desire. Man's will also in its constant seeking for a happiness which is never completely found reveals an implicit desire for God. There may be in man an intuition about this desire without having any clear idea of its nature.

"It is the Christian faith which, by setting the notion of the infinite being and our relationship with him at the centre of the whole revealed idea of God, makes us understand our nature, our destiny, the nature of the material world, of morality, and of the history of mankind."[13]

The spiritual nature of man, created directly by God as an image of God, is intrinsically capable of transcendence. St. Bonaventure stated: "Because [the human soul] was made to participate in was made with a capacity for God and thus in its image and likeness."[14] As Origen has said, our participation in God's image is "our principal substance," which means it is essential to us. Yet the mind of man needs knowledge of God to prepare it for the transcendent destiny God intends for man. De Lubac traces the searchings of ancient thinkers whose restless questioning revealed a sense of divine calling but without the means of interpreting the signs pointing to it. He quotes Jacques Maritain's description of this as "the greatpagan melancholy." De Lubac comments that today still we "misunderstand what we are.... Turned inward upon our human smallness, we neither know nor even wish to discover within us the void whose capacity will grow as it becomes filled with the fullness of God....All too often indeed we do not discern it. Revelation gives us the key."[15]

Corresponding to this desire and destiny in man, then, is the revelation of Christ's saving act which offers to man the possibility of becoming "a new creature in Christ Jesus," (2 Cor. 5:17), reborn in Him as adopted sons of God. This is the knowledge that is needed to dispose man to receive the grace Christ won for us on the Cross. This re-creation in Christ is a completely gratuitous act on God's part, offered to our freedom. It is an invitation to "a human exaltation from which man participates excellently in the things that are God's," as described by St. Bonaventure.[16] It is a real deification which also perfects all that is good in man. It is, in fact, this supernatural reality that fully explains human nature, fully develops itsfaculties of intellect and will. This is the end for which rational nature is created, its highest good which is above it and yet for it. Vatican II confirmed that

"Only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light...Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear."[17]

The Mystery of the Supernatural

With this in mind, let us reflect on the word "supernatural." What does this term mean? Some have oversimplified the reality this word signifies and considered it a kind of superstructure placed on top of human nature, ending up with a form of dualism of nature and grace. Although intending to preserve the gratuitousness of this gift from God to men, the result was that it became something external to man and therefore something man could live without if he chose to disregard this "extra." The Christian life of grace became one of several "options" available for human life. From this point of view there developed the further attitude that this "call" to "supernatural life" was actually "unnatural," i.e. some kind of contortion of human life which should be rejected. But this pushes asidetwo thousand years of Christian tradition that insists that man must live by the vision of God, a participation in divine life existing within his being by grace or else end up with a profound loss. There is no natural human life that exists without this call and no ability of man to follow through on it without the intervention of grace, won through the redemptive act of Christ.

This supernatural grace is much more than just redemption from our sinful state, although it is that as well. Once the soul is awakened to the infinite horizon of God's goodness and beauty, the human innate desire to know and to love God opens up to a vista that continually expands, and as one responds, the desire grows as well. The early Greek father, St. Gregory of Nyssa, declares, "For those who run towards the Lord, there will always be a great distance to cover. When he says, 'Arise and come,' the Word demands that one constantly arise and never cease to run forward, and every time he gives the grace of a greater advance."[18] However, this journey toward God should not be considered to be without a determined goal, de Lubac pointsout. The intellectual soul reaches its finality in the beatitude of knowing and seeing God in a happiness that satisfies, in a perfect rest from its restless seeking.

What is particularly new, in contrast to pagan notions of God, is that the Son in showing us the Father has revealed that God is a Person whose very substance is love. "In the gift of himself that God wills to make, everything is explained - in so far as it can be explained - by love, everything, hence including the consequent desire of our nature."[19] Unfortunately, in our current society the word love has been too closely associated with "eros." Therefore, de Lubac points out, it is important to understand that the "desire" spoken of is different from the desires of our common experience and must go through a transformation in order to attain its goal. The form of this love is revealed in the Word that is uniquely begotten by the Fatherand is "the reason for all things." The Word who lives in the bosom of the Father, equal in divine nature, grounds within himself all the intelligible world. The love between the Father and the Son is the foundation of the world. This love (the Holy Spirit) is freely given to the world, and God's will to love creates the human being to whom he desires to give himself freely. This is a condescension of willed love.

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who....chose us in him...that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, which he freely bestowed on us in the beloved." (Eph. 1: 3-6)

[1] Louis Bouyer, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (Westminister, MD: The Newman Press, 1956) 153.
[2] Ibid., 162.
[3]Martin Luther, The Confession of Augsburg, IV Of Justification, 1530.
[4]Luther, Bondage of the Will, xix Of faith in the justice of God in His dealings with men, translated by J.I. Packer and A.R. Johnston (London: James Clarke and Co. Ltd., 1957).
[6]Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Faith,
[7]Henri de Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural, trans. Rosemary Sheed, (NY: Herder
& Herder, the Crossroad Publishing Co., 1998. See also de Lubac, A brief catechesis on nature and grace, trans. Richard Arnandez, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984).
[8]De Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural, 76.
[9]Ibid, 83-84.
[10]Ibid, 210-211.
[11]St. Augustine, Confessions, Bk 10, c.5,n.7.
[12]De Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural, 217.
[13]Ibid, 224-225.
[14]St. Bonaventure, 2 Sent dist.5, dubious 1, vol 2.
[15]De Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural, 136-137.
[16]St. Bonaventure, 2 Sent. D27, al q,3,158.
[17]Vatican II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 22.
[18]St. Gregory of Nyssa, Canticle of Canticles, homily 5.
[19]De Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural, 229.

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