Nature and Grace

My head started spinning only a few pages into Andrew Dean Swafford’s Nature and Grace. He offered initial support for maintaining a distinction of nature and grace by appealing to 1 Corinthians 2:9 and arguing that the “original creation is surpassed by man’s new creation in Christ” (4). 

To which one wants to say, Sure thing! Up with surpassing Adam!

But then this temporal and covenant distinction between Adamic creation and Christic new creation gets conflated with “nature and grace” (5), and pretty soon we’re getting a definition of nature from Aristotle (8). One doesn’t have to be Tertullian to wonder whether we are justified in making such an easy equation between old/new creation and nature (Aristotelianly defined) and grace.

Then there’s this: “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’ from within human nature. . . . 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” (7).

Well, No. Sure, intrinsicists will say that nature (created existence) is a gift, and in that sense “grace.” But intrinsicists also believe in Christ, and therefore in “new creation,” which blasts in from outside and doesn’t bubble up from within. Intrinsicism does not equate old and new, Adam and Christ, creation and resurrection. And I’m back to my first head-spin: If old/new is equivalent to nature/grace, why is Swafford unhappy with an intrinsicism that acknowledges the newness of the new? Something else much be at stake. 

And it is: Above all, the double end of man (9-10). The “independent intelligibility of the natural order” (9). 

Also, the debitum naturae according to which “some things are in fact due to the creature on account of the creature’s nature or essence. God’s justice to the creature entails that He provides whatever is necessary for a given creature to reach its natural end.” God could “not have withheld this end from man without injustice on His part” (10; de Lubac, by the by, strongly denied this idea, p. 81). One suspects that cannot mean what it says: God owes, say, food and drink to people? Starvation is an actual (not merely perceived) injustice on God’s part? 

I suspected that the problems that Swafford tries to solve are problems created by the nature-grace scheme, which is pretty much what de Lubac says about the problem of gratuity: “how can one speak of something in man which would weigh on God, putting Him in dependence on man, since such a desire or such a need – if it is in man – is not from him? It is first entirely willed by God” (quoted, 82-3).

My suspicion deepened when I read Swafford’s conclusion to his analysis of Steven Long’s recent defense of pure nature (Long, N.B., insists on a “theonomic” understanding of nature): Swafford says that his book aims to stress “the paramount need to distinguish nature and grace intelligibly, so as to preserve the supernatural character of the Christian faith” (139). Which sounds as if it means we need to distinguish nature and grace to maintain the distinction between nature and grace.

Swafford is at his best in the (comparatively few) places he talks Bible. That leads to a modest plea: Might we, in trying to work through these complicated issues, try the experiment of sticking to Scripture and Scripture’s categories. At least at the beginning. Let’s see how that might shift the terms of the debate. It might untie some knots and solve some dilemmas. We might, for instance, find some consensus without compromise by temporalizing/covenantalizing the issue, by framing the question as old/new, Adam and Christ.

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