Rahner on nature/grace

Rahner on nature/grace March 19, 2018

In a long footnote to an article on Rahner’s theology of divinization (p. 277, fn 43), Francis Caponi quotes Rahner saying “If the ordination [to a supernatural end] cannot be detached from the nature, the fulfillment of the ordination, from God’s point of view precisely, is exacted . . . . In other words, it follows from the innermost essence of grace that a disposition, in case it is needed, itself belongs to this supernatural order already; but it does not follow that as natural it would permit the unexactedness of grace to subsist.”

Caponi raises the objection: “But can we not say that God, having freely pledged himself to humanity as its proper end in the very act of freely creating human nature with an intrinsic supernatural ordination, is here subjected to no necessity outside that of his own divine will, thus making his offer of grace to humanity a perfectly free gift, and one that he was perfectly free to have withheld by creating humanity with no such supernatural ordination?”

If this is the case, then the shenanigans of the “supernatural existential” are unnecessary, “since God’s free creation ex nihilo of a creature intrinsically ordained to divinization secures the ‘subsequent’ freedom of the offer of God’s own Self in grace.”

Caponi suggests that this seems to be the logical conclusion of Rahner’s claim that nature exists for the sake of grace: “Grace, having ‘already’ been decided upon by God, leads God to produce creatures intrinsically ordained to receive what God had already decided to give.”

Rahner, however, rejects this implication. If one receives grace as “no more than the fulfillment of already constituted nature,” then this grace is received as “no more gracious than his created existence itself” (Caponi).

Caponi mounts an experiential argument in favor of Rahner’s answer. Our experience of Christ’s work is not an experience of watching God “finish the job.” Rather, though Jesus is both chosen and planned before the ages, His coming and redemption is also a free gift.

Further, “do not I, both as creature and sinner, always experience the Eucharist precisely as that which I am utterly and entirely unowed, upon which I, at this moment, can produce no claim, but which comes to me as essentially undeserved, undeserved in a way over and above both my sinfulness and the gratuity of my very existence?”

It would be a fundamental distortion of Christian experience to produce a theology that enabled me to “approach the altar of God with the sense that, as a (forgiven) creature, I was merely being given ‘what was coming to me.’” It’s essential to orthodox theology, Rahner says, that God’s love comes to us in such a way that we “can experience and accept it as the unexacted even and wonder not owed to him , the real man.”

Several fuzzy reflections. Caponi raises exactly the right objection, but his (and Rahner’s) response doesn’t finally answer it. Among other things, the way the problem of gratuity comes up here sets off some buzzing in my head. To put it in Protestant/biblical terms, is there any place for promise?

Reception of the Eucharist is unowed, for sure; we never make ourselves worthy of a place at the table. But if God says “Come here, I’ll feed you,” don’t we have some basis for protest if He subsequently blocks our way? “Eat every tree of the garden,” God says; doesn’t that mean that Adam has some (purely gifted) claim on the tree of life?

That protest and claim isn’t based on anything “in myself,” nor would I be protesting because I was denied what was “coming to me.” I’d be protesting the contradiction between God’s promise and His non-fulfillment. That seems to be a perfectly biblical protest (cf. Psalms!).

To put it another way, Caponi and Rahner seem to be leaving out God’s self-commitment in covenant. To put it yet another way, Caponi and Rahner (unsurprisingly) construct a paradigm of nature/supernatural that supports a traditionally  Catholic experience of grace.

That is to say, an experience that lacks a strong sense of grace-in-continuity, that is to say, assurance. I can’t be sure whether next time round I’ll be allowed to draw near or not. Our place at the table is an unmerited gift, like everything else; but we don’t crawl to the table but come to the table confident that we are what Jesus says we are, King’s friends.

Questions in theology proper also haunt this discussion. If the previous paragraph is on target, then it appears to suggest a nominalist, voluntarist doctrine of God. This would be an intriguing result not least because it reverses the common Catholic charge against Protestantism. And I have the sense that the question of God’s relation to time haunts this discussion.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!