The Dialectic of “Nature and Grace” in Christian Theology
I recently had opportunity to lead a group of post-seminary ministry residents (in residence at a large, urban church) in a day-long study and discussion of the relationship between “nature” and “grace” in the theologies of Athanasius, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas. My assignment (and theirs) was to rediscover these three great teachers of the church and ponder their significance for us, twenty-first century Protestant Christians. In preparation for our day of theological discovery and discussion we read Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word, Augustine’s Enchiridion: Faith, Hope and Love, and selections on nature and grace from Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. I chose the theme “nature and grace” because I believe it is basic to much Christian theological belief—especially about humanity, sin, and salvation.
Traditionally it is thought that this theme of nature and grace underlies the Catholic-Protestant divide. That is, it is widely believed that the most significant difference between them has to do with the relationship between nature and grace. According to this traditional explanation, Catholic theology assumes nature to be damaged by the fall but not entirely corrupted—deprived but not depraved. According to it, Protestant theology assumes nature to be so corrupted by the fall as to be depraved and without even a point of contact for grace. According to this traditional interpretation, Catholic theology sees nature as open to grace and grace as elevating and fulfilling nature whereas Protestant theology sees nature as closed to grace such that grace must shatter nature and restore it miraculously.
This traditional account of the Catholic-Protestant divide can be partially justified by looking at Thomas Aquinas, on the one hand, representing Catholic theology, and Martin Luther and John Calvin on the other hand, representing Protestant theology. According to Aquinas even the unregenerate, fallen sinner, devoid of righteousness, left to his own devices (nature) can reason his way to a certain, minimal knowledge of God. That knowledge is not salvific, however, and revelation and faith, gifts of grace, elevate and fulfill that minimal knowledge of God which is already “open” to them. According to Luther and Calvin, on the other hand, the natural human mind, reason left to itself devoid of supernatural revelation and faith, is nothing but a factory of idols (Calvin). To be sure, both Luther and Calvin believed there is a bare sensus divinitas—awareness that God exists—in every human soul. But this is not a true knowledge of God and, apart from grace, left to themselves, sinners always only turn that into idolatry. Revelation and faith come to the sinner as shattering “bolts out of the blue” that find no anticipation or openness or point of contact in the natural mind but contradict it.
One misunderstanding that has arisen, and can be found in some places even in Luther and Calvin, is that Catholic theology, following Thomas Aquinas, places so much value in nature, even under the conditions of the fall, that it negates saving grace as sheer gift. Nature is given “some credit” for anticipating grace so that grace is not sheer gift. This suspicion is deepened and allegedly supported by Aquinas’ and Catholic theology’s talk of “merit.” However, our reading of Aquinas revealed that he (if not all Catholic theologians after him) strongly emphasized that nature alone cannot save or “force” grace (put God in debt to man) and that even merit (congruous, not condign) is a sheer gift of God. The only merit that contributes to man’s salvation is Christ’s. This is given by God to the sinner who lives by faith, but, of course, even for Aquinas “faith” is understood as “faithfulness” (to the sacramental system) and not mere trust.
The traditional interpretation is even more complicated by the fact that many Protestants stand somewhere between Aquinas and Catholic theology and Luther and Calvin on this issue of the relationship between nature and grace. An example is Emil Brunner who, unlike Barth, believed in a “point of contact” in nature (the sinner’s humanity) for the gospel, for grace. According to Brunner the fall into sin (a universal fact, not a historical event) results in the loss of the material image of God but not the formal image of God. There remains in the fallen sinner a bare point of contact for the gospel and grace. Brunner identified this point of contact in nature as “responsible freedom” and the ability to hear and respond to the call of God through the gospel. (The material image he understood to be righteousness in fellowship with God which can only be restored by grace through faith.) Barth, of course, in agreement with Luther and Calvin, rejected Brunner’s via media with the declaration “Nein!” and accused Brunner of re-opening the theological door to the inevitable result of natural theology—total accommodation to idolatrous ideology (e.g., Naziism). Barth’s reaction to Brunner was “over the top” and unjustified. Brunner’s “natural theology” was not at all like even Aquinas’. Yet, Brunner did attempt to carve out a kind of middle ground that allowed for nature to survive the fall and be open to grace while affirming the total helplessness of nature to grasp or force grace.
What should evangelical Christians think of the relationship between nature and grace? Evangelicals have not focused much attention on this dialectic, but it simmers below the surface of much debate among evangelicals about, for example, monergism versus synergism and apologetics versus fideism. On the one hand, Cornelius Van Til denied any point of contact between the sinner and the gospel except in the sinner’s awareness of being guilty. For him, as for Luther and Calvin, grace comes as a bold out of the blue, a miraculous streak of lightening, dividing the darkness of nature and overcoming its resistance. On the other hand, E. J. Carnell believed in an openness of nature, even under the conditions of the fall, to revelation and faith.
I believe evangelicals should revisit this nature-grace dialectic as the ministry residents and I did (together with their pastor) recently using Athanasius, Augustine, and Aquinas. Clark Pinnock did this already in Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (InterVarsity Press, 1996). There Pinnock argued that “There is an ember of the image of God still in us [in spite of our depravity], and the Spirit blows upon it. People have capacity for the faith God looks for. The Spirit woos us but does not impose on us.” (160) Also, “No nook or cranny [of reality] is untouched by the finger of God.” (187) Pinnock seemed to be agreeing with von Balthasar that there is no such things “pure nature” and that even nature corrupted by sin is not entirely closed to the work of grace.
We must avoid, however, any talk of human “merit”—whether condign or congruous—in relation to grace. “Merit” inevitably implies God put in man’s debt—no matter what denials attach to its affirmation. And we must be extremely cautious about any tendency to collapse nature and grace into each other. Grace must be kept “supernatural,” not a dimension of nature—which would make it something other than gift and result in denial of the fall and its consequential corruption. The nature-grace dialectic is an essential theological dynamic, but some Catholic and some Protestants have distorted it into a dualism that is entirely unnecessary.