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Monday, June 11, 2012

On Nature and Grace

This post is one of a series introduced in the first and last paragraphs here. That should explain why it might be kind of weird.

As it happens, I have skipped a speculative post I was planning to include in this series called “On Ousia and the Oneness of God, Christ as the Universal Man, and The├┤sis.” For one thing, it’s even further out there than the other posts, and I’m afraid to put it in public view. (Given the level of readers’ interest, I’m using the term “public” very loosely.) But also—and I admit that this might be strangely superstitious—the subject matter itself seems too holy for the internet. So instead, on to “Nature and Grace.”




Roman Catholics, stemming from Augustine through Thomas Aquinas, are comfortable using the terms “nature” and “grace” in a very specific relation. “Nature” is what was created by God as good and has been perverted by the Fall into sin, but still retains some of its original goodness. “Grace” is what has been newly re-created by God on account of the work of Jesus Christ. The typical conception of the relation of nature and grace is that grace is a superadded gift to nature. Nature is good but imperfect. Grace is nature perfected (or at least on the way to perfection).

On the one hand, I think there is a basic relationship here that is hard to argue against from Scripture. However, from a Protestant perspective—and perhaps more to the point from the perspective of someone who has read penetrating new appraisals of the social background of the NT concept of grace—I have a three-fold critique/correction/clarification.

1) It’s not really “grace”; it’s “graced.” What the Catholic tradition describes by “grace” is actually the state or result of nature having received God’s grace (both favor and the gift that concretizes that favor).

2) Even nature by itself is “graced.” For example, life itself is a grace from God. He didn’t have to give it, and nature doesn’t demand it. Nature doesn’t even require its own existence; that too is a grace from God. Though nature in its fallen state does not reflect the richness of the grace poured out in Jesus Christ, it still bears the evidence of God’s grace.

3) Grace doesn’t only add to nature. It also subtracts and transforms. Nature is not merely good-though-incomplete. Nature is perverse—not utterly perverse (because that’s impossible), but perverse nonetheless. God’s grace not only adds goodness to nature but subtracts badness and/or transforms it into goodness. The Catholic scholastic charitable view of nature (though not as rosy as that of Enlightenment rationalists and romantics) likely stems from a reading of Augustine that describes evil as the absence of good and therefore as “Nothing,” a lack to be filled up by addition, not a substance to be annihilated. But if Augustine (or for that matter the Bible) really considered evil to be not so much as the lack of good but as the perversion (twisting, warping) of good, then evil, though still not substantial in its own right, has a certain parasitic substance to be purged in the perfection process. Grace (or again, to be precise, the state of having been graced) cannot be accurately described without including this purging of evil alongside the addition of good.

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