Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Theological Problem of Grace and Experience: A Lonerganian Perspective

Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Theological Problem of Grace and Experience: A Lonerganian Perspective

Article excerpt

TWO MAJOR WATERSHEDS are evident in the history of the theology of grace. The first occurred during the 13th century when the collaborative efforts of Scholastic thinkers yielded a theorem of the supernatural. The second occurred in the Roman Catholic Church during the 20th century when theologians such as Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan, in what was no less than a kind of Copernican revolution, transposed this medieval theology of grace from the abstract and object-based framework of Scholastic ontology to the phenomenological and subject-based context of interior experience. This article compares the transitions from Augustine to Aquinas and from Aquinas to Lonergan in order to demonstrate an analogy of proportion, and thus to establish the insights of Lonergan as part of a cumulative series of achievements in Catholic theology.

In some sense, the theology of grace had its dawn in the mind of Augustine. Therefore, any account of the development of the concept of grace requires a consideration of Augustinian theology. Since theoretical differentiation was only partial in Augustine, his theology of grace remained limited. But what was in its inchoate phases in the meditations of Augustine came to fruition in the thought of Aquinas; and so, while Augustine worked out a position of grace and liberty to which the Scholastics were indebted, the metaphysical perspective achieved by Aquinas's theology of grace transcended the limitations of Augustinian speculation.

In a similar fashion, the viewpoint attained by Lonergan and other contemporary thinkers reflected an even further development that transcended the restrictions of medieval scientia. I contend that the interior differentiation of Christian consciousness, by which contemporary Catholic thinkers such as Lonergan and Rahner made explicit an "experience of grace," marks an explanatory breakthrough of a magnitude at least equal to the theoretical advance of Aquinas. In terms of theological progress, the theorem of the supernatural stands to the Augustinian theology of grace as an experiential account of grace stands to the theorem of the supernatural.


The idea of "an experience of grace," though endorsed by some contemporary Thomistic thinkers, has raised red flags in the minds of magisterial authorities. In one of the more recent versions of the Catholic Catechism, the following statement regarding "grace" and "experience" appears: "Since it belongs to the supernatural order, grace escapes our experience and cannot be known except by faith." (1) In the official and relatively recent catechetical teaching, the magisterium seems uncomfortable with expressing grace in the language of human experience. But while the Catechism and its proponents quite correctly recognize the supernatural character of grace, the contention that we have no consciousness of grace has, in recent years, elicited reproach for reflecting an excessive abstractness and perhaps a certain extrinsicism that does not cohere with the personalist turn in 20th-century theology.

The magisterium seems to be worried that describing "grace" in the language of human experience will secularize the divine mystery and reduce its majesty; and so it insists that grace "escapes out experience and cannot be known except by faith." To allay these fears and thereby embrace more fully the movement initiated at Vatican II, I intend to show that a description of grace in terms of human experience does not compromise, but in fact preserves and enriches, the deepest insights of our Catholic heritage.


Scholastic thinking did not grasp and formulate a notion of development, in part because it failed to achieve a complete understanding of human understanding--a failure that can be attributed to a lack of historical consciousness. Now it is evident that questions regarding the nature of human understanding are methodologically prior to questions regarding the extent to which and the precise manner in which one theological understanding surpasses another. …

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