Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Grace-Nature Distinction and the Construction of a Systematic Theology

Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Grace-Nature Distinction and the Construction of a Systematic Theology

Article excerpt

The question of the grace-nature distinction is an enduring theme for theological investigation. The implications of this distinction stretch across a range of theological discourses concerning, for example, the relationship between faith and reason, philosophy and theology, social sciences and ecclesiology, natural law, and specifically Christian ethics. Indeed Lonergan goes so far as to suggest that the distinction is the basis for the development of a scientific or systematic conception of theology in the Middle Ages. (1) While others may contest such a claim, it is indicative of the continuing significance of the debate around this question. This is especially the case for Catholic theology, with Pope Pius XII teaching that the distinction has continuing theological validity. (2) Despite this teaching, much current Catholic theology is less than convinced of the importance of the distinction, stressing the impact of divine grace to such an extent that the construct of an underlying human nature, or at least its usefulness, is called into question. Theologies that promote a disjunction between church and world, for example, often lead in this direction in their efforts to emphasize Christian distinctiveness. (3) Nonetheless the distinction, which first achieved a more precise elucidation in the writings of Philip the Chancellor (ca. 1160-1236), has served Catholic theology well for close to a millennium. The questions to raise are what will be the continued role of the grace-nature distinction, and what form will it take for theology in the present millennium?

My purpose here is not to seek to abolish the distinction or to call into question its utility. Rather, I propose that the writings of Bernard Lonergan offer new and important developments for the distinction. I would suggest that these developments can provide systematic theology with a new grounding and new resources for the next millennium. The two I have in mind are Lonergan's notion of a hierarchical and normative scale of values--further developed in the writings of Robert Doran (4)--and suggestions found in Lonergan's writings on the Trinity and the grace of a relationship between the trinitarian relations and created participations in the divine nature. (5) With these developments Lonergan achieves two major advances on the traditional grace-nature distinction. The first is to unpack the relatively compact notion of human nature, transposing it from its predominantly metaphysical origins, to conceive of a human subject constituted by and located within history; the second is to unpack the notion of grace, to provide distinctions within the order of grace that bring together doctrines of the Trinity, incarnation, beatific vision, and grace. Taken together these developments have the potential to ground a renewed systematic theology. (6)

My argument first exposes the history of the distinction beginning with the theological struggles of Augustine against Pelagius. It then moves to the medieval systematization of the distinction in Philip the Chancellor and more specifically Aquinas's use of the distinction to disengage himself from the earlier Augustinian position. I then consider the ways in which Aquinas's carefully worked-out distinction became a separation under the impact of extrinsicism. This position dominated theology until the present era. Next I attend to the more recent attempts to overcome extrinsicism in the work of Henri de Lubac and Karl Rahner. Finally 1 consider some of the more contemporary contributions to the debate on the grace-nature distinction. From this platform 1 consider the significance of the two contributions found in Lonergan's writings and their potential to provide a foundation for systematic theology in the coming millennium.

History of the Distinction

Grace is certainly a central theme in the New Testament, especially in the letters of Paul. However, the very nature of these writings--occasional letters to meet the pastoral needs of quite different church communities--means that we do not find in the New Testament a complete unpacking of the implications of the term or of the difficulties it might cause for later generations. …

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