In Roman Catholicism, which (following De Chirico and Allison) may and should be thought of as a “system”, there are two “core doctrines” or ideas or themes which underlay all of the other loci -- these two are what Allison has referred to as the nature-grace interdependence.
Now, one of the first things I’ll say is that, as Reformed believers, we tend to think we know what is meant by “grace” – after all, we talk about things like “salvation by grace” and the “doctrines of grace”.
But the word “grace” in the context of all of church history has a long and convoluted history and meaning, and we do need to be careful of context if we are to understand what is meant by “grace” in any given instance. For example:
χάρις in Classical and Hellenistic Greek usage, including Philo.
χάρις in Old Testament and New Testament usage.
T.F. Torrance on 1 Clement and the Doctrine of Grace (part 1).
T.F. Torrance on 1 Clement and the Doctrine of Grace (part 2).
In the second article listed here, we’ll find the New Testament concept of “grace”, that which was used by Paul and the other New Testament writers. That particular usage is the way that Protestants tend to use “grace”. Summarizing the New Testament usage:
Torrance looks at “Grace in the New Testament” among three groups which he analyses: Grace in the Gospels, Grace in the Epistles of Paul, and Grace in the other New Testament writings. Of these, he summarizes, “there seems no doubt that the Pauline usage of charis became normative for the whole church”…
For Paul, it is always described as Ἡ χάρις τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ”…
There can be no doubt that Paul did think of the impact of grace upon men in terms of power, for “the Kingdom of God”, he said, “was not in word only, but in power”. The Gospel was not in word only, not a fiction, but in power and reality, creating its own results in righteousness and truth. … The Christian’s righteousness, wisdom, sanctification, and redemption are to be found in Christ Himself, and so Paul can speak of these as differentiations of charis even when they are manifest in the believer … Charis is never adjectival on the lips of Paul, but always dynamic.
... Grace means the primary and constitutive act in which out of free love God has intervened to set our life on a wholly new basis …
I have bolded that second link above on “grace” in Biblical terminology – I’d encourage you to go back and re-read that section if you get a chance.
However, in discussing the word “grace” in Roman Catholicism, it soon becomes clear that the word not only has its own long and convoluted history, but in the end, it has come to mean something totally different from the word in Biblical usage.
Allison is quite an able theologian, and I will pick up his account here:
De Chirico defines the two key concepts of nature and grace: “In Christian vocabulary, nature has been considered the equivalent of the created world as a whole which is both the result of God’s creating activity and the recipient of His saving purposes. As far as the latter is concerned, God’s dealings with the world (i.e. nature) have been accounted for theologically in terms of ‘grace’. Grace is what God does in relation to the world, both providentially and redemptively.”
In other words, nature, as the product of the creative activity of God, is the entirety of the created order and includes inorganic reality (the seas, mountains), the plant world, the animal kingdom, angels and demons, human beings, water, oil, bread and wine, and the like. Grace, in an all-encompassing sense, is the providential activity of God to sustain created nature in existence and to direct it to its divinely designed end, and his redemptive activity to rescue this created order from its fallenness due to sin.
Without flattening the diverse models of the relationship of nature to grace as developed by different Catholic theologians and movements within the Catholic theological system, an overarching characterization of this relationship is possible: Nature and grace are interdependent because they exist in a continuum or continuity. The two were divinely designed to operate in reliance upon each other such that nature is to be a channel of grace, and grace is to elevate or perfect nature.
To give a simple illustration, water (in the realm of nature) is capable of receiving and becoming a conduit of grace when, consecrated by the Catholic Church, it is used for the sacrament of Baptism, which confers grace upon its recipients. Indeed, George Weigel affirms “that it is through the ordinary materials of life— the materials of the seven sacraments, such as bread, wine, oil, and water— that the extraordinary grace of God enters history, nourishes the friends of Jesus, and empowers them in their missionary discipleship.”
This, by the way, is one of the outcomes of Aquinas’s Aristotelian metaphysics.
Continuing with his description of nature and grace, De Chirico explains, “there is a constitutive and irreversible link between them which sin, whatever its consequences, has not and cannot sever.” That is, at the fall of Adam and Eve, one of the consequences of that tragic event was a disturbance in this original nature -grace interdependence. Importantly, however, though marred by sin, tainted nature still possesses a capacity to receive, transmit, and cooperate with grace. The Catholic theological system thus has two poles, nature and grace, and it fits sin, which it takes seriously, in the sphere of nature, thereby relativizing the negative effects of sin on nature:
Nature and grace are the two constitutive elements of the Catholic system, with sin as a serious yet not devastating secondary element. Nature, while wounded by sin, retains a capacity for grace, and grace elevates or perfects nature. The two continue to operate interdependently.
By way of contrast, evangelical theology has three poles: creation, fall/ sin, and redemption/ grace:
In this system, sin is taken more seriously, and its corrupting impact on the creation is not mitigated by its being part of nature: “[N]ature is no longer considered as mere nature, not even an intrinsically graced nature, but always as a dramatically disrupted nature which needs to be restored by grace. In this view, nature is thought of as having experienced a radical breach at the fall and, in its post-fall outlook, which is the only historically real context in which creation finds itself, it cannot be anything but fallen nature.”
Indeed, evangelical theology has three constitutive elements, with the fall or sin a primary, rather than secondary, element of its system. Because of the devastatingly deep impact of sin on creation, the notion of nature as possessing some capacity for grace is nonsensical in the evangelical system. A sin-riddled, totally marred creation “exists in a state of separation from God, incapable of restoring the relationship in its own strength, nor is it even willing to do so.”
In summary, “[t]he difference between the two systems revolves around differing understandings of nature and sin, and sin’s impact on nature.” For Catholic theology, nature and grace are interdependent; for evangelical theology, nature and grace are at odds because of the devastating impact of sin on nature.
Allison, Gregg R. (2014-11-30). Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Kindle Locations 902-941). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
The two key take-aways from this account (which will be explained more thoroughly later in the book), are:
First, “Creation” (which is the term generally used among Protestants, instead of “nature”), is Biblically seen as “very good”: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:30).
Not only is it “very good”, but as John Currid notes in his commentary, “when the word for ‘very’ occurs after an adjective it is an absolute superlative. Therefore, the writer is describing God’s judgement of his own creation with great emphasis – it is perfect in every detail, even down to the very intricacies of its being” (Genesis, Vol 1: Genesis 1:1-25:18, pg 89).
This contrasts with the Roman Catholic view, in which “nature” is incomplete and needs to be complemented by “grace”.
Second, sin, in the Roman Catholic system, merely “wounds”. There is no concept that “the wage of sin is death”. A “super-added” “grace” (a donum superadditum) needed to be given to Adam and Eve even in the Garden, and when they sinned, the thing that was lost was this donum superadditum. In sin, whatever existed of “nature” was lacking before the fall, and still lacking after the fall.
In this way, in the Roman Catholic system, it is said that “nature is incomplete” and “grace perfects nature” – and in the Roman Catholic scheme of things, where the Roman Catholic Church itself is the channel of “grace” (through itself, first of all, and then through the sacraments), is the only way to obtain this “grace” in the world.
I’ve given away all the big secrets in these last couple of paragraphs. But we all need to be aware of these things, and how the relate to Rome’s program. And “how” all of these things tie together will be the topic of the next sections of Allison’s work.