Saturday, February 28, 2015

Gregg Allison addresses Rome’s “Nature-Grace interdependence”

Gregg Allison on Roman Catholicism
You can purchase this work here.
As was shown in my last three blog articles on “the Roman Catholic View of Nature and Grace” (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), this “interdependence” serves as a foundational tenet of Roman Catholicism, and virtually every Roman doctrine is shaped and underpinned by it.

Finally, here, Allison gives his opinion of this “interdependence” – the source of it, and the reason why its source is flawed. What follows is from Gregg R. Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Kindle Locations 1006-1073). Crossway. Kindle Edition, pgs 52-55 in the printed edition.
Each of the above doctrines and practices will be assessed in due time in the remainder of this book, but an appraisal of the first pillar on which they are built—the nature-grace interdependence—will be undertaken now.

Evangelical theology disagrees strongly with its counterpart concerning the interdependence between nature and grace. One objection is that the Catholic system’s concept of nature owes more to philosophical traditions—the Neoplatonism at the heart of Augustine’s theology; the Aristotelian philosophy to which Thomas Aquinas’s theology was wedded—than to Scripture.

Because Catholic theology defines “nature” philosophically, rather than shaping this concept according to Scripture, evangelical theology considers its notion of nature to be fundamentally flawed.

“The Evangelical systemic approach underlines the fact that building a whole system on a nature defined in this way is a structural fault of the Roman Catholic system, which is evident in every expression of the system itself and characterises its whole outlook.”

Indeed, rarely does evangelical theology address the topic of “nature”: “It has gradually departed from using the language of nature and the theology it implied, preferring instead to develop its understanding of the created world in terms of creation,” employing terminology like “created/ creation order” and “creation ordinance.”

Such reluctance to discuss the topic and the change in terminology for the issue is already a second objection to the Catholic understanding of the nature-grace relationship. Indeed, Eugene TeSelle believes that this relationship is “perhaps the only theological topic in which Catholic and Protestant thought have gone their own ways, passing like ships in the night, with no sense of common problems and standards of judgement.”

Assessing the Catholic system’s nature-grace interdependence according to Scripture, evangelical theology offers a third objection: The continuity between nature and grace does not find biblical support. For example, the pristine state of the original creation, designed and executed to be a hospitable place in which human beings would enjoy a face-to-face relationship with God and flourish as vice-regents with him, was shattered when the original couple rebelled.

This fall had ruinous consequences on Adam and Eve themselves, as they became guilty before God, enslaved to sin, broken relationally, and bound to death. But the biblical narrative also underscores the expansive, dreadful consequences of the disobedience of Adam and Eve on their relationship to the creation, as expressed in the divine damnation:
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3: 17– 19)
Subjected to futility by God as a punishment for human sin (Rom. 8: 20– 22), the realm of nature becomes a cursed place.

Emphatically, the one refuge in which Adam and Eve might have found rescue from ruin—the garden of Eden—becomes closed and shuttered to them as “[God] drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen. 3: 24).

To use [Roman Catholic] terminology, if the garden of Eden represents the nature-grace interdependence post-fall human beings are violently and decisively cut off from it, living instead in exile, the wilderness, a wasteland of their own undoing.

Furthermore, Scripture continues to emphasize the discontinuity, rather than the continuity, between the realm of nature and the realm of grace in John’s portrayal of the creation’s reception of its Creator, the Word of God, who is the life and the light of the world: “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1: 9– 13).

The Word of God incarnate as Jesus Christ, the one through whom came “grace and truth” (v. 17), was rejected by the world that he created, more specifically, by his own people, the Jews.

Again, to use [Roman Catholic] terminology, the realm of nature possesses no inherent capacity for God; even more, the realm of graced nature, the privileged people of God, possesses no intrinsic capacity for God. The only hope of rescue from this devastatingly grim nightmare is the new birth, being born of God, which has absolutely no connection to or continuity with family relationship, heritage (even Jewish), or human volition.

Only by an external act of God—the Creator-Word coming into his inhospitable creation and to his unwelcoming people—and by a radical work of re-creation, can sinful human beings experience the grace of God.

The quintessential example of this radical work of salvation, rather than nature being primed for grace and then elevated by it, is Abraham (Rom. 4: 17– 22). This unbeliever from Ur, called by the one true God out of idolatrous paganism, believed the divine promise while he was still not circumcised and before works of the law were even possible.

Accordingly, grace rescued Abraham out of nature; it did not remake him from within nature. Moreover, the gracious promise of a son by which Abraham would become “the father of many nations” (v. 17) found no counterpart in either his or his wife’s nature—“he did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb” (v. 19).

On the contrary, grace operated apart from nature, and Abraham believed in the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (v. 17).

To use [Roman Catholic] terminology, nature is dead and nonexistent in relation to grace; but God’s grace raises the dead and creates a new creation.

This emphasis on re-creation through grace, rather than grace finding a capacity in its counterpart of nature to be made over, is underscored in Scripture’s final chapters, the vision of the new heaven and new earth to come (Revelation 21– 22). Certainly, the consummation of this present age involves a renewal of the entire universe (Ps. 102: 25– 27; Rom. 8: 21; 1 Cor. 7: 31), but rather than understanding this renovation project in a continuity sense—grace reworking nature—it should be seen, in accordance with other biblical passages, as a renewal through destruction of the current reality:
“the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. . . . But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Pet. 3: 7, 10).
The replacement for this radically burned, old reality is “a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Rev. 21: 1). Furthermore, redeemed humanity’s new place will not be renewed space made out of earthly nature, but “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven” (vv. 2, 10).

In summary, for theological and biblical reasons, evangelical theology dissents from the Catholic theological system’s axiom of the nature-grace continuum. Because this tenet is foundational for the entire system, it will manifest itself and undermine specific doctrines and practices, as the bulk of this book will demonstrate and critique.
You can purchase this book here.


  1. So where did the nature/grace dependence come from? Augustine and Thomas Aquinas? Allison hints at that here:

    Evangelical theology disagrees strongly with its counterpart concerning the interdependence between nature and grace. One objection is that the Catholic system’s concept of nature owes more to philosophical traditions—the Neoplatonism at the heart of Augustine’s theology; the Aristotelian philosophy to which Thomas Aquinas’s theology was wedded—than to Scripture.

    1. Hi Vincent, here is some background material from Bavinck. He does not go into Augustine and Aquinas much (at this point), but he does accurately state the Roman Catholic doctrines.

      Keep in mind where the notion of “Grace” comes from: [which, as I’ve written, writers like Clement had gotten mixed up in the first place, see “Clement on Grace Part 1” and “Clement on Grace Part 2”]

      Stephen Duffy (“The Dynamics of Grace”, pgs 114 ff.) notes “Augustine had modified the tradition with a theology of grace that influences Western anthropology to this day…. Natural human endowments may not be denigrated but saving grace is a needed, superadded gift of divine largesse mediated through the Church and her sacraments … but this ‘natural endowment’ had to be distinguished from ‘that good which pertains to a holy life,’ that gift which does not emanate from nature, but is superadded by God. ‘The capacity to believe, as the capacity to love, belongs to human nature; but to actually believe and love belongs to the grace given to believers.’ ”

      Keep in mind here that Augustine is not referring to nature as Allison defines “biblical creation”. A biblical doctrine of nature holds that man is “very good”. In fact, as John Currid has noted, ““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).”

      Therefore, it was no “superadded gift” as Augustine said, “to actually believe and love”. This was no mere “capacity” – it was an actual thing that Adam and Eve did.

      So we see, Augustine got this wrong, and Aquinas made things worse.