Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Donum Superadditum, Aquinas, Pseudo-Dionysius, and the false and empty nature of Roman Catholic Tradition

WSC professor of historical theology Scott Clark has put up a post that I think gets to the heart of the disagreement between the Reformers and Rome.

To begin to come to some understanding consider these passages from an essay by Herman Bavinck, “Calvin and Common Grace,” trans. Geerhardus Vos The Princeton Theological Review 7 (1909): 437–65, in which he gave an account of his understanding of the differences between the medieval and Reformation churches on the relations between nature and grace. In the medieval period,

The Church, however, is not merely the possessor of supernatural truth; in the second plea it is also the depository and dispenser of supernatural grace. As the Church doctrine is infinitely exalted above all human knowledge and science, so the grace kept and distributed by the Church far transcends nature. It is true this grace is, among other things, gratia medicinal is, but this is an accidental and adventitious quality. Before all else it is gratia elevans, something added to and elevating above nature. As such it entered into the image of God given to Adam before the Fall, and as such it again appears in the restoration to that original state. In view of its adding to exalted nature a supernatural element, it is conceived as something material, enclosed in the sacrament, and as such dispensed by the priest. Thus every man becomes, for his knowledge of supernatural truth and for his reception of supernatural grace, that is, for his heavenly salvation, absolutely dependent on the Church, the priest and the sacrament. Extra ecclesiam null salus.

The most important thing to observe here is that, in this conception, grace elevates nature. Thomas (Aquinas) taught that grace “perfects” nature, that creation is inherently imperfect. It is not that, as the Reformed would say later, creation was created awaiting glorification. It was, rather, that creation was inherently corrupt. As Bavinck wrote,

The world, the state, natural life, marriage and culture are not sinful in themselves; only they are of a lower order, of a secular nature, and unless consecrated by the Church, easily become an occasion for sinning.

Again, the thing to notice is the hierarchical conception of existence. Gradually, through the medieval period, the Western church came to think of the relations between God and man as an ontologically hierarchy with man at the bottom and God at the top.

The whole hierarchical idea is built on the sharp distinction between nature and grace.

This gets at the crux of the issue: “the sharp distinction between nature and grace.” Which, distinction, according to Bavinck, was repudiated by the Reformation.

…the Reformation of the sixteenth century differed from all these attempts in that it not merely opposed the Roman system in its excresences but attacked it internally in the foundations on which it rested and in the principles out of which it had been developed. The Reformation rejected the entire system, and substituted for it a totally different conception of veritias, gratia, and bona opera.

This is an under appreciated element of the Reformation, the reassertion of the distinction between the Creator and the creature. That distinction destroyed the hierarchy and asserted a strict analogy between God and man. According to the Reformation, salvation was no longer to be considered deification, participating in the divine being, or “elevation” but deliverance from wrath, free acceptance by God on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed and received through faith (trusting in Christ). Sanctification, conformity to Christ, became the consequence of justification.

This account of the difference between the medieval and Reformation is consistent with the way the Reformed saw the issue.

Thus, for Bavinck, the issue seems to have been two things: a hierarchical ontology (view of being) and the “sharp distinction” (dualism) between nature and grace.

The key difference is this: in the Protestant scheme, the Biblical statement (Gen 1:31) is authoritative: that “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good”. Man, as created, was “very good”.

But in the Roman Catholic scheme, created man was not “good enough”, and a “donum superadditum” (“superadded grace”) needed to be “added”. In the Roman Catholic scheme, in the fall, man only lost this “donum superadditum”. But in the Protestant scheme, there was no “superadded grace” to lose. Man simply became dead in sin.

This “ontological” distinction had some history in the early church.

Another egregious difference, more importantly, that Clark points out, is “the hierarchical conception of existence”. As he says, “gradually, through the medieval period, the Western church came to think of the relations between God and man as an ontologically hierarchy with man at the bottom and God at the top.”

Aquinas relies heavily on this “hierarchy”, which is a neo-Platonic concept, which Aquinas got from a sixth century theologian named “Pseudo-Dionysius”. He is “pseudo” because he tried to portray himself as the first-century Dionysius, a companion of Paul, from Acts 17:34.

Aquinas believed that Pseudo-Dionysius was the real thing, and he relied on him as a source almost as authoritative as Scripture. Such is the vacuous nature of Roman Catholic “Tradition” that it relies so heavily on an imposter, and they didn’t even know it.

I suspect more of this sort of thing will follow.

[Bryan Cross’s name inserted here so it comes up on a Google Alert, and he can try to respond to this one.]

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