Reflections on Steven Long's "Natura Pura"

Andrew Greenwell (of the blog Lex Christianorum) has been reading Steven Long and offers a number of posts on Steven Long's Natura Pura: On the Recovery of Nature in the Doctrine of Grace (Fordham UP, 2010):
  • Natura Pura: Human Nature Unaided (02/16/11):
    Grace presupposes nature, and perfection supposes something that can be perfected."* So succinctly does St. Thomas distinguish grace and human nature so as to immediately recombine them. But there is a marked tendency among some contemporary theologians, those of la nouvelle théologie, to so emphasize grace as to virtually negate any meaning in the notion of human nature. Ultimately, this tendency is derived from a notion of "nature" which is bereft of any theonomic character,** and one far less ontologically dense than what St. Thomas had in mind by the concept of "nature." ...
  • Natura Pura: Misunderstanding St. Thomas: Source Texts (02/17/11):
    Renaissance or Cajetanian corruptions to the genuine teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas is how the Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac interpreted the received Thomistic teaching on human nature and divine grace. In fact, it was not Renaissance or Cajetanian corruptions in the received teaching, but the "modern presumptions" in de Lubac's notions of nature that steered him wrong. ...
  • Natura Pura: St. Thomas in a Nutshell, Part I (02/18/11).

  • Natura Pura: St. Thomas in a Nutshell, Part II (02/19/11).

  • Balaam's Ass and Stained Glass: The Concept of Specific Obediential Potency:
    The notion of obendiential potency is a central concept to traditional Christian anthropology. Man's nature--that which defines him specifically--is in potency to supernatural grace, a potency which is actualized by the obedience of faith and all such obedience of faith entails (e.g., baptism). De Lubac appears to have limited his notion of obediential potency as "susceptibility to miracle," which is one manner in which the term was used by scholastics, including St. Thomas himself. But de Lubac seems to disregard, nay, in fact reject,* the concept in its other sense, that is as the conceptual carrier for "the fundamental question of the relation of nature to grace." Long, 28. (In this latter sense, to distinguish it from its former generic sense, it is often called "specific obediential potency.") According to Long, the same tendentiousness is found in the Thomist Etienne Gilson for whom the concept of obediential potency "was tantamount to the idea of a mere extrinsic and miraculous transmutation of nature." Long, 28.

    Restricted to the sense of susceptability to miracle, the concept of "obediential potentiality" is clearly deficient to explain the relationship between human nature and the supernatural life. There is a huge difference between Balaam's ass speaking (a miraculous transmutation of asinine nature) and man's capax Dei, his natural capacity to be receptive to, and elevated by the divine aid and "speak in tongues" so to speak. If kept to this denotation alone, it is an inadequate carrier of that relationship. If man were transmuted by grace, he would no longer be man. If man was not man until he was transmuted by grace, then he would not have been man before. But what is remarkable is the rejection of both Gilson and de Lubac of the term "obediential potency" as the concept of man's passive receptivity to divine grace. It was as if these two greats had never read St. Thomas!

  • The Plunder of Nature: Outside and Inside the Household (02/22/11).

  • Toward a Recapture of Nature in its Fullness (02/23/11).

  • Balthasar's Theological Vacuole, Part I (02/25/11). "Even the redoubtable Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar,* unquestionably one of the great Catholic theologians of the 20th century, shared in de Lubac's error on the distinction between nature and grace."

  • Balthasar's Theological Vacuole, Part II (02/26/11).
  • Balthasar's Theological Vacuole, Part III (02/27/11). "There is a tendency towards reductionism of nature in Hans Urs von Balthasar's understanding of nature within the greater question the nature/supernature complex."

  • Balthasar's Theological Vacuole, Part IV (02/28/11). "Hans Urs von Balthasar appears to have been convinced that the concept of pure nature had to be abandoned as an inadequate theological concept. In his book on the theology of Karl Barth, he sets forth his understanding of the Catholic position on the nature/supernature complex, but his understanding of it appears to deviate from the inherited Thomistic synthesis."

  • Balthasar's Theological Vacuole, Part V (03/01/11). Balthasar ranks himself within the historical range of prior efforts at defining the relationship between nature and grace. He views himself as a within the moderate wing, but what is really telling is that he puts the traditional Thomistic teaching at the extreme."

  • Pura Natura Persona Non Grata Est: Unwanted Nature (03/02/11).

Rusty Reno: "Theology after the Revolution"

A trenchant observation from Rusty Reno, reviewing Fergus Kerr's Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians:
Henri de Lubac’s most important contribution to Catholic theology was a sustained analysis of the relation between nature and grace. In the 1930s he argued that standard theologies of the neoscholastic tradition used a metaphysically rigid, dualistic account of human destiny that ironically confirmed rather than overcame the modern suspicion that our everyday lives and concerns (nature) have no intrinsic contact with or need for the life of faith (grace). Instead of overcoming the dualisms that have tended to drive modern thought and life toward contrastive and fruitless antinomies, neoscholasticism unwittingly absorbed the tendency into itself.

When de Lubac claimed that the fundamental structure of neoscholasticism was a covert form of modernism, he was making a direct attack on the modes of theology that dominated the Church in the first half of the twentieth century. Not surprisingly, he became a suspect character in the eyes of church authorities. In the 1950s he was silenced by his superiors in the Society of Jesus.

One would think that, as a result, de Lubac would have embraced the spirit of innovation that flourished after Vatican II. He did not. Near the end of his life he wrote a small and bitter book, Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace. In its pages he sought to address what he regarded as a fundamental misunderstanding of his basic insights, and its main thrust is a defense of the core theological judgments of the neoscholastic tradition he spent his life criticizing.

The message is clear: Readers cannot understand Henri de Lubac’s theology of nature and grace unless they know and accept the basic outlines of classical Thomistic theology. Thus the paradox, once again. By the 1980s, Henri de Lubac, the great critic of dry and dusty neoscholasticism, saw that the younger generation needed to be catechized into the standard, baseline commitments of Catholic theology. Ressourcement does not work if students have neither context nor framework in which to place the richness and depth of the tradition. Like Lonergan, de Lubac is characteristic of the Heroic Generation: He helped destroy the theological culture that, however inadequate, provided the context for a proper understanding of his generation’s lasting achievements.

"Theology after the Revolution" First Things May 2007.

Richard J. Neuhaus: "Odium theologicum"

From the late Richard J. Neuhaus, First Things (June 2007):
Odium theologicum — the ill-feeling and nasty polemics to which theological controversy can give rise—is in short supply. I don’t mean ordinary nastiness in disagreements over religion. I mean the high panache of distinguished theologians going at one another. Reinhard Hütter of Duke Divinity School offers a robust example in the theological journal Nova et Vetera. He is provoked by an attack by John Milbank, prefect of a school of thought self-dubbed Radical Orthodoxy, on a book by Lawrence Feingold in which Feingold defends traditional Thomist teaching on nature and grace. Milbank said Feingold’s argument is “arch-reactionary,” “paleolithic,” and dependent on exegetical methods “much like that of the proof-texting of a Protestant fundamentalist.” This gets Hütter up to speed: “The associations seem to be all too clear to leave any doubt about the purpose of such antecedent rhetorical disqualification. Anyone willing seriously to consider Feingold’s arguments (and for that matter Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s interpretation of Thomas Aquinas), by the sheer dynamic of the connotations entailed, must be a supporter of the Spanish Inquisition, a defender of the Papal States, and an admirer of the Franco, Vichy, and Pinochet regimes in addition to anything else implied by association as arch-reactionary. It is sad to see such an astute and critical mind as Milbank’s submit in such as unnuanced and uncritical way to the thoroughly modern political geography of ‘left’ and ‘right’ in order to situate and prejudice matters doctrinal and theological, a habit, surely by now as widespread in contemporary theology as it is thoughtless, and achieving nothing else than comfortably condemning matters of theological enquiry and discourse to the Procrustean bed of a policing political correctness and hence of the final domestication of matters ecclesial and theological under the extrinsically superimposed rubrics of political liberalism.” Whew, that felt good. In truth, Hütter’s article is substantive, incisive, and persuasive, and I recommend it to the theologically minded. What you will not learn from the article, and what he had no reason to mention, is that Hütter is a former Lutheran who became Catholic a few years ago, and what he does not come right out and say in the article is that the traditional understanding of Thomas Aquinas on nature and grace is essential to what the sixteenth-century Reformers, at their best, meant by sola gratia.


Reinhard Hütter. "Desiderium Naturale Visionis Dei—Est autem duplex hominis beatitudo sive felicitas: Some Observations about Lawrence Feingold’s and John Milbank’s Recent Interventions in the Debate over the Natural Desire to See God." 81-132. Nova Et Vetera Vol 5, Issue 1 - Winter 2007.