Grace Is Not “Stuff”

We all have heard that the Medieval view of grace was uber-realist – that infused grace is a substance that comes into the person. Peter Lombard held the opinion that this substance of grace was the Holy Spirit itself. Thomas Aquinas, while not preferring Lombard’s view, sought to demonstrate the gross errors of the former view.  Some, says Aquinas, believe that infused virtue cannot be increased because any added virtue would be new and different (ergo not “increased”) as any brick added to a wall must be a new brick.

Aquinas’s answer to this objection should be very appealing to the modern linguist.  He says that some are led into error by using “virtue” as a noun. As the Medieval interpreter of Aristotle would know, the science of metaphysics has very much to do with defining things.  Terms like substance, form, genus, species, etc. can be put into a syllogism.  These terms represent the way things are but also the way we think.  The subject and predicate correspond to substance and form.  For example “The ball is round” – “ball” represents substance and “round” represents form.  And because “round” is not a thing separate from the “ball” so one should not speak of “grace” or “virtue” as if it were some “thing” of which other “things” can be predicated. 

Aquinas addresses the following to those who think that infused virtues must be newly created by inpouring or that they are material elements: 

They do not notice that just as being belongs not to a form but to a subject by means of the form, so too the process of coming into being (which concludes with there being a form) does not belong to the form, but to the subject.  A form x is called a ‘being’ not because it itself is, if we speak strictly, but because something is it.  In the same way, a form is said to ‘come into being’ not because it itself come into being, but because something comes to be it: namely when its subject is brought from capacity to actualization. (Disputed Questions on the Virtues In General, a. 11)

In other words infused virtue does not exist by itself but “something is it.”  Jim is a faithful man, but Jim’s faith does not exist as part of or apart from Jim. But, others have objected, we speak of infused virtue “increasing.” Doesn’t this imply some sort of added thing? Aquinas, again tickling the penchant of the linguist, replies that we name things that are lesser known from the names of things that are better known.  For example, change of place is better understood than change from material corruption.  Therefore, we speak of a dead relative as having “passed away” or as “gone.” He continues:

In a similar way, since we perceive more easily when something changes its size than when it changes in the sense of altering in quality, it comes about that words suitable for change of size are used also in the context of altering in quality.  Now a body that changes its size until it is complete is said to increase, and the final, complete, size is called ‘big’ by comparison with the incomplete.  Similarly, then, for the reasons I have explained, something that changes in its quality from incomplete to complete is said to ‘increase’ in quality, and the complete quality is described as ‘big’ by comparison with the incomplete. Moreover, since the completeness of a thing is its goodness, Augustine says that even in things that are not big in terms of size, we still take ‘more’ to mean ‘better.’ (Ibid)

So, it is easier for us to speak of virtue “increasing” because the notion of something becoming bigger is just easier to understand than the actualization of a potential quality.  The word “increasing” is here used metaphorically or analogically.  Aquinas is therefore o.k. with speaking of virtue as if it were a substance because it is easier to understand it that way, but he stresses that we must not mistake the sign for the thing, we must recognize that we speak in metaphor.  

BUT, infused virtue is not the same as grace! This is true.  So, why have I been talking about virtue? Because, Aquinas raises the same objection to the infusion of grace in the Summa Theologiae and notes the same problem of “picture thinking” (as Lewis would say). Only, he does not go into as much detail concerning the nature of the problem as he does here, and both infused grace and infused virtue are qualities – neither should be spoken of in terms of quantity.  He speaks of the problem and the solution:

Every substance is either the nature of the thing whereof it is the substance, or is a part of the nature, even as matter and form are called substance.  And because grace is above human nature, it cannot be a substance or a substantial form, but is an accidental form of the soul.  Now what is substantially in God, becomes accidental in the soul participating in the Divine goodness, as is clear in the case of knowledge. (ST I-II, Q.110, a.4)

He also explains the difference between virtue and grace, the former being a disposition governed by the natural light of reason and the latter itself being the root and supernatural light of the virtues.  Grace is the principle whereas the virtues are the medium.  Both are infused and both are qualities that actualize a person’s nature.  Both are spoken of as substances but neither are substances.  Infused grace is a new quality caused by man’s “contact” with the Divine nature.  This opinion (that grace is not a substance) marks a break between Aquinas and the tradition of Peter Lombard and demonstrates a tendency of theological picture-thinking that did exist in the Medieval church. Unfortunately, this tendency did not go away with Aquinas’s clarification and continues to prevail today even among Reformed Protestants.

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De Justificatione ex Sola Fide: Luther’s Rescue of Theology from Philosophy

It is true that Martin Luther had more than his share to say in denunciation of Pagan philosophers, especially Aristotle.  However, one should always seek to discover the context surrounding a particular theologian before defining that person’s “system of thought” or “theological meta-narrative.”  Theology done in this manner is minimalistic – the idea that if I know what X thought about Y then I don’t need to read X on Z to know what X thinks about Z. 

Concerning Luther, Heiko Oberman points to his training in Nominalism at Erfurt which may have been the source of his disdain for philosophy.  However, Oberman also notes that Luther critiqued both the via moderna and the via antiqua as neither allowed their philosophy to be guided by the Word of God. Luther reacted to a hyper-dependence on Aristotle, “Should Aristotle not have been a man of flesh and blood, I would not hesitate to assert that he was the Devil himself.” 

Contemporaries immediately recognized the import of the attack, as Aristotle, who had become academic theology’s great authority in the course of the thirteenth century, had provided the terminology and categories used to establish the central concepts of the Holy Scriptures and Church doctrine: God is the “prime mover”; the soul, as “form,” determines the human being; justification takes place through the “infusion of “the power of grace”; the sacrament of the mass transforms the “substance” of bread and wine; man is “free” to decide between good and evil.  Gaining a critical grasp of all these basic notions and finding new biblical terms for them was to cost Luther years. (Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, p. 160)

Although I agree with Oberman’s assessment of Luther’s attitude toward philosophy I do not think that Luther thought of philosophy as completely useless for the church.  I believe that he considered it one of his main tasks to rescue the church from what he considered the infiltration and imposition of philosophy upon theology. He still thought in “Greek” terms of form and matter, substance, accident, etc. and he even agreed with Aristotle at points using him to correct his opponents.  

Evangelicals and Reformed folks point to Luther not only for their understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith alone but for their own identity.  The battle cry of many conservative Reformed folks is “justification by faith alone is the Gospel.” This (I would say minimalist) articulation of the Gospel is exclusive.  If works of any sort intrude into the systematic formula the Gospel has been compromised. If the ordo salutis is tampered with the integrity of that salutus is put in jeopardy. As Reformed Christians many use the doctrine of justification to exclude anyone who is not Reformed from the faith in order to secure his/her own identity as one of the elect.    

Where the doctrine of justificatione ex sola fide for Evangelicals and for the Reformed tends to be the answer to the question “why am I not Catholic?” for Luther it provided the answer to a much more important question: “what ever happened to the supernatural nature of salvation?”  For Luther the Roman Catholic version of Justification was a secularization of the Sacra Doctrina of Jesus and St. Paul. If works make a man righteous before God then the line between the sacred and the secular has become transparent.  Luther writes in his 1535 Lectures on Galatians

The sophists, as well as anyone else who does not grasp the doctrine of justification, do not know of any other righteousness than civil righteousness or the righteousness of the Law, which are known in some measure even to the heathen.  Therefore they snatch the words “do,” “work,” and the like, from moral philosophy and from the Law, and transfer them to theology, where they act in a way that is not only evil but ungodly.  Philosophy and theology must be carefully distinguished. Philosophy also speaks of a good will and of right reason, and the sophists are forced to admit that a work is not morally good unless a good will is present first. And yet they are such stupid asses when they proceed to theology.  They want to prescribe a work before the good will, although in philosophy it is necessary for the person to be justified morally before the work. Thus the tree is prior to the fruit, both in essence and in nature. They themselves admit this and teach that in nature being precedes working and that in ethics a good will is required before the work.  Only in theology do they reverse this and put a work ahead of right reason. (Jeroslav Pelikan, ed. p. 296)

Thus Luther sees the Roman Catholic doctrine of Justification as a confusion between the roles of philosophy and theology and even a misinterpretation of philosophy.  By using the terms “do”, and “work” in their philosophical sense to explain justification the secular realm has encroached upon the sacred to the detriment of the supernatural.  He continues, demonstrating the role works do play in theology:

Therefore “doing” is one thing in nature, another in philosophy, and another in theology.  In nature the tree must be first, and then the fruit.  In moral philosophy doing means a good will and right reason to do well; this is where the philosophers come to a halt.  Therefore we say in theology that moral philosophy does not have God as its object and final cause, since Aristotle or a Sadducee or a man who is good in a civic sense calls it right reason and good will if he seeks the common welfare of the state and tranquillity and honest.  A philosopher or a lawyer does not ascend any higher.  He does not suppose that through right reason he will obtain forgiveness of sins and eternal life, as the sophist or the monk does.  Therefore a heathen philosopher is much better than such a self-righteous person, because he remains within his limits, having in mind only honesty and tranquillity, and not mixing divine things with human. The sophist does not act this way.  He supposes that God pays attention to his good intention and his works.  Therefore he mixes human things with the divine and pollutes the name of God; these things he obviously draws from moral philosophy, except that he abuses this worse than a heathen does […] This is how you must answer all the passages of Scripture about works, in which our opponents stress the words “working” and “doing”:  These are theological terms, not natural or moral ones.  If they are natural or moral, they are taken according to their usage.  But if they are theological, they include right reason and a good will, which is incomprehensible to human reason, blinded as it is at this point; and another reason must come into being, which is the reason of faith.  Therefore “doing” is always understood in theology as doing with faith, so that doing with faith is another sphere and a new realm, so to speak, one that is different from moral doing.  When we theologians speak about “doing,” therefore, it is necessary that we speak about doing with faith, because in theology we have no right reason and good will except faith. (Ibid., pp. 262, 263)

Because these “sophists” have blurred the line between civil “doing” and theological “doing” Luther reiterates this distinction between “doing” and “doing with faith.” The former is civil and is worthless before God whereas the second is a gift of the Holy Spirit and brings justification. Cain performed a good work that was moral but Abel performed a good work with faith.  What Luther is here arguing is a classic Medieval doctrine. Just as the unaided reason of man cannot attain the Beatific Vision the cardinal virtues without the addition of the theological virtues cannot reach justification.  Although the Roman Catholic church of his day also held to this distinction what Luther is implying is that the “sophist” position adds “doing” to the theological virtues and therefore negates the necessity of even having a category for the supernatural.  

I am inculcating these things so diligently in order to set forth the doctrine of faith clearly, so that you may be able to reply correctly and easily to the objections of our opponents, who confuse philosophy and theology and make theological works into moral works.  A theological work is a work done in faith; thus a theological man is a man of faith.  In like manner, a right reason and a good will are a reason and will in faith.  Thus faith is universally the divinity in the work, the person, and the members of the body, as the one and only cause of justification; afterwards this is attributed to the matter on account of the form, to the work on account of the faith. (Ibid., pp. 266, 267) 

Only with the divine gift of faith can man be justified.  Here, Luther is attempting to rescue the supernatural. A good analogy for how this works, he says, is given to us in the Person of Christ:

The kingly authority of the divinity is given to Christ the man, not because of His humanity but because of His divinity.  For the divinity alone created all things, without the cooperation of the humanity.  Nor did the humanity conquer sin and death; but the hook that was concealed under the worm, at which the devil struck, conquered and devoured the devil, who was attempting to devour the worm.  Therefore the humanity would not have accomplished anything by itself; but the divinity, joined with the humanity, did it alone, and the humanity did it on account of the divinity.  So here faith alone justifies and does everything; nevertheless, it is attributed to works on account of faith. (Ibid)

Just as Christ the man did not accomplish anything by himself but conquered death on account of the divinity so sinners are justified before God not based on civil righteousness but on account of the divine gift of faith, which (as Mannerma tells us) for Luther is the presence of Christ within the believer.  Thus one can see a bit more of the context of Martin Luther’s thought on Justification.  He was not seeking to do away with philosophy altogether but he was seeking to put it in its proper place. Philosophy as long as it remains the ancillae theologiae is welcomed by the theologian. However, when moral philosophy encroaches upon theology and the faculties of man are given more power than which they are naturally endowed philosophy must be shown its place as subordinate to theology and the doctrines of the pholosophi must be refuted.  For Luther as soon as “doing” is added to justification one has replaced theology with philosophy and therefore justification coram Deo with justification coram humano.

Christian Ethics

Assuming God is Pure Act and evil is privation, human becoming is for the sake of being.  In other words if all of life is worship and worship is a return to God through act and if a return assumes a separation (per a corrupted being) then becoming more like God is for the sake of returning to God, being like God, participating in God’s being.  This goes beyond the forensic.

The Emergence of the Principle Corresponds to the Emergence of Creatures

When Thomas Aquinas wrote his commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences he placed God at the center and everything else in relation to Him, emanating out in creation and returning in final glorification.  Jean-Pierre Torrell explains the organizing ratio of this plan:

If we do not remember the biblical affirmation of God as the Alpha and Omega of all that is visible and invisible, this plan may seem only a rather flat assertion.  We do not perceive all its depth until we grasp the organizing ratio that gives it its intelligibility. Thomas sees the ratio in the fact that the creation – the emergence of creatures from God, the principle – finds its explanation in the fact that even in God there is an “emergence of the Principle,” which is the procession of the Word from the Father. The divine efficacy that works in the creation is thus related to the generation of the Word, just as the formal cause of the grace that will permit creatures to return to God is linked to the spiration of the Holy Spirit.  More precisely and fully, we might therefore say that the divine missions ad extra are explained according to the order of the processions of the divine persons ad intra. (Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Vol. 1:  The Person and His Work, p. 43)    

This view of the Word as the Principium of all creation effects one’s understanding of grace.  Since all created things owe their being and sustenance to the Word it cannot be denied that there is an inherently gracious element in creation.  Also, viewing Thomas’s conception of the relationship between the works of the Trinity ad extra and the works of the Trinity ad intra one can have a broader appreciation for Karl Rahner’s contribution to this most important of issues – while maintaining a critical eye.  God’s creating (and recreating) work is the climax of the relationship of signus to res. “And he was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light.” (Matt. 17:2)

Potential Being Actualized In Christ

Parmenides argued that a particular being cannot become another particular being. For example air cannot become fire but must first cease to be air as such.  The change of air to fire would be in this case a mere replacement of one being for another.  Aristotle answered this problem with his distinction between three factors in change:  Form, matter, and privation.  A ball of clay is not a vase, but it has the potential for being a vase.  In this example clay is the matter, vase is the form, and the privation is the clay’s lack of being a vase.  According to Aristotle air can be changed into fire because air is never just air.  Air is potential fire.  Therefore when it is changed into fire it is not annihilated but part of its potential being (fire) is turned into actual being.  An acorn is a potential tree.  When an acorn is changed into a tree it does not lose part of its being but has its capacity for treeness fulfilled. This does not mean that change is illusory but that change is real.    

This distinction is helpful for understanding Thomas Aquinas on the Eucharist. Although he notes that natural changes are changes of accidental form and not substantial form in the Eucharist the bread and the wine do not lose their composition of essence and existence but are changed from a potential glorified being to actual glorified substances.  They in turn actualize other potentialities within the believer – faith resulting in union with Christ through the Holy Spirit.  As others have pointed out this change is meta-substantial. It transcends substance to the nature of created being itself. Believers do not lose their substance but receive that substance back fully renewed in Christ. They receive Christ and all of his benefits: his mind, will, nature, etc.  Of course, this assumes an ontological, not merely legal, sinful nature in man. Since the Fall man lacks full being but also actualized being of a certain type.  Adam was created in God’s image but was intended for glorification in union with God.  Just as the acorn was intended to be a tree man’s final cause is a shared being, a mutual indwelling with our incarnate glorified Lord. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” [2 Cor. 3:18] Christ’s body on earth is being transformed from a potential body to a pure, glorified, actualized body.

Historical Vindication

Solomon prays to YHWH in his dedication of the Temple:  “Then hear thou in heaven, and do, and judge thy servants, condemning the wicked, to bring his way upon his head; and justifying the righteous, to give him according to his righteousness.” (1 Kings 8:32)

Sometimes I can see where N.T. Wright is coming from.  Only the KJV translated TSEDIK in this verse as “to justify.”  The ESV has “vindicate.”  It is obvious that this reference is to a historia salutis type of justification.  We either don’t recognize that this type exists or relegate its importance.  Or perhaps we’re afraid that the historia hermeneutic will trump the ordo.  If I can be a bit radical for a moment:  I propose the historia as symbolic of the ordo.  What God has done objectively is a sign of what he extends to the subjective.  Jesus’ resurrection is a sign of God’s desire that all creation be recreated, that the recreation has begun.