The Great Debate

Henri de Lubac

Without doubt, the great debate of the 20th century and continuing today has been the relationship between nature and grace. Alan P. F. Sell, author of numerous interesting books, once wrote a book called, The Great Debate, a historical-theological survey of the disputes between Calvinists and Arminians. That debate continues, especially in American evangelical circles, but the great debate in recent history, occupying the attention of every leading theologian, has concerned nature and grace. For the young student of theology, it’s a daunting subject, made especially difficult since it requires an understanding of both the Protestant participants and the Catholic participants.

Their concerns overlap, but differ in regard to historical readings and appropriation of key figures in the respective traditions. So, the Protestants have been concerned with a certain reading of the Reformers over-against their successors, the Lutheran and Reformed scholastics. Emil Brunner, Karl Barth, T. F. Torrance, et al. agreed that the scholastics, as opposed to the Reformers, were working with a more heightened view of the province of philosophy and the epistemic situation of natural man. Similarly, the Catholics have been concerned with a certain reading of Thomas Aquinas over-against his successors. Etienne Gilson, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, et al. agreed that the Thomist commentators (Cajetan, et al.), and the later manual tradition influencing (and influenced by) the First Vatican Council, posited a strict delineation between the gains of philosophy and the dogmas of faith; whereas Thomas himself blurred the lines. Thus, both the Protestants and the Catholics believed that a certain rationalism had crept into the successor traditions of, respectively, Reformational and Thomist theology.

In more recent decades, these historical readings have been vigorously challenged. Paul Helm, Richard Muller, and numerous others have argued for an essential continuity between the Reformers and the scholastics; and, likewise, Romanus Cessario, Lawrence Feingold, and numerous others have argued for a greater continuity between Thomas and his Thomist successors. For various reasons, I lean toward the first group discussed above: the loosely-labeled “neo-orthodox” or “neo-reformational,” on the Protestant side, and la nouvelle théologie of the resourcement movement, on the Catholic side. Though, I’m willing to concede some of the historical points to the new crop of scholars.

That’s a very brief sketch. If you would like to read a great presentation of this debate on the Catholic side, I highly recommend Nicholas Healy’s article, “Henri de Lubac on Nature and Grace,” from Communio 35:4. Healy gives an overview of the controversy from de Lubac’s perspective, the recent criticisms of de Lubac, and where these criticisms fall short.



  1. Yeah, I don’t see this debate ending anytime soon. And I do think both camps have crept closer to each other in understanding these past couple of decades.

    I still wrestle with whether or not when I voice my opinion on which camp I’m inclined to side with says more about me than the actual situation . . .

  2. I agree the two camps have crept closer. For instance, Nick Healy’s piece describes the natural desire for God almost wholly in terms of ‘receptivity’. How different is that from ‘oboediential potential’? (can’t even spell it I disapprove of it so much!)

  3. I’ve found that, depending on who I’m talking to, I can either be a full-blown Barthian (and even Kierkegaardian) or I can be a natural law enthusiast. It depends on whether I think the person is stressing reason/evidence too much or faith/subjectivity too much.

  4. Kevin,

    I really appreciate your blog. I’ve been very interested in the nature/grace debate myself. Admittedly, though, it has been Terrence Malick’s previous films and his upcoming “The Tree of Life” which has really sparked my interest. His impressionistic (and Heideggerian) meditation on the relationship between nature and grace is really compelling.

    Anyway, I was also wondering if you had any scholarly articles in mind that dealt more with the Protestant context of the debate regarding nature/grace. Perhaps something similar to Healy’s article, but dealing with the Protestant debate over the matter? Just curious if anything like that came to mind right off.

    Thanks for your work.


    • It’s interesting to consider what sparks one’s interest in this debate. For me, it was when I saw my first gothic cathedral, The National Cathedral in Washington (modeled after York Cathedral, which I saw a few years ago). I was captivated by the way that grace could be embodied.

      As for Protestant articles on this topic, I can’t think of any that parallel what Healy did. From a thoroughly Protestant (and Barthian) perspective, I would highly recommend “On the Doctrine of Justification,” by Eberhard Jüngel, International Journal of Systematic Theology, March 1999, Vol. 1, Issue 1.

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