Theology Update

April 14, 2017

A couple days ago, I awoke from my blogging slumber and gave an update. In this post, I want to discuss some of what I’ve been doing in my studies.

Je suis maintenant français. That’s what it feels like. I have been deeply immersed in modern French Catholic theology for the past several months. The immediate reason is when I discovered Henri Bouillard, as I wrote about last year. The extended reason goes back to my undergraduate thesis on Simone Weil and master’s thesis on John Henry Newman. There is a line of continuity in my intellectual and spiritual development, but that would take us too far afield for the purposes of this post. If you are familiar with Weil and Newman, namely their integration of knowledge and piety/discipline, then the continuity will be clear.

Bouillard expressed a mode of criticism toward Barth that I had been developing for quite some time in an ad hoc and unstructured way. Now I am attempting to make it more structured, more thematized and explicit. I am not there yet, so you should not expect too much now. This criticism is subjective in method and freely uses Kant to illumine our subjectivity as knowing agents and those who contribute, a priori, to the object that is known. This does not mean that Bouillard accepts everything of what Kant means when he writes, in the preface to the second edition of his first Critique, “we can cognize of things a priori only what we ourselves have put into them” (B xviii, trans. Guyer and Wood). Yet, this is a good statement of what Bouillard is doing in his criticism of Barth. How do we know that it is God who has revealed himself? It is we who know, which requires a method of criticism, whether Kant’s “transcendental apperception” or something else, and this cannot be elided or obfuscated underneath a rhetorical strategy of dogmatic origin.

For Bouillard, there are categories of understanding, to borrow again from Kant, that are pre-reflective and enable us to know God’s revelation. This is a true knowledge of the supernatural by reason proper, so it runs afoul of Kant eventually, and importantly. And the supernatural knowledge itself is not anything to which the subject is entitled by virtue of this capacity. Yet, it is a capacity nonetheless, and it is “natural” as far that goes. By the way, this is how Bouillard reconciles himself with the First Vatican Council’s Dei Filius, namely, “The same holy mother church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason: ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” The latter half is just quoting from the first chapter of Romans.

I am perhaps saying a bit more than Bouillard says, not least because my French is still a work in progress. As of late, I have been exploring the intellectual terrain in which Bouillard worked as a Jesuit from the Fourvière community in Lyon that included Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou. These were central figures in theological ressourcement in France and beyond, also dubbed pejoratively as “the new theology,” la nouvelle théologie, by old school Thomist detractors.

There are three names in particular that paved the way for the Fourvière Jesuits. They are Maurice Blondel, Pierre Rousselot, and Joseph Maréchal. The latter two were Jesuits from France and (French-speaking) Belgium respectively, whereas Blondel was a lay Catholic philosopher. In the most general of terms, we can describe them as interested in rethinking Christian belief in modernity, where modernity does not provide the “conditions” strictly speaking but, rather, opportunities. And this includes reappropriating the past, as in Rousselot’s groundbreaking study of St. Thomas Aquinas in 1908 and Bouillard’s Conversion et grâce chez saint Thomas d’Aquin in 1944. The opportunity at hand was to unearth the location of the will and the heart within reason, in both patristic and medieval theology. Thus, anthropology and theology proper must be integrated in some way. Nature is not entirely alien to grace. When we later come to Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar, it is easy to discern their intellectual progenitors in Blondel, Rousselot, and Maréchal. This is true even when we distinguish their differences with someone like Karl Rahner, also influenced by all of the above, especially the fifth volume of Maréchal’s great work, Le point de départ de la métaphysique.

Blondel in particular has drawn my attention. Unfortunately, he is the most difficult of them all. If you think Barth is difficult, then you have no idea. In fact, this whole intellectual mileau is far more difficult, in my opinion, than that of Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, etc. The philosophical sophistication is surely a roadblock for many who come from an evangelical or other Protestant background that deals with “the Word” and “kerygma” more than the metaphysical distinctions of the whole shebang and at their most rigorous. I can sense that Blondel was doing, a hundred years ago, much of what I have been trying to do with my far more limited capacity. In the image above, you will notice that Bouillard wrote a book on Blondel.

I could continue talking about a dozen or more trajectories. There is scarcely anything in theology or philosophy of religion that is not impacted by these French debates in the first half of the 20th century and into the Second Vatican Council. I have not even mentioned Gilson and Maritain, both of whom add significantly to this whole discussion.

Bénédictions de Pâques!

I’m excited to see how Bavinck treats special and general revelation later in this first volume. So far, his preliminary remarks will warm the heart of anyone sympathetic to Barth or, on the Catholic side, to Henri de Lubac. In fact, the following comments can be found nearly verbatim in books treating the revolt against natural theology in the likes of Barth and in la nouvelle théologie of Henri de Lubac. Bavinck, of course, does not go as far as Barth, nor does Bavinck reorient his theology around Christology and election like Barth. So, my guess is that Bavinck would be more aligned with the Catholic nouvelle théologie and their undermining of the modern (Cartesian) method in constructing a natural theology upon rational certainty. Likewise, he follows la nouvelle théologie in rejecting the scholastic two-tier approach of first building a natural knowledge of God, upon which special knowledge through revelation is placed.

Originally natural theology was by no means intended to pave the way, step by laborious step, for revealed theology. In adopting it, one was not assuming the provisional stance of reason in order next, by reasoning and proof, to mount to the higher level of faith. But from the very outset the dogmatician took a stand on the ground of faith and, as a Christian and believer, now also looked at nature. [p. 87]

The method that arose already with scholasticism and later found acceptance also among Protestants, viz., of first treating the natural knowledge of God (the preamble of faith) and then all the historical and rational proofs (motiva credibilitatis) supporting revelation, must be rejected. At the very outset and in principle it abandons the viewpoint of faith, denies the positive character of dogmatics, moves onto the opponent’s ground, and is therefore in fact rationalistic, and makes dogmatics dependent on philosophy.

…Over against such a rationalization of religion and theology, one has to maintain (along with Schleiermacher, Rothe, Frank, Ritschl, etc.) the positive character of dogmatics. The foundations of faith (principia fidei) are themselves articles of faith (articuli fidei), based not on human arguments and proofs but on divine authority.

[p. 108-109]

Click to enlarge. "We shall attain the excellence of virtue with the grace of God and the effort of our will." I saw this in one of the rooms of the Vatican Palace.


From what I understand, the criticism of the Catholic (Thomistic) doctrine of created grace is that it cedes too much to the nature and power of man in the process of sanctification. It also tends to reduce the role of the Holy Spirit once the habits of virtue/charity have been created. The Easterners are especially not happy about the second point, whereas us Protestants are especially not happy about the first point. I’m far from being an expert on the topic, so I’m far from any willingness to pronounce a firm judgment, one way or the other. I do like Henri de Lubac’s presentation of the doctrine, which surely mitigates some of the problems or at least points in that direction. The following is from A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace (Ignatius Press, 1984):

The supernatural, one might say, is that divine element which man’s effort cannot reach (no self-divinization!) but which unites itself to man, “elevating” him as our classical theology used to put it, and as Vatican II still says (Lumen Gentium, 2), penetrating him in order to divinize him, and thus becoming as it were an attribute of the “new man” described by St. Paul. While it remains forever “un-naturalizable,” it profoundly penetrates the depths of man’s being. In short, it is what the old Scholastics and especially St. Thomas Aquinas called (using a word borrowed from Aristotle which has often been completely misunderstood) an accident, or call it a habitus, or “created grace”: these are all different ways of saying (even if one thinks they need various correctives or precisions) that man becomes in truth a sharer in the divine nature (divinae consortes naturae; 2 Pet 1:4). We do not need to conceive of it as a sort of entity separated from its Source, something like cooled lava — which man would appropriate to himself. On the contrary, we wish to affirm by these words that the influx of God’s Spirit does not remain external to man; that without any commingling of natures it really leaves its mark on our nature and becomes in us a principle of life. This Scholastic notion of created grace, so often belittled today, does express the incontrovertible fact that “it is we, ourselves, and our creaturely being, which the active presence in us of the Spirit makes divine, without for that reason absorbing us and annihilating us in God” (Louis Bouyer, Le Père invisible, Paris: 1976, 288).

For St. Thomas, as Fr. Louis Bouyer explains,

the soul…will find its completeness and go beyond itself in God. Disagreeing with Peter Lombard, in fact, he would not admit that grace is purely and simply the gift of the Holy Spirit, of the Third Person of the Trinity as it is in itself…. He realized that if such were indeed the case, man would certainly be the temple of the Spirit, but not God’s living temple, vivified by the presence of its Guest who assimilates our life to his divine life. The uncreated grace of the gift of the Spirit, according to him, has its prolongation in the soul itself in created grace, i.e., a divine quality that assimilates the soul to God and makes it share in his own life. (Introduction à la vie spirituelle, Paris: Desclée, 1960, 154-55)

Grace is supernatural in the fundamental sense that it is superior to any created or creatable nature, but it is in no sense a “supernature.” It is, so to speak, a new “accident,” “hidden in and penetrating the substance of the soul and rendering it, as a soul, capable of living God’s own life, his divine life” (Ibid).

[A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace, pp. 41-42, 45-46]