The Complication of Nature and Grace in Aquinas

Most contemporary debates in Continental philosophy of religion revolve around the debate between positions of transcendence and immanence. Arguments from immanence begin with the axiom that the world is enough to understand the world, while arguments from transcendence begin with the axiom that the world can only be understood by the not-World (i.e. a Creator God, though this is not necessarily the personal God of Christianity or any other religion). Thus the debate between these two positions has to deal with how we are to understand God, ourselves, the rest of nature and, indeed, if we can understand any of these things. Proponents of each position have their own tactics of evangelization, but deciding between the two appears to be more a matter of decision than certainty through reason (whatever its mode or relationship to faith).

Some would argue that philosophers of immanence are the philosophical allies of theologians of pure nature. At the same time, philosophers appealing to transcendence are under fire from the “other camp” for giving too much to religion and trading in obscurity and mysticism. The debate rarely moves past this point and there have been very few attempts to move beyond the two terms. In the interest of dissolving the debate, or at least making the story less simplistic, it may be helpful to look at the work of Aquinas. The story told by those who appeal to transcendence normally goes that the writings of Augustine and Aquinas allowed Christian theology to complete and perfect pagan philosophy. This prefection is then lost with the philosophical theology of Duns Scotus who argues that the being of God and the being of everything is univocally said; leading then to theologies and philosophies of pure nature that radically separated the divine from the non-divine leading to other dichotomies of various kinds. Whether or not this is true is not at issue in this paper. Rather it surveys the writings of Aquinas to show that his own views on nature and grace (or immanence and transcendence) are not so easily aligned with either camp.

Looking to the Aquinas’ Summa Theologia we must note that he affirms the goodness of anything that exists in so far as its being is dependent upon its relation to God. We can take this to mean quite clearly that nature is good, even if corrupted by the fall of humanity. This creates the sense that nature is sufficient for itself apart from the grace of God. The narrative that puts Aquinas at the beginning of a tradition of natural theology that eventually gives itself over to philosophy proper certainly understands this in such a way. Not without reason, according to Fergus Kerr who says that it is tempting to think that the inner coherence of the Summa Theologia lies in the concept of nature and that this is indeed a plausible reading.

Aquinas’ notion of nature does seem to be quite central to his theological works, but it doesn’t appear, even though nature is good, that this good nature is a truly separate domain from grace. One only needs to look to this striking remark for such a view to be put into question:

‘By faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved, that the world did not always exist, as was said above of the mystery of the Trinity. The reason of this is that the newness of the world cannot be demonstrated on the part of the world itself. For the principle of demonstration is the essence of a thing. Now everything according to its species is abstracted from “here” and “now”; whence it is said that universals are everywhere and always. Hence it cannot be demonstrated that man, or heaven, or a stone were not always. […] The reason of this is that the newness of the world cannot be demonstrated on the part of the world itself.’

Even knowledge of the world is dependent in some part on grace already given by God, such that even the knowledge that the world came to be, and was not always simply there, has some relation to grace given by faith. This may give some comfort to Barthians who believe that Aquinas gives everything to natural reason at the expense of grace.

Even this is more complicated than it would seem for Aquinas holds that humanity needs the assistance of the Divine to know any truth while at the same time he qualifies this by stating, ‘But he does not need a new light added to his natural light, in order to know the truth in all things, but only in some that surpass his natural knowledge.’ Indeed it is within our natural capabilities to search after God, the supernatural: ‘[…] whatever man desire, he desires under the aspect of good. And if he desire it, not as his perfect good, which is the last end, he must, of necessity, desire it as tending to the perfect good’. It may seem somewhat strange that we can only affirm on faith that the world has a beginning, but yet our natural abilities allow us to search after God.

To make sense of this it may help to think that we may know things without knowing them fully, in that we can sense some strangeness and recognize it as strange (and thus as being real) without having any deeper knowledge of it. This may go some way towards explaining why human societies appear to deal with questions of the Divine before considering questions of cosmology – the strangeness in or surrounding nature (which appears to include experience of the Divine) is known more than the more obscure strangeness of a world being new. This may be what Aquinas is suggesting when he writes:

‘When it is said that nature cannot rise above itself, we must not understand this as if it could not be drawn to any object above itself, for it is clear that our intellect by its natural knowledge can know things above itself, as is shown in our natural knowledge of God. But we are to understand nature cannot rise to an act exceeding the proportion of its strength. Now to love God above all things is not such an act; for it is natural to every creature, as was said above.’

To understand nature in its fullness may be an act exceeding the strength of the human intellect, while it is obviously outside the human ability to know God completely. Rather, Aquinas seems to suggest, both God and nature can only be understand imperfectly, perhaps only obliquely, as something that is strangely there.

This has been a very inadequate tour through a few passages that, it seems to me, complicates any simple understanding of nature and grace, or immanence and transcendence. Many would suggest that transcendence is primary in Aquinas, but a transcendence which is inherent in everything that exists (literally then everything) seems to be higher order immanence. This is not all that different from when Spinoza’s philosophy of immanence appears to be a series of relatively expressed attributes and modes with the ultimate transcendence being the substance which is eternal and uncreated. This would suggest that the debate between immanence and transcendence is predicated on too little difference between the two positions. For instance attempts to fill out transcendence via participation are matched by immanence via expression, two positions which appear formally identical.

Aquinas does not offer a way out of such an impasse due to the fact that his own position is more complicated than the competing narratives present. Allowing his work to appear in all its due complication may at least allow those interested in the debate to admit that one cannot use Aquinas as a trump card. Rather we should follow his example and spirit in giving all due religious attention to problems both ecclesial and secular.

10 thoughts on “The Complication of Nature and Grace in Aquinas

  1. “Most contemporary debates in Continental philosophy of religion revolve around the debate between positions of transcendence and immanence.” – can you elaborate on this part a bit? i mean in terms of particular names and discussions you have in mind? this is an interesting way of looking at contemporary philosophy of religion.

  2. Lately I’ve been reading Stanley Cavell and his ‘finding’/ ‘founding’ a line between skepticism and romanticism, his imperfect solutions, and his similar feelings of stangeness in a “new world” all seem like they might be something of a response to a similar dilemma. I can’t really elaborate because I’ve got to work and because I’m still processing his work.

    Anyway, just a thought…and, quite possibly, a half-baked one at that.

  3. Mikhail,

    I was too lazy to format all the footnotes for the paper, here are the three relevant ones regarding your question: ‘See Goodchild, Philip, “Continental Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction,” Rethinking Philosophy of Religion: Approaches from Continental Philosophy, ed. Philip Goodchild (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002). As with Aquinas it is difficult to decide whether those who publish “Continental philosophy of religion” are pure philosophers or pure theologians. Certainly some of them are granted sanctuary in philosophy departments and others in theology and religious studies departments, but also sociology, French, literature, and critical theory departments as well.’

    ‘This an argument of John Milbank’s and other proponents of Radical Orthodoxy. See Milbank, John, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, 2nd ed. ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006). and Milbank, John, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward, Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology (London: Routledge, 1998).’

    ‘See Janicaud, Dominique, “The Theological Turn of French Phenomenology,” Phenomenology and the “Theological Turn”: The French Debate, ed. Dominique Janicaud (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000).’


    This post was pretty half-baked, so that’s all right.

  4. thanks – i like footnotes – i didn’t realize Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory is in the second edition already, is it the same as the first? i remember i had a minor stroke when i read it – it was turgid but i persevered – this should go into my “endurance award” i’ll comment two posts with one stone than…

    i know this is probably an old question but i’m intrigued by your observation about “pure philosophers” and “pure theologians” – i suppose this is a larger issue but i wonder if one’s designation should really be decided by one’s department? i mean it has always been a kind of an existential/vocational question rather than an organizational one – is one necessarily a theologian even if one works at a seminary? or is one a philosopher even if one works at a philosophy department? maybe i’m thinking more in terms of a european tradition of people like kierkegaard (theologian? philosophers?) or sartre (writer?) – just thinking aloud, i suppose…

  5. The second edition of theology and social theory has a new preface, an expanded and less simplistic account of Deleuze, and a few other things. The best thing it has is footnotes, rather than the first editions endnotes. John told me he fought for footnotes.

    I don’t think it depends where you teach. My point was that people who do what can be called Continental philosophy of religion are not easily called philosophers or theologians. Continental philosophy of religion seems to have more connection with theological writings, but also doesn’t seem to be theological in the same way.

  6. i see – i suppose maybe i would have a hard time explaining to someone the difference between someone doing “theology” and someone doing “philosophy of religion” these days – i mean it seemed to be easy when the “study of religion” came about, but these days; but i would certainly not think that the distinction could be made along institutioinal lines (i’m not suggesting you did either, it’s just an observation) – i guess this has little to do with this post itself, sorry

  7. nice post. the difference between immanence and transcendence always confuses me. the distinction recently came up at a workshop I participated in, in which other participants were very eager to throw transcendence ‘out the window’ so to speak.

    i was wondering about the consequences of such a move in conjunction with your post; is it possible to see transcendence as ‘bad’ and immanence as ‘good,’ or is there some form of unity to the extremes of this binary. i think that polemics such as those between immanence and transcendence tend to abstract more than they disclose

  8. Sorry, I think your question is worth taking some time to answer, but I just don’t have the time.

    I guess a too fast answer would be that you could not just say that transcendence is bad and immanence good, in part because that makes immanence a transcendental condition of thought – even, perhaps, something transcendent from which to measure all thought. So, in short, I agree with you that these polemics tend to abstract more than they disclose.

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