In the modern era, there are many disputes about the relationship between grace and nature. On one side we see the total corruption of nature from the point of view of the reformers. On the other side, we find theologians teaching that the will of man is naturally capable of desiring God- without grace. However, this optimistic view of mankind leads to some difficulties.
Human nature is a personal nature with an intellect and a will (69). It is the kind of nature that can know and love. This means that human nature has the capacity to know ultimate truth and enter into divine friendship. However, there is no natural way for a man to actualize the capacity to know the ultimate truth nor come into relationship with the divine. On account of being able to discern that there is an ultimate truth but being unable to find it man is necessarily left unsatisfied in his natural state. In turn, God offers his grace which builds on that nature and actualizes the potential that man has for knowing and loving the divine.
Grace is God communicating His love to mankind which is the gift of Himself (Stevens 66). If grace were part of the nature of any creature that creature would be God. Mankind is not God and therefore grace cannot be a part of nature. As such, God creates mankind in a specific way for a specific purpose and gives Himself freely to man. Nature and grace are distinct from one another.
Fr Karl Rahner has a conception of man where there is nature, grace, and a kind of mixture of nature and grace. However, it is also impossible to distinguish nature from grace in any meaningful way. If this is the case, it is hard to imagine what exactly we mean by nature or by grace. Hence, man must have a natural capacity to know God.
If grace and nature were mixed this would result in a third thing, perhaps like the supernaturalized existence postulated by Fr Rahner. However, whatever that third state may be, it would necessarily be different from the nature God created for us. In that case, grace and nature could not be distinguished from one another. If they cannot be distinguished, then they are not really distinct. They are distinct and therefore must be distinguishable. Grace and nature are distinct, and they cannot be mixed to form a third kind of state.
However, in the Neo-Thomist perspective, there is a definitive distinction between nature and grace. God creates human beings with a personal nature. That is with will and intellect that can respond to Him in knowledge and love (Stevens 69). This fundamental capacity is key because grace presupposes nature. He is capable of receiving God’s gratuitous gift of Himself so that man can know and love God. Man naturally desires to know the truth, but he is not naturally capable of finding the ultimate truth. God gives grace, building upon man’s natural capabilities, so that man can know the ultimate truth.
In the Thomistic view, God created human nature with the capacity to encounter God in love and knowledge (Stevens 69). That is, he could enter into relationships. He is capable of receiving the gift of God himself. This does not presuppose that he will receive this transcendent gift, but that he is capable of doing so (70). Man’s ultimate end is this gift that he desires to receive and cannot be satisfied by any creature. Grace builds upon man’s natural capacity so he may respond as a person to God’s gift of self (71). Man’s desire for God is a desire of intellect to know the ultimate truth- which is God.
There is a distinction between nature and grace. Nature is those things possessed by a creature in order to exist. Grace is what we receive to be Holy and deifies nature (Healy). Although God is the ultimate end of man, he is not naturally capable of attaining this end. Hence, God’s gracious gift of grace deifies human nature so it can attain that end.
Man’s nature is capable of being willing, and grace gives man the ability to actualize that will. However, if grace were to force man into a relationship against his will then he would lose something fundamental to what it is to be a rational creature. He must be a rational creature to be able to return the gift of love which God offers Him. If he rejects it, he remains in ignorance and isolation, but he does not lose the capacity for knowledge and love.
Man can then know the ultimate truth through grace. Once grace enables Him to know that God is the ultimate truth then it can further actualize his will to the greatest good which is also God. Human nature is then fulfilled by grace to know and love God.
Yet, although we have the capacity and God offers us the power to do so, he does not force us to do so. Our natural acts are not sufficient to merit eternal life (ST I-II Q 114 A. 2 co). Hence, grace needs to build upon nature so that this can be overcome. We can merit eternal life by cooperation with divine grace. If there is no distinction between grace and nature we could naturally merit eternal life and, at least in a certain sense, be God.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae, Kevin Knight, 2017, www.newadvent.org/summa/.
de Lubac, Henri. Nature and Grace. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984. Print.
Hardon, John. History and Theology of Grace. Eternal Life, 2020.
Healy, Nicholas. “Henri Delubac on Nature and Grace.” Theology of Grace. St. Joseph’s College, 2022.
Stevens, Gregory. The Life of Grace. Prentice Hall / Pearson Education, 1963. pp. 1-96, 107-110.