The Natural Desire for God: Part 3, The Continuity versus Discontinuity of Grace

A still further way to ponder the relationship between nature and grace concerns the continuity versus discontinuity of grace.

On the one hand is the view that grace is radically discontinuous with nature, given that grace is an extrinsic gift. Grace accomplishes what nature cannot do on its own. Grace arrives as gratuitous surprise, wholly unanticipated and "beyond" nature.

This discontinuity seems right to us, almost definitional for what it means to call something "grace." If nature could, on its own, catalyze the beatitude we experience in a state of grace then that beatitude would not be an extrinsic gift but, rather, be latent within a creature's naturally endowed potencies. 

And yet, a problem is raised here. Specifically, if grace is radically alien to human nature then the meeting of nature and grace is less a gentle embrace than an ontological collision. The more qualitatively alien and discontinuous grace is defined the more it seems to nullify human nature. As a case study, this was a criticism leveled at Karl Barth's Epistle to the Romans. Barth's early work on grace in Romans, which emphasized the radical discontinuity between nature and grace, the "infinite qualitative distinction" between God and humanity, was criticized as being anti-creation and anti-human. Grace was a categorial "No!" to human nature. 

David Bentley Hart makes a different criticism regarding the discontinuity of grace, arguing that the greater the discontinuity between nature and grace the more nature would "reject" grace as an alien intrusion, the way the human body rejects a transplanted organ. If grace is radically discontinuous from nature the union between them doesn't make a unified organic whole but a freakish hybrid. 

Given these concerns, attempts might be made to smooth away the discontinuities between nature and grace. But challenges lurk here as well. 

For example, in some popular and progressive Christian theologies nature is considered to be intrinsically graced. Examples of this come form theologies touting "original blessing" or the "cosmic Christ." 

In the view of "original blessing" all of creation is declared primordially "good" in Genesis 1. Thus, all of creation is primordially "graced." Grace is baked in at the start and is now an intrinsic feature of creation. Creation does not need an "additional" grace, as its "already" graced in the "original blessing." All is grace.

Theologies of a "cosmic Christ" get to the same place but with different theological moves. In a cosmic Christology, following the Christ Hymn of Colossians 1, "all things" were made through Christ and "in Christ" all things "hold together." Christ, in this view, is the spiritual fabric holding all creation together. With everything existing "in Christ" grace is baked into material reality. All is grace because all is Christ.

These are popular and attractive theologies, and they share a similar view that grace and nature are radically continuous rather than discontinuous. Nature and grace are simply the same thing.

To be sure, this is a beautiful vision of the world, and it is true that creation is the "first" of the "two gifts" of grace, but these theologies have some problems. Specifically, in making everything grace we lose the definition of grace we started out with at the top. Grace is supposed to be a gift that I do not posses on my own. That's what makes it grace. Grace implies something gratuitous, something that exceeds what I have on my own. Grace implies surprise, something new and unexpected coming from beyond the horizon of my own capacities. But if grace is already factored into nature, right from the start, if nature is grace just for being exactly what it already is, then we've said a really nice thing about nature but at the expense of losing grace. In these theologies, nature might be lovely, beautiful and wonderful simply as it is, but it needs no encounter with the "second gift" of grace. Nature is fine on its own, just as it is. 

Phrased in soteriological terms, if nature is intrinsically graced is there any such thing as needing to be "saved"? If all of created nature exists in a state of grace--from an original blessing or existing within the cosmic Christ--then everything is already "saved." Nothing need be found, as nothing now is lost. No mending is required, as everything is already whole. No liberation is effected, as everything is already free. No medicine is on hand, as everything is already well. No peace is extended, as everything is already reconciled. No atonement need be made, as everything is already forgiven. In short, a creational theology that radically conflates nature and grace, eradicating any discontinuity between them, places a biblically-informed soteriological theology under considerable strain. In simple terms, if you bake all your soteriology (salvation theology) into your creational theology you'll struggle later on to make sense of why Jesus died on the cross. 

Surveying these options and all the treacherous theological obstacles to the right and to the left, many try to find a middle way between radical discontinuity and radical continuity. I'll turn to those attempts in the next post.

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