the imaginative conservative logo

nature and grace“Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature,
namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived
in the things that have been made.”
Romans 1:20

My goal this evening is to praise reason—that is, speculative reason—in the context of Christian faith. Speculative here refers to reason that seeks the truth for its own sake. Many voices inspired my effort: Clement of Alexandria, who extolled the wisdom of ancient Greek philosophers; Anselm, who spoke of faith seeking understanding; Augustine, whose path to God incorporated the philosophic eros for deathless truth; Bonaventure, who coined the remarkable phrase and title, itinerarium mentis in Deum, the mind’s journey into God; and Dante, for whom the hallmark of heaven is the perfection of the mind. A more recently composed inspiration has been John Paul’s great encyclical Fides et ratio (“Faith and Reason”).

The hero of my reflections is Aquinas. As a young student, Thomas was unresponsive and seemed dull. But Albert the Great said something about him that turned out to be prophetic: “We call this young man a dumb ox, but his bellowing in doctrine will one day resound throughout the world.” Aquinas is regularly in need of being rediscovered. I say this because he is a logically rigorous author, whom some readers find dry and uninspiring. Admittedly, his writing lacks the emotional power of Augustine’s Confessions, the rhetorical energy of Anselm’s Proslogion, and the inspired poetic flights of Dante. Aquinas does not tell stories. He argues and makes distinctions. He is what most people associate with the term “scholastic.” And yet there are in the Summa, as I hope to show, great beauties that cannot be found in other works of theology. Aquinas is the greatest Christian theologian of nature and the natural. Nature for him is not the sensuous, immediately given nature that St. Francis loved, nature as the world of trees and birds, of the sun and moon. I am sure Thomas loved these things too, but nature for him is something else. It is the realm of the universal and particular, cause and effect, matter and form, essence and existence. It is the nature of Aristotle. This is nature as the intelligible order of things that reveals itself to philosophic reason unaided by grace.

But Christianity also goes beyond Aristotle. Nature in Christian thought is the creation of a loving God. We may therefore say that the world for Thomas does not merely have but is blessed with intelligibility, just as man is blessed with reason. Nature’s beauty is not confined to the senses but extends to the mind. Shall we say that we experience traces of God in a beautiful sunset or mountain range, or in stunning works of art and music, and not in the rational order of things, the order that God infused into matter? Such an admission would be absurd, indeed blasphemous, since God is the source of the natural order. Reason, as the power of studying and beholding this order, is inherently good. We should therefore be able to glimpse something of the mind of God in things like the amazing structure and workings of our bodies and the mathematical order of the universe. If Aquinas were alive today, he would surely continue his inquiry into nature, unimpeded by any fear that such studies would undermine his faith. He would devote himself to quantum physics, relativity, genetics, and evolution—theories that call his beloved Aristotle into question. He would persist in believing that reason is inherently good and that all truths lead to God.

The Summa Theologica is a very big book with a vast range of topics. These include the function and extent of reason in matters of faith, the existence and essence of God, the order of creation, our passions, virtues, and vices, angels and demons, the sacraments, the Trinity, laws human and divine, the resurrection of soul and body, prayer, vows, and the vision of God reserved for the blessed. In spite of its difficulty, it is a good book for casual browsing. Open it to any page at random and you will find something interesting and instructive. The book is filled with arguments, but it is also a treasure house of memorable sentences. I have selected one of these as the focus of my talk. The sentence is about the great theme of Nature and Grace, and has always been my favorite in the entire Summa: “Since therefore grace does not destroy nature but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity.”[1] The sentence occurs in Part I of the Summa, Question 1, The Nature and Extent of Sacred Doctrine, Article 8, Whether Sacred Doctrine Is a Matter of Argument? Not surprisingly, Thomas’s answer to this question is a resounding “yes.”

Before we examine the sentence in detail, let me describe the overall manner in which Aquinas approaches a theological problem. As you know, the Summa consists of so-called “questions,” that is, topics that are to be investigated. Each questions is divided into “articles.” Every article begins with a well-defined question that invites a “yes” or “no” answer. In the case of Article 8, as we have seen, the question is: Whether sacred doctrine is a matter of argument? Then Thomas proceeds to a numbered set of so-called “objections.” These usually but not always argue for positions that Thomas eventually refutes. Then comes a turning point signalled by the dramatic On the contrary. This section responds to the objections taken as a whole and cites Scripture or the Church Fathers. Thomas then moves to a longer, more discursive section introduced by the words I answer that. It mixes arguments from Scripture with arguments based on natural reason, very often on the writings of Aristotle. The article comes full circle with the enumerated Replies to the Objections. These are often the most revealing part of a given article, since here Thomas exposes the error peculiar to each objection.

Thomas’s way of structuring his argument is pedagogically effective. In addition to addressing the theological problem at hand, the argument, in its carefully devised form, habituates the learner to thinking in an orderly and logical way. The method also reminds us that the tenets of Christian faith are often anything but clear and self-evident. There are reasonable differences of opinion and potential confusions that require careful analysis, sound judgment, and a judicious reading of Scripture. In addition, Thomas’s methodical discernment alerts the reader to the possibility of being deceived by false opinions that have the outward lustre of piety and right-mindedness. In this way, the Summa, especially in the Replies to the Objections, teaches us how to discern and expose that most dangerous of intellectual animals—the half-truth.

Consider, for example, the first objection in our article: “It seems this doctrine is not a matter of argument. For Ambrose says: ‘Put arguments aside where faith is sought.'” How can anyone disagree with this view, which seems obvious, or dispute the authority of St. Augustine’s great teacher? Were it not for Thomas’s discerning response, or something like it, a devout Christian might think: “Yes, that’s right. One shouldn’t use arguments from human reason in matters of faith but stick to revelation, since it is the direct word of God.” But as Thomas goes on to show, the objection assumes, wrongly, that the use of argument in sacred doctrine is an attempt to prove the truth of faith by means of natural reason, which would undermine faith by making natural reason supreme. That is not reason’s function in theology, as Aquinas explains in the I answer that: “As other sciences do not argue in proof of their principles, but argue from their principles to demonstrate other truths in these sciences: so this doctrine does not argue in proof of its principles, which are the articles of faith, but from them it goes on to prove something else, as the Apostle [Paul] from the resurrection of Christ argues in proof of the general resurrection (1 Cor. 15).”

ResurrectionThomas’s argument proceeds not from the danger of undermining faith but from the general form of science. Anyone who thought that theology was the attempt to provide rational demonstrations of faith would only demonstrate his ignorance of what a science is. Sciences cannot argue unless they have something to argue from, something that is ultimately incapable of proof. These are called first principles. In the case of theology, as Thomas explains, first principles do not come from natural reason but from revelation. To be sure, this limits the power of reason, which can neither prove its first principles nor in this case intellectually intuit them. But it also opens up a huge arena in which reason is free, indeed obliged, to search out the logical connections between one article of faith and another. One cannot argue rationally for either the resurrection of Christ or the general resurrection of all human beings, for both are matters of faith. But one can argue, as Paul does, that the one resurrection is the ground of the other.

An important assumption underlying this approach is that revealed truth is logically self-consistent. Like the truth that is the object of mathematics or physics, revealed truth is a coherent whole and not a mere list of disparate propositions. It is to this whole of truth, this “system,” that theological inquiry devotes its unstinting efforts. Theology aims at demonstrating the harmony of apparently unrelated or even conflicting elements within the body of sacred doctrine. In this quest for harmonization, theology comes to resemble music.

Let us recall the sentence I mentioned earlier: “Since therefore grace does not destroy nature but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity.” It occurs in the Reply to the Second Objection. This second objection is more complicated than the first. It states that arguments are either from authority or from reason. If sacred doctrine argues from authority, then it is using what everyone acknowledges to be the weakest form of proof and therefore uses for support what is unbefitting the dignity of sacred doctrine. And if it argues from reason, then it is using something that in spite of its strength within its own realm is unbefitting the end of sacred doctrine. Thomas cites Gregory here: “faith has no merit in those things of which human reason brings its own experience.”

The first part of the argument against argument rests on the misapplication of a generality. In its attempt to safeguard the dignity of sacred doctrine, the objection fails to distinguish different kinds of authority, as Thomas will explain. According to the second part of the argument, the use of reason would subvert the end of sacred doctrine, which is salvation through faith, not reason. The logic of the whole objection rests on an either/or. The objection seeks to reduce both sides of this either/or to absurdity, thereby proving its point. It assumes that there is no third possibility by which sacred doctrine may use argument without imperilling itself, no third path. This is what our harmonic theologian Thomas will reveal in his reply to the objection. He will open up a third path.

Whereas the Reply to Objection 1 is very short, the one that responds to Objection 2 is quite long. That is because Thomas must cover a lot of ground. He must find a way to interweave faith, reason, argument, and authority. The interweaving will be made possible by the harmonious interplay of nature and grace.

Thomas first takes up the thorny issue of authority. He agrees with the general point of the objection: an argument from authority is the weakest form of argument. Strictly speaking, such an argument is irrational, since it depends not on the content of a proposition but rather on who said it. As I say, this is a thorny issue. We appeal to authority all the time, not just in matters of religious faith. We trust some people more than others, some authors more than others, some doctrines more than others. Even avowed relativists do this. There are, moreover, degrees and kinds of trust. Sometimes trust has something to stand on, some ground. But sometimes it is no more than a hunch or gut feeling. Life is riddled with such acts of faith.

To return to the second reply in Article 8, there are different forms of authority. Sacred doctrine is a special case. That is because its first principles come from faith, not reason, and rely on the authority of Scripture, more precisely on those to whom God has chosen to reveal himself. This leads Thomas to assert that although the argument from authority based on reason is in general the weakest, the argument based on divine revelation is the strongest. “Strongest” here does not mean “has the power to convince the greatest number of people.” It does not refer to the subjective effect of the argument but to the objective cause of truth, which is God. This leads us to the crucial question: In what sense does natural reason function as an authority in sacred doctrine?

nature and graceThomas repeats what we already know: that natural reason cannot presume to argue for the first principles of faith, and that its theological vocation is not to validate faith but to bring clarity and coherence to what faith has already revealed. This is Anselm’s “faith seeking understanding.” Then comes the crucial sentence: “Since therefore grace does not destroy nature but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity.”

 The first thing to notice is that the sentence does not say “grace perfects nature” but rather “grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.” Thomas means to ward off an opinion that an unreflective Christian might hold, that nature and grace are inimical to each other, or more broadly that the supernatural is anti-natural. He means to defend grace as an altogether positive force.

The core of Thomas’s sentence is an analogy between the order of knowing and the order of loving. The unity of knowledge and love is characteristic of Thomas, and of Catholic Christianity in general. The most famous instance is the Divine Comedy, where Dante’s vision of God is mediated by the poet’s love for Beatrice. Beatrice incarnates the unity of nature and grace, of reason and faith. Her physical beauty, most evident in her eyes and smile, makes the grace of God stunningly visible. To address the objection regarding the use of argument in sacred doctrine, Thomas harmonizes knowing and loving. Each realm contains a hierarchy: faith is higher than reason, and charity is higher than natural love or what Thomas calls “the natural bent of the will.” The two higher levels correspond to grace, the two lower to nature. Grace as a whole is higher than nature as a whole. But these two realms are not static rungs. There is an organic connection: the higher realm presupposes the lower and works within it and for its sake.

Let us begin with the realm of knowing, which for Thomas embraces both reason and faith. Reason should minister to faith, that is, serve faith. How does it do this? The simple answer is that it engages in theological science. Theology has many functions. It clarifies first principles and strictly distinguishes them from the conclusions drawn from faith. It removes apparent absurdities and obstacles to faith. It raises and seeks to answer questions that believers might have. It clarifies the content of faith and so gives the believer a detailed account of what he believes. It generates plausible but erroneous or at least partially true opinions in order to expose their shortcomings. In this way, it staves off various heresies. Theology inculcates in believers the habit of thinking clearly about the most important thing in their lives. It serves as a check on emotionality and sentiment, which tend to warp our judgment and lead us astray in matters of faith. Finally, it is a check on self-appointed reformers within the Church, who seek to remake sacred doctrine in the image of their own ideologies, whether theological, social, political, or economic.

At this point, we may wonder: With all this emphasis on reason and intellect, where is the sense for the mystery of faith? My first answer is that the great Christian mystics, though not engaged in argumentation, nevertheless sought union with God through their intellects. This is beautifully conveyed by that phrase and title of Bonaventure’s that I cited earlier: “the mind’s journey into God.” The true mystic is not gloppy or vague. On the contrary, he is terrifyingly focused and disciplined. Through prayer, fasting, and intense concentration, he goes through carefully ordered levels or stages of divine immersion and divine ascent.

summer_songMy second answer is that natural reason has its own way of preserving the sense of mystery, albeit indirectly. This is because the more we follow the path of theological inquiry, the more we come to realize that our conclusions depend on belief in things that ultimately defy natural reason and could only have been revealed by a supernatural source: a God who became man, a God who is One and Three, love that extends to enemies, and victory over death. When pursued in the right spirit, theological inquiry, by seeking to exhaust the realm of natural knowledge, makes the believer keenly and even happily aware of the limit of that knowledge. It is like a runner who runs as fast as he can and waves his arms in an effort to fly. Unless he is insane, he does this comically, since he realizes that his effort will never succeed. But his failure to fly does not refute or belittle his natural power of running. It is rather the happy experience and felt realization of that which surpasses him. Our comic runner marvels at beings that by nature fly and feels a kinship with them. By feeling his limits in the power of his muscles and bones, in the hard work of his heart and lungs, he may come to enjoy his running even more, since he knows it embodies the aspiration of his whole being to take wing.

My image of the happy runner who joyfully embraces his limit leads me to a larger reflection. It seems to me that there is a deep connection between the study of God and the study of music. In each case, we use our rational powers to describe and as far as possible explain something wondrous. In each case, mystery remains. In our music program at St. John’s College we read an author named Victor Zuckerkandl. What he says about music applies to theology:

No one need fear that such an investigation will violate the mystery and do away with the miracle. Music is not a fata morgana and not a fake that it should dissolve before knowledge. On the contrary, the true miracle will appear the more miraculous the closer our knowledge can approach it.[2]

I conclude this section on the order of knowing with an observation: Not all Christians are up to or interested in the elaborate workings of Christian theology. Not everybody philosophizes, not everybody theologizes. Not everybody has to. As Paul reminds us, the gifts of the Spirit are many, and no single person has them all. But what binds both sorts of people together, intellectual and non-intellectual believers alike, is the shared faith in the ultimate vision of God. You do not need to be an intellectual to long to see, see with one’s mind, the face of God. Augustine in his Confessions gives us a beautiful example of this. In Book 9 he tells the story of what happened shortly before the death of Monica, Augustine’s mother, when he and Monica were at Ostia, near Rome. They were looking out a window into a garden while conversing about eternal life:

We ascended higher yet by means of inward thought and discourse and admiration of your works, and we came up to our own minds. We transcended them, so that we attained to the region of abundance that never fails, in which you feed Israel forever upon the food of truth, and where life is the Wisdom by which all these things are made, both which have been and which are to be.[3]

This experience of transcendence is shared. Monica did not need to be an intellectual like her wayward son in order to aspire to the supernatural Feast that was made for us all.

Having talked about the order of knowing, I now turn to the order of loving. Experience tells us that the two orders are intertwined. To love something is to want to know everything about it. To love someone is to want to know everything about that person. In matters of love no detail is too small, no fact insignificant. What lover would want to believe in but not see the beloved, or prefer a picture to the beloved’s actual presence, or a recording to the beloved’s living voice? This does not mean that lovers do not delight in veils, signs, poetic symbols, and implied meanings. But these are all part of the knowledge and intimacy that love seeks. They are the indirect, playful ways in which lovers are revealed to each other. Our experience of earthly love points to why theology is one of love’s highest labors, for the mind too is a lover. The exertions of argumentative reason in matters pertaining to God are all efforts on the part of the thinker to know the God whom the thinker desperately loves.

We must bear in mind, however, that theology does not exist solely for the divine delectation of the theologian. It is also for the edification, to use Paul’s word, the building-up of God’s people, his Church on earth. As Thomas writes in his Prologue, the “Master of Catholic Truth” has an obligation to teach both the proficient and beginners. The Summa, he says, quoting Paul, is the milk on which beginners must be nourished before they move on to the meat. Given the difficulty of the Summa, we marvel at what theological meat might taste like! What I mean to suggest is that Thomas’s book is a work of charity. It embodies a love that seeks to guide and care for the Church, which draws its strength from sound doctrine. Thomas cares for the young soul in particular, that is, the soul young in faith.

As we have seen, Thomas’s sentence connects the realms of knowing and loving, and points out an upper and a lower level within each: grace and nature, respectively. Natural reason ministers to faith by first adopting faith as a source of first principles and then proceeding to clarify the manifold content of faith.

Something like this must be happening in the order of loving as well, the order in which “the natural bent of the will ministers to charity.” I think what this means is that the will is naturally directed to God as its ultimate object and First Principle. Our hearts were made to love the highest good, just as our minds were made to seek the highest truth. That is our nature. As Augustine so beautifully puts it, “our heart is restless until it rests in Thee” (Confessions I, 1). Natural love loves God; it just doesn’t—can’t—love him enough. Left to itself, natural love cannot obey the commandment Jesus gives in Matthew: “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48)—that is, perfect in love. Charity through grace takes hold of the naturally loving will and lifts it beyond its natural capacity in order to fulfil its supernatural destiny. It perfects natural love by making the will perfectly adequate to its object. Here is how Thomas defines charity: “By charity I mean the movement of the soul towards the enjoyment of God for His own sake” (II, II, Q. 23, Art. 2, On the contrary). The perfected love of neighbour is a participation in this perfected love of God. Thomas’s point is that grace does not enter the realm of natural love and replace that love with something alien to it. Rather it causes the love that is already there, and which God has made, to transcend itself so that it may be fully itself, fully adequate to its intended object. To be sure, grace, Thomas argues, is creative (II, II, Q. 23, Art. 2). It produces something that was not there before and cannot be there unless grace is infused. But there is a there there to begin with—natural love as the host of supernatural help.

The natural bent of the will thus ministers to faith, serves faith, by being at the service of infused grace. And just as natural reason has as its vocation the acceptance of first principles that do not come from natural reason but only from faith, so too natural love has as its vocation the receptivity to being transformed and uplifted by a power beyond itself. Furthermore, natural love is always moving us in the right direction, toward the highest good. It just needs help to get there, the help that is grace. The natural bent of the will, natural love, ministers to faith because all our finite loves, and even our most trivial likings, are images of the Higher Love. Natural love, like natural reason, is a runner who longs to fly.

Saint_Thomas_Aquinas,_In conclusion, for Thomas there is cooperation—not war, as some Christian thinkers have affirmed—between the realms of nature and grace: between reason and faith, and between natural love and divine love. Since grace works by infusion, something has to be there beforehand to receive grace. Moreover, grace does not merely change nature but perfects it. It is the vocation of our nature to be graced in both knowing and loving. The harmonious union of nature and grace is the soul of Thomas’s whole teaching. It embodies his faith in the goodness of God and the goodness of what God has made.

And so my praise of reason, and of Aquinas, reaches its end. I close with a passage from a letter written by one of Thomas’s biggest fans, the southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor:

I couldn’t make any judgment on the Summa, except to say this: I read it every night before I go to bed. If my mother were to come in during the process and say, ‘Turn off that light. It’s late,’ I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression, would reply, ‘On the contrary, I answer that the Light, being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes,’ or some such thing. In any case I can personally guarantee that St. Thomas loved God because for the life of me I cannot help loving St. Thomas.[4]

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore


1. Quotations from the Summa Theologica are from the translation by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Christian Classics, Westminster MD: 1981.

2. The Sense of Music, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ: 1971, p. 9.

3. Confessions, tr. John K. Ryan, Doubleday, New York: 1960, p. 221.

4. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, selected and edited by Sally Fitzgerald, Vintage Books, New York: 1980.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."

Leave a Reply