Nature and Grace in Reformed Orthodoxy: Is there a Problem with the Narrative? (Or, on having your cake without the layers)

The Regensburg Forum is pleased to feature a series of posts by Jonathan Tomes, beginning with explorations in the development of nature and grace in Reformed Orthodox thought.

Modern Reformed Protestants have not always been the most reliable on those points touching diversity in their tradition, though this historical myopia likely besets every tradition. Much work has been done in recent years to set the historical record straight, but much work remains. One such deficit concerns the so-called ‘nature-grace dualism’ of medieval theology, as if such sweeping claims are ever satisfactory, and the relation of grace and nature in early modern Reformed Orthodoxy.

The claim to Reformed Protestant misunderstanding will be substantiated by reference to an old blog post by R. Scott Clark, though the central interest is to introduce Regensburg Forum readers to the Reformed scholastic and humanist Franciscus Junius (1545-1602). Following a quick introduction of what is a standard misunderstanding, we will quickly move to Junius’s theology of nature and grace as exposited in A Treatise on True Theology.

So Clark’s story goes, there have been three ways of relating nature and grace in Christian history, ‘grace perfects nature’, ‘grace renews human nature in salvation’, or ‘grace obliterates nature’, wherein the first belongs to the ancient and medieval periods, the second to ‘the Reformation approach’, and the third goes to the Anabaptists. He references an essay by Herman Bavinck for the differences between the medieval and Reformation theologies. According to Bavinck,

‘[…] It is true this grace is, among other things, gratia medicinalis, but this is an accidental and adventitious quality. Before all else it is gratia elevans, something added to and elevating above nature. As such it entered into the image of God given to Adam before the Fall, and as such it again appears in the restoration to that original state. […]’

Of significance for our purpose is, first, that elevating grace was additional to nature and given to Adam, and second, that this is a supernatural principle.

Clark alleges also that Thomas Aquinas taught an inherent imperfection of creation, and even that ‘creation was inherently corrupt.’ We will have to leave aside the accuracy of that claim, as well as the claim that there was such a sweeping ‘ontological hierarchy’ in the medieval period which rested upon some nature-grace layer cake, though these are interesting questions. Instead, we will directly approach Clark’s and Bavinck’s claim that ‘The Reformation rejected the entire system, and substituted for it a totally different conception of veritas, gratia, and bona opera.’ Different, perhaps, but we will dispute that it is ‘totally different.’ The contention, then, is that, while salvation is, for the Reformed Orthodox, ‘deliverance from wrath, free acceptance by God on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed and received through faith (trusting in Christ)’, this reductionist account is not necessarily set in contradiction to a more continuous theology of nature and grace, and that such an account existed rather early in the period of Reformed Orthodoxy, which brings us to Junius.

A Treatise on True Theology*, a work on the nature of theology, was first published in 1594. It reflects knowledge of classical pagan sources, as well as medieval scholastic thought. Prolegomenon was not systematically treated by the Reformers, so their heirs were dependent on the works of the classical and medieval tradition to satisfy their needs for clarification and systematization, a noteworthy practice that demonstrates the catholicity of Reformed scholasticism. Our presumption, then, should be in favor of continuity, unless there are strong reasons to claim radical discontinuity. Such discontinuity we do see between Junius and medieval theology, and where it would often be expected, but it is in his treatment of natural theology that we see the most unexpected continuity.

There is, according to Junius, a two-fold mode of communication of the knowledge of God, nature and grace. Adam, according to Junius, was implanted with the principles of natural theology in his understanding. He looked to God as his pattern by this ‘proper and internal impulse’ (142). But natural theology works according to its own natural principles and may not attain by those principles to supernatural knowledge, making necessary an external mode. The second mode always corresponds to this internal principle, or natural grace.

Of the second mode, Junius says, ‘This mode the orthodox fathers called supernatural grace, because the natural principle was intact in us at that time, when it was attached to the supernatural and external principle. But when it first turned itself away from that principle, it was corrupted and most wretched’ (142). Corruption of internal, natural principles was the result of Adam’s turning away from that attached supernatural  grace, the consequence of which was a schism in what was formerly joined, natural and supernatural theology.

Adam’s perfection would have been impossible apart from supernatural grace, even though his natural principles were intact (152), because such perfection is beyond the limits of natural theology. There is, then, an imperfection, ‘not because their perfection had been vitiated or because of some imperfection of nature (for that would mean he was retaining some imperfection of nature from creation), but by a relative imperfection (as they call it), that is, when compared to that infinite perfection of God and of divine matters’ (153). Supernatural grace must elevate nature to its apex (152).

Junius uses the language of ‘abolish’ to describe the replacement of natural theology with supernatural grace. Adam would continue on ‘enriched by supernatural theology, and by supernatural virtue he would be translated to that blessed condition through grace. […] This replacement is not only of a different form, but also of a different and most perfect genus. It will swallow up, so to speak, this form of our theology and carry it into its perfection’ (154).

Scripture likewise uses both continuous and discontinuous language to speak of resurrection and new creation. We should not be surprised when we see Junius speak of grace perfecting nature through elevation, abolition, or swallowing. The discontinuous language supports the end of the continuous. Junius has stated out front that supernatural grace corresponds to the natural principle.

Grace perfects nature by elevating nature beyond what is possible for it to achieve according to its own principles. Or, in other words, the natural body would have become a spiritual body by supernatural grace, and the perishable clothed in the imperishable. Because of Adam’s sin, the ‘natural gifts have been corrupted and the supernatural ones lost’ and ‘natural theology, as all the other things which arise from nature, was corrupted’. Supernatural theology had been rejected and ‘retreated from here to the heavens’ (155). Supernatural grace was originally necessary to elevate intact Adam, and, as man is now disordered and corrupted, grace is all the more necessary to restore, elevate, and perfect sinful man.

This brief survey has demonstrated that the standard Reformed Protestant nature-grace narrative is not without several major problems. We have seen that there is a place for an external gift of grace to bring Adam to perfection, if only that natural principle, which he strikingly refers to as natural grace, would respond rightly to the external principle, or supernatural grace. We have seen also that this supernatural attachment is necessary because of a ‘relative imperfection’, grounded not in an imperfection of nature but in the Creator/creature distinction. In other words, it does not belong to human nature to lift itself up to God, but God graciously condescends to elevate human nature to himself.

Next we will look closer at the role of natural theology, and its relation to supernatural theology after Adam’s sin.



*The Junius Institute has graciously provided to the public a digital companion to A Treatise on True Theology, translated by David C. Noe, and introduced by Willem J. Van Asselt. In-text page references and quotations are taken from this translation.

tomesJonathan Tomes is an Information Specialist at the Baylor University Libraries and a PhD candidate at the John Wycliffe Puritan Studies Program. His primary research interests are early modern covenantal thought and Reformed catholicity.

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