2007 Warfield Lectures: Lecture 2 – “Grace without Nature”

Lecture Notes

In the opening lecture of the series, Dr. Tanner set about developing a theological anthropology that did away with the notion of a human nature as independent from relation to God, a ‘pure nature’. She tried to show how a self-contained human nature dissolves when human life is understood as created in the image of Christ. This said, What does grace now become? Grace has always been understood in relation to nature, and if we do away with this ‘nature’, then how do we conceive of grace?

Tanner casts her discussion of these manners in terms of a conversation with the work of De Lubac, which Tanner takes to be basically Thomistic. An important aspect of this exploration is the idea of an innate desire for God. This is one way to keep from making grace to be simply an add-on to human nature. However, to frame things in this way is to reintroduce a notion of ‘pure nature’. Grace seems like a requirement for human life and human life looks like nothing without grace. The general response here is a distinction between desire and attainment. However, this returns to naturalism in that it makes desire intelligible on its own terms even if it were never satisfied. It also removes the gratuity of grace because we are understood to be created to receive grace. We could suggest that God might simply withhold this grace that we were created to receive, but this reintroduces a pure nature because we must then be able to conceive of humanity without the gift of grace.

A Thomistic account of natural desire for God, because of its Aristotelian baggage, suggest that humans are moving toward God on the basis of natural capacities. This is naturalism even if the final attainment requires God’s activity. We can know something of God even if not everything of God on the basis of our own power. Thus, the gift of grace (even in knowledge of God) comes off as an appendage. The natural desire for God amounts to a human dynamism moving toward God, and you get the notion of a series of progressive human states. It is hard to see the radical character of the gap between what we are and what we are given in Christ on such a model. The supernatural end is seen as simply the elevation of human nature.

The underlying problem here is the idea that a natural desire from God arises in human nature on its own apart from the gift of grace. Naturalism assumes that these desires, in so far as they are natural, can be satisfied by natural powers. This establishes an unbroken trajectory from creation to grace. But, Tanner wants to argue, that we have no natural desire for God apart from God’s gift of himself to us. We don’t move towards God on our own apart from a prior gift of God’s own self. This is not a secondary addition to human nature but is built-in to how humanity is created. The human nature never exists independently of God’s self-giving.

Retention of a desire for God in a state of sin would thus be the product of the continued existence of the original offer of grace. We turn away from the light without the light being withdrawn from us. Still, this gift of God’s self to us is not natural to us because God is foreign to us precisely because we are not divine. The Spirit of God is proper to humanity only through the gift of Christ’s flesh, which is united to the Logos. It remains alien to us. We are elevated beyond nature in salvation to participate in eternal life, a part of God’s life, which we cannot participate in by nature. This gift of God is ‘naturally’ ours in so far as this gift is to be our state of existence. It is first and constantly offered to us. What it means to be human is to live in the enjoyment of the alien gift of God’s self. The loss of the gift of God’s self creates an unnatural state in us, manifest by the ensuing suffering, i.e., the sinful condition.

We are given the Spirit from the start when we are created, but this does not mean that Christ brings nothing more. Before Christ we were at best spirit-filled humans. After the Word become incarnate, the Spirit becomes proper to humanity in a way that it was not before because humanity has been united to the Logos. The Spirit is still alien to our natures but it becomes proper to us as members of Christ’s body. We are lifted up with the humanity of Christ to enjoy the inter-trinitarian relations. As long as we are united with Christ we cannot loose the Spirit because we have it by nature – but according to Christ’s nature and not our own nature. The grace in Christ’s coming has to do with sin, for through our union with Christ we will finally not be able to sin. We are given in Christ a new constitution in relation to God in virtue of the hypostatic union that keeps us safe from sin. Thus, the integrity of human nature is secured.

In Christ we see perfectly what the divine Spirit means for human life that is conformed to the likeness of the Logos. What Christ has done for us in himself becomes ours insofar as we are one with him. What Christ has in his humanity is given to ours – the Spirit. We are first united to Christ’s humanity through the power of the Spirit. Then, joined to him, Christ gives his Spirit to us as the power by which we are to be made over into the image of Christ’s sanctified humanity. Our own human lives are gradually sanctified as we feed of the Spirit. What is alien to us is nevertheless imparted to us, even as it remains alien. Christ is in us as something other than ourselves.

This is a Christological soteriology. Christ is not the means of benefits, but is the benefits: we don’t gain benefits through him, but have the benefits in him. We never move beyond Christ’s humanity as the ideal for our own lives.


Here, I must necessarily be brief. The truth is that I have heard far too little to be able to make any particularly helpful criticisms, although my colleagues here at PTS will readily admit that I have been making plenty of provisional criticisms over the past few days in the spirit of rousing repartee. There is certainly much in Tanner’s formulations that is alluring. Her anthropology is clearly intended to be Christocentric, even if we might wonder (and on this I’m referring back to the first lecture) if it is not really the divine Logos in an abstract sense that is the image of God which we reflect in a way mediated by the human nature of Christ. Also, although Tanner makes a number of moves to try to avoid the following possibility, it is hard to see how grace can continue to be gratuitous when it is always already given in and with creation.

But, most importantly in my mind, I would like to know whether or not Tanner has an account of election working in the back of her mind. This would lead to the further question of whether she is operating more in keeping with an infralapsarian or a supralapsarian pattern. All of this goes, of course, to the vitally important relation of creation to covenant, nature to grace. Although, to be perfectly fair, Tanner is attempting to overcome this dichotomy – hence the title of this lecture: “Grace without Nature”. But, is she finally simply building grace into nature?

Stay tuned for more!


Shane said…
Did she give any /reason/ to think there were no such things as natures?

It isn't that she wants to do away with natures altogether, just with 'pure natures', which I understand to mean natures as defined on a solely empirical basis as something static and unchanging.

Of course, she is trying to account for bio-technological advances and other cutting edge concerns. But, no self-respecting medievalist would think that he had good reason to make these moves. :-)

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