III. Sed Contra: De Lubac’s Thomism?
As we have observed, de Lubac was not simply providing a novel systematic theology of the supernatural. Restating the authentic doctrine of St. Thomas in a modern context was central to his project. And where his thought ventured beyond the path St. Thomas himself tread, de Lubac understood it to be in the spirit of Thomas and an expansion of his tradition. For almost all of his major claims about nature and the supernatural, de Lubac invoked some textual support from St. Thomas. And it seems his fundamental intuition is indeed correct: Thomas himself was thoroughly Augustinian in his theological disposition, and thus the focus of his thought focused heavily on the actual order of God’s Providence. He did not employ the theology of a hypothetical, “purely” natural order to establish grace as divine gift; nor did he conceive of two distinct final ends for man, two orders of Providence (one on top of the other). An underlying principle of Thomas’s thought, and central for de Lubac, is the fundamental unity of God’s Providential economy: God’s antecedent will for humanity is a governing principle rendering extrinsicism quite foreign to his theological anthropology. For St. Thomas man is created in sanctifying grace; he is so ordered from the beginning.
However, what complicates the validity of de Lubac’s self-understanding is the manner in which he cites Thomas. It is not always evident that Thomas is expressing the ideas de Lubac presumes in the passages he cites. Few provide enough context to actually establish that de Lubac’s interpretation is unambiguously faithful to the Angelic Doctor. But the most substantial problem in de Lubac’s exegesis is his selective reading. De Lubac draws upon the set of Thomas’s texts which emphasize that man’s only end is his supernatural finality: arguing that the knowledge of God’s essence is the end of every intelligent creature and that no desire of this kind can be in vain. De Lubac thus argues that in Thomas’ view the only end “natural” to man is the supernatural end. As the end is what specifies the nature, and man has only one final end, man is essentially constituted by his supernatural finality. Any thought of a human nature without this supernatural orientation is thus technically of a different species, a different nature all together (hence the failed relevance of any “pure nature”).
Yet as Steven Long points out, de Lubac has overlooked another set of Thomas’s texts which clearly affirm the existence of a natural end distinct from the supernatural end. For St. Thomas, it is the natural end, proportionate to natural powers, which specifies human nature as human nature. The example which makes clear this necessity is that of angelic natures. Both men and angels are graciously ordained to the same supernatural beatitude; but if the end specifies the nature, then it seems there is no metaphysical resource to distinguish man from angel. Human nature and angelic nature collapse into one another. But does this admittance of a distinct natural end condemn St. Thomas to modern extrinsicism? Not exactly. The key distinction which de Lubac fails to appropriate but which structures St. Thomas’s entire account is that between final and proximate ends. For de Lubac, any talk of a natural end can only refer to a natural final end, which thus implies a distinct (and problematic) order of Providence and a threatening alternative to the actual order of man’s divine destiny. “Natural end” is thus a category that de Lubac can only conceive of as implicating natura pura: it thus bears connotations of being enclosed and cut off, rather than fundamentally open. However, for St. Thomas, the natural proportionate end is a proximate end only: while specifying human nature in essence, it is causally ordered by God’s grace beyond itself to the supernatural finis ultimus. As proximate, the distinct natural end is entirely consistent with St. Thomas’s teaching that man is ordained (by grace) from creation for one final, supernatural beatitude. It is an end that is utterly transparent to the movement toward the vision of God: no connotations of ontological enclosure attach to it. Such an end does not imply an alternative order of Providence; rather it is an integrated aspect of the one actual order unified by God’s loving intentionality.
In fact, the natural proximate end is a necessary aspect of the actual Providential order, even as de Lubac himself conceives of it. For in deemphasizing St. Thomas’s teaching on the natural end, de Lubac sacrifices the metaphysical precision which his own account requires. In his attempt to maintain the organic unity of nature and the supernatural, de Lubac speaks of the supernatural end as inscribed on man’s very being; as an “essential finality,” and as “ontological” in character. Indeed, in his account of human nature as spiritual, de Lubac acknowledges that creatures like animals and trees are “bound” and “limited” by natural ends; but human spirit in its “natural” orientation to the divine is thought of as an exception to rule of natural ends. However, there is far more of Blondel in this interpretation than of Thomas, for it exhibits a misunderstanding of Thomistic natural teleology. If there were really no other end than the beatific vision to define human nature, then human nature would not only be equated with angelic nature, but potentially with divine nature; a metaphysical impossibility. There would need to be some additional principle to specify human nature in distinction from divine and angelic natures, for the final end that they all share is incapable of doing so. De Lubac certainly desires to uphold the “solidity” of nature in distinction from the supernatural; but he fails to see that a distinct natural end is precisely what is required to do just this. We must then question the rather ambiguous use of terms like “ontological” and “essential” to describe the supernatural finality; for these more properly apply to the natural end in Thomas’s view, and it is evident that de Lubac cannot be using these terms in the same sense in which they apply to the natural end without metaphysical confusion. The failure to uphold this end would seemingly imply a dangerous version of intrinsicism in which the only metaphysical principle that could ensure the real distinction between natural and supernatural would be lost!
Even the attempt to distinguish human nature by its inability to achieve the supernatural end through its own powers presupposes an intelligible natural end according to which those powers are defined. In fact, all grace presupposes the natural end in precisely this sense. It secures that upon which grace builds: secures it not in its sterility (as de Lubac thought) but in its integrity. If one were to claim that the proximate natural end were blotted out by the supernatural, and did not endure as distinct within a supernatural ordering, grace would be inherently transmutative of species rather than perfective of it. If the natural end does not endure, then neither does any distinct sense of the term “man.” Grace would not then “prefect man” or “re-order man,” because what constitutes the reality as “man” simpliciter has been dissolved. Grace would actually destroy, rather than perfect nature. It would, metaphysically speaking, render us beings of a different kind. Yet we are called to experience the vision of God as graced humans; to attain the supernatural as transformed humans; to share in the divine nature as elevated humans. If grace is to perfect us as human beings, the natural end that specifies us must endure in its integrity within the order of grace. Anything short of this would equate God’s grace with the cataclysmic Flood that only redeems through destruction. Thus the failure to uphold the integrity of the natural end results in an extrinsicism more radical than that which de Lubac attempts to overcome! For what could be more extrinsic to nature than a grace that cannot even be supper-added to it without destroying it? It seems then in his effort to establish the organic continuity between nature and the supernatural (by positing a supernatural finality to the exclusion of a natural proximate end), de Lubac himself falls prey to either a form of intrinsicism or of extrinsicism, both incompatible with the paradoxical character of the mystery. He thus fails to avoid Scylla or Charybdis, and the true via media that the mystery demands remains elusive.
Having missed the fundamental distinction between the proximate natural end and the final supernatural end, it becomes clearer why de Lubac’s interpretation of St. Thomas’s teaching on other points can be called into question. For instance, Thomas holds that every end has the character of the good, meaning that for a distinct natural end an imperfect felicity proportionate to natural powers is indeed attainable. Contra de Lubac, St. Thomas is able to contemplate the possibilities of a pure nature in a way that is not subject to the modern perversions and yet achieves more than an abstract “similarity” with the humanity of the actual order. Because for Thomas the proximate end specifies the nature, he would not agree with de Lubac that the speculative pure nature would be “another nature” entirely. Rather, the difference between the actual order and the possible, pure one is that in the latter the proximate natural end would not be proximate, but simply final. The natural end would simply never have been further ordered to the supernatural in grace. Yet with regard to essence, the natures would be equally human; just as a horse in this world and a Pegasus in an imagined possible world would both share all of the essential features of the nature “horse,” even though one is elevated to possess something more. Thus, also contra de Lubac, in such an order where the proximate end would be rendered the final end- the last stop, as it were- man would not experience the absence of the beatific vision as a punishment: just as if in our world all horses were elevated by God to be like Pegasus, and we imagined a world where they were not so ordered, a horse’s lack of wings would not be experienced as a privation in that imaginative context.
Further, de Lubac’s interpretation of St. Thomas’s desiderium naturale seems mistaken: the natural dynamism that defines created spirit from all other natures is not for St. Thomas the desire for the beatific vision. It is true that materially the object of that desire is God’s inner being, and it is true that simpliciter, the only thing that will bring rest to the intellect’s natural desire will be knowledge of God’s essence given by grace. However, St. Thomas’s understanding is not reducible to a Blondelian conception of natural desire. What St. Thomas means principally by the desiderium naturale is a function of the natural desire to know the essence of the Cause of finite things. It is thus principally ordered to God, but under the formality of Cause of being. Only when God reveals His essence and through His grace makes the attainment of that knowledge under a more eminent formality a realizable possibility, then is the natural desire elevated beyond its natural horizon (but not before in any specific sense). The desire remains elicited and conditional upon former knowledge that God exists; and the knowledge of God under the formality of Cause provides a properly natural telos to the human spirit where in de Lubac’s account it was missing. Finally, de Lubac fails to adequately acknowledge that the capax gratiae that makes created spirit so distinctive rests in a specific obediential potency; a category that he, like Gilson, dismissed as insufficient to capture the supernatural trajectory of spirit qua spirit. However, this is precisely how St. Thomas conceives of that capacity which for de Lubac is already dynamic. According to Thomas, the possession of intellect and will exhibit a passive potency in human nature: an aptness for elevation that exists only in relation to the active power of God. This capacity is, we might say, not “of” or “according to” nature, but “in” nature: it is that which ensures that man can be elevated by grace and yet remain man. By interpreting this concept too narrowly in a generic sense, de Lubac failed to apprehend this essential distinction between a dynamism that presupposes the activity of grace and one that exists in virtue of nature itself.
IV. Respondeo Quicendum Quod: Retrieving the Retrieval
We have seen then that de Lubac’s exegetical shortcomings, primarily in failing to account for the fundamental distinction between a distinct natural (proximate) end within his account of the supernatural, lead ultimately to problematic conclusions that undermine the success of his retrieval and his attempt to find the middle way demanded by fidelity to the paradoxical divine truth. However, it seems that de Lubac’s intuition in searching for answers in the thought of St. Thomas proves the wisdom of his intention: for it is precisely the distinctions of Thomas’s which de Lubac failed to treat adequately that achieve a way of articulating both the unity and the distinction of the natural and the supernatural. In fact, Thomas and de Lubac completely agree in their intention of describing the Augustinian historic nature: nature as ordained, in reality, to the supernatural. Yet Thomas simply describes the situation with greater metaphysical finesse, because only through his distinction do those words actually mean what they intend. Only if nature is distinguished by a proximate, proportionate end can one really mean something by the word “nature” when describing how it is “supernaturally ordained.” Denying the proximate end results in evacuating the term “nature” of any meaningful distinction from the “supernatural.” It would then no longer make sense to describe nature as supernaturally ordained to a supernatural final end. The sustained integrity of the natural through the affirmation of the natural end is the tool that ensures distinction.
But it does not merely distinguish. St. Thomas’s theology fulfills the Lubacian principle of “uniting in order to distinguish.” Thus the proximate natural end is only ever thought of in the context of the overarching unity of God’s Providential synthesis. Nature is not transmutated by its historical contact with sanctifying grace. Rather it is transfigured as it is upheld in its integrity while at the same time being causally ordered beyond itself to the one supernatural finis ultimus. The relationship that grace has to nature is not, then, in the technical sense, “essential,” or that of an “inscription” on one’s nature. Rather, it appears that for Thomas, in order for grace to keep from destroying nature, it must necessarily be accidental to nature. The same intrinsic metaphysical structure is sustained even in the midst of the effects of sin and grace in the Providential order (sinful man is still man; and graced man is still man). But does this compromise the organic continuity? Is not an accidental relation precisely what is characteristic of the “pure nature” theology?
Sic et non: within Thomas’ framework, an accidental relation need not carry the connotations of compromising unity. “Accidental” need not mean “contingent.” For though it is technically not necessary according to the essence of man; it can easily derive a more eminent necessity from God’s antecedent will for that nature. Thus, from the perspective of faith, the accidental principle can be considered as intimate to man as his hands and his feet. It can, as accidents properly conceived are meant to do, more fully actualize that nature. Perhaps it would be helpful to think of the relationship in terms of proper accidentality: the way we would see having a right hand as intrinsic to man, yet it nonetheless stands “outside of” (extrinsic to) the essence. For if I were to lose my right hand, I would nonetheless retain my humanity. And from the perspective of God’s divine will for creation, having a right hand may be as integral in reality as having an intellect. Grace would not simply “add onto” nature, but would be intrinsic as to unfold into actuality (passive) potencies that lie dormant within nature itself qua spirit. Thus, unity is achieved, but in such a way as to maintain distinction through metaphysical precision.
Such a vision of accidental unity seems to be operative in David Braine’s interpretation of de Lubac. While noting that his chief problem is the ambiguity regarding technical philosophical terminology, Braine believes it is quite easy to separate de Lubac’s intention from his philosophical confusions. Thus he also argues that his attempt to predicate the supernatural orientation (or for that matter sin) of nature is mistaken. What he intends is to predicate such an orientation of man as person in the relationship to a single spiritual community that he shares in virtue of the (accidental) relation of inheritance. The finality does not arise out of human nature qua nature, but rather out of human nature as it is ordered in the divine order of Providence (or, we might say, out of nature but not in virtue of it).
Though it seems that de Lubac has not succeeded where St. Thomas has, in truth it may not be so. There may be ways in which de Lubac’s own retrieval can be retrieved from the burden of its negative conclusions. For instance, Braine suggests a hermeneutic lens with which to read de Lubac’s use of the word “nature” in a fundamentally different sense than the Aristotelian one. It is a more Augustinian sense that has precedent in St. Thomas and sees the primary meaning of “natural” as grounded in God’s antecedent providential will for creation. Thus whatever is given by God is, according to Providence, “natural.” It is the way in which man is ordered by divine Providence that defines what is natural simpliciter, and the way in which man is ordered by his essence is natural only in a certain way (secundum quid). Thus according to Braine, de Lubac can be read such that he is not in fact attempting to restructure the essence of man, but rather is simply using “natural” in an analogous sense. Such a use of nature in the Augustinian idiom seems to be a positive way forward in redeeming the Lubacian perspective so that it becomes more consonant with St. Thomas’s distinctions. For as we have noted, St. Thomas is himself thinking from an Augustinian framework, while not denying the necessary integrity of the Aristotelian sense of nature within that very framework. The analogous terms must be held in tension. And it seems the most important step in retrieving de Lubac’s theological enterprise is moving beyond the technical imprecision of de Lubac himself to a position that recognizes the essential harmony between the Augustinian and Aristotelian “natures.”
Thus we have seen that de Lubac’s overall principles of attempting to find a theoretical form that upholds both poles of the mystery of the supernatural; his criticism of a perverse form of Thomist extrinsicism; and his proper intention to find the resources for his solution in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas are all aspects of de Lubac’s theology that we must commend. And despite his exegetical insufficiencies and metaphysical ambiguities which led to problematic conclusions, we have found that nonetheless the distinctions of St. Thomas provide a compelling solution and a way to remain faithful to the paradox of divine truth and to the contours of Lubacian theology (in a sense, being more Lubacian than de Lubac!). We might say that with a little touch of Thomism, de Lubac is able to properly fulfill his own aim and give reverence to the mystery of the supernatural.
For ease of citation, we will follow Steven Long in drawing all citations of the texts of St. Thomas Aquinas, unless otherwise noted, from the Corpus Thomisticum, S. Thomae de Aquino opera omnia, available in Latin online at http://www.corpusthomisticum.org/iopera.html. Cf. Steven A. Long, “On the Loss, and the Recovery, of Nature as a Theonomic Principle: Reflection on the Nature/Grace Controversy,” in Nova et Vetera, English Edition, Vol.5, No.1 (2007): p.133.