Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Balaam's Ass and Stained Glass: The Concept of Specific Obediential Potency

THE NOTION OF OBEDIENTIAL POTENCY is a central concept to traditional Christian anthropology. Man's nature--that which defines him specifically--is in potency to supernatural grace, a potency which is actualized by the obedience of faith and all such obedience of faith entails (e.g., baptism). De Lubac appears to have limited his notion of obediential potency as "susceptibility to miracle," which is one manner in which the term was used by scholastics, including St. Thomas himself. But de Lubac seems to disregard, nay, in fact reject,* the concept in its other sense, that is as the conceptual carrier for "the fundamental question of the relation of nature to grace." Long, 28. (In this latter sense, to distinguish it from its former generic sense, it is often called "specific obediential potency.") According to Long, the same tendentiousness is found in the Thomist Etienne Gilson for whom the concept of obediential potency "was tantamount to the idea of a mere extrinsic and miraculous transmutation of nature." Long, 28.

Balaam's Ass: Nature Transmuted

Restricted to the sense of susceptability to miracle, the concept of "obediential potentiality" is clearly deficient to explain the relationship between human nature and the supernatural life. There is a huge difference between Balaam's ass speaking (a miraculous transmutation of asinine nature) and man's capax Dei, his natural capacity to be receptive to, and elevated by the divine aid and "speak in tongues" so to speak. If kept to this denotation alone, it is an inadequate carrier of that relationship. If man were transmuted by grace, he would no longer be man. If man was not man until he was transmuted by grace, then he would not have been man before. But what is remarkable is the rejection of both Gilson and de Lubac of the term "obediential potency" as the concept of man's passive receptivity to divine grace. It was as if these two greats had never read St. Thomas!**

Had they but seen, Gilson and de Lubac would have realized that St. Thomas and his commentators were, in their exposition of obediential potency, describing the contours of the very mystery that they themselves sought to understand. For man's nature is not transmuted but elevated, and so must first be elevable by divine grace: the very meaning of specific obediential potency as opposed to generic obediential potency.

Long, 33. What are these contours? Long summarizes succinctly:
[W]hile a human person cannot know and love God in direct vision and embrace without supernatural aid, with such aid the human person may partake in intrinsically supernatural divine friendship, and this is the specific notion of obediential potency as applied to the relation of grace to nature. It is a wholly passive potency, which yet presupposes as its subject some determinate nature that is such that, when aided by the active agency of God, ti may achieve a certain specific range of actuation. It is because of man's essentially spiritual nature that he has an obediential potency to the supernatural life.
Long, 35. In describing the concept of specific obediential potency, Long uses an image which is worth noting.***

Stained Glass Window, Lincoln Cathedral
Symbol of Man's Obediential Potency

The similitude of the stained-glass window illumined by the sun's rays well bespeaks the character of the doctrine of obediential potency as applied to the relation of nature and grace. The stained-glass window, were it cognizant, could not "know what is was missing" were it never to irradiate its bright colors under the influence of the sun. It would be a window, still, and function as part of the structure--though it would, in a given respect, not be fulfilled. It would be what it is, not fail to be a part of the whole structure of which it would form an integral part, nor lack its own participation in the good of the whole as a specific perfection. Yet its nature stands properly revealed only under the extrinsic causality of the sun's illumination: seeing it so illumined, we know what stained glass truly is for.

Long, 34. That is what nature is called to be: a window through which the grace of God shines, and by which we are promised a future union with God as Trinity.

Long attributes Gilson's and de Lubac's error, not to any bad faith or ordinary ignorance, but to their being diverted by what they perceived as a Scylla and a Charybdis through which they had to negotiate. On the one hand, they had a legitimate concern that grace not be a "vermiform appendage," that is, something that is merely superadded to human nature, but which does not elevate or perfect it (which is how the Lutherans sort of see grace--simul iustus (grace) et peccator (nature). On the other hand, they had a concern (which was mistaken in Long's view) to preserve the existence of a supernatural desire in human nature.

It is this latter concern, which Long believes was an illegitimate concern, a siren call, that ultimately drew both Gilson and de Lubac and many after them into the shoals of error.
*Long quotes a letter from de Lubac's Mystery of the Supernatural: "the simple idea of potentia obedientialis conceived not 'to express the condition in which God's gift places us of being able to become children of God,' but to account for the possible of miracle, is not adequate as a definition of the relationship of human nature to the supernatural." Long, 30.
**How did they miss it?
It should be said that when something passive is fashioned to acquire different perfections from different ordered agents, there is a difference and order of passive powers in the recipient responding to the difference and order of the active powers of the agents, because the passive power responds to the active. Thus, it is that water or earth have a potency according to which they are moved by fire, and another insofar as they are fashioned to be moved by the heavenly body, and yet another according to which they can be moved by God. For water or earth can become something in virtue of a supernatural agent that they cannot become by the power of a natural agent. For this reason we say that in every creature there is an obediential potency, insofar as every creature obeys God in receiving whatever God wills. There is in the soul a potency fashioned to be actuated by a connatural agent, and in this way it is in potency to acquired virtues. In another way there is a potency in the soul which is fashioned to be actuated only by the divine power, and in this way the infused virtues are potentially in the soul.

Ad decimumtertium dicendum, quod quando aliquod passivum natum est consequi diversas perfectiones a diversis agentibus ordinatis, secundum differentiam et ordinem potentiarum activarum in agentibus, est differentia et ordo potentiarum passivarum in passivo; quia potentiae passivae respondet potentia activa: sicut patet quod aqua vel terra habet aliquam potentiam secundum quam nata est moveri ab igne; et aliam secundum quam nata est moveri a corpore caelesti; et ulterius aliam secundum quam nata est moveri a Deo. Sicut enim ex aqua vel terra potest aliquid fieri virtute corporis caelestis, quod non potest fieri virtute ignis; ita ex eis potest aliquid fieri virtute supernaturalis agentis quod non potest fieri virtute alicuius naturalis agentis; et secundum hoc dicimus, quod in tota creatura est quaedam obedientialis potentia, prout tota creatura obedit Deo ad suscipiendum in se quidquid Deus voluerit. Sic igitur et in anima est aliquid in potentia, quod natum est reduci in actum ab agente connaturali; et hoc modo sunt in potentia in ipsa virtutes acquisitae.
Alio modo aliquid est in potentia in anima quod non est natum educi in actum nisi per virtutem divinam; et sic sunt in potentia in anima virtutes infusae.
St. Thomas, De virtutibus, q. 1 a. 10 ad 13.
***He quotes from his article, "On the Possibility of a Purely Natural End for Man," Thomist 64 (2000): 236.

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