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.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Natura Pura: St. Thomas in a Nutshell, Part 2

OBEDIENTIAL POTENCY IS AN APT if technical word to describe human nature as we find it in the light of revelation: that is, human nature with the capacity or potential of being linked with grace and the promise of life in union with God. The term obediential potency* (potentia obedientialis or potentia obedientiae) is the human person's inherent opennesss to revelation and to a relationship with God through grace. It is a receptive and passive quality in human nature, not an active positive quality, a fittingness, an aptitude, an ability to receive: hence a potentiality, not actuality. Grace is extrinsic to human nature inasmuch as it is not contained within it or does not arise out of it. The grace is obtained or actualized, not through self-effort or self-engendering, but received from and through another, namely God, by the obedience of faith, hence it is obediential. Human nature is thus potentially receptive to the grace of God. Human nature is able to receive the grace of God without insult. Human nature is raised by grace, but not fundamentally changed into something different. Nature "is the preamble to grace and not merely its postscript," and yet, within the context of supernatural finality, human nature may also be said to be "a placeholder for grace." Long, 23.

Human nature is therefore more than a "vacuole or pure naught, lacking proportionate created integrity and unknowable apart from the beatific vision."** Long, 22. It has its own dignity, its own realm, even its own proximate and natural end. In St. Thomas's view, "there is a proximate and natural end, defining of the species, which is distinct from and inferior to the final end of supernatural beatitude." Long, 23.

Human nature is not free of God. Human nature is, from its inception, theonomic, "the impress of the ordering wisdom of God." Human nature remains ordered to God even "in precision from grace," that is, even if grace is taken out of the picture, "but along an infinitely lower trajectory than that of supernatural grace, so that only with divine aid may these natures be elevated within the higher arc that passes into the very mystery of God Himself." Long, 25. The "natural is not an arena of autonomy from God." Long, 25. Indeed, the natural law which is part and parcel of human nature--it is a wholly natural law--"obligates man to receive whatsoever God deigns to reveal." Long, 23.

Photo of the body of 23-year old actress Evelyn McHale, May 1, 1947, R.I.P.,
After jumping from the Empire State Building
Both life and altitude lost

As a result of God's providential plan to unite nature and sanctifying grace, nature is, in a sense, ordered to a higher end. That is why original sin did more than merely sever the supernatural life from man and relegate him to the natural. Man did not fall from a supernatural life to pure nature. Because our nature was fundamentally ordered to the supernatural life of grace, the Fall both damaged that relationship and damaged nature, though accidentally and not substantially.

Just as a man who climbs up the Empire State Building and then jumps loses something more than the height he had attained (namely, his life), so nature as concretely further ordered in grace is profoundly harmed when grace is lost (although, again, accidentally, in regard to the vigor of its motion to the end, and not essentially: fallen man is yet human), precisely because it has itself been ordered through grace toward the more exalted beatific end. But the very idea of the supernatural is not the idea of a merely natural completion.

Long, 23-24. It would be an error to argue that, since grace and nature are distinct, harm to human nature could not occur following the loss of grace pursuant to the Fall. Such an argument neglects the "causal efficacy of grace." Long, 24. "Once ordered in and by grace at creation, thereinafter human nature will be vain and frustrated apart from the supernatural end. That is, human nature, as created [originally] in sanctifying grace, is as such remotely ordered to the supernatural end by this fact." Long, 24. The "causal efficacy of grace," however, does not transmute human nature; that is, it does not change us from one species to another. We would have been human had we been created without sanctifying grace. We are human though we were created with sanctifying grace. We are human though we have lost sanctifying grace. And we are human even when, through Christ's Redemption, we have regained sanctifying grace. The human thread is constant, though perhaps to some extent frayed, regardless of whether it is, or is not, immersed in sanctifying grace.

Long--and the entire corpus of Catholic patrimony--demands a synthesis between human nature and supernatural grace that respects them both:
[A] synthesis wherein the natural mode of participation of the eternal law is transcended by the nobler participation of the eternal law in supernatural grace. That the teloi*** of these participations are distinct, are materially but not formally the same--God as principle of created nature as opposed to God revealed in Himself (for there is infinitely more in God than merely being "principle of created nature," just as there is more in Einstein than being "man wearing a raincoat"****)--is essential to the integrity of St. Thomas's teaching.

Likewise, that the natural desire for God represents an obediential potency whereby the active agency of God may elevate man to achieve distinctive supernatural friendship indicates that the lower participation of the eternal law is presuppposed to the higher.
Long, 25.

This is all of great significance to the relationship between the natural law and grace. The natural law is a participation in the eternal law. Likewise, the life of grace is a participation in the eternal law. The natural law is transcended through grace, but in no wise is it transmuted, suppressed, abrogated. There is, and there never can be, any contradiction between life according to the natural law and life according to grace because they are both participations in the one and the same eternal law. There is, and there never can be, opposition between Law and between Grace.

Henri de Lubac, however, threw a wrench in the works. And one of the ways this occurred was through his thought regarding the concept of obediential potency, which is a subject we will address in our next posting.

*The term is used by St. Thomas Aquinas, among other places, in De virtutibus, q. 1, a. 10, ad 13 (in tota creatura est quaedam obedientialis potentia, prout tota creatura obedit Deo ad suscipiendum in se quidquid Deus voluerit) [in every creature there is an obediential potency, insofar as every creature obeys God in receiving whatever God wills] and in the Summa Theologiae, III, q. 11 a. 1, co. (Est autem considerandum quod in anima humana, sicut in qualibet creatura, consideratur duplex potentia passiva, una quidem per comparationem ad agens naturale; alia vero per comparationem ad agens primum, qui potest quamlibet creaturam reducere in actum aliquem altiorem, in quem non reducitur per agens naturale; et haec consuevit vocari potentia obedientiae in creatura.) [Now it must be borne in mind that in the human soul, as in every creature, there is a double passive power: one in comparison with a natural agent; the other in comparison with the first agent, which can reduce any creature to a higher act than a natural agent can reduce it, and this is usually called the obediential power of a creature.]
**As Long argues by the analogy of faith (analogia fidei), human nature has to have some natural significance outside of the supernatural, or the whole construct of the council of Nicea with respect to Christ's human nature is senseless. Long, 22.
***Plural of the Greek word telos, meaning "end" or "purpose" or "goal."

****For the meaning of this image (Einstein in raincoat/man in raincoat), see our prior posting on this subject, Natura Pura: St. Thomas in Nutshell, Part 1.

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