For the Umpteenth Time, Grace is Not Nature

Once again the lame argument that nominalism (and its Protestant progeny) severed the chain of being and gave us Walmart:

One can now readily see the theological pitfalls of this position. It means that in Genesis, when God called creation ‘good’—it was only because He said so, not because it was really good. It also contravenes the testimony of the Old Testament, where creation as seen as reflecting the beauty and goodness of God—Dreher quotes Psalm 19:2, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Finally, Ockham’s position is at odds with the reality of the Incarnation itself, along with the reality of the visible Church and the sacramental system. (Certainly it is now apparent how nominalism helped pave the way for the Protestant Reformation.)

In the context of the Christian faith, the errors and perils of nominalism may seem manifest, but what about its broader cultural implications? As Dreher explains, once the world had been emptied of inherent meaning and bore only that meaning imposed on it by God, the next big step was to replace God with man.

How and why did this happen?

The real answer, of course, is beyond our scope, but we can briefly point to it here. (See Dreher’s second chapter, “The Roots of the Crisis” for the full summary.) Once the sacred chain connecting all being to God was severed, creation shrunk back from its Creator: the world became a smaller place.

Hello! The heavens declaring the glory of God doesn’t make the heavens a sacrament.

Hello! Affirming the profound chasm between Creator and creature (can you say transcendence?) does not destroy the light of nature that shows “that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might” (Confession of Faith 21.1).

Hello! Saying that God’s ways are not our ways is not to deny that God superintends all things.

In fact, if you believe in providence:

God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy. (Confession of Faith 5.1)

you can also believe in sacraments:

A sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ; wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers. (Shorter Catechism 91)

But if you so closely identify God with his creation, you may have trouble distinguishing the church from Europe. Hillaire Belloc anyone?

Europe is the faith, and the faith is Europe.

Surely, somewhere in all those Aristotelian categories appropriated by Aquinas, Roman Catholics have a way of distinguishing the world from God who is a “spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” You have to preserve those incommunicable attributes of God somehow.

13 thoughts on “For the Umpteenth Time, Grace is Not Nature

  1. Robert Letham–“In Protestant scholasticism, long entrenched by the time of Westminster, condescensio was used for God’s accommodation of himself to human ways of knowing in order to reveal himself. This was closely related to gratia Dei (the grace of God), the goodness and undeserved favor of God toward man, and to gratia communis (common grace), his nonsaving, universal grace, by which, in his goodness, he lavishes favor on all creation in the blessings of physical sustenance and moral influence for the good. These are the clearest senses of the terms for the Assembly…” (The Westminster Assembly, 225-26).

    Letham : “The Westminster documents clearly affirm that grace was present before the fall” (p. 232).

    Lee Irons (Redefining Merit) —”The ontological elements in the medieval view of the sacraments were removed, so that the sacraments became signs and seals of the covenant rather than rites which ex opere operato infused the divine nature into the soul. These developments flow from the nominalistic development of the notion of pactum. And, therefore, to a certain extent we in the Reformed camp today are all the theological heirs of the via moderna. But have we carried the covenantal revolution to its logical conclusion? Or does our system still perpetuate remnants of an ontologically-based notion of merit and justice? ….”

    Lee Irons—-“Note the fundamentally voluntarist reasoning of the Westminster Confession’s opening statement on the covenants: The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part. (WCF VII.1). All the basic elements in this statement are derived directly from the Franciscan notion of congruous merit.”


  2. For the Umpteenth Time, Grace is Not (the light) Nature ?

    Still trying to learn about this – sounds like ‘the light of nature’ origin is with the great theologian René Descartes who then passed it on here?:
    Q. 2. How doth it appear that there is a God? A. The very light of nature in man, and the works of God, declare plainly that there is a God; but his word and Spirit only do sufficiently and effectually reveal him unto men for their salvation.

    The ‘very light of nature’ isn’t ‘the work of God?’ Nor is it grace?

    Grace in Christianity (From Wikipedia) In Western Christian theology, grace has been defined, not as a created substance of any kind, but as “the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not necessarily because of anything we have done to earn it”, “the condescension or benevolence shown by God toward the human race”


  3. Wiki does really well on some topics, not so much on others.

    On tech topics, the articles are generally solid. On politics, the articles are unreliable because of the various biases of the various editors and because of posturing. Religion tends to be better than politics, but not by much.

    In this particular case, the definition of Grace that you quote is very Protestant, and the question of merit in Catholicism (indeed, throughout the entire article) circles around without directly presenting the CCC.

    On the Reformed end, the article fails to distinguish between salvific and common grace, which is the origin of your question.

    So coming back: The ‘very light of nature’ isn’t ‘the work of God?’ Nor is it grace?

    It is the work of God, and it is a part of what is known as “common grace”: the goodness of God given to all without discrimination, just as the sun and rain fall on believer and non-believer alike.

    But the “light of nature” was not peculiar to Descartes, but goes back at least to Aquinas:

    “There is a twofold mode of truth in what we profess about God. Some truths about God exceed all the ability of human reason. Such is the truth that God is triune. But there are some truths which the natural reason also is able to reach. Such are the truth that God exists, that he is one, and the like. In fact, such truths about God have been proved demonstratively by the philosophers, guided by the light of natural reason.” (Summa Contra Gentiles I, ch.3, n.2)

    And of course, further back to Paul, evidenced both in Romans 1 and Acts 17.

    But now, the key point of the OP is that Common Grace is not “grace” in the Catholic sense of “that which makes us more righteous.” And more pointedly, creation is not Very Good (as in Genesis) because it has an inherent quality of goodness, but rather because it is pleasing to its creator.

    In other words, Ockham was right. To make the creation “inherently good” outside of God’s declaration is to set up a standard of goodness independent of God by which God should be measured.


  4. Jeff,

    The very bad use of Ockham to make Protestantism the fault for everything traditionalist RC’s don’t like aside in the OP, I wonder about this that you said:

    And more pointedly, creation is not Very Good (as in Genesis) because it has an inherent quality of goodness, but rather because it is pleasing to its creator.

    In other words, Ockham was right. To make the creation “inherently good” outside of God’s declaration is to set up a standard of goodness independent of God by which God should be measured.

    I’m not sure how this should necessarily be so. If God created something—creation—as good according to the pattern of his own moral being, why would it be problematic to state that something could be good apart from his declaration? Maybe we could say that we could not know creation was good apart from God’s declaration, but I’m not following you on this point. Perhaps it is your use of the word “inherent.”


  5. Thank you Jeff. As part of it, I think I don’t like ‘light of nature’ because it seems similar to using ‘mother nature’ – which when people do, I want to say “oh, you mean …our LORD.”

    Anyway, I ‘m glad that WCF Q2 references scriptural texts (listed below* ) because I love those verses -they are what I need – actually along with the whole passage – giving culpability explanation-
    that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth (v18); For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations and their foolish heart was darkened. (v21); Professing to be wise, they became fools, (v22); And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper (v28)

    *Prooftexts: Romans 1:19-20. 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. Psalm 19:1-3. The heavens are telling of the glory of God;And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.2 Day to day pours forth speech,And night to night reveals knowledge.3 There is no speech, nor are there words;Their voice is not heard.Acts 17:28. for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’

    I also wonder, with you, what sbd is saying here: sdb says:One might note that not everything in creation pre-fall was declared “very good”.


  6. Yep. No subtlety.

    I agree that it is a problem to assign a standard of goodness external to God. I’m not sure that making goodness a matter of divine fiat is the way to go either (I’m exaggerating Ockham a bit). To paraphrase the wsc God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his goodness. Thus his creation is good insofar as it reflects his glory. Since God is an eternal community, man’s solitude was not good as this image bearer did not properly reflect this attribute. There is a “real” absolute standard of goodness – God. He was no more free to declare Adam’s solitude good than he is to lie. Is this what you are saying Robert? How is moral being different from just being?


  7. SDB: There is a “real” absolute standard of goodness – God.

    Yes, this is what I am saying. For the bad rap that van Til sometimes gets around here, I think he had a profound insight in The Defense of the Faith; namely, that the RC conception of God’s goodness leads to the conclusion that there is an external measure of goodness against which God is measured. In opposition, van Til insists that goodness is defined by God’s very nature.

    This then raises the Euthyphro dilemma: Does God command the good because it is good, OR is the good, good because God commands it?

    van Til suggests, and I explicitly state, that the answer is both at once.

    By necessity, good is defined by God’s nature. Goodness is relative to who God is. But we, as image bearers, reflect God’s goodness as an objective fact of our existence; hence, we experience goodness as objective truth.


  8. sdb says: Since God is an eternal community, man’s solitude was not good as this image bearer did not properly reflect this attribute. There is a “real” absolute standard of goodness – God. He was no more free to declare Adam’s solitude good than he is to lie.

    Thanks a lot sdb. I really appreciate this – very helpful. Very convicting too, thinking of how our fallen selves think of and treat each other; also the casualness/acceptability of divorce, etc.


  9. Abraham Kuyper–“The mind must live in common grace. must be at home in it, must stand firm in common grace.. Our perspective of history and life and of the entire situation of the world must be formed on the basis of common grace.”

    William Edgar–“Great as he was, I consider Kuyper’s movement to be a dead end for American Reformed Christians for both theological and political reasons. Politically, Kuyper worked within the bounds of a small continental European nation, with a homogeneous society and a political tradition that have little in common with the American Empire, an offspring of the British Empire. Theologically, Kuyper’s movement used a flawed concept of “common grace” as the basis for cooperation between believers and nonbelievers in the public arena, a concept that continues to bear bad fruit both in the Netherlands and in churches of Dutch descent in this country, because it has been used to blur the antithesis between believer and unbeliever, and between Revelation and human efforts to grope for the truth.”

    William Edgar—“The alternative to Kuyper for Reformed American Christians is modern Roman Catholic writing. It is noteworthy that there will soon be no Protestants on the American Supreme Court, only Jews and Catholics. It is to the Catholic Justices that most Reformed Christians look for understanding and defense of the remnants of Christian thinking concerning, for example, life and marriage enshrined in our laws.”,%20Iss.%202,%20Spring%202016).pdf


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