Protestantism, Nature, Grace

In the section on Protestantism in Part III of my Josias essay on religious liberty, I tried to understand the Protestant view of nature and grace. Given the emphasis on grace in Protestant soteriology I used to assume that they would probably underestimate the goodness of nature and the extent to which it is preserved and restored by grace. But going to a Calvinist conference a few years ago I realized that this was not actually what they do. It was only through reading my friends at The Calvinist International though that I came to see that they in fact do virtually the opposite. Peter Escalante’s essay “Two Ends or Two Kingdoms?” shows with great clarity that to the Reformers grace merely restores nature without elevating it. Escalante is an alumnus of my alma mater and knows Catholic theology quite well, and I think his presentation both of my side and of his is accurate. As his colleague, Steven Wedgeworth, points out, our disagreements are not on what the positions are, but on which one is right.

They would however, take issue with my favorable citation of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation. My defense of Gregory’s in my last post contrasts with Escalante’s attack on it. I agree with Escalante that Gregory is a bit simplistic in some parts. Particularly (and this is a point that Escalante could have made more of) Gregory misunderstands Reformer’s doctrine of the two kingdoms. Gregory makes the visible kingdom too secular, thinking that Luther would not mind it being run in an un-Christian manner. But the Reformers actually thought that the visible kingdom too is subject to God, and should be ordered in manner pleasing to him (the distinction is that God’s rule is unmediated in the invisible, but mediated in the visible kingdom). Nevertheless, I would agree with Gregory that the Reformers two kingdom teaching was a condition (not a cause) of the Enlightenment idea of the secular state.

Escalante argues that the Catholic nature/supernature distinction implies an ungrateful contempt for God’s creation. But I would actually argue the opposite; the contemptus mundi of the ascetic actually allows for a more perfect appreciation of the beauty of nature, because it allows for a greater detachment from it. As St John of the Cross says, “He has greater joy and comfort in creatures if he detaches himself from them; and he can have no joy in them if he considers them as his own.” And as Garrigou-Lagrange puts it in commenting on that text: “St. Francis of Assisi enjoyed the landscapes of Umbria incomparably more than the proprietors of those lands, who were busy making them materially fructify to the greatest possible extent.” Or (one might add) than those industrious Protestants analyzed by Max Weber.

12 thoughts on “Protestantism, Nature, Grace

  1. Pater, have you read much Przywara? So much depends on or comes down to the “analogia” for understanding the relationship between nature and grace and the differing views on their inter-relationship… and thus why it is a sticking point for many (see Barth). John Betz’ intro to his translation (with DBHart) of the Analogia Entis does a wonderful service in “summarizing” it and rendering Przywara “intelligible” in this regard. Just a passing thought!

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    • On a more serious note, I found reading some of the critiques of Gregory at such places like the Calvinist International and Protestant venues highly illustrative. The book obviously ruffled feathers, but if you noticed, in many of the Protestant responses they basically affirm Gregory’s overarching argument i.e. Protestantism paved the way for modernity and that Gregory should show some appreciation, because without the “freedom” of Protestant modernity, he wouldn’t be able to write want he wanted. Protestants get mad with critiques like Gregory’s because they think we are directly blaming them for such phenomena as the New Atheism or gay marriage, when in fact I think what we are saying is that Protestantism paved the way for early “classical liberalism” and that that form of liberalism subsequently morphed into what we have today. In my experience Protestants including even the confessional-traditionalist types will almost always support the quintessential classical liberal political concepts like “freedom speech” and “religious pluralism” as positive goods.

      I think we both agree that when it comes down to it Protestants will tend to side with modernity against Catholicism, even when they don’t know it. This has serious implications for Catholics who want to make so-called ecumenical “alliances” with Protestants. such alliances are only permitted to the extent Catholics adopt the conventions of Protestant/Enlightenment and this Catholicism is put at a serous disadvantage, right where our enemies want us.

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      • Ita,

        I agree with you when you say,

        In my experience Protestants including even the confessional-traditionalist types will almost always support the quintessential classical liberal political concepts like “freedom speech” and “religious pluralism” as positive goods.

        The thing that fascinates me as a Protestant, however, is that I don’t know that modern Catholicism is any different. Perhaps you could show me where my understanding is deficient, but take Pope Francis’s comments for example,

        Every religion has its dignity. I cannot mock a religion that respects human life and the human person. One cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one’s own religion, that is, in the name of God

        And in Dignitatis Humanae we read,

        All the more is it a violation of the will of God and of the sacred rights of the person and the family of nations when force is brought to bear in any way in order to destroy or repress religion, either in the whole of mankind or in a particular country or in a definite community.

        Finally, in my experience, the lay catholic is more likely to be progressive on religious liberty than the confessional Protestant. That doesn’t mean that the historical roots of religious pluralism don’t derive from the Reformation, but it seems to me that Catholicism and Protestantism don’t need to find common ground on these areas; they are on level ground here.

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        • Every religion has its dignity. I cannot mock a religion that respects human life and the human person. One cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one’s own religion, that is, in the name of God

          I am uncertain as to how this quote is supposed to show the affinity between liberalism and modern Catholicism? I do not think Pope Francis is found of liberalism in its social and especially economic context. In his recent comments on Charlie Hebdo, Francis explicitly criticizes the Enlightenment’s approach to religion. I also do not believe Dignitatis Humanae baptizes modern liberalism. The document explicitly upholds prior teaching, and rejects the notion that religion is a purely private matter and it even permits the state’s coercion of religions under certain conditions. That it has been interpreted as being akin to the First Amendment is very bad example of secular liberal politics seeping into the Church.

          That doesn’t mean that the historical roots of religious pluralism don’t derive from the Reformation, but it seems to me that Catholicism and Protestantism don’t need to find common ground on these areas; they are on level ground here.

          To the extent Catholicism is level with contemporary Protestantism is thanks to the fact that Catholicism has imbibed Protestant thought- with obviously bad consequences for Catholicism. This is especially pronounced in the US where Protestantism still heavily informs the culture. But I agree that we can “thank” Protestantism for religious pluralism.

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  2. Pingback: Man’s end according to Protestants and Mormons | Throne and Altar

  3. Pingback: Donum Superadditum & Donum Concreatum « A Mighty Fortress

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