How Do Catholics Understand the Interdependence between Nature and Grace?

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How Do Catholics Understand the Interdependence between Nature and Grace?
from 40 Questions About Roman Catholicism
by Gregg R. Allison

Think about the three sacraments as administered by the Catholic Church. The first is baptism. A priest pours a handful of consecrated water three times on the head of an infant girl as he baptizes her “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The second is confirmation. When this girl is ten years old, she participates in this sacrament. A bishop anoints her fore- head with consecrated oil as he lays hands on her and says, “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.” The third is the Eucharist. As is her weekly practice, the twentysomething woman goes forward in her parish church during the Mass and eats the consecrated bread and drinks the consecrated wine as the priest announces “the body of Christ” and “the blood of Christ.” Three rites, each of which has a sacramental sign: water for baptism, oil for confirmation, and bread and wine for the Eucharist.

In Catholic thought, these three sacraments effect what they symbolize. Baptism cleanses the infant of her original sin, regenerates her so that she is saved from condemnation and corruption, and incorporates her into Christ and his Church. Confirmation binds the ten-year-old girl more perfectly to the Church and strengthens her with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Eucharist transmits the body and blood of Jesus Christ to the woman. This infusion of Christ’s presence enables her to act in love and engage in good deeds throughout the week so she can merit eternal life.

Three rites, each of which has a sacramental sign, effect what they symbolize: Cleansing and new birth by the water of baptism. Anointing with the Holy Spirit by the oil of confirmation. The body and blood of the crucified Christ by the bread and wine of the Eucharist. In one word, grace is transmitted through water, oil, bread and wine. How can this be? The nature- grace interdependence explains it.

Nature and Grace Together

To begin, a few definitions will be helpful. Nature is what God has created. It encompasses the Milky Way galaxy, our sun and moon, planet earth, Mt. Everest and the Pacific Ocean, red-bellied woodpeckers, whale sharks, lions and tigers and bears, angels, Congolese men and Italian women, Mary and the saints, and—as we’ve just discussed—water, oil, bread, and wine. This is the realm of nature.

Grace is God’s unmerited favor.[1] It is expressed in the world that he created. As self-sufficient and independent, God has never lacked for anything. So he did not create the world and all it contains to make up for some deficit in himself. Rather, out of the overflow of his superabundant goodness, he graciously created that all exists. Additionally, divine grace is expressed in salvation. The triune God who created human beings in his image and permitted them to fall graciously rescues the sinful people whom he loves. This is the realm of grace.

According to Roman Catholicism, God has designed nature and grace to be interdependent. Nature is capable of receiving and transmitting grace, and grace must be concretely communicated by nature. Elements in the realm of nature—water, oil, bread, and wine—when consecrated by the Church, receive and convey God’s grace. Moreover, by divine design, this grace must be conferred through these elements of nature.

Water that is consecrated by the Church becomes a conduit for divine grace that, through the sacrament of baptism, cleanses an infant from her original sin, recreates her, and joins her to Christ and his Church. Consecrated oil be- comes a channel for divine grace that, through the sacrament of confirmation, pours out the fullness of the Holy Spirit on a ten-year-old girl. Bread and wine that are consecrated by the Church become a medium for divine grace that, through the sacrament of the Eucharist, nourishes a twentysomething woman with Christ’s body and blood so she can earn eternal life through her grace- aided good works. As George Weigel explains, “It is through the ordinary mate- rials of life—the materials of the seven sacraments, such as bread, wine, oil, and water—that the extraordinary grace of God enters history, nourishes the friends of Jesus, and empowers them in their missionary discipleship.”[2] Grace is transmitted through water, oil, bread, and wine—elements of nature.

The Impact of Sin

What about the disturbance of nature that Adam and Eve’s fall into sin introduced? How did that tragic event affect this nature-grace interdependence? For the Church, the fall marred or tainted nature, rendering it spoiled. Nonetheless, nature retains the capacity to receive and convey divine grace. Sin has a serious effect, but not a devastating effect, on nature.

As for grace, “an overall positive posture toward nature, coupled with a mild concept of sin, leads to a corresponding vision of grace.”[3] For example, the reception of grace through the sacraments transforms the Catholic faithful such that, cooperating with grace, they may engage in good deeds and thus merit eternal life. Sin has seriously affected the Catholic faithful, but its effect is not total. They are not devastatingly depraved and completely incapable of collabo- rating with God’s grace. Rather, helped by grace, they are able to do their part in the process of obtaining salvation by their meritorious good works.

Throughout the course of this book, I will point out this nature-grace interdependence. You will probably be surprised by how often it appears. This prevalence is due to the fact that it is one of two key axioms, or principles, on which the entire Roman Catholic system—the Church, its theology and practice, its sacraments, its view of salvation, and much more—rests. It is a foundational element at the heart of the Catholic Church.

Summary

One of two key elements on which the Roman Catholic Church is grounded is the nature-grace interdependence. Nature is whatever God has created. Grace is his unmerited favor. According to the Church, nature and grace are divinely designed to be interconnected. When consecrated by the Church, elements of nature—water, oil, bread, and wine—are capable of receiving and transmitting the grace of God. Additionally, divine grace must be communicated concretely through elements of nature. While the fall tainted nature and marred its interdependence with grace, sin’s effect is serious but not devastating. An example is that while human beings have been corrupted by sin, they are not so fallen to be incapable of cooperating with God’s grace infused through the sacraments so as to do their part to merit eternal life.[4]

 

[1] Grace is defined as “favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.” CCC, 1996. This section appeals for biblical support to John 1:12–18; 17:3; Rom. 8:14–17; 2 Peter 1:3–4.

[2] George Weigel, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church (New York: Basic, 2013), 44.

[3] Leonardo De Chirico, Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism, Religions and Discourse 19 (Bern: Peter Lang, 2003), 240.

[4] For further discussion, see chapters 18 and 25.

 


This post is adapted from 40 Questions About Roman Catholicism written by Gregg R. Allison. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

Straightforward answers about Roman Catholicism for a Protestant audience

The Roman Catholic faith is one of the world’s most widespread religious traditions, yet the unique aspects of Roman Catholicism elicit perennial questions from adherents and outsiders alike. Such questions tend to fall into three major categories: historical backgrounds, theological matters, and personal relationships. Using Catholic Church documents and the writings of Catholic scholars, Baptist systematic theologian Gregg R. Allison distills the teachings of Catholicism around forty common questions about Catholic foundations, beliefs, and practices. The accessible question-and-answer format guides readers to the areas of interest, including:

  • Where do Roman Catholic and Protestant beliefs differ?
  • What happens during a Roman Catholic Mass?
  • How does Roman Catholicism understand the biblical teaching about Mary?
  • Who are the saints and what is their role?
  • How can my Roman Catholic loved ones and I talk about the gospel?


40 Questions About Roman Catholicism explores theology and practice, doctrine and liturgy, sacraments and Mariology, contributions and scandals, and many other things, clarifying both real and perceived differences and similarities with other Christian traditions.

 


 

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About Author

Gregg R. Allison (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Allison teaches annually on Roman Catholicism for the Rome Scholars and Leaders Network and regularly teaches seminary courses and church seminars on Catholic theology and practice. His other works include Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment.

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