Aidan Nichols, Irish Theological Quarterly

December 31, 2021

“It is rare for a book in historical theology to be epoch-making. But the word can be used without bombast for Henri de Lubac’s Surnatural, whose publication in 1946 played a major part in unleashing that furore over the theological articulation of doctrine in post-War Catholicism known to intellectual historians as the crisis of la nouvelle théologie. Its republication in revised form as Augustinisme et Théologie Moderne coincided with the close of the Second Vatican Council at which de Lubac’s reputation was transformed. He ceased to be the stormy petrel of the theology of the nature/grace relationship, a figure whose investigations of the genealogy of Cajetanian Thomism threatened to subvert the lingua franca of ‘official’ Scholasticism in the Church. He emerged instead as a revered elder statesman, a mainstream representative of Church thinking in the pontificate of Paul VI. Like others, he would soon find himself outflanked on the ecclesial ‘left’ (for what such labels are worth), and, to his chagrin, ignored quite as effectively by the French episcopate under John Paul II as formerly he had been muffled by the Jesuit Society in the reign of Pius XII. In 1969 Augustinianism and Modern Theology appeared in a graceful English translation which retained, however, the substantial Latin citations, in both text and notes, of the French original. Crossroad, the New York publishing house . . . decided to make this translation available once more in their admirable series, Milestones in Catholic Theology. Mindful, however, of the declining, if not disappearing, Latinity of the clergy, and the linguistically challenged condition of most lay students of theology, they have wisely put into English for this new edition the chunks of patristic, sixteenth-century, and later Latin which previously barred the unwary reader’s road. Regrettably, however, the translations thus provided leave on occasion a good deal to be desired. The reason is not ignorance of Latin vocabulary or syntax (the former, at least, is basic enough). The reason is imperfect comprehension of the thought world to be found in de Lubac’s sources.

What was de Lubac’s thesis? Unlike Augustine, whose interest in the condition of Adam was determined by a more primary concern for who (by contrast) we, the first man’s Christian descendants, are as fallen and redeemed, later medieval theologians found speculation on the ‘primitive nature’ of man fascinating for its own sake. De Lubac’s ‘discovery’ was that the soteriological errors of two influential Louvain theologians, Jansen and Baius, involved not only an inappropriate pessimism about the human person after the Fall (as standard histories of doctrine maintained), but a correspondingly incongruous optimism about the human person before the Fall (which had gone unnoticed by previous scholars). For these theologians, the man who was once his own glory now finds himself in utter ruin and can only be rescued by the alien glory of God. In unwitting collusion, the school of Cajetan (and, among the Jesuits, and in more philosophical manner, Suarez) applied to suchlike discussion of primitive nature ideas originally derived from a thought-experiment of Nominalism about pure nature. And so there originated the notion of a twofold order where the interior connection between not only supernatural and natural finality (the goals of nature-under-grace and pure nature) but the correlative fulfilment of these goals (supernatural and natural beatitude) is quite unclear. At a stroke, St. Thomas’s affirmation of a natural desire for a supernatural fulfilment in the vision of God—the gift to Aquinas (if not quite in those words) of the historic Augustine, and the hallmark of all authentic ‘Augustinianism’—became problematic. And so by the same token did that precondition of all credible evangelism in the Church: the thirst of man for that revelation, and no other, which the supernaturally beatifying God offers of himself in the Gospel.

Great was the resistance to this thesis of theologians in the Cajetanian and Suarezian schools—and thus of many Dominicans and Jesuits, not least those close to the Roman court. This was not simply intellectual amour-propre. The question arose: How was the Church to argue rationally about morals to ‘all men of goodwill’ (the traditional formula of address of papal encyclicals) if human nature had no intrinsic end of its own by which its values were composed and determined? Above all, how was the gratuity of divine salvation to be set forth, if the intimate enjoyment of the vision of God were all along the proper upshot of man’s creation? Ancient theology may have been silent on the ‘duality’ Cajetan and Suarez taught, but may it not have been all the time presupposed?

Such considerations have found favour with few, whereas many have found convincing de Lubac’s case that, in dreadful fashion, secularism and the modern dismissal of the claims of the saving Incarnation as ‘irrelevant’ find in the theologies he criticised part at least of their paternity. What neither side foresaw was that the synthesising of nature and grace (despite their formal distinction, which de Lubac admitted) would lead eventually—I do not say inevitably!—to the enclosure of the supernatural order within the natural in a new immanentism and not, as de Lubac intended, to a revival of supernaturalism where nature flowers under the sun of the Redeemer’s grace.

A thoughtful introduction by the recently retired Yale theologian Louis Dupré makes a valuable addition to the volume, which is pleasantly printed and, usefully (especially for the checking of the Latin translations) includes in its margins the pagination of the French original.”

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