Defining Nature-Grace Dualism

In the ongoing dialogue regarding the relations between “Christ” and “Culture” one of the slogans that gets tossed about concerns a “nature/grace dualism.” I see people using this expression as if everyone knows what it means or as if it means the same thing to everyone all the time.

In Christian history there has been three ways of relating nature and grace:

  1. Grace perfects nature
  2. Grace renews human nature in salvation
  3. Grace obliterates nature

The first scheme existed before and during the medieval periods. The second was the Reformation approach, and the third was the Anabaptist approach and remains that of the holiness traditions. There are certain relations between the first and the third but our interest is in the relations between options 1 and 2.

To begin to come to some understanding consider these passages from an essay by Herman Bavinck, “Calvin and Common Grace,” trans. Geerhardus Vos The Princeton Theological Review 7 (1909): 437–65, in which he gave an account of his understanding of the differences between the medieval and Reformation churches on the relations between nature and grace. In the medieval period,

The Church, however, is not merely the possessor of supernatural truth; in the second plea it is also the depository and dispenser of supernatural grace. As the Church doctrine is infinitely exalted above all human knowledge and science, so the grace kept and distributed by the Church far transcends nature. It is true this grace is, among other things, gratia medicinal is, but this is an accidental and adventitious quality. Before all else it is gratia elevans. something added to and elevating above nature. As such it entered into the image of God given to Adam before the Fall, and as such it again appears in the restoration to that original state. In view of its adding to exalted nature a supernatural element, it is conceived as something material, enclosed in the sacrament, and as such dispensed by the priest. Thus every man becomes, for his knowledge of supernatural truth and for his reception of supernatural grace, that is, for his heavenly salvation, absolutely dependent on the Church, the priest and the sacrament. Extra ecclesiam null salus.

The most important thing to observe here is that, in this conception, grace elevates nature. Thomas (Aquinas) taught that grace “perfects” nature, that creation is inherently imperfect. It is not that, as the Reformed would say later, creation was created awaiting glorification. It was, rather, that creation was inherently corrupt. As Bavinck wrote,

The world, the state, natural life, marriage and culture are not sinful in themselves; only they are of a lower order, of a secular nature, and unless consecrated by the Church, easily become an occasion for sinning.

Again, the thing to notice is the hierarchical conception of existence. Gradually, through the medieval period, the Western church came to think of the relations between God and man as an ontologically hierarchy with man at the bottom and God at the top.

The whole hierarchical idea is built on the sharp distinction between nature and grace.

This gets at the crux of the issue: “the sharp distinction between nature and grace.” This distinction, according to Bavinck, was repudiated by the Reformation.

…the Reformation of the sixteenth century differed from all these attempts in that it not merely opposed the Roman system in its excresences but attacked it internally in the foundations on which it rested and in the principles out of which it had been developed. The Reformation rejected the entire system, and substituted for it a totally different conception of veritias, gratia, and bona opera.

This is an under appreciated element of the Reformation, the reassertion of the distinction between the Creator and the creature. That distinction destroyed the hierarchy and asserted a strict analogy between God and man. According to the Reformation, salvation was no longer to be considered deification, participating in the divine being, or “elevation” but deliverance from wrath, free acceptance by God on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed and received through faith (trusting in Christ). Sanctification, conformity to Christ, became the consequence of justification.

This account of the difference between the medieval and Reformation is consistent with the way the Reformed saw the issue.

Thus, for Bavinck, the issue seems to have been two things: a hierarchical ontology (view of being) and the “sharp distinction” (dualism) between nature and grace.

Some distinction between nature and grace seems to be unavoidable. Before the fall, creation was good but intended to be glorified. It was not constituted in glory. Adam was meant to obey and thus enter into a consummate state of existence.

Though there have been concerns about nature-grace dualism, there is also reason to be concerned about conflating nature and grace. For one thing, Pelagius did just that. He turned nature into grace and, on that premise, he taught that humans have the ability, both before the fall and after, to do what the law requires. Later, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Arminius did essentially the same thing: nature became grace.

According to Augustine and the Reformed, after the fall, creation (human nature) was corrupted. It had the potential to be glorified but it had first to be redeemed, justified, saved, and glorified—by grace. Gracious salvation begins the process of restoring the image that was damaged in the fall and that will be fully restored in the resurrection, glorification, and consummation.

Nature-grace dualism as Bavinck defined it is problematic. The Westminster Divines rejected ontological hierarchy in Westminster Confession of Faith 26.3:

This communion which the saints have with Christ, doth not make them in any wise partakers of the substance of his Godhead….


It seems, however, as if the rejection of the hierarchy entails some sort of distinction between nature and grace. By rejecting deification the divines rejected the hyper-eschatological view of grace (which obliterates nature). The divines didn’t make creation (nature) into grace. That much is clear from chapters 7 and 19 where they taught a covenant of works as distinct from the covenant of grace.

In 7.1 we confess:

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, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.

The point of emphasizing the “the distance” is to communicate the Creator/creature distinction. The intent behind saying “voluntary condescension,” of turning to the divine will as the source of the covenant of works, was to avoid speaking of grace, i.e., to avoid confusing nature and grace. That, it seems to me, is a nature-grace distinction.

Finally, the Confession distinguishes regularly between nature and grace (1.1). It begins with the “light of nature” which it distinguishes from special revelation given to the church. In 1.6, on worship, the Confession distinguishes between “the light of nature” regarding the circumstances of worship, which is distinguished from Scripture.

A “sharp” distinction between nature and grace may not be a good idea. Nature-grace “dualism” (as defined by Bavinck) is not sound but it’s difficult to see how we can remain Reformed and reject all distinction between nature (creation) and grace.

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  1. Are you suggesting that Bavinck “reject[ed] all distinction[s] “between nature (creation) and grace”?

    • No, I think it’s implicit in this essay.

      Some neo-Kuyperians have, however, interpreted Bavinck in a way that set him against the older tradition.

      I am also a little concerned about the sort of rhetoric I’ve seen in Doyeweerd about “scholasticism” and “nature-grace dualism.” Some rhetoric I’ve seen seems to suggest that any distinction is necessarily “dualism.”

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