Grace Neither Obliterates Nor Transforms Nature

This morning we were working through the first article of the first question of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. One of his fundamental principles is that nature only leads to natural, not supernatural ends. For Thomas, only grace leads to supernatural ends. This is why he argued in Summa 1a 1.1.8 ad 2, “grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.” The Reformed agreed with Thomas against the Anabaptists, who held that grace destroys nature and replaces it in this life. This was a fruit of their over-realized eschatology. They wanted too much heaven now. That is why they set up a mechanism to try to ensure a pure church (by restricting baptism only to those who make profession of faith). We see the Anabaptist view of nature and grace through Modern evangelicalism. Tee-totaling fundamentalists reject the goodness of creation. Those who talk as if history (including ethnic, linguistic, and national) backgrounds are wiped out by virtue of union with Christ have adopted the Anabaptist view of nature and grace.

Against the Anabaptists, the Reformed often repeated Thomas’ dictum with a different sense. They taught that grace renews nature in salvation. One does not find the Reformers or their orthodox successors, however, waxing on about the transformation of culture (nature). They were content to allow nature to be what it is in the penultimate period of redemptive history, i.e., the time between the ascension and return of Christ. They spoke unashamedly of the secular world as a proper place in which Christians are to fulfill their vocations.

One of the students asked about the neo-Kuyperian approach to nature and grace. Where do they fit on the schema? That is a great question. We might speak of a fourth view: grace transforming nature cosmically beyond redemption. The great question is this: what is the biblical warrant for speaking and thinking this way? Practically, what does it mean to speak of transforming softball or orchestral music or any other cultural endeavor? Why cannot softball simply be what it is, recreation? What is distinctively Christian about “Christian art” or “Christian history” or Christian math”? I understand that the rhetoric is sacrosanct (a shibboleth, as it were) but what does it signify? What are the particulars? I understand that when we get to ultimate matters, e.g., theology, there is a distinctively Christian view of things and there is certainly a Christian interpretation of the significance of things. That is a Christian worldview properly understood but what does it mean to speak of transforming penultimate things? Is the neo-Kuyperian view related to the Anabaptist vision of nature and grace and if not, how are they essentially different? What if Leonard Verduin intuited something?

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. My concern is that the different interlocutors you are discussing are all using the word nature in English equivocally from common usage. So, we have three definitions of nature functioning in the background–the end something was designed for, the thing as it is without creaturely interference, the thing simply as it is. Here are some examples from the ESV: Thus, it’s unnatural to use the sexual organs in same sex relationship, according to Romans 1, violating the God-intended end. The natural and unnatural olive tree (Rom. 11:24)—without human interference. Elijah had a nature like ours (James 5:17) and “by nature children of wrath”—things as they are.

    Nature as things without creaturely influence, doesn’t really come up in theology a lot, but this meaning blends into our modern conversations about sexuality. For instance, the claim, “God made me this way.” “These ducks have a monogamous homosexual relationship, so homosexuality is natural.” The assumption is that what is natural is found in nature making natural ends.

    Grace destroys the use of the symbol nature in “by nature children of wrath,” and grace destroys ungodly ends as “nature,” and grace transforms “a nature like ours.”
    I guess, besides thinking in public, what I am requesting is a closer definition of nature and grace in Reformed thought, because it just seems like a muddle to me. I have a sin nature that needs to be destroyed by grace, stuff that happens in nature is not natural, grace does not destroy nature except in Roman Catholics sacraments when the accidents change or they store grace, heterosexual sexual sin is against God’s ends but more natural than homosexual acts.

    And please, I am not defending violating God’s law, I am just not seeing how I can explain this stuff to interlocutors who are not inhouse Reformed, are confused, or who are pressing for coherence.

    • Shane,

      These categories are unfamiliar because they’ve been lost for a long time. Nature simply means: creation or the creational pattern. Some have spoken more generally of creation as “giveness.” We may think of nature as “the nature of things.” Thus, it is contrary to nature for people of the same sex to have relations with each other just as it is contrary to nature for a human to identify as a bird and jump off a cliff to try to fly. All such things are futile. More broadly, nature means “the way God made things.” It can signal “the physical world as we know it.” When we talk about nature and grace, which we have been doing for most of two millennia we’re talking about creation and redemption. When Reformed Christian say nature, in nature and grace, they are speaking of things as God made them before the fall and as they are after the fall. It can include culture, government, sport and any number of things. There are different views of the state of nature before and after the fall but, until very recently, we have always made some distinction between nature (creation before and after the fall) and grace.

      According to the Reformed grace, strictly defined, is the unearned favor of God. Whether or how grace operated before the fall is a topic of debate (hence the series of posts on super added grace) among the Reformed but typically we have spoken of grace in reference to his saving favor toward his elect.

      My goal in calling attention to this distinction (and to these categories) is to stimulate you to pay attention to them in your reading of Reformed theology. As you read our older writers I think you will see them making a distinction between nature and grace regularly.

      See the resource pages linked to the post for more leads on how to think and speak about nature and grace.

  2. Dr. C., greetings. Ofttimes a stark dichotomy is presented between theology and penultimate cultural endeavors (such as ‘softball’). A concern with this dichotomy is that many penultimate enterprises are not recreational, trivial, or lacking connection with crucial truths specially revealed in Scripture through the gracious work of the Spirit (for example, truths about human nature and worth, gender, our ultimate meaning and purpose to glorify Him). When all endeavors and culture deny special revelation, we oft end up with societies like in the days of Noah (neglect of special revelation leads eventually to denial of some general revelation e.g. the recent choice of trans dogma over the science of biology). Look at what strictly enforced non-Christian foundations and a dearth of Christian champions have done in crucial intellectual endeavors (and ultimately with legally enforced policies) such as anthropology, history, philosophical ethics, psychology, political theory and policy studies, Constitutional law, and elsewhere. There are many more things between heaven and softball than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

    “One does not find the Reformers or their orthodox successors, however, waxing on about the transformation of culture (nature). They were content to allow nature to be what it is in the penultimate period of redemptive history…”

    Reformers and scholastics lived in Scripturally informed societies. The conversion of monarchs and other elites, reformations and revivals, and work of missionaries often brought drastic societal changes. E.g. ending the practice of burning alive maidens during the burning of recently deceased pagan elders. E.g. the abolition movement was led mostly by devouts citing the imago dei and the Golden Rule. These and other efforts exposed the gulf between created nature and fallen nature (which you mentioned above), falleness which can sometimes be partially raised by contact with specially revealed truths held by regenerate neighbors. Contentment in allowing nature/culture be what it is might sometimes be contentment with fallen nature. Cultural transformational efforts can be seen as preaching the law in prelimination to preaching the gospel, and as self-protection (Christians and our vulnerable children are commanded to live in this world while not being of this world, and contentment with fallen nature/culture can easily lead to becoming of this world OR to separating out of the world).

    • Ghim,

      I’ve been engaging with cultural transformationalism for a long time now. I’ve yet to see any of them tell me what “Christian softball” is. What is distinctively Christian about Christian softball?

      Where was the cultural transformation program before Christendom? You skipped that part of my argument.

  3. Dr. C., thank you for responding. My position is definitely not a strawman that EVERY cultural endeavor should hold Christian foundations/presuppositions. The influence of Christian values can be argued even in some (certainly not most) sporting activities, such as the ending of long-time wildly popular gladiatorial and lion-feeding games. Nevertheless, bringing up ‘softball’ again seems a sort of insistent red herring when several important endeavors were pointed out above where the intentional hostility to Christian foundations is contributing to a deterioration of human society.

    Pre-fourth century Christians who had to worship in private and suffer many violent persecutions could not engage in these cultural discussions. We can, and I believe it is our duty to do so in a society that still has (eroding) civil liberties and civic responsibilities. Open engagement back then was usually followed by public beatings or stonings, tree hangings, arena slaughters, a roman sword to the neck, slavery, long dungeon stays, permanent seizure of property, city banishments. Is a missionary who converts some townfolk constrained to encourage ONLY the new converts from engaging in cultural activities such as public full-frontal nudity, the sharing of wives & husbands, ritualistic prostitution, the burning of maidens, the disposal of physically or developmentally challenged infants, ‘honor’ killings, or can he also openly encourage the ENTIRE town to cease from those long-time customs? If the latter, can some of those open encouragements involve explicitly biblical teachings regarding human worth & dignity, and our God-glorifying design and purpose.

    • Ghim,

      Christian influence isn’t in question.

      What is in question is the repeated neo-Kuyperian claim that there is a distinctively Christian, i.e., transformed version of x (whatever x is). I choose softball because it is clear antepenultimate and a good test case. I did not invent the example and it’s not a straw man. It is one of the examples used by Al Wolters in Creation Regained, which is arguably one of the foundational texts of the modern neo-Kuyperian movement.

      If you are a regular reader of this space, then you should know that I regularly engage the culture, as I can here. I keep track of religious liberty. Indeed, there are several resource pages devoted the a variety of cultural issues:

      My point in raising the example of pre-Constantinian Christianity is to say that cultural transformation is not inherent to Christianity. We simply see no warrant for it in the New Testament nor in the writings of the early Christian church.

      The more fundamental issue here, as I raised in the original post, is the problem of nature and grace. My question is: how exactly does the neo-Kuyperian account of nature and grace differ from that of the Anabaptists? How is it that Leonard Verduin lived so comfortably within the neo-Kuyperian world? Could there be an internal, inherent connection between Verduin’s Anabaptist sympathies and the neo-Kuyperian transformationalist model?

  4. “If you are a regular reader of this space, then you should know that I regularly engage the culture, as I can here.”

    Dr. C., I’ve been a regular reader for some nine years, and have benefited greatly from your generous educational efforts. I’ve also had discussions with some of your close colleagues who use similar argumentation but conclude that transformational efforts by Christian ministers or Christian institutions must be limited solely to the preaching of the gospel and in-house ecclesiastical matters.

    “Could there be an internal, inherent connection between Verduin’s Anabaptist sympathies and the neo-Kuyperian transformationalist model?”

    Question: Are all transformationalist models inherently suspect and neo-anabaptist, or would you be open (unlike some of your colleagues) to a transformationalist model that left softball alone while focusing principally on the preaching of the gospel and the building up of Christ’s church but also secondarily on important, culture-defining endeavors as the ones I’ve previously listed?

    • Ghim,

      As I keep saying, Christians are free as individuals and groups to do as they will. I have my personal opinions about what ministers ought to do or not do, but I’m not the Lord of anyone’s conscience.

      One concern is what we ask the visible, institutional church to do. That institution has a specific mission and three marks, which it should pursue:

      The Church Has A Twofold Mission And Three Marks And Ending Payday Lenders Is None Of Them

      My conviction is that Christians ought to engage the culture but I see not a shred of evidence in the New Testament that we have any warrant to see to transform culture. That rhetoric and project is the product of an over-realized eschatology. I’ve been working through 1 Peter on the Heidelcast:

      Heidelcast Series: As It Was In The Days Of Noah

      Christians are free to form groups, which the Dutch sometimes call societies, committees to pursue all manner of cultural and transformational projects. I should like to see some fruit from some of this transformationalism. Does the once-conservative Dutch Reformed community in Grand Rapids look more like the prevailing culture or is the culture being transformed by the transformationalists? My reading of the news in GR suggests that the hub of the American neo-Kuyperian movement isn’t faring too well:

      Homosexual Desire Is Also Sin

      Suspect? All transformational models are to be doubted until they meet some basic tests.

      1. Is it biblical? Where did anyone in the NT set out a transformational agenda?

      2. How does it relate nature and grace?

      3. What is Christian math exactly? I understand that math ultimately only really makes sense in light of a Christian interpretation of reality. Amen but I weary of the shibboleths and empty rhetoric about “Christian this” and “Christian that” when no one can tell me what specifically is Christian about this or that endeavor. I should be happy if Christian schools would teach a Christian worldview and otherwise uphold high academic standards and give students a good, classical education to prepare them for life.

      I would be very happy indeed if the Lord used the preaching of the gospel etc to bring about good effects in society. That would be a wonderful side-effect. Outcomes, however, belong to the Lord. What belongs to us, by his grace, is fidelity to the Word.

  5. “3… Amen but I weary of the shibboleths and empty rhetoric about “Christian this” and “Christian that” when no one can tell me what specifically is Christian about this or that endeavor.”

    Disciplines such as history, anthropology, psychology, ethics, law and public policy, biology, biochemistry, astrophysics, sociology, and others come to alarming culture-corrupting conclusions when divine providence and intervention, human imago dei corrupted by sin, and objective epistemological realism (except in the most materialist/positivist terms) are forbidden premises. My argument is less about any distinct and detailed Christian *methodologies* and much more about the importance of Christian foundations/presuppositions so that methodologies and avenues of research are not artificially limited and conclusions not prejudicially predetermined.

    “My conviction is that Christians ought to engage the culture but I see not a shred of evidence in the New Testament that we have any warrant to see to transform culture… I should like to see some fruit from some of this transformationalism.”

    Dr. C., I must say I find that confusing. Why would anyone engage something broken if he didn’t aspire to possibly transform it? I don’t dialogue with tectonic plates because no matter how eloquently I may argue, the plates will still cause the same earthquakes and volcanoes. Don’t you engage the culture with this blog and elsewhere in part to remedy, reform, improve the culture? And, fruits are up to the Lord (as you said); if they weren’t, then we would also have to diminish the preaching of the gospel in this increasingly unresponsive, hostile culture. Grace has already renewed/transformed many cultures in the past millennia, and part of that came not only with preaching the gospel but also the organized spread of particularly biblical revelations about God and humanity to the wider culture.

    “1. Is it biblical? Where did anyone in the NT set out a transformational agenda?”

    When NT brethren in Greco-Roman tyrannies set out to do so, as when John the Baptist openly criticized herodian adulteries and corruptions, their heads could end up on silver plates. Our Lord did not limit Himself to only his identity and the gospel when He interacted with the money-changers. I see the then much more private persuasive efforts in the ethical arena as similar to the secret house worship of early Christians. Why didn’t they meet to worship openly in public? Because to do so would have resulted in holocaust. Secrecy (in both preaching/worship and cultural engagement) was a matter of life and death. Christians today face similar constraints in many Islamist and communist nations; we don’t ask these modern persecuted Christians to publically set out transformational agendas. We, on the other hand, live in a society with civil liberties and civic responsibilities; the former are diminishing (and culture declining) in part from the failure of Christians to discharge the latter.

    “2. How does it relate nature and grace?”

    I don’t see a problem with grace secondarily seeking to transform nature/culture as long as grace is always primarily situated on preaching the gospel for personal transformation. A distinction is being made between Transforming nature and Renewing nature; that seems a mostly empty distinction if we remember that the primary transformation is from sin and death to life in Christ, and the secondary transformation is of cultural presuppositions and institutions.

    • Ghim,

      This is the dance I seem to have with transformationalists.

      1. Yes, there is a Christian worldview. It is essential but that does not answer the question “what is distinctively Christian about ‘Christian history’ or ‘Christian math?” These are the claims that transformationalists have been making for a century.

      2. I’m trying to be reasonable but every time I have this discussion the answer seems to boil down to theology: there is a distinctively Christian understanding of the significance of math. Ok. Amen! That’s a very different thing that creating the impression that Christians have a unique historical method or a unique version of math, which is what is being sold to Christian families, it is the shibboleth that Christians are expected to affirm. I know this because I first confronted it as a faculty member at Wheaton. I had to articulate how I was going to “integrate” my faith with my discipline. Every Christian school to which I applied for work asked me the same question. None of them could tell me exactly what they wanted. I finally decided it’s just a shibboleth. I also decided that the program is built on a bad assumption. What we ought to do is to refuse to separate what God has joined together. The question assumes a view of nature and grace (that grace transforms or obliterates nature) that we shouldn’t assume. Truth is that the integrationists don’t know what they want exactly. Yes, God’s sovereignly controls all things. That’s important but it doesn’t tell me how my interpretation of the Thirty Years War is uniquely Christian (beyond that one affirmation of providence) from the Marxist interpretation of the same events. At a certain point we have to get to brass tacks, facts, history, relationships, causalities, correlations, etc. Either my interpretation of the causes and effects of the Thirty Years War gives a better account of the facts or it doesn’t. Indeed, some transformationalist rhetoric sounds like some Marxists who are open about the fact that their eschatology runs the show and that, when push comes to shove, they don’t really care what actually happened in any event since they already know what story (narrative) they are going to tell. Everything resolves to the class struggle. That’s terrible history. We shouldn’t do that sort of thing. It does a disservice to our students, our readers, and our supporters.

      3. Outcomes. Whenever I preach, I don’t know the outcomes. There is a thing called duty. I preach because God instituted it and deigns to use it to accomplish his purposes. We engage the culture to be faithful where we are, to give witness. What becomes of that is God’s business. When the Romans took Polycarp to the stadium, he had an opportunity to speak to the screaming masses but he refused to throw pearls before swine. He was interested in being faithful unto death. He knew that the outcome of his martyrdom was not in his hands. It was in God’s hands. The Christians became influential by not seeking influence. That’s the paradox of the Christian relation to the broader pagan culture. It’s analogous to sanctification. It’s a mystery. It’s not part of some grand (human) plan. It’s the result of three steps or ten steps or some “method.” It’s the work of God’s grace. We don’t produce sanctification in God’s people by hammering them with the law and putting them back under the covenant of works (I’m not saying anything here against the third use) so that they obey. We achieve sanctification, to the degree we do, by preaching the gospel. The line between where we are and where we hope to be is not a straight line.

      4. I don’t think we’re understanding each other regarding nature and grace. The question is how do nature (creation) and grace (redemption) relate as categories? Does nature, as such, as Thomas said, need to be perfected per se because it’s inherently flawed? Does nature need to be essentially destroyed (tollit) as the Anabaptists think? Does nature per se need to be “transformed” or does human need to be renewed by grace and the arts etc can wait for the new heavens and the new earth? It’s a question of principles. The neo-Kuyperian rhetoric about cosmic transformation, in this life, before the return of Christ, is beginning to seem more like the Anabaptist view, which view the classic Reformed theologians explicitly rejected. What does it mean to speak of creation being regained? By whom? How?

      The NT teaches us that believers are a part of a new creation that has been inaugurated by grace and that shall be consummated at the coming of Christ. It doesn’t tell me about the status of culture (e.g., art, language, math etc). The Epistle of Diognetus (c. AD 150) says to it’s pagan recipient, that the Christians differ from the Jews in that we have no distinctive language, clothing, food, etc. What distinguishes the Christians from the pagans is that we share our goods with all but we do not share our wives. We don’t put our infants out on the stoop to die. The anonymous author to Diognetus had no grand plan to transform pagan Roman culture. Neither did Irenaeus or Justin. The latter explicit wrote to the emperor to ask him to stop killing us and to understand that our internal discipline far exceeded Roman standards. He had no grand program for cultural transformation. The early Christians were happy to co-exist and to be left alone.

      Yes, the legalization of Christianity brought about real goods, e.g,, the pagans returned our property. There was poverty relief. The empire legalized (not invented) the Christian sabbath as a weekly holiday. We should engage the magistrate and other cultural institutions from the perspective of natural law to influence the culture in positive ways but engagement is not transformation.

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