- A Theology of Grace in Six Controversies by Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
In each of these six essays, Edward Oakes nobly endeavors to resolve a seemingly intractable dispute. He contends that “antinomies” beset each side of each dispute and then strives towards a higher viewpoint that integrates the truths of competing theses without correlative drawbacks. Methodologically, Oakes offers a well-rounded approach, employing a wide variety of resources. He grounds his claims in Scripture in light of recent scholarly advances and canvasses various theological and secular usages of salient words (“grace,” “sin,” “justification,” “righteousness,” etc.). He traces key, sometimes rival, theological traditions. He employs literature, history, widely acknowledged scientific findings, and words of saints. In each essay, he develops his thesis systematically upon these foundations, following such luminaries as John Henry Newman, Matthias Scheeben, Karl Barth, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.
Of course, it is common to seek the middle between extremes. Success requires accurate identification of “thesis” and “antithesis.” Precision and wisdom must work hand in hand for this task and for the construction of viable alternative syntheses. To evaluate Oakes’s achievement, I highlight two chapters and touch on others, noting features running through the essays.
Chapter 1, “Nature and Grace,” constitutes a remarkable effort to achieve balance between the concerns in a significant dispute. Henri de Lubac claimed that there is an innate desire for the beatific vision, while certain twentieth-century Thomists claimed that the innate desire is for a naturally attainable happiness. Lawrence Feingold’s noteworthy dissertation/book (The Natural Desire to See God according to St. Thomas Aquinas and His Interpreters [2001, 2010]) rekindled this discussion. Oakes recognizes that the slogans “extrinsicist” and “intrinsicist” are clumsy: no extrinsicist severs creation from [End Page 609] Christ, and no intrinsicist makes eternal life something God “owes” (7). Still, Oakes indicates, one can “veer” toward views that the slogans indicate, some stressing the continuity of nature and grace in the one will of God to deify and others stressing the discontinuity between man’s sinful state and God’s saving initiative (12). Oakes appreciates the extrinsicist desire to preserve the gratuity of grace and the loftiness of our calling. Still, he submits, the denial of a natural desire for grace, if it “becomes too one-sided,” cannot cope with Paul’s teaching that creation “does indeed ‘groan’” (23). Oakes briefly conducts the reader through “two sets” of texts in Aquinas’s corpus, each supportive of either extreme. As Oakes makes clear, at stake is not simply Aquinas’s text but the truth of things.
Following Andrew Swafford’s lead, Oakes alights on Scheeben as providing principles for a resolution. The move is surprising: of all people, Scheeben starkly distinguished nature and grace. Notwithstanding, Scheeben agreed with de Lubac that people are moved not by arguments from natural reason but by the manifestation of faith’s supernatural beauty. More, Scheeben proposed that grace and nature enjoy a “nuptial union,” an image more intimate than that of a second story topping off a perfectly good first story. Scheeben grounded this marital imagery in the effect of the Incarnation, whereby the human race is caught up in the hypostatic prerogatives of Christ. Accordingly, just as it is right that “this man, who is the Son,” receives an abundance of grace, so it is right that those who through baptism are stamped with Christ’s character and brought into his sonship receive sanctifying graces. Distinction is in service of union.
This sketch should indicate the valiant nature of Oakes’s undertaking. Perhaps the project succeeds; it does have weaknesses. First, Oakes presents the “extrinsicist” tradition as regarding the relationship between sinful man and grace. This description fails to identify the issue; primordially at stake is the relationship of man qua man, considered as such and apart from sin, to grace. This slip and others signal imprecision in Oakes’s account. There is a delightful character to his broad brushstrokes, but this breadth is...