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  • Incarnational "Intrinsicism":Matthias Scheeben's Biblical Theology of Grace
  • Isaac Augustine Morales O.P.

Throughout the twentieth century and into the current century, one of the central debates in the controversy over the relationship between nature and grace has concerned "intrinsicism" and "extrinsicism." These somewhat inelegant terms encapsulate the theological question as to whether human beings have a "natural desire" for the vision of God, and if so, in what sense. Do human beings have an intrinsic desire to see God, such that the (supernatural) beatific vision is the one and only true end for human beings?1 Or, is the desire to see God a conditional, elicited desire, that is, a desire not inherent to human nature, but rather one that arises through reflection on the order of the world?2 Recently, two scholars have proposed the nineteenth-century German theologian Matthias Scheeben as someone who can make a fruitful contribution to this debate. In a 2013 article in Nova et Vetera, Thomas Joseph White presents Scheeben's early work Natur und Gnade as an example of "good extrinsicism."3 For White, Scheeben's account of the nature–grace relation [End Page 139] rightly affirms the existence of a purely natural end for human beings. At the same time, although the natural desire to see God in the beatific vision is not intrinsic to human nature as such, there is nevertheless a fitting correspondence between grace and nature. White further argues that Scheeben's Scholastic method equips him well to parse out the distinctions necessary to rightly understand the complex relation between nature and grace.

In a study published a year after White's article, Andrew Swafford proposes Scheeben as a theologian who can reconcile the two camps in the Catholic nature–grace controversy.4 With the "pure nature" camp, Scheeben maintains the gratuity of grace and the integrity of a purely natural end for human beings. With Henri de Lubac, Scheeben provides for a kind of intrinsicism by "securing an inherent connection between human nature and the supernatural order of grace."5 Swafford's argument is that, although de Lubac and Scheeben approach the question from different angles, they arrive at similar conclusions with respect to the creation of the human race for communion with God.

Both White and Swafford point to significant contributions made by Scheeben, but each of them also misses or underplays an important aspect of his treatment, either in itself (in the case of White) or vis-à-vis de Lubac (in the case of Swafford). While White is correct to underscore the Scholastic elements of Scheeben's position, he says little about the equally important biblical and patristic aspects of his treatment.6 These emphases in Scheeben's account shift the discussion away from the philosophical question of natural desire to a more biblical register focusing on divine adoption and the Incarnation. Such a biblical-patristic approach provides a better foundation from which to consider the nature–grace relationship. Swafford, by contrast, underestimates (or at least underplays) the important difference between Scheeben's account of the question of "intrinsicism" and that of de Lubac. Indeed, one could argue that Swafford's continued use of the term "intrinsicism" to describe certain aspects of Scheeben's [End Page 140] position obfuscates rather than clarifies matters.7 Rather than calling it "intrinsic," I would describe Scheeben's account of the nature–grace relation as "incarnational." Such a distinction underscores the advantage of Scheeben's position vis-à-vis de Lubac's. Whereas de Lubac leaves himself open to the criticism that his argument calls into question the gratuity of grace by seeming to insist that human nature qua nature is already supernaturally oriented, Scheeben's incarnational account of how human beings are made for grace preserves this gratuity, while at the same time acknowledging that God has created human beings with the ultimate intention of elevating them by grace.8 Scheeben's approach thus presents the inherent connection between nature and grace not as a constitutive element of human nature (a charge frequently leveled at de Lubac, though he would deny it), but rather as a part of the divine plan in the Incarnation.9 In order...


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pp. 139-159
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