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Nature and Grace, Barth and De Lubac

Henri de Lubac and Karl Barth tend to be played off against one another in regard to the issue of nature and grace. De Lubac, as is well known argued that the “natural” is inherently oriented towards its “supernatural” end in Christ. Thus there is no realm of “pure nature” irrespective of the supernatural end of redemption. Barth, it is thought argued in contrast that “nature” bears no inherent ordering towards the supernatural at all. For Barth grace is an apocalypse which shatters a completely estranged natural order. However, a closer reading of both Barth and de Lubac bears out that the difference between them should not be located in the issue of nature and grace–the differences between Barth and de Lubac, which are important are to be found elsewhere.

De Lubac nowhere suggests what Barth explicitly denies, namely that there is a natural order which participates with God in an “unbroken” manner. Nature, for de Lubac is not a divine seed, but rather an emptiness which is “ordered” to its fulfillment in Christ precisely because it exists as a privation. Nature for de Lubac is no sort of divine seed, or immanent movement toward the supernatural, rather it is instilled with a desire for the supernatural that is born precisely out of its own poverty. “Between nature as it exists and the supernatural for which God destines it, the distance is as great, the difference is as radical, as that between non-being and being: for to pass from one to the other is not merely to pass into ‘more being,’ but to pass into a different type of being. It is a crossing by grace of an impassable barrier.” (The Mystery of the Supernatural, 83) What de Lubac denied in his controversy with neoschoalsticism was the claim that the natural and the supernatural have utterly separate ends in and of themselves. His intent was never to affirm that there is any sort of immanent potentiality in nature to move towards God. “In short, for Christians created nature is no kind of divine seed. . . . The longing that surges from this ‘depth’ of the soul is a longing ‘born of a lack’ and not arising from ‘the beginnings of possession.’” (p. 84)

This notion is strikingly in line what Barth’s own claims, ironically enough the “iconoclastic” Barth of Romans. In his discussion of Romans 1 and the issue of the “natural” knowledge of God in creation, Barth argues that what is known about God is precisely that God is unknown. All humankind knows that they do not know God and that those they do know as gods are in fact no gods at all. Thus, rather than honor that which they do not know, humanity exchanges the glory of the unknown God for that of the known “No-Gods” whom they idolatrously worship. However, it is an act of suppression which never extinguishes the inner desire for that true God that all human know they do not know outside of Christ. Thus, as Barth argues “though men shall continue to prefer their ‘No-God’ to the divine paradox; though the manifestation of what cannot be made known be the impossibility before which only the thoughtless are not terrified; yet the faithfulness of God to men still abides; there still abides too that profound agreement between the will of God and that which men, longing to be freed from themselves, also secretly desire; there abides the divine answer which is given to us when the final human question awakens in us.” (Barth, Romans, 41, italics added)

Barth does not posit a realm of “pure nature” or the sort of extrinsicism what de Lubac excoriated in connection with neoscholasticism. Rather both theologians, in different, but strikingly similar ways argued that nature is itself an emptiness longing for fullness that lies utterly beyond it. Nature has no autonomous power to mover toward God, nor an immanent movement towards God operative within it. Nature is that which secretly desires that which it does not know, the “mystery of the World” (Jüngel) which dissolves and establishes the very foundations of creation in transfiguring all things into the novum of the new heavens and new earth.


  1. Hill wrote:

    Great post. I’m glad to see someone engaging the ideas instead of assuming that the two thinkers ought to be at odds with each other and then going to great lengths to figure out how.

    Friday, October 10, 2008 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
  2. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Far from at odds, indeed! Thanks, Halden.

    Friday, October 10, 2008 at 5:20 pm | Permalink
  3. Eric Lee wrote:

    On this topic, I would highly, highly recommend my friend Ken Oakes’ article in Modern Theology entitled The Question of nature and grace in Karl Barth: Humanity as creature and as covenant-partner. It’s really top-notch. Ben Myer’s recommended this article as well a while back.

    Saturday, October 11, 2008 at 2:48 am | Permalink
  4. Hargaden wrote:

    This is a fantastic post. I have been dipping my toe in and out of Barth and thanks to the studies I have ahead of me my lecturers are constantly encouraging me to read de Lubac. I really appreciated this post to help me look past assumptions I might bring.

    Saturday, October 11, 2008 at 3:04 am | Permalink
  5. Doug Harink wrote:


    A fine post. I think you are right to detect the similarities between de Lubac and Barth’s commentary on Romans. I suspect, however, that in the debate with Brunner, Barth’s position became clearer, and more unambiguously antithetical to even the hints of ‘natural theology’ (e.g., human question, divine answer) that might be present in the commentary.

    Wednesday, October 15, 2008 at 9:07 am | Permalink
  6. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    I don’t know, Doug. If anything it seems to me that the later Barth moved more toward de Lubac, particularly on the analogia entis issue.

    Wednesday, October 15, 2008 at 2:51 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    I would just interject, the issue here is not one of natural theology, the natural knowledge of God, but of a natural “desire” for God. The issue is not one of knowledge, but of desire. How one answers this question is, I think quite separate from the issue of natural theology. And I imagine that Barth and de Lubac give different answers there.

    Wednesday, October 15, 2008 at 3:48 pm | Permalink
  8. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Certainly you are right Halden, but the two are not unrelated. Where one falls on this issue has at least some bearing on the question of natural knowledge of God. Does it not?

    Wednesday, October 15, 2008 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

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