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Grace and the human person (I)


This article is one of father Philippe's most well known, and where he powerfully shows just how profound and essential a basis realistic philosophy is for the depth and vivacity of our christian life. All father's work in philosophy culminates in his ground breaking insight into what he spoke of with precision as the "human person" - his philosophy was therefore one not just of form, or substance (as thomist scholasticism, though not St.Thomas himself, is), but also of finality and life: man in all his dimensions, neither reducing him to a dry definition nor belittling him by amputating his existence of its radical, metaphysical depth. This deep and realistic understanding of man allows Philippe to offer a fresh and renewed perspective on how grace is given and recieved. Indeed, if our human nature grows and develops into the radically unique human person each one of us is, then how does grace sanctify that person we are and become? Grace presupposes nature... Grace cooperates with the human person we are, and a child of God is the gradual fruit of a gift of God to each of us, a gift of a kind that recreates us with our full cooperation.

Nature, person and grace
Br. Marie-Dominique Philippe, o.p. (1912-2006)

         In theology it is very important to try and pin-point what has traditionally been called the relationship between grace and nature (we will return to this expression further on). This question has been discussed a great deal between Dominicans and Jesuits, and particularly concerning the various different interpretations of Thomas Aquinas. It is a question of capital importance and which reappears in every period of history, along with the disputations it gives rise to. The latter remain above all arguments between schools of thought, and which the Church recently experienced once again with the much talked of discussion begun by Father de Lubac's work on the Surnaturel1 [supernatural]. We do not intend to treat this question as a discussion between schools of thought, but rather to consider it afresh, starting from its very source. It is indeed an indispensable question and has immense consequences on the whole of our Christian life: all ways of seeing Christian life are grounded in a theology of the relationship between grace and nature.

Faith and intelligence: theology 

         The first consequence of this issue is obviously on the relationship between faith and the intelligence - a relationship which is fundamental for having a clear understanding of what theology is. The encyclical Faith and Reason reminds us that theology involves a cooperation of the intelligence with faith. This invites us to ask ourselves how faith can assume the human intelligence. Faith takes root in grace and the human intelligence in the human soul, i.e. the human intelligence is a capacity of the human soul. To ask the question of the possibility of a cooperation between faith and the intelligence, and to ask what the nature of this cooperation is, would seem to be the major, fundamental question for the theologian, indeed, the question to which he constantly returns.
          If we consider things from a historical perspective, theology appeared very quickly in the Church. And though with the first Church Fathers we see very different forms of theology, what we discover above all is that these early theologians did not hesitate to assert certain truths about God, the Most Holy Trinity, Christ, the christian, the life of the Church, etc.: truths which are not revealed directly in Scripture but which come from a cooperation of faith with the human intelligence2. After this initial work done by the Church Fathers, theologians in particularly marked the development of reflexion in the Christian world. And among them, Thomas Aquinas - who is for us the great theologian - did not hesitate to develop upon and clarify the relationship between faith and the intelligence by himself producing a magistral work of scientific theology. This opus expresses clearly that his intelligence was put at the service of faith in a particularly perfect way. The Holy Father offers us another reminder of this in Fides et Ratio:

         In an age when Christian thinkers were rediscovering the treasures of ancient philosophy, and more particularly of Aristotle, Thomas had the great merit of giving pride of place to the harmony which exists between faith and reason. Both the light of reason and the light of faith come from God, he argued; hence there can be no contradiction between them... Faith therefore has no fear of reason, but seeks it out and has trust in it. Just as grace builds on nature and brings it to fulfilment, so faith builds upon and perfects reason... Although he made much of the supernatural character of faith, the Angelic Doctor did not overlook the importance of its reasonableness; indeed he was able to plumb the depths and explain the meaning of this reasonableness... This is why the Church has been justified in consistently proposing Saint Thomas as a master of thought and a model of the right way to do theology3.


         It was in order to do a more perfect, truer theological work that Saint Thomas had no qualms about parting with Avicenna's philosophy - recognised at the time by all, and especially by Saint Thomas' master, Albert the Great - so to return directly to Aristotle's. People objected that he was parting with a believer in favour of a pagan's philosophy. He certainly acted with quite some audacity. However, seeking the truth above all else, Saint Thomas was a man of great freedom: what gave him this freedom was his love for the truth. While his perspective was fully accepted and encouraged by the pope of that period, we should not forget that his audacity gave rise to criticism from the Sorbonne, and that this played a role in what was to become thomisme: very soon after Saint Thomas there was a return to Avicenna and to Henri de Gand. It is very difficult to remain on a summit in the search for the truth!

         Going beyond his master, Albert the Great, thanks to his study of Aristotle, Saint Thomas returned to the theological study of the relationship between nature and grace in a radical fashion. We can see this when we compare the Commentary on the Sentences and the Summa Theologica.

         Today, if we seek to go beyond the disputations between the various schools of thought, we must return to a true theology by searching deeper into both the Revelation and a first philosophy of being. Is it not indeed necessary today to take up this question at its source, by returning in particular to the Gospel of Saint John and in using a realistic philosophy which fully responds to the human intelligence's demands for truth? Let us try to understand how a true first philosophy of that-which-is - a philosophy which enables us to integrate a study of the human person within the effort of metaphysics4(which scolastic philosophy did not do) - enables us to reapproach this question in a new and more profound way.

1 Surnaturel, études historiques, Paris, Aubier-Montaigne, 1946 (the preface to the new edition, published in 1991 by Desclée De Brouwer, summarises the controversy which its publication gave rise to). See also H. De Lubac, Augustinisme et théologie moderne and Le mystère du surnaturel, Paris, Aubier-Montaigne (coll. Théologie, n° 63 and 64), 1965.  [All these books are as yet untranslated to English - tran.]
2 "Scripture, therefore, is not the Church's sole point of reference. The “supreme rule of her faith” derives from the unity which the Spirit has created between Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church in a reciprocity which means that none of the three can survive without the others" (John-Paul II, Fides et Ratio (FR), n° 55).
3John-Paul II, FR, n° 43.

4See M.-D. Philippe, "Le problème de la personne, sommet de la philosophie première", in: Revue Aletheia n° 4 (december 1993), p.9-39. See also The Three Wisdoms
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