Epiphany : a theological introduction to Catholicism
by Aidan Nichols O.P.
Chapter 6: The Nature of Salvation
The context of the salvific process is the outreach of the triune God in creation and providence — God's original making of the world, and his continued sustaining and guiding of it.
Creation and Providence
In creating, God constitutes what is on the basis of what is not, thus establishing the reality of the world ex nihilo, "from nothing." This doctrine, given earliest expression in the Second Book of Maccabees (7:28), was taken as foundational by Christians. Their conversion to an understanding of creation as "out of nothing" was not unconnected with their proclamation of Christ's resurrection. In that stupendous event, God's unconditional power over life and death, being and non-being, had been exhibited in a way no one could overlook. But as we saw in the opening chapter of this book, the all-creative Word of God does not merely distinguish and separate the created from the uncreated. He also produces community and continuity between them. Since creation comes into being through God's word it never withdraws beyond the range of that Word; indeed, it remains ever open to him.
An abyss of difference separates creatures from the Creator, and yet creature and Creator are intimately co-present. This is the mystery of the contingency of all created being. The universe is not self-supporting, but neither is it mere appearance. The ontological grounding of the world takes place beyond the world, in God, and yet the world's reality, order and measure is truly its own, received from the Source of all, and sustained by that Source's Word and Spirit. Just as the single divine nature belongs to the Trinitarian persons according to a certain taxis, ordo, "order," so likewise the creative power of the one God is exercised in a fashion appropriate to each of the divine three.
Ultimately, the meaning and truth of the world lie in the Father, Son, and Spirit who originate, undergird, and nurture it by their divine activity. To do justice to this doctrine, we must move beyond both a deistic theism, which would see the world as separated from God, and a panentheism, which would see it straightforwardly as "in" him, to an understanding of the world as, in its very difference from God, embraced within the powerful presence of that creative Word and Spirit. Our createdness is as it were the 'place' which related us to him, because it is the place where he, differing from his creatures in his power as Lord and Creator, loves his creatures and enfolds them in his grace. The createdness of beings, considered as their gift of sharing in the limitless being of the Creator, conjoins eternity and time. Eternity gives rise to time; from it time ceaselessly flows; eternity bestows on time its meaning. The whole order of time — creation as temporal — receives being through the eternal act which is God.
Providence is creation continued. The Old Testament people who founded the biblical doctrine of creation saw the world as a thing in jeopardy, and so in constant need of deliverance by the Creator's power. Through his efficacious will, the personal Lord was close to creation. So his conserving causality could not be sundered from his personal purpose.
The doctrine of providence does not for all that deny some role to chance and necessity in the story of the cosmos. Providence, we can say, incorporates and masters both. When things occur "by chance," owing to the failure of some cause or its prevention by another, such irregular chains of causal agency depend quite as much on the first cause for their existence as do any other. On the other hand, what is fate save the operation of some predetermining intermediary cause? Fate is not so primordial a factor as to fall outside the scheme of providence.
Whatever words the text of the world may contain, providence encompasses them all. Yet this is not to say that providence can be "read off" from the way the world goes. Far from it: nature and history show ugly faces which the great theodicists, from the Attic tragedians to Dostoevsky, have contemplated in fear and pity. Supernatural revelation, a word in history from the God of all things, must address at least this, if not only this.
Scripture regards creation as the beginning of God's history with humankind, as the understanding heart of the sentient creation. Congruently, it treats historically God's solicitude for the world he has made. The purpose of God's dispositions is his kingdom, that sweet rule over creatures which manifests his own divine triunity. The careful action whereby the primal liberty of God causally directs the historical process is signalled in the miracles that attend Israel throughout history (Job 10:14; 1 Sam 3:11; 2 Kgs 21:12; Jer 19:3). Old Testament writers deal with evil as divine punishment for sin, and an instrument for instructing and purifying humankind, yet they also look forward to an apocalyptic annihilation of evil at the world's consummation (Amos 2:16; Isa 2:20; Mic 2:4) — increasingly so as the Jewish canon approaches its closure in Sturm and Drang.
The protology of the New Testament (its account of the foundational beginnings of cosmos and so of history) in no way overthrows the wisdom of Israel. For the Gospels, too, God's dominion over creation is, first and foremost, his fatherly care (Matt 5:45). The "primordial" — the original order of creation — retains its archetypal authority for the present, as the evangelical prohibition on divorce makes clear. And yet with Jesus Christ a supreme novelty enters the Judaic picture. What comes first can no longer be depicted without painting in the revealer of the Father's purpose from the beginning. The risen Lord exhibits the goal to which the world was always ordered, embodying time's end before time's termination. And if, to change the metaphor, the finale has thus identified the overture's true leitmotif, we also have the key to the score's intervening pages. In the cool, clear idiom of Christian Scholasticism, Jesus Christ is creation's exemplar, its final purpose, and its moving cause. Nor is this mediaeval eisegesis but rather a restatement, descriptively, of the truth once given by the New Testament authors doxologically (as prayer and praise).
The One who is the revelation, from the beginning, of creation's goal in God is also its consummation, in the anticipated ending of the first Easter, and therefore the instrument, in the in-between time of human history, of all the purposive coherence it possesses.
We shall return to this topic when we consider the setting of redemption in the cosmos — both material and spiritual — in chapter 11.
The Need for Redemption
So much for creation, as reconceived through revelation in Christ. The substance of our topic — the nature of salvation — concerns, rather, that revelation's departure point, God's redeeming act whereby through Jesus Christ he delivered humankind from the evil of sin, reuniting it graciously with himself. Here once again the Old Testament prepared the way. God aroused in his people the hope for a Messiah, thus disposing them to expect a future, definitive saving intervention, changing the terms on which the historical process unfolds, and intersects with eternity. Types and foreshadowings accumulated as he freed them from Egyptian slavery (Exod 19:5-6), established the Davidide monarchy (2 Sam 7:8-16), sent them prophets (2 Kgs 17:13), and brought them back from captivity in Babylon (Isa 40:1-11). This hope became more focused as the divine promise took on clearer outline, first in the covenant with Abraham (Gen 12:1-3), then in its successor, the covenant with David (2 Sam 7:6-17), and the announcement of a new covenant to exceed them both (Jer 31:31-34), and finally in prediction about a mysterious Servant of YHWH, whose sufferings would remove sin (Isa 52:13-53:12), and the vision of a "Son of Man" who would inaugurate in history the universal kingdom of God (Dan 7:14). At the same time awareness grew of the transcendence of God who can act at all times and everywhere since he is not confined by time and space. In his eternity he is beyond the perishable world of time (Lam 5:17-20; Ps 90:1-3); in his immensity he transcends all limitations of place (1 Kgs 8:27; Ps 139:8-10). And since his Spirit contains all things (Wis 1:7) and his Wisdom orders all things (Wis 9:1), he can be our Savior no matter how radical our need.
The doctrine of the incarnation discloses that the world was indeed so precariously situated that God the Son had to unite it to himself in order to save it. Human beings, brought from non-existence to existence by the gift of God, naturally waste away when they turn from God. By destroying the relationship of creature with the Creator sin destroys the creature itself. Through sin we are wounded, psychically, bodily, and spiritually, and the world is in our persons (but not only there) despoiled. The incarnation reveals that human creatures had become infected by a deep corruption exceeding the corruptibility of natural existence, a corruption that worked for their utter ruin. Not only were they perishable, they were also affected by the evil that divine judgment must inevitably oppose, and that only God's own atoning and redeeming activity can overcome. The novelist George Bernanos wrote in his Lécrepuscule des vieux:
The metaphysical implications of this condition, centering on the radical need for the restorative grace of God, are brought out by Thomas Aquinas in his treatise on sin and grace in the Summa theologiae.
Aquinas goes on, by way of indicating the divine agenda in the work of our redemption:
God could not truly love the good unless he hated and shunned evil. A mere declaration of amnesty would hardly be more than an ignoring of evil. In the forgiveness of sins there must be fitting forgiveness. So the scope of human evil and the dimensions of redemption must be duly pondered in any account of the nature of salvation.
Humankind as issuing from the creative hand of God at the moment when our rational species appeared on earth was, by definition, in a condition of integrity of being. But Church tradition sees more, still, in the affirmation of Genesis that the human being, so created, was "very good." For the Council of Trent, God made the first human beings in holiness and justice — sharing supernaturally, that is, in his own qualities. The world they experienced would have been aglow with the presence of God, in a paradisal way that now only poets can imagine: the grass orient and immortal wheat; man and woman strange, seraphic pieces of life and beauty, moving jewels; horses whinnying as they walked out onto the fields of praise. At the beginning of human experience was a moment of glory haunting all subsequent culture in myths of a golden age. Original sin chiefly consists in the loss of the share in the divine life enjoyed by Adam, and hence of the harmony and wholeness that stemmed from such grace. With the Fall the powers of human nature cease to be harmoniously united; its structure disintegrates, for our humanity was never intended to be a purely natural reality. From the origin it was disposed toward the vision of God by the supernatural gift of charity. The eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents the possibility that we will take our nourishment — realize our life — not in communion with God but unrelated to and independent of God, feeding ourselves only for our own preservation, for the survival of our physical individuality.
It is when we think through the implications of the Church's ascribing sin to the newly born that we realize how the loss of divine friendship can be said to wound our nature. No infant has a will freely set against God, for there can be no salvifically relevant use of the will unless and until we start to decide rationally, committing ourselves not in impulse but decision. Yet the state of children is still sin: the lack of God's life and, therefore, of the wholeness of our nature is a lack of what ought to have been present but is not present, for all whom Adam "represented."
Owing to human solidarity, one person can represent many. This is true in social settings at all levels, from the family, through those associations we call precisely not only clubs but "societies," to the great society of a country, the civil society of a state. There seems no reason why the same principle cannot be extended into macrosociety, even to the level of the race as a whole. From the "leader principle" both benefits and disasters have flowed. But with Adam, as with Christ, we are dealing with a mystery of supernatural vocation for which all other forms of representation are at best analogies. Grace was given Adam — "our Sire," as Milton calls him — as the source of grace for others. His refusal to undertake the mediation of grace as humanity's representative means that human beings are born gracelessly, with their spiritual wills indisposed to communion with the holy God.
This Catholic teaching on original sin is sometimes treated as a purely Western, and indeed Augustinian, doctrine, unechoed in the rest of traditional Christendom. For the latter, we hear, it was only as the defacto result of Adam's transgression that the human world became infected by bad example and bad influences. On the occasion, merely, of this episode did human beings begin to decline. Adam's sin, it is alleged, was not as such the foundation of our sinfulness; he did not carry us all in him, so that we come into the world bound for a tragic experience. But the Greek Fathers too can be quite clear that human solidarity with Adam is more than just that of the first link in a chain. We read in them that in Adam we were disloyal, we were banished from paradise, just as in Christ these corporate conditions were reversed.
To a secular mind, the difficulty with this doctrine will be not only the concept of vicariousness but also the question of historicity The story of the Fall could be read as a symbolic account of human rebelliousness against God, of how all our cultural developments (as for the Genesis writer, clothing, metal-working, city-building) are spoilt by an element of vengefulness and pride. Yet sin must have entered human life at some historical moment, whether identifiable or not. For unless evil marred the creation of humanity contingently (i.e., historically), it could only have done so essentially (i.e., by God's own creative act), which is unthinkable. In claiming Adam (with Eve) as historical figures, the Church is confirmed by the New Testament, especially by Paul's appeal to Adam's fall as the act which Christ's redemptive act inverted. Revelation presents both as historical events with metahistorical meaning.
Naturally, if the human race emerged in the form of a single couple, that couple could scarcely have been culturally advanced. No archaeologist will find evidence of a lost Eden. That would not prevent such a human pair existing in the greatest charity when "it was all/ Shining, it was Adam and maiden." Nor need their sin have been some carefully calculated rebellion. A false step might seem small yet be crucial. Pascal, in his Pensees, proved adept at describing the result, as when he wrote,
This unresolvable duality of human beings as they are can only be explained by a duality in origin: the original fallenness of an originally good nature. From now on, as in A. H. Clough's poetic fragment The Mystery of the Fall, human beings are as Cain: marvelling at the facility with which crime can be committed even as they live in chafing awareness of unreasonable limitations to their freedom.
Redemption in Christ
Humanity, then, grew old in wickedness, but God did not leave it to itself. It was renewed in the "child," " Jesus, who grew up aright, and became, in a garden, the first-born from the dead, so that we might have a new birth, and the new man, dwelling in us, might redeem the old humanity. At this the Exsultet, sung on Easter night, proclaims: "O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam,/ which gained for us so great a Redeemer!" Adam's sin was a "happy fault," providentially allowed so as to provide the context into which Christ might come as our Redeemer, to show us God's love and power in an unsurpassable way. By a wild excess of love, in his generous goodness, God willed to give himself to us not simply in the vision of himself in heaven, but also in that union between him and our nature which is the incarnation — to the extent of dying for us on the cross and sharing his divine life with us in the resurrection. In order that our race might be given such bounty, it was allowed to be in desperate need of such bounty. It was permitted to fall in Adam, so that it might be restored in the new Adam, and, in Paul's words, "grace abound all the more" (Rom 5:20).
The restoring of God's creation, and notably of ruined humanity, was the reason for the incarnation of his eternal Son and Word in Jesus Christ. By taking our frail, contingent nature upon himself — he who is the one source and origin of all creaturely being — he transferred to himself our origin, so as to secure our being from final dissolution. At the same time, he took upon himself our alienated and corrupt nature, so as to redeem us and renew our being. By transferring our contingent existence into himself, in whom divine and human, uncreated and created, realities are indissolubly united (as Chalcedon declared), Christ secured our nature's origin and end in his own eternal being. In this sense, the incarnation saves us by completing the work of creation and consummating the world's contingent relation to God.
The Flesh-taking is indeed the foundation of all the other mediations whereby the Word incarnate brought God's redemption to humankind.
In the last chapter we explored the divine presuppositions of that mediating work, and before that we scanned its historical outworking in the mysteries of Christ's life. For as that life unfolded the Wordmade-human constructed on the basis of his incarnation his own reality as Savior — in the public ministry as Messiah, prophet, high priest; in his death as sacrifice, Redeemer, victor, exemplar; in his resurrection as intercessor, judge, and consummator of all God's redemptive ways. It is not only on the cross that the incarnate One saves, but through his resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of the Spirit.
The new covenant, thus enacted, brings into being a worldwide divine family, in which Christ Jesus shares with us his own divine sonship, thus making us the children of God. By making disciples and giving them the new Law, Christ established the lines of that community in which deliverance from the evil of sin and reunion with the Father might take place, and when realized in the members be lived in freedom. Likewise he established the new cult with its priesthood, so that by means of the Church's liturgy humankind might be enabled and inspired to hate the malice of sin and love God's goodness.
Of course, even when by our new birth of baptism we appropriate this rich redemption through the Church, the temptation to sin-called by theological tradition concupiscence — remains. But from now on, concupiscence is simply the provider of occasions, and materials, for our transfiguration into Christ, as each person retraces the history of the Savior from his baptism in the Jordan, through the temptations in the wilderness, his public life, to his passion, death, and resurrection. The postbaptismal disorder in the psyche is left to us as something to fight against through Christ's grace, so that we may share for ourselves in his paschal triumph.
The Father by his Spirit enabled Christ as man to undertake and accomplish the work of deliverance from sin and reunion with himself by inspiring him with the loving obedience whereby the Word incarnate freely performed in his human existence that work of liberation and atonement. God raised the same Christ from the dead so that the crucified and risen Lord might be able to communicate to all humankind his gifts of salvation, unity and peace. It is in terms of the overall, Christ-centered, divine "plot" of history that we can make sense of the gift, loss, and reacquisition of original righteousness.
In our own lives personal sin — our very own ratification of the Fall in the myriad ways that novelists (as well as the Scriptures!) describe looms larger than sin's archaeology. But the genesis of sin is vital to its understanding, and to the understanding of redemption.
Self-apotheosis will always be criminal lunacy. It remains the case, however, that "the [true] life of man is the vision of God" (Irenaeus). Beyond God's positing of creation is his reordering of creation to himself, called by Catholicism the supernatural. The life graciously bestowed on human creatures is more than natural existence.
The vocabulary of the supernatural was coined by the Greek and Latin Fathers for a good enough reason. The message of revelation is that the incomprehensible God, who lies infinitely beyond his creatures (though he is also intimately present to them, to preserve and guide them), has chosen to share his own life and happiness with us, by lifting us up so that we can come to know him as he is. In this life we are made nothing less than children of the Father by faith (a sharing in the Father's Word or self-expression) and charity (a sharing in their Holy Spirit), so that, led by the Spirit, we may grow in the Son until, in the next life, faith gives way to sight. Then, in and through the Word, we shall truly know the Father and live by sharing that divine self-knowledge. We shall delight in that vision, which means that we shall share more fully in the divine joy which the Holy Spirit is. This lifting up of the creature to share the life of the Creator is the greatest of all God's works; the rationale of the term supernatural should surely be self-evident.
The supernatural is the main category that, beginning modestly enough in the age of the Fathers, Catholic theologians have used to express how grace is the "second gift" of God. This second gift does not simply make us better endowed human beings, even human beings with better endowments given in a supernatural way. It makes us more than human, indeed more than creaturely. We become "sharers in the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4). If by the first gift we are brought from nothingness into being, as creatures with (in our case) human capabilities, then by the second gift God makes us adopted sons and daughters, giving us his Spirit so that we may share in the life of his Son. Nature (i.e., what we are capable of by virtue of our own resources, not without God, but apart from his self-communication) is not grace (i.e., what we have become capable of through that very self-communication). The gifts of nature are given us as our own; the gifts of grace are bestowed as a sharing in what remains proper to God, and so reach us only through salvation history, with its power to change the form and goal of our natural existence. Here begins a familial, nay, a nuptial, intimacy. In the words of the English Jesuit theologian Edward Yarnold, "Our Creator becomes our bridegroom."
The more faithful exponents of the mind of Aquinas have argued that humanity has a natural desire for this supernatural life. As Henri de Lubac, one of Aquinas's most penetrating twentiethcentury disciples, saw clearly, the life of glory is not a banquet set before a person who feels no hunger. In other words, heaven is not some arbitrary reward, conditional on our progress in this life, but otherwise unrelated to it. Nonetheless, there remains as an abiding source of Christian admiration the complementary truth which the baroque Scholastics and Neoscholastics so firmly held: though by the first gift, creation, God equips us to receive the second, he could, without a shadow of contradiction, have left us with nature alone. Yarnold draws on G. B. Shaw's Pygmalion for dramatic illustration: -
Where nature and grace are at issue, traditional divinity distinguishes (1) the state of "pure nature," which we know by faith has never been realized in human history, for the latter was a history of salvation from the very start; (2) the state of integral nature, in which a series of gifts — exemption from concupiscence, suffering, and death — bore fruit in a perfect equilibrium for human living; (3) the state of original justice, surpassing even integral nature, in which the original humans were created, blessed not only with quasi-angelic gifts of limpid selfpossession but also sanctifying grace (viz., a lifting up to the strictly supernatural level where alone the vision of God can be bestowed; (4) the state of fallen nature, that of Adamic humanity after the loss of these gratuitous gifts — a sinful state where nature stands opposed to the gracious will of God, his plan for humankind; (5) the state of redeemed nature, which is our own. We possess sanctifying grace but not the quasi-angelic gifts of Adamic humanity; these latter are, for us, replaced by the economy of the sacraments under the sign of the cross. This is to our advantage from the viewpoint of our growth in charity. The materiality of the sacraments keeps us rooted in the good humus of earth even as our faces (not a mixed metaphor: flowers are plants' faces) are turned towards heaven.
Thus the Roman liturgy can say of our nature that it was wondrously created by God yet in Christ was even more marvelously restored.
Aspects of Grace
God does not merely provide our salvation through his grace. He is so generous that he enables us to deserve that salvation; he enables our merit. This he does by the way that, in the concrete, he predestines us — namely, through our justification, which is his gratuitous sharing with us of his own righteousness.
Newman's words point to the distinct, though internally connected, concept of sanctification, but it is nevertheless true that for Catholicism (as for Protestantism) justification is the work of grace alone, although (in opposition to classical Protestantism) it does not come by faith alone. Justification happens in us through faith operant in charity. This must be so if Christ and his Spirit (the Word and the Love of the Father) are the agents of our justification. Over against the view that would make faith itself, or "spiritual-mindedness, into the end of religion," Newman insisted that
Our justification means first of all our forgiveness and consequently (so radical is sin) our regeneration, a new birth into a life of friendship with the blessed Trinity. Romano Guardini wrote that this mystery is as marvellous as the mystery that the world arose from nothing: A new creation takes place. God draws man to himself with all that he has done, he draws him into his ineffable power and man comes forth again renewed and guiltless. Repentance is therefore an appeal to the deepest mystery of the creative power of God.
For repentance there must be. Metanoia — "conversion," a "turning again" — though itself the gift of grace is the necessary condition of our sharing in the righteousness of God. There can be no personal appropriation of salvation without repentance. He who worked our salvation in the cosmic acts of the assumption of our nature by the Logos also struggled and suffered for us in his (now humanly realized) person. My salvation cannot simply rest, then, on the objective metaphysic of the new life of grace communicated to me by the Church in her sacraments; I am called on to make a demanding and heartfelt, and ever-repeated, act of repentance. The Byzantine Church expresses this in Lent in the profound poetry of Andrew of Crete's Great Canon:
heed, O heaven, and I will speak, and will lift up in song
heed, O Heaven, and I will speak: Earth, give ear to a voice
heed, O God, to me in pity, with merciful eye,
have sinned alone, above all men, I have sinned against thee:
storm of ills hems me in: but let mercy weigh the scales,
Harlot's tears, O Merciful Christ, I pour out unto Thee:
soul's beauty I have dimmed with pleasures of the passions,
have torn my robe, that first robe which my Fashioner for me
have put on a torn coat, which the serpent wove for me
looked upon the beauty of the tree, and my mind was deceived.
Upon my back all the leaders of the passions have ploughed,
have lost the first-created beauty, and all my comeliness.
Only for the outward adorning I took thoughtful care,
have crusted over with passions the beauty of the Image
cry like the Harlot, I only have sinned, I have sinned against thee.
have sinned like David and waxed wanton, and am deep in the mire.
cry like the Publican, "Be merciful": Saviour, be merciful to me.
tears have I, no repentance, Saviour, nor any compunction.
not, I pray, thy door against me, Lord, Lord, in that day,
Lover of man, who wiliest that all should be saved, bring me back,
1. R. Guardini, Freedom, Grace, and Destiny: Three Chapters in the Interpretation of Existence (London, 1961)119-43.
2. G. Bernanos, "Une vision catholique du réel," in Le Crepuscule des vieux (Paris, 1956) 43-44.
3. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 2-2.109.8.
4. Dylan Thomas, "Fern Hill," " in Collected Poems, 1934-1952 (London, 1952) 150-51.
5. Blaise Pascal, Pensées (Harmondsworth, 1966) 64.
8. L. Ligier, Péché d'Adam et péché du monde (Paris, 1960) 1:192.
9. H. U. von Balthasar, "Patristik, Scholastik, und wir," Theologie der Zeit 3 (1939) 69, cited in E. T. Oakes, Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (New York,1994) 110.
10. E. Yarnold, The Second Gift: A Study of Grace (Slough, 1974) 39.
11. John Paul II, Orientale lumen, 11.
12. Newman, Lectures on justification, 93-94.
13. Ibid., 104.
14. Ibid., 150.
15. Guardini, Freedom, Grace, and Destiny, 124-31.