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History and Theology of Grace


by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.



    Scripture and Theology

    Communication of Divine Love


    Pelagius to Rationalism
        Luther and Calvin

    Scripture and Tradition
        Beginning of Faith
        Reformation to Jansenism
        Modern Times

    Spiritual Implications
        Universal Need
        Humility and Prayer
        From Christ the Head to His Body
        Grace to Mankind


    Autonomy and Impotence
        Pelagian Optimism
        Cassian’s Compromise
        Medieval Perfectionism
        Protestant Origins
        Baianist Prelude
        Conquering Delight
        Reflexions Morales
        Synod of Pistoia
        Centrality of Sin

    Catholic Middle-Ground
        Substantial Integrity of Mind
        Native Capacity of Will
        Observance of the Natural Law
        Perseverance in Grace
        Avoidance of Venial Sin

    The Perfect Prayer
        Significance in the Theology of Grace
        Doctrinal and Moral Interpretation


    Extrinsic Imputation

    Spiritual Rebirth
        Decree on Justification
        Pauline Theology

    Permanent Gift
        Created Grace
        Physical Reality
        Distinct from Charity

    Supernatural Life
        Nature and Origins
        Perseverance and Growth
        Law of Conflict and Struggle
        Intensity and Variety
        Weakness, Death and Resurrection


    Quest for Divine Unity
        Classic and Oriental Religion
        Extremes in Christian History

    Participation in the Godhead
        Sharing in the Divinity
        Divine Sonship by Adoption
        Divine Friendship and Righteousness

    The Indwelling Spirit
        Mode of Presence
        Appropriation to the Holy Spirit


    Historical Development

    Theological Analysis

    External Graces
        Varieties and Forms
        Sanctifying Effect


    Universal Salvific Will of God

    Process of Justification

    Sufficient Grace

    Efficacious Grace


    History of the Question

    Analytic Comparison


    Resources in Faith

    Concept and Variety

    Requisite Conditions

    Scope of Meritorious Actions
        Condign Merit
        Congruous Merit

    Prayer, Satisfaction and Merit
        Impetration and Merit

    Difference and Increase
        Determining Factors in the Person
        Determining Factors in the Action


    Theological Virtues
        Meaning and Comparison

        Paradoxes of Belief

        Essential Elements
        Object and Motive

        Love of Christ
        Love of Neighbor
        Effects of Sin

    Infused Moral Virtues
        Supernatural Infusion

    Gifts of the Holy Spirit


We need motivation to learn any subject, whether secular or religious, and some sort of method to make the learning effective. Otherwise interest lags, if it is even aroused in the first place, and what may be useful or important is not taken seriously. Correspondingly the better defined our motives for entering a field of knowledge, the more profit we derive from the investigation.

The theology of grace is no exception. There is no prima facie evidence why a Catholic should know more than his basic obligations and how to remain faithful to the inspirations of God in his soul. On reflection, however, we can see many reasons why a deep understanding is more than useful to the laity, and essential for those who profess what the world around them does not believe. The responsibility this imposes on priests and teachers is obvious, especially with the growing demand among the people for enlightenment and depth in their understanding of the faith, and their unwillingness to be satisfied with a catechism knowledge of fundamentals. Among the mysteries of Catholicism, none is more practically important than the doctrine of grace. It is the very heart of Christianity on its human side, since it describes the panorama of God’s dealings with men, and corresponds in theology to the science of psychology, but with implications in every aspect of the Christian religion that have no counterpart in rational philosophy.

All the dogmas of faith take on new meaning for us from the existence of a supernatural order. The Trinity of persons is meaningful because the internal processions within the Deity are the source of external missions outside of God effected by Him in our favor: to become the fountainhead of grace from the Father, through His Son, our Lord, in the Spirit who dwells in the souls of the just.

The Incarnation is the enfleshment of God’s Son in order that through Him we might become, by grace, partakers of His divinity as He vouchsafed to be made a sharer of our humanity. In the Eucharist we receive the Author of grace, the same who was born of the Virgin Mary and whose human nature has since become the instrument of our salvation.

By the very fact that we believe, with St. Paul, in things unseen – and hope for the promised rewards of those who love God – we are witnesses to the action of a superhuman power, which is divine grace operating on the mind and will. This grace enables us to see and desire what the natural man cannot perceive.

We say the sacraments are seven signs instituted by Christ to confer the grace they signify (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1127). And more broadly we hold that the Catholic Church is the great sacrament of the New Law that Christ founded to be the unique channel of grace to all mankind, with special title to those who are baptized and active members of the Mystical Body of Christ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 774-75). But no matter how conceived, the sacramental system is so far significant and membership in the Church so much appreciated as we see the great mysteria Christi in their true perspective as visible and human agencies for the transmission of invisible divine blessings to the human race.

As we look to the future prospects of a heavenly reward, it is grace again that gives to heaven its only meaning, as a prolongation of the life in God’s friendship here on earth. Our faith here becomes vision there, our hope here becomes possession there, and our charity now becomes the measure of our love of God then – in eternity – all aspects of the same mysterious reality that completely distinguishes the Christian religion from every other. We might in justice define Christianity as “the religion of grace.” Except for Judaism, from which it arose and above which it stands, Christianity is unique among living religions in resting its whole structure on the existence of a supernatural world of which the visible and natural universe is only a feeble analogy.

If the love of God is conditioned on knowledge, the depth of love will be determined by the extent of our knowledge of Him, not only as the Creator of nature but as the Author of grace. And since faith is required to recognize this higher operation of divine goodness, we have in the Catholic doctrine on grace the single most powerful motive for the apostolate.

In sending forth His disciples, Christ directed them before all else to teach, to make disciples and thus to convert the world. It is significant that the Gospel terms, docere (to teach), discipulus (student), magister (teacher), propheta (professional teacher), are all so many aspects of the teaching apostolate. The primary function of the minister of the Gospel is to impart knowledge, specifically knowledge of revelation; from which arises faith and through which the faithful may obtain grace. If the Church’s ultimate purpose is to sanctify the souls of men, this purpose would not even be thought of, let alone attained, unless people were first instructed to believe that holiness is necessary and acquirable through the instrumentalities of grace, notably the Mass and the sacraments. This is what God came down upon earth to reveal.

The theology of grace is not simple, as may be seen from the sequence of errors strewn along the path of the Church’s history. The complexity of the subject is due as much to its intrinsically mysterious character, since it deals with nothing less than the life of God shared by His creatures, as to our natural proneness to rationalize and explain everything in this-worldly terms. Yet a clear grasp of the basic principles is useful and may at times be indispensable, for directing oneself and others on the road to salvation. It is no coincidence that the great heresies on grace, like Pelagianism and Jansenism, had a profound influence on the morals and spiritual life of those who professed these errors; and that the influence is still exerted centuries after the original aberrations arose. On a smaller scale obscurities or deviations from the authentic teaching can be harmful to individuals who are living otherwise normal Catholic lives; as clarity and certitude can be of immense value for persons who are sincerely trying to serve God and respond generously to His will.

The saints understood the importance and dignity of grace, which they attested is so excellent that neither the gift of prophecy, nor the working of miracles, nor any speculation, however sublime, is of any value without it. For the gifts of nature are common to the good and bad; but grace is the proper gift of the elect. They that are adorned with, influenced by, and sanctified in it are esteemed worthy of eternal life.

No one has spoken more eloquently about grace than the author of the Imitation who, through his influence on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, has shaped so much of modern spirituality. “Grace,” he wrote, “is the mistress of truth, the light of the heart, the comforter of affliction, the banisher of sorrow, the expeller of fears, the matrix of devotion, the producer of tears. What am I without it but a piece of dry wood and an unprofitable stock, fit for nothing but to be cast away.” This is not rhetoric but only a faint declaration of the truth, since without grace man is not only left to his own resources and incapable of reaching the Trinitarian destiny to which he was raised but, because of the fall, cannot for long even remain faithful to the laws of his own nature.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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