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History and Theology of Grace

Chapter I

Meaning of Divine Grace

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

Not the least obstacle to the study of grace is the psychological one of meaning. The English word “grace” is simply a transliteration from the Latin gratia, first used by the Roman translators of the New Testament for the Greek charis, imbedded in the stream of ecclesiastical Latin by Tertullian (A.D.160-220) and made the center of a whole system of theology by St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430).

In order to get behind the scriptural meaning of grace, therefore; we must examine the import and connotation of the Greek term charis, which is, so to speak, our human link with the concept intended by the Holy Spirit in Christian revelation. Hellenist scholars say that the Greek mind has in no word uttered itself and all that lies at its heart more distinctly than in this disyllable, which the authors of the New Testament chose to epitomize God’s merciful love for men.

The fundamental notion of charis in ancient Greek was the understanding that a person or an object has the power to give joy to the hearer or beholder. And since to a Greek there was nothing so joy-inspiring as grace or beauty, it implied the presence of these. Yet charis meant not only their presence as passive qualities, but as gracious or beautiful persons and things in operation, acting outside themselves to communicate to others what they possess within.

One more aspect of the word made it a logical vehicle for the Christian doctrine of divine condescension, locked up in the idea of grace. Charis among the Greek schools of ethics implied a favor freely done, without claim or expectation of return. Thus Aristotle, defining charis, laid the whole stress on this very point, that it is conferred freely, with no prospect of reward, and finds its only motive in the bounty and free-heartedness of the giver. [1]

Scripture and Theology

The great expositor of the theology of grace was St. Paul, who speaks of it in all his fourteen epistles, including the short one of Philemon, which he begins and ends with a prayer for the grace “from” and “of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the Pauline letters, supported by the Acts and the letters of St. Peter, the single term charis runs the gamut of conceptual meanings which the Christian faith partly borrowed from the Greeks but then sublimated to a level never found anywhere else in classic antiquity.

Underlying these meanings is the basic notion of a benefit freely granted by God to His creatures. The operative word is “freely” or “gratuitously,” which is logically opposed to whatever is due or on which a person has a rightful claim. Broadly speaking, of course, the very elements that constitute our nature, our body and soul, are not due to us. They were freely created by the love of God. Yet this kind of gratuity is at best negative, because as contingent beings we had no intrinsic claim on coming into existence. God could have not made us. Once we came into existence, however; a variety of other blessings may be called due to us, such as are needed to make our lives purposeful and enable us to reach the perfection proper to our human nature. Yet even these are not strictly by right, but are divine gifts with the same gratuity as the nature on which they finally depend.

Patristic literature often describes these gifts of nature as graces. One of the major heresies in the early Church was built on the theory that human freedom was the only or the highest type of grace we receive; but that is not the understanding of the concept in Catholic theology. When the Scriptures, Fathers or Councils of the Church refer to “grace” properly so-called; they mean that gift which is the fruit of the blood of Christ, by which we become Christians and sons of God, are justified, made holy, and enter into heavenly glory. They often oppose grace to nature, teaching that nature must be repaired, made sound, helped and saved by grace. We are able to do by grace what the lone powers of nature could never do. “By grace, human freedom is not taken away but healed, not destroyed but corrected, not removed but enlightened, not emptied but assisted and preserved.” [2] They condemn the Pelagians who equated grace and the gifts of nature by denying that “the grace which the Christian faith professes is not nature but that by which nature is aided and saved.” [3]

The appropriateness of the term “grace” for this special benefit of divine love becomes evident once the existence of a higher than natural order is recognized. Certainly if the gifts of nature are gratuitous, those of supernature are given gratis to an eminent degree.

Moreover, if we examine the meaning of gratuity, we see that grace, otherwise than gifts of nature, are freely conferred with no positive claim on our part to receive. It is not only that we had no claim to whatever we possess naturally - how could we since we did not even exist to press such a claim? But as objects of divine benevolence in the form of grace we have no claim to these benefits, although we exist, and enjoy certain rights to the perfection and destiny of our given, existing humanity.

This divine benevolence which we call grace may be understood concretely as God, viewed in His own Trinitarian life which He communicated to His natural creatures. All three Persons of the Trinity are concerned: the Father who sent His only-begotten Son to redeem us; the Son who became man and died on the cross to merit the grace of our salvation; and the Holy Spirit, who has been revealed as the term of divine life in our souls through whom the Son, who is generated by the Father, sanctifies those He redeemed.

There are really two gifts involved: one uncreated which is God communicating Himself to His creatures, and the other created, which is the effect He produces in souls by His new presence to us. Both are graces, and both absolutely undeserved, since their function is to make us capable of living a life that is proper to God alone: of knowing and loving Him as He knows and loves Himself, of possessing Him with the happiness that He enjoys by nature and we are privileged to share by charis or the sheer benevolence of grace.

Too often people equate the idea of grace with some special help from God, as though grace were only remedial of human weakness or distress. It is indeed remedial, and to our way of thinking this may seem to be its main function. It is certainly the most frequent object of prayer. However, grace is not primarily a help to human nature but an elevation of it. Grace raises created nature and faculties to an order of being where only the divinity has the right to abide. Its principal function is to make us partakers of the inner life of the Trinity in the beatific vision, where the divine essence is seen intuitively in a face-to-face vision, with no interposition of any creature between the soul and the Triune God. [4]

Accordingly supernatural grace has two elements that characterize it and distinguish it from everything merely natural, its positive and absolute gratuity and its heavenly finality. The first refers to God as efficient cause, who willed to produce a benefit for us beyond the most extravagant conception of a finite mind; the second refers to God as final cause, towards whom we are being directed as our Trinitarian end. Taken together, the two elements give us a definition of grace as a supernatural gift which God confers gratuitously on rational creatures in order to bring them to eternal life.

Communication of Divine Love

An adequate estimate of grace must see it as a communication of divine love. St. John tells us that “God is love,” meaning that in Him reside all the treasures of infinite goodness, perfectly shared among the three Persons, and mercifully communicated to mankind outside the Trinity; first naturally in creation by bringing us out of nothing into existence and endowing us with the divine image of intellect and will; then supernaturally in the Incarnation, which is the source of our life of grace and the meritorious cause of our salvation. While admitting, and almost transmitting, the prior evidence of God’s beauty in creating us, St. John says “in this has the love of God been disclosed to us, that God has sent His only-begotten Son into the world that we may live through Him.” [5]

Among the species of grace, the primary type is habitual or sanctifying by which we become children of God and heirs of heaven. All other forms are ancillary to this, and take their meaning from the same. At no matter what angle we view habitual grace or, as the Council of Trent calls it, “justification,” we see it as a manifestation of God’s love in our regard.

The ultimate purpose of this gift from God’s part is His glory and that of His divine Son, but from ours everlasting happiness with the Trinity. The agent of this gift is the merciful God, “who freely washes and sanctifies, sealing and anointing us with the Holy spirit of His promise, who is the pledge of our inheritance.” The meritorious source is the “beloved only-begotten Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies, by reason of His very great love wherewith He has loved us, merited justification for us by His own most holy passion on the wood of the cross, and made satisfaction for us to God the Father.” The instrumental means are the sacrament of baptism, in water or at least by desire; and the formality which constitutes the grace of divine friendship in the righteousness, i.e., right orientation to our heavenly destiny. We have this “as a gift from Him and by which we are renewed in the spirit of our mind,” since we take on the personality of Christ to become by adoption what He was by nature, sons of God and joint-heirs with Christ of His kingdom. [6]

The value of considering grace as a manifestation of God’s love is manifold. We thereby recognize the depth of His charity, which is measured by the freedom and generosity of the benefits conferred which, in grace, are consummately free (with not the semblance of creature claim) and generous to the limit of God’s bounty in receiving us into His own Trinitarian family. We also appreciate what it cost the Son of God to make our supernatural life possible, that we were redeemed “not with perishable things, with silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ.” [7] We see the selectiveness of God’s love in calling us to the true faith and giving us the grace of justification as the pledge of our final glorification. “Those whom He has predestined, them He has also called; and those whom He has called, them He has also justified, and those whom He has justified, them He has also glorified.” [8]

Looking upon grace as an expression of divine charity we can redefine the providence of God as the constant, solicitous care He has in directing every moment and every detail of our lives to that final goal of union with Himself in beatitude. There is no such thing as chance with God. He plans every creature that crosses the horizon of our experience for a purpose, to have it function as a grace (mediately or immediately) to lead us to our appointed end. Instead of considering grace as a sporadic assistance or even as a static possession, we thus see it as a perpetual outpouring of divine benevolence, channeled through creatures and, for sanctifying grace, as a dynamic power that God intends to have grow and mature under His providential hand.

Above all, if we identify grace with divine love, we place it in the stream of daily life where it really belongs. In the last analysis, grace is an invitation; it is not coercive. Actual graces can be resisted and habitual grace can be lost. They require a loving response on our part to become effective in one case and remain alive in the other.

Cooperation with grace, therefore, is our answer to the prior love of God. This responsiveness becomes more self-sacrificing in proportion as we understand more clearly how generous is the invitation; and how undeserved, because gratuitous, is the gift we possess (in sanctifying grace) or are offered (in actual graces). How ungrateful we are if we resist the advances of infinite mercy or lose the divine life we received.

Chapter I - References

[1] De Rhetorica, II, 7; Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), Second edition (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1997), 1996, 2027.

[2] St. Fulgentius, Letter XVII, 20; CCC 1742.

[3] St. Augustine, “Letter to Innocent I”(177), 7, Fathers of the Church: Augustine Letters I (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1955), 99.

[4] CCC 1997, 1998, 1999.

[5] I John 4:9; CCC

[6] Enchiridion Symbolorum: Definitionum et Declarationum de Rebus Fidei et Morum, ed. Heinrich Denzinger, Adolp Schonmetzer (DS), 33rd edition (Barcinone: Herder, 1965), 1529; CCC 654, 2009.

[7] I Peter 1:18-19.

[8] Romans 8:30; CCC 1821.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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