Nature and Grace – A Reformed Perspective

In my August post I offered some reflections on classical education within a Catholic context in contrast to my previous experience of classical education in a Protestant context. Today’s guest blogger, Taylor Craig challenged my contention that Catholicism offered a more congenial setting for classical education and proposed that the Reformed understanding of nature and grace improved on the Thomistic (Catholic) perspective making Classic Reformed Protestantism a more suitable theological milieu. So in the spirit of genuine dialogue, I asked Taylor to expand on his ideas in a blog post. He is a former student of mine, and is currently in his Junior year at MIT where he is studying Physics.

I grew up in a school that valued history. Not just in the sense that much of our curriculum was grounded in antiquity–I probably read twice as many pages written before Christ, even not counting the Old Testament, as I did from the last century–but specifically in the sense that our educational structure itself was developed in the High Middle Ages, and its seeds go back much further. No Elementary, Middle, or High School; I had Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric stages. I learned Latin for 8 years, studied formal logic, and closed out my senior year by publicly defending my thesis. My education was classical and Christian: classical in that all subjects were organized towards instilling a sense of “how to think” that was rooted in appreciating the interconnectedness of all we learned, and Christian in its belief that all knowledge, and especially its interconnectedness, was seen most clearly through the interpretative lens of the biblical worldview, which taught that of course all knowledge is interconnected because there is one Creator who is revealed in all of it.

As much as we loved history, however, I must confess that I do not remember much of the history of classical Christian education itself. Perhaps this is because I always thought of the model as philosophically rather than historically motivated; it is even possible that I saw, and perhaps others did as well, a tension between the philosophical and historical motivations. While the philosophical underpinnings seemed to be rooted in Reformed theology, the historical origins go back to the very Medieval Catholicism from which the Reformation separated itself. Obviously the common ground of Christian belief is much more significant than the theological differences, but one still must wonder: how significant is it that classical Christian education has been transplanted into the modern Reformed tradition? Has it come unmoored from its true theological home, or does its new environment perhaps suit it better?

One of the most visible differences between modern Protestantism and Medieval Catholicism is in the respective styles of worship, especially in their respective use of architecture, sculpture, stained glass, and high liturgy. While the Catholic church has sometimes erred on the side of excess, the idea that the arts have a unique role in worship seems essentially consonant with the principles of classical Christian education: the explicit dedication of the arts to God’s service in the sanctuary reflects what is implicitly believed about their ultimate purpose everywhere else. This is rooted in the physicality of the Catholic ecclesiology, the idea that church and culture are not fundamentally different dimensions of human life but in some sense occupy the same space. The resulting high view of civilization naturally leads to the development of classical Christian education.

However, insofar as our modern Protestant churches have lost these ideas, they display their Americanization more than their Reformation. Calvin taught in a cathedral and wielded tremendous political influence in Geneva. The wedge between church and culture is an Anabaptist introduction, and the current popularity of this way of thinking is a mark of their lasting influence rather than of a consistent Reformed heritage, which never spoke negatively of the arts in general so much as against what it saw as abuses in the Medieval Catholic church. It is therefore quite possible that Calvin’s thought would never have led us to abandon artistic sanctuaries (once purged of vanity), had we consistently affirmed with him that culture itself is to be redeemed by the Gospel (see, for example, Jan Veenhof’s Nature and Grace in Bavinck, p23-24, which can be found at

Indeed, a central component of the Reformation ecclesiology is the priesthood of all believers. By affirming that all labors which seek to beautify and sanctify creation in the growth towards the garden-city are acts of worship as prescribed by the Dominion Mandate, the Reformation restored to every believer the high calling given them in baptism. Perhaps surprisingly to Protestants, the Catholic Catechism also articulates a fairly satisfying understanding of the way in which laity fulfill Christ’s prophetic, priestly, and kingly offices (paragraphs 897-913). This is then marred by the following discussion of the various ways in which one’s life may be “more intimately” consecrated to God–giving the impression that tending and subduing the earth is not the fullest means of knowing HIm but has been transcended by a path that is more “spiritual,” in an almost Gnostic sense. Likewise, Trent (Session XXIV, Canon X) pronounces an anathema on anyone who denies that celibacy is more blessed than marriage, again advocating a higher path than that given at creation.

A theological way to frame the issues at stake here is to talk about the relationship between grace and nature. Reformed theology, especially in the writings of Herman Bavinck, argues that grace restores nature and fulfills it, in the sense of bringing creation to the fullness of its telos, while Roman Catholic thought contends that grace perfects nature, sometimes apparently in the sense of supplying what was lacking or of elevating to a higher plane. This difference is perhaps seen most clearly in the respective understandings of the Eucharist: the Reformed understanding of spiritual yet real presence reminds us of what was once true of all creation, while the Catholic understanding of Transubstantiation introduces something essentially novel as the centerpiece of the new creation. In the Reformed view, bread and wine are restored to and now uniquely fulfill the role given to all of nature, that is, to reveal God to man, to make Him present with us, and to be a vehicle for man’s worship of God. In the Catholic view, nature is “perfected” and actually removed by grace as the substances of the bread and wine give way to the substances of Christ’s flesh and blood.

Most importantly for educational philosophy, the relationship between grace and nature is mirrored in the relationship between special and general revelation. Following Aquinas in the first question of the Summa Theologica, Catholic theology has understood Scripture as beyond or beside nature, with Scripture both teaching what nature does not and making easily available what only the very learned could deduce from nature alone. This contrasts sharply with the Reformed idea that, because of our sin, Scripture is the spectacles through which we must read the book of natural revelation, which is already complete and clear in itself and therefore leaves man no excuse for ignorance of God. Catholic thought thus subtly slides towards a hierarchical understanding of knowledge, with theology and philosophy occupying slightly different places (the subtle choice of wording throughout Summa Contra Gentiles, bk II, chap. 4 highlights this). In Reformed thought, Scripture is seen as reconstituting what is damaged by sin, speaking to the innate but suppressed knowledge of God in all humans, rather than supplementing natural revelation (Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, Prolegomena, p361). In this view, Aristotle cannot be understood as merely talking about life before faith elevates it and therefore correct in the realm of nature–he must be thought of as presenting a theory of the world that occupies exactly the same space as the Christian theory, and therefore as having much insight to offer Christians but in need of a God-centered restructuring (which will inevitably affect his philosophical categories) through the clarity of the Biblical witness. This idea that nature and grace occupy the same space is, when applied to the study of world views, a central tenet of classical Christian education and thus a crucial theological contribution of the Reformation to the theology behind this model of education.

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