Does nature need addition? Bavinck against the donum superadditum

2019-08-23

One of the central points of disagreement among the various Christian traditions is the question of the relationship of grace and nature. Should we say that grace opposes nature? Affirms nature? Perfects nature? Flanks nature? The answer that Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck famously gives is that grace restores nature: it gives back to us what Adam lost by his fall. And yet it also does more than this; it also gives us what Adam would have gained if he had continued in obedience. Although Adam was originally righteous, he was also liable to fall. On the other hand, when we at last arrive in glory, we will no longer be subject to the possibility of sinning. We will be transformed from the state of posse peccare to the state that Adam was meant to become, non posse peccare. In this sense, one can say that grace also elevates or perfects nature.

The Roman Catholic church speaks in these terms as well, but moves in a more problematic direction with their doctrine of the donum superadditum (“superadded gift”). Bavinck describes and critiques this doctrine in volume 4 of his Reformed Dogmatics (539-548). His critique is part of a chapter on human nature, in which he begins by surveying two dead ends in attempting to define the image of God.

One dead end is the “naturalism” of the Pelagian and Socinian rationalists. They taught that human nature consists of an inherent capacity for development toward moral perfection. Like many other traditions, they understood Adam’s original state not as one of positive holiness, but of childlike innocence. Many theistic evolutionists have taken this idea further and applied it to humanity’s present state, so that Paradise and man’s holiness are located not in the past, but in a possible future. The human story then becomes one of progress from the image of an ape to the image of God, and the very historicity of Adam becomes irrelevant. On this view, it is no longer necessary to posit an original state of integrity. Bavinck responds that such a view is diametrically opposed to Scripture, is insufficiently supported by the physical evidence for human origins, is philosophically incoherent, and causes more problems than it solves.

The other dead end is the “supernaturalism” of Rome. This view, according to Bavinck, grew out of two misunderstandings that gradually took hold in the church. The first was a Neoplatonic conception of the glorified state of man, which was thought of as a kind of deified union, a mystical fusion of our souls with God, or a vision of God according to his essence (per essentiam). The second was a notion of infused grace that enabled believers to perform strictly meritorious (ex condigno) good works leading to a heavenly reward. Rome taught that Adam’s natural righteousness was insufficient for him to merit such a reward, and so it was necessary for Adam to receive a gratia gratum faciens (“the grace that renders one engraced or pleasing to God”).

This picture gets a little more complicated when Rome tries to explain how Adam’s natural gifts relate to his supernatural gifts. Bavinck speaks of two particular difficulties. First, Rome recognizes that Adam in his natural, created state could not be sinful (otherwise God would be the author of sin). On the other hand, immortality and impassibility cannot properly be considered natural gifts either. This creates an internal tension: how can death be a penalty for sin, if immortality is only possible through a supernatural grace? This would seem to make it logically impossible for a human to live sinlessly in a purely natural state.

The second difficulty is the matter of concupiscence. Rome has argued that Adam in his purely natural state would have been subject to inordinate lust, with the lower appetites of his flesh necessarily in conflict with his spirit. Only infused grace would have enabled Adam to bring his flesh under perfect subjection. But if this is the case, wouldn’t that mean that Adam was doomed to failure, if left to his natural state? How is being created in a condition that inevitably leads to sin any better than being created in a sinful condition?

These difficulties have led to a variety of explanations among Roman Catholics, some even suggesting that Adam must have possessed three levels of gifts—natural, preternatural, and supernatural. While their explanations vary, they all affirm a basic distinction between Adam’s natural state and his supernaturally infused grace.

Bavinck then expounds six key arguments against the donum superadditum, which I summarize here:

  1. The donum superadditum creates an illegitimate metaphysical discontinuity between the present state of grace and the future state of glory. Bavinck essentially argues that the difference between the blessings believers experience now and those we will experience in heaven is more of degree than of kind; it is an ethical transformation, not a corporeal (that is, metaphysical) transformation. Even the vision of God will not be of God’s nature directly, but instead, as always, through the face of Christ. Roman Catholics, on the other hand, have confused the state of glory with Neoplatonic metaphysics.
  2. As unimaginably amazing as the state of glory will be, Scripture does not describe it as something “superadded” to our nature, as if wholly foreign to it. Although Scripture does say that our heavenly reward surpasses all human thought, we must remember these spiritual benefits remain hidden from those whose minds are darkened by sin (not by nature). Further, what’s so amazing about the state of glory is the fact that it is given as an unmerited gift, and that it goes beyond merely what Adam lost and also acquires what he would have gained by obedience. And yet for all this, Scripture never hints that the state of glory includes anything that did not originally belong to human nature. It seems that Bavinck’s concern here, as with argument #1, is to preserve a greater metaphysical continuity between the state of unfallen nature and the state of glory.
  3. Rome reasons backward from a misunderstanding of the way of grace for Christians to the way of grace for Adam. They reason that since, in order to attain glory, Christians must be infused with a grace that enables them to merit a heavenly reward, then it must have been that way for Adam before the fall as well. Bavinck responds that, even if God did choose to attach the promise of heavenly reward to Adam’s works, that does not make his works meritorious in the strict sense (ex condigno), as if his finite, creaturely obedience was at all commensurate with an infinite reward. At most, it proves only a sort of merit arising from the terms of the covenant of works (ex pacto), as taught by most Reformed theologians. Rome’s view of grace, on the other hand, completely changes the meaning of grace by blunting its distinctive force. It is no longer opposed to sin, but only nature (a physical rather than ethical contrast). This puts the supernatural gift on the same order as Adam’s natural gifts (wisdom, intellect, etc.), with only a quantitative difference between them. Both can be considered “grace” in the technical sense of unearned gifts from God. And in both cases, it is left up to Adam, once properly equipped, to earn his reward. It may begin with grace, but it ends with merit, which even the Pelagians say. Thus, for Rome, grace turns out not to be grace at all.
  4. As mentioned above, Rome’s doctrine leads to a confusing threefold understanding of human nature. Man in his natural state, according to Rome, might be capable of sinlessness, but only with great struggle, since he is subject to inordinate lust (concupiscence) and an inherent tension between flesh and spirit. In Aristotelian terms, it would seem that the natural man on Rome’s view is capable of continence but not temperance—the latter requiring the perfect alignment of the passions with virtue, for which reason some Roman Catholics posited an intermediate preternatural state of integrity. The problem here is that, if the fall was only a matter of losing the supernatural gift, then man is still in principle capable of perfect natural justice, albeit with difficulty and resistance from the flesh. The depth of depravity is thus minimized. Moreover, it creates a sort of spiritual ranking system or tiers of righteousness, which is foreign to Scripture (see illustration and quote above).
  5. Bavinck’s fifth argument has to do with the amissibility of original justice (that is, the possibility of its being lost). A common Roman Catholic objection to Reformation teaching is that, if righteousness was originally part of Adam’s nature (rather than added to it supernaturally), then the loss of that righteousness in the fall would mean the loss of part of humanity’s essence, in which case fallen humanity is not completely human. But as Bavinck points out, Rome’s doctrine of the donum superadditum was not created to deal with this problem, since it’s a problem for them as well as Protestants. They still acknowledge that even Adam’s natural righteousness can be lost (just observe so many people acting against nature today), and yet even the most degenerate sinner is still a human being. Bavinck argues that this problem can be resolved simply by speaking of righteousness as an accidental property of human nature, not part of its substance. Or, as he describes it elsewhere, it is a loss of the narrow sense of the image of God, while the broad sense of the image is retained. This solution would not require a supernatural gift added on top of Adam’s nature.
  6. Lastly, Bavinck argues that the Roman Catholic view turns Christianity into a very different kind of religion. The very meaning of grace is recast, no longer as God’s response to sin, but as the recovery of a gift that was already necessary before the fall. On Rome’s view, sin doesn’t make grace necessary, though perhaps it increases its necessity. The Christian message is then turned into a message of the divinization of man and the humanization of God—since, for Rome, the incarnation of Christ would have still been necessary even apart from the fall (though I might add that even some Reformed thinkers, such as Thomas Goodwin, entertained this possibility).

Thus runs Bavinck’s argument against the donum superadditum. Now it should be noted that some modern Reformed interpreters find fault with Bavinck’s critique. John Bolt, to whom we are indebted for the definitive English translation of Reformed Dogmatics, finds three points of agreement between Bavinck and Thomas Aquinas (a leading defender of the donum superadditum) that Bavinck overlooks: 1) both agree that humanity’s creation was itself a gift of grace; 2) both agree that in the fall, something of the image of God is lost and something is retained; and 3) both agree that redemption brings more to humanity than merely what Adam lost.

While granting the charge against Rome’s teaching on merit, Bolt calls Bavinck’s critique an “uncharacteristic misstep” in light of these areas of agreement. And yet this may be too generous to Rome. In the first place, it can be conceded that creation itself was gracious in the broad sense of being an undeserved gift. One might then be tempted to say that the problem is merely semantic, the distinction being not between nature and grace, but more accurately between natural grace and supernatural grace. However, the problem runs deeper than that. Even if Rome calls Adam’s natural state a gift of grace, they still consider this state defective apart from supernatural assistance. He is still subject to inordinate passions. The Reformed, for their part, had different ways of understanding Adam’s natural state. Some, such as Thomas Goodwin, argued that Adam’s condition was purely natural, and that his reward was commensurately natural—nothing more than continued earthly life in the garden. The majority, including John Owen (and Bavinck himself), argued that while Adam’s natural state was sufficient for continued earthly existence, God condescended to offer Adam a higher, heavenly reward through the aid of supernatural faith. This latter view comes closer to Rome in some ways: it grants that God gave to Adam an additional, supernatural gift beyond his due as a rational creature. But the key difference is that, for the Reformed, this gift was not original righteousness. Original righteousness already belonged to Adam’s nature as a co-created gift (what the Reformed orthodox called a donum concreatum).

In the second place, the question is not whether something was lost or retained in the fall (on which both sides agree), but rather what was lost. Rome here faces a dilemma: do they teach that Adam’s natural righteousness was lost in the fall or not? If they say that it was, then they open themselves to the same objection that they raise against the Protestants, and the donum superadditum becomes a solution where there really is no problem (see argument #5 above). If they say that it was not, then they open themselves to the charge of semi-Pelagianism, where fallen man is subject to concupiscence but still theoretically capable of sinlessness (see argument #4 above).

In short, the fundamental problem with the Roman Catholic doctrine of the donum superadditum is that it both underestimates what pre-fall man naturally possessed and overestimates what post-fall man retained. On these points, Bavinck shows the advantage of Reformed teaching on the image of God.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

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