I have been teaching the required “Theology II” class at Seminary of the Southwest this year. Our usual systematic theologian is on sabbatical and I (the liturgy professor) am covering for him. I designed the class to be focused around Henri de Lubac and his three major works. So we are reading The Mystery of the SupernaturalCorpus Mysticum, and Scripture in the Tradition (in place of his four-volume Medieval Exegesisfor the sake of brevity). I knew this would be a fantastic experience, but I could not anticipate how much I have actually learned or, perhaps, relearned.

From de Lubac, through David Burrell and then Kathryn Tanner,  we have received the gift of the phrase “non-competitive transcendence” to name our relationship with God. As Burrell has put it, “God is not the biggest thing around.” As Tanner might put it, “God is differently different from creation.” This may sound obvious, but the ways in which we fail to grasp this fact are legion. And it infects much of our modern theology, especially our Christology, soteriology, and ecclesiology. We do not decrease in our humanity when God increases in our lives. Many contemporary theologians are taking this idea on, but without some of Lubac’s other key points, problems remain.

Another key contribution of de Lubac’s, less taken up by later theologians, is his argument against natura pura: the notion that we could conceive and talk about human nature independent of its created end and goal: God. Engaging in anthropology from a “purely natural” point of view seems to honor creation. But creation is never independent from her creator. To bracket the source and end of creation and, especially, of human being from our account of being creatures and being human skews the data. Theories derived from skewed data are thus equally skewed. So, although an “incarnational” theology should listen to human wisdom about the nature of being human and about the nature of the cosmos, theories derived from “purely natural” perspectives need always to be appropriated critically in Christian contexts.

One key example of this is the Christian teaching of “the Fall.” The Fall names the Christian teaching that human being finds itself in a state or condition of sin, with sinful choices falling out inevitably from our broken wills. We only know we are fallen in the face of the recognition of that from which we have fallen: namely, grace, progress in holiness, and fellowship with God. When we bracket grace and fellowship with God from our theories and accounts of nature and of being human, we also close down our capacity to notice how our current condition is fallen. Our fallen condition becomes a part of the “data” collected. With this skewed data and bracketed sample, we inevitably normalize the abnormal. Sociological normativity replaces ethical and theological normativity. When we then take theories derived from these anthropologies and sciences and attempt to “apply” them or “engage with them” or use them to “inform” our contemporary theologies, we taint the data and we err.

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It is not good enough to adopt de Lubac’s “non-competitive transcendence” in our theology, as dire and as important as it is. If we are fully to receive what de Lubac has contributed to the retrieval of traditional Christian discourse, we must take into account our single end and nature: union and fellowship with God.

I am so thankful to have learned this and appropriated Lubac’s retrievals anew in my theology class this semester.

The image above is “Evening light over the tarns” (2010) by Kathrin and Stefan Marks, an image of Mount Taranaki in New Zealand. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Nathan Jennings is the J. Milton Richardson associate professor of liturgics and Anglican studies at Seminary of the Southwest.

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7 years ago

Wonderful reflection. I think I’m going to make a giant placard to carry around that says “Theology first, anthropology after.”