Symposium Introduction

In the twentieth century, few theological debates rival the intensity and controversy surrounding the relationship between nature and grace, and few theologians are as central to this debate as Henri de Lubac, S.J. In Surnaturel, published in 1946, de Lubac argues against the predominant theological anthropology within his contemporary Roman Catholic milieu—namely, that a comprehensive anthropology may be achieved at the order of “pure nature.” De Lubac counters this view, arguing that human nature qua nature is oriented towards a supernatural vocation and, thus, cannot be comprehensively understood in abstraction from the supernatural order. This position initially generated suspicion among the Catholic Church’s hierarchy, for it seemed to call into question the gratuity of grace. As a result, de Lubac was silenced for close to a decade before being reinstated as a professor at Lyon. The winds of ecclesial favor soon changed, however, as de Lubac played a pivotal role in the Second Vatican Council and was eventually created a cardinal under John Paul II.     

Within the anglosphere, the primary theological interpreter of de Lubac’s position on the nature-grace relationship is John Milbank. Playing on the drama between the Catholic Church’s hierarchy and de Lubac, Milbank argues that ecclesial pressure pushed de Lubac into framing his later thought into the dichotomy of nature and grace rather than clearly and directly stating his intrinsicist conviction that nature qua nature is already graced. Therefore, in de Lubac’s later writings, he “comes across as a stuttering, somewhat traumatized theologian, only able to articulate his convictions in somewhat oblique fragments.”1 Jordan Hillebert’s monograph, Henri de Lubac and the Drama of Human Existence, offers an alternative interpretation of de Lubac’s corpus, arguing that his later writings are not an obscuration but the maturation of Surnaturel. 

Carefully attending to the content and timing of ecclesial documents, especially Pope Pius XII’s Humani generis, Hillebert forms a historical argument that de Lubac did not soften the position put forward in Surnaturel in his later writings, but rather, these writings are a further clarification of his original thought. This clarification is that human nature has a longing or desire for the supernatural “born of a lack” (80). As born of a lack, natural desire, in itself, does not have sufficient funds to guide a person to the supernatural. Nonetheless, it is positively open to the supernatural insofar as the reception of grace and revelation makes sense of an otherwise absurd human existence. This understanding of natural desire, Hillebert argues, is neither the intrinsicist position represented by Milbank’s interpretation, nor the extrinsicism of neo-scholasticism. Rather, de Lubac’s natural desire for the supernatural “born of a lack” forges a via media.      

Our conversation begins with Euan Grant asking what difference it makes to claim that the desire for God is a natural “longing ‘born of a lack?’” Does this understanding affect how a pastor converses with and relates to someone whose desires are “ambiguous, contradictory, confused, disordered[?]” Or, how might a pastor converse with and relate to a person who “denies any desire for God, but is not thereby caught up in some great maelstrom of confusion[?]” Does understanding the desire for God to be a natural “longing ‘born of a lack’” have a practical upshot in cases such as these? And if not, does this understanding have theoretical significance? Does Hillebert’s emphasis on lack open a gap between desire and fulfillment, carving out a space for making conversion exist at the heart of human existence? 

Continuing with the theme of desire, in our second response D. Stephen Long affirms Hillebert’s focus on desire as promisingly “advancing beyond the intractable debates” framed within the binaries of natural-supernatural and intrinsicism-extrinsicism. However, despite Hillebert’s promising refocus of this debate, Long offers a point of criticism that Hillebert remains entangled in these intractable debates by continuing to frame his understanding of de Lubac within these categories stating “with Thomas Joseph White, O.P., that a ‘good extrinsicism’ is necessary for theology (202–5).” After developing this soft critique and offering a way forward via the Anglican theologian F.D. Maurice, Long returns to the topic of desire. He agrees with Hillebert that desire is born out of lack but he cannot follow him to the point of saying that desire is born entirely out of lack. This position, according to Long, is incoherent, for “if the lack is complete, total, how would I even know I lack it?”

In our third response, Susan K. Wood pivots our attention to ecclesiology. Unlike Long, who wishes to dispense with the dichotomies of intrinsicism-extrinsicism, Wood utilizes them as her core conceptual categories to clarify that de Lubac’s ecclesiology maintains the same via media between intrinsicism and extrinsicism that Hillebert defends at the personal level but queries over at the collective and ecclesial level. Wood develops her argument for this position by framing de Lubac’s more intrinsicist statements against the background of the romantic ecclesiologies he inherited, e.g., Emile Mersch and J.A. Möhler, and emphasizing de Lubac’s novel notion of the church as sacrament alongside his theological development.

Joseph S. Flipper, our fourth responder, provides a succinct and exact overview of Hillebert’s argument against de Lubac’s historical context, and more importantly, his reception. It is in light of de Lubac’s reception that Flipper proposes the following: “I am left with the questions as to whether the extrinsicist/intrinsicist problematic properly names the divisions that emerged after the Second Vatican Council, the tensions that emerged between the ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ wings of la nouvelle théologie, or, more importantly, whether it still names the theological (or cultural) divides within our church.”

Our final responder, Philip McCosker, who, on the whole, has a positive reception of Hillebert’s monograph, offers two subtle critiques and concludes with a string of open-ended questions. First, whereas Hillebert is attempting to articulate a middle position between intrinsicism and extrinsicism, McCosker argues that de Lubac’s thought leads not to a middle position but to the paradoxical affirmation of both positions. It is precisely the difference between immanence and transcendence that allows both to be affirmed without the exclusion of the other. This critique logically leads to the next—namely that Christology, and not the Trinity as Hillebert argues, “is the real fount of paradox for de Lubac … for it is Christ who brings together, more clearly than the Trinity, both immanence and transcendence.” After developing these positions and applauding Hillebert’s lucid and erudite work, McCosker leaves Hillebert with a number of questions: (1) how does Hillebert understand mortification which repeatedly features in the work, (2) what is the potential ecumenical value of de Lubac’s theology that interests Hillebert who writes out of an Anglican tradition, (3) “does Hillebert think [de Lubac’s theology] has resources for our more environmental and cosmic age” and (4) why are there so many differing presentations of de Lubac?   


  1. John Milbank, The Suspended Middle, 1st ed., 7.

Euan Grant


What’s at stake in a longing born of lack?

It is a surprisingly difficult task to respond to a book which is clear, thorough, charitable, and with which one agrees. I admired Jordan Hillebert’s Henri de Lubac and the Drama of Human Existence when I read it in its earlier form as a doctoral dissertation the better part of a decade ago, and I admire it on re-reading it now. It seems to me a judicious and well-rounded piece of work, displaying de Lubac as a thinker, if not of “mere Christianity,” then perhaps of mere Catholicism—an erudite and passionate witness to the ancient and enduring Tradition of the faith. Responding in the usual academic vein, then, is an interesting challenge.

There are some points on which I might quibble, of course, both with Hillebert, and with de Lubac. Hillebert, I think, is not quite fair to the potency of the vision for which John Milbank so sweepingly claims de Lubac. Certainly, to conflate Milbank and Rahner as intrinsicists together (87f.)—while perhaps pointing to a rather blustering aspect of Theology and Social Theory 1—is to smooth over some deep and significant differences in their broader projects. But I am not a Milbankian, and perhaps that comparison—unlike the rather satisfying demolition of Milbank’s corruption narrative (82ff.)—is simply an unfortunate hostage to fortune. Milbank and his epigones are, in any case, well able to defend themselves.

On the other side, I could raise questions to some of Hillebert’s responses to the more neo-scholastic thinkers whom he engages in his introduction. And one could press on to the deeper points: does the longing born of lack, the frustration of which constitutes damnation,2 really leave the gift of elevation in Christ gratuitous? Is it really anything but injustice not to grant grace to a nature not created thus? Is this really not, then, in a certain sense, a created claim? But this debate too is well worn. Any worthwhile contribution from me here must wait for a book of my own—perhaps even one with its own Syndicate page!

Instead of contesting the ground on either side, then, let me respond by asking some questions of motivation and significance. What is at stake in these debates? Specifically, what does Hillebert think that the triumph of de Lubac’s position (including over the post-conciliar positions which he outlines in the book’s conclusion) would mean for the Church? What can one articulate when one recognises with de Lubac the natural desire for God as a longing born of lack?

We can ask this question in at least two ways, one pastoral or evangelistic, the other more theoretical, but perhaps not less significant for that.

We begin with the practical, pastoral question. What does affirming a universal natural desire for God, a longing born of lack, allow us to say to any particular person? Let us grant that some people’s desires (perhaps our own), are ambiguous, contradictory, confused, disordered. Alternatively, we might note that some people are ravenously desirous of what, for practical or moral reasons, they simply cannot have. What is the use, for someone whose difficulties lie in their desiring, of the affirmation of the natural desire for God?

Is it perhaps a case of saying that the confusion of desire is somehow a mistake or a misidentification? “Ah, you think you desire whatever-it-may-be, but in fact your natural desire is for God!” And granting that this is a mistake, is it the sort of mistake which is corrected simply by being revealed? One assumes not. If, instead, the work of unwinding and relaxing the grip of desires requires patient and painstaking work, is there any significance to the idea that the re-learned, re-habituated desire is natural? To put it another way, is there a pastoral significance of invoking the natural which is distinct from invoking the spontaneous?

Perhaps we should think instead that, in cases like these, the doctrine of the natural desire is actually a help and comfort to the minister. It is because there is a longing for God somewhere in there, simply by nature, that the continued pastoral effort may eventually win out. But this has a danger too—is this not a substitution of a trust in nature (albeit given by and from God) for the necessity of trusting in grace? 

Consider another case, of someone who denies any desire for God, but is not thereby caught up in some great maelstrom of confusion. Their desire is satisfied by the life which they lead—they are content. Perhaps then the pastoral task would seem to be some sort of “convicting of lack,” and the message that “Whether you recognise this desire in yourself or not, you have it.” Again, I’m not sure that this is likely to be convincing. 

These are extremely flat sketches, but they do seem to me to raise a question. My doubt concerns whether there is any practical import in recognising a desire as natural if, in any concrete situation, whatever would be required to reveal it would be as much as would be required to elicit it. If there is a point to identifying the desire as natural, especially in countering the atheistic ideologies which de Lubac found so significant and threatening, it must be in the desire being universal and inescapable. Atheism then must always be a revolt against oneself. Even if this is true, though, there is a problem as long as the inescapability of this desire only appears in the theoretical rather than the practical order—if the desire can be affirmed as natural without being recognised as spontaneous. Thus is prised apart that unity of theology and life which, following Blondel, it is one of de Lubac’s concerns to maintain.3 Truth remains an absolute defence—if there is a desire of nature then it is well to confess it. Nevertheless, it would hardly please de Lubac to have pinned so much on a truth which is of interest only in the abstract theological order.

Of course, the unity of truth and life need not be found exclusively on the personal pastoral level. Perhaps instead the significance of this doctrine might be sought on the social rather than the individual level. If we understand the unfulfilled longing for God as a hermeneutical key to the social situation, then all of these questions reappear as questions of evangelism rather than of the pastorate, but it seems to me that their force is sharpened thereby rather than lessened. Is there some benefit to preaching to a society, except that which accrues to some particularly receptive individuals, that it has a God-shaped hole which it cannot see?

If the practical level presents something of a dead end, however, there may still be a theoretical significance to confessing a natural desire for God, and especially for Hillebert’s stress on de Lubac’s statements that this longing does not arise from the beginning or intimation of possession. This qualification, at least, renders the natural desire unfit to play a particular sort of leading role in Christian moral and social reflection, and perhaps thereby opens up the way to a more balanced and traditional picture.

Specifically, that the longing is born of lack means that it does not as such sanctify those temporal objects on which it comes to rest. Sanctify I mean here in an epistemological sense. A desire which was the inchoate beginning of possession would seem to be a sort of divine energy in us, a guide given to us to fit and direct us to that end. If, therefore, it were to lead us to God through various temporal desires, would that not be evidence—perhaps prima facie evidence, but perhaps, if one really denies a distinction of nature and grace, very strong evidence!—that those temporal objects are rightly to be sought, that they will indeed lead to God? Desire—natural desire—then, would be a sort of independent principle of Christian moral vision.

Things seem to me rather different on Hillebert’s picture. If the desire for God is not itself the beginnings of possession, then its role is much more ambivalent. Unless it has been informed to the point where it does explicitly reach out to our final end in God, there seems to be no reason to expect that it will inform our actions in such a way as to actually order and direct them towards that finality. The theology of desire thus requires some further supplement in order to be the engine of moral discernment.

There are various candidates for such a supplement. An account of nature more broadly considered, indeed, is one of them. Nevertheless, if we grant both that the energy and dynamism of nature lies in desire, and that this desire in its natural spontaneity is ambivalent and sometimes mercurial, then it would seem that, desire or no, we are in the position of requiring something beyond nature not just to complete nature, but to correct it. Grace reappears, on Hillebert’s rendering of de Lubac, not only as the better guide to somewhere we were already going, but as revealing to us a way to the destination which we could not properly follow even though we wanted to.

This, it seems to me, is the significance of Hillebert’s final chapter on de Lubac’s sharp and fiercely expressed criticisms of the programme of Edward Schillebeeckx articulated at and after the Second Vatican Council. It is likewise at the heart of that wonderful phrase which the great theologian of the Tradition delighted to draw from the Adversus haereses of St Irenaeus: omnem novitatem attulit, semetipsum afferens, qui fuerat anuntiatus: He, Jesus the Christ who had been promised, brought all newness in bringing himself.

We can go further. Since the natural desire is born of lack, nature may need not only to be surpassed but even to be, in some senses, contradicted to be led on into the way it desires. The gap between desire and fulfilment is the space, in the hermeneutics of human existence, for a converted humanism. It is the space, as de Lubac announces at the end of Catholicisme, that most human and humane of theological works, for the cross.4 And yet perhaps here desire comes back into its own—if God has led us to this cross in order to fulfil a nature to which he has given a desire which it is so helpless to fulfil, is it not now natural to trust that there must be something more on the other side? Perhaps in this sense the natural desire can be the “living link” of the orders of nature and of grace: that it can have faith that the God who leads to the cross must indeed be the Lord who raises the dead.

I wonder then—and I’m not at all sure that he’ll agree with me!—whether Hillebert’s achievement isn’t to identify that the drama of human existence is not first of all of the drama of the longing, but of the lack? De Lubac’s works wear a serene and kindly countenance—he is not some dour preacher of condemnation and contrition. And yet with the desire read as longing born of lack, does the question of what is natural really enter in before the need for a great turning away, as in that concluding meditation of Catholicisme? Does Hillebert’s work serve then to remind us that, for this sage of Lyons too, the concrete shape of this drama of human existence is the drama of repentance and restoration, the drama of metanoia, the drama, finally, of resurrection through the cross?

  1. John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 220ff.

  2. Henri de Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural, trans. Rosemary Sheed (New York, NY: Herder & Herder, 1967), 54.

  3. See, e.g., the second section of ‘Apologetics and Theology’ in Henri de Lubac, Theological Fragments, trans. Rebecca Howell Balinsky (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1989), 96.

  4. Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, trans. Lancelot C. Sheppard and Elizabeth Englund Nash (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1988), 367ff.

  • Jordan Hillebert

    Jordan Hillebert


    The apologetics of desire: a response to Euan Grant

    So what? The question appears and reappears like a refrain throughout Euan Grant’s perceptive response. Let us grant that Henri de Lubac consistently portrays the natural desire for the supernatural as a longing born of lack. Let us even grant that such an account of the desiderium naturae provides an illuminating interpretation of human nature and the drama of human existence. So what? More specifically: how ought these rather abstract theological judgments inform the Church’s pastoral and apologetic endeavours? 

    The question is one which animated de Lubac’s own research, writing, and teaching throughout his lengthy ministry. In his inaugural lecture at the Catholic University of Lyon (1929), de Lubac sought to overcome excessively rationalistic and “atheological” forms of apologetics with an approach that was more attentive to the intrinsic relation between human nature and humanity’s supernatural finality. Similarly, when de Lubac returned to the subject of nature and the supernatural in the mid-1960s (after the dust had all but settled from the controversies surrounding Humani generis), it was very much with an eye towards the Church’s apologetic “confrontation” with atheist humanism. As I argue throughout Henri de Lubac and the Drama of Human Existence, de Lubac’s writings on the supernatural were motivated continually by his conviction of the apologetic urgency of a theological hermeneutics of human existence—of, that is, the illumination of human being and history in the light of faith, and a corresponding demonstration of the futility of immanentist attempts to comprehend and thus satisfy the longing of human nature. 

    Perhaps it would be helpful to begin by indicating what de Lubac does not commend as the apologetic outworking of his project. De Lubac is adamant that his approach should not be confused with “that type of apologetics which is intended to convince the man who as yet does not believe, that first tried to get him to recognize a ‘natural desire’ in himself and then to believe that this natural desire should lead him to the ‘supernatural word’ revealed in Jesus Christ.”1 In the first instance, such appeals to a common nature are intellectually and ideologically suspect in the present climate where human nature is deemed a relic of a bygone religious metaphysic (à la Sartre’s ‘there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it’) or a means of essentializing cultural norms for the purpose of maintaining established relations of power.2 The category of “natural desire” is therefore shaky ground upon which to construct a strictly rational or psychological argument. More importantly, such an approach operates under the very dualism of nature and the supernatural (and apologetics and theology) that de Lubac is keen to avoid. According to de Lubac, the credibility of the Christian faith is not to be established in abstraction from the supernatural content of Christian belief, but in the capacity of the faith itself to satisfy the concerns and aspirations of humanity. Doctrine, de Lubac avers, contains its own “supernatural brilliance:” “It is a brilliance by which the doctrine becomes its own sign, a brilliance by which God bears witness to himself in the deepest part of the human heart. Testimonium sibi perhibet Lux. Sibi ipsa testis est ut cognoscatur Lux [The Light gives witness to itself. It does so that it might be known].”3

    Stated thusly, it is fair to ask, as Grant does, “whether there is any practical import in recognising a desire [for the supernatural] as natural if, in any concrete situation, whatever would be required to reveal it would be as much as would be required to elicit it.” In other words, if the grace of revelation and the “supernatural brilliance” of doctrine is sufficient for revealing our need for God in the very act of fulfilling that need, why go to such great lengths to demonstrate and defend a desire of nature? To be sure, de Lubac does not believe that human nature is sufficient to the task of successfully navigating and employing finite goods in order to arrive at the supernatural enjoyment of God. In Grant’s helpful phraseology, the desire for God does not therefore “sanctify those temporal objects on which it comes to rest.” Moreover, de Lubac does not believe that the desire for God is wholly transparent to rational/psychological inquiry. In itself, de Lubac argues, the desire for God remains “hidden ‘in the ontological depths,’ and only the Christian revelation makes it possible to interpret either its indications or its meaning correctly.”4 De Lubac’s emphasis on the desire of nature does not therefore encourage “a substitution of a trust in nature (albeit given by and from God) for the necessity of trusting in grace.” Indeed, the burden of de Lubac’s theology of the supernatural is, in many ways, to strengthen the Church’s confidence in the grace of divine revelation and in her own sacramental identity (on which, see my response to Susan Wood) to illuminate and fulfil humanity’s restlessness for God. Nevertheless, de Lubac implores his readers not to forget that the same God is author “of both nature and grace, and of nature in view of grace!”5 The grace of God always encounters a human nature teleologically ordered to the reception of this very gift. As such, “Recalling to man his final end is not telling him something that is of no fundamental interest to him, despite the obstacles that here and now prevent him from recognizing it. Rather it is helping him to find and then decipher the inscription engraved in him by his Creator.”6

    Let us return then to the pastoral and apologetic upshot of de Lubac’s theology of the supernatural. As I noted above, for de Lubac, such endeavours always entail an explication of the content of Christian belief. “In short,” de Lubac insists, “there is no better way… for giving and explanation of our Faith… than to work with all our strength for its understanding.”7 On the other hand, the Christian pastor and apologist must attend closely to the cares, concerns, and aspirations of the present moment. For such desires, however disordered and distorted they may be, presuppose and so draw upon the desire for perfect happiness, a happiness which consists ultimately in union with God. The task of apologetics is therefore to interpret these aspirations in the light of revelation, to demonstrate the means of their fulfilment (and their corresponding purification and elevation) in the perfecting work of Jesus Christ. Because however the desire for God is a longing born of lack, the apologist must likewise work to demonstrate the extent to which human beings are immanently incapable of procuring the fulfilment of these aspirations (or, more precisely, the basic desire animating them). Indeed, because the attainment of human perfection requires, not just the supernatural extension of innate human capacities, but a radical transfiguration through mortification (see my response to Philip McCosker), any attempt to satiate the desire of nature without recourse to divine grace is bound to result, not simply in disappointment, but in destruction. Two brief examples will (hopefully) suffice to demonstrate what this apologetics of desire might look like in practice—the first drawn from de Lubac’s own writings, the other an attempt to think with and beyond de Lubac in response to a more pressing contemporary concern. 

    In his decades-long confrontation with Marxist humanism, de Lubac notes a certain resemblance between Marxist teleology and Christian eschatology. Both envision a “new man” [sic] reconciled to his own nature and the greater human community. Both speak of the culmination of history as the overcoming of antagonism, alienation, and oppression. However, “what the Christian hopes for in another world, at the end of time, the Marxist dreams of for the present world, within our time. What the Christian awaits from a supernatural intervention, the Marxist anticipates as the natural end of a wholly immanent process.”8 This reduction to immanence, de Lubac argues, deprives the Marxist of both the necessary vantage from which to survey the direction towards which history is progressing and the means by which human beings might overcome their self-alienation and social antagonism. It likewise promises an insufficient liberation for humanity—a freedom available only for those lucky enough to occupy the final chapter of history’s dialectical march. The Christian interpretation of history, meanwhile, claims epistemic access to the meaning/purpose of history by attending to God’s own revelatory activity within history. The goal of history is thus revealed as it is realized in the person and works of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, de Lubac argues, the “final cause” of history becomes a historical fact, thereby offering both a retrospective and prospective hermeneutic of historical reality. While the definitive overcoming of human alienation (from God, self, others, and creation more generally) must await the passage of history into eternity at the parousia, the Church in via participates proleptically in the “end of history” by virtue of her present union with Christ.   

    In the immediate aftermath of the second World War, the Church in France found itself among competing visions of a “humanist” future. Rival political parties and ideologies rallied around the humanist cause, each claiming to possess the only true means of securing human dignity and freedom. In such a context, de Lubac argues, the Christian must be able to demonstrate “by a sort of peaceful competition, in deeds as well as words, that ‘we also, we Christians, we, more than anyone else have the cult of man.’”9 In the present context, however, amidst posthumanist concerns for the ecological and environmental crises commonly associated with anthropocentrism, it is no longer (or at least not exclusively) the “cult of humanity” that the Church must champion, but the inherent dignity of non-human creatures and the ecosystems that sustain them. To what extent does Christianity offer a compelling moral response to these concerns and the means to creaturely flourishing more generally? De Lubac never takes up these questions directly, but his theology does, I think, provide some helpful resources in this area. For instance, de Lubac is adamant that immanence derives its meaning and value from transcendence.10 The dignity of every creature thus resides in its being in relation to its Creator—as a finite and temporal expression of divine goodness and the recipient of divine love. Human beings do not therefore ascribe value to other creatures insofar as those creatures are instrumental (or irrelevant or obstructive) to the project of human self-actualization. To the contrary, human beings are called to the discovery of creaturely value by the graced discernment of God’s will. Such discernment thus aims at coordinating the various ends of other creatures with humanity’s pursuit of its own telos

    This brings us then to the potential eco-theological contribution of the desiderium naturae. Human beings are, Augustine reminds us, restless until they find their rest in God. This means that human desire can never terminate at any created good. Such a constriction would result, not simply in the frustration of human desire, but in the violation of the creaturely objects of our enjoyment. For finite creatures simply cannot bear the weight of an infinite desire. As Pope Francis (surely the most influential contemporary Lubacian apologist and environmentalist!) argues, it is therefore crucial that we bear in mind the infinite distance between God (the true end of our desire) and creatures. “Otherwise,” he insists, “we would not be doing the creatures themselves any good either, for we would be failing to acknowledge their right and proper place. We would end up unduly demanding of them something which they, in their smallness, cannot give us.”11 In revealing to us the true end of our nature, Jesus liberates us (and other creatures) from the captivity of our lust for subordinate goods, enabling us to relate rightly to other creatures as signs pointing beyond themselves to the source of their being and goodness. Such liberation thus entails the mortification of the irrational and destructive desires which attend our fallen pursuits of natural goods.

    The above sketch is, of course, just that—a sketch. More could be said, for instance, about humanity’s vocation within (and on behalf of) creation or the Church’s participation in Christ’s restoration of “all things” (Col 1:20). Hopefully, however, the above provides some indication of the general shape, direction, and ongoing relevance of a Lubacian apologetics of desire—an apologetics attentive to both humanity’s natural desire for the supernatural and the supernatural insufficiency of human nature.  

    1. De Lubac, ‘Nature and Grace,’ T. Patrick Burke, ed., The Word in History (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1966), 34.

    2. Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism (London: Methuen & Co., 1968), 28. On modern critical theory’s distrust of appeals to ‘nature,’ see Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 69-81.

    3. Henri de Lubac, ‘Apologetics and Theology,’ Theological Fragments (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 101; quoting Augustine, In Jo., tr. 35, n. 4.

    4. De Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural (New York: Crossroad, 1998), 222.

    5. ‘Apologetics and Theology,’ 95.

    6. ‘Nature and Grace,’ 35.

    7. ‘Apologetics and Theology,’ 98.

    8. De Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 435–36.

    9. ‘Nature and Grace,’ 26.

    10. See for instance the chapter on ‘Transcendence’ in de Lubac, Catholicism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 351-66.

    11. Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015), 64 (§ 88).

Susan Wood


Is de Lubac Guilty of Intrinsicism?

In these brief remarks, I will engage two points where Hillebert queries whether de Lubac, in refuting extrinsicism, falls into the opposite error of intrinsicism, namely in his treatments of the relationship between Christ and the church and of the salvation of non-Christians. 

A title of a subsection points to a potential problem: “The Church as the Continuation of Christ” (158). Were the church organically to be an ontological continuation of Christ, this would indeed constitute intrinsicism. However, the section title is both misleading and in tension with what follows, namely a discussion of the sacramentality of the church. De Lubac himself is part of the problem for the subsection takes its clue from the citation on the following page, “the Church is for us the sacrament of Christ; she represents him, in the full and ancient meaning of the term; she really makes him present. She not only carries on his work, but she is his very continuation” (159). In this one sentence we have no less than four relationships with Christ and the church: church as sacrament of Christ, church as representation of Christ, church as continuing the work of Christ, and church as a continuation of Christ. Three of the four admit of a distinction between Christ and the church, but the fourth does not. Were the church to be a continuation of Christ we would be in danger of ecclesial monophysitism. De Lubac specifically rejects this where he says, “We do not adore her [the church]. We do not believe in the Church in the same sense in which we believe in God. . . . All the more then do we reject Monophysitism in ecclesiology just as we do in Christology, but none the less strongly do we believe that dissociation of the divine and the human in in either case fatal.”1 A number of distinctions would avoid too close an identification between Christ and the church.

One must distinguish the church as continuing the works of Christ in the world from the church being Christ, continuing his personal presence. Hillebert rightly affirms the first where he says, “According to de Lubac, the church is both the continuation of the unifying work of Jesus Christ and the anticipation of the completion of that work in the eschaton (p. 159). Yet, de Lubac himself goes beyond this, saying that the church “not only carries on his [Christ’s] work, but is his very continuation.”2 Here he distinguishes between the exterior organization of the church and the church considered as the body of Christ. Hillebert rightly draws attention to additional places where de Lubac appears to conflate Christ and the church such as where he speaks of a “communication of idioms” so much so that “the two names ‘Church’ and ‘Christ’ would seem to be interchangeable” (p. 162).3 He shows where de Lubac mitigates this conflation first, by emphasizing that the relationship between the body and head of the mystical body of Christ is one of subordination, second, by asserting that the church is and remains a sinner in each of her members until the eschaton, and third by recalling de Lubac’s analogy of the relationship between Christ and the church as one between the sun and the moon, which receives its brilliance from the sun of Christ.

De Lubac is aware of the difficulties even though in The Church: Paradox and Mystery (1967) he continues the theme of the church as the body of Christ and a continuation of the incarnation, saying, “She [the Church] is for us. . . ‘Jesus Christ diffused and communicated.’ She is ‘the incarnation continued.’”4 However, even though de Lubac continues the theme from his earlier works, he attenuates them. His awareness of the difficulties is evident in his statement, “The image of the Church as a body is ambivalent, making, as it does, a single organism of Jesus Christ and his Church, but signifying at the same time the subjection of the members to the head.”5 Despite the lack of clarity, this points to a development in de Lubac’s thought from Catholicism to the The Church: Paradox and Mystery.

Yet another mitigation that Hillebert could have developed further is de Lubac’s very notion of the church as sacrament. In the case of the church, the visible sign of the sacrament that is the church includes the institutional and social aspects of the church, that is, all that is manifest in history and located in space and time. The referent of the sign is the resurrected Christ. As with the incarnation, the human being the manifestation and revelation of the divine. 

Even though the concept of the church as the sacrament of Christ is closely related to the image of the church as the mystical body of Christ, it escapes a major weakness of this image by avoiding too close an identification between Christ and the church. The concept of sacrament is able to express the unity between the sign and the referent of that sign at the same time that it maintains the distinction between them, because what is signified is not absolutely identical with the sign that makes it present from a perspective of the modalities of the two, the one being under the modality of a symbol that within which the other is made present. This unity amidst distinction is analogous to the relationship between the divine and human natures in Christ. The Second Vatican Council would later expand on this relationship in Lumen gentium 8. 

The idea of the church as a prolongation of the incarnation is an ecclesiological theme inherited from romanticism. J. A. Möhler in Symbolism writes:

Thus the visible Church, from the point of view here taken, is the Son of God himself, everlastingly manifesting Himself among men in a human form, perpetually renovated, and eternally young—the permanent incarnation of the same, as in as in Holy Writ, even the faithful are called ‘the body of Christ’. . . He it is who, concealed under earthly and human forms, works in the Church, and this is wherefore she has a divine and a human part in an undivided mode, so that the divine cannot be separated from the human, nor the human from the divine. Hence these two parts change their predicates.6

The church is also described by Emile Mersch as a continuation of the incarnation in his well-known The Theology of the Mystical Body.7 Elsewhere in this work Mersch refers to the union between Christ and the faithful as a “physical union.”8 These earlier treatments of the relationship between the church and Christ were not in the context of the discussion of the relationship between nature and grace.

Catholicism was published in 1947 (5th edition, revised and augmented) as the second volume of the collection Unam Sanctam, although themes appeared as early as the 1930s.9 Thus, de Lubac was an early adopter of the category of sacramentality as applied to the church when compared to others picking up on the theme before and immediately following the Second Vatican Council.10 Perhaps what we are seeing in the ambiguity of de Lubac’s apparent vacillation between continuity language which seems to collapse the distinction between Christ and the church, and sacramental language, which maintains the distinction between the sign and the referent, is theology caught in the process of development. Clearly, his various comments show his intention to maintain a distinction. A charge of intrinsicism, then, needs to be assessed in its historical context and weighed within the totality of a theologian’s work.

Hillebert also queries whether there is intrinsicism in de Lubac’s “treatment of the common election of humanity in union with the mystical body of Christ” (165). He bases this on de Lubac’s affirmation of the possibility that all will be included in the eschatological reconstitution of humanity,11 his insistence on the mystical unity that human being share by virtue of their common nature and the assumption of that nature by Jesus Christ, and that they are an integral part of that humanity which is to be saved.12 Hillebert asks, “if human beings are always already united to the saving work of Christ and the grace of the church by virtue of their common humanity, is human existence not always already under the condition of grace (165)?” The question here is, “what does it meant to be under ‘the condition of grace?’” Does this include both actually graced and oriented to grace or one and not the other? Hillebert notes that for de Lubac “the common restoration of humanity in Christ does not mean that human beings are always and everywhere in the “state of grace” based upon a citation from The Church: Paradox and Mystery that distinguishes the organic link with Christ from the mystical body of Christ (p. 166). The difference between the two remains unspecified.

This same ambiguity is repeated later by John Paul II in Redemptoris missio where he speaks of the salvation of non-Christians:

Universality of salvation does not mean that it is given only to those who believe explicitly in Christ and join the Church. If salvation is meant for all, it must be offered concretely to all…The salvation of Christ is available to them through a grace which, though relating them mysteriously with the Church, does not bring them into it formally but enlightens them in a way adapted to their state of spirit and life situation (n. 10)

Here we have the same distinction as in de Lubac between a relationship with the church and membership in the church. Much more than this vague distinction saves de Lubac’s position from intrinsicism. While space does not permit their full development, the following points indicate necessary considerations.

The various covenants that God made with his people, both before and after the covenant in Jesus’ death, are all God’s interventions in the natural order for a supernatural end.13 The cosmic covenant was already oriented to its ultimate consummation from its very beginnings. Since the supernatural has no need of redemption or adoption in Christ, the very possibility of redemption is an argument that nature and grace are distinct. Nevertheless, this does not preclude that foreordaining grace is present in creation from the first instant of its emergence ex nihilo by the ordaining will of God. 

Foreordaining grace is not determinative of sanctifying grace. This presents an absolute intrinsicism. Salvation is not possible apart from faith or the freedom of an individual, but the tradition has been consistent in affirming that this may be an implicit faith manifested in commitment to God or moral conscience. In the absence of explicit faith, all people of good will “search for God with a sincere heart and, under the influence of grace try to put into effect the will of God as known to them through the dictate of conscience” (LG 16).

The human race should be considered as a unity before it is considered as a collection of individuals. Henri de Lubac writes on the first page of Catholicism, “. . . the unity of the Mystical Body of Christ, a supernatural unity, supposes a previous natural unity, the unity of the human race. While each person is potentially and actually saved personally and individually, we are also saved potentially and actually as a people (LG 9). This unity is typologically present in Christ the New Adam, who recapitulates humanity in his incarnation to achieve final reconciliation with the Father. The Holy Spirit inspires all people of good will to live according to right conscience and thus implicitly as well as explicitly to believe in God’s existence and his salvific design and loving will. The Spirit, who is the Spirit of the Son, never works apart from the Son. Thus, the salvation of non-Christians is not achieved in the Spirit alone in a manner unrelated to the Son.

Since the church is “a sacrament or instrumental sign of intimate union with God and of the unity of all humanity” (LG 1), Christians individually and the church as a whole have an obligation and mission to be visible signs of that communion and to bring that unity to greater fullness and actuality, to make implicit faith explicit, to articulate the Trinitarian form of salvation, and to be that community of salvation. As sign of eschatological unity and reconciliation, the church witnesses to the ultimate destiny of all humankind. As the mystical body of Christ and sacrament, it embodies that which it signs. 

No human being escapes the universal salvific will of God or lives outside God’s providential will and intervention in history for God’s salvific purpose, although God gives all the freedom to reject his divine love. Unity is not something achieved through human efforts, but is given in creation and redemption. The dynamic of grace, however, is dialogical. In response to the invitation, all people must respond in implicit or explicit faith for salvation to be effected. De Lubac’s position on the unity of the human race and its potential salvation in Christ is consistent with church teaching and the tradition. 

  1. Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 75.

  2. Ibid., 76.

  3. Citing Catholicism, 72–73, 196.

  4. Henri de Lubac, Paradoxe et Mystère de L’Église, (Paris: Aubier-Montaine, 1967), 49.

  5. Ibid., 50.

  6. J. A. Möhler, Symbolism (New York: The Catholic Publication House, n.d.), 253-254. German Original: Symbolik (1895).

  7. Emile Mersch, The Theology of the Mystical Body, trans. Cyril Vollert (St. Louis: B. Herder Book, Co., 1952), 479–86. French original: La théologie du corps mystique, 1944.

  8. Ibid., 53.

  9. “Le caractère social du dogme chrétien,” Chronique sociale France 45 (1936): 167–92, 259–83; “Catholicism,” Bulletin de l’Association catholique chinoise de Lyon (1932): 8–15.

  10. Karl Rahner, The cosmic covenant is already a supernatural covenant. It does not belong to a different order than does the mosaic covenant or the Christic covenant Church and the Sacraments (New York: Herder and Herder, 1963); Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ, the Sacrament of the Encounter with God (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1963). See also Avery Dulles, Models of the Church (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1974); Gustave Martelet, “De la sacramaentalité propre à l’Eglise,” Nouvelle revue théologique 95 (1973): 25–42; P. Smulders, “L’Eglise sacrement du salut,” in G. Barauna (ed.) L’Eglise de Vatican II, Vol. 2 (Paris: Cerf, 1967), 313–38; Jan Groot, “The Church as Sacrament of the World,” Concilium Vol.1, No. 4 (London: Burns & Oates Ltd., January 1968).

  11. Catholicism, 234.

  12. Ibid., 233.

  13. See Jean Daniélou, Holy Pagans of the Old Testament, trans. Felix Faber (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1956), 20: “The cosmic religion is not natural religion, in the sense that the latter means something outside the effective and concrete supernatural order. . . The cosmic covenant is also a covenant of Grace, but it is still imperfect, in the sense that God reveals himself therein only through the cosmos . . .”

  • Jordan Hillebert

    Jordan Hillebert


    Locating de Lubac’s ecclesiology: a response to Susan K. Wood

    Susan K. Wood has provided a concise and judicious defense of de Lubac’s ecclesiology, for which I am grateful and with which I am largely in agreement. Specifically, Wood addresses two potentially problematic (or at least ambiguous) aspects of de Lubac’s ecclesiology which I explore in the book (pp. 158–67): the apparent conflation of Christ and the Church on the one hand, and the uncertain relation between the ministry of the Church and the universal effects of Christ’s saving work on the other. The former risks elevating the Church above her rank by compromising the transcendence and authority of Christ over her; the latter risks diminishing the Church’s unique share in Christ’s reconciling work. As I seek to demonstrate in the book, there are resources within de Lubac’s own theology for mitigating both risks. Wood’s defense of these aspects of de Lubac’s ecclesiology is not therefore a refutation of my interpretation or arguments, but rather an attempt to provide further evidence in de Lubac’s favor. 

    The first potential problem with de Lubac’s ecclesiology concerns the Church’s sacramentality—the unique manner in which the Church participates in the person and works of Jesus Christ. As de Lubac argues as early as Catholicisme (1938), “the Church is the sacrament of Christ… She not only carries on his work, but she is his very continuation.”1 Such a strong identification Christ and the Church is not without biblical warrant. The risen Christ’s personal identification with the persecuted Church (Acts 9:4) and the Pauline depictions of the Church as Christ’s body (Rom 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:27; Eph 4:16; Col 1:18; etc.) and ‘the fullness of him who fills all in all’ (Eph 1:23), suggest that Christ is more than externally related to the Church, like the founder of a strictly “moral” or “political” body.2 Even so, de Lubac’s particular rendering of the Church’s sacramentality has been challenged by a number of (mostly Protestant) critics for disturbing “the fundamental asymmetry of Christ and the church,” effectively collapsing Christ’s subjectivity and ongoing agency into the ecclesial community.3 As Wood notes, I have indicated other aspects of de Lubac’s ecclesiology which push against such an unqualified (and hence problematic) conflation of Christ and the Church: for instance, de Lubac’s insistence upon the subordination of the ecclesial body to Christ, the “head” of the Church, his treatment of the Church’s sinfulness in each of her members, the derivative status of the Church’s supernatural light (and the Church’s capacity to eclipse the very light that it is called to reflect!), and the provisional nature of the Church’s visible/hierarchical constitution and mediatory function (both of which are destined to give way to unmediated access to Christ in the eschaton). Wood also helpfully adds to this list by focusing on the concept of sacrament itself, which, as she notes, is able to express the unity between the ecclesial sign and Christological referent without obscuring their distinction. De Lubac’s employment of the nuptial motif in describing the Christian life likewise reinforces the essential distinction between Christ and the Church. For, as de Lubac argues, “between the human soul and its God, as in the marriage of the Church and the Lamb, there is always a union, not absorption… . It is, if you wish, a unification but not an identification.”4 Finally, de Lubac is careful to hold together both the active and passive aspects of the Church’s identity. The Church is both the instrument and the recipient of Christ’s reconciling work. Indeed, it is the former only insofar as it renounces all claims to self-sufficiency and remains passively receptive to the work of Christ within her. De Lubac famously explores these conjoined aspects of the Church’s identity in his account of the relationship between the Church and the eucharist. As de Lubac argues, “Each has been entrusted to the other, so to speak, by Christ; the Church produces the Eucharist, but the Eucharist also produces the Church.”5 Through the offering of the eucharist, the Church liturgically enacts its sacramental vocation—continuing the work of spiritual reunion accomplished in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But the Church is also the definitive fruit (res tantum) of the sacrament. The unity of her members is thus realized through the very reception of Christ’s eucharistic presence. The Church is, therefore, what the Church must continually receive.

    The second potentially problematic (and certainly underdeveloped) aspect of de Lubac’s ecclesiology is, in many ways, de Lubac’s attempt to mitigate the dangers inherent in his identification of Christ and the Church. Eager to avoid the kind of ecclesial triumphalism that confines the operation of grace to the visible/hierarchical ministry of the Church, de Lubac insists that “the grace of Christ is of universal application, and that no soul lacks the concrete means of salvation, in the fullest sense of the word.”6 One may therefore receive the benefits of Christ’s reconciling work without explicit membership in the Church. De Lubac nowhere explores the subjective conditions for the salvation of the “unbeliever.” Nor does he speculate on the number of the elect (which God alone knows). As he notes, he is concerned primarily with “the possibility of salvation, and not with its actual realization; with the divine summons and not with the human answer to it.”7 Nevertheless, de Lubac is careful to distinguish his position from the kinds of intrinsicism for which the Church’s ministry is primarily that of “naming and proclaiming” what grace is always already accomplishing in the world.8 For de Lubac, as I noted above, the Church does not simply “make explicit” the natural unity of the human race or even the reunification of humanity in Jesus Christ. The Church participates—socially, kerygmatically, sacramentally—in Christ’s reconciling work. Those to whom the Church is truly revealed are thus obliged to enter her fold in order to receive the benefits available therein and to share in the Church’s work for the salvation of the world. However, according to de Lubac, those who have not encountered the Church, but who nevertheless respond positively (however implicitly) to the divine summons, will be included in humanity’s eschatological reunification. Such “unbelievers,” de Lubac argues, belong to the Church already by way of anticipation, for though they have not encountered the visible Church in this life, they “aspire to her in secret.”9 “And so it is,” writes de Lubac, “that God, desiring that all men should be saved, but not allowing in practice that all should be visibly in the Church, wills nevertheless that all those who answer his call should in the last resort be saved through his Church.”10 Here again we encounter de Lubac’s proclivity for paradox and the unending search for synthesis. On the one hand, he is reluctant to abstract the economy of grace from the sacramental vocation of the Church. On the other, he refuses to place limitations on Christ’s restorative work.   

    1. De Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 76.

    2. Cf. de Lubac, The Splendor of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 130.

    3. John Webster, ‘On Evangelical Ecclesiology,’ in Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (London: T&T Clark, 2016), 163-66.

    4. De Lubac, ‘Mysticism and Mystery,’ in Theological Fragments (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 60, emphasis added.

    5. De Lubac, The Splendor of the Church, 133.

    6. De Lubac, Catholicism, 219.

    7. Ibid., 220 n. 13.

    8. Hence his severe criticisms of Schillebeeckx’s account of the Church as the ‘sacrament of the world.’ See especially, de Lubac, A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984), 191–234.

    9. See Catholicism, 237.

    10. Ibid., 234.

Joseph Flipper


Henri de Lubac the Supernatural and Theological Rapprochement

Jordan Hillebert has produced an elegant engagement with the broad range of Henri de Lubac’s writings. Henri de Lubac became one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the twentieth century and his work had an impact on several important documents produced at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). As a result, his theology is often read in relation to the Council and to the development of postconciliar theology. Hillebert’s Henri de Lubac and the Drama of Human Existence is a descriptive project that, using an anthropological lens of the “dialectic of human existence,” uncovers the patterns across de Lubac’s engagement with theological themes of the supernatural, mysticism, epistemology, and ecclesiology. De Lubac was a synthetic—rather than systematic—thinker. It might be more accurate to say that de Lubac valued paradox more than synthesis. He explained, “paradox is the search or wait for synthesis. It is the provisional expression of a view which remains incomplete, but whose orientation is ever toward fulness.…The synthesis of the world has not been made.”1 And by examining de Lubac’s diverse writings through this lens, Hillebert is attentive to this theological style.

Paradox also describes the situation of the human being, created by God for a fulness beyond imagination. In Surnaturel (1946), Henri de Lubac advanced the paradoxical position that the created spirit has only a supernatural end, and thus has a natural desire for the vision of God, yet, at the same time, God’s creation of a being destined for the supernatural does not limit God’s freedom. For de Lubac, at times Christian theology, attempting to hold onto the truth, becomes unbalanced and fails to uphold another. Neo-scholasticism, in seeking to preserve the freedom of God and the gratuity of grace, neglected to maintain the truth of the human desire for the supernatural. 

Following the publication of his Surnaturel, de Lubac was accused by neo-scholastic interlocutors of undermining the difference between the supernatural and the natural, and failing to maintain the gratuity of the grace that elevates humanity to its supernatural end. If God has endowed a natural being with a supernatural finality, is not God then required give the grace to ascend to that end?2 Today, some theologians see de Lubac as a representative—not only of an inadequate theological resolution—but of a secularizing tendency within Catholic theology following Vatican II. At the same time, there are those who, drawing from de Lubac, insist that human nature, if it has a supernatural destiny, is, by its very constitution, graced. Hillebert writes, “it has been commonplace to locate de Lubac’s truly revolutionary insight in his supposed affirmation that nature itself is always already graced” (15). Specifically, Hillebert finds this claim in numerous anglophone interpreters of de Lubac. Ultimately, Hillebert rejects both the positions of de Lubac’s neo-scholastic critics and these adherents. 

Generosity and a spirit of dialogue pervade Hillebert’s writing. He takes seriously the theological commitments and concerns of his present-day Thomist interlocutors. He also seriously considers the engagements by some supporters of the Lubacian position that, Hillebert finds, ultimately misinterpret de Lubac. Hillebert’s dialogue in search of truth is a virtue that should be imitated. 

On Extrinsicism and Intrinsicism

Hillebert describes one of the key goals of the book: to show how de Lubac sought to weave a path between the extrinsicist position championed by the adherents of pure nature and an intrinsicist position that fails to account for the absolute gratuity of grace. He “provisionally describe[s] the extrinsicist position as a defense of the gratuity of the supernatural by means of a purely immanent account of human finality and the intrisicist position as a defense of the intrinsic relation between nature and the supernatural by way of an account of human existence as always already suffused with grace.” (59) Henri de Lubac’s engagement on the theology of the supernatural across many decades and many books makes clear his opposition to what Hillebert describes as the extrinsicist account of the relationship between nature and the supernatural, which insists that human nature has a natural finality that it can in theory achieve through its own powers. 

What is also clear in de Lubac’s writings—and fairly consistent throughout them—is that he also rejected what Hillebert calls “intrinsicism.” But this latter point, as Hillebert argues, was forgotten by recent interpreters of de Lubac who say that the basic claim of Surnaturel is that “nature always intrinsically, if only inchoately, participates in the supernatural that fulfils it” (16). Human nature, graced in its very constitution, is perfected through a development intrinsic to it dynamism rather than through that which is exterior and other (3). This has become the “majority reading” (13) of de Lubac in anglophone literature. Curiously, this intrinsicist reading of de Lubac appears to be particular to anglophone theological interpretation while not influential within contemporary Spanish, French, or German literature on de Lubac.3 

According to Hillebert, not only did de Lubac avoid the pitfalls of intrinsicism (202), but he opposed the intrinsicism found in trends in postconciliar theology: 

where de Lubac does offer substantive commentary on postconciliar theology, it is clear that his misgivings are every bit as indebted to a particular construal of the relationship between nature and the supernatural as his refusal of pure nature. That is to say, de Lubac was convinced that both neo-Scholasticism and certain trends in postconciliar Catholicism mitigate the necessity of the supernatural. The former, in its avowal of a purely natural teleology, relegated the supernatural to an arbitrary “superstructure.” The latter hadendencyy to “naturalize” the supernatural, eliding the necessary distinction between nature and the economy of grace. (206).

Hillebert sees Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, and Gustavo Gutiérrez—or at least elements within their theology—as representatives of “postconciliar intrinsicism” (207).

Intrinsicism, Extrinsicism, and the Afterlife of the Modernist Crisis

Hillebert’s presentation of the “dialectic of human existence” is robust and convincing, and it helps to correlate de Lubac’s unwieldy body of writings. And, I believe, he rescues de Lubac’s theology of the supernatural from those who associate it with intrinsicism, both detractors and supporters. I want to dig deeper, however, into the origins of the problematic of extrinsicism and intrinsicism. 

Numerous authors have classified de Lubac and the Fourvière school as intrinsicist. Francesca Aran Murphy stated that Humani Generis “stigmatized” the “intrinsicism” in de Lubac’s Surnaturel.4 According to R.R. Reno, in The Ordinary Transformed (1995), Karl Rahner wove a path between neo-scholastic extrinsicism and the intrinsicism of la nouvelle theologie.5 In The Graced Horizon (1992) and The Dynamics of Grace (1993), Stephen Duffy argued that Karl Rahner distanced his theology of the supernatural from de Lubac’s “radical intrinsicism.”6 In Theology and Social Theory (1990), John Milbank introduced the contrast between extrinsicism and “integralism,” which for him is an account of the nature-grace relationship that refuses an autonomous social and political sphere. Milbank borrowed “integralism” from the French intégralisme (a synonym for intégrisme), the nationalist political philosophy associated with Action Française, which de Lubac opposed.7 For Milbank, integralist is positive epithet for those who escaped extrinsicism (de Lubac and Blondel), in contrast with those he says were still caught in nature-grace extrinsicism (Rahner, Liberation theologians). 

This problematic, however, can be traced to the mid-twentieth century. The majority opinion was that de Lubac’s Surnaturel indeed had been censured by Humani Generis (1950); and de Lubac’s position was labeled intrinsicist by those wishing to situate themselves between neo-scholasticism and the positions condemned by it. In 1953, J.P. Kenny, SJ, distinguished between “extrinsicalists” and “intrinsicalists.” He describes the “radical intrinsicalists” as those who “assert in man an unconditional, positive orientation to vision. And some—by no means all—have ventured further still. They have identified this orientation with nature’s dynamism. They have asserted that this orientation is part and parcel of human nature, that it is natural in the technical sense in which nature is contrasted with the supernatural.”8 Kenny distinguishes the good intrinsicalists, presumably Rahner, from the bad ones who he claims endanger the gratuity of grace, presumably de Lubac. Indeed, one of the key sources for this intrinsicist/extrinsicist classification was Karl Rahner. Rahner thought that de Lubac’s arguments on the genesis of modern secularism Surnaturel were correct, though incomplete: “Even if it is a little on the gloomy side, it certainly provides food for thought.”9 But he also suggested that la nouvelle théologie tended to “intrinsicize” the supernatural.10

The origins of this problematic, as far as I can see, are the so-called Modernists—Maurice Blondel, Lucien Laberthonnière, and George Tyrell—who in various ways denounced an “extrinsic” apologetics. For our purposes, the most important was Blondel. In History and Dogma, he coined what he described as “barbarous neologisms”: extrinsicism and historicism.11 From 1909 to 1910, writing under the pseudonym of “Testis,” Blondel published articles in Annales de philosophie chrétienne contrasting two incompatible and equally unsatisfactory alternatives on the supernatural: extrinsicism and intrinsicism. “Extrinsicist monophorism” is the notion that the natural and supernatural exist separately from one another and, therefore, that faith is an extrinsic imposition from the outside of the natural order. Blondel coined the neologism monophorism to describe the one (mono) form (-phore). Blondel believed that French Jesuit and neo-scholastic Pedro Descoqs supplied the theological architecture for the political theory of Charles Maurras and Action Française: authority is hierarchically arranged, imposed from a higher to lower order.12 As Anne Carpenter puts it, Action Française and its Catholic allies imagine “the world works through a chain of obedience.”13 For Blondel, intrinsicism was equally erroneous. He wrote, “Alongside [the] error that eliminates the supernatural, we find another that absolutely denatures it and which one could name an intrinsicist monophorism; because, while affirming the contribution of an internal supernatural gift, this doctrine, more specious and also more dangerous than the preceding, considers the objective revelation and external authority (when it still admits them) as mere social expression of internal afference.”14 

The extrinsicism/intrinsicism problematic is somewhat a moving target, but it has generally been used to refer to the wrong side of orthodoxy. Blondel sought to avoid the extremes of neo-scholastic extrinsicism and Modernist intrinsicism. After 1950, Rahner and others distanced themselves from the intrinsicist position apparently condemned by Humani Generis. John Milbank described intrinsicism (or integralism) as a good thing, the scaffolding for an authentically theological account of the social.

De Lubac and Rapprochement

Does de Lubac adopt a Blondelian description of extrinsicism and intrinsicism? In a few places he uses the language of Blondel, but he does not adopt it to position his theology of the supernatural in any sustained way. In his 1929 “Apologetics and Theology,” de Lubac, echoing Blondel’s History and Dogma, criticized extrinsicist apologetics, the deployment of philosophical and scientific arguments to coerce religious faith.15 But he also distanced his approach from a method beginning from “intrinsic evidence,” that is, a rationalism in which, apart from revelation, the human mind perceives and understands the transcendent truths of God.16 By proposing a Blondelian approach to apologetics, de Lubac had to distinguish his approach from that of the rationalists.

In The Mystery of the Supernatural (1965), he briefly contrasts a Suarezian understanding of human finality with the teaching of Thomas Aquinas. For the former, “finality was therefore considered as something fairly extrinsic: not a destiny inscribed in man’s very nature, directing him from within, and which he could not ontologically escape, but a mere destination given him from the outside when he was already in existence.”17 For Suarez, finality is separable from being. God could give or withdraw the human being’s supernatural end without impacting human nature. In opposition, Thomas holds that finality is inscribed in being. De Lubac wrote, “we know how firmly St. Thomas held that finality is something intrinsic, affecting the depths of the being.”18 This account of Thomas certainly concerns the theology of the supernatural. But de Lubac is certainly not implying that because finality is supernatural and intrinsic to being that human nature is “always already graced.”

De Lubac does not seem to employ extrinsicism and intrinsicism as a heuristic in a sustained or consistent way.19 Nevertheless, it captures de Lubac’s concern that some postconciliar theologians had lost the Christological center of “the world of grace.”20 And it contributes to understanding the reception of de Lubac’s theology and the controversy over the supernatural as it has developed from the twentieth century until now. Henri de Lubac and the Drama of Human Existence is exceedingly helpful in weaving a path through the positions represented by neo-Thomism, on the one hand, and tendencies to collapse nature and grace, on the other.

I am left with the questions as to whether the extrinsicist/intrinsicist problematic properly names the divisions that emerged after the Second Vatican Council, the tensions that emerged between the “conservative” and “progressive” wings of la nouvelle théologie, or, more importantly, whether it still names the theological (or cultural) divides within our church. As I understand it, Hillebert aims beyond an intervention in de Lubac studies—which he has marvelously achieved—but also at theological rapprochement that de Lubac’s theology of the supernatural might facilitate.

  1. Henri de Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 9–10.

  2. For example, see Charles Boyer, “Nature pure et surnaturel dans le ‘Surnaturel,, du Père de Lubac,” Gregorianum 28, no. 2/3 (1947), 390.

  3. For example, recent monographs in French, Spanish, and German are not invested in de Lubac’s supposed intrinsicism. See Philippe Geneste, Humanisme et lumière du Christ chez Henri de Lubac (Paris: Cerf, 2016), Loïc Figeroux, (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2017), Samuel Sueiro, La facundidad del cristocentrismo: El discernimiento teologico de Henri de Lubac sobre la posteridad espiritual de Joaquin de fiore (Madrid: Encuentro, 2021), J. Santiago Madrigal Terrazas, Tiempo de Concilio: El Vaticano II en los diarios de Yves Congar y Henri de Lubac (Santander: Sal Terrae, 2009), and Dominik Arenz, Paradoxalitat als Sakramentalitat: Kirche nach der fundamentalen Theologie Henri de Lubacs (Innsbruck: Tyrolla Verlag, 2016).

  4. Francesca Aran Murphy, Art and Intellect in the Philosophy of Etienne Gilson (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2004), 9.

  5. R.R. Reno, The Ordinary Transformed: Karl Rahner and the Christian Vision of Transcendence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 101.

  6. Stephen J. Duffy, The Graced Horizon: Nature and Grace in Modern Catholic Thought (Collegeville: Liturgical, 1992), 103. See also, Stephen J. Duffy, The Dynamics of Grace: Perspectives in Theological Anthropology (Collegeville: Liturgical, 1993), 301.

  7. John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, 2nd. Edition (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 206.

  8. J.P. Kenny, SJ, “Reflections on Human Nature and the Supernatural,” Theological Studies, 14, no. 2 (May 1953), 280–81.

  9. Karl Rahner, “Concerning the Relationship Between Nature and Grace,” in Karl Rahner Theological Investigations 1 (Baltimore: Helicon, 1965), 300.

  10. Karl Rahner, “Eine Antwort,” Orientierung 14 (1950): 141–45. Its revised version was translated and published as “Concerning the Relationship Between Nature and Grace”: 297–317.

  11. Maurice Blondel, Letter on Apologetics & History and Dogma (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 225.

  12. Blondel explains that Pedro Descoq’s theology is missing “the idea without which there is only extrinsicism or intrinsicism, equally exclusive and deadly, the idea of a natural activity stimulated internally by the supernatural gift, not in order to prevent it from constituting an already solid order and to obtain already precious truths, but in order to stimulate it, to orient it, to render impossible to it a definitive equilibrium and stable resting place, [and] to prepare it for the teachings and discipline of the church.” Testis (Maurice Blondel), Catholicisme social et monophorisme. Controverses sur les méthodes et les doctrines (Paris: Bloud, 2010), translated and quoted in Peter J. Bernardi, Maurice Blondel, Social Catholicism, and Action Française, The Clash over the Church’s Role in Society during the Modernist Era (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2009), 166. Blondel’s other writings would attack the predominant logic of apologetics for Christian dogma as extrinsicist. Blondel, Letter on Apologetics, 283.

  13. Anne Carpenter, Nothing Gained is Eternal: A Theology of Tradition (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2022), 63.

  14. Testis (Maurice Blondel), Catholicisme social et monophorisme, translated and quoted in Bernardi, Maurice Blondel, Social Catholicism, and Action Française, 85.

  15. Henri de Lubac, “Apologetics and Theology” in Henri de Lubac, Theological Fragments (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 93, 95 n12.

  16. de Lubac, “Apologetics and Theology,” 100.

  17. Henri de Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural (New York: Crossroad, 1998), 69.

  18. de Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural, 70.

  19. Hillebert does mention de Lubac’s discussion of a “new integrism” in his discussions of the Council. Henri de Lubac, More Paradoxes (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), 49, see also 113. He associates this integrism with a “group of ‘progressive’ theologians.” de Lubac, More Paradoxes, 50. Sarah Shortall notes that de Lubac saw a parallel between the secularizing influences of the old integrism and those of the new. Sarah Shortall, Soldiers of God in a Secular World (Cambridge: Harvard, 2021), 244. Yet, de Lubac’s assessment is, as Hillebert notes, difficult to place. Published posthumously, its editor, George Chantraine, SJ., noted that the materials were written sometime between 1965 and 1983. (Chantraine, “Forward,” in Henri de Lubac, More Paradoxes, 8). These statements on a “new integrism” certainly reflect de Lubac’s assessment of the postconciliar struggle over the meaning of the council. But these brief references lack the specificity to conclusively correlate them with any particular theologians or their theology of the supernatural.

  20. This phrase is borrowed from William L. Portier, “Jesus and the World of Grace, 1968–2016: An Idiosyncratic Theological Memoir,” Horizons 43 (2016): 374–96.

  • Jordan Hillebert

    Jordan Hillebert


    Henri de Lubac’s theological rapprochement: a response to Joseph Flipper

    I am grateful to Joseph Flipper for his positive evaluation of Henri de Lubac and the Drama of Human Existence and for his constructive engagement with some of its central arguments. Flipper has very helpfully situated the intrinsicist/extrinsicist problematic in relation to both the “Modernist crisis” and the controversies surrounding Humani generis, and he has raised the important question of the extent and relevance of de Lubac’s theological rapprochement. With respect to the latter, Flipper writes: “I am left with the questions as to whether the extrinsicist/intrinsicist problematic properly names the divisions that emerged after the Second Vatican Council… or, more importantly, whether it still names the theological (or cultural) divides within our church.” De Lubac himself certainly considered the story of twentieth century Roman Catholic theology as, in many ways, a tale of two “integrisms”—two problematic accounts of the relation of nature and the supernatural that mitigate the necessity of reason’s fulfilment in revelation and nature’s transfiguration by grace. The century began, according to this reading, with a bifurcation of the orders of nature and grace, and it concluded with their conflation. De Lubac meanwhile devoted himself to pushing and pulling the nature/grace pendulum to a more “suspended middle” (to borrow Balthasar’s evocative and well-worn phrase). Hence de Lubac’s twin emphases on both the intrinsic relation between nature and the supernatural (contra extrinsicism) and the supernatural insufficiency of human nature (contra intrinsicism).

    The dividing lines between post-conciliar theological trends are, of course, notoriously complex and fiercely contested, and it would be reductive to situate all thinkers and trajectories along any single fault line. Nevertheless, the enduring prominence of both “extremes” along the nature/grace continuum in the early decades of the twenty-first century suggests the continued heuristic value of the extrinsicist/intrinsicist framing. As I note in the concluding chapter of Henri de Lubac and the Drama of Human Existence, for all their methodological and material differences, the projects originating from Rahner, Gutierrez, and Schillebeeckx all presume and seek to explicate in various ways the intrinsically graced status of human nature, culture, and/or history. On the other hand, the revitalisation of neo-scholasticism in recent years (particularly in the States) has led to a corresponding resurgence of the theory of “pure nature.” Depending on where you stand in these debates, de Lubac’s project thus offers either a Goldilocks solution or an unpalatable lukewarmness.        

    Another avenue for considering the rapprochement achieved by de Lubac, one closely associated with the extrinsicist/intrinsicist problematic, is the question concerning the nature and extent of the Church’s “openness to the world” and to the forms of thought associated with modernity in particular. This was, of course, one of the most pressing concerns of Roman Catholic teaching and theology throughout the twentieth century—animating, for instance, the modernist crisis at the century’s outset, the calls for aggiornamento throughout the Second Vatican Council, and the debates embroiling the postconciliar Church. Here again, de Lubac seeks a middle course between what he perceives as ideological extremes—in this case, between an uncritical celebration and a universal condemnation of the “modern world.” On the one hand, de Lubac was troubled by the forms of openness championed by what he refers to as the “para-Council”—the reinterpretation of the Christian faith in purely immanentist/secular terms, the reduction of Christian hope to the realm of human history, and the conflation of the Church’s mission with the technical construction of a new socio-political order.1 De Lubac was likewise critical of the excesses of modernity, which he associates with “the refusal of mystery”—the attempt to provide a total explanation of the self and the world without recourse to creation’s principium and telos.2 According to de Lubac, such explanations obscure the irreducibly enigmatic character of human existence (the enigma pertaining to humanity’s natural orientation to a supernatural finality) and invariably diminish human beings by severing their relation to transcendence.

    Even so, de Lubac nowhere advocates for a retreat from the modern world to the safety of some premodern system of ideas. Indeed, as de Lubac’s neo-Scholastic critics were often eager to point out, his own approach to the task of theology was characteristically modern in some important respects.3 In his demonstration of the “intrinsic relation between rational speculation and supernatural revelation,” for instance, de Lubac happily draws upon Maurice Blondel’s “method of immanence” and Joseph Maréchal’s transcendental analysis. Without denying the knowledge of God available through contemplation of the external world, de Lubac is undisturbed by the modern “turn to the subject,” for he is confident that “God reveals himself continuously to man [sic] by imprinting his image upon him.”4 For de Lubac, the method of immanence (reason reflecting on its own exercise) is therefore capable of refuting the “doctrine of immanence” (the dogmatic refusal of transcendence). De Lubac was also clearly at home with the tools and techniques of modern historical inquiry and unconvinced of their alleged threat to speculative reasoning. In the historical investigations undertaken in works like Corpus Mysticum, Surnaturel, and his four-volume Medieval Exegesis, de Lubac meticulously traces the controversies, cultural influences, and pastoral/apologetic concerns that shaped the various systems of representation used by the Church to communicate the Gospel in different times and contexts. In so doing, de Lubac demonstrates a degree of contingency in all theological systems and concepts. Such efforts were not, as some of his critics accused, the fruit of relativism in de Lubac’s thinking. De Lubac argues repeatedly for the “deep and permanent unity of the faith,” a shared experience and a common witness to the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ.5 Nevertheless, de Lubac’s approach to ressourcement reminds us that such revelation always “overflows its conceptual expression.”6 It therefore invites us into the ever-present task of interpreting and communicating that revelation in the light of contemporary experiences, intellectual systems, and concerns.             

    1. On de Lubac’s account and critique of the ‘para-council,’ see A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984), 235-60.

    2. See de Lubac and Angelo Scola, De Lubac: A Theologian Speaks (Los Angeles: Twin Circles, 1985), 25.

    3. See, for instance, Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, ‘Where is “New Theology” Going?’, and Marie-Michel Labourdette, ‘Theology and Its Sources,’ in Patricia Kelly, ed., Ressourcement Theology: A Sourcebook (London: T&T Clark, 2021), 89-114.

    4. De Lubac, The Discovery of God (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 12. For my own critical engagement with de Lubac’s theological epistemology, see Henri de Lubac and the Drama of Human Existence, 93–130.

    5. De Lubac, At the Service of the Church (San Francisco: Communio Books, 1993), 144.

    6. See the ‘Response to “The Sources of Theology” by de Lubac, Henri Bouillard, and Jean Daniélou in Patricia Kelly, ed., Ressourcement Theology: A Sourcebook, 73–82.

Philip McCosker


De-liberating de Lubac

In concluding his excellent study of Henri de Lubac’s compelling yet elusive theology, Jordan Hillebert echoes the French Jesuit in noting the dangers attendant on theologies forged in polemics: in “combatting doctrinal error, the theologian often unwittingly adopts the vantage point of [their] opponent” (201). My main worry with Hillebert’s sterling book is whether he may have slipped into just this very trap. His stated aims for the book are: (1) to provide a critical exposition of de Lubac’s hermeneutics of human existence and its pervasiveness in his theology; and (2) to defend de Lubac against the increasingly prevalent intrinsicist interpretations of his theology. To do the latter he consistently gives us (3) a paradoxical reading of the Jesuit’s thought which is neither solely extrinsicist nor solely intrinsicist but a paradoxical confection which relates to elements of both. He succeeds laudably in all three, but the weight of the second aim is heavy and arguably affects the other two aims: seeing de Lubac’s thought primarily through the lens of the Surnaturel controversy forces us to see the “primeval forest” of de Lubac’s thought through categories which were actually only contingent or accidental in his theology, foisted upon him by external factors. And this is doubly the case: not only does Hillebert’s second aim foreground those controversial categories, but because he (rightly) wants to defend de Lubac against current and popular intrinsicist readings of de Lubac—which find their main source in John Milbank’s The Suspended Middle: Henri de Lubac and the Renewed Split in Modern Catholic Theology—it is the anglophone inflection of that debate which predominates. Hillebert is rescuing de Lubac from a particular anglophone view of the controversy. French scholarship on de Lubac does not have this lens.1 In foregrounding the categories of the Surnaturel controversy—categories which were imposed on him—are we being fair to de Lubac? Are we re-traumatising his theology? Should we not rather liberate his theology from the seemingly endlessly renewing tentacles of the Surnaturel controversy?

As de Lubac notes, those categories are a relatively late aberration in the theological tradition. The binomial of nature and supernature—deceptively symmetrical or oppositional—was begotten in ambiguous texts in Aquinas, and developed in sixteenth-century recondite theological speculations to do with the potentia Dei absoluta, limbo, and fifteenth-century ideas about so-called natural religion. For us today, the language of the supernatural evokes the potions and dragons of Game of Thrones rather than God’s grace which works through and perfects—but does not destroy or trump—the natural. And that is precisely the problem: the arena of the nature/supernature debates unwittingly conceives of the supernatural, and therefore God and God’s action, too much in terms of the natural: dragons and potions are physical things which do magical things. Conceiving of the supernatural in terms of the natural necessarily ends up trading in the mutual exclusions of zero-sum games: autonomous pure nature versus the complete gratuity of “superadded” supernature or God’s grace. 

The historical story is consummately told by Hillebert and does not need retelling here. In essence, extrinsicism and intrinsicism flow from ambiguous texts of Aquinas: one series of texts which suggests humanity has two ends or forms of happiness/beatitude; one mundane, according to its nature, and one supernatural, according to grace. Human nature, considered on its own, has its own goal and happiness which it can work towards through its nature. In that sense we can define and analyse it completely; we can think separately about its supernatural goal of eternal happiness which is added on top, so to speak, by grace. This yields the infamous “two-tier” theology of neo-scholasticism and its strictly deductive syllogisms. The other series of texts suggests that humanity has but one goal of eternal happiness. Humanity, as created and sustained by God, is always already in contact with grace and is ordered to the beatific vision from the get-go. Nature and grace are “intrinsic” to each other. The extrinsicists worry that the intrinsicist position undermines the gratuity of grace and its novelty. They also worry that without a non-theological account of human nature it hard to engage in social, political and legal debates in our pluralistic society: staunch extrinicists tend to hide particular theological decisions under the veil of “natural law” for political and social purposes (especially in the USA). The intrinsicists worry that the extrinsicist position, by insisting on “pure nature” (even if only hypothetically), does not take account of the call and presence of God within all creation by virtue of being created. Protology always already points to eschatology: we are all creatures all the way down. In essence these are two kinds of stories or narratives, with their own categories, worldviews and languages to describe the human situation. 

By contrast, de Lubac argues that as creatures, humans have a natural desire for the supernatural, but precisely as creatures, we are not able to attain that desire on our own, but need God’s help. That is the paradox for de Lubac: our natural desire, which is our very own, cannot be fulfilled by us (though of course we try to do so in many ingenious ways!) but can only ultimately be satisfied by the one who is not-natural, not-created: our ontological desire can only finally be quenched by the one who is outside the ontological (and noetic) system and thus grounds and sustains it all. The depth of our being is marked by a longing born of that lack: however inchoately we sense the call of the infinite in our finite existences. Hillebert brings out nicely how this way of seeing things is driven by a strong, even central, apologetic or pastoral concern in de Lubac: he wants his theology to meet the longings and desires of the people around him. Our being, our ontology, is marked by our origin and goal in God. Being and finality cannot be as firmly separated as the extrinisicists would have it, nor as strongly identified as the intrinsicists would like. In a sense de Lubac declares a pox on both, for both essentially provide immanentist visions which occlude or limit the transcendent freedom of the creator God manifested in Christ. In another sense de Lubac shows them both a warning sign: mind the gap! Both fail to allow space for the irruption of the paradoxical novelty of Christ. It is Christ who reveals us to ourselves, as de Lubac says, echoing Pierre de Bérulle and presaging Gaudium et Spes §22. 

One area where Hillebert’s analysis might be expanded in future is to do with the key de Lubacian term of paradox. Hillebert frequently describes de Lubac’s response to the Surnaturel controversies as a paradoxical one, and describes his theology as paradoxical, but I suspect he could do more to give a sense of what paradox is for de Lubac (not that that is entirely clear!) and why it is almost omnipresent in his theology. This would complement and add further detail to his useful exploration of another central de Lubacian term: mystery. De Lubac’s thought was wrought in paradox from his earliest unpublished student essays on Pascal where he sees the human, reality, truth, and Christ as paradoxical. He sees paradox as the union of contraries and distinguishes it from contradiction. He sees paradox as:

the reverse of what, properly perceived would be a synthesis. But the proper view always eludes us…Paradox is the search or wait for synthesis. It is the provisional expression of a view which remains incomplete, but whose orientation is ever towards fulness… the word specifies, above all, then, things themselves, not the way of saying them…[paradoxes] suppose an antinomy: one truth upsets us, another truth balances it. The second truth does not restrict the first, but only places it in the proper perspective…paradoxical truth is not limited to one plane.2

We can begin to see here how de Lubac actually wants to hold extrinsicism and intrinsicism together (here I differ slightly from Jordan): they are both onto something but are mistaken in viewing themselves as mutually exclusive. I suspect paradox might help Hillebert delve further into the “longing born of lack” in our very being and knowing, but also to go further in his analysis of de Lubac’s critique of the immanentist moves of (ironically!) both atheist humanisms and neo-scholastic theologies. Crucially, for de Lubac, paradox “is not limited to one plane”: nature and supernature cannot be in the same ontological ballpark. Putting them on the same plane leads to the problems and ultimate vacuity of immanentist approaches. Paradox helps us see that we need to be able to tell (at least) two kinds of stories about humanity: ones which are inner-worldly and trade in the kinds of hard differences and causalities of creation; but also ones which couch those differences within the radical difference between creatures and Creator. De Lubac was fascinated by different kinds of difference: he wrote about and frequently quoted the medieval adage diversi sed non adversi (different but not opposed).3 Not all difference is mutually exclusive. For de Lubac we need to be able to describe humanity with both stories which are analytical, synchronic and deductive, and stories which are synthetic, diachronic and inductive. I think that de Lubac is telling us, as theologians, we need to have a foot in both camps and realise the insufficiency of either story on its own. Maybe de Lubac’s paradoxical theology resonates in this way with the complex ontology and epistemology of Iain McGilchrist which tries to reunite left and right hemisphere outlooks on the world.4 It is this stereovision of paradox on two planes which makes me wonder whether Hillebert is right that for de Lubac it is the Trinity which is the ground of all his other paradoxes (196): I suspect that the real fount of paradox for de Lubac is Christology for it is Christ who brings together, more clearly than the Trinity, both immanence and transcendence. It is also de Lubac’s fascination with different differences which leads me to disagree with Jordan at only one other point, where he says that de Lubac “discerns an impressive uniformity” (64, my emphasis) in the tradition on the matter of pure nature. I doubt de Lubac would put it quite like that, as he was always at pains to emphasise how the church (and its traditions) are circumdata varietate, encircled in diversity, echoing Psalm 44 and Thomas Aquinas.

Christology is another area where Hillebert’s crystal clear analysis might be supplemented in the future. He underlines how de Lubac never tires of quoting Irenaeus to the effect that “Christ in bringing himself, brought every newness” (Adversus Haereses IV.34.1) and as we have already seen, in insisting that Christ reveals us to ourselves: it is only in the light of Christ that, for de Lubac, we can perceive ourselves aright. But is there more to be said about de Lubac’s Christology? What metaphysical shape does it take? It is actually quite hard to say, beyond that it is definitely Chalcedonian and conciliar. For my money, I think that anhypostatic/enhypostatic Christology fits his theology quite well and in fact may go some way to explaining his paradoxical stance towards extrinsicism and intrinsicism. According to this view Christ’s humanity is enhypostatised/personalised in the Word/Son, and we progressively come to be in that relation as we are filiated in Christ through the Spirit. This does not imply that Christ’s humanity (and our humanity analogously) is deficient or lacking in something, but is rather open to more than it is. Pure nature is not wrong as long as it is open to more: the error for de Lubac lies in the impression it gives of total explanation and being a closed system.

More specifically, I’d like to know more about how Hillebert understands “mortification.” In most of the chapters of the book, he concludes his pellucid accounts of de Lubac’s analyses of atheist humanisms, being, knowledge, and history with the argument that the immanentizing, inner-wordly views he (de Lubac) opposes, need Christic “mortification” (e.g., 198). But what is this mortification? And can it really be separated from transfiguration/resurrection? Is it the death (and opening up) of all inner-worldly systems we think up to make sense of the world? Is it the purgative work of the via negativa, endlessly at work in the “dialectic of God”? Or something else?

Hillebert’s exacting and stimulating monograph generates several questions of a kind born of curiosity which ideally I would like to discuss with him over several drinks. How does his analysis of this complex web of (largely) Roman Catholic theologies relate to the theology of his own Anglican communion? When Anglican thought features in this narrative it is in the form of Radical Orthodoxy’s intrinsicist over- and under-reading of de Lubac, which Hillebert analyses and criticises always very fairly. But why does Hillebert think de Lubac’s theology is of interest now outwith Catholicism? What is its ecumenical and inter-religious potential? De Lubac’s writings on non-Christian religions are not discussed here. 

Hillebert fascinatingly underlines how theology and apologetics are interwoven for de Lubac right from his inaugural lecture in Lyon in 1929: they should be symbiotic. That’s why de Lubac’s analyses of various atheisms were so important to him, as well as his work in countering anti-semitism and unmasking the neopaganism of the Nazi regime. But what does Hillebert think are the pressures on theologians today (and indeed tomorrow)? What characterises the recipients of apologetically inflected theology today? Balthasar famously talked of the anima technica vacua in the Epilogue to his theology. In a sense we are even more technological now than he might have conceived possible, welded as we are to our smartphones, seeing reality through the lenses of Instagram, and reading about it on Twitter. But I suspect today’s seeker is increasingly more concerned by environmental matters than either de Lubac or Balthasar foresaw. Indeed, this prompts the thought that de Lubac’s theology is strikingly anthropocentric: does Hillebert think it has resources for our more environmental and cosmic age?

Finally, it is striking that there are so many de Lubacs. Recently we have had expositions of his thought which argue that: sacramental ontology is the key (Hans Boersma); or spiritual exegesis of Scripture (Bryan Hollon); or ecclesiology (Susan Wood); or mystical theology (Andrew Prevot)—soon we will have interpretations which argue that natural theology is central (Philip Moller SJ), or that soteriology is key (Eugene Schlesinger). I’d be curious to know why Jordan thinks so many presentations of this alluring theologian are possible. Perhaps it is just that de Lubac wrote on so many topics throughout his life that many paths are possible, but perhaps there is something more interesting going on.

There is much more food for thought in this pellucid exposition of the central contours of the theology of Henri de Lubac: Hillebert is to be heartily thanked and congratulated. I look forward to the conversation.

  1. See for instance: Vitor Franco Gomes, Le paradoxe du désir de Dieu: Étude sur le rapport de l’homme à Dieu selon Henri de Lubac (Paris: Cerf, 2005); Bertrand Dumas, Mystique et théologie d’après Henri de Lubac (Paris: Cerf, 2013); Brigitte Cholvy, Le surnaturel incarné dans la création. Une lecture de la théologie du surnaturel d’Henri de Lubac (Paris: Cerf, 2015); and Philippe Geneste, Humanisme et Lumière du Christ chez Henri de Lubac (Paris: Cerf, 2016).

  2. Henri de Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius: 1987), 9–11.

  3. See de Lubac, “À propos de la formule: diversi sed non adversi,” Recherches de science religieuse 40/2 (1952), 27–40.

  4. See Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009) and his more recent and massive, The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World (London: Perspectiva, 2021).

  • Jordan Hillebert

    Jordan Hillebert


    Beyond Polemics: a response to Philip McCosker

    Philip McCosker begins his penetrating and thought-provoking response with a worry that I have doubly constrained de Lubac’s project within the categories of two successive controversies—the original Surnaturel debates of the mid-twentieth century and the anglophone inflection upon these debates in recent years. In one sense, it is difficult to imagine an analysis of de Lubac’s hermeneutics of human existence that does not attend seriously to the Surnaturel thesis on its own terms, mapping de Lubac’s employment of such concepts as “nature,” the “supernatural,” “natural desire,” etc. against the apologetical, exegetical, and dogmatic concerns animating his theological project. Such an approach is, after all, a characteristically Lubacian modus operandi! As de Lubac and his confrères note in their response to Labourdette’s criticisms, all theological categories are, to a certain degree, contingent and accidental.1 One thus comes to know (and critically engage) a theologian better through a greater understanding of the sources on which she draws and the systems of ideas within which she operates and to which she responds. Moreover, as I seek to demonstrate throughout the book, de Lubac’s account of the “supernatural insufficiency of human nature” is hardly constrained to his confrontation with the system of pure nature. It is all-pervasive in de Lubac’s works, informing his understanding of the task of fundamental theology, his confrontation with atheist humanism, his theological epistemology, and his theology of history. 

    Nevertheless, I agree wholeheartedly with McCosker (and, indeed, with de Lubac) that the categories and patterns of thought associated with the Surnatural controversy are ultimately insufficient for grasping the import de Lubac’s project and (more importantly) the “Christian mystery” that he seeks to illuminate and commend.2 As de Lubac notes, the binomial nature/supernatural is useful to the extent that it prevents us from thinking of human perfectibility in purely immanenentist terms. However, the language, at least as inherited from late scholastic accounts/debates, tends to abstract human nature from its present sinful condition and ignore the historical means by which God accomplishes humanity’s reunification and transfiguration. As Henri Bouillard notes, “the supernatural, in the Christian sense, is the communication which God makes of himself to man in Jesus Christ, or again, it is the participation of man in the divine life by the mediation of Christ.”3 For this reason, as I argue in Chapter Four, de Lubac’s theology of nature and the supernatural is best understood in the light of his Christocentric theology of history.

    The reason for devoting so much attention to distancing de Lubac’s project from intrinisicism is the sheer prevalence of intrinisicist readings of de Lubac’s work. While McCosker is correct that this interpretation is largely absent from French scholarship, it is all but taken for granted in most of the Anglophone literature. De Lubac’s project is thus either championed or condemned for its alleged conflation of nature and grace, creation and deification. In pushing against this reading, I have not sought to resolve the tension in de Lubac’s project by locating his position on the “extrinsicist” side of the nature/grace polarity (D. Stephen Long’s warnings against the language of a “good extrinsicism” in de Lubac’s thought are instructive here). I have sought rather to maintain and explore the paradox which McCosker very helpfully and succinctly describes: “Being and finality cannot be as firmly separated as the extrinsicists would have it, nor as strongly identified as the intrinsicists would like.” As de Lubac notes in his reflections on the necessarily “paradoxical” shape of all Christian theology, “There is a time to support a thesis and a time to enhance the complementary thesis. Moreover it would often seem to be necessary to support them both together, at the same time.”4 In the present context, in which intinsicist readings of de Lubac’s thesis prevail, I thought it necessary to enhance de Lubac’s opposition to intrinsicism precisely in order to maintain both “the intrinsic relation of human being and finality” and “the supernatural insufficiency of human nature.”

    In addition to registering his concern about the tentacular constraints of the Surnaturel controversies, McCosker helpfully suggests closer attention to de Lubac’s treatments of paradox and Christology as areas for potential expansion upon my analysis. Sadly, space prevents a detailed account of these subjects here.5 What follows is therefore a (very rough) sketch of de Lubac’s contributions in these areas and their relevance for his hermeneutics of human existence. 

    The category of paradox is indeed central to de Lubac’s theology. He published four works with the word in the title (Paradoxes, Nouveaux Paradoxes, and Autres Paradoxes, Paradoxe et Mystère de l’Église), and his 1965 volume, The Mystery of the Supernatural, includes chapters on “The Christian Paradox of Man,” “The Paradox Unknown to the Gentiles,” “A Paradox Rejected by Common Sense,” and “The Paradox Overcome in Faith.” For de Lubac, paradox is a feature of both being and knowing: “For paradox exists everywhere in reality, before existing in thought.”6 Ontologically, paradox names the simultaneity of two apparently contrary realities, such as the freedom of human beings and their total dependence on divine assistance/grace, the distinction of divine Persons and the unity of God’s nature, the fullness of Christ’s humanity and divinity, etc.7 Epistemologically, paradox is the mode of reasoning appropriate to our status as viatores. It is the refusal to take refuge in simple/premature resolutions and the unending quest for a comprehensiveness that always necessarily eludes us in this life. Quamdiu vivimus, necesse habemus semper quaerere [As long as we live, we deem it essential ever to seek].8 In terms of de Lubac’s hermeneutics of human existence, human being is uniquely paradoxical insofar as (1) the individual discovers and thereby fulfils her unique personality only by “losing herself,” so to speak, in submission to God and in union with others, and (2) humans naturally (and thus necessarily) desire an end that ultimately exceeds the capacities of their nature, a fulfilment that can only ever be received in the form of a divine gift.

     Like the category of paradox, the person of Jesus Christ pervades de Lubac’s writings and conditions his project in a number of important ways. However, like his explicit treatments of paradox, de Lubac’s Christology is largely underdeveloped. Though de Lubac warns against reducing the person of Jesus Christ to his works, his own Christology remains mostly at the level of soteriology, rather than ontology.9 That is, de Lubac devotes far more attention to what Christ accomplishes than he does to analysing the relation of Christ’s person and natures. Among such accomplishments, de Lubac focuses especially on the incarnation as a means of revelation and reunification. As de Lubac argues in a number of places, “In revealing to us the God who is the end of man, Jesus Christ, the Man-God, reveals us to ourselves, and without him the ultimate foundation of our being would remain an enigma to us.”10 Christ is thus revelatory in a twofold sense: revealing to us the shape of a human life lived perfectly in accordance with its nature, and revealing to us the One to whom our nature is teleologically ordered. Christ’s work of reunification is the central theme of his first book, Catholicism, and it permeates his subsequent writings on ecclesiology and the spiritual interpretation of scripture. According to de Lubac, “Christ from the very first moment of his existence virtually bears all men within himself—erat in Christo Jesu omnis homo [Every man was in Christ Jesus]… Whole and entire he will bear it [our common nature] then to Calvary, whole and entire he will raise it from the dead, whole and entire he will save it.”11 In assuming our nature, Christ thus overcomes the disintegrating effects of sin, uniting us to one another by means of our reunion with God. Once again, the metaphysics of the incarnation is tantalizingly underdeveloped in Catholicism, and I have noted some misgivings with the ways in which our common nature appears to be hypostatized in de Lubac’s account (pp. 155, 157–58). A more careful and detailed account of humanity’s reunification by incorporation into Christ is provided by the Anglican theologian E. L. Mascall, one of the earliest and most constructive English-language interpreters of de Lubac. As Mascall notes, there are “three fundamental modes of union which bridge in three stages the gulf between God the Father, who is the source of all being, and our own finite selves.”12 The first mode of union is the union of Father and Son in one substance, the second is the union of humanity and divinity in the person of the Son, the third is the union of human beings by virtue of their incorporation into the humanity of Christ. To become a member of Christ is therefore to be united to Christ’s humanity in such a way as to share in his filial relation to the Father. The mystery of our union with Christ through the Spirit thus introduces us into the mystery of God’s own triune life. This is precisely the direction to which de Lubac’s own Christology tends: “Christ, by completing humanity in himself, at the same time made us complete—but in God. Thus we can say… that we are fully persons only within the Person of the Son, by whom and with whom we share in the circumincession of the Trinity.”13

    Finally (with due apologies to Cody, the convener of this symposium, for already running over my allotted word count!), McCosker asks what I mean by my repeated invocation of the necessity of mortification as the means to humanity’s graced enjoyment of God. In our present condition, de Lubac insists, the perfection of human beings entails, not simply the elevation of our nature, but the eradication of the evil that disorders our nature and distorts our relation to God and other creatures.14 Objectively, this is accomplished through our sacramental participation in Christ’s own death, for “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom 6:6; NRSV). Subjectively, however, the appropriation of this work entails an ongoing process of ascesis—the renunciation of egoism and the inner-worldly pursuit of self-actualization (often at the expense of others and always to our own detriment) in adoration and obedience to God.15 This mortification is as necessary for humanity as a whole as it is for the individual—the love of humanity, like the love of self, must open out beyond itself to the love of God. Thus, according to de Lubac, “It is the same for Humanity, taken as a whole, as for each individual. Let it develop thus indefinitely in its order, let it cross more and more elevated thresholds: it cannot reach completion without a totally different process—or rather a ‘passion’: a turning around of the whole being, a mysterious passage through death, a revival and a recasting that are nothing other than the evangelical metanoia.”16     

    1. Anonymous, ‘La théologie et ses sources. Réponse,’ Recherches de Science Religieuse 33 (1946): 385-401. For English translation, see ‘Response to “The Sources of Theology,”’ Patricia Kelly, ed., Ressourcement Theology: A Sourcebook (London: T&T Clark, 2021), 74-82.

    2. See, for example, A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984), 40; A Theologian Speaks (Los Angeles: Twin Circles Publishing, 1985), 12; At the Service of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 198-99.

    3. Bouillard, ‘L’idée de surnaturel et le mystère chrétien,’ L’homme devant Dieu. Mélanges offerts au Père Henri de Lubac, t. III : Perspectives d’aujourd’hui  (Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1964), 163.

    4. De Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 13–14.

    5. For detailed analysis of de Lubac’s Christology, see especially the works of Noel O’Sullivan: Christ and Creation: Christology as the Key to Interpreting the Theology of Creation in the Works of Henri de Lubac (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2009); ‘An Emerging Christology,’ Jordan Hillebert, ed., T&T Clark Companion to Henri de Lubac (London: T&T Clark, 2017), 327-48. For a critical engagement with the theme of paradox in de Lubac, I eagerly await McCosker’s own contribution: Christ the Paradox: Expanding Ressourcement Christologies (forthcoming: Cambridge University Press).

    6. Paradoxes of Faith, 10.

    7. McCosker is correct that for de Lubac, ‘the Incarnation is the supreme Paradox’ (Paradoxes of Faith, 8). However, de Lubac’s inclusion of the doctrine of the trinity in his catalogue of dogmatic paradoxes (see Catholicism, pp. 327-29) seems to suggest that paradox does not pertain exclusively to the relation between immanence and transcendence (finite and infinite being/agency), but names something important about God’s own inner life. For this reason, we might say that creaturely reality (and human existence in particular) is paradoxical precisely insofar as it participates in and images the paradoxical reality of God.

    8. Paradoxes of Faith, 9.

    9. On de Lubac’s critique of exclusively functionalist Christologies, see The Christian Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 99–103.

    10. ‘The Total Meaning of Man and the World,’ Communio 35 (Winter 2008): 626-27. Cf. ‘Nature and Grace,’ T. Patrick Burke, ed., The Word in History (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1966), 34–35.

    11. Catholicism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 37–39.

    12. Mascall, Christ, the Christian, and the Church (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2017), 92. The book was originally published in 1946, and is conversant throughout with de Lubac’s Catholicism.

    13. Catholicism, 342.

    14. Though, according to de Lubac, “the passage to the supernatural order, even for an innocent and healthy nature, could never take place without some kind of death. For God’s infinite is not a “composite infinite,” a false infinite that could be reached simply by an extension of the finite. It is not a matter of the finite being’s simply consenting to having a cubit added to his stature. He must consent to a more total sacrifice” (The Mystery of the Supernatural, 28-29, emphasis added).

    15. See especially, A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace, 81-88, 117–28.

    16. The Drama of Atheist Humanism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 465.

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