Patristic Theology of Man and Grace

The Fathers of the Church, by reflecting on revealed truth, contributed much to our understanding of the human person.  As created in the image and likeness of God but wounded by original sin, reflecting on man can tell us something of God, and likewise, reflecting on God tells us something of man. Ultimately, we were created by God and for God, and it is this overarching theme that must form the basis of any reflection on the human person.

The first major theme of the Fathers is that of the created human person.  The human person is created, according to revelation, in the image and likeness of God.  All things reflect God in some way, but man (and in this way he is also like the angels) has intellect and will.  He is therefore free in a way other created beings, rather animate or inanimate, are not.  Man, then, is in some way master of his own decisions and, ultimately, his end. But man is made, as we said, not only by God but for God, and because of this, his only rightful end is to choose God. He is not, therefore, free to choose what his end should be, but he is free to choose or reject that which he was created for.

This brings us to the second great theme of the Fathers on this subject; that of the original state of humankind. Man was created in what might be called the state of original justice. He was created with natural gifts, preternatural gifts, and supernatural gifts. A natural gift is that which is proper to the structure of nature.  A preternatural gift is that which goes beyond the structure of the nature of the material universe (from “praeter naturam”, beyond nature).  A supernatural gift is that which goes beyond any created nature, and belongs only to God.

However, original sin, or the Fall, injured but did not erase completely, all of these gifts. But “O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer.” We come to a third theme of the Fathers, that of the Redeemer and of the justification, through grace, of man.

Man lost, through his rejection of God, and this due to pride, his share in the divine life. The supernatural gifts in man were lost through sin, the preternatural gifts erased, and even the natural strengths of man were greatly injured (This is not to be confused with the error of total depravity. Man is wounded in the sense that he lost the preternatural gifts so the natural gifts did not work well together  but they remain in their natural orientation:  the intellect to truth, the will to good and the passions to be obedient to reason.  The preternatural gifts insured they would be used well). The infinite God was rejected by finite man, and only an infinite love could redeem man. Man, however, has no way of such an offer to God, and so grace alone, God’s own gift of self, would be required.

The salvation of man, then, depends on the supernatural grace of God. Through our Redeemer, Christ Jesus, we are made “partakers of the divine nature” and it has been said that “God became man so that man might become God.” This is, of course, meant in no pantheistic way, but is consistent with revealed truth, which tells us that “we will be like God, for we shall see Him as He is.”

Grace, however, does not rule out man’s free will and his participation in his own salvation. As St. Augustine tells us, “God who created you without you, will not save you without you.” God wills that all be saved, but we remain free, and many reject the salvation offered by God through His Son. To those then that are saved, all glory is due to God.  But to those that are damned, the fault is completely their own.

Of course, this teaching, which is that of the Fathers in general and of Augustine, the “Doctor of Grace,” specifically, has always been a controversial one, and because of this, especially in light of the Reformation and its disputes on faith and works, many of the other aspects of the Fathers on the doctrine of Grace has received less attention than they deserve.

The doctrines of the divinization of man and the indwelling of the Trinity in man are key to understanding the Patristic teachings on grace, and again, because of the focus on faith and works for the last several centuries, sadly, much of the Fathers’ teaching on these topics is not well known.

The bestowal of grace and gifts is the work of the Trinity. Grace is a gift that comes from the Father, comes through the Son, and is given in the Holy Spirit. This could lead us into the patristic understanding of the Trinity itself, where the Father has a primacy of origin but not of nature, and into the appropriations within the Trinity, as discussed especially by St. Augustine. But here, we note that, although God is One and in His being works as one toward creation, the Persons do act in their own ways towards creation. This, of course, we only know through revelation, and the Fathers reflect on this at great length.

There is no doubt, however, that the understanding of grace and free will was of great importance in the writings of the earliest Christians, and much was debated and discussed from the earliest times. Controversies certainly arose in reconciling the providence of God with the freedom of man, and the greatest of these controversies was that of Pelagius and Augustine. But even Augustine, who preached so strongly the primacy of grace (Command what you will; give what you command“), tells us that “God does not command impossibilities, but by commanding admonishes you do what you can and to pray for what you cannot.”

The Church Fathers have a deep and rich reflection on man, his creation in the image and likeness of God, and of his salvation through the Grace of God merited through our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Only the slightest introduction, of course, could be offered here in so short an essay, but a lifetime could be spent reflecting on the great patristic contribution that has been left to us as a wonderful gift.


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