A Theology of Grace in Six Controversies

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Edward T. Oakes S.J.
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , May
     270 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Edward Oakes is a highly regarded Jesuit theologian. He taught dogmatic theology for over twenty years (most recently at Mundelein Seminary), was elected president of the Academy of Catholic Theology, and was actively engaged in the ecumenical group Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Best known for his work on Balthasar (including his monograph The Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar [Continuum: 1994]), he was an accomplished systematician in his own right (see, for example, Infinity Dwindled to Infancy: A Catholic and Evangelical Christology [Eerdmans: 2011]). The present work is an excellent, wide-ranging introduction to the doctrine of grace. It was completed, as Robert Barron puts it, during a “strangely graced” period of the author's life, after he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer (xi). Oakes died shortly after finishing the manuscript in December 2012. The fact that Oakes spent his last months on this earth writing a book about grace is living testimony to the book's overarching claim: though the topic of grace is “hydra-headed, vexatious,” and at times “downright wearisome,” rigorous reflection on it is deeply worthwhile (xviii).

The first chapter deftly introduces the relation between nature and grace in general. All of God's works ad extra are gratuitous. Oakes argues, though, that the grace of creation should be distinguished from the supernatural grace of redemption. He suggests, provocatively, that the massive debates sparked by Henri de Lubac's Surnaturel over the natural desire for God were anticipated—even resolved in advance—by the nineteenth-century theologian Matthias Scheeben. Though Scheeben has often been dismissed as a typical “two-tier” Thomist, Oakes argues that Scheeben envisages the union between nature and grace in nuptial terms. Nature is made for marriage to grace in Jesus Christ. Surprisingly, we are not told how Scheeben addressed the question of the natural desire for supernatural grace. Oakes himself seems sympathetic to Feingold's defense of the late scholastic claim that the natural desire is an elicited one (27-32). Oakes credits his student, Andrew Dean Swafford, for drawing his attention to Scheeben (33, n. 49). (Interested readers should see Swafford's recently published book, Nature and Grace: A New Approach to Thomistic Ressourcement [Wipf & Stock: 2014]).

Unfortunately, though Oakes promises the reader early on that he will discuss the relation between sin and nature in chapter 2, no such discussion is forthcoming. The chapter focuses almost exclusively on justification. Still, it is a helpful introduction to that doctrine. Oakes is well versed in recent Catholic-Protestant ecumenical discussions, the history of the doctrine, as well as the New Perspective on Paul. He concludes by approvingly citing Balthasar's suggestion that Thérèse of Lisieux—whose conclusions are “remotely parallel” to Luther's—could provide a way forward for Catholic theology (89). Chapter 3, “Evolution and Original Sin,” focuses on salient research in evolutionary biology and biblical hermeneutics. This chapter would have been strengthened by a more robust engagement with the doctrine of original sin itself.

Further chapters discuss free will, predestination, experience, divinization, and finally, Mary's grace. Oakes proposes that distinctively Protestant concerns motivate belief in the Immaculate Conception. What this amounts to, it seems, is that Mary is the “quintessential example of unmerited grace” (245). Whether or not readers are convinced by this claim, they will find a helpful outline of the development of the dogma in this last chapter, which nicely ties together the previous threads of the book.

The decision to describe and evaluate major historical controversies was a good one. In general, the historical and systematic aspects of the book are exceptionally well balanced. Still, at times one wishes the author had discussed views with which he disagrees in more detail. For example, we are told that Molina, supposedly like Pelagius, lacked “real acquaintance with the facts of human nature” (156). Augustinian theology, knowing as it does the depths of our depravity, rejects Molina's liberty of indifference. But surely this is a misleading way of framing the debate. Neither Molina himself nor later Molinists are committed to denying that we often feel the pull of unbidden disordered desire (in technical terms, “concupiscence”). Molinists could argue that unless one has the ability to consent or refrain from consenting to a given impulse, it is not, properly speaking, free. Not everyone has found this sort of response convincing, of course—hence the controversy. Descartes's arguments are likewise said to have “obvious flaws” (191). Schleiermacher's view of experience is briefly mentioned, only to be curtly dismissed on Barthian grounds (194-6).

These are minor concerns. Given the scope of the work it was perhaps inevitable that a few thinkers would be given short shrift. One usually gets a good sense for why the views Oakes rejects have been appealing to others. The book is thus recommended as an introduction to grace for students at any level. Readers will learn not only about the history of the doctrine but sharpen their own theological judgment. It is brimming with stimulating constructive suggestions and written in an engaging style.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel Houck is a Ph.D. candidate in theology and religious studies at Southern Methodist University.

Date of Review: 
September 2, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., (1948-2013) was associate professor of systematic theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake / Mundelein Seminary, Mundelein, Illinois. A member of Catholics and Evangelicals Together, he also wrote Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar.




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