Catholic Theology (Part 1b): a follow-up question

My first post on Catholic Theology may be found here.

For Protestants (and Karl Barth is one prominent example), reason is not a reliable means of knowledge about God, at least not for Theology Proper (though one does find appeals to reason in Protestant apologetics; e.g. C. S. Lewis and N. T. Wright). As I understand it, Barth was reacting to the philosophers of his day who could endlessly defer talking about the actual subject matter of Scripture because they first had to establish through reason the existence of God. Their kind of reason was not the Socratic, open kind, but a critical variety with an anti-supernatural bias. But if we turn back the clock even farther, before these anti-supernatural philosophers, we find that Thomas Aquinas shares the optimism of the CCC*. He sees reason as a gift that is later revised and clarified by the gift of revelation (see his Summa, Question 1).

So my Protestant readers (most of you!) may have a follow-up question on the issue of Natural Theology. At least, I did. My question was this:

Do Catholics consider the process of becoming open to revelation (through the use of natural reason) a work of God?
If so, it would be somewhat equivalent to the Reformed doctrine of irresistible grace, or to the Methodist doctrine of prevenient grace. Is our desire to know God, which we work out through human reason until we encounter revelation, evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts? Is our spiritual quest of God preceded by God’s quest of us?
From what I’ve read so far, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) does not address this question exactly, but it says that people are “made to live in communion with God” (§45), and our “free response to his grace” is part of his “eternal plan of ‘predestination’” (§600). In that way, grace plays a key role in our coming to faith somewhat analogous to that described by Reformed Protestants or Methodists. The CCC explains it this way:

“Man’s faculties make him capable of coming to a knowledge of the existence of a personal God. But for man to be able to enter into real intimacy with him, God willed both to reveal himself to man and to give him the grace of being able to welcome the revelation in faith. The proofs of God’s existence, however, can predispose one to faith and help one to see that faith is not opposed to reason.” (§35, emphasis mine).

Catholic teaching is clear—even our faith in God is a gift. Without his grace, we would not be able to put our trust in the God who has revealed himself to us. Perhaps, too, Natural Theology does not sound so foreign when situated in its context. The main difference between Catholics and Protestants on Natural Theology is the degree of depravity that resulted from the Fall or the degree of optimism that remains about human reason. On one thing we agree—grace is always necessary for salvation.

*Catechism of the Catholic Church


About Carmen Imes

I entered Wheaton's doctoral program in 2011 with an Old Testament concentration under Dr. Daniel Block. I have an MA in Biblical Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Charlotte campus), and a BA from Multnomah University in Portland, Oregon. My husband, Danny, and I are missionaries with SIM and we have 3 great kids: Eliana, Emma, and Easton. You can find my personal blog at I'm passionate about the Word of God, both written and incarnate, and I long to see our generation transformed so that we can truly know God and reflect Him to the world.
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4 Responses to Catholic Theology (Part 1b): a follow-up question

  1. Matt Frost says:

    I’m not sure it’s accurate to say of Barth that “reason is not a reliable means of knowledge about God,” or to split hairs between Socratic reason and “a critical variety with an anti-supernatural bias.” Socrates, at least as Plato uses him, is both critical and anti-supernatural. The better question than asking about reason is asking about what reality a given theologian or group of theologians presumes as primary. Reason always works from the real toward possibility. But Barth insists on working from the real as witnessed in scripture, from divine self-revelation as most-real. This sets him against the “reality” of the world and its orders. The Enlightenment alternative is to work from the world as most-real, which involves fighting against what appears as unreal in scripture and God.

  2. Carmen Imes says:

    Thanks, Matt. That’s what I get for blogging way outside my area of expertise!

    Would you say that Barth shares with modern-day Protestantism a distaste for (or mistrust of) Natural Theology?

    • Matt Frost says:

      It’s practically a truism to say that Barth has a distaste for natural theology. But I’m not sure to what extent modern-day Protestantism actually shares his principles in the matter. Of course, Dr. Johnson’s book on the analogia entis is pretty useful on the subject, as is Barth’s volume of Gifford Lectures.

  3. Pingback: Catholic Theology (Part 3); Are Science and Scripture Compatible? « For Christ and His Kingdom

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