I talked to a teacher at a theological seminary here in Sweden today, and we discussed the nature of grace: Fulfillment of natural potential or completely otherworldly? His idea was that with Thomas Aquinas (and probably "et al" in his era) there was a change in how grace is viewed: It became detached from our natural potential and God's work in creation. can anyone weigh in on this?
First, I must state that I am, by no means, authoritatively/formally trained on the subjects of Thomistic theology, the writings of the Early Church Fathers, nature and grace, or any combination of each. I only hope that this might be somewhat of a starting point for much more expansion. This is such a massive subject and could easily fill the pages of many books. I am being as brief as possible with the hope that someone more qualified will (and should) supplement or replace this answer.
Many Church Fathers taught about the relationship between nature and grace, and to compare St. Thomas to individual teachers of the early Church would take a tremendous amount of labor. There are, however, 2 “Champions of Grace” that rise up above the rest in the eyes of both secular and Christian scholars – St. Gregory of Nyssa in the East, and St. Augustine of Hippo in the West. These 2 Fathers seem to epitomize their own eastern and western schools of thought. St. Gregory was influenced by Origen and St. John Chrysostom, whereas St. Augustine studied under St. Ambrose.
SS. Gregory, Augustine, and Thomas all viewed nature through the “lens” of Aristotle’s “categories.” However, there are apparently 2 closely related characteristics between SS. Thomas and Augustine that drastically differ from St. Gregory in the East.
St. Gregory explicitly uses the term “energies” to cover those qualities that are immanent in the physical world. Energies are the “powers” and “movements” by which substances are “manifested”; the energy of each thing is its “distinguishing property” (idioma). Gregory goes so far as to assert that apart from its energies a nature not only cannot be known, but does not even exist.
St. Gregory diverged from SS. Augustine and Thomas by viewing nature as nothing more than “qualities” emanating from the mind of God. SS. Augustine and Thomas believed that God purposely creates material elements, such as wine, bread and water, to convey supernatural grace.
St. Augustine’s view of Grace was heavily influenced by his correspondence with Pelegius . Pelegius taught that original sin did not taint human nature and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without special Divine aid. Thus, in contrast to 1 Corinthians 15:19-22 (especially verse 22), Adam's sin was "to set a bad example" for his progeny, but his actions did not have the other consequences imputed to original sin. Pelagianism views the role of Jesus as "setting a good example" for the rest of humanity (thus counteracting Adam's bad example) as well as providing an atonement for our sins.
St. Augustine fought against the Pelegian heresy by developing the doctrine of grace and free will, therefore earning the title, “Doctor of Grace.” Contrary to what was taught by Pelegius, St. Augustine said that Man’s nature was “at first faultless and without sin,” but through the sin of Adam, became corrupt so that nature was “darkened and weakened.”
St. Augustine’s development of grace and nature foreshadowed that of St. Thomas’ in the sense that Man’s nature had to be redeemed.
Here, St. Thomas seems to be echoing the Doctor of Grace:
For a more in-depth exposition on St. Thomas' emphasis on the necessary perfection of nature by grace click here.
Augustine upheld the early Christian understanding of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, saying that Christ's statement, "This is my body" referred to the bread he carried in his hands, and that Christians must have faith that the bread and wine are in fact the body and blood of Christ, despite what they see with their eyes. St. Thomas’ doctrine of Transubstantiation only builds upon and clarifies the importance of the roles of nature and grace propounded by the Western fathers.
In my mind, if there was ever a divergence by St. Thomas from any of the Fathers, it would be due to the trickled down differences of the Eastern and Western Fathers on the subject of substance and matter. Perhaps if we could look back into the history of the early Church with the Summa Theologica as our guidebook, we would be pointed more in the direction of the West than of the East.
Frank Sheed summarizes the similarities of SS. Thomas and Augustine in his great work Theology and Sanity:
I am, by no means, in a position to make conclusions about the differences and similarities of St. Thomas and the Church Fathers. However, it appears to me that St. Thomas didn’t fall too far from the Western tree. He does, in certain passages, seem to echo what St. Augustine taught. Like Augustine and Ambrose before him, St. Thomas further develops the idea that grace does not destroy nature, but efficaciously redeems it. Both SS. Augustine and Thomas emphasized the necessity of the sacraments, which by definition are natural channels of supernatural Grace.