In Derek Rishmawy's blog article defending how Reformed justification is not sub-Trinitarian, he compared fully Trinitarian Reformed approach as "the forgiving mercy of God" (via a quote from the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck) "to the more metaphysical conception of the medieval Roman church". He then says that the Reformed approach ALSO adheres to the Augustine's formula "Opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt".

My question is: can we have a more fleshed out comparison between the Reformed vs. Catholic conception of grace, and how the latter is "more metaphysical"?

More on Bavinck's understanding of Nature and Grace

In Roman Catholicism, Christianity may still be Erlösungsreligion, but “it is in the first place not reparatio, but elevatio naturae.”40 However, according to Bavinck’s reformational conviction, salvation is precisely reparatio of created, natural life. of created, natural life. That is why he can maintain the position, over against Roman Catholicism as well as Pietism and Methodism, that nature as God’s creation “is in itself of no less value than grace.” The Holy Spirit, who acts in continuity with God’s directives in natural life, “seeks by His grace to restore the whole of natural life, to liberate it from sin and to hallow it to God.”41 “The kingdom of God is hostile to nothing but sin alone.”42 This insight makes it possible for Bavinck to replace the predominantly ontological and metaphysical Roman Catholic conception with a much more religious and existential approach to the problematics. Consider only the following remarkable statement

Grace and sin are opposites; the latter is overcome only by the power of the former; but as soon as the power of sin is broken (and in the same measure that it is) the opposition between God and man disappears.43

  • I'm really not clear what Rishmawy understands by "more metaphysical"; the quote that follows doesn't seem to conflict with medieval Catholic metaphysical ideas.
    – eques
    Apr 25, 2023 at 18:12
  • @eques I'm not that clear either (hence the question), but hopefully the added quote from a dissertation on Bavinck can help. It's not the first time I heard the comment that Roman Catholic theology is "more metaphysical". Apr 25, 2023 at 18:24
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    @eques I think Derek used the "medieval" adjective on purpose because the picture of Roman Catholicism opposed by Bavinck in the paper doesn't seem to represent today's Catholicism. The answer may want to highlight the difference between medieval Catholicism vs. 21st century Catholicism when explaining why Bavinck was so against (medieval?) Catholic understanding of nature and grace. Apr 25, 2023 at 18:50
  • "medieval" was less of a concern than "metaphyiscal"
    – eques
    Apr 25, 2023 at 20:33
  • @eques The 3rd resource I found I think is a lot easier to understand and also detailed enough to contrast Bavinck's position with what he thinks Catholic position is, which in this article is labelled donum superadditum. Do you think in this article the Catholic position is described accurately? Apr 25, 2023 at 21:37

1 Answer 1


From Catholic material to hand, it certainly seems that there is a large metaphysical component to writings about grace. Certainly far more than I've read in Reformed literature (not that I'm very well read in either!) However, as the OP comments that, "The answer may want to highlight the difference between medieval Catholicism vs. 21st century Catholicism ", there is an article that does that. I have no idea if it is on-line or not (it was published in a book in 1975), so there's nothing else for it but to extract pertinent quotes to put in this answer. As there is far too much to give the whole article, I will leave out the theoretical philosophy (metaphysics) and just give relevant parts of the history of Catholic developments. Twelve pages in comes the heading III. Structure of De Gratia and halfway through that is the subheading 2. Brief history of the theology of grace. I miss out the early history to just deal with the OP's request:

d) The Western doctrine of grace was less interested in intellectual divinization and its cosmic aspects and more moralistic in tendency. It was also orientated towards the history of salvation and of the individual by the struggle against Pelagianism. Grace is the unmeritable strength of love for God which by free predestination delivers some men in original sin from the massa damnata of mankind and from their own egoism, liberates their freedom enslaved to sin and so makes them capable of the faith which operates in love (Augustine). In his theoretical works of controversy, Augustine no longer recognizes an infralapsarian universal salvific will of God. On the other hand he is the great teacher of the Church on original sin, the gratuitousness of grace and of predestination to beatitude, and on the psychology of grace.

e) The later patristic period (while preserving the genuine substance of the doctrine of grace of Augustine and of the Council of Orange: D 178-200a) and the early Middle Ages overcame, in opposition to predestinarianism, the thesis of a merely limited salvific will of God which would positively exclude many from salvation prior to their guilt (D 160a; 300; 316-25). The great age of Scholasticism gave precise formulation by means of a new philosophical (Aristotelian) terminology (habitus, disposition, accidents) to the nature of justifying grace, to the process of justification and to the theological virtues. The concept of the strictly supernatural character of salvific grace was slowly elaborated. It was not merely gratuitousness in regard to the sinner.

f) As against the theology of the Reformation, of Baianism and Jansenism, it was necessary to defend (especially at the Council of Trent, sessions V and VI) the freedom of man under grace, the truly inward new creation of man by habitual grace, its strictly supernatural character (in the post-Tridentine period against Baius) and the universality of God's will to grace (against Calvin and Jansenius). The controversy "De Auxiliis", concerning the more precise theories of how to reconcile human freedom with the divinely efficacious power of grace (Molina, Banez) was left undecided in 1607 (D 1090, 1097) and has remained so until this day. Another equally open question is the problem which has been discussed since Petau (d. 1652), under the renewed influence of the Greek Fathers, whether by sanctifying grace a special relation not simply by appropriation is set up to each of the three divine persons. At the present day theology is concerning itself with the use of personalist concepts in the doctrine of grace, with the unity of nature and grace, without prejudice to their distinction, with a better understanding of the biblical teaching on grace and of the theology of the Reformers." Karl Rahner article pp. 597-8, in Encyclopedia of Theology, Burns & Oates, 1981 impression (bold italics mine)

To cut to the chase with this question, the bold italics I have inserted into the quote show the areas of disagreement, and agreement, between the Catholic view and the Reformers view. The quote also shows (briefly) the medieval and the current state of development of the Catholic view. There is no clash with trinitarian theology here. The clash seems to be with predestination (in relation to God's grace).

I hope this will begin to deal with the OPs request for "a more fleshed out comparison between the Reformed vs. Catholic conception of grace". It certainly hints at the metaphysical Catholic concept, which does seem to be more caught up in metaphysics than the stance of the Reformers, which seems to be more biblically influenced (though there is not room here to delve into that). Certainly the Reformers appear to be more in sympathy with Augustine's view where he "no longer recognizes an infralapsarian universal salvific will of God."

  • Thank you for your attempt to answer this question. Since I posted the question and did my own research, the way a theologian does nature and grace dichotomy is actually very complicated. Not only that, it turns out the way a theologian DOES the dichotomy bleeds over to many other areas of doctrines, and there seems to be an agreement that this issue IS the fundamental difference between Reformed and Catholicism, at least until the 20th century, and some even say it persists to post Vatican II as well. Apr 29, 2023 at 23:42
  • The first, and most complicating factor is that there are 2 major positions within the Reformed camp and 2 major positions within the Catholic camp as well. And the boundaries are not clear, although this article can give you a very rough idea. The second complicating factor is multiple schools of interpretation of Aquinas, and how some Protestant theologians are not aware of the different schools when they criticize the Catholic position. Apr 29, 2023 at 23:44
  • The third complicating factor is disagreement from misinterpretation of individual theologians, such as this paper. As you can see in that paper, donum superadditum (which is metaphysical) lies at the center, BUT 20th century Catholic theologians from the Nouvelle théologie camp wants do reduce the dualism and moves closer to Bavinck camp, although not close enough according to that paper. Apr 29, 2023 at 23:44
  • Reformed believes in double predestination, Catholicism believes in single predestination. This is laid out in St. John Paul the Great's Catechism.
    – Fomalhaut
    Apr 30, 2023 at 7:40
  • @GratefulDisciple Thank you for those further explanations. Yes, the matter is complex and I only dared to answer after seeing that paper in the Catholic Encyclopedia, the bit I quoted from appearing to give a neat summation of some related points. I dare not venture deeper into those oft-times muddied waters!
    – Anne
    May 1, 2023 at 13:06

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