Vapidity is never in short supply over at Patheos, particularly when Artur Rosman is at the helm as a writer, “channel manager,” or facilitator of guest blog posts. Though the entry is nearly a year old, an online acquaintance recently called my attention to Michael Martin’s guest post on Rosman’s Cosmos in the Lost web-log. The post claims, inter alia, that Pope Francis’s 2015 encylical Laudato Si “counters the theology of natura pura that has poisoned some quarters of Catholic theology since at least the seventeenth century[.]” There are several problems with this brief, triumphalist, assertion, not the least of which being the fact that it is highly contestable that the theology of natura pura is an early-modern innovation rather than a continuation of St. Thomas Aquinas’s own intellectual project. Martin doesn’t discuss this, of course; instead he quickly cites John Milbank’s The Suspended Middle, a book which has been subjected to withering criticism from numerous Thomists, including Reinhard Hutter in his 2012 tour de force Dust Bound for Heaven. Joining Hutter in refreshing the theological discussion surrounding the topic are the likes of Steven A. Long and Lawrence Feingold, both of whom have penned substantial treatments of the subject which cast serious doubt on the commonplace criticisms of natura pura. Martin fails to mention them, or even bother to discuss how Laudato Si in any way, shape, or form upsets the theology of natura pura.
Maybe Martin is enchanted by the myth that embracing natura pura means embracing a modern, non-teleological and non-theonomic conception of nature which paved the way for both scientism and materialism. If so, he really ought to read Long’s Natura Pura: On the Recovery of Nature in the Doctrine of Grace. In it, Long shows that those who defend natura pura work with a decidedly premodern and teleological conception of nature which has not lost its theonomic structure. While it is still possible to reject natura pura or to argue that it is not theologically necessary to preserve a thick doctrine of grace, Long — and others — show that natura pura‘s proponents are not responsible for ushering in secular modernity or belittling God’s action in the world. Unfortunately, no reader of Martin’s post would have any idea about this, perhaps because Martin himself remains beholden to a theological legend of recent vintage which has only served to silence natura pura‘s proponents rather than clear the way for a frank and thoroughgoing investigation of the subject.
To conclude on a positive note, let me stress that it is possible to be critical of natura pura while being both charitable and intellectually honest. Take, for instance, Aaron Riches’s freshly pressed work, Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ (Eerdmans 2016). As an aside on pgs. 13 and 14, Riches suggests an affinity between natura pura and what he calls “quasi-Nestorian logic,” though he also stresses that classical proponents of natura pura, particularly of the Thomistic school, always retained “a robust Cyrillian doctrine of the hypostatic union[.]” Riches further notes that those seeking to overcome the theology of natura pura ought to first reckon with Long and Feingold’s work, something which most contemporary theologians have simply failed to do.