Henri de Lubac’s Sacramental Vision

Is the sacred untouchable? Yes, certainly, and yet we touch it.[1]


Denys Turner offers a critique of Henri de Lubac in the first chapter of Faith, Reason and the Existence of God in which he claims that de Lubac is, for all intents and purposes, a Barthian.[2] He comes to this conclusion because, as he understands them, both de Lubac and Karl Barth assert that the God of the Philosophers is not the God of Faith.[3] Yet he does not address the fact that they come to this understanding in incredibly different ways;[4] instead, he seems to only be concerned that their conclusions appear similar. Turner offers a positive explication of his own view; however, he changes the way in which he uses the word “reason” in this part of the chapter. He holds that reason is not opposed to faith but that it “has the same ‘shape’ as faith”[5] and is “a more ‘anticipation’ of faith, the ‘shape’ of the sacramental.”[6] Yet, this sacramental vision is precisely that for which de Lubac is arguing.

Turner explains the contemporary consensus of what he calls a “revisionist Thomism” that is characterized by, if not attributed to, de Lubac’s theology.[7] He briefly develops three “general propositions”[8] that follow from this school. First, “to suppose that reason can, by virtue of its own native powers, ‘know God with certainty’ is to suppose the existence of a pure abstraction . . . which has no historical actuality.”[9] Second, there is a natural desire for beatitude in all humans that cannot “be satisfied by the contemplation of any God which reason alone could know.”[10] Third, the natural desire for God cannot be fully appeased except through faith.[11]

Sadly, Turner has not provided sources for these claims beyond pointing the reader to Surnaturel and The Mystery of the Supernatural. The core issue is that Turner seems to lack any comprehension of the analogia entis which becomes clear when he likens de Lubac and the nouvelle theologie school to Karl Barth, who explicitly denied the analogia. In short, Turner’s understanding of de Lubac is impoverished because he imports Barth’s metaphysics into de Lubac and, as a result, lacks the nuance that de Lubac’s terms entail. Namely, the dialogue between faith and reason cannot be sundered for de Lubac in the way that it is for Barth.

According to Turner, Barth holds that “the Christian knows that there is nothing ‘on the outside’ of election, and so neither ‘outside’ of Christ, not even creation itself.”[12] Furthermore, Barth is said to hold that any natural theology “tie[s] God and creation into a relationship which, being governed by reason and bound by its logic, obliterates the freedom of both by obliterating the gratuitousness of their ex nihilo.”[13] Barth objects to natural theology because he wishes to preserve the transcendence of God. He thinks that natural theology makes God subject to the logic and laws of the natural world. However, as a Christian, he admits some knowledge of God, yet this knowledge must be rooted solely in God’s action. Namely, it must be a result of “our election, our ‘new creation’ by faith and grace.”[14] This becomes his analogy of faith and is a result of his notion that creation is not outside of Christ and that Christ is unknowable due to the utter depravity of humanity. In the end, he denies Christ’s capacity to create other than himself and this is the precise place that de Lubac and Barth disagree.

De Lubac’s Position

In his article, “The Mystery of the Supernatural,” de Lubac insists that there are two moments of grace: creation and “the ontological call to deification, which will make man a ‘new creature.’”[15] Barth’s insistence on drawing all things into Christ while maintaining a theology of utter depravity has the effect of creating an equivocal univocity, whereas de Lubac sets creation and the human appetite for God in parallel so that they are analogous. Of course, for de Lubac, Christ is the cause of both of these graces, but all of his work is not rendered the same work. For Barth, all creation is Christ; for de Lubac, all creation is a sacrament of Christ. The foundation of de Lubac’s thought is this analogy, which is the logic of the sacramental vision; Turner overlooks this. Yet, Turner is just one example of an author misrepresenting de Lubac. A more famous example is Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. In his “Where is the New Theology Leading Us?,” Garrigou denies de Lubac’s claim that the distinction between the God of the natural order and the God of the supernatural order only arrived in later commentators of St. Thomas.[16] Much of the nuance of Garrigou’s argument becomes evident in the footnotes treated below.

Footnote 23 of Garrigou’s article merits further discussion because it is a more contentious point than is immediately apparent. Garrigou quotes Pedro Descoqs, SJ, as saying, “Creation is never a grace in the theological sense of the word, grace only being able to be found in relation to nature. In such a perspective, the supernatural order disappears.”[17] Such a claim would be disastrous for the assertion that de Lubac’s concept of analogy allows him to maintain the supernatural while avoiding the radical disjunction between the natural and the supernatural. For de Lubac, creation and the grace of the desire to know God must be related; and only due to their relation is our destiny for the beatific vision natural—or according to our created nature. For de Lubac, the destiny of man for eternal beatitude and his existence are both gratuitous graces. “My destination is an ontological thing, which I cannot change as an object changes in destination.”[18] The vocation of man to eternal beatitude has to do with man’s very existence. However, the two graces mentioned are not the same, they must have an analogous relation.

De Lubac emphasizes that the analogy of grace to a human gift fails because it does not account for the fact that the gift God gives man is himself, and not something extrinsic to man. De Lubac, then, looks to creation in order to discover a more proper analogy. He says, “there is a real parallelism, as we will see, between this first gift of creation and the second gift, completely distinct from it: the ontological call to deification, which will make man ‘a new creature.’”[19] Creation and the natural desire for beatitude are not the same because man’s sanctification is not held within man’s nature. Instead, man can only be brought into eternal beatitude through grace. This is why Garrigou and others want to avoid calling creation a grace. They are concerned with the assumption that creation alone is sufficient grace to bring man to eternal beatitude, which—in practice—would mean that once man existed, he could merit his own salvation.

However, according to de Lubac’s logic, this is an unneeded consequence of the proposition that creation is a grace. Instead, creation must be a grace because man did not merit even his own existence. The most important consequence of creation being a grace is that grace cannot be extrinsic to man’s ontology. This is, frankly, what de Lubac’s theology boils down to. If grace were extrinsic, then it would be impossible for man to receive his existence at all since a gift that is extrinsically given to a receiver requires an existent recipient. Instead, the gift that God gives me is “wholly within me, and nothing of what I am is without it.”[20] The grace of creation is intrinsically interwoven with the very being of man because existence is integral to the being of man.[21] This gift of God is “God in himself,”[22] who holds all creation in being. The second grace is also “God in himself” because the attraction to eternal beatitude is nothing else but a relation to God.

While emphasizing that grace cannot be extrinsic and that grace is God in himself, de Lubac is careful not to collapse the supernatural into the natural. Instead, he maintains a radical distance between the supernatural and the natural in these two moments of grace. He describes creation and the call to eternal beatitude with two formulae. The formula of creation is “God has given me being,”[23] and the formula for our beatific vocation is “God has imprinted on my being a supernatural finality.”[24] The former “expresses in its way a total contingency, the radical distance that exists between my essence and my existence,”[25] and the latter “expresses in its way the total gratuity of the supernatural gift, the radical distance that exists between my natural being and my supernatural end, in other words, between my condition as creature and my divine filiation.”[26]

In no way are these the words of a man who has collapsed the supernatural into the natural. The relation between the supernatural and the natural is an analogous one.[27] Additionally, he emphasizes that the two formulae are insufficient because the grace of God is twofold. Thus, these two gifts of God are not utterly distinct, which is why we can speak of the call to eternal beatitude as a natural desire for God.[28] The supernatural is not subservient to the natural, but instead, “the will of the donor that awakens the desire in the one that it wants to reach.”[29] The two have a real relation, but it is the supernatural that shapes the natural, and not the other way around.

The analogous relation between creation and the desire for the beatific vision undergirds de Lubac’s entire theological perspective and is why he does not think that natural reason is impotent to know God. Instead, he holds that natural reason can know, by analogy, the God upon whom we will gaze in the beatific vision. De Lubac wrote on this very topic in his article “Duplex Hominis Bonum Ultimum.” Using a variety of quotes, de Lubac argues, “[St. Thomas] can also identify a sort of continuity between the contemplation of the truth the wise man engages in here below and its consummation in the ‘beyond.’”[30] In this life, philosophers can come to know truths, but it is not fulfilled until the next. This is because God is mystery and he is the foundation of all truth. Reason can know naturally, but it will always fall short of mystery. So too, according to de Lubac, St. Thomas holds that no happiness in this life is true happiness.[31]

Happiness in this life truly participates in the happiness to come, yet not fully. Happiness, for Thomas and Aristotle, is tied up with the thirst for truth because knowledge is a remedy for man’s finite essence.[32] “[M]an, to escape his finitude, naturally seeks to rise to the measure of the universe through knowledge of all things. Does he not, then, desire all the more to see for himself the one who sees all things?”[33] This is the precise role that the natural appetite for eternal beatitude plays in the search for truth by natural reason. Natural reason thirsts for truth due to man’s dissatisfaction with finitude. Knowledge is a remedy for this dissatisfaction because it allows the soul to expand by reaching out to the reality around it. Yet, the soul will never be satisfied this side of the eschaton because it desires the infinite. It desires God. Contrary to Turner’s assertion, de Lubac holds that natural reason affords us true knowledge in this life, human reason simply cannot grasp the entirety of God. Instead, natural reason responds to the soul’s yearning for what is to come when the mind begins to ask the most profound questions in life: the questions about God and the questions about man as he relates to God.

The Trouble with Creation

Having spoken a good deal about de Lubac’s position, it would prove helpful to show why people such as Turner and Garrigou-Lagrange are concerned with the idea that creation is a grace. In short, they are concerned that if grace is not extrinsic, we are not saved. Said so bluntly, it might be easy to dismiss as pedantic, but this is a very important problem. If a grace introduces a change, the natural question follows: is the change essential or accidental? If the change is essential, it changes humanity so that humanity is not what it was before.

The grace of creation cannot even be said to be essentially changing humanity because a change must be changed from a previous thing. A can change to B, but nothing cannot be said to change into A because there was nothing to have changed. Rather, A is simply made. Creation is, therefore, a special case. Baptism, however, is an uncontroversial example of grace. The Catechism tells us that Baptism “seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ” (§1272). The grace of baptism is an ontological change. However, if the essential nature of humanity were changed, then God would have saved only the baptized. There would have been no salvation for Adam or David. In order to avoid this trouble with understanding grace as an essential change, the neo-Thomists opted for an extrinsic understanding of grace. Creation cannot be grace for them because there is no person to receive this extrinsic grace of creation.

However, changes need not be only essential or accidental. There also exist relational changes. Just as the Trinity has relational attributes, so too do we. Intrinsic grace has to do with a relational change in us and the understanding of such a relational change is rooted in the Incarnation and the Trinity. Through the grace of creation, God creates a real relation in us to him and through the appetite for eternal beatitude—as well as other subsequent graces—he restores this real relation.

As de Lubac makes clear, these two graces are not entirely distinct as is the case for both Barth and Turner. Rather, the nature of the created man disposes itself to receive subsequent graces. Man is a sacrament and, thus, grace is not extrinsic to him. Just as the grace of baptism is not unrelated to the water that is used and the accidents of bread and wine are oriented toward becoming Eucharist, so too man is disposed to the grace of eternal beatitude. The matter naturally corresponds to the sacramental reality.

This is a far cry from Barth’s understanding of nature and creation. Instead, it is precisely what Barth feared when he said that the analogy of being was the invention of the antichrist. He feared that reason might have a natural capacity to know God. Relying upon Fergus Kerr, Turner characterizes de Lubac’s position as asserting that “‘God exists’ means something radically when held on the basis of philosophy and ‘under the conditions that faith determines.’”[34] De Lubac felt that the God of philosophy and the God of faith did not signify the same God, not because the God of faith could not be known by reason, but because he could not be fully known by reason.

De Lubac asks, “But is the desire for the beatific vision, in its whole nature and in its whole strength, knowable to reason alone?”[35] He answers in the negative. The God of Faith is not a propositional God, but a personal one. De Lubac has to ask this question in the first place because the desire for the beatific vision allows us to reason about God. Yet, man does not even understand himself entirely because he is dependent upon this God of Mystery. “Certain abysses of nature opened slightly only on impact with Revelation.”[36] Since God is intrinsic to man, man cannot be entirely known apart from God. To understand the image of God, that is man, God must be understood.

In the end, man is a sacrament; and no sacrament can be understood if God is excised from the world. De Lubac does not intend to render natural knowledge of God impossible, as Barth does. Rather, he hopes to render humanity and reality comprehensible by taking seriously the existence of God and his act of creation.


In 1942, de Lubac addressed the loss of the sense of sacred in France in an article published in Bulletin des aumôniers catholiques. Among the reasons he locates as contributing to the loss of the sense of the sacred in France is “a duality going so far as to be a kind of separation between nature and the supernatural.”[37] Much of what governs his later writing is already present here. He emphasizes that humans are ontologically ordained for God through their natural appetite for beatitude. However, the sense of the sacred extends to all of creation. “Nature was made for the supernatural, and, without having any right over it, nature is not explained by it.”[38] The entire world “is for man like a first and immense sacrament,”[39] which is only to be rediscovered through “another great sacrament, more mysterious still and more intimate, more intrinsically sacred: the supernatural sacrament, the wholly divine mystery in which all the others are summed up: Sacramentum Christi, Mysterium Christi.”[40] Praised be to God, we have indeed begun to recognize the importance of recovering the sense of the sacred and the Eucharist’s central role in recovering symbolic and sacramental literacy.[41]

For if a sacramental vision is absent, the zone of the “sacred” becomes a mere abstraction and the zone of the “secular” becomes a hellscape devoid of hope, faith, and charity. As Joseph Ratzinger reminds us, “hell is, precisely the situation in which God is absent.”[42] Yet, in de Lubac’s Christian worldview such a world is not possible because, though God is transcendent, He is intrinsic to his creation, which—in the end—comes down to de Lubac’s insistence that creation is a grace. Despite Turner’s mischaracterization of him, de Lubac is not concerned with rendering knowledge of God impossible, but rather, he is concerned with preserving our wonder at mystery for “[a] doctrine without mystery . . . cannot satisfy a soul that has, despite everything, remained religious.”[43] In the end, de Lubac is concerned with the one thing we all should be concerned with: saving souls. The only path to doing so is an existential encounter with the God who created us, the God of the Eucharist.

[1] « Disappearance of the Sense of the Sacred, » Theology in History (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 240.

[2] Denys Turner, Faith, Reason and the Existence of God (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 16.

[4] An understanding which is very disputable in the case of de Lubac. He does not even quote de Lubac in this crucial paragraph but instead appeals to Fergus Kerr. He quotes Kerr saying, “‘God exists’ means something radically different when held on the basis of philosophy and ‘under the conditions that faith determines.’” This does not quite say that the God of the Philosophers is not the God of Faith, but it instead appeals to the fact that the understanding of the word God functions differently in different contexts and can be understood differently by different persons.

[5] Turner, Faith, Reason and the Existence of God, 23–24.

[10] Ibid.,15. It need not be mentioned that de Lubac would reject this proposition out of hand the way it is phrased. De Lubac does not think there is a God of reason and a God of faith, but he thinks that the concept of God that philosophers speak of is different from him who the faithful worship. Yet, it is possible to prove that God exists and this God is adored by the faithful.

[15] Lubac, « The Mystery of the Supernatural, » Theology in History, 299.

[16] Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, “Where Is the New Theology Leading Us?,” trans. Suzanne Rini, Catholic Family News Reprint Series, 309 edition, 3.

[17] Garrigou-Lagrange, “Where Is the New Theology Leading Us?,” 8.

[18] Lubac, « The Mystery of the Supernatural, » 294.

[21] Etienne Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers, Enlarged 2nd edition (Toronto: PIMS, 1952), 63. Gilson plays a major role here for the thought of de Lubac. However, it suffices to remind the reader that being is a composite of essence and existence. “In short, the distinction between creatures and their Creator entails, in creatures themselves, a distinction between their existence and the essence of their being.” Eitenne Gilson is expounding upon St. Thomas’ understanding of being. In the fourth chapter of On Being and Essence St. Thomas writes: “Hence, it remains that a thing that is its own existence cannot be other than one, and so in every other thing, the thing’s existence is one thing, and its essence or quiddity or nature or form is another.”

[22] Lubac, « The Mystery of the Supernatural, » 301.

[27] Analogy here is meant in the way that Lateran IV used it: “For between creator and creature there can be noted no similarity so great that a greater dissimilarity cannot be seen between them.”

[28] Lubac, « The Mystery of the Supernatural, » 301–2.

[30] “Duplex Hominis Beatitudo | Articles | Communio,” 609.

[32] “Duplex Hominis Beatitudo | Articles | Communio,” 610.

[34] Turner, Faith, Reason and the Existence of God, 16.

[35] Lubac, « The Mystery of the Supernatural, » 314.

[37] Lubac, « Disappearance of the Sense of the Sacred, » 230.

[40] Ibid., 232–33.

[41] One need look no further than Pope Francis’ Desiderio Desideravi and the USCCB’s Eucharistic revival. “The challenge is extremely demanding because modern people—not in all cultures to the same degree—have lost the capacity to engage with symbolic action, which is an essential trait of the liturgical act” (Desiderio Desideravi, §27). “There is no aspect of ecclesial life that does not find its summit and its source in the Liturgy. More than being the result of elaborate programs, a comprehensive, organic, and integrated pastoral practice is the consequence of placing the Sunday Eucharist, the foundation of communion, at the centre of the life of the community. The theological understanding of the Liturgy does not in any way permit that these words be understood to mean to reduce everything to the aspect of worship. A celebration that does not evangelize is not authentic, just as a proclamation that does not lead to an encounter with the risen Lord in the celebration is not authentic. And then both of these, without the testimony of charity, are like sounding a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (Desiderio Desideravi, §37).

[42] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope Benedict XVI, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion, ed. Stephan Otto Horn and Vinzenz Pfnur, trans. Henry Taylor, First American Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 284.

[43] Lubac, « Disappearance of the Sense of the Sacred, » 237.