Negotiating grace, nature, freedom, autonomy: A conversation with Douglas Farrow

“The faith is handed down to us by the Church. We don’t get to invent it,” says the author of Theological Negotiations: Proposals in Soteriology and Anthropology. “But we do share in the task and responsibility of trying to understand it.”

Dr. Douglas Farrow, professor , is the author of several books, including Theological Negotiations. (Image: YouTube screenshot from Cardus Law video)

Douglas Farrow, PhD, is professor of theology and Christian thought at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. A noted lecturer and a prolific essayist, he is the author of several books, including Ascension and EcclesiaAscension Theology, Nation of Bastards: Essays on the End of Marriage, and Desiring a Better Country: Forays in Political Theology. His 2018 book Theological Negotiations: Proposals in Soteriology and Anthropology (Baker Academic) has been praised by Scott Hahn as “uncompromisingly biblical, catholic, and ecumenical” and Tracey Rowland states that “Farrow’s style is engaging; the essays could be appreciated for their literary qualities alone, quite apart from the theological insights they contain.”

Dr. Farrow recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of CWR, about Theological Negotiations, discussing some of the controversies and conflicts addressed in that book.

CWR: The subtitle of Theological Negotiations is “Proposals in Soteriology and Anthropology”. What controversies are you addressing, and what proposals are you making? Is this a work in ecumenical theology; if so, what are its goals?

Dr. Douglas Farrow: Yes, it is a work in ecumenical theology, as well as systematic theology, but not one that tries to dissolve all differences or make them go away. I want people to think harder about differences, particularly Catholic/Protestant differences, so as to put certain key problems in a new light.

I begin with differences regarding the way theology is done; that is, about the relation between philosophy and theology. Here Protestants often accuse Catholics, especially Thomists, of subordinating theology to philosophy, or biblical theology to philosophical theology. But that is not a Thomistic heritage; it is a Kantian one. I propose that Thomas, properly understood, helps us set this right. At the same time I do see problems in Thomas himself, reflected in warring Thomistic schools. I try to address some of that, too, in the second chapter, by probing his understanding of the relation between grace and nature where it seems to fall short, as in his eschatology.

Early returns, so to say, suggest that readers like what I do there. But the whole book, really, is an attempt to probe what are at bottom grace/nature questions. By bringing eschatology to bear, I try to make possible revised answers that may at least unsettle some of our differences. As for the subtitle: “Proposals in Soteriology and Anthropology” because our ecclesiological differences, though profound, are primarily a function of differences in our understanding of who or what is being “saved” by God, and how.

CWR: Where else does this take you as the book unfolds?

Dr. Farrow: It takes me next to two very basic areas of dispute: the relation between justification and sanctification, in which Luther becomes my chief interlocutor, and the relation between “satisfaction” and punishment, a subsidiary but crucial topic that if anything is even more misunderstood today. Both of these have very significant implications for pastoral theology, as for systematic theology.

Those two chapters are followed by a pair on doxology. The first of these treats what I call “doxological Pelagianism”; that is, the tendency to rely on nature to perfect itself even in the act of worship, where the grace of God in Jesus Christ should be most evident. It will be among the most controversial chapters in the book, since it takes its cue from Protestant thinkers while contending that the problem is more exaggerated in Protestantism than in Catholicism, where it is also present.

The second is a detailed treatment of the problem of transubstantiation. Here I return to Aquinas, and to the task of rethinking some of his ideas by way of a more adequate eschatology. I expect this chapter to be controversial as well, even inside Catholicism. But both Catholics and Protestants, if they read it patiently, will perhaps find that the whole stubborn business—the very serious business—of transubstantiation appears in a fresh light.

CWR: You don’t shy from controversy, but neither do you shy from the historic faith of the Church. Is that a difficult line to walk?

Dr. Farrow: Sometimes it is, yes. The faith is handed down to us by the Church. We don’t get to invent it. But we do share in the task and responsibility of trying to understand it. Hence we require both humility and boldness if we want to do theology well.

CWR: You engage in that task with a wide range of famous theologians, from St. Paul to Irenaeus to Augustine and Aquinas, as well as (among Protestants) Luther, Calvin, Barth, and other modern thinkers. But St. Anselm seems to appear in nearly every essay in some way or another. What in particular attracts you to him?

Dr. Farrow: Good question. Anselm, who stands at the beginning of the Scholastic period, does not have the benefit of Aquinas, but he has refined what came before him (Augustine especially) in some really interesting ways. And he has an amazing capacity to think biblically, theologically, and philosophically at the same time, while ordering his thoughts dialogically in a most concise and compelling fashion. He is not as voluminous as Augustine or Aquinas, but he has no less to say. He is like Irenaeus in that respect, though his style and his context are very different. His critics, I find, and some who lean on him, have not penetrated very deeply into his thinking.

CWR: In the Introduction, you write, “Nominalism is Western civilization’s wounded side, from which is flowing, not water and blood, but blood and fire.” Can you provide some background and context to that strong statement?

Dr. Farrow: That is said with respect to modernity’s doomed attempt to re-found Western civilization on the basis that “God” is merely a concept in the world, a way of speaking about emergent order in the world, rather than the living God, the God of the Bible who through the incarnation suffers and dies with man, who as man actually conquers death for the sake of life eternal. It was through nominalism that we learned to regard the latter as myth, as an empty vessel that could be filled with fresh content as required. But the fresh content we have poured into it has not brought progress towards perpetual peace, as the fathers of modernity hoped. It has brought moral confusion, incited hubris of every kind, and led to the sickness unto death; that is, despair. Western civilization is crumbling before our eyes, and being torn down by our own hands. We’ve decided that there’s little or nothing there worth salvaging, not even the statuary, as it turns out.

CWR: With that in mind, let’s focus on Chapter 7, simply titled “Autonomy”, which dives deeply into the modern and post-modern significance of nominalism. William of Ockham, of course, is a key player. What did Ockham teach about the will and intellect that set the stage for later thinkers—and problems?

Dr. Farrow: Ockham is a key player, but I see the game as having begun much earlier. That chapter begins with the quarrel between Roscelin and Anselm, who recognized right away that Roscelin’s attempt to think without appeal to universals would render the great Christian achievements in theology—the doctrine of the incarnation and hence of the Trinity—unintelligible. Which it did, as Ockham later admitted.

In the universities that had meanwhile been founded in the Scholastic era, Ockham and friends nevertheless set this nominalist train of thought moving again. A renewed focus on particulars (something Aquinas and Duns Scotus had already sought in a trinitarian fashion) rather than on universals contributed something essential to modern science, which by then was well underway, thanks in part to the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. But Ockham, who could make no sense of Church dogma, effectively sundered the unity between theology and philosophy, whether metaphysical or natural. What I called in Chapter 1 the pax Thomistica was done irreparable damage. The rest is history, better known history, but history that still needs elucidation.

CWR: It took a few more centuries, you write, until “someone appeared who was ready to make doubt itself into a new beginning for man.” Who was that someone, and what did he do—if we might put it this way—to make doubt the starting point for philosophical thought and theological speculation?

Dr. Farrow: Descartes, of course. Chapter 7 comes to its climax by way of a detailed but concise comparison between Anselm and Descartes; that is, between their two contrasting ontological arguments, one resting on God, Who is Who He is, and the other resting on man—the man who wants to make sure for himself that he is. He is not content to be made by God that he might share in the life of God; in the secret chambers of his heart he wishes to supplant God. This is the man (not Descartes himself but the type of man) I have in mind in the chapter’s subtitle, Sic transit anima ad infernum. “Thus passes the soul to hell.”

CWR: Before you get to that, you discuss “the modern autonomy movement” at some length. What do you mean by that? And why do you say that through this movement nominalism ends up attacking the body?

Dr. Farrow: The drive for autonomy Anselm attributes archetypally to the devil. Anselm could already see, a thousand years ago, where nominalism was headed. But to understand its evolution and its present form requires us to pass through the Enlightenment and the Romantic era to the political philosophy and psychology of our own era. The modern autonomy movement has many new elements.

One of them is the recognition that man—of course, there is no more “man,” only individuals—cannot properly assert his autonomous individuality so long as he is determined by what is given rather than by what is chosen without precondition. But the body is given. It is the nearest and most certain, indeed stubborn, sign that man is not self-created and therefore not autonomous in the way he intends to be.

Would-be autonomous man must therefore assert himself not only over nature as such, but over his own body. He must make his body malleable and subject to his own purposes. He must be free to determine whether a pregnancy will result in a lived life. He must be free, if he wishes to be free, of “the sex assigned him at birth.” He must be free to determine the date and time and manner of his own death. He must also make war upon the Holy Eucharist, where the body and blood of our Lord is miraculously given to those who know that the human being is designed, as Irenaeus says, to be the grateful receptacle of God’s goodness—who believe that a genuine human being is homo gratus, not homo ingratus.

CWR: But is autonomy all bad, then? Or is there a sense in which autonomy, properly conceived, belongs to authentic human freedom?  How do we “get autonomy right”?

Dr. Farrow: There is indeed a sense in which autonomy belongs to authentic human freedom.

We get freedom and autonomy wrong when we insist with the devil on thinking and willing independently of God, through whom and because of whom we are actually able to think and to will; when we set our own thoughts and purposes alongside God’s as if we were not subject to God. For it belongs only to God, as Anselm says, to will as if there were no higher will than his own. We get freedom right, and we attain to true autonomy, when we learn to think and will alongside God, for God’s own sake; when we rule ourselves by gratefully directing our thoughts and purposes along the paths God in his goodness has laid out for us.

All of this takes us back to Genesis 3, of course, and to the question as to whether we will fulfill the divine purpose that we should be as gods by being with and for and like God—passing thus to heaven—or whether we will seek to thwart the divine purpose by becoming, more and more like Lucifer in his profound loneliness and resentment—passing thus to hell.

CWR: What bearing does all this have, if any, on the idea of justice or our pursuit of justice?

Dr. Farrow: O, how we love to talk about justice! Not, any longer, with the dedication of the Greek philosophers, not with the acumen of the Hebrew prophets and Christian apostles, but with the hypocrisy and arrogance of the posturing professor or politician, or even the violence of the protester in the streets, for whom “justice” means breaking the bruised reed, defunding the police, burning Bibles and flags—justice Portland-style. We’ve gone round in a circle, and we’re coming right back to the justice of the mob. (Leonard Cohen’s song, “The Future,” is worth a listen, if you’ve the stomach for it.) That’s because we’re lost in the woods of a Lucifer-like autonomy. Justice begins with the fear of God and, as the sursum corda proclaims, lifting up our hearts in gratitude to God.

CWR: Indeed! Now that’s just one chapter, albeit one of the two longest chapters. After that you turn to the problem of the relation between Jew and Gentile, which you seem to take with equal seriousness, before returning briefly to the fear of God in the final chapter. Why do you do that?

Dr. Farrow: Because we won’t get back on track in society at large if we don’t back on track in the Church first, which we must do regardless. And I agree to some extent—though not entirely, as readers will see in Chapter 8—that there is an outstanding problem in the Church, a problem that helped provoke the Reformation but was also exacerbated by the Reformation, as earlier chapters suggest. That problem is a thinning out of the biblical theology of the New Testament, a loss of sensitivity to its Jewish roots and fibres, a secret or not-so-secret Marcionism.

Unfortunately some are proposing a false solution, a solution that undermines the pax Paulinica, as I call it—the unity of Jew and Gentile in the Church. So I turn to that in the penultimate chapter, “To the Jew First,” and then to the letter to the Hebrews in the concluding chapter, “The Gift of Fear.” Hebrews wonderfully accentuates the basic fact of the Old Testament, that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.

CWR: You’ve another book coming out from the same publisher, hard on the heels of Theological Negotiations: a “theological negotiation” in the Brazos commentary series of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. Are the two books linked in any way?

Dr. Farrow: They’re linked in a purely formal sense by Baker’s fine production, I must say. They’re linked materially by my focus during this past decade on the need of many sectors even within the Church—never mind Western civilization as such—to recover a properly biblical, as well as a soundly theological, view of the world and of human destiny. I was working on these books simultaneously and I’m glad they’ve appeared in quick succession. I hope they will both be helpful to people who share that sense of need, and who have begun to grasp that sound Christian thinking is not either biblical or theological, but always and essentially both.

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About Carl E. Olson 1200 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. We read of: “…modernity’s doomed attempt to re-found Western civilization on the basis that ‘God’ [who] is merely a concept in the world, a way of speaking about emergent order in the world, rather than the living God, the God of the Bible who through the incarnation suffers and dies with man, who as man actually conquers death for the sake of life eternal.”

    The obsolete quest for a “grammar” of discourse in the public forum—-this is a fool’s errand WHEN POLITICS, ITSELF, HAS BEEN OVERTAKEN BY MOLOCH. Instead, Professor Farrow explains what we also find in St. Bernard: “God has spoken once. Once, indeed, because forever. His is a single, uninterrupted utterance, because it is continuous and unending” (St. Bernard, Sermon, Liturgy of the Hours, Vol. IV). Not a grammar, but the singular Word…

    When even the Chosen People went native, they also ended up sacrificing their own families and children to Baal. Today what is different? Only the flimsy political veneer?

    APPLYING Farrow’s excellent analysis to what is INTERRELIGIOUS (beyond “ecumenical”), we can see that discourse with the “followers of Islam” (rather than the impenetrable package of Shari’a Islam), requires more than a common grammar in the Western public forum, but a memory of what Pope St. John Paul II taught so clearly “…the commandment of love of God and neighbor does not have in its dynamic any higher limit, but it does have a lower limit, beneath which the commandment is BROKEN” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 52).

    The world today—-not any “emergent order in the world,” but BROKEN as in Moloch.

    Where Farrow speaks of FALSE AUTONOMY, we are reminded of what Muslim apologists misunderstand in today’s West—-our post-Christian (!) and nominalistic rendering of human freedom as a “separate autonomy” (absent the conjoined Catholic Social Teaching of “responsibility”) from Islam’s singular (and engulfing/fatalistic) autonomy of God.

    Today, the MISSED CONNECTION in Islamic-Catholic discourse is not any “pluralism of religions” (an ambiguity at best, or already a submission to Islam’s engulfing cosmopolitanism), but Farrow’s “at bottom grace/nature questions.” That is, real ONENESS as found in the coherence between revelation and the gifted natural law (and moral theology). Catholic witness does not affirm a counterfeit unity of flat-earth pluralism or human fraternity alone, but rather—-the mystery of Triune Oneness (not Islam’s monolithic monotheism); and the total unity of the divine and human natures in the one Incarnation; and the total body-soul unity and (therefore) transcendent dignity of the human person.

    With the return of Moloch (now a political platform!), political and interreligious discourse is not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

  2. Autonomy a double edged sword. Of Damocles poised to sever Man from God. Although free choice in its nuclear form means surrender to God, which most of us resist preferring autonomy. Why Dr Farrow distinguishes autonomy from freedom. Why then is it complicated? Intellect. God’s gift that conceptualizes what slips beyond intellect’s grasp, the spiritual. Analogy language ideas expressed in sound or writing cannot convey all that the mind knows and that which is beyond. Soteriology unhampered by Theology reduced to logic as the Scholastics interpreted Aquinas is a freedom of expression for good or evil. Josef Fuchs SJ took soteriological love beyond Natural Law to an envisioned unrestricted Love of the Redeemer, rather than the restrictive Creator Word. Exceptions exist, not rule that separates Redeemer from Word. A more complete understanding of our compulsive idea of Christian unity, really a limiting concept of God is Biblical fear of God. The former compulsion Pelagianism the latter the work of grace, “the grace of God in Jesus Christ should be most evident. It will be among the most controversial chapters in the book”. Then I would venture that referring to grace and that ensuing raw, fiery faith gifted to the unlettered, the common Christ reveals, “From the appearance of John the Baptist until now Heaven is under assault, and the violent are taking it by storm”.

  3. To me this passage is the entire key to autonomy rightly understood. “We get freedom and autonomy wrong when we insist with the devil on thinking and willing independently of God, through whom and because of whom we are actually able to think and to will…”

    God is utterly self giving love (and truth). There is no competition between us and the love that God has for us. This I think Bishop Barron stresses and gets right and resolves the modern problem with God’s movement in our life. It is the dance of existence and while God is the leader, he leads us to our own perfection.

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