Henri de Lubac, Contemporary Atheism, and the Persuasiveness of Christian Doctrine

Henri de Lubac (1896–1991) arrived on the Lyon peninsula in September 1929 at the age of thirty-four. Because of the early retirement of Fr. Albert Valensin, de Lubac was somewhat hastily appointed to the chair of fundamental theology in the Faculty of Theology at the Université Catholique de Lyon. With little preparation, and with even fewer resources at his disposal, de Lubac delivered his inaugural lecture the following month on the subject of “apologetics and theology.” The lecture was largely well received by those in attendance (a group of about fifteen candidates for the licentiate or doctoral degrees) and was published the following year as “Apologétique et Théologie” (“Apologetics and Theology”) in the Nouvelle revue théologique by the Jesuits of Louvain.

Like nearly all of de Lubac’s writings, “Apologetics and Theology” is an occasional piece, arising not simply from the demands of a lectureship in fundamental theology, but also from his readings and experiences as a student of theology in the 1920s and, more generally, the theological and political landscape of French Catholicism in the early twentieth century. Like Surnaturel (that epochal text which precipitated one of the century’s most heated and wide-ranging theological debates), “Apologetics and Theology” mounts a provocative challenge to both the “immanentism” of secular modernity and the “extrinsicism” of the then regnant forms of Roman Catholic theology. That is, in “Apologetics and Theology,” de Lubac attempts to subvert what he believes to be the common methodological and metaphysical commitments underwriting both contemporary atheism and Roman Catholic neo-Scholasticism.

As its title suggests, de Lubac’s lecture offers an investigation of the relationship between the tasks of theology and Christian apologetics. “Apologetics and Theology” begins with a critical assessment of contemporary forms of apologetics, apologetics forged largely in reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment project and the fideism and/or traditionalism to which many in the Roman Catholic Church (particularly in France) sought refuge. According to de Lubac, “It is a fact that there exists an apologetics that is small-minded, purely defensive, too opportunistic or completely superficial—not from temporary necessity, but from principle—and, thus, its value is meager.”[1] De Lubac is careful to avoid implicating any contemporary exponents of this “small-minded” apologetics—a fact that, however politically expedient, risks positing something of a straw man in his argument—but he clearly has in mind the excesses of a whole school of neo-Scholastic apologetics emerging particularly in the wake of Vatican I (1869–70) and the Anti-Modernist Oath of 1910. According to this school of thought, the task of apologetics is concerned primarily, if not exclusively, with establishing the fact of revelation “scientifically.” The supernatural content of revelation is thus relegated to the domain of theology, while the task of apologetics is restricted to the rational demonstration of the credibility of the Christian religion.

According to Vatican I, the submission of the intellect to the truth of revelation is contingent on the internal assistance of the Holy Spirit and the supernatural virtue of faith. However, “in order that the submission of our faith should be in accord with reason,” God also willed that there should be “outward indications of his revelation” suited to the understanding of believers and nonbelievers alike. First and foremost among such external evidences are miracles and fulfilled prophecies. “The Oath against the Errors of Modernism” promulgated by Pius X expands on this pronouncement on the demonstrability of the authority of revelation. The clergy who attached their signatures to this oath confessed:

I admit and recognize the external arguments of revelation, that is, divine facts, and especially miracles and prophecies, as very certain signs of the divine origin of the Christian religion; and I hold that these same arguments have been especially accommodated to the intelligence of all ages and men, even of these times.[2]

Without impugning the Vatican documents—indeed, de Lubac appeals explicitly to Vatican I in support of his argument[3]—de Lubac expresses concern about the form of apologetics that arose in their wake. Or rather, de Lubac calls into question an entire construal of the nature and task of theology, a system of theologizing that actually preceded the Vatican documents by more than two centuries and, according to de Lubac, deleteriously influenced the way that these documents were received by nineteenth- and twentieth-century Catholic apologists:

The error consists in conceiving of dogma as a kind of “thing in itself,” as a block of revealed truth with no relationship whatsoever to natural man, as a transcendent object whose demonstration . . . has been determined by the arbitrary nature of a “divine decree.” According to these theologians, when the apologist wishes to pass from reason to faith, he has only to establish a completely extrinsic connection between the two, just as one builds a footbridge to connect separate banks. He has only to observe, with the support of certain signs, that “God has spoken” in history. And, just as it has never been his business to ask what man might be expecting, he is not to concern himself with what God has said.[4]

Already in his inaugural lecture, therefore, de Lubac adopts a line of critique that would come to permeate his theological writings for the next fifty years. In an effort to protect the gratuity of the supernatural and the integrity of nature, certain theologians had posited a strictly extrinsic relation between these two orders. This “separated theology,” de Lubac argues, “makes dogma into a kind of ‘superstructure,’ believing that, if dogma is to remain ‘supernatural,’ it must be ‘superficial’. . . . Such a theology has acted as though the same God were not the author of both nature and grace, and of nature in view of grace!”[5] The apologetics engendered by such a “small-minded theology” thus remains “indefinitely at the threshold of the temple—that temple within whose walls dogma nourishes deep thought.”[6] Such an apologetics presumes to demonstrate the truth of revelation without properly attending to its content.

In place of such extrinsic accounts of the relationship between theology and apologetics, de Lubac’s lecture gestures in the direction of an alternative construal of these two disciplines based on what he insists to be a more “traditional” account of the relation between nature and grace. Rather than considering apologetics and theology in abstraction from one another—as two largely autonomous enterprises corresponding to the heteronomous realms of nature and grace—de Lubac insists on their compenetration. For according to de Lubac, “a theology that does not constantly maintain apologetical considerations becomes deficient and distorted, while, on the other hand, all apologetics that wishes to be fully effective must end up in theology.”[7] In order to retain its “forcefulness of thought” and its “spiritual value,” theology must concern itself with the demands of evangelism, the rendering intelligible of the vivifying truth of the gospel in ever-changing contexts and circumstances.

Theology must therefore attend to the concerns and the aspirations of each new generation in order to provide an adequate response. Apologetics, meanwhile, if it hopes to be effectual, must venture beyond the “threshold of the temple,” beyond, that is, the strictures of “pure reason.” For though reason itself is wholly incapable of arriving at the supernatural truth of revelation, the latter alone is capable of satisfying the dynamism of human reason. For de Lubac, therefore, “there is no better way . . . for giving an explanation of our Faith . . . than to work with all our strength for its understanding. We must, by the fides quaerens intellectum [faith seeking understanding], step forward to meet the intellectus quaerens fidem [understanding seeking faith].”[8] As de Lubac argues in a number of places throughout his works, nature is teleologically ordered to the supernatural. Reason finds its fulfillment only in the revelation of God. As such, the credibility of the Christian faith resides, not primarily in external proofs, but rather in the intelligibility of the faith itself and in the understanding of all things (including the movement of reason) in the light of this truth. According to de Lubac, it is therefore doctrine “that attracts and conquers intelligence.”[9] De Lubac concludes his inaugural lecture by insisting that this conquering of the intelligence by doctrine, this compenetration of theology and apologetics, is the proper task of fundamental theology. It is the task, in other words, to which de Lubac understood himself to have been appointed as the chair of fundamental theology at the Université Catholique de Lyon.


More than thirty years after his inaugural lecture in Lyon, by which time de Lubac had himself “retired” from his chair in the Faculty of Theology,[10] de Lubac returned to the question of fundamental theology, to the apologetic function of Christian doctrine and the properly theological task of the Church’s apologetics. The impetus for these reflections was the invitation to deliver a lecture at a symposium in 1966 on “The Theological Task Confronting the Church Today” at Saint Xavier College (now Saint Xavier University) in Chicago.[11] This lecture, entitled “Nature and Grace,” was subsequently developed and significantly expanded in de Lubac’s Athéisme et sens de l’homme in 1968.[12] There are a number of striking similarities between these writings and de Lubac’s earlier lecture on “Apologetics and Theology.” In both the 1966 lecture and the 1968 publication, de Lubac retains his earlier polemic against a “separated theology,” against a purely extrinsic construal of the relation between nature and the supernatural in which the latter appears “as an artificial superstructure.”[13] De Lubac likewise continues to insist on the importance of theology’s attentiveness to the aspirations and concerns of the particular context in which it finds itself. Finally, de Lubac remains emphatic that it is the supernatural content of Christian doctrine that provides the ultimate apologia for the truth of the Christian religion.

In the later writings, however, the abstract generalizations of de Lubac’s inaugural lecture take on a certain concreteness, and a radical shift in the theological and political landscape of twentieth-century Roman Catholicism permits a noticeable change of key in de Lubac’s rhetoric. Whereas the 1929 lecture was largely defensive—the protest of a newly appointed lecturer against prevailing modes of theology and apologetics—the later writings demonstrate a calm assurance of what de Lubac insists to be explicit conciliar justification for his arguments. “Nature and Grace” and Athéisme et sens de l’homme both proceed by way of a commentary on Gaudium et spes, Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (1965). According to de Lubac, this document, the original schema of which he had some input as peritus (theological expert) to the council, places the “seal of its authority” on the understanding of nature and grace championed by de Lubac and others throughout the 1940s and 50s.[14]

Whereas an attentiveness to the particularities of a theologian’s context is offered as a general principle in “Apologetics and Theology,” de Lubac’s later writings follow Gaudium et spes in delineating modern atheism as the Church’s primary interlocutor. According to de Lubac, “the main doctrinal task to which the Constitution Gaudium et Spes summons and stimulates us is a confrontation with contemporary atheism.”[15] Finally, with respect to the properly doctrinal content of the Church’s apologetics, de Lubac insists that a confrontation with atheist humanism ought to consist primarily in the articulation of a Christian anthropology.[16]

As de Lubac argues elsewhere, the prevailing atheism(s) of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—the atheisms set forth, for example, by Auguste Comte, Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche—were nearly universally predicated on humanist grounds. That is, for these thinkers, the rejection of God was stipulated as the necessary condition for the exaltation of humanity. At the very least, therefore, the Christian must be able “to show by a sort of peaceful competition, in deeds as well as words, that ‘we also, we Christians, we, more than anyone else have the cult of man.’”[17] In other words, the Christian must demonstrate that, rather than denigrating the human subject or the greater human totality, the Church’s teaching with respect to the nature of human beings and their common destiny and the Church’s own form of social existence secure the dignity and the intrinsic value of humanity in a manner that atheist humanism is ultimately incapable of securing. As de Lubac argues already in his first book, Catholicism (1938), those who insist that nothing short of humanity is worthy of adoration “are obliged to look higher than the earth in the pursuit of their quest. . . . For a transcendent destiny that presupposes the existence of a transcendent God is essential to the realization of a destiny that is truly collective, that is, to the constitution of this humanity in the concrete.”[18]

However necessary, de Lubac is nevertheless adamant that this “peaceful competition” with the various humanisms on offer throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in no way exhausts the Church’s confrontation with contemporary atheism. As de Lubac argues in both the 1966 lecture and in Athéisme et sens de l’homme, the struggle with atheism is at root a thoroughly hermeneutical enterprise. That is, in her development of a “Christian anthropology,” and in conversation with the atheism of her interlocutors, the Church continually navigates three interrelated lines of interpretation: a hermeneutics of contemporary atheism, a hermeneutics of the Christian scriptures, and a hermeneutics of human existence. The first line of interpretation—the effort to understand the Church’s interlocutor—is true of any intellectual exchange. Mutual understanding is a necessary condition for any constructive dialogue. Discourse entails the search for points of convergence and of divergence. In the case of the Church’s confrontation with contemporary atheism, this effort at understanding is particularly apposite. For the primary assault waged by atheist humanism against Christianity is not, according to de Lubac, the logical refutation of a metaphysical assertion or a considered dismantling of the traditional proofs of God’s existence. It is rather an effort to understand the Christian mysteries in terms of its own immanentist dialectic. According to Feuerbach, for instance, the divine being is nothing other than the projection of a “purified” human nature into infinite objectivity. Theology is therefore wholly reducible to anthropology.[19] According to de Lubac, “in order not to be ‘understood’ in this sense, only one way is open: to do some understanding. Therefore the Christian must understand atheism.” In confronting the atheistic reduction of theology to anthropology, the Christian must work to convey the extent to which all anthropology supposes a theology.[20]

The second line of interpretation concerns what we have referred to as the properly theological task of Christian apologetics. As de Lubac argues in his inaugural lecture, there is no better way for giving an explanation of the Christian faith than to work for its understanding. The task of fundamental theology begins in an encounter with the Word of God, an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ through the mediating witness of scripture within the community of the Church. The Christian anthropology that the theologian seeks to develop in conversation with contemporary atheism is wholly contingent upon this encounter. For according to de Lubac, “In revealing to us the God who is the end of man, Jesus Christ, the Man-God, reveals us to ourselves, and without him the ultimate foundation of our being would remain an enigma to us.”[21] It is in looking to scripture, therefore, and to the person and works of Jesus Christ in particular, that the theologian comes to understand the vocation of human beings in terms of their common ordination to graced fellowship with God.

Finally, according to de Lubac, a confrontation with contemporary atheism entails what he refers to as a hermeneutics of human existence. Appealing to the philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, de Lubac insists:

Behind the question of autonomy, behind that of enjoyment and power, arises the question of meaning and non-sense. The thinking of the modern world is marked by both increasing rationality and increasing absurdity . . . Of course it is true that people today lack justice, and they certainly also lack love. But what they lack above all is meaning. The primordial function of the Christian community is to be for them a “witness and agent of fundamental meaning."[22]

As I argue throughout Henri de Lubac and the Drama of Human Existence, for de Lubac, a hermeneutics of human existence consists primarily in an interpretation of human existence in the light of humanity’s supernatural vocation. It is something of a mediating discourse between the two lines of interpretation mentioned above, between a hermeneutics of contemporary atheism and a hermeneutics of the biblical writings. As an apologetic endeavor, the Church’s hermeneutics of human existence is necessarily public. It seeks to be intelligible to the unbeliever as well as the believer. As such, it often avails itself of the insights of philosophy, of what Maurice Blondel referred to as the “method of immanence.” It attempts to demonstrate, by way of reflection on the dynamism of human thought and action, an “intrinsic relationship between rational speculation and supernatural revelation.”[23] On the other hand, however, the Church’s hermeneutics of human existence everywhere presupposes the faith of the Church. It is always an “understanding of faith.” It is not, therefore, a theology incognito—a statement of faith masking itself as a purely rational demonstration. It is rather the unveiling of the meaning of human existence in the light of the gospel and a corresponding demonstration of the absurdity of human being in abstraction from this truth.

In both the opening to his 1966 lecture and in the introduction to Athéisme et sens de l’homme, de Lubac insists that he is simply “following in the wake of the Council,” taking up certain problems delineated throughout Gaudium et spes “in order to give an account both of its teachings and of the temper of mind that it urges upon us.” De Lubac’s remarks are therefore “entirely prospective, in the sense that I do not pretend to bring forward a ready-made theory, or even propose a definitive conclusion, but simply to point to a direction for research.”[24] One of my central aims in Henri de Lubac and the Drama of Human Existence is to demonstrate the extent to which de Lubac need only have gestured in the direction of his own body of writing. As I seek to demonstrate throughout the book, de Lubac’s entire oeuvre is shot-through with this hermeneutical enterprise. From his inaugural lecture in 1929 to those writings published in the final decade of his life, de Lubac was continually devoted to what he perceived to be the principal theological task facing the Church today. In his confrontation with contemporary atheism, and in his numerous writings on nature and grace, theological epistemology, a theology of history, and even on Christian mysticism, de Lubac sets out to develop the theological and philosophical resources necessary for the direction of research indicated in his commentaries on Gaudium et spes. A theological hermeneutics of human existence is central to de Lubac’s corpus.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is adapted from Henri de Lubac and the Drama of Human Existence. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. All rights reserved.

[1] De Lubac, “Apologetics and Theology,” Theological Fragments (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 92.

[2] Pius X, “The Oath against the Errors of Modernism,” in The Sources of Catholic Dogma, ed. Heinrich Denzinger (St. Louis: Herder Book Co., 1957), 550.

[3] See “Apologetics and Theology,” 95.

[4] Ibid., 93.

[5] Ibid., 94–95.

[6] Ibid., 91.

[7] Ibid., 96, emphasis original.

[8] Ibid., 98, emphasis original.

[9] Ibid., 97.

[10] In the summer of 1950, de Lubac was removed from his teaching duties at the Faculty of Theology on account of “pernicious errors on essential points of dogma.” De Lubac was finally permitted to resume teaching in November 1959 until March 1, 1960, at which time he resigned in good standing.

[11] Later published as Henri de Lubac, “Nature and Grace,” in The Word in History, ed. T. Patrick Burke (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1966), 24–40.

[12] A portion of the second chapter of Athéisme et sens de l’homme has been translated into English as “The Total Meaning of Man and the World,” Communio 35 (Winter 2008): 613–41.

[13] De Lubac, “Nature and Grace,” 32; “The Total Meaning of Man and the World,” 619.

[14] De Lubac, “The Total Meaning of Man and the World,” 620; see de Lubac, “The ‘Supernatural’ at Vatican II,” BC, 177–90.

[15] “Nature and Grace,” 26.

[16] Ibid., 24.

[17] Ibid., 26.

[18] De Lubac, Catholicism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 353.

[19] See Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Prometheus Books, 1989).

[20] “Nature and Grace,” 29–30.

[21] “The Total Meaning of Man and the World,” 626–27.

[22] Paul Ricoeur, “Sciences humaines et conditionnements de la foi,” Recherches et Débats 14 (1965): 140; cited in de Lubac, “The Total Meaning of Man and the World,” 628 (emphasis added).

[23] Henri de Lubac, “On Christian Philosophy,” Communio 19, no. 3 (1992): 482–83.

[24] “Nature and Grace,” 25.

Featured Image: Crivelli, Sts. Peter and Paul, 1470; Source Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Jordan Hillebert

Jordan Hillebert is Director of Formation and Tutor in Theology at St. Padarn’s Institute (Cardiff) and an honorary lecturer at Cardiff University. He is the author of Henri de Lubac and the Drama of Human Existence and editor of T&T Clark Companion to Henri de Lubac.

Read more by Jordan Hillebert

Henri de Lubac and the Mystical Body of Christ

The Church on earth is the visible manifestation of Christ’s love that is enfleshed between each of her members. St. Jerome described this incarnation of love in his famous phrase Corpus Christi ecclesia est, quae vinculo stringitu...

Lawrence Lew Disputation