Edward T. OAKES, S.J., A Theology of Grace in Six Controversies. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016, pp. 248, $28.00 pb. ISBN 9780802873200. Reviewed by Wilburn T. STANCIL, Rockhurst University, Kansas City, MO 64110. 


Edward Oakes, S.J., whose contributions to theology over the years have been immense, has left us with his final work, much of which was written after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Father Oakes, who was professor of dogmatic theology at Mundelein Seminary and University of St. Mary of the Lake, died in 2013.

Oakes was especially known for his participation in Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), an ecumenical document signed in 1994 by leading Evangelical and Catholic scholars and churchmen. In the judgment of Bishop Robert Barron, whose Foreword introduces this book, the six controversies expounded represent something of Oakes’ ecumenical endeavors in the ETC project. Certainly the controversies discussed are important for the ECT dialogue; but they also represent ongoing concerns in the history of theology. Oakes himself notes the perennial nature of these controversies by pointing out that the word “grace” has been imbued with innumerable adjectives: sanctifying grace, habitual grace, prevenient grace, actual grace, sacramental grace, condign grace, sufficient grace, irresistible grace, etc. Oakes believes that ultimately controversies clarify, and the way forward is to search out what progress has been made in the writings of key theologians who have sought resolutions.

The six controversies are succinctly delineated in the chapter titles:

1. Nature and Grace
2. Sin and Justification
3. Evolution and Original Sin
4. Free Will and Predestination
5. Experience and Divinization

6. Mary, Mediatrix of Graces

The foundational chapter for the book is the first one on nature and grace. For Oakes, this matter must be treated up front because the nature/grace controversy has implications for the other controversies. Oakes clearly lays out the two positions: the intrinsicists, who find continuity between nature and grace, and the extrinsicists, who focus on the discontinuity between the two. The crucial question for Oakes is, how much agency should be attributed to God and how much to the person?

In his reading of Aquinas, Oakes explores passages that support both views. Ultimately, he finds a solution in the work of German theologian Matthias Joseph Scheeben (1835-1888). Scheeben believes there must be a clear distinction between nature and grace, but his image is not one of a two-story building with grace sitting on top of nature but rather a nuptial image, the two joined in a marriage bond.  Scheeben grounds this view in the hypostatic union of Christ’s natures.  The relationship with God is not strictly natural only, nor is it strictly adoptive but something in between.  Therefore, one can speak of both our “rights” and God’s “obligations.”
While each of the other five controversies deserves attention in this review, for the sake of brevity I will focus on the one probably most controversial, Mary, Mediatrix of Graces. Even Catholics are not so sure about this Marian title, though much Catholic concern centers on ecumenical issues.  Precisely in that spirit, Oakes believes this title actually reinforces concerns that are especially Protestant in nature, such as sola gratia and sola scriptura.

Following Balthasar’s lead, Oakes believes that the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception holds the key to the question of her being Mediatrix of Graces.  For Oakes, Mary’s Immaculate Conception “actually dovetails quite neatly with important Reformation concerns, especially the topoi of unmerited grace and predestination.” (p. 229) Since the dogma affirms that Mary was given a singular grace at her conception (“...  one can hardly ‘merit’ grace until one first exists. . .”, p. 232) in some sense she must have been predestined to be the Mother of God.

With reference to sola scriptura, Oakes suggests that the key question is how the Old Testament relates to New.  The Church Fathers and medieval theologians universally used typological parallels in both their Christology and their Mariology.  “There can be no question,” Oakes concludes, “that the biblical justification for the dogma of the Immaculate Conception stands or falls with the admission of the typological interpretation of the Old Testament. . .” (p. 242) Edward Oakes’ immense learning is fully on display in A Theology of Grace in Six Controversies, though not in an ostentatious way. Conversant with ancient, medieval, and modern theologians and exegetes, Oakes has accomplished what he set out to do, namely, to move the discussion forward by surveying the contributions of key theologians. Along the way, Oakes suggests his own possible solutions to these perennial, theological problems. This is a book to be read, underlined, and carefully digested.