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Was Aquinas a Proto-Protestant? Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Thursday, 09 December 2010

Catholics are often surprised to learn that there are Evangelical Protestants who claim to be Thomists. When I was a Protestant, I was one of them. What attracts these Evangelicals are Thomas’s views on faith and reason, his philosophy of the human person, command of Scripture, and intellectual rigor. Some of them think that on justification, Thomas is closer to the Protestant Reformers than to the Catholic view (as taught in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church). The late Presbyterian theologian John Gerstner, for instance, claimed that with St. Augustine, St. Thomas “taught the biblical doctrine of justification so that if the Roman Church had followed Aquinas the Reformation would not have been absolutely necessary.” Others have made similar arguments, but they are spectacularly wrong. As usual, it all hinges on understanding faith and works. 

For St. Thomas, justification refers not only to entrance into the family of God at Baptism – administered for the remission of sins – but to the infusion of sanctifying grace at Baptism and all the subsequent graces that work to transform the Christian from the inside out. Consider, for instance, Aquinas’s explanation of sanctifying grace as habitual grace: “a double effect of grace, even as of every other form; the first of which is ‘being,’ and the second, ‘operation.’” For example, “the work of heat is to make its subject hot, and to give heat outwardly. And thus habitual grace, inasmuch as it heals and justifies the soul, or makes it pleasing to God, is called operating grace; but inasmuch as it is the principle of meritorious works, which spring from the free-will, it is called cooperating grace.” 

Because God is the sole mover in the infusion of habitual grace, it is entirely attributable to Him. In technical language, this is called operating grace. But if habitual grace is supposed to heal and justify the soul, and the soul has by nature certain powers to think and act, then this healing and justification must manifest itself in the activities of the soul. Thus, these acts allow us to cooperate with God for our inward transformation. Aquinas calls this cooperating grace, since any meritorious acts performed by a soul infused with habitual grace by God would lack merit without that grace and thus without God’s cooperation. Writes St. Thomas: “God does not justify us without ourselves, because whilst we are being justified we consent to God’s justification [justitiae] by a movement of our free-will. Nevertheless this movement is not the cause of grace, but the effect; hence the whole operation pertains to grace.”

 
       St. Thomas Dedicating His Works to Christ (Santi di Tito)

For Aquinas, justification and sanctification are not different events, one extrinsic and the other intrinsic, as the Protestant Augusburg (1530) and Westminster (1646) confessions teach. Rather, “sanctification” is the ongoing intrinsic work of justifying, or making the Christian rightly-ordered by means of God’s grace, the same grace that intrinsically changed the believer at the moment of her initial “justification” (i.e., at Baptism) into an adopted child of the Father. Writes Aquinas, “Augustine says (De Gratia et Lib. Arbit. xvii): ‘God by cooperating with us, perfects what He began by operating in us, since He who perfects by cooperation with such as are willing, begins by operating that they may will.’ But the operations of God whereby He moves us to good pertain to grace. Therefore grace is fittingly divided into operating and cooperating.” For Aquinas, justification is as much about getting heaven into us as it is about getting us into heaven.

The 1994 Catechism is of a piece with St. Thomas: “The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus’ proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’[Matthew 4:17]. Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high.” And it uses the language of cooperating grace in its account of human merit and the role it plays in justification: “The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.”

Oddly, several Evangelicals cite part of this as evidence that the Church teaches “grace plus works,” even though that’s not what the Catechism is saying. The Catechism teaches, "The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness.” (Does that sound to you like “grace plus good works”?)  Consequently, one’s cooperation does not take away from the fact that justification is a work of God, just as Christ’s human nature does not diminish his divine nature, and just as the Bible being authored by human beings is not inconsistent with it being God’s Word. Thus, St. Thomas was more a proto-Tridentine Catholic than a proto-Protestant.

What then accounts for this misreading of the Angelic Doctor? Love. No serious Christian can read St. Thomas without being impressed by his intellect and philosophical acumen, but also his encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture. This no doubt has enkindled in even in the coolest of Protestant hearts a warm affection for Aquinas. These smitten scholars unconsciously find creative ways to make it seem as if a thirteenth-century Dominican Friar was a lonely beacon in a papist fog destined to be vindicated by a sixteenth-century Augustinian Monk. Unfortunately, or fortunately, it is not so.

 
Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University. His blog is returntorome.com. His most recent book is Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft
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Comments (21)Add Comment
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written by Scott Hesener, December 09, 2010
Brilliant article, Dr. Beckwith. I've gained a better understanding of grace and it's effect on the soul. Thanks.
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written by An Observer, December 09, 2010
Great article. Very important topic.

Beyond the specific question of justification, I've lately interacted with Protestants who want to "appropriate" all kinds of Catholic teachings on natural law, efficacy of sacraments, the importance of tradition and a greater emphasis on liturgy. They say that this is a return to the "original" or "true" project of the Reformers (i.e. the Protestant heresiarchs) which has been subsequently distorted by anabaptists and other misguided Protestant sects.

It seems to me that while on the one hand it is true that Calvin and Luther would probably not much resemble the stereotypical modern "Evangelical," there are obviously tremendous problems with their project. It is interesting to see them try to work around or explain away many statements and actions of the Reformers (e.g. Luther throwing almost all of Aristolte out of the Heidelberg curriculum). Above all, the lie is given when you engage them on the metaphysics which undelie their purported advocacy of the natural law.

As one might expect, the "love" that Dr. Beckwith descibes ends with any talk of authority or apostolic succession. I myself think there is a spectrum of possible motives for these folks. At best, it is love. Somewhere in the middle it is simply the recognition of the good of the Cathiolic teaching and a desire, ending in incoherency, to have it all ("We believe in the efficacy of the Sacraments but also in Faith Alone"). Somewhat more sinister: it is an attempt (about the roots of which we will not speculate) to undermine the Catholic Church by creating confusion through obsuring her uniqueness and singularity.
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written by J., December 09, 2010
One missing piece in this essay is the Tridentine doctrine that one can refuse grace. The doctrine of predestination is crucial to the debate.
One also has to recall that in the Reformation the doctrine of justification did not originally appear so difficult to resolve as we often think. At Regensburg thelogians from both sides of the debate had reached some substantial agreement, but their efforts went for nought largely because of agitation against the whole project in Rome. Admittedly, the colloquy would probably have fallen apart anyway over the Eucharist, actually the hottest topic in 16th Century discussion.
In assessing the disaster of the 16th Century, Catholics, cradle or recent, need to bear in mind also that the Reformers seldom encountered the nuanced position of Thomas in the 16th Century debates, facing far more often the less than compelling arguments of Eck, Sadoleto and the Refutation of the Augusburg Confession. The duty of working toward greater unity (Remember Ut unum sint?) demands careful speech and avoidance of polemical simplifications or flourishes, and those virtues were often sorely lacking in 16th Century debates. I do not attribute such faults to Prof. Beckwith's essay, but I do fear the use made of such essays on the more popular level, where nuances tend to fall off the horse as apolegetical combatants rush headlong into battle.
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written by Kevin Walker, December 09, 2010
I think it's important to see Aquinas in light of the way Evangelical Protestants struggle with the tension between John Calvin and Luis Molina. We know Calvin's view well enough, but as people like William Lane Craig, "open" theists, and the Biola crowd will tell you, Molina has a much stronger appeal, given their modern libertarian instincts. As far as I can tell, though, the will does not aim at the good at all for Molina. (He was, after all, a Renaissance guy, so human will was free like Machiavelli's Prince is free.) That, of course, tends to spook some Evangelicals, who then rediscover their Reform background (usually in seminary) and swing back to Calvin.

What they're all missing, though, is the way Thomas holds neither of those views: he's all about a will that is at once free in its choices, but ALSO bound by its tendency to aim at the good.

I think this explains the difficulty that Evangelical-Protestants have with the concept of "works." They hear "works" and think it means laboring toward salvation. But if you look at it the way Thomas Aquinas did, you realize that works really just the way to receive the salvation we're already given.
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written by Francis J. Beckwith, December 09, 2010
Kevin:

Nice insight. I think it's clear that the absence of formal and final causes leaves one with only efficient and material ones. Hence, you need a place to fit "the will," which becomes a sort of Cartesian ad hoc ghost. This is why all the problems arise.

Frank
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written by Br. Reggie, December 09, 2010
I wouldn't quite say that in Aquinas it is that the will is also BOUND by its tendency to aim at the good. (Although perhaps Aquinas puts it in just that way somewhere; who knows.) I would say that it is the will's natural orientation to the good, which is what God causes when He creates it, in conjunction with the faculty of understanding as its form that ENABLES the will to be free in its choices. (Incidentally, Descartes says in the 4th meditation that it is really only in the indifference of the will that he can make sense of the idea of his mind having any likeness to God, not in anything having to do with intellect). So it can be said that God causes not just the will's choices but the actual FREE character of those choices; causes them to BE free in other words. And seeing that God already enables the will in its nature to be free, one might be able to glimpse how grace both heals and further strengthens that enabling in works freely chosen, which makes God the grand enabler of both justification and sanctification.
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written by Micah Murphy, December 09, 2010
"justification is as much about getting heaven into us as it is about getting us into heaven."

I've used this line many times. Guess it's not as original a thought as I supposed. It is, nonetheless, a wonderful thought. Thanks for your commentary on this. I hadn't seen much Thomistic thought on the matter.
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written by Francis J. Beckwith, December 09, 2010
J writes: "I do not attribute such faults to Prof. Beckwith's essay, but I do fear the use made of such essays on the more popular level, where nuances tend to fall off the horse as apolegetical combatants rush headlong into battle." I absolutely agree. In fact, the purpose of my larger project on this matter is to show that how some Protestants read Thomas is the result of the Angelic Doctor's lack of a Reformation foil. And yet, his views on justification are nearly identical to Trent's and the Catechism's. I have a 10,000-word academic paper making this point, which i hope will be published soon in an academic journal
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written by Ismael, December 09, 2010
I fail to see how Thomas could be seen to be a 'proto-protestant', but perhaps because I am not nor I ever was an evangelical Christian...

Wouldn't the all the citations of Church Fathers and even non Christian philosophers (like Aristotle) somewhat distance him from the 'sola scriptura' corner-stone of evengelical Christianity?

Also his ideas of the eucharist are widely rejected by most protestants (eg ST III, Q. LXXV-LXXVI). The same goes for baptism for some eveangelicals (ST III, Q. LXIX, a.6).

An evangelical also would find quite probblematic some notions about Merit Aquinas makes (ST I-I, Q. CXIV)

Perhaps it's same 'creativity' that some protestants use that Augustine was a proto-protestant...
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written by Glenn Gilbert, December 10, 2010
I am an evangelical Protestant who admires Aquinas, particularly his views on predestination. (See Question 23 in the Summa on Predestination.) He seems to take Romans 9 quite literally. (What do you have that you haven't received?) I am having trouble distinguishing his views from Calvin's since Aquinas identifies God as First Cause of everything good.
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written by Steven Reyes, December 10, 2010
Glenn, the difference between St. Thomas' view of Predestination and Calvin's view of destination is that humans maintain actual free will to refuse grace within the model of St. Thomas, and it is by co-operation with grace that we can say yes to God who prepares our wills by His grace. Thus for St. Thomas eternal damnation is on the basis of man's demerits and not the actual act of God. God allows our damnation to occur but He does not will it. God wills all men to be saved in that God gives sufficient grace for all men to be saved, but our free will does not co-operate from time to time. Calvin's assertion is that God absolutely predestines us to Heaven or Hell regardless of our merits and demerits. St. Thomas' view of predestination is that we attain Heaven by grace and merit, it is gift and reward.

I don't think St. Thomas can in any way be a proto-Protestant because of his views on Law and how we must follow the Divine Law and the natural Law in order to get to Heaven. By nature we were made to follow the Old Law and the New Law, and by grace we can do this. His views on Law are totally contrary to any Protestant way of thinking. It's a silly question about the orthodoxy of St. Thomas. St. Thomas falls so closely in line with St. Augustine on so many different lines of theology, especially considering how man must still follow the commandments of God, lest man be punished by God for his transgressions.
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written by John Rose, December 10, 2010
This essay is an excellent word in the long conversation about grace and work.

The message to ponder is Augustine's, as quoted by Thomas in the this essay: ‘God by cooperating with us, perfects what He began by operating in us...'

There is a typographical error which blunts the point of this sentence: ‘... since He who perfects by cooperation with such as are willing, beings by operating that they may will.' [Now corrected, Ed.]

Of course "beings" should be "begins" (or "initiates"), to complete the lovely Augustinian parallel with "perfects".
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written by John Rose, December 10, 2010
Ismael: Many early protestants, especially Calvin, appealed heavily to the Fathers, especially Augustine. Look at Calvin's Institutes, especially the citations index. He cites Augustine frequently, and far more than any other authority, except Scripture.

The difference between Calvin and Aquinas (in my opinion) is that Calvin, writing polemic, consistently cites the parts of Augustine that already agree with his school of thought, while Aquinas is truly interested in Augustine's full counsel.

(Caveat lector: I was confirmed in a calvinist church, but lost my calvinism completely after comparing Augustine himself with Calvin's uses of Augustine.)
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written by SusanWho, December 11, 2010
Looks like an interesting article. I clicked the PDF version so I could read it on the bus. The PDF software leaves much to be desired (my Admin. Assistant friend would have a fit if she saw it). I hope others who choose that version do not begin to think that is the new way to format...anything. I'm looking forward to reading the article though.

Happy Advent!
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written by Alan Darley, December 12, 2010
I have not studied Aquinas on justification so I found this article stimulating and challenging and I will research it further. I do believe Aquinas was a 'proto-protestant' however in his attitude to Scripture.

Unlike later Roman catholic teaching, Aquinas nowhere ascribes a higher authority to the Fathers, to philosophers or to oral tradition. On the contrary, he writes that compared to the ‘incontrovertible proof’ of the canonical scriptures, even doctors of the church only possess ‘probable’ authority:

“For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors.” (ST 1a, 1, 8, ad 2)

An important example of this principle is found in Contra Errores Graecorum where Aquinas is countering what he calls the ‘absolutely false’ view that the Council of Nicea “enjoys greater authority than the letter of the Old Testament.” (Contra Errores Graecorum,Part 1,ch 32) Aquinas suggests that the statements of the Council do not carry authority of themselves, but only derivatively through bringing out the true meaning of the authoritative scriptures.He agrees with Augustine who wrote:

“Only those books of Scripture which are canonical have I learned to hold in such honour as to believe their authors have not erred in any way in writing them.” ST 1a, 1, 8, ad 2


There is also continuity between Aquinas' teaching on the literal sense of Scripture (ST 1a, q.1 a.10, ad 3) and the later emphasis of John Wyclif (De Veritate Sacrae Scripturae Vol 1: ed Rudolph Beddensieg, (London, Trubner and Co, 1907), ch 4, p.73 and previously with Nicholas de Lyra who became known as the ‘plain and useful doctor’ for his emphasis on the literal sense.In language reminisicent of Aquinas, De Lyra writes of the ‘foundation’ sense which must be first grasped and then built upon by the moral or spiritual sense. ( See Herman Hailperin,, Rashi and the Christian Scholars, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1963, p.142).

Although imperfect and at times inconsistent, Aquinas’ development of the literal sense unwittingly produced a competing hermeneutic to that of neo-Platonists like Pseudo-Dionysius which, combined with the later translation of the Bible for the masses, unlocked the doors for later Reformers to champion the democratisation of the knowledge of God.
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written by Steven Reyes, December 12, 2010
Alan Darling,
Similarly if you read more of Contra Errores Graecorum you will see that my interpretation of St. Thomas regarding the authority of the Church to properly interpret Scripture as opposed to the Protestant version of Sola Scriptura is correct.

Consider the following sections from Part 2 Chapter 36

That to him belongs the right of deciding what pertains to faith.

It is also demonstrated that to the aforesaid Pontiff belongs the right of deciding what pertains to faith. For Cyril in his Thesaurus says: “Let us remain as members in our head on the apostolic throne of the Roman Pontiffs, from whom it is our duty to seek what we must believe and what we must hold.”
Lib. 98, 49-51 (not found).


Close And Maximus in the letter addressed to the Orientals says: “All the ends of the earth which have sincerely received the Lord and Catholics everywhere professing the true faith look to the Church of the Romans as to the sun, and receive from it the light of the Catholic and Apostolic Faith.” Lib. 104, 1-7, from Maximus, Epistola Romae scripta (PG 91, 137 D).


Close Rightly so, for Peter is recorded as the first to have, while the Lord was enlightening him, confessed the faith perfectly when he said to him (Matt. 16:16): You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. And hence the Lord also said to him (Lk. 22:32): I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith may not fail.”

As you see here the manner of the true sense of Scripture and Sacred Doctrine is derived from the authority of the Church under the Vicar of Christ, the Pope.

Similarly, one cannot interpret Sacred Scripture apart:

Part 2 Chapter 38

That to be subject to the Roman Pontiff is necessary for salvation.

It is also shown that to be subject to the Roman Pontiff is necessary for salvation. For Cyril says in his Thesaurus: “Therefore, brethren, if you imitate Christ so as to hear his voice remaining in the Church of Peter and so as not be puffed up by the wind of pride, lest perhaps because of our quarrelling the wily serpent drive us from paradise as once he did Eve.”
Lib. 98, 44-48 (not found).


Close And Maximus in the letter addressed to the Orientals says: “The Church united and established upon the rock of Peter’s confession we call according to the decree of the Savior the universal Church, wherein we must remain for the salvation of our souls and wherein loyal to his faith and confession we must obey him.”

Being Christian means being united to His Church as joined to the Pope. For St. Thomas the Church is guided by Christ and can never be abandon. If one finds himself against the Church on a matter of Scripture then that individual has read Scripture incorrectly, because if the Church has defined something as doctrine that is not in accord with the Scriptures then in essence one would have to leave the Church (however to do this would be to leave the Pope and thus leave Christ, according to St. Thomas) or better understand how Scripture fits with the doctrine.

I hope this helps to understand what St. Thomas means when he states as to whether Doctors of the Church should be followed. As with St. Athanasius he only means they should not be followed to the letter but in the spirit and correct fallible doctors where they err. He knows one can interpret Scripture fallibly and so though he states that our trust lies in Scripture, he understands that our perception of the right teaching of Scripture lies in communion with the Church and with the Roman Pontiff. As such we can develop our understanding of doctrine according to natural reason, but we cannot disregard the authority of the Church in what she has defined as being truth, though we can articulate its meaning. The Sacred Doctrine of the Church for St. Thomas will always be in accord with Sacred Scripture otherwise we would have to leave the Church and thus leave Christ because according to him there is no salvation outside of communion with the Church and the Roman Pontiff.

I hope this helps.
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written by Steven Reyes, December 12, 2010
Alan Darling,
Just to clarify again Catholics do not need to follow the opinions of the Doctors of the Church in every regard but only in that which the Church has pronounced as necessary and true doctrine (through the Magisterium of the Church). St. Thomas affirms this.
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written by Alan Darley, December 17, 2010
While I am not claiming inerrancy for Thomas, I do not think your interpretation of him necessarily entails that he thought of the Pope as having an authority greater than or equal to the Scriptures, but that (in his view) it derived from the Scriptures i.e. the words of Christ. Therefore the Church confirms the faith taught in the Scriptures rather than establishes it in its own power.
He does not think that 'revelations' have been granted to the church independent of the Scriptures.(ST 1a, 1, 8, ad 2)

Furthermore, doesn't it beg the question to say that Catholics should only follow those statements of the Church which are 'pronounced as necessary and true' as how do we know these statements are 'necessary and true' if other statements are not? The only possible test is there consistency with Scripture.
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written by Grace, March 29, 2012
What of Romans 11:6? It would seem that this verse poses an obstacle to the view of grace and works that you present.
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written by j, January 01, 2013
Nice exposition of Aquinas' doctrine of justification and its relation to Trent. However, as a Protestant who has benefited from the Angelic Doctor, I do not find his teachings on justification compelling (but neither would I call myself a Thomist). Having said that, I wonder how accurate the picture here painted is regarding his Protestant admirers. I know of none who would refer to Aquinas as a "proto-Protestant" (particularly in regards to the doctrine of justification). John Gerstner's statement is considered bizarre, and hardly represents a widespread view.

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