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Appreciating and Appropriating a “Sounder Scholastic”

Thomas Aquinas and the Protestant Reformation

Martin Luther once wrote that Thomas Aquinas is “the source and foundation of all heresy, error, and obliteration of the Gospel.”[1] These and many other polemics by Luther against Aquinas and medieval scholastics are often taken as representative of the Protestant Reformation. And if we read such polemics in isolation from the larger Wittenberg movement and other Reformers, we could easily conclude that the Reformers inaugurated a clean break with the theology of an earlier period. But the Protestant Reformation was not merely a polemical movement; it was also in its own way a movement of retrieval which sought to overturn recent tradition by appeal to more ancient tradition (both Scripture and fathers).[2] The Protestant Reformers accepted the early ecumenical councils and thus, alongside the Bible, frequently appealed to the fathers, and especially Augustine, as authorities representing the sounder doctrine of an earlier time. By extension, when Protestants discovered aspects of medieval theology—whether specific doctrinal topics or theologians—that harmonized with what they regarded as the sounder doctrine of an earlier time, they expressed sympathy and even appropriated those aspects of medieval theology. Thomas Aquinas was one such medieval theologian, and over the course of the sixteenth century, many Protestants learned to appreciate him as a “sounder scholastic” and even appropriated aspects of his thought.

Luther misled

The year after his Disputation against Scholastic Theology (1517), Luther explained in a letter to Johann von Staupitz that he desired to read the scholastics with freedom: “I do not read the scholastics blindfolded…but ponder them. The apostle told us to prove all things, and hold to that which is good [1 Thess. 5:21]. I do not despise all theirs, neither consider it all good.”[3] In 1519, for example, Luther singled out the late medieval Augustinian scholastic Gregory of Rimini (ca. 1300–1358) as standing in agreement on the doctrine of grace with his colleague Andreas Karlstadt, and “with Augustine and the Apostle Paul, against all the more recent scholastics.”[4] Although scholars since the nineteenth century have been reluctant to acknowledge continuities between Luther and medieval scholasticism, the situation in recent decades has changed considerably. There are now a number of scholars, including Christine Helmer, Theodor Dieter, and David J. Luy, who regard Luther as making significant, albeit critical, use of medieval scholastics. “Luther’s doctrine of God,” writes Luy, “remains overwhelmingly traditional and decidedly medieval in its material commitments.”[5] Even so, it appears that Luther’s most significant engagement with medieval scholasticism remained with the late medieval school known as the via moderna as represented by Gabriel Biel (ca. 1410–1495) and Pierre d’Ailly (1351–1420). “The idea that Luther knew Thomas through extensive original reading,” writes Theodor Dieter, “has been convincingly refuted.”[6]

As Luther’s positive evaluation of Gregory of Rimini indicates, Protestants could express praise for scholastics whom they considered to be in greater alignment with an Augustinian—and by implication, Pauline—theology of grace. Unfortunately, although Thomas Aquinas is recognized today as holding to a strongly Augustinian theology of grace,[7] in the late-medieval period the interpretation of his thought was not uniform. Some, such as Johannes Capreolus (ca. 1380–1444) interpreted Aquinas as an ally of Gregory of Rimini in developing a strongly anti-Pelagian doctrine in the Summa theologiae.[8] Others, however, such as Gabriel Biel, interpreted Aquinas as teaching “more moderately” than Gregory of Rimini on human ability to do good works. According to David Steinmetz, Biel did not appreciate “the extent to which Thomas insists on the gracious preparation of the human will for the reception of sanctifying grace.”[9] Luther encountered this latter (mis)interpretation of Aquinas in the work of Biel, as well as his colleague Andreas Karlstadt, and this partly explains why Luther attacked Aquinas as Pelagian along with other late medieval scholastics.[10] In other words, scholarship now recognizes that Luther was misled by Biel.

The Reformation’s appreciation of Thomas Aquinas

Other Reformers, however, did not share this particular late medieval reading of Aquinas, but like Capreolus recognized that Aquinas had developed an anti-Pelagian account of grace in his mature Summa theologiae. Martin Bucer, a former Dominican who attended Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (1518), saw lines of continuity between Augustine and Aquinas, and as a Protestant continued to cite Aquinas positively. The young Bucer’s early studies have been characterized as “deeply rooted in the Thomist school” as evident in the large number of works he owned by Aquinas and later Thomists,[11] as well his later writings, which show a first-hand knowledge of Aquinas’s works. Although Bucer distanced himself from Aquinas in the early days of the Reformation, from around 1529 he began to cite Aquinas favorably in his commentaries on the Psalms (1529) and Romans (1536). In those works, Bucer cited Aquinas on such topics as natural law, free choice, and predestination.[12] In addition to direct citations, Bucer’s works from this time also reflect Thomist points such as a defense of a realist theory of logical predication, or the statement “faith perfects [and] does not destroy nature’ (Fides naturam perficit, non destruit).[13]Bucer cited Thomas Aquinas as a “sounder scholastic” who “followed Augustine.” Click To Tweet

Bucer supplemented his pattern of positive citations with the introduction of the term saniores scholastici, or “sounder scholastics.” Beginning with his Defensio adversus Axioma Catholicum (1534), a response to Robert Ceneau of the Sorbonne, Bucer cited both Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas as representative “sounder scholastics” who “follow Augustine.” Citing Aquinas’s Summa theologiae I-II, q. 114 a. 1 that “all man’s good is from God,” Bucer asserted that Aquinas agreed with Augustine (and Peter Lombard, II Sent. d. 28) that there is no merit without grace. In his De vera ecclesiarum in doctrina, ceremoniis, et disciplina reconciliatione & compositione (1542), Bucer again placed Aquinas among the sounder scholastics for his teaching regarding the necessity of grace for good works (citing Summa theologiae I-II q. 109 aa. 2, 3, 4, 6; q. 112 a. 3; q. 114, a. 1) and his doctrine of original sin (citing Summa theologiae I-II q. 83 a. 3).[14] In a number of writings by the early 1540s, therefore, Bucer had identified Aquinas as one of the better scholastics, with views closer to Augustine, while favorably citing him on natural law, original sin, free choice, grace, and predestination.

Over the course of the sixteenth century, both Lutheran and Reformed theologians made eclectic use of Aquinas. Luy observes that “Aquinas provokes commendation from [Martin] Chemnitz in certain respects…and sharp critique in others.”[15] This is also true of Reformed theologians, although in their case there was arguably a stronger reception of Thomist doctrine. When the two Italians Peter Martyr Vermigli and his disciple Girolamo Zanchi fled the Inquisition to join Bucer in Strasbourg, they brought an influx of Thomist theology into the nascent Reformed theological tradition. Vermigli, who received a Thomist education at Padua (where he earned a doctorate), cited Aquinas more than any other scholastic except for Peter Lombard.[16] One of the best scholars on Vermigli argued that “there is a strong scholastic substratum in his theology that depends upon Saint Thomas more than upon any other medieval theologian.”[17]

Unlike Bucer, Vermigli, and Zanchi, however, John Calvin did not often mention Aquinas, and a number of scholars now think that Calvin got his knowledge of Aquinas through an intermediate source.[18] Thus, knowledge and engagement with Aquinas’s works varied significantly among both Lutheran and Reformed theologians in the sixteenth-century.Over the course of the sixteenth century, both Lutheran and Reformed theologians made eclectic use of Aquinas. Click To Tweet

Active engagement with Aquinas’s works among Protestants increased over time as Protestant theology developed in the context of the university and polemics with Roman Catholics. After Bucer, mention of sounder scholastics was picked up first by Calvin and Vermigli, and then in the following generation by Theodore Beza, William Whitaker, Girolamo Zanchi, and many others. Initially Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas were identified as sounder scholastics, but beginning with Zanchi, a number of other medieval scholastics as well. In one place Zanchi contrasts the “entirely Pelagian” theology of William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel with the “sounder scholastics” Lombard, Aquinas, Gregory of Rimini, and others who he says agree with Augustine on the relation of predestination to God’s foreknowledge of good works.[19] In aligning Aquinas with Gregory of Rimini against other “Pelagian” scholastics, Zanchi echoed Luther’s critique of late medieval scholastics, but now with the recognition of Aquinas as more friend than foe. In fact, elsewhere Zanchi wrote that in the “doctrine of God’s grace Thomas was purer than many other scholastics, for he followed Augustine when he could.”[20]

Lutherans also retrieve Thomas Aquinas

Nor was the rehabilitation of Aquinas’s reputation as one of the better scholastics limited only to Reformed Protestants. The Lutheran scholastic Johann Gerhard stated, “Lombard, Thomas, and others think more correctly on some things than do today’s Papists.”[21]

Although Bucer focused largely on Aquinas in relation to the doctrine of salvation, later theologians drew on Aquinas for a variety of other doctrines. According to John Patrick Donnelly, Zanchi followed Aquinas closely, albeit with additions and methodological changes, on the doctrines of the divine attributes, the human soul, and virtues.[22]Bucer had cited Aquinas’s teaching on natural law already in his commentary on the Psalms (1529), and post-Reformation theologians drew on Aquinas in greater detail. Girolamo Zanchi and Franciscus Junius followed Aquinas’s general division of law into eternal, natural, human, and divine law, and like Aquinas understood natural law as a participation of human reason in the eternal law.[23]Peter Martyr Vermigli and Girolamo Zanchi brought an influx of Thomist theology into the nascent Reformed theological tradition. Click To Tweet

Some Lutheran scholastics and a large number of Reformed scholastics likewise followed some version of the Thomist analogy of being, with many explicitly rejecting Scotus’s univocity of being.[24] We can also find some Lutheran scholastics such as Johann Gerhard, and Reformed scholastics such as Franciscus Junius and Gulielmus Bucanus, drawing on Aquinas’s five proofs for God’s existence.[25] In the aftermath of the Roman Catholic de auxiliis controversy (1582-1607), Reformed theologians not only perceived Dominicans as allies on the doctrine of grace against both Jesuits and Arminians, but also drew positively on Dominican doctrines, notably the concept of physical premotion.[26]

Although much more could be said on these and other topics such as the interpretation of Scripture and divine ideas,[27] these examples illustrate the degree to which many Protestants not only regarded Aquinas as among the sounder scholastics, but also appropriated significant aspects of Thomist doctrine.

Critical appropriation

Even as Protestants increasingly appropriated doctrines from Aquinas and the medieval scholastics in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they did so critically. Johann Gerhard’s Method of Theological Study (1620), for example, contains a representative summary of Protestant criticisms of scholastic theology, which also reflects the criticisms of earlier Reformed theologians William Whitaker and Antoine de Chandieu. These post-Reformation Protestants criticized medieval scholastics, including Aquinas, for their ignorance of biblical languages (leading to misunderstood texts used as authorities), the improper use of philosophical axioms in drawing theological conclusions, and addressing vain or curious questions.[28]

In practice this meant that Protestants engaged in a more rigorous and favorable way with some scholastic authors and questions more than others. Thus, although Protestants learned to appreciate Aquinas to a far greater degree than the young Luther, their appropriation of his thought remained critical and eclectic.

In 1574, the Genevan Consistory received a request to print Aquinas’s Summa theologiae. The Consistory denied the request, but its response is both revealing and representative of the state of Protestant opinion: one must “discern among [Aquinas’s] works, some of which were admissible or tolerable, and others not.”[29]


[1] WA 15:184 (1524); cited in Denis R. Janz, Luther on Thomas Aquinas: The Angelic Doctor in the Thought of the Reformer(Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1989), 11.

[2] David C. Steinmetz, “The Intellectual Appeal of the Reformation,” Theology Today 57, no. 4 (2001): 459-72.

[3] Martin Luther to Johann von Staupitz, 31 March 1518, in The Letters of Martin Luther, trans. Margaret A. Currie (London: Macmillan, 1908), 25.

[4] Denis R. Janz, Luther and Late Medieval Thomism: A Study in Theological Anthropology (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1983), 32.

[5] David J. Luy, “Sixteenth-Century Reception of Aquinas by Luther and Lutheran Reformers,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Reception of Aquinas, ed. Matthew Levering and Marcus Plested (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 116. See also the select bibliography in Christine Helmer, The Trinity and Martin Luther, 2nd ed. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017).

[6] Theodor Dieter, “Scholasticisms in Martin Luther’s Thought,” in Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Religion (2017). Dieter refers here to Stefan Gradl, “Inspektor Columbo irrt. Kriminalistische Überlegungen zur Frage ‘Kannte Luther Thomas’?” Luther 77 (2006): 83-99.

[7] Joseph P. Wawrykow, God’s Grace and Human Action: Merit in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995).

[8] Janz, Luther and Late Medieval Thomism, 69-88.

[9] David C. Steinmetz, Luther in Context, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 53, 55.

[10] Janz, Luther and Late Medieval Thomism, 115-22; Luy, “Sixteenth-Century Reception,” 112-14.

[11] Martin Greschat, Martin Bucer: A Reformer and His Times, trans. Stephen E. Buckwalter (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 25-26.

[12] David S. Sytsma, “Sixteenth-Century Reformed Reception of Aquinas,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Reception of Aquinas, ed. Matthew Levering and Marcus Plested (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 125, 128.

[13] Irena Backus, “La théorie logique de Martin Bucer,” in Logique et théologie au XVIe siècle. Aux sources de l’argumentation de Martin Bucer, Cahiers de la Revue de théologie et de philosophie 5 (Geneva, 1980), 27-39; Martin Bucer, Metaphrases et enarrationes perpetuae epistolarum D. Pauli Apostoli, vol. 1: Metaphrasis et Enarratio in Epist. D. Pauli Apostoli ad Romanos (Strasbourg: Wendelin Rihel, 1536), 385b. Cf. Sytsma, “Sixteenth-Century Reformed Reception,” 122, 134.

[14] Sytsma, “Sixteenth-Century Reformed Reception,” 130-31.

[15] Luy, “Sixteenth-Century Reception,” 117.

[16] John Patrick Donnelly, Calvinism and Scholasticism in Vermigli’s Doctrine of Man and Grace (Leiden: Brill, 1976), 24.

[17] John Patrick Donnelly, “Calvinist Thomism,” Viator 7 (1976): 443.

[18] Charles Raith II, “Calvin and Aquinas Reconsidered,” in Beyond Dordt and De Auxiliis: The Dynamics of Protestant and Catholic Soteriology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, ed. Jordan J. Ballor, Matthew T. Gaetano, and David S. Sytsma (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 19-34.

[19] Sytsma, “Sixteenth-Century Reformed Reception,” 132-33.

[20] Girolamo Zanchi, Tractationum theologicarum volumen de statu peccati et legali (Neustadt: Harnisch, 1603), 143.

[21] Johann Gerhard, Theological Commonplaces I-II: On Interpreting Sacred Scripture and Method of Theological Study, trans. Joshua J. Hayes, ed. Benjamin T. G. Mayes (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2017), 238.

[22] Donnelly, “Calvinist Thomism,” 445-49; see also Kalvin Budiman, “A Protestant Doctrine of Nature and Grace as Illustrated by Jerome Zanchi’s Appropriation of Thomas Aquinas” (Ph.D. diss., Baylor University, 2011), 97-98.

[23] Sytsma, “Sixteenth-Century Reformed Reception,” 137. See now Bradford Littlejohn, “‘Vestiges of the Divine Light’: Girolamo Zanchi, Richard Hooker, and a Reformed Thomistic Natural Law Theory,” Perichoresis 20, no. 2 (2022): 43-62; Seung Joo Lee, “The Orders of Nature and Grace: Thomistic Concepts in the Moral Thought of Franciscus Junius (1545–1602),” (Ph.D. diss., Vrije Universiteit, 2021).

[24] Robert D. Preus, The Theology of Post-Reformation Lutheranism, 2 vols. (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1970-72), 2:39-43; Jack Kilcrease, “Johann Gerhard’s Reception of Thomas Aquinas’s Analogia Entis,” in Aquinas Among the Protestants, edited by Manfred Svensson and David VanDrunen (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018), 120; Richard A. Muller, “Not Scotist: Understandings of Being, Univocity, and Analogy in Early- Modern Reformed Thought,” Reformation & Renaissance Review 14, no. 2 (2012): 127-50.

[25] Preus, Theology of Post-Reformation Lutheranism, 2:35-36; John Platt, Reformed thought and Scholasticism: The Arguments for the Existence of God in Dutch theology, 1575-1650 (Leiden: Brill, 1982), 139-42; Caleb Abraham, “The Library of Lausanne Academy in the 16th Century: The Theological Corpus, from the Reformation to Early Orthodoxy,” Zwingliana 48 (2021): 193; Stephen Hampton, Anti-Arminians: The Anglican Reformed Tradition from Charles II to George I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 228-29.

[26] Jordan J. Ballor, Matthew T. Gaetano, and David S. Sytsma, eds., Beyond Dordt and De Auxiliis: The Dynamics of Protestant and Catholic Soteriology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Leiden: Brill, 2019); Richard A. Muller, Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 74-77, 236-41, 246-47, 285-87, 305-310, 320; Sebastian Rehnman, Divine Discourse: The Theological Methodology of John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 34-36.

[27] David S. Sytsma, “Thomas Aquinas and Reformed Biblical Interpretation: The Contribution of William Whitaker,” in Aquinas Among the Protestants, edited by Manfred Svensson and David VanDrunen (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017), 49-74; Richard A. Muller, “Calvinist Thomism Revisited: William Ames (1576–1633) and the Divine Ideas,” in From Rome to Zurich, between Ignatius and Vermigli: Essays in Honor of John Patrick Donnelly, SJ, ed. Kathleen M. Comerford, Gary W. Jenkins, and W.J. Torrance Kirby (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 103-120. For a survey of various Reformed doctrinal continuities with Aquinas, see Sytsma, “Sixteenth-Century Reformed Reception,” 133-37.

[28] Johann Gerhard, “On Reading the Scholastics,” in Theological Commonplaces I-II: On Interpreting Sacred Scripture and Method of Theological Study, 230-38; Sytsma, “Thomas Aquinas and Reformed Biblical Interpretation,” 56-57; Donald Sinnema, “Antoine de Chandieu’s Call for a Scholastic Reformed Theology (1580),” in Later Calvinism: International Perspectives, ed. W. Fred Graham (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1994), 173-75.

[29] Olivier Fatio and Olivier Labarthe, eds., Registres de la Compagnie des pasteurs de Genève, vol. 3: 1565–1574 (Geneva: Droz, 1969), 135, 143. The Consistory said that Summa theologiae II-II contains “a number of articles of false doctrine.” Cf. Sytsma, “Sixteenth-Century Reformed Reception,” 135.

David S. Sytsma

David S. Sytsma (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary) is an associate professor at Tokyo Christian University and research curator of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research. He has published various essays on the religious history of the early modern period. He is also a coeditor of Church and School in Early Modern Protestantism: Studies in Honor of Richard A. Muller on the Maturation of a Theological Tradition (Brill, 2013) and author of Richard Baxter and the Mechanical Philosophers (Oxford University Press, 2017). You can follow David S. Sytsma on Twitter @SytsmaDavid.

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