Retrieving the theology and philosophy of Thomas Aquinas may sound like a daunting task for many, but it is a worthwhile and fruitful pursuit. While the Angelic Doctor did compose some complex writings, he wrote as a teacher to students so as to be understood. Through study and diligent effort, you too can plunge into the depths of his theology to retrieve the treasure and share the spoils with your Christian community. To show how this is done, we’ve taken selections from three contemporary Reformed theologians who critically appropriate and retrieve the theology of Thomas Aquinas.
Carl Trueman: Thomas Aquinas and Predestination
If the reception of Augustine’s theology of grace was subject to some confusion in the West, there were still some theologians whose teaching maintained his clear emphasis on God’s sovereignty and priority. Among these the most preeminent was Thomas Aquinas.
Most Protestants, if they have heard of Thomas Aquinas, probably regard him with some degree of suspicion. He is, after all, the great theologian of Roman Catholicism who provided the most elaborate and compelling arguments for many Roman Catholic distinctives such as transubstantiation. For many Protestants he is regarded more as part of the problem than as someone we can study and learn from. Yet we should remember the very simple point that Aquinas, as a thirteenth-century figure, pre-dates the Reformation and thus is, in a sense, the property of the whole church’s heritage. Aquinas’s thought has been profoundly and positively influential on Protestant thinking, as recent studies have demonstrated, particularly on the doctrine of God. More pertinent for this study is that he also articulated an understanding of grace undergirded by a doctrine of predestination, which helped to preserve a stream of anti-Pelagian thought in the Middle Ages. It is true that many of his ideas were repudiated by Protestants and form points of profound disagreement between the Reformers and their Roman Catholic opponents—the nature of justification, the role of penance, and the meaning of the sacraments being only the most obvious—but this should not blind us to the fact that the conceptual framework of predestination within which he understood the existential aspects of salvation was essentially continuous with that of Augustine and therefore within the same stream of thinking as that of the Reformers.
Aquinas’s teaching on grace is rich and wide-ranging, and given his status as the preeminent theologian of medieval Catholicism, it is not surprising that much of his theology of grace was focused on the sacraments. Many Protestants will part company from him at this point, yet there is more to grace in Aquinas than baptism and the Mass. In fact, Aquinas can be immensely helpful to Protestants because his teaching on the framework of grace and some of the distinctions he draws concerning types of grace are still of use today. To begin, however, we need to know something of his context.
Grace in Creation
Grace in creation is a topic that Aquinas addresses at several points and at some length. It helps us to see his thought in this area to appreciate the overall shape of Aquinas’s understanding of the role of grace in salvation. Aquinas believed that Adam in the Garden existed in a state of greater blessing than we do after the Fall, yet he still did not enjoy the full communion with God that Aquinas saw yet to come in the Beatific Vision. The Beatific Vision of God is the knowledge of the essence of God, and it is only available to creatures on the basis of a prior act of God’s grace. It is not possible in their natural, created state. Natural creatures cannot achieve a supernatural end through their own strength. They are simply not designed to do that. To quote Aquinas, ‘the created [human] intellect cannot see the essence of God, unless God by his grace unites Himself to the created intellect, as an object intelligible to it.’ Adam did not enjoy this vision in the Garden as evidenced by his fall: one who possesses the Beatific Vision can never turn away from it. Nevertheless, he did enjoy a greater degree of blessedness than fallen human beings because his mind was properly ordered by grace to understand God through his created effects. This brings us to the question of grace before the Fall: how did grace operate prior to humanity’s fall into sin?
In his discussion of the creation of Adam and Eve, Aquinas asks whether grace was present in the created state prior to the Fall. He answers in the affirmative. His evidence is the right ordering of Adam’s faculties. Human beings are made of body and soul which possess certain faculties and stand in a particular relationship to each other. In the pre-Fall state of creation, Adam’s reason was subject to God; his lower powers were subject to reason, and the body was subject to the soul. After the Fall, these basic elements remain in existence. He is still body and soul, with all of their constituent aspects. What has changed is the hierarchical ordering of these, which is now thrown into chaos. For example, where Adam should have been led by his intellect to follow the Word of God, now his bodily appetites might seize control. A fundamental irrationality is now part of all human existence. Grace, for Aquinas, was needed before the fall to keep all these faculties in proper order. When it was forfeited at the Fall, chaos ensued.
Before the Fall, Adam needed grace in order to do and to desire supernatural good. We noted earlier how supernatural ends require supernatural means and this principle applies even in the state of pristine human nature. The desire for the Beatific Vision and the actions required to move towards it are beyond the capacity of created human nature, just as reaching boiling point is beyond the natural capacity of a bucket of cold water standing by itself. An appropriate external cause is needed to achieve the desired result. A great cause is needed to move human beings towards beatitude, a cause which comes from God himself: grace.
Of course, grace is needed even more after the Fall, which Aquinas characterizes as the loss of God’s grace. Here he cites a passage from Augustine’s City of God 13.13: ‘As soon as they disobeyed the divine command, and forfeited Divine grace, they were ashamed of their nakedness, for they felt the impulse of disobedience in the flesh, as though it were a punishment corresponding to their own disobedience.’ Grace is that which properly orders the created hierarchy of human psychology. Sin leads to its loss and to subsequent chaos.
At this point, Aquinas asks a related question: whether the actions of the first man were less meritorious than ours are? He answers by making a distinction between merit as regards the roots of a work and merit as regards the degree of action itself. Pre-Fall works were more meritorious in the first sense, in that they were done with a greater degree of grace because the agent was not fighting against any hindrance in his own nature. Those after the Fall are more meritorious in the second sense because they require more effort (and Aquinas here cites the incident of the widow’s mite as his biblical justification).
What are we to make of Aquinas and his understanding of grace? And how does it relate to the later Reformation understandings of grace? First, it is worth noting again that Aquinas is using Aristotelian concepts to express a standard biblical and theological problem: how would Adam have moved from a state of mutability to immutability, given that his obedience could never have strictly merited such on its own? We should be cautious in assuming a corrupting influence from Aristotle at this point. Aquinas would no doubt respond to such a criticism by arguing that he is simply using the philosophical idiom of the day to delineate a perennial Christian issue.
We should also note his identification of grace with the internal activity of God in the life of the individual. Aquinas is picking up on an aspect of the Augustinian legacy and upon the variety of ways grace is referenced in scripture. Adam before the Fall is a rightly ordered human being because God’s presence in him (presumably by the Holy Spirit) keeps his faculties in the proper order. Grace is something real and active in his life, not simply the gracious disposition of God towards him. Sin destroys this activity in Adam’s life and creates a psychologically disordered individual. Adam’s nature is not left intact after the loss of grace, because grace is not something extra that can be removed leaving human nature with a natural integrity. The faculties remain (reason, will, etc.), but their relationship is now perverted in such a way that every human being’s existence is profoundly transformed in a negative way.
Here we have the basic foundations laid for Aquinas’s view of salvation from sin. Salvation is transformative, dependent upon the subjective work of God in the human person. The stage is set for an understanding of saving grace as something which is, for want of a better word, substantial. Grace, according to Aquinas, operates at the subjective, transformative level, enabling men and women to reach the supernatural end for which they were intended. He denies that it is a substance because that would dispel the soul. Instead he asserts that it is a quality imparted to the soul by God in order to heal and elevate it.
Aquinas’s argument for grace before the Fall offers us an opportunity for critical reflection on the notion of grace in general. Aquinas clearly has no hesitation is using the language of grace in a non-redemptive context. Adam possesses grace in the garden because his finitude makes it necessary if he is to achieve his supernatural end. The question for us today is this: is such a use of the language of grace appropriate? Is it biblical?
Aquinas is wrestling with a problem which all theologians must face at some level: how do finite human beings come to receive such an incredible reward as eternal life from God, when they cannot – even in their unfallen state – be properly said to deserve such? Still, the use of the language of grace prior to the Fall is ultimately problematic.
First, there is the biblical argument. As we noted in the first chapter, grace in Scripture refers specifically to God’s good will in the face of humanity’s Fall. Of course, theologians routinely use non-biblical language to speak of biblical realities—‘Trinity’ being an obvious example—so we must be careful that we don’t have a knee jerk reaction to using certain terms in broader ways than Scripture. Yet there is also the danger that such usage can become rather ambiguous, leading to linguistic connotations which may be highly inappropriate or confusing. That the language of grace is not used to speak of the condition of humanity before the Fall is surely of significance and we should think long and hard before deviating from the biblical precedent.
The second reason is more strictly theological. It is true that many early Reformed Protestant theologians used the language of grace to refer to God’s activity prior to the Fall. They did this to emphasize the condescension of God in establishing the covenant of works with Adam. Adam as creature had no hold over God, nothing whereby he might be said to deserve anything at his hand. Yet God made him the federal head of humanity (Rom. 5, 1 Cor. 15). This act on God’s part was free and uncoerced and involved divine condescension. In addition, God attached to this covenant a reward—eternal life—which no mere mortal could have merited in and of himself. That is why earlier Protestant theologians felt able to refer to it in terms of grace. God’s action and his covenant reward were gifts—unmerited and undeserved in themselves.
Yet this is not the most helpful usage of the term. Why? Because we are using the same term in both non-redemptive and redemptive contexts, and in doing so we run the risk of blurring the distinction between humanity’s pre- and post-Fall condition. Sin is not a part of created nature. It represents a fundamental and decisive breach in the relationship between God and humanity. This is why the problem of a finite but morally unfallen Adam is dramatically different to the problem of fallen Adam. The former may have an intrinsic problem meriting eternal life, but the latter positively deserves eternal damnation. When we use grace to refer to what a simple problem of being (that human beings are finite and God is infinite) and also to the problem caused by sin (that God is holy and human beings are unholy) it is potentially misleading.
So what are we to make of Aquinas and his understanding of grace? Aquinas’s understanding of grace in creation is useful to the extent that it highlights the self-sufficiency of God, that he did not need to create this world but yet did so as a free act. It also highlights the need for divine condescension even in the Garden in order for Adam and Eve to enjoy the kind of relationship which they had with God there. These are helpful concepts for us to consider, but to characterize this with the language of grace is confusing because it deviates from the linguistic usage of the Bible and runs the risk of relativizing the dramatic and decisive nature of the Fall with regard to human relations with God and the consequent need for salvation.
Grace and Predestination
Thoughtful Protestants are often aware of the role of Augustine in formulating the doctrine of predestination, but many do not realize that there were many theologians in the Middle Ages who taught the doctrine faithfully. Luther’s polemic against the alleged Pelagianism of his medieval teachers has captured our imagination, yet Luther’s teachers represented only a narrow strand of the medieval church’s teaching. Others, such as Thomas Aquinas, the greatest medieval theologian of them all, were far closer to Augustine on this point than the men who taught Luther.Aquinas’s emphasis on teleology, the proper end of creatures according to their nature, undergirds his understanding of providence and dovetails with his view of predestination. Click To Tweet
Aquinas’s emphasis on teleology, the proper end of creatures according to their nature, undergirds his understanding of providence and dovetails with his view of predestination. In Summa Theologiae 1a.22.1 he asks whether providence can be ascribed to God and responds in the affirmative, on the grounds that God creates all things as good both in respect to their intrinsic substance and in respect to the end to which they are ordered. This applies not simply to general categories of things (e.g., sharks are ordered toward eating smaller fish) but even to individuals within such general classes (e.g., this particular shark is ordered toward eating this particular smaller fish). This is for the simple reason that all things depend on God for their being, and thus all things are related to him as their first cause.
And Aquinas is also quite clear in his treatment of predestination. In the following question in the Summa Theologiae, he asks whether men are predestined by God and offers this answer:
It is fitting that God should predestine men. For all things are subject to His providence, as was shown above…. Now it belongs to providence to direct things towards their end, as was also said…. The end towards which created things are directed by God is twofold; one which exceeds all proportion and faculty of created nature; and this end is life eternal, that consists in seeing God which is above the nature of every creature, as shown above…. The other end, however, is proportionate to created nature, to which end created being can attain according to the power of its nature. Now if a thing cannot attain to something by the power of its nature, it must be directed thereto by another; thus, an arrow is directed by the archer towards a mark. Hence, properly speaking, a rational creature, capable of eternal life, is led towards it, directed, as it were, by God. The reason of that direction pre-exists in God; as in Him is the type of the order of all things towards an end, which we proved above to be providence. Now the type in the mind of the doer of something to be done, is a kind of pre-existence in him of the thing to be done. Hence the type of the aforesaid direction of a rational creature towards the end of life eternal is called predestination. For to destine, is to direct or send. Thus it is clear that predestination, as regards its objects, is a part of providence.
The argument is straightforward and makes the point that God directs all things toward their proper end (providence). Some ends are proportional to the creature’s nature (e.g., procreation). Other ends, however, may be beyond the nature of the creature. This is the case with eternal life. Human beings cannot achieve this simply by acting in accordance with their nature. Like how water turning into steam requires some cause from outside to move it from potency to act, so human beings require some cause beyond that intrinsic to their nature which can move them to eternal life. This is predestination: literally, the prior determination of God to take particular individuals beyond their natural capacities and into eternal communion with himself.
Of course, the flip side of this view is that God decides not to bring some human beings into the final state of grace and thus leaves them in their sin and to the punishment that it merits. This Aquinas calls reprobation. He goes on to make it clear that foreknowledge of merits is not the basis of predestination, that predestination is certain, and that the number of predestined is fixed. In short, Aquinas offers an account of predestination in the Summa Theologiaethat represents positions quite consistent with those we earlier noted in Augustine and his anti-Pelagian heirs.
Of course, while many think of Aquinas as primarily a philosophical theologian or a systematician, we should recognize at least two important things about him. First, he was a member of the Dominican Order—the Order of Preachers—and thus committed to the public exposition of Scripture. His is not an arid, abstract theology; it is a theology that is always designed to terminate in the life of the church.
In addition, as a medieval theological teacher, he was required to expound Scripture as part of his basic training, to be qualified for the task of lecturing. While we may know him best for his Summa Theologiae and Summa contra Gentiles, he also produced a significant number of lectures (commentaries) on biblical books. One of these is on Romans. His comments on Romans 9:11–13 articulate an understanding of predestination that is both consistent with Augustine and nuanced.Because God is simple for Aquinas, these are distinctions that human beings make in order to be able to speak about God. Click To Tweet
First, God’s love is prior and eternal. On Romans 9:12 he comments:
But because man’s love is preceded by God’s love: not that we loved God, but that he has first loved us (1 John 4:20), we must say that Jacob was loved by God before he loved God. Nor can it be said that God began to love him at a fixed point in time, otherwise his love would be changeable.
Aquinas goes on to identify three elements that underlie the verse: love, election, and predestination. Because God is simple for Aquinas, these are distinctions that human beings make in order to be able to speak about God. Love is foundational and prior to all. God’s love is not like human love, in that human love is reactive in that it sees good in an object and is drawn toward it. In Aquinas’s terminology, for human beings, election precedes love. They choose something good, and then they love it. For God, the order is reversed. He loves something absolutely in himself, chooses it, and then guides it toward its end. As Aquinas puts it:
For it is called God’s love, inasmuch as he wills good to a person absolutely; it is election, inasmuch as through the good he wills for a person, he prefers him to someone else. But it is called predestination, inasmuch as he directs a person to the good he wills for him by loving and choosing him.
The distinctions are carefully drawn, of course, but there is nothing here to which Augustine, or Calvin for that matter, might object.
Indeed, Aquinas goes one step further and addresses the issue of the relationship between predestination and rejection. Like predestination to glory, rejection is eternal because everything God wills is willed eternally. Yet he maintains a difference between predestination and rejection. Because human beings are sinful, good works can only flow as a result of God’s first predestining someone to good works. If, in the logical ordering of divine decisions, predestination does not come first, then there can be no good works. One might say that God could not even hypothetically conceive of a world where a sinner who has not first been predestined could do any works meriting salvation.
But the same reasoning does not apply to rejection:
[A] foreknowledge of merits cannot be the reason for predestination, because the foreknown merits fall under predestination; but the foreknowledge of sins can be a reason for rejection on the part of the punishment prepared for the rejected, inasmuch as God proposes to punish the wicked for the sins they have from themselves, not from God; the just he proposes to reward on account of the merits they do not have from themselves.
To put it simply, this means that Aquinas is a single predestinarian, seeing the lost as those who have been passed over by God and not positively made into objects of his electing, predestinating will. This places him well within the bounds of classic Augustinian anti-Pelagianism and undergirds a view of grace that places God’s sovereignty at the center.
Carl Trueman (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. He has written more than a dozen books, including Histories and Fallacies: Problems Faced in the Writing of History, Luther on the Christian Life, The Creedal Imperative, Grace Alone: Salvation as a Gift of God, John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man, and is currently co-editing with Bruce Gordon the Oxford Handbook of Calvin and Calvinism.
 For an introduction to Aquinas’s life, the little book by G. K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, available in numerous editions, is probably the best place to start. For a more thorough survey of both his life and thought, see Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993). For those wanting to go deeper, the best thing to do is to read Aquinas himself. The Summa Theologiae is available online and in print in a good, literal translation by the Dominicans of the nineteenth century. The Summae can be daunting, so it is a good idea to read them alongside the excellent commentaries by Brian Davies: Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae: A Guide and Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); and Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). A good selection of his writings can be found in Ralph McInerny, ed., Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings (London: Penguin, 1999), which includes both a helpful introduction and devotional material as well as selections from the more familiar philosophical and theological works.
 E.g., Carl R. Trueman, The Claims of Truth: John Owen’s Trinitarian Theology (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1998); James Dolezal, God without Part: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011).
 Summa Theologiae 1a.12.4.
 Summa Theologiae 1a.94.1.
 Summa Theologiae 1a.2ae.109.2.
 Summa Theologiae 1a.95.4.
 We noted in Chapter One that sometimes Paul speaks of grace as something active and at work in the life of the believer. That aspect of the idea was picked up and developed in the Middle Ages by Aquinas, among others, and provided a core piece of the sacerdotal system which tended to identify grace with a substance and to connect it to the sacraments. In order to safeguard the biblical teaching, it would seem that care must be taken here to make sure that, when the term grace is used in the sense of the subjective activity of God in the life of a believer, it is identified with the work of the Holy Spirit rather than some notion of substance.
 ST 1a2ae.110.2.2.
 Speaking of the reward for obedience, Turretin says: ‘[W]ith respect to God, [the reward] was gratuitous, as depending upon a pact or gratuitous promise (by which God was bound not to man but to himself and his own goodness, fidelity and truth, Rom. 3:3, 2Tim. 2:13). Therefore there was no debt (properly so called) from which man could derive a right, but only a debt of fidelity, arising out of the promise by which God demonstrated his infallible constancy and truth.’ Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 3 vols. (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1992), 8.3.15 (vol. 1, 578).
 ST 1a.22.2.
 ST 1a.23.1 (Burns, Oates, and Washburn).
 ST 1a.23.3.
 ST 1a.23.5.
 ST 1a.23.6.
 ST 1a.23.7.
 Commentary on the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans, ed. J. Mortensen and E. Alarcón, trans. F. R. Larcher (Lander, WY: The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2012), 254.
 Ibid., 255.
Kelly Kapic: Thomas Aquinas and Humility
Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) discusses humility with some care and therefore deserves our attention. He advocates humility as “a praiseworthy self-abasement to the lowest place.” Self-abasement could indicate a belittling of oneself or even a movement toward self-hatred, but a fuller reading of Aquinas will interpret this word choice as focusing on the good of others rather than on one’s own needs. “Self-abasement” is linked to being a dependent creature, and the “Angelic Doctor” later notes that the language of humility comes from humo acclinis, which literally means “bent toward the ground”: this points to an awareness of and connection with the “dust and ashes” motif of Scripture (e.g., Gen. 18:27). We are made from the dust and will return to the dust. But he also warns that we may fail to appreciate our “honor” by comparing ourselves to animals, becoming merely like them rather than recognizing the unique image of God we were created to reflect. So humans are from the dust, but they are not merely dust; they are creatures like the animals, but they alone reflect God’s image. Here we will discover the beautiful blend of humility and honor, significance and service, the individual and interconnections. To see this more fully, however, we must do some careful thinking.In order to be humble, Aquinas argues, a person must come to recognize “his disproportion to that which surpasses his capacity.” Click To Tweet
In order to be humble, Aquinas argues, a person must come to recognize “his disproportion to that which surpasses his capacity.” Humility means happily admitting that we lack what we need and that others can supply that need. “Deficiencies” and dependence may result from evil and sin; however, they may result simply from our condition of being finite creatures; one creature can depend on other creatures apart from sin. Dependence is simply a recognition of scarcity and creaturely need.
An accurate assessment of one’s place in the world as a particular human creature yields these two insights: (1) your very life is a gift from the Creator and Sustainer, and (2) you are a fellow creature who recognizes both your contributions and your dependencies on others. Elsewhere in the Summa Theologica, when he examines the virtue of magnanimity (i.e., “greatness of soul”), Aquinas sees similar connections: “There is in man something great which he possesses through the gift of God; and something defective [defectus] which accrues to him through the weakness of nature.” The former is linked with magnanimity, the latter with humility. There will be some dispute about this, but one could argue that human defectus need not point to sin, but can point to the reality of creaturely finitude.
Aquinas does not oppose striving to accomplish difficult and significant things. For him, magnanimity can be the virtue of having a “great” mind or heart, but he inserts a crucial qualification. Unlike Aristotle, Aquinas distinguishes magnanimity from pride, which aims “at greater things through confiding in one’s own powers,” rather than “through confidence in God’s help, which is not contrary to humility.”
Simply put, pride ignores God as the giver of one’s mind and skills, while humility gratefully employs these gifts as an expression of worship and as a way to help others. G. K. Chesterton compares Aristotle’s magnanimous man “who is great and knows that he is great” with Aquinas’s view of the “miracle of the more magnanimous man, who is great and knows that he is small.” Humility and magnanimity are, as Mary Keys explains, the twin virtues (duplex virtus) that belong together when we are considering “greatness” and the use of one’s gifts. No matter how “great” one is, all one’s actions ought to be (and, apart from the fall, could be and would have been) expressions of worship of God and in generous service of neighbor. Jesus kneeling down and washing the dusty feet of his disciples is, for Aquinas, the model that captures the heart of the humility we ought to imitate.Simply put, pride ignores God as the giver of one’s mind and skills, while humility gratefully employs these gifts as an expression of worship and as a way to help others. Click To Tweet
For Aquinas, pride is not the only problem: faintheartedness (i.e., pusillanimity) is simply the other extreme. Rather than arrogance, faintheartedness points to “smallness of spirit,” which can come across as timidity, a lack of courage, or what Aquinas might call a defective ambition. Aristotle comments that certain versions of humility will keep people from doing hard things and making worthwhile contributions. For Aquinas, both presumption and faintheartedness are sinful—the first because it arrogantly acts as if one has far more power and ability than one in fact has, and the second because it fails to recognize and act according to the power and ability clearly at hand. Drawing on Jesus’s parable about the servant who received gifts from his master but was afraid to use them (Matt. 25; Luke 19), Aquinas observes that “fainthearted fear” can be just as wrong as its haughty opposite. In fact, Aquinas believes that faintheartedness can, just like arrogance, grow out of pride: “A man clings too much to his own opinion, whereby he thinks himself incompetent for those things for which he is competent” (cf. Prov. 26:16).24 Sometimes we need to listen to others and believe them when they tell us we can and should do certain things. Other people not only are good at helping us discover our faults but also help us discover our gifts.
Aristotle’s view of the magnanimous person is, in the end, fundamentally egocentric, while Aquinas’s approach to magnanimity is centered on others: God, neighbor, and earth. Drawing on Benedict’s sixth-century Rule with some alteration, Aquinas carefully emphasizes a division between that which is given by God (i.e., gifts, abilities, etc.) and that which comes from humanity’s rebellion (i.e., sin). Aquinas uses this distinction between divinely given gifts and distorting sin to show us how to relate to others: we should exercise what God has given while rejecting our sinful impulses, which tempt us to distort and abuse those gifts. Humility, concludes Aquinas, comes primarily as “a gift of grace,” and only secondarily “by human effort.” That grace reconnects us with our Creator and puts us in proper relationship to the rest of creation: this is the context of true humility.
Each of us has gifts from God. We should value and honor these gifts and not use them as weapons against others who do not have them. Teachers should not belittle students, but educate them, musicians ought to avoid elitism and employ their skills so others enjoy their beauty, and so on. In this way, humility allows us both to employ our gifts and to happily benefit from our neighbor, who also has gifts from God that we lack in ourselves. A small section from one of Aquinas’s prayers on acquiring the virtues lays out this dynamic:
whatever good things I have,
I may share generously
with those who have not
whatever good things I do not have,
I may request humbly
from those who do.
I can’t sing well and my ability with math is dismal, but as others exercise these gifts, I and the church and the world around us enjoy the benefits. “Humility makes us honor others and esteem them better than ourselves, in so far as we see some of God’s gifts in them.” Since it would be foolish to imagine any of us has all possible gifts, it would be equally arrogant to neglect celebrating the good gifts God has given to others.
When ranking the virtues, Aquinas puts “charity”—love!—at the top of the list, not humility. This recognition helps further orient the goal and purpose of humility in the first place, since it points to something greater, something more fundamental, something true, right, and beautiful. Out of the love of the Father for the Son in the Spirit, God creates a good world filled with good creatures, a world created out of love and for love. Humility allows us to participate in that multidimensioned power that was meant to animate the world from the very beginning: love! Our discussion thus far makes it apparent that humility itself is an expression of love. We love God by using our gifts in his service; and we love our neighbors by using our gifts for their benefit and by gratefully receiving the benefit of their gifts.
Kelly M. Kapic (PhD, King’s College, London) is Professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College. He is the author of numerous books including You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News, Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering, The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics, and Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice.
Michael Horton: Thomas Aquinas and the Reformation
The Triumph of Nominalism
“The Reformation teaching of justification by faith alone (sola fide) exemplified a great deal of continuity with the nominalist tradition. This continuity centered on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.” This critique by Reformed theologian Hans Boersma is representative of a particular narrative that I have glanced at periodically but will now address focally. According to this story, the Reformation was a prime carrier of the nominalism that has emptied into the gulf of postmodern nihilism. Although the label has been discredited by specialists, through the labors especially of scholars associated with Radical Orthodoxy, nominalism has become in recent decades a very clear and well-defined late medieval school with a united program of dismantling a participationist metaphysics.Though the term is now corrupted by historical anachronisms, I will continue to use it here to refer to a univocal metaphysics associated with Ockham and Biel.According to this story, the Reformation was a prime carrier of the nominalism that has emptied into the gulf of postmodern nihilism. Click To Tweet
This genealogy has a somewhat lengthy heritage, beginning at least with Joseph Lortz as well as Henri de Lubac and the so-called nouvelle théologie. With more expansiveness and less nuance and engagement with primary sources, John Milbank and other scholars associated with the label “Radical Orthodoxy” assert frequently that “late medieval nominalism, the protestant reformation and seventeenth-century Augustinianism . . . completely privatised, spiritualised and transcendentalised the sacred, and concurrently, reimagined nature, human action and society as a sphere of autonomous, sheerly formal power.” For Milbank and others, the Reformation’s doctrine of justification is only the tip of the nominalist iceberg that the church struck fatally as the late Middle Ages gave way to the dawn of modernity.
Nominalism and the Other Reformers
If Luther were corrupted by nominalism, how does one explain the Reformation more generally? In contrast with Luther as well as those who had a significant hand in the theology of Trent, most of the Reformers were not schooled in nominalism at all. Martin Bucer was a traditional Dominican trained in the Dominican monastery in Heidelberg. Bucer studied a year of dogmatics at Mainz and returned to Heidelberg in 1517, where he first met Luther at the Heidelberg Disputation. A survey of his library shows that it was stocked with all of Aquinas’s works. Bucer’s mentor, Beatus Rhenanus, was a classics scholar trained at the University of Paris under Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, who, besides arriving independently of Luther at sola scriptura and justification through faith alone, was a noted Aristotelian—and Neoplatonist.
Ulrich Zwingli’s friendship with Erasmus was nourished by a common love of Plato, and his successor, Heinrich Bullinger, was trained at Cologne—a center of Thomism with nominalism excluded by statute. Intrigued by Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, Bullinger turned to a close study of Scripture and the church fathers, especially Chrysostom and Jerome as well as Gratian’s Decretum, where he found no mention of a sacrament of penance. After reading Melanchthon’s Loci communes in 1522, Bullinger declared himself a “Martinian” (after Martin Luther), and as head of the cloister school in Kappel, he instituted a program for the monks in biblical languages and exegesis. Peter Martyr Vermigli was a Thomist, trained at Padua alongside Cardinals Contarini, Pole, and Seripando. Guillaume Farel, who initiated the Geneva reformation, was trained at the University of Paris and, with Jacques Lefèvre, became part of the Meaux circle around the reform-minded bishop Guillaume Briçonnet. Through Lefèvre’s influence, Farel was appointed to teach grammar and philosophy at the College Cardinal Lemoine, eventually becoming regent of the college, and was appointed diocesan preacher by Briçonnet before he had to flee to Switzerland. There is no evidence of any nominalist connection.
Though some have tried in vain to locate Calvin in the Paris classroom of the nominalist John Maior, Calvin rarely entered into the debates that roiled medieval Thomists, Scotists, and Ockhamists, and when he did, he frequently sided with Aquinas and “the better scholastics.” His screeds against “the schoolmen” were directed chiefly at contemporaries at the Sorbonne. “The basic opposition of Luther and Calvin to scholasticism is often confined to late medieval nominalism in its semi-pelagian form,” note Willem J. van Asselt and Eef Dekker. In its extreme voluntarism, late medieval nominalism had in fact based predestination on a view of God’s absolute will as sovereign even over God’s nature. However, with the vigor of any Thomist, Calvin attacked this view directly as “a diabolical blasphemy” that would render God the author of evil and render us balls that he juggles in the air. While all things are subject to God’s decree, Calvin said, evil and sin are attributed to Satan and human beings. “And we do not advocate the fiction of ‘absolute power’; because this is profane, it ought rightly to be hateful to us. We fancy no lawless god who is a law unto himself.” Whether he was targeting Scotus is debatable, but he certainly had in mind the extreme voluntarism represented by Ockham and especially Biel, which was popular at the Sorbonne where Calvin had studied.
So much for Calvin’s voluntarism. The one citation in Harrison’s summary—to the effect that Christ’s death was efficacious because God accepted it as such—omits its context in the Institutes 2.17.1, as well as the fact that Aquinas had said the same thing, alongside nearly every other major scholastic theologian. Harrison asserts that “Calvin’s voluntarist inclinations also provide a partial explanation of his difficult and counter-intuitive doctrine of election, according to which God preordains who will be saved and who will be damned.” Yet in the same essay he acknowledges that, though he finds the idea repulsive, this was the view of Paul and Augustine, who can hardly be said to have been shaped by Ockhamist voluntarism.Calvin thought of divine and human agency in analogical terms, much like Aquinas. Click To Tweet
Calvin was not a philosopher and only entered upon such ground when soteriological questions were involved. For example, on the question of whether the intellect or will is the determinative faculty, Calvin eschews the complex debates and simply says that it is a false choice: the will and the intellect are mutually engaged in every act. After reviewing some of the distinctions and debates, he concludes, “Though these things are true, or at least plausible, still, as I fear they are more fitted to entangle by their obscurity than to assist us, I think it best to omit them.”
Calvin thought of divine and human agency in analogical terms, much like Aquinas. According to Randall Zachman, there is “nearly universal agreement” that Calvin is an “analogical and anagogical theologian.” The Reformed orthodox followed Aquinas’s doctrine of analogy over Scotus, Richard Muller observes, and “the denial of univocity, taken together with the typical affirmation of an analogy of being, opened the way for the Reformed orthodox to argue a doctrine of the divine attributes that affirmed both the transcendence of God and the intimate relationship of God to the world order.” “The soul cannot elicit acts of the understanding and will,” Turretin argues, “unless renewed by supernatural dispositions and habits.” Thus, “We obtain the new birth, from which acts of faith and love flow forth (1 Jn. 4:7; 5:1).” “The movement of efficacious grace is properly to be called neither physical nor ethical, but supernatural and divine.” The Spirit infuses “the supernatural habits of faith and love.”
Seminal theologians such as Vermigli, Musculus, Zanchi, Turretin, and Owen were soaked in Aquinas, and it is not exaggerating to say that the intellectual culture of Continental and British Calvinism was more Thomistic than most Counter-Reformation theologians. John Owen displays “some preference for John of Damascus (c. 675–740)” as well as Bernard of Clairvaux. “When Duns Scotus is referred to in A Dissertation on Divine Justice, the references are all negative since Owen is here restating the Thomist argument of the absolute necessity of satisfaction, strengthened by Suarez.” He is explicitly opposed to Ockham and Biel, favoring Henry of Ghent, Alexander of Hales, and Bonaventure. “However, the most important of the medieval scholastics for Owen was Thomas Aquinas.” In this respect he was typical of the Reformed orthodox. In one of the most heated Reformed debates of the seventeenth century, both interlocutors—Voetius and Cocceius—opposed the nominalist interpretation of the absolute-ordinata scheme. “Even if God could actualize his power in other possible worlds, he does not have the power to act beyond his essential righteousness,” they concurred. Instead, they followed Thomas.
“John Calvin was more sympathetic to pagan philosophy, perhaps on account of his humanist background,” Harrison notes. Yet he too was generally suspicious. “Even Calvin’s beloved Augustine was chided for having been ‘excessively addicted to the philosophy of Plato.’” Justification and transubstantiation were the fields where the Reformers thought philosophy had taken over. Melanchthon returned to Aristotle, though, and most Lutherans (and Reformed) followed. Just at this time, among other treasures of classical thought, the Renaissance had rediscovered the skeptics of the Academy. “This ancient philosophy according to its leading Renaissance proponent, Michel de Montaigne, ‘presents man naked and empty, acknowledging his natural weakness, fit to receive from above some outside power; stripped of human knowledge, and all the more apt to lodge divine knowledge in himself, annihilating his judgment to make room for faith.’” Such a resource may have attracted sympathy from nominalists who walled off reason from faith, but it was scorned by all of the Reformers as the gateway to “Epicurean” infidelity.
While Calvin was reticent to engage in detailed questions of philosophical theology, Reformed orthodoxy drew heavily on medieval categories and issues particularly to refute a host of new challenges, especially from the Jesuits, Molinists, Socinians, and Arminians. For the most part, their conclusions reflect early medieval and Thomist influences rather than Scotist options. In sharp contrast with their Roman Catholic contemporaries, they showed no interest in nominalism, and in fact even those with a voluntarist (Franciscan/Scotist) leaning turned to Aquinas concerning analogy, concursus, double agency, and other important categories.
The Radical Orthodoxy thesis is not susceptible to acknowledging multiple factors and multiple accounts that do not fit neatly into either the genealogy of either Neoplatonism or nominalism. Since the Reformation obviously does not fit well into the former, it must belong to the latter. But such a heavy-handed and a priori template does not do justice to the sources.
It is true of course that the Reformation produced unintended consequences that had negative as well as positive effects on emerging modernity. Yet history is complicated and even if we were to confine ourselves to the history of ideas, it seems implausible to imagine that the West would be a glorious domain of Christian Neoplatonism had Scotus, Ockham, and Luther never been born.Seminal theologians such as Vermigli, Musculus, Zanchi, Turretin, and Owen were soaked in Aquinas, and it is not exaggerating to say that Continental and British Calvinism was more Thomistic than most Counter-Reformation theologians. Click To Tweet
Why, for example, is it not just as plausible that unintentionally Aquinas’s theory of transubstantiation fundamentally undermined realism by positing accidents without substantial foundation? Aristotelian realism requires the belief that accidents are always accidents of something in particular. If you take away the substance, then the accidents are hovering in midair. As Reformed theologians argued, transubstantiation was not a scriptural mystery that transcended reason; rather, it contradicted Scripture, the senses and reason. Could it be that it was actually those who endorsed such a view who pushed faith and reason apart from each other? Furthermore, advocates of the Scotus Story (as it reaches the Reformers) seem to forget the Renaissance, which itself was a revival of Neoplatonism (Christian and pagan).
At a time when numerous leading theologians on the Roman Catholic side were explicitly committed to nominalism, not a single reformer or refiner of Reformed orthodoxy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries attempted to incorporate the ideas of Ockham or Biel, even those purged of their Pelagianizing theses. The broad consensus of Reformed scholasticism was given to Aquinas’s analogical view of participation over against Scotus and especially nominalist departures.
The Reformers stand closer to Aquinas than Trent
If, as Joseph Lortz says, “the Occamistic system is radically uncatholic,” and Louis Boyer regards nominalism as “the utter corruption of Christian thought,” then it is not to the Reformers but the Council of Trent that the triumph of such “uncatholic” teaching is to be attributed. And yet, in an era of plentiful condemnations, Ockham was dubbed Venerabilis Inceptor. Whatever trials he endured at the hands of Pope John XXII were provoked less by his doctrines than by his defense of Franciscan poverty. In fact, Ockham received a warm reception at the University of Paris.Despite the fact that the nominalist doctrine of justification can only be “characterized as at least semi-Pelagian,” notes Oberman, it became the most popular option in many theological faculties. Oberman adds,
Luther’s earliest opponents, such as Johannes Eck, Bartholomaeus von Usingen, and Kaspar Schatzgeyer, are all deeply indebted to the nominalistic tradition. . . . The name of Biel and his fellow schoolmen is not only absent from the Trent Index of Forbidden Books; but in an appendix to the 1569 edition of the Index published by the diocese of Munich, Biel’s name is included under the suggestive heading: “Most select list of authors from which a complete Catholic library can properly be constituted.” . . . Our conclusion that nominalism has not been able to avoid a Pelagian position should not obscure the fact that nominalism was fully involved in the ongoing medieval search for the proper interpretation of Augustine.
Ironically, Denifle, who helped launch the thesis that Luther was the carrier of a decadent nominalism into modernity, suggested that “Rimini went too far in his rejection of the Occamist claim that man can love God above all ex puris naturalibus.” Yet as we have seen, Luther hailed Gregory as the one who stood alone in opposing this Pelagian doctrine. So if those who paint Luther a “nominalist” are more favorable to Ockham than to Gregory of Rimini, while Luther holds up the latter as a hero, then we must ask who the real nominalists are after all.The Reformers actually stand closer to Aquinas than does Trent. Click To Tweet
Not the Reformation but Trent represents the triumph of nominalism. The Reformers actually stand closer to Aquinas than does Trent. To the extent that they conceived election and justification as conditional and contractual, Ockham and Biel proved Aquinas’s conclusion that the idea of merit could be advanced without the blemish of Pelagianism only by anchoring it in unconditional election.
The Reformation cannot be credited or blamed with being the carrier of nominalism into the modern era. We can only conclude with Oberman, “on this vital point” of justification as well as others, that “late medieval nominalism can be regarded as the forerunner of the Tridentine” formulations “and is therefore in agreement with beliefs basic and characteristic for what has come to be known as Roman Catholicism.”
Michael S. Horton (PhD, Oxford University) is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, where he has taught since 1998. Additionally, he is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sola Media and the editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. Dr. Horton is the author/editor of more than twenty-five books, including Justification(Zondervan), a two-volume work in the New Studies in Dogmatics series, Calvin on the Christian Life, The Christian Faith, and Introducing Covenant Theology.
 Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 92; cf. Boersma, Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
 On the discrediting of the label, see Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, vol. 1, Beginnings to 1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 166–70. “Nominalism” was not coined until long after Ockham and Biel and there never was a nominalist school per se. Besides, the term fails to distinguish figures who diverged widely even over questions related directly to univocity and analogy.
 John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006), 9. See also John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 28–48; John Milbank, Graham Ward, and Catherine Pickstock, “Suspending the Material: The Turn of Radical Orthodoxy,” in Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, ed. John Milbank, Graham Ward, and Catherine Pickstock (London: Routledge, 1999), 3: “The central theological framework for radical orthodoxy is participation as developed by Plato and reworked by Christianity, because an alternative configuration perforce reserves a territory independent of God. The latter can lead only to nihilism (though in different guises).”
 See James K. A. Smith and James H. Olthuis, eds., Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition: Creation, Covenant and Participation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005).
 Martin Greschat, Martin Bucer: A Reformer and His Times (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 25.
 Calvin’s actual engagements of scholastic theologians reveal a range of sympathy, depending on the argument and point of view. For example, acknowledging the debate between intellectualism and voluntarism briefly in the Institutes, he advised that it was a false choice: that the whole self is involved in every determination. One may conclude that this is philosophically naïve but not that it is voluntarist (much less nominalist). But the idea of Calvin as either a nominalist or as an opponent of scholastic method is not supported by the evidence. See, e.g., Richard A. Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundations of a Theological Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 45–46; and Paul Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
 Van Asselt and Dekker, introduction to Reformation and Scholasticism, 40.
 Van Asselt and Dekker, introduction to Reformation and Scholasticism, 36.
 Inst. 3.23.2 and 3.23.4–5. See also Calvin, Sermons on Job, trans. Arthur Golding (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), 415: “And undoubtedly whereas the doctors of the Sorbonne say that God hath an absolute or lawless power, it is devilish blasphemy forged in hell, for it ought not once to enter into a faithful man’s head.”
 Inst. 2.4.2.
 Inst. 3.23.2.
 Scouring Calvin’s critical references to the “two powers,” David C. Steinmetz argues that the potentia absoluta against which he inveighs is an arbitrary and lawless power. See Steinmetz, “Calvin and the Absolute Power of God,” in Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 18, no. 1 (1988): 65–79.
 This is contrary to the thesis of Willem J. van Asselt, J. Martin Bac, and Roelf T. te Velde, trans. and eds., Reformed Thought on Freedom: The Concept of Free Choice in the History of Early-Modern Reformed Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), who interpret Scotus very differently (and favorably) from his critics. They maintain that Scotism provided the ground for affirming genuine contingency over determinism and that while Luther and Calvin remained in the thrall of Thomist/Aristotelian determinism, Reformed orthodoxy followed the Scotist path. Richard Muller challenges this thesis convincingly in Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), esp. pt. 3.
 Harrison, “Philosophy and the Crisis of Religion,” 231, 236–37.
 Inst. 1.15.6–8.
 Randall Zachman, “Calvin as Analogical Theologian,” Scottish Journal of Theology 51, no. 2 (1998): 162.
 Richard Muller, “‘Not Scotist’: Understanding of Being, Univocity and Analogy in Early Modern Reformed Thought,” Reformation and Renaissance Review 14, no. 2 (2012): 139. See also Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 1:234: “Scotus, the nominalists after him, and virtually all of the formulators of Protestant theology denied the Thomist analogia entis and declared that no proportion exists between the finite and the infinite (finite et infiniti nulla proportio).” Cf. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3:109.
 Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1992), 2:523.
 Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 2:523.
 Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 2:524.
 Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 2:524.
 Harm Goris, “Thomism in Jerome Zanchi’s Doctrine of God,” in Reformation and Scholasticism: An Ecumenical Enterprise, ed. Willem J. van Asselt and Eef Dekker (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 121–40; and Sebastian Rehnmann, “John Owen: A Reformed Scholastic at Oxford,” on pp.181–203 of the same volume. See also Richard A. Muller, Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017).
 Rehnmann, “John Owen: A Reformed Scholastic at Oxford,” 192.
 Willem J. van Asselt, “Cocceius Anti-Scholasticus?” in Reformation and Scholasticism: An Ecumenical Enterprise, ed. Willem J. van Asselt and Eef Dekker (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 248–49. Not even Scotus fits Radical Orthodoxy’s portrait, since “Scotus’s emphasis on the potentia absoluta does not need to be problematic when it is related to his doctrine of synchronic contingency. In addition, Scotus underlined that the potentia absoluta is not allowed to contrast with God’s essential attributes” (249n52).
 Harrison, “Philosophy and the Crisis of Religion,” 236–37.
 Harrison, “Philosophy and the Crisis of Religion,” 237, quoting Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 17, Commentary on the Gospel according to John, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 31 (1:3).
 Harrison, “Philosophy and the Crisis of Religion,” 237.
 Harrison, “Philosophy and the Crisis of Religion,” 241–42.
 Harrison, “Philosophy and the Crisis of Religion,” 242.
 See Muller, Divine Will and Human Choice, chs. 5–8.
 See Richard Muller, “‘Not Scotist’: Understanding of Being, Univocity and Analogy in Early-Modern Reformed Thought,” Reformation and Renaissance Review 14, no. 2 (2012): 127–50; cf. Steven J. Duby, “Election, Actuality and Divine Freedom: Thomas Aquinas, Bruce McCormack and Reformed Orthodoxy in Dialogue,” Modern Theology 32 (2016): 325–40.
 Quoted in Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology, 425, from Lortz, Luther und Luthertum, 1.2 (473); and Boyer, Histoire de la Philosophie médiévale, vol. 3, Après le treizième siècle, 6th ed. (Paris: Vrin 1947), 231f.
 William J. Courtenay, “The Reception of Ockham’s Thought at the University of Paris,” in Preuve et raisons à l’Université de Paris: Logique, ontologie et théologie au XIVe siècle, ed. Zénon Kaluza and Paul Vignaux (Paris: Vrin, 1984), 43–64.
 Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology, 426.
 Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology, 427.
 Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology, 142, 144.
 Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology, 428.