Aquinas and Salvation

Thomas has made it clear that we can do nothing that effects our salvation without grace. Having been given grace, though, we must act so as to cooperate in God’s work for our salvation. Cooperating grace enables and prompts us to achieve our salvation by our meritorious action. That final question of the treatise on grace addresses the notion of merit. Here Thomas is concerned to forestall misunderstandings, common throughout the church’s history, regarding the relation between merit and grace.

We have seen the Pelagian view of merit – the notion that, if we do our best, God will give us the grace of our heavenly reward – is far too simple-minded. We may indeed do the best we can, but without grace, not one of our actions has any bearing whatsoever upon our relation to God. A more subtle form of the Pelagian view, sometimes called ‘semi-Pelagianism’, contends that we, while yet unaided by grace, must make the initial move. We must merit grace by showing our worthiness, for it and its effects  before we are given it. Once it has been given to us, we can then go on to merit salvation more or less the way Thomas describes. . . . On this view of merit, we would earn our subsequent justification without the aid of grace. Augustine himself later retracted this view, as Thomas notes, acknowledging that faith itself is from its very beginning an effect of grace; ‘we believe, whilst we are being justified’ (ST ½.114.5 ad 1). Any notion that God becomes indebted to us because of our natural efforts is thus ruled out.

-Nicholas Healy, Thomas Aquinas: Theologian of the Christian Life, 116

Contrary to the hagiography that one sometimes encounters, there was development in Aquinas’ thought, and one of the areas in which he developed was soteriology. Joseph Wawrykow chronicles the development through three of Aquinas’ treatises chronologically, showing how he began a semi-Pelagian and worked his way to a more Augustinian view. This is the view which Healy presents above. Wawrykow’s book is God’s Grace and Human action: ‘Merit’ in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas did what everybody who got a master’s degree in theology did in his time, he wrote a commentary on what had become a standard book of theology, Peter Lombard’s Sentences. The Sentences was a 12th century book of which two useful observations can be made.

Lombard’s Sentences represents a response to a growing medieval population and civilization. Books were still hand-copies, laborious, costly and therefore rare items. As a result, books of sentences, books of crucial quotations from the authorities of the past were elaborated and implemented. It was far cheaper and easier to copy a selection than to acquire the necessary library. I have read one historian speculating that Bernard of Clairvaux was probably one of the last figures to read the ancient authorities in context as part of his education. He would have been reading and studying in the late 11th and early 12th century. As the population increased in Europe, the need to train priests to pastor them did too, especially in cities. Along with the cathedral schools came the books of sentences.

As a consequence of compiling assorted quotations, European teachers were faced with the problem of organizing and classifying their material. This development of topics is part of the development of systematic theology. A second consequence was that differences among the authorities became obvious as never before, and this led to the procedure of debate known as the disputation. If you think of Luther’s 95 theses for debate and the Heidelberg disputation, you will realize that the scholastic method of evaluating options, discarding opinions, and reconciling contradictions is exactly what the Reformers were still doing 300 years later. Lombard’s sentences today read like a disputation, the way Aquinas’ works often do. That organization was not original, so that the text was more dynamic than our common ideas of medieval times might lead us to believe. The final organization of Lombard’s Sentences was achieved in Aquinas’ own lifetime.

Aquinas commented Lombard’s Sentences in the 1250s, very early in his career, and it is at this stage that Wawrykow describes his semi-Pelagian view of merit. Aquinas was concerned with grace as a formal rather than an efficient cause, Wawrykow explains. A formal cause is a more intelligible causality, rather than one focusing on agency. It is one that shines as an ideal in the mind. It pulls rather than pushes, I think we could say, and because if this a formal cause leaves the agency unstated, and that tends to shift agency onto the subject of salvation, the human rather than the divine party.

What happened is that Aquinas was able to read Augustine and as a result he worked to reconcile this indisputable authority with his early and vaguer notions of grace. Wawrykow shows the struggle in an intermediate book called De Veritate and then in Aquinas’ developed theology which is found in the first section of the second part of the Summa Theologiae. Here grace is considered an efficient causality, and the principal agent in Salvation is divine. That doesn’t mean there is no room for human agency, but that the Augustinian emphasis is squarely on the divine, so that Aquinas is no longer vulnerable to the charge of semi-Pelagianism.

That is a gross simplification. It is a sketch of a very detailed and extensive book-length argument Wawrykow carefully develops. And it is worth observing that that is the problem when dealing with Aquinas, there aren’t simple arguments in his compendious and subtle thought. He taxes patience because he requires so many complex and seemingly infinite distinctions. And I believe others, just as I am, are tempted to dismiss what he is saying as too subtle just because it requires more work than we are used to putting into things. The question is, however, why should we think causality is simple, or that theology should be? One of the factors helping this conclusion has to be laziness, even though another one is the dubious aesthetic preference masquerading as a rule of thought commonly known as Ockham’s razor. It is, as subsequent philosophy and theology have demonstrated, a knife for cutting oneself off from metaphysics. Aquinas never cut himself off from metaphysics.

Assessing Aquinas’ soteriology, we can see that the problem is not that he is semi-Pelagian. The real objection we would have to his soteriology is that it is considered almost exclusively in transformative or ontological categories, without the familiar forensic or judicial categories that the Reformation gave us. A crucial distinction is missing, and this makes him collapse distinguishable portions that are nevertheless inseparable. If you don’t have some way to distinguish things that need to be inseparable, then you are going to conflate them.

That is to be expected. Luther saw his way to those categories because his thinking was focused by voluntarism and nominalism, so that the resulting tunnel vision allowed him to see only the forensic and declarative nature of justification, and at the beginning to the exclusion of any other consideration. What Aquinas’ and Luther do not have in common is that Aquinas’ was a metaphysical realist and Luther decidedly was not. Aquinas’ did theology in the Christian Platonic approach of theological intellectualism, and Luther did his theology in the Scotist and voluntarist way, coupled with a nominalist approach to metaphysics, in which power, relations, and judicial pronouncements determine reality. If the Christian Aristotelianism of Aquinas focused on the reality of substance, Luther’s nominalist approach focused on the reality in terms of powerful agency.

We need both the categories of law and of being to understand salvation. We need the ontological and transformative categories that have to do with the consequences of what God has done in us, those which foreground the human response to the divine activity. But we need those consequences only after we have the initial cause, the status-changing forensic declaration of justification by faith alone and the double imputation this impliess. What Aquinas’ and Luther had in common, however, was the Augustinian approach, the need for divine initiative. The missing part was a theological development requiring something Aquinas and all good people recognize as a problem: nominalism.

Nominalism gives us justification by faith alone and all the benefits of applied science, including the nuclear bomb and the iPhone. Nominalism has brought clarity in limited areas, by focusing our attention toward something we needed to see. This doesn’t mean that I embrace nominalism, but it does mean that whatever it is we of the human race hold to, it is, however admirable, provisional and in unexpected ways subject to correction. We should think that way of what we have, just as we should think that way of what Aquinas had, and what Augustine himself way back in the day had, whose insight, as the Healy quotation above indicates, came as a retraction.

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