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“At the Council of Trent (1543–63) the Roman Catholic reformers used the works of Aquinas in drafting their decrees; and in 1879 the pope declared Thomism (Aquinas’s theology) eternally valid.”[1] Such a statement surely solidifies Thomas as an invaluable resource in the mind of any Roman Catholic today. Somewhat surprisingly, Thomas has found a similar seat of prominence in the minds of many Reformed Protestants as well.

Is this a proper seat for Thomas? Does his brilliance supersede doctrinal divide? Is Thomas a helpful resource for all, or is he only for the Roman Catholic? This two-part blog post seeks to answer those questions by exploring to what degree Thomas Aquinas’s epistemology and his theology can harmonizes with the theology of the Reformers—first as seen in the so-called Solas of the Reformation and second in the Five Points of Calvinism. With the Lord’s help, this will provide both encouragement and caution to those seeking to understand the word of God rightly.

Question of Synthesis

Though it would be naïve and arrogant to suggest that only Reformed theologians make viable resources, it is particularly helpful to know what pre-Trentian theologians might have thought about Protestant issues and Reformed doctrines. Moreover, it is important to take note of whether epistemology or theology is the fountain head. In other words: does one’s understanding of knowledge flow from his understanding of God—or the other way around?

Of course, it is not simply a matter of reading how Thomas responds when asked about the Five Solas or the Doctrines of Grace. This is anachronistic thinking. Thomas simply doesn’t think or write in those terms—for that matter, neither does Luther or Calvin! Instead, one must attempt to summarize what Thomas expresses about his own theology or epistemology and apply it to the particular doctrines and issues of today. The questions themselves may still be a bit anachronistic, but the answers need not be.

Teachings of Thomas

Thomas Aquinas (1225–75) is thought by many to be the greatest thinker of the Medieval Church—and not without reason. He studied under Albert the Great and put his brilliance on display through lectures and public disputes alike. Thomas was a prolific author, but his most influential work was his unfinished Summa Theologica. Herein, Thomas attempted to give (as the title suggests) a summary of his theology. The Summa, though itself not an exhaustive treatment of Thomism, is particularly beneficial to synthetic work and will therefore be the work primarily referenced here. These posts do not attempt to give an exhaustive study of Thomism; however, they do seek to represent Thomistic thought as accurately as possible.

The Five Solas

It is difficult to say when the Five Solas were first compiled together in a formal list, but it is largely recognized that these five Latin slogans stand as the pillars for the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Clearly there are substantial issues dividing the Protestant Church from the Roman Catholic church not directly mentioned in these slogans. The idea of penance and purgatory, transubstantiation and the treasury of merits are all important topics, but each of these rest on one or more of the five pillars.

Thus, the Solas serve as a good summary of Protestantism as it is distinguished from Roman Catholicism even today. The Five Solas are recognized as follows: Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone), Sola Gratia (by grace alone), Sola Fide (through faith alone), Solus Christus (in Christ alone), and Soli Deo Gloria (glory to God alone).

Sola Scriptura

It is widely understood among Christians that the Bible is authoritative. However, Sola Scriptura says that it is Scripture alone that stands as the Church’s ultimate authority. All church leaders and Bible commentators are subject to Scripture in its original meaning. The way one understands God and his world, man and his knowledge, is all governed by the Bible. Luther goes so as far as to say, “The rule is: The Word of God shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel.”[2]

Thomas has high regard for the Scripture as well. In his commentary on John, he says that “only the canonical scriptures are the standard of faith”[3] over and against non-canonical writings. However, Thomas’s canon is quite a bit larger than that of the Protestants. In the same paragraph, Thomas says that the Apostle John “speaks [the gospel] in the person of the entire Church which received it[4] (emphasis mine). For Thomas, the canon was not differentiated from the teaching of the entire Church.

It is interesting to see how Thomas puts this into practice. In his Summa Theologica Thomas will normally raise a question, voice objections, answer with an authority, and then give his own thoughts before refuting each objection. In place of the authoritative voice, Thomas often quotes Scripture. However, he just as freely quotes theologians like Augustine or the philosopher Aristotle.

This is quite telling of how Thomas builds and gains his understanding of epistemology. If Scripture alone were his only authority, it is unlikely that he would lean so heavily on the philosopher. This shaky epistemological foundation makes for problematic theology later on. These posts will show some of the implications of that.

Though Thomas has a high regard for the canon, his canon is not comprised of Scripture alone. Therefore, his understanding of God and man and the knowledge that man can gain are gravely affected. This will prove to be a difficulty for any Protestant who seek help from Thomas. They must bear in mind that Thomas’s definition of canon is substantially different.

Sola Gratia

As fallen sinners, man is dead to righteousness and enslaved to sin. Thus, he cannot produce in himself the faith needed for salvation. This faith is granted to him by God as an act of grace alone: Sola Gratia. Man can contribute nothing to his own salvation. To think otherwise, according to Luther, is twice as sinful. “The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty.”[5]

Thomas does reject the Pelagian error of synergistic salvation and sees that as far as free-will is concerned, “there is no necessity that it should obtain grace, since the gift of grace exceeds every preparation of human power.”[6] However, Thomas fails to see the desperate state of fallen sinners. To Thomas, “the evil of sin … must [exist] in the good of nature, and consequently it does not destroy it entirely.”[7] It will be explored later in these posts how devastating this thought process is to Thomas’s epistemology, but it is clear that Thomas views fallen man’s lust for sin as an accident of the fall rather than an element of the it.

For Thomas, grace alone can remove the impediment of sin’s habit, and in this way, it is by grace alone that one is saved. However, he incorrectly views spiritual death as fallen man being held down by sins so numerous that he is as good as dead, rather than taking the Apostle Paul at face value when he said, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1).[8] This is the true context and right understanding for his exclamation, “by grace you have been saved” (Eph 2:8).

Sola Fide

The slogan Sola Fide communicates that a sinner is declared justified through faith alone. Saving faith is never actually alone; rather it is accompanied by good works wrought by the Spirit. However, it is faith (and not those resulting works) through which one is declared just. As Martin Luther writes in his Heidelberg Disputation, “He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.”[9]

Thomas’s theology operates on a completely different paradigm. Rather than seeing justification as a declaration, he sees it as a process. Thomas says that “justification implies a transmutation from the state of injustice to the … state of justice.”[10] One must understand Thomas’s theology of justification in order to proper understand Thomas’s theology of faith. While Thomas can say that justification is only given to the those whom God turns to himself, what he means is that “Now the first turning to God [in this process] is by faith.”[11] The rest of the process is worked out by God turning the free-will of man to do good works.

For Thomas, faith is a necessary component for justification, but it is only the beginning. He (and the Council of Trent after him) are flawed in their theology and do not rightly understand the judicial pronouncement that “one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3:28).

Solus Christus

As with the previous, the solus of Solus Christus is what distinguishes the Protestant from the Roman Catholic. This slogan insists that it is in Christ alone, according to the work of Christ alone that one is saved—with no help from the affections of men or the works of the Church. Luther put it succinctly. “The cross is our only theology.”[12]

Again, Thomas’s theology is sub-biblical. He agrees that it is in Christ alone that one is saved, but he understands that union to not be established through the work of Christ alone. For Thomas, that union also requires a Godward love as well as religious sacraments. “Christ’s Passion works its effect in them to whom it is applied, through faith and charity and the sacraments of faith”[13] (emphasis mine).

This poor theology of the beginning of one’s union with Christ plays a vital factor in Thomas’s theology of the perseverance of one’s union with Christ (but more on that later). Thomas may see union with Christ alone as necessary for salvation (though he does not see that as anything separate from union with the Church), but he does not see union with Christ as being accomplished by Christ alone. He requires love from the sinner and sacraments from the Church.

Conversely, Paul declared the benefits of Christ exclusively. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith” (Rom 5:1–2). Thomas gives a hardy amen to the benefits of Christ but presumes there need be more.

Soli Deo Gloria

According to Scripture, it is by grace alone and through faith alone in Christ alone that man can be saved. Soli Deo Gloria, therefore points out that it is necessary that all the glory of salvation go to God alone and not to saints of the past or present. Luther puts it this way, “The Holy Spirit convicts the whole world of sin (John 16:8) and proclaims the righteous Christ and His glory alone. It is the office of an evangelical preacher to proclaim the glory of God alone.”[14]

Thomas would agree that it is God who receives glory and the only merit given to man presupposes Divine ordination. However, when Thomas answers whether worship is due to saints and relics, his answer stands opposed to the idea of Soli Deo gloria. “It is manifest,” Thomas says, “that we should show honor to the saints of God … wherefore in memory of them we ought to honor any relics of theirs … [and even that] God himself fittingly honors such relics by working miracles at their presence.”[15]

Thomas wants to affirm Scripture but not have his postulations held back by it. He thinks highly of Scripture, but his thoughts are not governed by it. Thomas’s theology stands downstream of his epistemology. Scripture must be understood in a way to fit within Thomas’s own schema.

At this point, Part One of the blog post comes to a close. The next part will take up whether Thomas’s epistemology and theology harmonizes with the Doctrines of Grace.

[1] Robert G. Clouse, “Thomas Aquinas” in Introduction to the History of Christianity, Second Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 250.

[2] Martin Luther, Smalcald Articles, Part II, Article 2.15, (Champaign, IL: Project Gutenberg, 1537), 8.

[3] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel John Chapters 9-21, translated by Fabian R. Larcher, O.P. (Lander, WY: The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2013), 518.

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John Chapters 9-21, 518.

[5] Martin Luther, “Heidelberg Disputation” trans. H.J. Grimm, Check Luther, last accessed Oct 24, 2021, https://www.checkluther.com/wp-content/uploads/1518-Heidelberg-Disputation.pdf.

[6] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I–II, q. 112, a. 3, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Claremont, CA: Coyote Canyon Press, 2018), 512.

[7] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I–II, q. 85, a. 2, 438.

[8] All Scripture citations in this work are taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016) unless otherwise noted.

[9] Martin Luther, “Heidelberg Disputation” trans. H.J. Grimm, Check Luther, last accessed Oct 24, 2021, https://www.checkluther.com/wp-content/uploads/1518-Heidelberg-Disputation.pdf.

[10] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I–II, q. 113, a. 1, 513.

[11] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I–II, q. 113, a. 4, 514.

[12] Martin Luther, “Lectures on Psalms I” in Luther’s Works, 10, editor: Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972), 19.

[13] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, q. 49, a. 3, 994.

[14] Martin Luther, “Lectures on Isaiah: Chapters 40-66” in Luther’s Works, 17, 172–173.

[15] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, q. 25, a. 6, 937.

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