This is part two of a blog post looking at Thomas Aquinas and to what decree he can harmonize with Reformed theology. Part one looked at whether Thomas’s epistemology and theology harmonizes with the Solas of the Reformation. This post will question his harmonization with the Doctrines of Grace.
The history of the Doctrines of Grace (or the five points of Calvinism) is much easier to determine than that of the Solas. The points came to the church through the Canons of Dort (1618-19) some 54 years after the death of John Calvin. Herein, the Synod of Dort responded to the Five Articles of the Remonstrant (1610) leveed by the followers of Jacob Arminius. The modern-day church knows them in some form of TULIP (c. 1930).
While Reformed theology cannot be fully distilled into five points, the Doctrines of Grace stand as a representative—not as the sum of Reformed thinking but as its foundation. They are usually articulated as follows: Total depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints.
The doctrine of total depravity (or total inability) states that mankind is affected by sin at his core and in all of his extremities. There is no part of him that is left untainted by sin. This is a direct result of the fall. The Canons of Dort point this out.
Human beings were originally created in the image of God and were furnished in mind with a true and sound knowledge of the Creator … [However] they deprived themselves of these outstanding gifts. Rather, in their place they brought upon themselves blindness, terrible darkness, futility, and distortion of judgment in their minds.
This is a foundational truth—not only to Reformed theology but to any epistemology. If fallen man is corrupted in his thinking, then fallen man cannot think rightly, wholly, or accurately about God without God revealing himself to fallen man.
However, Thomas does not seem to have a full appreciation for the doctrine of total depravity. Thomas asserts that “human nature is not altogether corrupted by sin.” He admits that “the free will of man is weakened by sin.” Yet, even in this, he claims that “human nature is more corrupted by sin in regard to the desire for good, than in regard to the knowledge of truth.”
What Thomas is saying is that even though man is corrupted by his sin nature, it is a corruption of his demeanor, not his ability. Fallen man is able to know God; he just doesn’t want to. This epistemology permits (and even implies) that if fallen man were clearly shown proof of God (and the salvation he offers), he could see it and understand it and accept it as truth.
This is simply not how the Bible speaks. Whereas “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19:1), it is “the testimony of the LORD [that] is sure, / making wise the simple” (Ps 19:7). Whereas “what can be known about God is plain to [fallen men], because God has shown it to them” (Rom 1:19), fallen men suppressed the truth, and “they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man” (Rom 1:21–23).
In reality, fallen man is shown proof of God every day—with every breath! Fallen man knows the truth of God, but rather than accepting it, he suppresses it and exchanges truth for a lie. Man needs a special revelation from God to change not only his heart but his mind and his thinking about God.
Thomas’s foundational understanding of man’s fallen nature and its resulting noetic effect is sub-biblical and puts the rest of his theology on very shaky ground. His conclusions built on this premise will not comport well in the Reformed theology.
If the doctrine of total depravity is embraced, the only way that men can be saved is if God saves them based purely on his own will to save them. The doctrine of unconditional election says that it is, in fact, God’s free will to save some men and that he bases this will purely on his own character—not any condition of man. The Canons of Dort put it this way.
Before the foundation of the world, by sheer grace, according to the free good pleasure of his will, God chose in Christ to salvation a definite number of particular people out of the entire human race, which had fallen by its own fault from its original innocence into sin and ruin.
It is interesting to note that the Synod sees this truth based on the logical foundation of the results of the fall. The ruined state of man is a separate issue, but it is not an unrelated issue to the Reformers.
For Thomas, the doctrine of election is not necessitated by the fall, but it is nonetheless a doctrine which he holds. Based on divine providence, Thomas says, “It is fitting that God should predestine men.” Furthermore, he states that “Predestination presupposes election in the order of reason.” In other words, because God’s divine providence extends to all things, that includes predestination; therefore, God elects some to salvation.
But what of the conditions of this election? Here too, Thomas is Augustinian in his response. “Predestination is not anything in the predestined; but only in the person who predestines.” That is to say that the conditions for divine election are in God who elects, not in man who is elected. In fact, Thomas would have thought someone “insane … to say that merit is the cause of divine predestination.”
The doctrine of unconditional election is another foundational doctrine—particularly in regards to soteriology. It is encouraging to know that the church’s greatest thinker of the Middle Ages was not Pelagian or Semi- Pelagian (or even Arminian) in this regard. His teachings on election align with those of the Reformers, the Early Church Fathers like Augustine, and the Scriptures themselves. (The latter two, Thomas quotes.)
Indeed, the Scriptures say that it is God who “chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him,” and that “In love he predestined us” (Eph 1:4–5). This is a work of God. The conditions for that work are in him alone, “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue” (Rom 9:11).
In this, the Reformed believer can find Thomas quite helpful as he fleshes out many of the implications of God’s unconditional election of men unto salvation (for example: election and prayer for the lost). It is curious, however, that Thomas’s theology of divine election is inconsistent with his theology of human inability.
The doctrine of unconditional election would suggest that since God has so predestined the end (men being saved), he has also predestined the means (by which they are saved). Indeed, this is the case. The means of man’s salvation is the atoning blood sacrifice of Christ. This sacrifice is not meant to apply to each and every man—there are many who do not receive salvation in Christ. Rather, his sacrifice is particularly limited to those whom the Father elected unto salvation. This is known as the doctrine of limited atonement. The Canons of Dort words it this way.
For it was the entirely free plan and very gracious will and intention of God the Father that the enlivening and saving effectiveness of his Son’s costly death should work itself out in all the elect, in order that God might grant justifying faith to them only and thereby lead them without fail to salvation.
This doctrine does not see a limit to the sufficiency or ability of Christ’s atonement. Rather, it sees a limit to the effectualness or intent of the Christ’s atonement. In many ways, this is a logical necessity if one grants divine election and recognizes that not all men are finally saved. Christ’s blood only effectually atones for the sins of the elect, though it has the power to atone for all.
Thomas makes the same distinction as the Synod, and he affirms their assessment of both. Commenting on 1 John 2:2, Thomas says that “[Christ] is the propitiation for our sin, for some efficaciously, but for all sufficiently, since the price of His blood is sufficient for the salvation of all. But it does not have efficacy except in the elect on account of an impediment.”
Sadly, Thomas also makes remarks regarding atonement that are quite troubling. The Canons of Dort refer to Christ’s sacrifice as “of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.” Thomas, however, says that “Christ gave more to God than was required” (emphasis mine) providing a “superabundant atonement.”
The distinction in theology may be subtle, but it is not small. The Synod recognizes that Christ and the value of his sacrifice is more than sufficient, while Thomas sees an atonement itself that is more than sufficient. The theological divide might be expressed as the difference between having more than enough money to buy gifts for one’s family and actually buying more than enough gifts to go around.
The Council of Trent leaned heavily on Thomistic theology such as the doctrine of Christ’s atonement and its superabundant nature. This is indeed the way the Roman Catholic Church understands Christ’s merits today. “The ‘treasury of the Church’ … which Christ’s merits have before God … were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin.”
Whereas Thomas does see the effectiveness of Christ’s atonement as limited to his elect only, his theological forbearers understand the implications of his teaching on this superabundant atonement. Though this is unlikely what Thomas has in mind, the Reformed reader should beware of the logical ends of such statements.
Precisely because it is the intent of the atonement that is limited and not the power of it, when God extends his grace to an individual, that individual is powerfully changed. What once was repulsive, he now finds irresistible. The grace of God seemed as death to him before, but now it seems as life itself. Thus says the doctrine known as irresistible grace. The Canons of Dort treat this in the same section as they do total inability.
In this way, therefore, faith is a gift of God, not in the sense that it is offered by God for people to choose, but that it is in actual fact bestowed on them, breathed and infused into them. Nor is it a gift in the sense that God bestows only the potential to believe, but then awaits assent—the act of believing—by human choice; rather, it is a gift in the sense that God who works both willing and acting and, indeed, works all things in all people and produces in them both the will to believe and the belief itself.
The Synod rightly sees salvation wholly as an act of God and thus treats this doctrine along with the first. After all, man is unable to even seek his own salvation. If salvation was merely made possible, it would forever be unachieved.
Thomas, however, cannot make this connection because of his belief that man is not totally corrupt. He nonetheless sees the actuality of salivation as a work of God. And God’s purposes cannot be thwarted. “Hence if God intends, while moving, that the one whose heart He moves should attain to grace, he will infallibly attain to it.” This, of course, accords with Scripture. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined … he also called… he also justified, and … he also glorified” (Rom 8:29–30).
For Thomas grace is irresistible because of who God is, but something is missing in his regard of who man is. This, again, is because Thomas’s theology is downstream from his epistemology.
The Synod asserts that at the fall human nature was distorted and spiritually killed. Thus, in redemption, it is spiritually revived, healed, reformed, and bent back. This is impossible for Thomas. He believes that “to love God above all things is natural to man and to every nature” and that fallen man merely “falls short of this in the appetite of his rational will.” Therefore, redemption amounts to a receiving again of a pre-fallen grace.
Redemptive grace is irresistible in Thomas’s view but not for all the same reasons and not in all the same ways as for the Synod. Thomas fails to fully see the reason that grace is found to be irresistible: because the Spirit changes a man’s desires.
Insomuch as Thomas reaches a right and biblical conclusion, his comments on the infallibility of God’s intent and his grace are helpful. However, it should be noted that not all of his theology of grace can be fully endorsed by Reformed believers. In their extremities, they are often helpful. Their foundations and their justifications, however, remain shaky.
Since salvation is a work of God—a work initiated, accomplished, and applied by God—salvation is a work secured by God as well. As the Holy Spirit changes a man at his conversion, so he continues that change through his sanctification. This change is not accomplished without setbacks, but it is accomplished without failure. The Canons of Dort say this.
For God, who is rich in mercy, according to the unchangeable purpose of election does not take the Holy Spirit from his own completely, even when they fall grievously. Neither does God let them fall down so far that they forfeit the grace of adoption and the state of justification, or commit the sin which leads to death (the sin against the Holy Spirit), and plunge themselves, entirely forsaken by God, into eternal ruin.
The theology of Thomas disagrees completely with this point. In his usual thoroughgoing way, Thomas notes that “many have meritorious works, who do not obtain perseverance.” Does this contradict what Thomas says earlier: that God’s intentions cannot be thwarted? Not for Thomas.
In Thomas’s view, the will of God for one to receive grace does not necessitate the will of God for one to experience final salvation. It may be God’s will that a man receive grace for but a time. Indeed, some do receive both grace and perseverance. Those that persevere do so because that was God’s will for them. “God freely bestows the good of perseverance, on whomever He bestows it,” but not, in Thomas’s view, on all who receive grace.
One can readily see the effects of Thomas’s unbiblical theology coming home to roost. Thomas misunderstands man (in his fallen nature), grace (and its changing nature), Christ (and his uniting nature), and now salvation (and its persevering nature). Perhaps his teachings don’t accord with Romans 8:30 so well after all.
Because Thomas sees the receipt of grace in union with Christ as an external act (associated with the sacraments) rather than an internal change from a fallen to a redeemed nature (associated with conversion), the grace to persevere is really something quite different. This surely does not accord with what Jesus says in John: “that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me [those who come to me], but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39).
Thomas is unbiblical and unhelpful on this point, and it is due largely to his shaky foundations. He does not rightly see the effects of sin nor the nature of grace nor the union of Christ. Therefore, he cannot see perseverance as the necessary end of God’s salvation and redemption.
Though it is certainly the case that some of the theology of Thomas Aquinas can harmonize in part with the Reformers, much of it requires a Protestant filter to do so. In reality, Thomas’s epistemology (understood through a Medieval Roman Catholic paradigm) makes Thomas’s theology a different song altogether. In musical terms, it is more like a descant—Thomas is singing something completely different than the Protestant Reformers, but sometimes it meshes well.
This does not conclude that Thomas is of no value to the Reformed believer. His brilliance is unchallenged, and his meticulousness is dizzying. Thoughtful believers would do well to follow after his devotion to study. However, it remains curious why some Reformed believers would so readily embrace Thomas when there are many before him (Augustine and Anselm) and many after him (Calvin and Keach) who are more helpful with fewer caveats. Thomas can certainly be a helpful resource, but reader beware.
 Synod of Dort, “The Canons of Dort” in Reformed Confessions Translation (2011) (Burlington, ON: Christian Reformed Church, 2011). 130.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I–II, q. 109, a. 2, 504.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I–II, q. 109, a. 2, 505.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I–II, q. 109, a. 2, 505.
 Synod of Dort, “The Canons of Dort” in Reformed Confessions Translation (2011), 120.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, q. 23, a. 1, 80.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, q. 23, a. 4, 81.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, q. 23, a. 2, 81.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, q. 23, a. 5, 82.
 Synod of Dort, “The Canons of Dort” in Reformed Confessions Translation (2011), 127.
 Thomas Aquinas, Commentaries on St. Paul’s Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, trans. Chrysostom Baer (Sound Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2007), 64.
 Synod of Dort, “The Canons of Dort” in Reformed Confessions Translation (2011), 126.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, q. 43, a. 2, 992.
 Synod of Dort, “The Canons of Dort” in Reformed Confessions Translation (2011), 133.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 112, a. 3, 512.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 109, a. 3, 505.
 Synod of Dort, “The Canons of Dort” in Reformed Confessions Translation (2011), 138.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 114, a. 9, 520.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 114, a. 9, 520.