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This article is taken from Appendix 1 in my book, The Failure of Natural Theology.  Also see my other book, Saving Natural Theology from Thomas Aquinas at freegracepress.com. And until the end of the week, enter discount code: “Aquinas” for 25%.


Thomas of Aquino was a member of the heretic hunters: the Dominicans. The Dominicans were a special order of priests sanctioned by the pope to deal with heretics, such as the Waldensians. The Roman pontiff viewed the Waldensians as a threat. They were not just a threat to Rome’s authority; they were supposedly a threat to the eternal souls of men. Their unauthorized preaching was viewed as an act of treason. By disobeying the authority of Rome, the Waldensians were seen as schismatics. And such rebellion could not be tolerated. Because the Waldensians were a danger to themselves and to those with whom they came into contact, they had to be suppressed. These poor preachers had to be stopped no matter the cost. Though they didn’t carry weapons of war, weapons of war were sanctioned by the Catholic Church to be used against them. If the Waldensians were to be stopped, they first had to be hunted down and tried. And this task was given to the Dominicans.

In a way, the Dominicans were the Catholic’s counter version of the Waldensians. Like the Waldensians, the Dominicans were a group of poor preachers. Both the Waldensians and the Dominicans turned their backs on the world to give their lives to preaching. And unlike ordinary priests who remained within the walls of monasteries and chapels, the Waldensians and the Dominicans took their message to the public squares. They were evangelists who sought to mingle with the people.

The Waldensians came first, however. They were the followers of the pre-Reformer Peter Waldo (c. 1140–c. 1205), a wealthy merchant who lived in Lyon. Around 1173, Peter decided, after the death of a friend, to give his riches away and dedicate the rest of his life to preaching the gospel.[1] In so doing, he taught against the papal extravagances, transubstantiation, and purgatory. Both Peter’s example and teaching began to spread.

The Reformation of the sixteenth century was based on the biblical principle that every believer was a priest before God—meaning that every believer had the freedom of conscience. This commitment of the Reformation was the same commitment of Peter Waldo. In opposition to the authority of the Catholic Church, Peter was convinced that one’s conscience—as it is bound to God alone—can only be rightly ruled by the Scriptures.

Thus, Peter Waldo, like the Reformers who would follow, desired the Word of God to be understood by all. Peter wanted the Bible to be translated into the common language of the people. If truth would increase and the errors of the Catholic Church be exposed, people needed to judge the truth for themselves. So Peter had the Latin Vulgate translated, possibly for the first time, into the vernacular of his day.

In January 1179, Peter met with Pope Alexander III in Rome to debate his views on the vernacular translation of the Bible and his belief concerning the priesthood of every believer. Just a few months later, in March, at the Third Lateran Council, the teachings of Peter Waldo were condemned. Peter and his followers had to flee from Lyon into the mountains and valleys in southern France and northern Italy. In 1184, Pope Lucius III excommunicated Peter at a synod held at Verona. Finally, just a decade before the birth of Aquinas, the Waldensians were officially condemned as heretics at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.

Though condemned and exiled, the Waldensians continued to grow in number. Their movement only spread the more they were persecuted. The more the Waldensians grew, the more they became committed to the teachings of Scripture. And the more they were committed to the Scriptures, the more the Catholic Church was bent on rooting them out.

Because it did not appear that the movement would die out on its own, something had to be done. The poor lay preachers had to be suppressed and stomped out. Seeing that excommunication was not working, a new tactic was needed, and this is where the Dominicans came into the picture.

The Dominicans sought to imitate the Waldensians. The Waldensians were not interested in money or power. They were lay evangelists, honest and humble Christians, who shunned personal and economic gain to take their teaching to the people in the streets. This is one of the reasons the Waldensians were so influential, or dangerous. Hence, the Catholic Church decided that if they couldn’t eliminate the self-impoverished preachers by intimidation and persecution alone, they would replicate them. The Catholics decided to counter the Waldensians by becoming like them. So, they established a new order of preachers who took oaths of poverty. Most importantly, the Dominicans followed the example of the Waldensians and took their Catholic doctrine to the people.

The Dominicans began with the efforts of the Spaniard Dominic of Caleruega (1170–1221). In 1215, the same year the Waldensians were condemned by the pope, Dominic went to Rome to gain the approval of Pope Innocent III to start a new order of mendicant preachers. One year later, with the sanction of the new pope, Honorius III, the Dominican order was officially established.

Consequently, in his fight against the Waldensians, the pope called the Dominicans to carry out (along with another newly established order, the Franciscans) the Inquisition. Because these mendicant orders were directly commissioned by the pope, they were not under the normal hierarchical jurisdiction of the Catholic Church. This gave them the freedom and authority to move about Europe without being restricted by various diocesan bishops. In other words, they could chase down fleeing heretics. And this is what happened when the Dominicans were appointed by Pope Gregory IX in 1231 to hunt down the Waldensians in the Inquisition.

The Dominican Robert le Bougre (was especially eager to root out and exterminate the heretics. Robert was known as the “Hammer of Heretics” because of his extreme cruelty against them. In 1248 and 1249, a manual of operations was drawn up for inquisitors in Carcassonne. According to Edward Peters, “The manual begins with a letter of commission to inquisitors, sent by the Dominican provincial to two members of the order, charging them that, ‘for the remission of your sins, you are to make inquisition of heretics and their believers, factors, receivers, and defenders, and also of persons who are defamed.’”[2]

The Inquisition was in full force in 1243 when Aquinas joined the Dominican order, and it would continue to rage across Europe with all its medieval cruelty throughout the life of Thomas Aquinas. Author Michael Novak reveals, “In southern France, men and women alike were accused of being heretics, given no way to defend themselves except by enduring torture, and if found guilty covered with pitch and set aflame. Swords aloft, soldiers were set free upon entire settlements of heretics, which they torched. During the lifetime of Aquinas, all of Provence was swept by violence against heretics—some of whom were living, according to their own lights, admirable evangelical lives.”[3]

Though Aquinas didn’t directly take part in the Inquisition, he supplied its barbaric tactics with his intellectual support. Following the spirit of the age, Aquinas believed heretics needed to be killed:

With regard to heretics, there are two points to be observed, one on their side, the other on the side of the Church. As for heretics, their sin deserves banishment, not only from the Church by excommunication, but also from this world by death. To corrupt the faith, whereby the soul lives, is much graver than to counterfeit money, which supports temporal life. Since forgers and other malefactors are summarily condemned to death by the civil authorities, with much more reason may heretics as soon as they are convicted of heresy be not only excommunicated, but also justly be put to death” (ST, 2–2.11.3).

And even though he did not personally involve himself in hunting down the Waldensians, as he was too busy to leave his studies, he joined the Dominican order, knowing all the while what the Dominicans were commissioned to carry out.

Not a Pre-Reformer

The irony is that the Waldensians were the ones moving away from heresies, while Aquinas, the Dominican, was rooting the Catholic Church deeper into its heresies. When the sixteenth-century Reformation occurred, the Waldensians joined forces with the Reformers by integrating into their churches, whereas Thomas’s Summa Theologica was the main text used in the Counter-Reformation of the Catholic Church.

For instance, in 1517, Harald Grimm claimed, “Luther was working on a commentary on the first book of Aristotle’s Physics for the purpose of dethroning the god of the scholastics.”[4] In another work published in September of that same year, Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, Luther wrote: “It is an error to say that no man can become a theologian without Aristotle.” And just as quickly, he went on to say, “Indeed, no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle.”[5] Luther blamed the Scholastics for missing “the dreams of Aristotle with theological matters, and conduct non-sensical disputations about the majesty of God, beyond and against the privilege granted them.”[6]

And the response to Luther’s protest, the Dominican and committed Thomistic scholar, Sylvester Mazzolini (1460–1523), drafted heresy charges against Martin Luther (1483–1546). In response, Luther criticized Mazzolini’s dependence on Aquinas. Sixteenth-century historian Johannes Sleidanus, in his book The General History of the Reformation of the Church, reported, “[Luther] objects against him, That he alleged no Text of Scripture, and only quoted the Opinion of Thomas, who himself had handled most things, according to his own Fancy, without the Authority of Scripture.” Mazzolini, according to Sleidanus, “strongly defended Thomas Aquinas, affirming, That his whole Doctrin was so well Received, and Approved of by the Church of Rome, that it was even preferred before all other Writings.” Mazzolini “rebuked [Luther] for speaking with so little Reverence of so great a Man; and told him, That he looked upon it as an Honour, to be called a Thomist.”[7]

And it was Mazzolini’s pupil Tommaso de Vio Cajetan (1469–1534), the greatest Thomistic scholar of the sixteenth century, who was to first try Luther for heresy in Augsburg. As far as Cajetan was concerned, we were to “follow Saint Thomas, not whomsoever may come along.”[8] So when Luther did come along, Cajetan rejected Luther because Luther had rejected Aquinas.

In October 1518, when Cajetan was unable to prove from Scripture that Luther was a heretic, he charged Luther with departing from the established Catholic orthodoxy of Thomas Aquinas. This charge Luther didn’t deny, for he didn’t pretend to agree with Aquinas. As far as Luther was concerned, Aquinas was “the source and foundation of all heresy, error and obliteration of the Gospel.”[9] Luther was critical of Aquinas’s dependence on Aristotle, but more importantly, he was critical of Aquinas’s doctrine of justification.[10] According to Luther, Aquinas was the true heretic.

And though Luther was able to escape Augsburg without being arrested and deported to Rome, the following summer, in June 1520, Cajetan assisted Pope Leo X in crafting the papal bull, Exsurge Domine, that condemned Luther as a heretic. Being given sixty days to recant, Luther responded, in December 1520, by openly burning the papal bull along with the Summa Theologica of Aquinas.

Prior to being excommunicated by the Catholic Church, in the summer of 1519, Luther and his fellow colleague Andres Karlstadt (1486–1541) debated Thomistic scholar Johann Eck (1486–1543) at Leipzig. In attendance was Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), Luther’s friend and colleague, who wrote Johannes Oecolampadius (1482–1531) four days afterward, claiming the debate could be reduced to whether Aristotelian philosophy, introduced into the church by Aquinas, should be integrated into theology.[11] “Indeed,” Melanchthon said, “this province of debate was first undertaken for no other reason than that it might be made known openly what a great difference there is between the old theology, that of Christ, and the new, Aristotelian doctrine.”[12] In other words, Eck appealed to Scripture and the philosophical speculation of the Schoolmen, whereas Luther appealed to Scripture and to Scripture alone.

In the early years of the Reformation, according to Leif Grane, “Thomism was Luther’s greatest enemy.”[13] Luther maintained that the Scholastics “mix the dreams of Aristotle with theological matters, and conduct non-sensical disputations about the majesty of God, beyond and against the privilege granted them.”[14]

And Luther was not the only Reformer who rejected Aquinas. Philip Melanchthon was also critical of the Scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas.[15] “No faithful man,” Melanchthon said, “has ever satisfied his mind with Scholastic theology, which has become polluted by so many human arguments, nonsense, tricks.”[16] This is because, according to Melanchthon, none of the Schoolmen based their theology on Scripture alone: “In the citadels of scholasticism, one learns theology not according to the Bible but according to the pronouncements of men.”[17] And after the University of Paris came out against Luther in 1521, Melanchthon spared no arrows when he fired this response back to them:

For it is agreed that in Paris was born that profane scholasticism which they wish to be called theology. And when this has been admitted, there is no salvation left for the church. The Gospel has been obscured, faith rendered extinct, the doctrine of works received, and instead of being a Christian people, [or] a people of even the Law, [they have become a people committed to] the morals of Aristotle. And out of Christianity, contrary to every intent of the Spirit, there has been made a certain philosophical plan of living.

Would that it might moisten your spiritual eyes to discern how much damage has been done to the church by that scholasticism of yours, both born and perfected among you, which the rest of Europe’s schools have received from you as from your very hands! It has become positively reasonable that the earth is filled with idols. And your articles assuredly testify how persistently you have philosophized all of the way from the very origin of scholasticism up to now.[18]

Just like the German Reformers, the Swiss Reformers Henry Bullinger and John Calvin criticized the Schoolmen for the same reason. The problem, according to Bullinger and Calvin, is that the Schoolmen did not limit their understanding of God to divine revelation.

Bullinger, for instance, levied this criticism while having a thorough knowledge of Aquinas’s teaching. Before he embraced the doctrines of the Reformation, he studied at the oldest college in Cologne, Bursa Montis. And at this famous institution, Aristotle and Aquinas were the chief authorities. During these formative years of his life, Bullinger heard the famous Dominican apologist and Thomistic commenter Konrad Köllin lecture on the Summa Theologica.[19]

Köllin, moreover, was no friend of the theology flowing out of the University of Wittenberg. Along with Cajetan, he was one of the most important Catholic theologians in Germany that combated Lutherans.[20] His disdain for Luther and Melanchthon could be contrasted with his love for Aquinas. Not only did he write an important commentary on the Summa Theologica (1512), it was through his influence that the Summa became the standard textbook in universities, replacing Peter Lombard’s Sentences.

Yet by the time Bullinger had finished his studies in Cologne in 1522, he, in God’s providence, was more heavily influenced by the controversial professors of Wittenberg, Luther and Melanchthon, than he was the renowned Thomistic professor at his own university in Cologne—Köllin. By the time he graduated, he broke away from the Catholic Church and its principal theologian, Thomas Aquinas. So, he joined the protest of Luther and Melanchthon and took his new commitment to Scripture back home to Switzerland. After following Zwingli as pastor at the Grossmünster at Zurich, he claimed, “Let this stand as it were for a continual rule, that God cannot be rightly known but by his word; and that God is to be received and believed to be such an one as he revealeth himself unto us in this holy word. For no creature verily can better tell what, and what king of one God is, than God himself.”[21]

John Calvin was also no friend of Aquinas, according to the historian of the Swiss Reformation, Bruce Gordon.[22] Calvin rejected Aquinas’s natural theology because of Aquinas’s reliance on speculative reasoning. And according to William Bouwsma, Calvin’s “sharpest attacks on philosophy were directed against Scholasticism as the most flagrant example of the attempt of philosophers to storm heaven.”[23] In response to the extrabiblical philosophizing of the Schoolmen, Calvin taught, “God ‘does not wish us to be too wise’ but to exhibit ‘sobriety’: we must not seek to know more than ‘it pleases him to teach us.’ When he ‘is our teacher and we hear him speak, he is able to give us prudence and discretion to understand his teaching, and we cannot fail in that; but when our Lord keeps his mouth closed, we must also keep our sense closed and hold them captive.’”[24]

Thus, in many ways, the Reformation was a battle between Thomism and sola Scriptura. If one argues that Reformed Scholasticism, as a logical method of learning, is the continuation of the medieval Scholasticism of Catholicism, they need to remember that, according to James Thornwell, the Reformers rejected the most important element of medieval Scholasticism—its reliance on extrabiblical authorities:

It may be well to guard you against confounding the Reformed Scholastics with those of the Church of Rome. They had this in common, that they were slaves to the logical method. But they differed widely in the source from which they derived their materials, and, of course, in the nature of the materials themselves. The Reformed Scholastics acknowledged Scripture as the only infallible rule of faith and practice. Their problem was to digest, under fit and concatenated heads, the doctrines and nothing but the doctrine of Scripture, with the inferences that lawfully follow from them. The Scholastic Theology of Rome, on the other hand, received as authoritative, in addition to Scripture, the opinions of the Fathers, the Decrees of Councils, the Bulls of Popes, and even the philosophy of Aristotle.[25]

Due to their relentless commitment to sola Scriptura, the Reformers rejected the Schoolmen of the Catholic Church. Because Thomas didn’t build his theology exclusively on Scripture, the Reformers did not view Thomas as a trustworthy guide.

John Owen noted that “it pleased God to bring in a reformation of the churches in several European nations, and they in turn began to radiate the light and truth of Christ by preaching the gospel in its power and simplicity. At the same time, it became an abomination and an object of hatred to many good and pious men to see the hold that the schools and academies of philosophy had over the minds of men.”[26] In the end, Owen blamed Thomas and the Schoolmen for infecting theology with the poison of philosophy: “From the date when the disputes, In the end, Owen blamed Thomas and the Schoolmen for infecting theology with the poison of philosophy: “From the date when the disputes, nay, the obscurities of the scholastics began to come to the fore, sacred theology became more and more besmirched and contaminated with worldly philosophy.”[27]

Consequently, where the Reformation spread, according to two contemporary Thomistic scholars, Cessario and Cuddy, the influence of Aquinas diminished: “The political fallout of the Reformation, especially the series of religious wars waged in Europe, caused much harm to the Thomist commentarial tradition. The social and material support that enabled Thomas Aquinas and his followers to work tranquilly were swept away in those places where the Reformation gained legitimacy. . . . In Catholic lands, however, Thomists continued to flourish.”[28]

The battle between the Thomists and the Reformers would continue on past the life of Martin Luther. In 1546, as Luther lay dying in Eisleben, the nineteenth ecumenical council of the Catholic Church had only recently been convened by Pope Paul III. There at Trent, in northern Italy, the best Catholic theologians, mostly committed Thomists, had gathered to determine how best to counter the Reformation.[29] The only book that was placed on the altar next to the Bible was the Summa Theologica.[30] And this for good reason, for the decrees and anathemas of the Council of Trent, which condemned all Protestants to hell, were principally based on the Summa.

This was affirmed by Pope Pius IV, who presided over the final session of the Council of Trent in 1563. On January 6, 1564, he issued a papal bull, Benedictus Deus, ratifying all of Trent’s decrees and anathemas. And just a few months later, on March 4, he went on to ratify the Index of Forbidden Books, which threatened excommunication for those reading or possessing any of the works of Luther and Calvin. And according to the pope that followed him, Pius V, Aquinas was the authority behind the decrees and anathemas of Trent. Aquinas, claimed Pius V, was “the most certain rule of Christian doctrine by which he enlightened the Apostolic Church in answering conclusively numberless errors . . . which illumination has often been evident in the past and recently stood forth prominently in the decrees of the Council of Trent.”[31] More recently, Cessario and Cuddy claim that “at Trent, Aquinas supplied a first-class authority.”[32] These two Dominicans went on to say, “As the presence of Thomists in influential positions at the Council of Trent suggests, anyone who wanted to exegete the main dogmatic definitions contained in the decrees of the council would have to consult Aquinas, especially his Summa theologiae.”[33]

The decrees of the Council of Trent, moreover, would be ardently defended by another student of Aquinas—Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621). Bellarmine lectured principally on the Summa Theologica at Roman College and was made Cardinal Inquisitor in 1599 by Pope Clement VIII. In his massive polemical work against the Reformers, Controversies of the Christian Faith, Bellarmine relentlessly attacked the doctrines Luther and Calvin. His main weapon against them was the writings of his favorite theologian—Thomas Aquinas.[34]

Aquinas’s Ecclesiology

Another leading theologian at the Council of Trent was the cousin of Henry VIII, Reginald Pole (1500–1558). Pole, a committed Thomist, resisted the Reformers by using the same argument employed by Aquinas against the Waldensians. When we look back to the thirteenth century, we see that Aquinas had no mercy on the Waldensians. He claimed that the Waldensians had condemned themselves to hell because of their failure to bow to the authority of the papacy.

Aquinas rooted his condemnation of the Waldensians in the unity of the Catholic Church. “It must be known,” Aquinas stated, “that the Church is one. Although various heretics have founded various sects, they do not belong to the Church, since they are but so many divisions whereas the Church is one” (ST, xp, Q.40 a.6). Then Aquinas rooted the unity of the Catholic Church in the papacy. According to Aquinas, there is an unbroken chain of succession of bishops that can be traced backward to the apostle Peter, which will continue forward through the ongoing line of bishops occupying the papal office: “Though populations are different in different dioceses and cities, still, as there is one Church, there must be one Christian people. As then in the spiritual people of one Church there is required one Bishop, who is Head of all that people; so in the whole Christian people it is requisite that there be one Head of the whole Church.”[35]

In other words, according to Aquinas, the Catholic Church is the only true church because only the Catholic Church is ruled by Peter’s successor, the pope: “Now, although the people are distributed among various dioceses and cities, nevertheless there is but one Church, and therefore only one Christian people. Consequently, just as a bishop is appointed as the head of a certain people and a particular church, so must the whole Christian people be subject to one who is the head of the whole Church” (SCG, 4.76). “Hence, since the whole Church is one body, it behooves, if this oneness is to be preserved, that there be a governing power in respect of the whole Church, above the episcopal power whereby each particular Church is governed, and this is the power of the Pope. Consequently, those who deny this power are called schismatics as causing a division in the unity of the Church” (ST, 2.2, Q.40 a.6).

Consequently, according to Thomas, anyone who breaks away from the authority of the pope has broken away from the only true church: “Wherefore schismatics are those who refuse to submit to the Sovereign Pontiff, and to hold communion with those members of the Church who acknowledge his supremacy” (ST, 2.2, Q.39 a.1).

Just a few years after the death of Aquinas, Pope Boniface VIII declared, in a papal bull in 1302, that there is no salvation for those outside submission to the pope: “There is one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, outside of which there is neither salvation nor remission of sins. . . . Indeed we declare, say, pronounce, and define that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff (Unam Sanctum).” This was codified at the Council of Florence in 1442, which claimed that “outside the church, there is no salvation.”[36]

Therefore, following Aquinas, Pole charged the Reformers with departing from God through splintering the unity of the one, holy, catholic church by their defiance of papal authority. “I can conceive of no greater injury you can inflict upon the church,” Pole claimed, “than to abolish the head of this church from the face of the earth. You do exactly this when you deny that the Roman Pontiff is the one Head of the Church on earth, the Vicar of Christ.”[37]

Consequently, Aquinas would not have been in support of the Reformation, but in the same way he deemed the Waldensians as heretics, he would have deemed the Reformers as heretics for their refusal to remain submissive to the Roman pontiff.

Aquinas’s Soteriology

Because Aquinas believed there is no salvation for those who deny papal authority in matters of faith and practice, Aquinas’s ecclesiology is intertwined with his soteriology. For him, it is the Catholic Church, under the authority of the Roman pontiff, that has the power to give and withhold salvation. For, according to Aquinas, it is through the sacraments that God has entrusted to Peter and his successors—the papacy—that divine grace and forgiveness are bestowed on the faithful. In this way, Aquinas did not teach that salvation is through faith alone by grace alone and in Christ alone.

Denial of Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Though Aquinas believed that salvation was by grace, he didn’t believe it was by grace alone. Though Aquinas believed salvation was by faith, he didn’t believe it was by faith alone. And though Aquinas believed salvation was by Christ, he didn’t believe it was by Christ alone. The problem was that Aquinas failed to separate justification from sanctification, grace from works, and the merits and suffering of Christ from the merits and suffering of the saints.

This can be seen in Aquinas’s rejection of penal substitutionary atonement: “If we speak of that satisfactory punishment, which one takes upon oneself voluntarily, one may bear another’s punishment, in so far as they are, in some way, one. . . . If, however, we speak of punishment inflicted on account of sin, inasmuch as it is penal, then each one is punished for his own sin only, because the sinful act is something personal. But if we speak of a punishment that is medicinal, in this way it does happen that one is punished for another’s sin” (ST, 1–2.87.8).

For this reason, the Dominican Romanus Cessario rightly concluded, “Aquinas offers no support for those who would advance a theory of penal substitution as the mechanism by which the benefits of Christ reach the human race.”[38] “The function of satisfaction for Aquinas,” claims Eleonore Stump, “is not to placate a wrathful God but instead to restore a sinner to a state of harmony with God.”[39]

The penal substitutionary death of Christ allows for God to justify sinners on the basis of the objective merit and sufferings of Christ alone. Yet for Thomas, the suffering and death of Christ was not a legal and punitive payment for sin but a corrective punishment that was “medicinal.” Punishment is a means of correction. Pain has a way of teaching obedience. Through suffering there is healing and restoration. Accordingly, Christ’s death was not a direct means of satisfying God’s wrath as much as it was a means to bring healing and sanctification to his people. It leads to justification only indirectly as it aids in a life of obedience and good works.

Denial of Justification by Faith Alone

Consequently, though sanctification, Aquinas alleged, may lead to justification, it doesn’t guarantee justification because four things are necessary for justification: “There are four things which are accounted to be necessary for the justification of the ungodly, viz. the infusion of grace, the movement of the free-will towards God by faith, the movement of the free-will towards sin, and the remission of sins. The reason for this is that, as stated above (Article 1), the justification of the ungodly is a movement whereby the soul is moved by God from a state of sin to a state of justice” (ST, 2–2.113.6).

In this we can see Aquinas did not believe justification was a legal sentence whereby God declares a sinner righteous. Subsequently, Aquinas didn’t separate justification from sanctification. Like sanctification, he viewed justification as a process of “the soul [being] moved by God from a state of sin to a state of justice.” This movement of the soul, moreover, takes place not by imputed grace but by infused grace: “On the part of the Divine motion, there is the infusion of grace; on the part of the freewill which is moved, there are two movements—of departure from the term ‘whence,’ and of approach to the term ‘whereto’; but the consummation of the movement or the attainment of the end of the movement is implied in the remission of sins; for in this is the justification of the ungodly completed” (ST, 2–2.113.6).

“For St. Thomas,” Allister E. McGrath states, “the nature of grace, sin and divine acceptation were such that a created habit of grace was necessary in justification by the very nature of things.”[40] And David Schaff claims,

No distinction was made by the mediaeval theologians between the doctrine of justification and the doctrine of sanctification, such as is made by Protestant theologians. Justification was treated as a process of making the sinner righteous, and not as a judicial sentence by which he was declared to be righteous. . . . Although several of Paul’s statements in the Epistle to the Romans are quoted by Thomas Aquinas, neither he nor the other Schoolmen rise to the idea that it is upon the [condition] of faith that a man is justified. Faith is a virtue, not a justifying principle, and is treated at the side of hope and love.[41]

Denial of Justification by Christ Alone

But for Aquinas, not only is justification not by faith alone but it is also not by the finished work of Christ alone. Because Aquinas blended justification and sanctification, he also blended the merits of Christ with the merits of the saints. Justification requires not only what Christ did on the cross but what he does within the believer through the divine works of regeneration and sanctification.


And for Thomas Aquinas, the “sacraments are necessary for man’s salvation” (ST, 3.61.1). Regeneration and sanctification are bestowed by the Church (ex opere operato) through the sacraments that have been entrusted to the Catholic Church. “If we hold,” Aquinas claimed, “that a sacrament is an instrumental cause of grace, we must allow that there is in the sacraments a certain instrumental power of bringing about the sacramental effects” (ST, 3.62.4). Thus, the sacraments bestow grace by the very act of them being performed: “The Sacraments both contain grace and confer it” (TAC, 4.1.A.2).

Thomas believed that baptism brings about regeneration and remits “both actual sin and Original Sin as well as all guilt and punishment which they incur” (TAC, 4.2.A.4). Confirmation, according to Thomas, imparts the Holy Spirit “to give strength” to the believer (TAC, 4.1.B.4). Because the Eucharist is “the physical body of Christ,” it effectually brings believers into “union with Christ” (TAC, 4.1.C.4.b).[42] And the sacrament of penance, which includes heartfelt contrition, confession to a priest, and works of satisfaction, effectually observes the sins that occur after baptism (TAC, 4.1.D).

Works of Satisfaction

By the right use of the sacraments, believers are empowered to perform works of satisfaction (ST, 3.62.2), which are, according to Thomas, good works and hardships and suffering incurred for the sake of Christ. These works of satisfaction verify one’s contrition and assist in the believer’s purification. Therefore, for Aquinas, besides the work of Christ, additional merit and works are needed for divine satisfaction and forgiveness.

Works of Supererogation and the Treasury of Merit

Some believers underperform, while others have done more than enough to satisfy divine justice. According to Thomas, the saints, because of their extraordinary holiness, have more good works than they personally need.[43] And rather than these good works (i.e., works of supererogation) going to waste, God has placed them, Thomas claimed, along with the merits of Christ, into the church’s treasury: “And the saints in whom this super-abundance of satisfactions is found, did not perform their good works for this or that particular person, who needs the remission of his punishment, . . . but they performed them for the whole Church in general, even as the Apostle declares that he fills up ‘those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ . . . for His body, which is the Church’ to whom he wrote (Col. 1:24). These merits, then, are the common property of the whole Church” (ST, Suppl. 25.1).

According to Thomas, this treasury of merit has been entrusted by Christ to Peter and his successors, and with it the pope has been authorized by Christ to dispense the surplus merit at his own discretion to those who are in need:

Therefore, dispensation of this treasure belongs to the one who is in charge of the whole church; hence the Lord gave to Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven [Matthew 16:19]. Accordingly, when either the well-being or absolute necessity of the church requires it, the one who is in charge of the church can distribute from this unlimited treasure to anyone who through charity belongs to the church as much of the said treasure as shall seem to him opportune, either up to a total remission of punishment or to some certain amount. In this case, the passion of Christ and of the other saints would be imputed to the member as if he himself would have suffered whatever was required for the remission of his sins.[44]


Seeing that the pope has been entrusted with the keys to the kingdom and the treasury of merit, he has the power to bestow forgiveness of sins, according to Thomas. This forgiveness is not restricted to the sacraments but extends to papal indulgences, and such indulgences are sanctioned and recognized by Christ himself:

Indulgences hold good both in the Church’s court and in the judgment of God, for the remission of the punishment. . . . The reason why they so avail is the oneness of the mystical body in which many have performed works of satisfaction exceeding the requirements of their debts; in which, too, many have patiently borne unjust tribulations whereby a multitude of punishments would have been paid, had they been incurred. So great is the quantity of such merits that it exceeds the entire debt of punishment due to those who are living at this moment: and this is especially due to the merits of Christ: for though He acts through the sacraments, yet His efficacy is nowise restricted to them, but infinitely surpasses their efficacy. (ST, 3. Suppl. 25.1)[45]


If the sacraments and indulgences were not enough, Aquinas believed there was one more means of forgiveness: purgatory. Aquinas taught that if one dies without having satisfied their debt of sins, there remains hope after death. He stated, “The punishment of purgatory is intended to supplement the satisfaction which was not fully completed in the body” (ST, 3. Suppl. 71.6). He went on to say:

It is sufficiently clear that there is a Purgatory after this life. For if the debt of punishment is not paid in full after the stain of sin has been washed away by contrition, nor again are venial sins always removed when mortal sins are remitted, and if justice demands that sin be set in order by due punishment, it follows that one who after contrition for his fault and after being absolved, dies before making due satisfaction, is punished after this life. Wherefore those who deny Purgatory speak against the justice of God: for which reason such a statement is erroneous and contrary to faith . . . and whosoever resists the authority of the Church, incurs the note of heresy. (ST, appendix 2.1)

Aquinas Not among the Protestants

Aquinas condemned the Waldensians as heretics for their rejection of purgatory. But it was the Waldensians who were moving away from the heresies of the Catholic Church and uniting with the churches of the Reformation, whereas it was Thomas Aquinas who opposed the Waldensians and supplied doctrinal support for the Counter-Reformation of the Inquisition, Cajetan, Eck, Köllin, Pole, Bellarmine, and the whole Council of Trent.

“In the teachings of Thomas Aquinas,” Protestant historian David Schaff claims, “we have, with one or two exceptions, the doctrinal tenets of the Latin Church in their perfect exposition as we have them in the Decrees of the Council of Trent in their final statement.”[46] Schaff goes on to say, “[For] the theology of the Angelic Doctor and the theology of the Roman Catholic Church are identical in all particulars except the immaculate conception. He who understands Thomas understands the mediaeval theology at its best and will be in possession of the doctrinal system of the Roman Church.”[47] And this is not just a Protenant notion, as Jesuit theologian Joseph de Guibert confirms: “By the very fact of anyone embracing the doctrine of St. Thomas, he embraces the doctrine most commonly accepted in the Church, safe and approved by the Church itself.”[48]

Aquinas was not a pre-Reformer. As he opposed the Waldensians in his day, he would have opposed the Reformers in their day. He was a Roman Catholic through and through, and it is for good reason that popes have venerated him as their greatest theologian.[49] Until this day, Aquinas remains the theologian of the Catholic Church. “After Saint Augustine,” for instance, “the Catechism of the Catholic Church refers more times to Thomas Aquinas than to any other personal authority in the Catholic tradition.”[50] So, let the truth be known to all who love the truth—Aquinas is not among the Protestants.


Thus, to unite Thomas with the Reformers is to undo the Reformation. Aquinas, as the chief authority of the Counter-Reformation, is not a friend but a foe to Protestantism. Though Thomas of Aquino is called the Angelic Doctor by some, the Word of God is not so accommodating to those who pervert the gospel of Jesus Christ: “If we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:8).


[1] See Jenifer Kolpacoff Deane, A History of Medieval Heresy and Inquisition (Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011).

[2] Edward Peters, Inquisition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 58.

[3] Michael Novak, On Cultivating Liberty: Reflections on Moral Ecology (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 173.

[4] Harold J. Grimm, “Introduction to the ‘Disputation Against Scholastic Theology,’” in The Works of Martin Luther, Vol. 31. Ed. Hermut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957), 6.

[5] Luther, Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, 42-43.

[6] Martin Luther, ‘Disputation on Indulgence, 1517,” in Works of Martin Luther (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1915), 1.46.

[7] Johannes Sleidanus, The General History of the Reformation of the Church, From the Errors and Corruptions of the Church of Rome: Begun in Germany by Martin Luther (London: Edw, Jones), 3.

[8] See Catetan, Commentry on Summa Theologiae 2a-2ae, q. 151, art. 4, no. 2. Cited in Cessario and Cuddy, Thomas and the Thomists, 80.

[9] Luther on Thomas Aquinas: The Angelic Doctor in the Thought of the Reformer, trans. Denis Janz (Franz Steiner, 1989), 11.

[10] See Alister McGrath, Reviews, The Journal of Theological Studies, Volume 42, Issue 1, April 1991, 390–392.

[11] See Clyde Leonard Manschreck, Melanchthon, The Quiet Reformer (New York: Abingdon Press, 1958, 48.

[12] Philipp Melanchthon, “Letter on the Leipzig Debate,” in Melanchthon: Selected Writings, ed. Elmer Ellsworth Flack and Lower J. Satre, trans. Charles Leander Hill (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1962), 22.

[13] Leif Grane, “Die Anfänge von Luthers Auseinandersetzung mit dem Thomismus,” in Theologische Literaturzzeitung 95 (1970), 241–250. Quoted in Denis R. Janz, Luther and Late Medieval Thomism, 31.

[14] Martin Luther, ‘Disputation on Indulgence, 1517,” in Works of Martin Luther (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1915), 1.46.

[15] See Philipp Melanchthon, “Paul and the Scholastics,” in Melanchthon: Selected Writings, 31–56.

[16] Quoted in Charles Leander Hil, Melanchthon: Selected Writing, ed. E. E. Flack and L. M. Sa!re (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1962), 17–18.

[17] Manschreck, Melanchthon, 52.

[18] Philipp Melanchthon, “Luther and the Paris Theologians,” in Melanchthon: Selected Writings, 22.

[19] See Christian Moser, “Heinrich Bullinger’s Efforts to Document the Zurich Reformation: History and Legacy,” in Architect of Reformation: An Introduction to Heimrich Bullinger, ed. Bruce Gordon and Emidio Campi (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2019), 217.

[20] Köllin would go on to write against Luther in his Eversio Lutherani Epithalamii (Cologne 1527) and Adversus caninas Martini Lutheri nuptias (Tübingen 1530).

[21] Henry Bullinger, The Decades of Henry Bullinger, 4.3 (2:125).

[22] See Gordon, Calvin, 62.

[23] Bouwsma, John Calvin, 156.

[24] Quoted in Bouwsma, 156.

[25] James Henley Thornwell, “Theological Lectures,” in The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1986), 1:35.

[26] Owen, Biblical Theology, 677-678.

[27] Owen, Biblical Theology, 677.

[28] Cessario and Cuddy, Thomas and the Thomists, 87.

[29] The Dominican and twentieth-century Catholic historian Angelo Walz has written on the massive involvement of Thomists in the Council of Trent. See Angelo Walz, I Domenicani al Concilio di Trento (Rome: Herder, 1961).

[30] See Robert L. Reymond, “Dr. John H. Gerstner on Thomas Aquinas as a Protestant,” Westminster Theological Journal, 59.1 (Spring 1997): 113–121.

[31] Ronald P. McArthur, “The Popes on St. Thomas,” Thomas Aquinas College, accessed October 21, 2019, https://thomasaquinas.edu/a-liberating-education /popes-st-thomas.

[32] Cessario and Cuddy, Thomas and the Thomists, 90.

[33] Cessario and Cuddy, 91.

[34] Robert Bellarmine, Controversies of the Christian Faith, trans. Kenneth Baker (Keep the Faith, Inc. 2016).

[35] Thomas Aquinas, The Aquinas Catechism (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2000), 77 (hereafter cited in text as TAC).

[36] “Council of Basel-Ferrara-Florence, 1431-49 A.D.,” Papal Encyclicals Online, accessed July 27, 2021, https://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum17.htm.

[37] Reginald Pole, Pole’s Defense on the Unity of the Church, trans. Joseph G. Dwyer (Westminster, MD: Newman, 1965), 9.

[38] Romanus Cessario, “Aquinas on Christian Salvation,” 124. See also Cessario, The Godly Image: Christ and Salvation in Catholic Thought from Anselm to Aquinas, Studies in Historical Theology (Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s, 1989), 6:xvii, 157.

[39] Eleonore Stump, “Atonement According to Aquinas,” in Philosophy and the Christian Faith, ed. Thomas V. Morris (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1988), 65.

[40] Allister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985), 82.

[41] Quoted in Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 5:662, 675, 754, 756.

[42] Aquinas stated, for instance, “The form of the Eucharist is the very words of Christ: ‘This is my body’ and ‘This is the cup of my blood.’. . . These words spoken by the priest in the person of Christ bring into being this sacrament. In virtue of the above words, bread is changed into the Body of Christ and wine into His Blood, so that Christ is entirely contained under the appearances of bread, which remain without a subject, and He is entirely contained under the appearance of wine” (TAC, 4.2.C).

[43] Thomas also supported the worship of the saints: “Now it is manifest that we should show honor to the saints of God, as being members of Christ, the children and friends of God, and our intercessors. Wherefore in memory of them we ought to honor any relics of theirs in a fitting manner: principally their bodies, which were temples, and organs of the Holy Ghost dwelling and operating in them, and are destined to be likened to the body of Christ by the glory of the Resurrection. Hence God Himself fittingly honors such relics by working miracles at their presence” (ST, 3.25.6).

[44] Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones De Quolibet, trans. Turner Nevitt and Brian Davies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 2.8.2 (hereafter cited in text as QDQ).

[45] Yet according to Aquinas, for indulgence to be effective, three things must be in order: “For an indulgence to benefit anyone, however, three things are required. First, a cause that appertains to the honor of God, or for the necessity or utility of the church. Secondly, authority in him who grants it: the pope principally, others insofar as they receive either ordinary or commissioned, that is, delegated, power from him. Thirdly, it is required that the one who wishes to receive the indulgence should be in the state of charity. And these three things are designated in the papal letter” (QDQ, 1.8.2).

[46] Quoted in Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 5:662, 675, 754, 756.

[47] Schaff, 5:756.

[48] Joseph de Guibert, De Ecclesia Christi (Rome: Unversità Gregoriana, 1929), 386, as quoted in Cessario and Cuddy, Thomas and the Thomists, 94.

[49] For instance, in the nineteenth century, Pope Leo XIII claimed, “Among the Scholastic Doctors, the chief and master of all towers Thomas Aquinas, who, as Cajetan observes, because ‘he most venerated the ancient doctors of the Church, in a certain way seems to have inherited the intellect of all.”’ (Quoted in Cessario and Cuddy, Thomas and the Thomists, xi).

[50] Cessario and Cuddy, Thomas and the Thomists, 137.


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