Saturday, May 18, 2013

Aquinas and Justification: The Dumb Ox Plays Theologian

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The Dumb Ox Plays Theologian

We now make an eight hundred year leap to the genius of the “dumb ox,” Thomas Aquinas, the scholastic Aristotelian who lived from 1225-1274. Aquinas became known as the Angelic Doctor of the Church because of his immense influence and the massive amount of work he accomplished. The leaders of the Council of Trent held Aquinas in such high regard that they actually put his Summa on the altar along with the Scripture and the decrees of the earlier Popes![1] Obviously, his opinion was held to be important to the Church of his day.

Today, my aim will be to describe Thomas Aquinas’ views on justification – especially how it relates with sanctification. So far, I have found that the sharp distinction between justification and sanctification that we as Protestants champion is utterly absent in the Shepherd of Hermas, Origen, Jerome, and Augustine. From my little bit of secondary reading, I also haven’t seen this sharp distinction mentioned in any of these fathers’ contemporaries either. Instead, what I have found is that these fathers declare with one voice that justification is a process, and actually involves in the sinner being made righteous, instead of simply being declared righteous. Will our brothers who lived in the Middle Ages continue this view of justification, or will they proclaim something different?

 The background of the Middle Ages, and of Thomas Aquinas specifically, is important to address before we dissect his theology. This was a time of organizing and systematizing the views of the church fathers in order to help address the issues of the day. Augustine was by far the most consulted father, and many an argument would be ended once his views were appealed to. This is important when looking to justification, for Aquinas’ doctrine of justification is basically built out of an Augustinian framework. Thomas Aquinas was also a disciple of Aristotle, who he refers to in the Summa as simply, “The Philosopher.” Aquinas holds Aristotle in such high repute that he will sometimes simply quote Aristotle as the beginning and end of his argument. This dynamic becomes interesting since Augustine was thoroughly neo-Platonic. 

Let us finally look to Aquinas’ view of justification. We will start by looking at how Aquinas views justification as a whole and then analyze the different components of justification. In the second part of the first part, question 100, article 12 of the Summa, Aquinas states:

But if we speak of justification properly so called, then we must notice that it can be considered as in the habit or as in the act: so that accordingly justification may be taken in two ways. First, according as man is made just, by becoming possessed of the habit of justice: secondly, according as he does works of justice, so that in this sense justification is nothing else than the execution of justice. Now justice, like the other virtues, may denote either the acquired or the infused virtue, as is clear from what has been stated (Q[63], A[4]). The acquired virtue is caused by works; but the infused virtue is caused by God Himself through His grace. The latter is true justice, of which we are speaking now, and in this respect of which a man is said to be just before God, according to Rom. 4:2: "If Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory, but not before God."

Here Aquinas differentiates between two types of justification, the habit of justice which makes men right, and the act of justification which is simply the execution of just works. Aquinas then distinguishes two types of justice. The first is “infused virtue” which is from God Himself, while the other is termed “acquired virtue,” and refers to active action on the part of man. It is this habit of justice, man being made righteous, that is true justification in Aquinas’ mind. And it is this “infused virtue” that is given by God alone that makes man just before God.

Much can be gathered from this, and I am sure that it will take some time to truly understand the full picture of what Aquinas is stating. But one thing is for sure, Aquinas is no proclaimer of imputation. Nor does he distinguish justification from sanctification, since Aquinas includes in his definition of justification man being made right, or, what a modern Protestant would call sanctification.  Alistair McGrath, in his magnum opus The History of Justification, cautions that Aquinas is far from affirming that justification is strictly by man’s effort. For just a few lines later, Aquinas affirms that the justification that makes one just before God “is caused by God Himself through His grace.”[2]

Let us know look closer at this “being made right” business. Being the scholastic that he is, Aquinas gives us a very thorough structure of justification, complete with diagrams and bar charts. It’s not too complex, but it will sound foreign to our ears in a sense. Aquinas breaks down justification into four parts,[3] which all happen simultaneously, though in the following order: the infusion of grace, the free-will's movement towards God, the free-will’s movement towards sin (i.e. the despising of sin), and the remission of sin.[4] While many of us will roll our eyes, mutter under our breaths, “Ah, scholastics,” and picture dusty old geezers arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, this actually isn’t too different from how we think of justification today. Most of us would agree that for one to be saved God must be actively engaging with the sinner (infusion of grace), there must be a willingness to serve God (free-will’s movement toward God), sorrow for our sin (free-will’s movement towards sin), and forgiveness of our sin (remission of sin). 

However, things to become confusing, for Aquinas will, at times, sometimes equate justification solely with the remission of sins.[5] This, along with the fact that this aspect of justification is instantaneous,[6] is causing some to argue that Aquinas is a precursor to the Reformation’s understanding of justification and possibly even a Protestant himself![7] However, McGrath argues that based on Aquinas’ statements elsewhere, along with other medieval theologians who argued similarly, Aquinas assumes that the other three components will indeed happen. Added to that is Aquinas’ own testimony, “The justification of the ungodly is called the remission of sins, even as every movement has its species from its term. Nevertheless, many other things are required in order to reach the term, as stated above [the other components].”[8]

So far we know that Aquinas understands justification as man being made righteous through God infusing justice in man. He further breaks this operation down into four components These four components happen instantly. So, while Aquinas does not teach imputation, could he perhaps teach justification as an event, instead of a process? Could he view justification and sanctification as distinct? This is where things get quite hazy and confusing. What may shed some light is understanding how Aquinas views grace.

Aquinas divides the grace of God into two categories,[9] gratuitous grace and sanctifying grace.[10] Gratuitous grace is the grace God gives a man to lead someone else to God. Thus, God uses this grace to help justify another.[11] Sanctifying grace is the grace God uses to unite the individual with Himself. It is this grace that man “is made worthy to be called pleasing to God.”[12] Now here is where things get interesting. Aquinas asserts that it is this sanctifying grace that justifies the individual.[13] Aquinas cites Colossians 1:12 as his support, “He hath made us worthy to be made partakers of the lot of the saints in light.”

So what we have is grace that is given the title of sanctifying, which makes man pleasing in God’s sight. I can’t exactly comprehend the implications, but at the very least I can conclude that Aquinas is bringing some portion of what we would label “sanctification” into his idea of justification. What would prove even more fascinating is if this is the same grace that Aquinas describes in his fourfold scheme of the order of justification. Regardless, I don’t think Calvin and Luther would affirm this view of Aquinas’.

Unfortunately, I will have to stop my analysis here. Obviously it needs some fine tuning and much more time and energy, but I am happy with the results from the first attempt. I believe we can answer the questions posed in the introduction with satisfaction. Aquinas does follow Augustine in viewing justification as one made righteous, as opposed to the Reformation ideal of imputation. Aquinas also does not clearly distinguish where justification ends and sanctification begins. Though he does teach that the four components of justification are instantaneous, his definition of grace as sanctifying and making the individual worthy to be called pleasing to God seems to imply more of a process, which also lines up with what Augustine proclaimed in the Patristic era.

From my initial findings, it looks like the Protestant understanding of justification, concerning imputation and the sharp lines drawn between justification and sanctification, are truly an innovation. So, where does that leave us? It seems we as Protestants have two reasonable routes to take, and one illogical route. 

We can claim that the true doctrine of justification was lost pretty much right after Paul penned it and was only resurrected when God illuminated Luther. I have heard this espoused before. However, this would open up a can of worms. Since Luther and Calvin both consider that this is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, how can we accept anything else from a church that has been fallen since the second century? Would we not have to throw out the Trinity, or Orthodox Christology? When we look at our theology of canon, things also would change. Protestant theologians place a lot of their canon theology in the argument that God supernaturally used men to affirm the limits of the canon and then faithfully pass it down through the centuries. But if God didn’t supernaturally preserve the foundational doctrine of the Church, how can we assume he preserved the canon? If one were to take this route, the implications are endless. Not to mention one would have to answer the obvious question of why God would let his Church be in the dark for 1500 years.

The other route that is available is the trail that Philipp Schaff and others have already taken – the development of theology. This option might not raise as many questions as the former one. However, Schaff argued that any development in theology must not actually transcend the original truth. The doctrine of the pre-Reformation Church differs quite widely with Luther’s teachings, and they could probably be said to be in actual contradiction. So, that would most likely rule out this route.

The only other route that I can think of at the moment is to continue on trying to force imputation and Reformed justification into the mouths of the earlier Church. This is a tract that many are taking. While this preserves our own security, it will surely not convince any other reasonable person. But, if the primary goal is to remain in the doctrine that has been handed to us and not to seek truth and follow it no matter where it takes us, than perhaps that is the right route to take.

Enough of the hopelessness and biting sarcasm, let us get back to the quest. The stage is set for the biggest show-down in the Church. The theology espoused by Aquinas and company is what drove Martin Luther to his knees, seeking a remedy at all costs. It seems that no one before him has viewed justification as either imputation or as an event sharply distinct from sanctification. How does Luther explain such innovation? I am excited to find out!

[1] Aeterni Patris (On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy), Pope Leo XIII, 22
[2] McGrath, Alistair. The History of Justification. 2nd edition. Page 46
[3] This was not unique to Aquinas and was in fact quite common in the Middle Ages. See McGrath, History, 43-46.
[4] Summa IaIIae q.113 a.8 ­
[5] Ibid IaIIae q.113 a.1
[6] Ibid IaIIae q.113 a.7
[7] For an example, see the debate between Robert Reymond and Dr. John Gerstner. Reymond’s article, “Dr. John Gerstner on Thomas Aquinas as a Protestant,” is available in ATLA.
[8] Summa IaIIae q.113 a.6
[9] Aquinas also splits grace into operating and cooperating grace, and prevenient and subsequent grace as well.
[10] Summa IaIIae q.111 a.1
[11] ibid
[12] ibid
[13] ibid


  1. Tim,

    I found your blog by referral from a friend in the Church. Excellent analysis, although not yet complete. Frankly you sound very close to being Catholic, seeing that you make the statement, "to remain in the doctrine that has been handed to us and not to seek truth and follow it no matter where it takes us, than perhaps that is the right route to take." You imply that following the truth and getting to an answer you don't want to reach is not the way to go, thereby exposing your innermost thought that perhaps you do want to follow the truth wherever it leads? I guarantee you that the truth leads somewhere else. Your other points are very fair and balanced from a Catholic perspective. Check out Alister E. McGrath, “Iustitia Dei”, 2005, pgs 215, 217. He taught that justification by faith alone is a modern “genuine theological novum”, never contemplated or theorized in the Church before Luther tamed his internal demons by coming up with this on his own. Similar to what you said as well in this post. Anyway, I will be reading more of your posts since you seem to be a very logical Protestant. I am heavy into Aquinas' positions on Predestination, currently reading John Salza's comprehensive book on the subject. I converted and became Catholic from a mix of Lutheran and Evangelicalism background in 2006. From your knowledge and candor, my quick assessment is that if you studied even more on Catholic positions and went to some seminars at Franciscan University (Scott Hahn, John Bergsma, Ken Hensley, Steve Ray and other converts to the Faith) in the summer you would convert to the True Church of Jesus Christ. My wife and I are now on our 6th year in a row at Franciscan for Applied Biblical Studies and Defending the Faith and could not be more in LOVE with JESUS and the CHURCH he established. God Bless you Brother in Christ!
    Dave Kole

    1. Hey Dave,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Aquinas did give some interesting arguments but I did feel like I missed out on a lot with him. What would help me complete his views?

      I did read most of McGrath's book and I was surprised to see his admittance that Luther and company brought in a genuine "theological novum." However, he argued that this fact doesn't matter because of how most historical theologians view the development of doctrine. What are your thoughts?

  2. Tim,

    Great post. I love how you are wrestling with this question so honestly, rather than in a polemical posture. That quality in you is something that will make your theological study much less about dogmatically defending whatever you have been indoctrinated with and more of an spiritual and intellectual adventure.

    This question you are grappling with is one that shook up my comfortable world of Reformed Protestantism, as I discovered that the so called "gospel" of Protestantism (namely, the doctrine of imputation understood as the "reckoning" of the active and passive obedience of Christ to the unrighteous believer's "account" in the mind of God) wasn't the gospel of the Church prior to the Reformation.

    There are a number of moves you can make once you discover this, and which one you take will determine quite a bit. You could look for proof texts for precursors of the Protestant doctrine of imputation and thereby develop an unhistorical habit of reading Protestant theology back into a pre-Protestant era. You could decide that imputation is true, but isn't actually the "gospel" since otherwise Christianity would start with the Reformation. But once you really investigate how wildly different Luther's theology of justification is from what ended up in the Reformed creeds and passed down to later generations, this will bring to light how Reformed Protestants not only read their theology back into Aquinas and other pre-Reformation theologians, but also do the same even with the fathers of the Reformation like Luther, who believed that anabaptists were antichrists and heretics because they believed and taught that faith alone saves apart from baptism, which Luther opposed vehemently. If you study long and hard enough, you might even become jaded by how dogmatic Protestants are over the issue, and slowly become more and more liberal minded and less dogmatic about controversial questions of theology, believing that theology is just too dogmatic and divisive. If you take this rout you might do well to hold on to a much simpler version of gospel---something that makes the person of Jesus more the gospel rather than any theory about how a person gets justified or "saved." You could prematurely convert to Catholicism without having the time to simmer on Catholic theology as a whole to see whether any comparable problems might exist also in the Catholic theological spectrum.

    The more you investigate and try to be "fair" and informed about issues like this, the more you will find that although various sectors of Christianity argue for "black and white," honest and critical inquiry demonstrates that theology is very messy and all sides of the debate often mistreat and misinterpret the arguments of others and are usually more interested in defending their own theological turf than actually taking up the kind of honest and critical inquiry that leads to roads unknown. But most people are not comfortable not knowing whose "team" they are on. I can't tell you how many times someone has asked me "So then, if you are questioning imputation - are you Catholic?" Don't be afraid to say "I'm still developing my views, so I wouldn't side with any camp at this time."

    (continued in next comment)

  3. I have written quite a bit on this subject you are wrestling with, and my Master's thesis is on the doctrine of justification in Thomas Aquinas. You can see some of my research on justification in pre-Reformation theologians in the following links:

    The place where my own personal views are expounded the most is actually in the comment thread of this post I did on Aquinas, where someone like yourself struggling with similar questions began to ask me so many questions I couldn't answer them all:

    Hope you find that my research is helpful if this is a topic you are truly interested in. Sometime next month I will be publishing a summary of what Aquinas says in the Summa about justification which you may find helpful also.


    Bradley R. Cochran
    T h e o • p h i l o g u e

    1. Hey Bradley,

      Thank you so much for such engagement with my post. I took some time to read up on some of your articles and found them quite fascinating. I do understand the tendency to get somewhat muddled when diving deep into issues like this, and then to want to just go simpler on the doctrine. Yet, we do see Paul being quite clear that its imperative to understand salvation being apart from works. Of course, you have Galatians as well where Paul is seeming to grapple over fine points about the law, whether one must be following the mosaic law or not. To him, those who were wrong on this issue are fallen from grace, and outright condemned. How do you interpret that exactly?

      Also, can I ask, what has gotten you so interested in the topic of justification?

  4. Tim,

    I just noticed you replied so forgive me for not responding sooner. I'm going to clarify something first, as I'm afraid I might have given the wrong impression to you in my comments. Then I'm going to attempt to answer your question.

    First, I never said I went "simpler" on doctrine, but was trying to say only that I have matured in my quest to a point of humility where everything is not black and white (either you believe the "gospel" or you don't). For those who take the Bible as revelation it's never a question of deciding whether to agree or disagree with Paul or any of the biblical writers, but rather, how to understand what they meant by what they said, what role does historical-critical research and Church tradition play in answering such a question, and other related questions I don't have time to list. Paul says justification is effected apart from works (I'm not sure he ever says that "salvation" is apart from works but feel free to provide a passage if you know of one), but as you might have gathered if you read my paper on Aquinas and justification, Paul also says the final judgment will be based on works. Furthermore, the apostle James said justification is by works. Theological language is not analytic in a philosophical sense, but experiential and pastoral, and therefore it's easy to find semantic tensions and even contradictions in the Bible such as the one between Paul and James (please note how I qualified "contradictions" with the word "semantic" lest you misunderstand what I've just said). It's not easy to figure out how to fit all the various stands of biblical teaching together, much less when you don't even know the original languages and you are reading the text thousands of years after it was written--but *especially when prejudice is always in play at some level by all interpreters for various reasons.*

    (continued in next comment) ...

  5. About how I became so interested in justification: I was a zealot for certain Reformed understanding of justification interpreted as the passive and active obedience of Christ counting for the sinner, as defended by one of my beloved mentors R.C. Sproul. I took a class with Dr. Gregg Allison on Roman Catholicism one semester which required a research paper, and I chose the ECT documents for research. I was basically intending to aim at criticizing evangelicals for signing ECT in the spirit of what I could call a "Sproulianite." I was almost finished with the paper, having argued that Sproul's argument was never actually addressed in the proliferation of arguments back and forth from both sides, thereby demonstrating that Sproul's arguments still stand and need to be addressed, and that only caricatures of his views had been the target of his critics. Then .... I read this:

    A single author had not only fully addressed Sproul's argument with the careful attention of a scholar, but argued persuasively that Sproul's position leads to some rather absurd conclusions. Suddenly my entire perspective on the question changed. While writing the last section of my paper, I had to actually change my conclusion. It was precisely because I was such a zealot for the doctrine of imputation as taught by R.C. Sproul, John Piper, John MacArthur, and others, that such a shift in perspective was almost like being forced to re-think the gospel. And in all truth, for me at that state in my development, it actually was. In any case, once you are forced to re-think what you thought was the uncompromising and essential biblical gospel message, it has the potential to shape your critical faculties in ways difficult to articulate and gave my tone and perspective a more humble posture (I pray). I lost my sense of being a crusader for the truth and gained more a sense of a seeker for the truth, and in the process discovered that often when disagreements are taking place between Christians over views each holds very dear, the truth that matters most is often itself eclipsed--that we should treat each other with love and respect, walk in humility and show others grace, speak less and listen more, etc. Being right about something isn't as important as having the right attitude about it, and those Christians who dogmatically attack other Christians in ways that display hubris and presumption (in addition to other vices of reason or biblical interpretation) in the name of defending God's truth don't even realize they have prioritized winning an argument over loving their brother.

    I did not have the time to think carefully about my choice of words here, and I am attempting to recount in summary form something that really meant so much to me (and still does) and shaped who I am, so I must stop here even though I don't think I've done it justice. I hope you kind of "catch the drift" of what I'm trying to say, and I hope that you will mature spiritually in your quest for correct thinking about theology and justification.


    Bradley R. Cochran
    T h e o • p h i l o g u e

  6. Oh and one more thing - when I say I hope you mature spiritually along the way, I didn't mean to imply a sense of spiritual superiority, but only that you will (as did I eventually) be ever-maturing in the fruits of the Spirit as a result of the progression of your own quest for truth.

    Bradley R. Cochran
    T h e o • p h i l o g u e