Whatever Aquinas says in one place concerning election, regeneration, justification, the bestowal of the Holy Spirit, adoption, sanctification, and other graces, must be considered with the realization that he holds heretical views on the sacraments. In one part of the Summa, you can read what Aquinas says about justification by faith, but then you go to another part and see what he says about justification through the sacrament of baptism….Are we justified by faith in Christ alone (sola fide) or are we justified through a grace conferred in baptism? Aquinas hedges concerning the first part of that question and unequivocally affirms the second part of it.

Aquinas Is Still Not a Safe Guide for Protestants

A rejoinder to “Should Ole Aquinas be Forgot and Never Brought to Mind?” in the discussion on Aquinas.

Whatever Aquinas says in one place concerning election, regeneration, justification, the bestowal of the Holy Spirit, adoption, sanctification, and other graces, must be considered with the realization that he holds heretical views on the sacraments. In one part of the Summa, you can read what Aquinas says about justification by faith, but then you go to another part and see what he says about justification through the sacrament of baptism….Are we justified by faith in Christ alone (sola fide) or are we justified through a grace conferred in baptism? Aquinas hedges concerning the first part of that question and unequivocally affirms the second part of it.

 

In his article, Should Ole Aquinas be Forgot and Never Brought to Mind? Travis James Campbell has responded to my article, “Aquinas Not a Safe Guide for Protestants.” This is my rejoinder in this discussion.

I have often thought that if I ever wrote a book on Aquinas I would title it, Thomas Aquinas: the Theologian Behind the Mask. Yet, it was not Aquinas who hid his positions behind a mask. No indeed. His Summa Theologica contains millions of words for everyone so inclined to read. Nor does Catholicism throw a mask over Aquinas. They proudly state that the Summa of Aquinas was placed in the middle of the Council of Trent and daily consulted on all points of theology. Indeed, Trent can be described as Thomism come into its own. Trent is a summary of the theology of Aquinas [I’m preparing a lecture for the Russian Reformed Pastors Conference in September of 2017 to show that the theological positions of Aquinas on soteriology were adopted by the Council of Trent during the Counter-Reformation].

So, it is not the Catholic Church that tries to disguise the theological positions of Thomas Aquinas. Rather, it is only Protestants who put the mask on Aquinas. They do so by quoting the good things in the Summa while ignoring the errors and even heresies – yes – heresies. In other words, Protestants take the bait and ignore the hook. For some reason, Aquinas is Protestantism’s favorite Schoolman. In that way, too many Protestants are beguiled into all the errors of Romanism. The Federal Vision heresy is just one movement that derived its inspiration from Aquinas.

As I stated in my earlier articles, I have read exhaustively in the unabridged volumes of the Summa Theologica in preparation for writing my book, Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision. It really was not enjoyable reading. It is not spiritually edifying. It does not breathe with the godliness of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. And, worst of all, Aquinas was wrong on every point of soteriology. I am well aware of some of the affirmations that Aquinas made in some parts of the Summa that seem to be similar or close to Reformed theology. Yet a sincere seeker of the truth never reaches a conclusion based on partial information while neglecting other available information. Aquinas most certainly affirmed unconditional election in one part of the Summa, but then he cancelled that truth in another place by stating that our salvation can be lost through our failure to persevere or our insincerity. An unconditional election that can fall short of eternal salvation through the failure to persevere is not really unconditional, is it? Unconditional election always includes the grace of certain perseverance. Likewise, effectual calling is not effectual if it can be cancelled by our unfaithfulness, is it? Such is the inconsistency of Aquinas and such are the contradictory positions of his Summa.

Thomas Aquinas cannot be rightly understood without the realization that he was the leading exponent in the whole history of the church of the sacramental heresies that are the hallmark of the Council of Trent. The Roman Catholic Church adopted its position on the sacraments at the Council of Vienne in 1311-12, thirty-seven years after Aquinas died. Pelagius, Hugo de St. Victor, Bonaventure, Alexander of Hales, Duns Scotus, and others held to the same sacramental errors, but it was the Summa that gave the clearest expression and defense of that position. When the Council of Vienne convened it was still an open question in the Church whether or not infants are conferred grace in baptism. Yet, it was that Council that adopted Aquinas’ position and others that “the sacraments justify and confer grace ex opere operato.” From that point on, the Roman Catholic Church was officially committed to the view that the sacraments contain and confer grace. Such an error is neither small nor irrelevant. As Calvin wrote:

Of a certainty it is diabolical. For in promising a righteousness apart from faith, it hurls the soul headlong to destruction. Secondly, because it draws the cause of righteousness from the sacraments, it binds men’s pitiable minds (of themselves more than enough inclined to earth) in this superstition, so that they repose in the appearance of a physical thing rather than God Himself.[1]

Whatever Aquinas says in one place concerning election, regeneration, justification, the bestowal of the Holy Spirit, adoption, sanctification, and other graces, must be considered with the realization that he holds heretical views on the sacraments. In one part of the Summa, you can read what Aquinas says about justification by faith, but then you go to another part and see what he says about justification through the sacrament of baptism. All parts of the Summa must be carefully considered in order to have a full understanding of the teaching of Aquinas. Are we justified by faith in Christ alone (sola fide) or are we justified through a grace conferred in baptism? Aquinas hedges concerning the first part of that question and unequivocally affirms the second part of it.

Aquinas’ view of sacramental justification is not his only error on the subject. For instance, he trumpeted the position on justification that was given creedal form by the Council of Trent in the following:

I answer that, The entire justification of the ungodly consists as to its origin in the infusion of grace. For it is by grace that free-will is moved and sin is remitted. Now the infusion of grace takes place in an instant and without succession.[2]

Justification by the infusion of grace is the error/heresy of the Council of Trent and the Roman Catholic Church. Protestants certainly believe that there is an infusion of grace in regeneration, but that grace does not justify a sinner. Tying justification to the infusion of grace is, at the very least, a confusion of regeneration and sanctification with justification. Trent rightly picked up on Aquinas’ teaching about sacramental grace when they stated that the instrumental cause of justification is the sacrament of baptism. Protestants have always held that faith – not the sacrament of baptism – is the instrumental cause of justification. Of course, the sacramental errors of Aquinas made justification a result of baptism. Most of the Protestant advocates of reading Aquinas gloss over his sacramental views that are so fundamental to his whole system.

Mr. Campbell asserts that Aquinas held to Sola Scriptura and quotes from a section of the Summa in an effort to prove it. First of all, Aquinas most certainly did not hold to the Protestant version of Sola Scriptura because he held to a different canon of Scripture which included the Apocryphal books rejected by the Reformers. Moreover, those Apocryphal books teach things that contradict the doctrine of salvation in the Protestant Bible.

Second, the methodology of Aquinas in the Summa undermines the idea that he held to Sola Scriptura. His practice was to consider various theological questions, such as, “Whether a natural man can fulfill the commandments of the Law by his natural powers, without grace?” He would then set forth several statements on one side of the issue, followed by the various objections to those statements. Then, Aquinas would give his own views on the question at hand. If Aquinas truly believed in Sola Scriptura, one could expect him to draw his conclusions concerning the question at hand from the sacred Scriptures. Yet, that is not what usually happens in the Summa. It is actually common for Aquinas to never even refer to Scripture. For instance the question in the middle of this paragraph was answered by Aquinas in part in this manner:

On the second point: what we can do by means of divine help is not absolutely impossible for us. As the philosopher says: “what we can do through our friends, we can in a sense do ourselves” (3 Ethics 3). Hieronymus (Pelagius) accordingly confesses, in the passage quoted, that “our will is free enough to allow us to say that we always need God’s help.”[3]

Besides agreeing with the false understanding of Pelagius on grace in this question, Aquinas makes no reference to Scripture in his answers in the whole section about grace. Yet, he often quotes from other sources, including philosophers. The chief purpose of holding to Sola Scriptura is to see it be the touchstone for all truth. Aquinas might give lip service to a high view of Scripture in his opening statements to the Summa, but his methodology throughout that work proves otherwise. Scripture is only necessary for Aquinas when he feels that natural reason is insufficient. Thus he wrote:

A man cannot even know truth without divine help. Now his nature is impaired by sin more in the desire for good than in the knowledge of truth.[4]

What Aquinas states in that section on grace is that the sinfulness of man’s nature affected his desires more than his knowledge. His knowledge remained capable of discerning truth- even truth concerning God. Thus, it was for that reason that Aquinas referred to the teaching of the philosophers in the development of his theology. In Escape from Reason, Francis Schaeffer puts his finger on the problem with Aquinas’ theology:

In Aquinas’ view the will of man was fallen, but the intellect was not. From this incomplete view of the biblical Fall flowed all the subsequent difficulties. Man’s intellect became autonomous. In one realm man was now independent, autonomous.

This sphere of the autonomous in Aquinas takes on various forms. One result, for example, was the development of natural theology. In this view, natural theology is a theology that could be pursued independently from the Scriptures.

From the basis of this autonomous principle, philosophy also became free, and was separated from revelation. Therefore philosophy began to take wings, as it were, and fly off wherever it wished, without relationship to Scriptures. . . Aquinas had opened the way to an autonomous philosophy, and once the movement gained momentum, there was soon a flood.[5]

Sola Scriptura leaves no room for a theology that is independent from the Scriptures. When I was a sophomore in college, I received a gift of two used books, A Compend of Calvin’s Institutes and A Compend of Wesley’s Theology. I left Arminianism and became a Calvinist because of the principle of Sola Scriptura in Calvin and the lack of it in Wesley. Calvin argued by saying, “And thus says the Scripture…” Wesley philosophized. Wesley probably believed in Sola Scriptura in one sense, but he did not practice it in the development of his theology. From having closely read most of Aquinas’ Summa, I can unequivocally testify that Aquinas reached most of his theological conclusions therein from sources outside the Scripture. That might be Mr. Campbell’s idea of Sola Scriptura, but it most certainly is not mine. Nor is it the view of Scripture of the Protestant Reformers. The practice of Aquinas made Scripture the caboose being pulled by tradition and the philosophers. His theoretical assertions about Scripture are less important than his actual practice.

There is a lot more I could write about Aquinas, but there is something that must be remembered. The system of Thomas Aquinas was virtually adopted by the Council of Trent and the latter is universally classified as Semi-Pelagianism. How can Thomism be consistent with Reformed theology if its creedal form is universally classified as Semi-Pelagianism? That is as great an inconsistency as saying that a person is a Reformed Arminian. Of course, the reason why some Protestants recommend Aquinas is because they read a few good statements in his Summa and they throw a veil over his other errors and heresies.

I do agree with Mr. Campbell on one thing, though. Aquinas has made a much bigger impact on theology, rightly or wrongly, than I ever have or ever will. That does not mean, though, that his theological opinions are necessarily closer to the truth than mine. It just means that he has had a bigger impact. There is no argument on my part with that fact.

Yet, I am reminded of 1 Peter 1:24- 25: “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off, but the Word of the Lord endures forever.” Travis James Campbell and Dewey Roberts and Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, and all others, are all alike in one respect. We are all like the grass that withers and falls off. But the Word of God endures forever. That is my view of Sola Scriptura.

Dewey Roberts is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, Fla. He is the author of Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision.

[1] John T. McNeil, ed., Ford Lewis Battles, trans., John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. Two (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1967), 1289.

[2] http://www.newadvent.org/summa/2113.htm. Accessed on December 28, 2016.

[3] A. M. Fairweather, trans. and ed., Nature and Grace: Selections from the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1954), 145.

[4] Ibid., 141.

[5] Francis A. Schaeffer, Escape from Reason (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1968), 11-13.