Aquinas and Calvinism

I once remember hearing that not only was the predestination of John Calvin not unique, it wasn’t even controversial among the deeper thinkers in Christian history. In fact, no less than Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) could said to be something of a “5 Point Calvinist!”

The idea that Aquinas had a clear and strong view of predestination should be beyond dispute. No only does Aquinas’ masterpiece, Summa Theologica, contain several pertinent sections related to predestination, but Robert Mulligan translates several other relevant sections from his writings in Thomas Aquinas: Providence and Predestination (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1953). He can say things like, “Clearly predestination is like the plan, existing in God’s mind, for the ordering of some persons to salvation. The carrying out of this is passively as it were in the persons predestined, though actively in God. When considered executively in this way, predestination is spoken of as a ‘calling’ and a ‘glorifying’, thus St. Paul says, ‘Whom he predestinated, them also he called and glorified.'” (Mulligan, 164).

But can Aquinas account as a 5 Point Calvinist? I rooted around for some quotes, and all of the following come from the Summa unless otherwise noted. Any emphasis is added by myself.

Total Depravity

“I answer that: Man’s nature may be looked at in two ways: first, in its integrity, as it was in our first parent before sin; secondly, as it is corrupted in us after the sin of our first parent. Now in both states human nature needs the help of God as First Mover, to do or wish any good whatsoever, as stated above. But in the state of integrity, as regards the sufficiency of the operative power, man by his natural endowments could wish and do the good proportionate to his nature, such as the good of acquired virtue; but not surpassing good, as the good of infused virtue. But in the state of corrupt nature, man falls short of what he could do by his nature, so that he is unable to fulfill it by his own natural powers. Yet because human nature is not altogether corrupted by sin, so as to be shorn of every natural good, even in the state of corrupted nature it can, by virtue of its natural endowments, work some particular good, as to build dwellings, plant vineyards, and the like; yet it cannot do all the good natural to it, so as to fall short in nothing; just as a sick man can of himself make some movements, yet he cannot be perfectly moved with the movements of one in health, unless by the help of medicine he be cured… And in this way, neither in the state of perfect nature, nor in the state of corrupt nature can man fulfill the commandments of the law without grace… Hence it is clear that man cannot prepare himself to receive the light of grace except by the gratuitous help of God moving him inwardly.” (ST II.109.2-7)

Unconditional Election

“God wills to manifest his goodness in men: in respect to those whom he predestines, by means of his mercy, in sparing them; and in respect of others, whom he reprobates, by means of his justice, in punishing them. This is the reason why God elects some and rejects others…. Yet why he chooses some for glory and reprobates others has no reason except the divine will. Hence Augustine says, ‘Why he draws one, and another he draws not, seek not to judge, if thou dost not wish to err.'” (ST I.23.5)

Limited Atonement

“Christ’s passion was not only a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race; according to 1 John 2:2, ‘He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.'” (ST III.48.2)
“[Christ] is the propitiation for our sins, efficaciously for some, but sufficiently for all, because the price of his blood is sufficient for the salvation of all; but it has its effect only in the elect.” (Commentary on Titus I.2.6)

Irresistable Grace

“God’s intention cannot fail… Hence if God intends, while moving it, that the one whose heart he moves should attain to grace, he will infallibly attain to it, according to John 6:45, ‘Everyone that has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.'” (ST I-II.112.3)

Perseverance

“Predestination [to final salvation] most certainly and infallibly takes effect.” (ST I.23.6)
“Perseverance is called the abiding in good to the end of life. And in order to have this perseverance man does not, indeed, need another habitual grace, but he needs the Divine assistance guiding and guarding him against the attacks of the passions, as appears from the preceding article. And hence after anyone has been justified by grace, he still needs to beseech God for the aforesaid gift of perseverance, that he may be kept from evil till the end of his life. For to many grace is given to whom perseverance in grace is not given. (ST I-II.109.10)
(N.B. – Aquinas also had a concept of predestination that did not result in final salvation for the individual.)

Conclusion

I’m not sure I would be comfortable saying that Aquinas clearly articulates these five theological concepts; certainly not as clearly as Protestant theologians would some four hundred years later. At the same time, however, all of these concepts are clearly present – even if in diminutive form – in Aquinas’ writing. Yes, the Thomist position is soft on total depravity, perseverance, and nearly non-existent on a limited scope of the atonement. But Aquinas also had strong, biblical convictions (often influenced by Augustine) that drove a strong concept of election and God’s grace.

Laying out Aquinas’ views demonstrates the importance of what has come to be known as TULIP. Though controversial for those outside of the Reformed confessions, these ideas have always been wrestled with in the minds of God’s people. Further, when we see what even the leading lights such as Aquinas had to say, it shows (me, at least) the inadequacy of medieval doctrine, and the necessity for organic development in Reformed thought.

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