Monday, October 30, 2023

The “Sounder Scholastic”


The Reformation altered comparatively few of the major loci of [Scholastic] theology: the doctrines of justification, the sacraments, and the church received the greatest emphasis, while the doctrines of God, the trinity, creation, providence, predestination, and the last things were taken over by the magisterial Reformation virtually without alteration.

-          Richard Muller, “Scholasticism in Calvin

The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, by Matthew Barrett

The “Sounder Scholastic” in the title refers to Thomas Aquinas.  This is how some of the later Reformers would refer to him, “sounder” as opposed to Ockham and Biel, who were discussed in an earlier installment.

There is the stereotype of Luther’s relationship to Scholasticism, and, therefore, to Thomas as the pre-eminent Scholastic – one of complete rejection.  It is this story that will be examined here, although not precisely:

The story of Thomas Aquinas and Protestantism has yet to be written, and it is not identical with the story of Thomas and Luther.

-          David Steinmetz, Luther in Context

The story of Christendom did not require Luther in 1517 to throw mud on the legacy of Thomas Aquinas:

In 1277, the dirt over his tomb was still fresh when concepts derivative from Thomas were denounced in Oxford.  Thomas had devoted much of his career to Paris only for ecclesiastical authorities to damn his teaching that same year.

Barrett begins this chapter with a somewhat detailed examination of Thomas’s life and work: the connection to Aristotle, his work on the two Summas, etc.  I will skip over these, as these have been covered often by others and elsewhere.  Instead, I will focus on various doctrinal issues – similarities and differences between Thomas and the Reformers.

Original Sin

“All who are born of Adam can be considered as one man by reason of sharing the one nature inherited from the first parent….”

Who wrote that, Thomas or one of the prominent Reformers?  It is found in the Summa.  Thomas followed Augustine, concluding that original sin involves a habit (habitus) – meaning a disposition in one’s nature. 

Due to original sin, human nature is now infected: “Original sin is called a sickness of nature.”  Describing this habit of original sin, he would write:

“For it is a disordered disposition growing from the dissolution of that harmony in which original justice consisted.”

With the lack of original justice, we have nothing that subjects us to the will of God.  Is man’s nature totally obliterated?  Here, Thomas would offer a nuanced reply, with three points to consider: there are the powers of the soul and the like; these powers offer an inclination to the good, toward virtue; original justice was a gift bestowed to the first man.

To the first, it is neither destroyed or lessened.  After the fall, corrupted though we might be, we still retain human nature – the rational soul, the will, intellect, etc.  Barrett does not elaborate on how the Reformers would react to this point, however I will offer: it seems clear merely by observation that man retains something that makes him different from the animals, something that is retained from God having breathed into man – and only man.

To the third, original justice: this has been totally removed.  Certainly, Reformers used fiercer language, but on this point, they would have agreed with Thomas. 

However, to the second point, man’s inclination to virtue remains.  Later Barrett comes to Thomas’s understanding of grace – a necessary discussion regarding this topic.  But to summarize, grace remains the requirement, the move of the first mover.  Thomas does write that virtue is “lessened through sin.”  A Reformer like Luther would not have considered this damning enough.  But Thomas does elaborate: “The will becomes hardened against the true good,” an elaboration that would have found at least appreciation within the thought of many Reformers.


Thomas…advanced the argument for satisfaction by paying more attention to the nature of divine justice in the atonement.

He did not assume either a ransom view or an example view.  Thomas presented the cross as a substitution; he accentuated the notion of propitiation.  Knowingly or not, the Reeformers had an ally in Thomas.

Thomas was convinced that Christ “by his suffering made perfect satisfaction for our sins.” …Punishment is key to a Thomistic interpretation of the cross.

The cross is presented as a satisfaction of divine judgement against sin.  While the vocabulary of propitiation was not present in Thomas’s work, the concept was insinuated throughout.  Christ’s death was the price paid.

To the extent I understand a few of the many theories and interpretations about how, exactly, the cross and resurrection makes us right with God, I have concluded that many of the different theories and understandings need not be mutually exclusive.  Thus far in my journey, I have been satisfied to leave it at this.


Can man will and do good without grace?  Can man love God above all things without grace?  To both, Thomas would answer no.  God is the primary mover, not man.  Citing from the Summa:

And so it is only by way of God’s converting him that man is turned to God …. It is clear that man cannot prepare himself to receive the light of grace except by the gratuitous assistance of God moving him from within.

None of this just happens by nature; natural reason is not the source – it is not the first mover.  Yet, he leaves a place for free choice.  Although even free choice is due to God’s movement of grace, it is grace that moves the individual to choose good. 

For [Thomas], my actions are caused by God without ceasing to be free.

As best as I can understand this, we all exercise free will within a context of our environment, training, calling, culture, surroundings, etc.  In other words, our free will doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it isn’t created from nothing.  Once, having received God’s grace, this then shapes our environment, culture, etc. – let’s say, God’s grace shapes our spirit which then shapes our freely made choices.  This works for me, even if it isn’t precisely what Aquinas meant.

Now, by this I don’t mean to suggest (and, again, this is me talking) that free will is an illusion.  I am merely suggesting that free will is built on the foundation of all that has influenced us.

Returning to Barrett, this view regarding grace may not be perfect Luther – and, of course, the difference remains regarding infused vs. imputed righteousness – but it is clear that Thomas’s position on grace was misrepresented to Luther by Gabriel Biel.  Hence, one reason that Luther thought ill of all Scholastics.


There are still some forty pages to go in this chapter that reviews the relationship of the Reformers to Aquinas.  I am not yet sure if there are other items worth expanding on in the blog, but, if so, it will wait for another post as this one is long enough.

I have read before, and Barrett confirms this: what Luther criticized of Thomas he did not understand of Thomas.  His unfamiliarity with Thomas directly, relying on second-hand interpretations, clearly seem to be at least a meaningful cause for this antagonism.

Suffice it to say, I think there is enough here to at least cause pause before concluding that Luther specifically, and the Reformers more generally, rejected Aquinas and the Scholastics in total.  This is the generally accepted popular caricature, but it doesn’t withstand meaningful scrutiny.


  1. A quick question? Are you planning to examine the 4 vol by Joseph Farrell, God, History and Dialectic?

  2. This is very valuable reading as it dispels myths Protestants have of Aquinas. It helps by giving us access to Aquinas and other Scholastic thought that doesn't violate scripture.

    The 2 biggest disagreements about Aquinas I remember were on the nature of reason, access to salvation, and the centrality of infused righteousness through sacraments.

    You touch on reason and access to salvation. He said it is not affected in that humans can still understand logical syllogisms. But it can't lead to salvation. Before I thought he said a person can reason himself to salvation, so myth dispelled. Would be good to here the author's assessment of Aquinas' views on infused righteousness through sacraments.

    My thoughts about free will are that the human will isn't free but we also aren't automatons. Humans have a will and we make choices based on our own wills, but our wills operate differently when enslaved to sin compared to when we are saved by God. I don't know how that works in detail but Romans 6 is good to ponder on the subject.

    1. On infused vs. imputed righteousness, the author offers that the views are different.

    2. They are fundamentally different. It defines the faith vs works salvation issue.