Monday, November 6, 2023

Luther and Thomas


Due to the oppositional narrative, it is unusual – even considered comical – to label Luther or Calvin “Scholastic.”  …That assumption, however, has been challenged as Reformation scholarship has further investigated the connection between Scholasticism and the Reformation.

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

Unfortunately, many in the mainstream Protestant narrative carry the same thinking – the Reformation repudiated Thomas, or something to this effect.

Barrett will proceed to provide evidence to back this notion of the stronger connection between Thomas and the Reformers. For example, while some differences are certainly identified, both Thomas and the Reformers were very Augustinian in their soteriology; there was even a stronger continuity in the domain of the atonement.

The issue comes back to one I have touched on previously at this blog – Luther was reacting to Ockham and Biel and thereby painting all of Scholasticism with this same broad brush.  But, as just one example, if one sets Thomas’s view of predestination side-by-side with Luther’s Bondage of the Will or Calvin’s Institutes, one finds a striking similarity.

There is little basis on which to believe that Luther had meaningful direct contact or engagement with Thomas’s work.  Some point to Luther’s engagement with Cardinal Cajetan, and the latter’s leaning on Thomistic theology, but others suggest that Cajetan might not be reliable as a Thomist. 

It was Biel that Luther read as a student, and it was Biel’s description of Thomistic Scholasticism that Luther would write against.  But, as will be seen, Biel’s teaching and interpretation of many key Thomistic points left something to be desired. 

Biel gave an accurate representation of Thomas on a range of topics; however, when it came to some of the key issues such as sin, grace, and justification, Biel has been demonstrated to have misrepresented Thomas.  Barrett presents a table demonstrating where Biel misrepresents Thomas on these and a couple of other issues and instead compares this to the proper Thomistic understanding.

On a key issue – sinners could put their best foot forward to begin the process to merit their own justification – Biel presented Thomas as having a Pelagian view at worst, Semi-Pelagian at best.  Quoting David Steinmetz:

“It is simply not true [as Biel thinks] that Thomas teaches that sinners can merit the grace of justification, not even by merits of congruity.  The general effect of Biel’s interpretation is to move Thomas in a more Pelagian, even a more voluntaristic direction, and away from the more Augustinian, more ontological framework in which he properly belongs.”

Barrett notes that some historians believe that if Luther had read the real Thomas for himself, the Reformation would not have happened.  On this, I am not so sure.  Luther’s ninety-five theses were focused on indulgences, and it was this that was at the heart of the antagonism by the Church toward Luther.  Luther and others had questioned many doctrinal positions before, and the result wasn’t Reformation, it was disputation (well, sometimes burning at the stake as well).

Further, with or without Luther, at some point Reformation was coming – we know of the martyrs before Luther (and he would also likely have been one if not for Frederick), and the issues, including the corruption, were not shrinking in size or magnitude.  There were strong negative feelings in Germany about money flowing south of the Alps and to the Vatican.

In any case, Barrett also does not believe if Luther had a more accurate knowledge of Thomas would have prevented the Reformation.  Just as one reason for this view: Luther did know Augustine, and this gave him courage to press his points.  Given that the real Thomas was quite close to Augustine on many issues, Luther would likely have had even more courage to press his points.

With all of this said, there are consequences to the caricature of Luther in opposition to Thomas when, in fact, they were aligned on many key points.  The contrast between the Scholastics and the Reformers may not be completely false, but it is meaningfully misleading.

The caricature positions Scholasticism on the side of unbiblical speculation, even rationalism, and positions the Reformers (Calvin in particular) on the side of biblical conviction and exegetical devotion.  The caricature segregates Scholasticism to the side of ambiguity and obscurity but the Reformers to the side of clarity and relevancy.

A major epoch of the church, Scholasticism, must be bypassed in order to return to an orthodox Christianity; it is this that is meaningfully misleading.  This further puts a muzzle on the idea that Luther’s confessional claims were quite consistent with much of Catholic theology (as they were) – a topic Barrett will return to in future chapters.

Barrett moves on to touch on other Reformers and their relationship to Thomism.  Martin Bucer and Girolamo Zanchi were Thomists converted to the Protestant cause, and they thereafter remained Thomists.  Half of Bucer’s library was filled with books by or about Thomas Aquinas.

Zanchi found the via moderna, the way of Ockham and Biel, to be the true provocation of the Reformation, betraying the realism of Thomas.  Philip Melanchthon could read Thomas with profit when writing his lectures on the gospel of John.

Then there is John Calvin.  Unlike the others mentioned, he was not formally trained by the best theologians in Paris.  He had studied law, and for this reason his relationship to Thomas was rarely explored.  There is no doubt Calvin was critical of the Scholastics, but he rarely named them individually.  Which leads to an interesting curiosity noted by Barrett:

…the McNeill-Battles edition of Calvin’s Institutes is so misleading, inserting Thomas’s name where Calvin never mentioned him, as if Thomas was Calvin’s Scholastic nemesis.

Instead, the Scholastics with whom Calvin was familiar were the nominalists from the late medieval period operating in the Sorbonne.  Calvin’s critiques were quite specific and quite contemporary, not aimed at past luminaries such as Bonaventure and Aquinas. 

Further, Calvin would often contrast his views with Scholasticism when, in fact, the views were quite similar.  For example, citing Alvin Vos:

“Aquinas holds that faith is a firm belief and Calvin holds that it is a sure and certain knowledge, but what may appear to be a basic disagreement is in fact a mere semantic difference – a discrepancy in their use of the verb to know – rather than a difference in substance.”


Calvin, in a tradition that continues today in many Reformed denominations, would use the Scholastic method in a surprising, but once stated, a rather obvious way: in evangelical ministry.  The Scholastics were trained in the classroom, listening to lectures.  Calvin transferred this to the pulpit – he took their teaching method in the university and transferred this method of teaching to the church.

The Scholastic Calvin provided learned lessons from the text with theological import, while the Scholastic Calvin applied such a medieval approach to the average Christian, ensuring an open channel of theological education from clergy to laity.

I have mentioned that I attend both a Reformed church and an Orthodox church.  When at the Reformed church, I do consider that I am listening to a university-style lecture.

1 comment:

  1. I think the important application of the main idea is that Christians of all flavors should connect their beliefs to other Christian teacher through history. It doesn't mean every teaching is correct. But it does mean that no theologian should be off limits. There are hundreds of years of Christians wrestling with the Bible. It is wise to listen to them all then filter them through your own Biblical observation. Also pray that the Holy Spirit will guide you into truth and trust that He will. The more open myself to the voices of Christian theologians through the years the more I see how much better the church and society were hundreds of years ago. The way forward is backwards but applied to new circumstances and times.