St. Aquinas of Geneva

In her 2016 essay, The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers, famed Classicist, Medieval scholar, and New Testament theologian Eleonore Stump writes that “For Aquinas, a person is justified by faith when she ceases resisting God, and God in consequence gives her the grace that produces faith in her.”

She continues: “As he sees it, A fully functional adult human being in a post-Fall condition who is not converted or in the process of being converted refuses grace continually, even if she is not aware of doing so. Before she is justified, she has a resistance or disinclination toward the second-order volition in which sinners detest their sin and long for God’s goodness, the act of will toward which the providence of God urges her.”

And more: “At some point, however, her refusal of grace may be quelled. But the quelling of refusal is not equivalent to assent. A person can cease to refuse grace without assenting to it, on Aquinas’ view. Instead, she can just be quiescent in will. If she is, then God, who offers grace to every human being, immediately infuses in her the previously refused grace.”

How, though? This is a question that theologians across ecclesial traditions have grappled with, rarely to much avail.

“God avails himself of the absence of refusal on her part to produce in her the Goodwill of justifying faith,” she writes. Consequently, “it is possible to hold consistently both that the will of faith, like any good will whatsoever in a human being, is brought about only by God’s grace, but that a human being is still ultimately in control of the state of her will, insofar as it is up to her either to refuse grace or fail to refuse Grace, and God’s giving of grace depends on the state of her will.”

Naturally, such a conclusion is bound to concern both ‘Augustinian’ Catholics and Protestant Calvinists alike. Although, of course, there may be no pleasing certain Calvinists who harbor a carefully nurtured contempt for medieval theologies, even Aquinas, on whom Calvin relied gleefully.

But it is worth pointing out that “all forms of pelagianism are thus avoided since nothing in these claims requires Aquinas to give up the view that there is nothing good in a human person’s will which is not produced in it by God’s grace.”

How, exactly? “Because ultimate control over the state of her will is vested in the person being justified, Aquinas’s account can give an answer to the question Augustine wrestled with, namely, ‘why God does not cause the justifying active will in everyone,'” she writes. “Whether or not God causes that act of will in a person is dependent on whether or not that person’s will has ceased to reject grace, and that is something for which she herself is ultimately responsible.”

Although, of course, Calvin and Aquinas are not theological comrades (unless you ask certain Eastern Orthodox theologians who, somehow, cannot see any difference, when you get down to it, between magisterial Protestantism and post-schismatic Catholicism), one can surely sense the echoes of Calvin in Stump’s treatment of Aquinas.

Unlike the bewildering portraits painted up by unsympathetic observers like Lord Acton (and somewhat more sympathetic observers like Max Weber) the Calvin who actually existed is far less clearly a ‘hard determinist’ than, say, Jonathan Edwards. (And Edwards is probably due for reappraisal by some contemporary humanist brave enough to put away her stacks of secondary sources and go back to the texts themselves, unencumbered by the intoxicating dredges of antipuritanism). Those who have undertaken to compare the surviving copies of Calvin’s numerous drafts of his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, for example, have found, quite startlingly, that his most robust treatments of ‘predestination,’ for example, only appear in the latest drafts, and when they do, they do so almost as an afterthought.

All of which has led some, such as one professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary, to suggest that what traces of ‘hard determinism’ can be found in his work amounts more or less to an attempt, retrospectively, to explain why some people do come to faith and others do not. The chasm between Rome and Geneva, or Byzantine and Geneva, or the revival pulpit and the Reformed Baptist Church, may not be nearly so wide as we thought.

“Furthermore, since a human being not only is ultimately responsible for her state of will but also has alternative possibilities with regard to willing,” Stump concludes, “it does seem right to hold, as Aquinas does, that the justifying act of will is a free act, and even free in a Libertarian sense.”

What is certainly clear, in any case, is that not only is Calvin very possibly within hailing distance of those who sweat at the prospect of ‘hard determinism,’ but Aquinas is most certainly within hailing distance of those whose theological instincts breed wariness of any suggestion that our salvation is the product of cooperation with God. As Aquinas understands it, ‘cooperation,’ properly understood, is well-nigh indistinguishable from what we might call ‘Monergism.’


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