Thursday, June 15, 2006

Calvin & Aquinas on the Atonement


It is fascinating to read two very different theologians on a subject of such central importance to a correct rendering of the Mystery of Faith.

The scholarly consensus is that the Great Reformer had no first hand knowledge of the Angelic Doctor. The extent to which he understood his 16th century scholastic contemporaries and the extent to which they reflected the authentic teaching of Thomas is a matter of debate. Yet, their theologies of the Atonement are a striking example of dissimilar points-of-view unexpectedly converging.

Calvin insisted upon the reality of Christ’s mediation and meritorious intervention between God and man,

‘That Christ, by his obedience, truly purchased and merited grace for us with the Father, is accurately inferred from several passages of Scripture. I take it for granted, that if Christ satisfied for our sins, if he paid the penalty due by us, if he appeased God by his obedience; in fine, if he suffered the just for the unjust, salvation was obtained for us by his righteousness; which is just equivalent to meriting.’ (Inst. 2.17.3)

Similarly Thomas answers the question whether Christ's Passion brought about our salvation efficiently,

‘On the words of Phil. 2:9, "Therefore God exalted Him," etc., Augustine says: "The lowliness" of the Passion "merited glory; glory was the reward of lowliness." But He was glorified, not merely in Himself, but likewise in His faithful ones, as He says Himself. Therefore it appears that He merited the salvation of the faithful.’ (STh III.48.1)

Yet, both theologians recognize that there is a twofold foundation for the work of the redeemer.

‘Therefore when we treat of the merit of Christ, we do not place the beginning in him, but we ascend to the ordination of God as the primary cause, because of his mere good pleasure he appointed a Mediator to purchase salvation for us. Hence the merit of Christ is inconsiderately opposed to the mercy of God. It is a well known rule, that principal and accessory are not incompatible, and therefore there is nothing to prevent the justification of man from being the gratuitous result of the mere mercy of God, and, at the same time, to prevent the merit of Christ from intervening in subordination to this mercy.’ (Inst. 2.17.1)

‘Human acts have the nature of merit from two causes: first and chiefly from the Divine ordination, inasmuch as acts are said to merit that good to which man is divinely ordained. Secondly, on the part of free-will, inasmuch as man, more than other creatures, has the power of voluntary acts by acting by himself. And in both these ways does merit chiefly rest with charity.’ (STh I-II.114.4)

Thomas makes the same point using the notion of instrumental causality,

‘There is a twofold efficient agency---namely, the principal and the instrumental. Now the principal efficient cause of man's salvation is God. But since Christ's humanity is the "instrument of the Godhead," as stated above, therefore all Christ's actions and sufferings operate instrumentally in virtue of His Godhead for the salvation of men. Consequently, then, Christ's Passion accomplishes man's salvation efficiently.’ (STh III.48.6)

Interestingly, Calvin criticizes those who would empty the suffering of Christ of its intrinsic worth through a misappropriation of the notion of instrumental causality,

‘Some men too much given to subtilty, while they admit that we obtain salvation through Christ, will not hear of the name of merit, by which they imagine that the grace of God is obscured; and therefore insist that Christ was only the instrument or minister, not the author or leader, or prince of life, as he is designated by Peter.’ (Inst. 2.17.1)

7 comments:

Joseph said...

Thomas,
I just came across your blog, it looks very interesting. I hope things are going well for you and your family. I have a question. Do you think that Aquinas and Calvin are using merit in the same sense? If so, could you give me their definition of merit?

Joseph Patterson

Thomas said...

Joe - Thanks. How is everything out at St. John's. I am hoping to come to a clearer understanding of the different views taken by Aquinas and Calvin regarding the nature of the Atonement. Merit is obviously one major aspect of it. Thomas, like Augustine, distinguishes between condign and congruent merit. He also sees the charity of Christ, which he takes to be the formal cause - with respect to virtue - of the Atonement, as a supreme grace on account of the Hypostatic Union. I do not yet know what Calvin writes about these things. I suspect, via Luther, that he makes much less of Christ's infused virtue, and the role of the Hypostatic Union - but I have underestimated Calvin before.

Joseph said...

Thomas,
Do you remember when we attended the Society of Christian Philosophers meeting at Rhodes College? There was a Reformed philosopher from the Univ. of W. Kentucky named Arvin Vos who was basically a Reformed Thomist. He wrote a book titled "Aquinas, Calvin, and contemporary Protestant thought: A critique of Protestant views on the thought of Thomas Aquinas". I think you might find his conclusions very interesting.

jbrim said...

Thomas,

One of the things about Calvinism that has frightened me, and was a primary motivation for abandoning that system, is the apparent insistance of Reformed thinkers that salvation, ultimately, is resolved in the divine decree. This seems to me to abbreviate any created causeality in our salvation to meaninglessness.

In the passages from Calvin you cite here, he appears to address this issue at a glance when he speaks about those who disdane any notion of merit as though it impunes God's grace. My question for you, Thomas, is, is Calvin being consistent? Or is he holding on to something that really has no place in the construction he has built? I have no clue as I don't understand much of what Calvin wrote. So I hope you can enlighten me on this.

Jason

Thomas said...

joe - I actually learned of Vos' book about a year ago. It inspired my interest in a comparative study of Calvin and Aquinas. His conclusions regarding consensuses between the two thinkers on such things as the credibility of faith, implicit faith, and natural knowledge of God are impressive, esp. in light of the contemporary debate over reformed vs. catholic epistemology. (See ‘Rational Faith: Catholic Responses to Reformed Epistemology’ Linda Zagzebski)

Thomas said...

jbrim – The question of secondary causality has been raised as a philosophical challenge to Calvinism. I do not know when it was first raised. Since Calvin was a late medieval thinker, it is likely that he would have been influenced by one or more currents of late medieval thought. It is possible – although we have little or no documentation to support hypotheses about Calvin’s early education and evangelical influences – that he was, like other early reformers such as Luther and Zwingli, influenced by late medieval scholastic theology, particularly in its dominant Scotist or Nominalist forms. These two schools can be generally characterized by ‘voluntarism’ (the old Franciscan notion of the primacy of the divine will over the divine intellect given formal expression by Duns Scotus) and the radical distinction between the absolute will of God, on the one hand, and the ordained will of God, on the other, developed by the 14th c. Franciscan William of Ockham. Both notions weakened the idea of natural causality or created efficiency, as it occurred in Thomas, in order to elevate the sovereignty of the divine will/causality. In other words, they made the immediate objects of theology not supernatural and related natural things and their natures (such as the incarnate Christ and the act of atonement or even the Trinity in itself) but rather the divine decrees. Thomas, for example, looks to the nature of Christ for a solution to the old question Cur Deus Homo? Contemporary reformed/evangelical thought, it seems to me, is much less concerned with the nature of the redeemer and its intrinsic relation to his work than it is in the extrinsic decree of God concerning the redemptive effect this particular mission will have: i.e. federalist theology. One of the long term effects of late medieval theology, via the Reformation, – !!warning: personal hypothesis!! – is that of displacing traditional theological metaphysics and filling its void – not yet filled by the early Reformers such as Calvin – with the all embracing and pliable concept of covenant – which was first an alternative to Thomistic philosophy before it became a hermeneutical principle (see the VIIth chapter of the Westminster Confession. Notice that the union between God and man is interpreted not primarily by the incarnation of the Word and its mysterious union of natures, but by the preeminent and much more rational concept of covenant. Is this Chalcedonian theology?). Again, this is a generalization and there is no direct evidence of Calvin’s early allegiance to any particular scholastic tradition. However, certain statements in his writings do appear to me (and perhaps it is a Thomist bias) to suffer from latent late medieval tensions between created efficiency and divine decree.

My hope is that an open-minded comparative reading of Calvin and Aquinas’ Christology will help me to confirm or reject that impression.

jbrim said...

Thomas,

Thank you for the reply. Your 'personal hypothesis' seems more right than rain. By drawing this comparison between covenant and the incarnation you answered a question I have had since I first became a Calvinist 18 years ago. I was never able to forumulate the question into words, it was just one of those insipient questions that nags the conscious mind from an unconscious venue. I think I can now formulate the question. It very simply is "where is Jesus"?

One can see from this covenantal perspective how some of the later puritans drifted off into Unitarianism. The seed was planted in the WCF to divorce Christ himself from faith.

Anyway, thanks for your comments. You have given me much to think about.

Jason