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)