T h e o • p h i l o g u e

Home » Uncategorized » Aquinas the Calvinist (via Eastern Orthodoxy?)

Aquinas the Calvinist (via Eastern Orthodoxy?)

Was Aquinas a Calvinist?  Well … sort of.  I realize the question is anachronistic, but Aquinas retained the doctrines of grace propogated by Augustine that the Calvinist tradition borrowed from during the Protestant Reformation (e.g. the doctrine of unconditional election, predestination, infallible grace, etc.).  There are many qualifications to this claim I do not have time to write about here (perhaps in a future post).

Those who hold a Calvinistic notion of predestination have also been known to hold that nevertheless God desires that all people be saved because Scripture affirms it.  For this reason 1 Timothy 2:1-4 also appears to many to be a major stumbling block (read: contradiction) to the entire soteriological system known as Calvinism.  How can we say that God desires all people to be saved when we know that ultimately God decides who is and who is not saved, yet does not choose everyone.  Does God not always do whatever he desires?  Does he not desire that all be saved?

I will now call upon Thomas Aquinas, however, to explain to us why this verse, and God’s desire that all be saved, does not contradict the doctrine of predestination.  I will first quote the verse itself, then Aquinas:

First of all I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority. … This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. — 1 Tim 2:3-4 (NASB)

Aquinas thinks that the word “all” in this passage likely means “applying to every class of individuals, not to every individual of each class; in which case they mean that God wills some men of every class and condition to be saved, males and females, Jews and Gentiles, great and small, but not all of every condition” (ST I.19.6.ad.1).

He also offers Damascene’s notion of “the antecedent will of God” which is to be contrasted to “the consequent will” of God.  Here the point is this: God’s will considered absolutely entails that all men should be saved, but by adding “some additional circumstances” or “by a consequent consideration” the verdict of God’s will may turn out to be reversed (ST I.19.6.ad.1).

For example, considered absolutely it is good that all men should live and be free, unless or until that one person is considered an extreme danger and menace of society by killing and raping others, in which case a good judge may will him to hang or be thrown in jail rather than live and be free.

Thus it may be said that a just judge will simply the hanging of a murderer, but in a qualified manner he would will him to live … Such a qualified will may be called a willingness rather than an absolute will.  Thus it is clear that whatever God simply wills takes place; although what He wills antecedently may not take place. (ST I.19.6.ad.1).

While Damascene refers to “antecedent will” and “consequent will,” Aquinas prefers to speak of the former as “willingness” and the latter as “simple will.”  Willingness is what God wills with all things being “equal” (as it were), apart from circumstantial suppositions.  Simple will is God’s final will once all circumstantial considerations are in view.  Not that Aquinas would imagine that there is ever a time when God’s brain fails to consider something with all its attendant circumstances (God is outside of time and doesn’t have a brain).  Rather, this language is metaphorical and taken from human speech.  God wills that all be saved in the same way that a judge wills all men to be free and live, although given good reason, this will may be reversed.  But this does not destroy the “good will” of the judge; therefore, neither should it cause us to call into question God’s good will to those who are damned.

It is indeed striking to me that I had only been exposed to this kind of reasoning through the Calvinist tradition, yet here Aquinas is found using the same reasoning.  But my amazement does not stop there, since Aquinas gets his distinctions from St. John of Damascus (Damascene), a Syrian Christian monk and priest († 676-749) venerated as a Saint in both the Catholic Church and in Eastern Orthodoxy.

St. John of Damascus 



  1. Occidental gazing Oriental says:

    It’s interesting that the Apostle’s statement comes within the context of the gathered nation of priests in prayer–the church. And I have heard it said of this passage, by a most simple southern country preacher, that the salvation of all people “requires” the intercession of the saints, otherwise God would have done it himself already.

  2. Good Ol’ country preachers sometimes find a way to tell it like it is! LoL! It does provide a good example of the priesthood of believers as you say.

  3. Drew Avery says:

    Hey, Bradley.

    I’ve been a reader of a bit of your work for a time now after encountering some of your writing on Called to Communion. As a Reformed fellow looking at claims of the Catholic Church and edging ever closer (nervously, I should add), the near equivalence of Thomism and Calvinism (even on some of the inscrutables, as elaborated here: http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/03/calvinian-thomism-providence-conservation-concurrence-in-the-thought-of-john-calvin/)
    with regards to Divine Sovereignty and predestination to salvation is intriguing, and I wonder just how safe a haven Thomism is for the Scripture-convinced Calvinist within the fold of the Roman communion. I’ve been interested in searching through the actual differences (namely that of double predestination, though later standard-bearers of Calvin’s thought seem to shy away from that; do you know of other hallmark differences?), and I noticed that you had the same thoughts come out just today (July 27) on a C2C podcast and subsequently-linked articles. I read the articles, laughed aloud for some reason, sighed, and found my way here to read your piece. I guess I’m just writing to say that I appreciate the way you’re interacting with the material, and I look forward to seeing what conversation follows.

    This post, in particular, was interesting to me in that Aquinas uses the two most frequently-used “Calvinist” answers to the 1 Timothy passage, though I assumed these arose in the Protestant tradition (“all” = all sorts of men; distinctions between the types of wills of God [thinking of Jonathan Edwards and John Piper’s popular explications]). Quite a surprise! It’s clear from Summa, Third Part, Question 48 (I don’t have my Angelic Doctor citing standards down yet, so http://www.newadvent.org/summa/4048.htm) that Aquinas does not hold to a penal substitutionary view of the atonement but rather a satisfaction view, wherein Christ superabundantly satisfies the wrath of God by His sacrifice to atone for the sins of the whole world. Very well. Of course, here enters the sufficient/efficient grace distinction and how this substantially differs from Calvin’s double predestination, which I believe all remains an open question within the Catholic Church. But it seems that he’s just dancing around espousing a limited atonement. Why is it that Aquinas doesn’t go all the way to a limited atonement, though, as he easily could? Does this reflect your earlier post’s hypothesis that Aquinas defers to the Tradition? And what in the world does this mean about the state of righteousness, in Aquinas’ view, for the baptized-but-still-living-may-fall-into-mortal-sin Christian? Are those who will not persevere to salvation ever in the same state of righteousness as those who will? I’m asking you because you’re more conversant with Thomas than I am, and I thereby assume you know everything. Feel free to let any or all of these questions float off into cyberspace.

    Anyhow, the unanswerable is a delight and in the depth of the mystery we find further recognition that God is God and we are not which is cause for great thanksgiving and great praise. Keep writing well! I appreciate your explanations and look forward to reading more from you.

    Peace and hope.

    Drew Avery

  4. Drew Avery says:

    I can’t sleep for Thomism, tonight. I think I found a reply to my state-of-righteousness question in the section on Baptism (Third part, question 69, article 8):

    The effect of Baptism is twofold, the essential effect, and the accidental. The essential effect of Baptism is that for which Baptism was instituted, namely, the begetting of men unto spiritual life. Therefore, since all children are equally disposed to Baptism, because they are baptized not in their own faith, but in that of the Church, they all receive an equal effect in Baptism. Whereas adults, who approach Baptism in their own faith, are not equally disposed to Baptism; for some approach thereto with greater, some with less, devotion. And therefore some receive a greater, some a smaller share of the grace of newness; just as from the same fire, he receives more heat who approaches nearest to it, although the fire, as far as it is concerned, sends forth its heat equally to all.

    But the accidental effect of Baptism, is that to which Baptism is not ordained, but which the Divine power produces miraculously in Baptism: thus on Romans 6:6, “that we may serve sin no longer,” a gloss says: “this is not bestowed in Baptism, save by an ineffable miracle of the Creator, so that the law of sin, which is in our members, be absolutely destroyed.” And such like effects are not equally received by all the baptized, even if they approach with equal devotion: but they are bestowed according to the ordering of Divine providence.


    That second paragraph is a stunner coming from a Catholic. He’s saying right there that in baptism, according to what the Divine Will predestines, all receive forgiveness of sins since we believe in “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins”, but the grace-giving effects are meted out differently. That is a humongously Reformed assertion in my mind, of course here applied to baptism where it would be quite foreign to Calvin et al. But that’s what Jesus says, I guess, about he Spirit coming and going wherever it wills like the wind in John 3. The Spirit blowing without anyone knowing where it came from or was going thwarted baptismal regeneration in my prior, simple understanding of the doctrine. But Aquinas asserts what Jesus does, if I read him aright, that the Spirit is free in its providential work of the Divine Will in baptism just as it was in circumcision of the heart. The true Israel, in an eternal sense, is still Spirit-wrought in the New Covenant, according to Thomas, here, where I thought Catholics were trapped into saying that they knew quite well where the Spirit came from and where it was going: right down the family tree. In the essential sense, they do, but not in the accidental sense which seems to me more of a sanctifying work unto salvation than initial inclusion in the spiritual life. Providence, providence.

    Sorry for using your comment box as a diary. I’ll get one. But I’d like to hear from you if you care to share.


  5. Occidental gazing Oriental says:

    Too often I’m inclined to think that Thomas Aquinas would have been wise to listen to men such as Elder Arsenie Papacioc (who reposed in the Lord this week): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FpJY6S0A4c

    The Schoolmen loved the reasoning of Aquinas and of course ran with it first within the Catholic tradition and then the Protestant.

    And perhaps at the end of his short life he did come to a truer vision of the Lord. For it has been stated that Aquinas stopped work on his Summa after celebrating Mass on December 6, 1273. When asked why he stopped writing, he replied, “I cannot go on…. All that I have written seems to me like so much straw compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.” He died March 7, 1274, at the age of 49.

  6. Drew,

    It a true pleasure to have you here on the blog! Thanks for all your kind comments! (I felt sorry for you this morning when I read them, wondering how much sleep you would be getting before you had to be up for work this morning; or for school, or whatever you would have to be up for). This is a subject I am currently pursuing, but one for which I do not yet have the complete answers I want. I’m just continuing to read the Summa (and other works of Aquinas also). My biggest questions revolve around grace, justification, and love (and only predestination as a subcategory of grace, and as related to love).

    I have a professor and friend Matthew Levering who recently published a book on the question of predestination for a Catholic perspective (and he is something of a Thomist scholar also): http://www.amazon.com/Predestination-Biblical-Theological-Matthew-Levering/dp/0199604525/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1311861358&sr=8-1

    You ask, “I wonder just how safe a haven Thomism is for the Scripture-convinced Calvinist within the fold of the Roman communion.”

    Well … I’m not sure yet, but so far Aquinas has been more than satisfying. I am slow to make major judgment calls like that, and unlike Calvin, you can’t just read one place in Thomas and get all the answers to a particular topic. Like the Bible, you kind have the “read the whole thing” before you draw your conclusions (and perhaps we might even say this process never ends!).

    Thomas’s theology is certainly rich, interesting, deft, and grace centered. A big light came on for me when I realized that Augustine (who is the theologian of grace) had a grace-centered merit theology (I realize this may initially seem like a contradiction to Reformed thinkers). Aquinas follows Augustine’s lead on both grace and merit theology. Merit, for Aquinas, is simply “reward” (or “reason of reward”). By this definition, all Reformed people have a merit theology inasmuch as they have a theology about eternal reward (e.g. reward that goes beyond just “getting into heaven” and some people get greater rewards than others, and the content of the reward is God himself, etc.). The same things Aquinas says about merit, Reformed theologians (such as Jonathan Edwards, for example) say in so many words in their theology of eternal reward. Neither Augustine, nor Aquinas, nor Edwards, think that because different people have different degrees of reward based on “their own righteousness,” that it follows that such righteousness does not come from God and is not utterly and completely by infallible and efficacious grace. Hope that makes sense.

    Finally, I don’t trust most interpreters of Aquinas. Theologians tend to “use” him before they really understand him, eager to put his authority behind their own theology.

    Thanks for stopping by and for your interaction on this. Hope you got some sleep last night! 🙂


  7. Occidental,

    Thanks again for your thoughts!

    It is right and well to be cautious of trying to “fit the sea into the sandpit.” Particularly when it comes to questions such as predestination, I think all to often people want to speculate and “get around” the apostolic tradition on this teaching, rather than simply receive it and let the apostolic tradition (i.e. the Apostle Paul himself) set the boundaries of mystery. In other words, just receive what the Apostle said in humility rather than speculating endlessly about free will, etc.

    On the other hand, I think we must be honest and admit that this teaching does not come from the speculation of man, but from the Apostolic teaching of Paul. Paul does just use the word “predestination” and let us to speculate about what he meant. He defends a certain understanding of election in Romans 9 and adds lots of color to this also in Ephesian. It is for this reason the Christian Tradition has sought to understand what he said. I leave room for mystery, but I also seek to “understand” the intention of the Apostle. I think these two things will always remain in tension. We must seek to “understand” the apostolic witness, but we must leave room for mystery. I think only once we understand the Holy Spirit’s intention behind the teaching about predestination through the Apostle’s writings will we come to fully appreciate the mystery, and to set boundaries on speculation.


  8. brent says:


    I wanted to know if I could use your comment about sola scriptura from the combox over at CTC for a series I’m starting called “Myth Busters”. The series is going to focus on certain doctrines that are claimed to discredit the Catholic faith. Feel free to email me directly if you like.

    Peace in Christ,


  9. Blake says:

    Interesting discussion. I am a Catholic with a background in Thomism, though I don’t know as much about Calvinism or Reformed Theology as I’d like to. (There is so much to read and so little time at least with little kids.) In any event, I agree that with St. Thomas, being as clear as he is, there is still room for discussion as regards a number of topics including predestination. I recently learned that two Dominican theologians, Garrigou-Lagrange and Marin-Sola, had a debate over a related issue regarding God’s Permission of Sin. Michael Torre has written a work defending Marin-Sola’s position:


    Just throwing it out there since it might help with understanding St. Thomas’s teaching and/or be a nice complement to Dr. Levering’s new book (excited to here about it).

    I would recommend exploring St. Thomas’s philosophical framework (for lack of a better term) by perusing John Oesterle’s “Logic: The Art of Defining and Reasoning” or Vincent Smith’s “The Elements of Logic” for logic. And I would recommend Vincent Smith’s “A General Science of Nature” or William Wallace’s “The Modelling of Nature” (for philosophy of nature and man). They are secondary sources, but reliable IMO. “The Division and Methods of the Sciences” (from his commentary on Boethius’s De Trinitate) might also be helpful. They’re far removed from your current topic, but would probably be of great assistance reading St. Thomas.

    I sincerely hope and pray that reading the Angelic Doctor leads you into the Church.

    Best wishes,

  10. Blake,

    Thanks for the recommendations! I am always looking for good sources on Thomas. I hope to have time someday to study in detail Aquinas’s doctrine of predestination. When I do, I will come back to these sources you mention on the topic. In the meantime, I am writing a research paper on Thomistic Charity and have my hands full.

    I take your sincere hope for me to be lead into the Church (by which I assume you mean Catholic Church) as an act of Charity.



  11. […] Aquinas the Calvinist (via Eastern Orthodoxy?) (theophilogue.wordpress.com) […]

  12. And yet John of Damascus doesn’t hold to an Augustinian view of predestination. I recently saw your remarks over at CTC and in the main I agree with your gloss on Thomas over against Bryan Cross’.

    That said, bryan seems to wish to find a place for the Alternative possibilities condition in Thomas as somehow essential for human freedom. Yet given what Thomas writes in De Malo and other places, a plurality of options is not essential to freedom. So if the movement of the will under grace leaves room for resistance it isn’t because choosing otherwise for Thomas is essential to free will.

  13. Perry,

    Welcome to T h e o • p h i l o g u e! Thanks for your comments!

    I haven’t researched freedom of the will in Aquinas as an isolated area of study, but from what I read in Aquinas seems faithful to the grace dynamics the Augustinianism that are most cherished by Calvinists. Thomistic scholars whom I have read agree that Thomas’s view of human freedom is not amount to what I think you mean by “alternative possibilities” as essential to human freedom. Some of these Thomists have a libertarian view of human freedom and still want to categorize Thomas as having a “libertarian” view of human freedom also, which I think may be a misleading label for what Thomas teaches, although I understand the reasoning behind this label (I bumped into this discussion while researching what Aquinas teaches about Love and Charity, see pages 18-27 of “Love and Charity in Thomas Aquinas” from my PDF Catalogue).

    As is often true of Aquinas, I’m not sure he fits easily into any of our most convenient labels (including the category “Calvinist” although I use it to make a point when it comes to his doctrine of predestination and “infallible” grace) yet I find that what incenses anti-Calvinism is often the non-libertarian view of human freedom many Calvinists explicitly or implicitly hold. Because Aquinas in many cases provides such a brilliant synthesis of disparate theological and philosophical traditions by granting as much as possible to both sides, this (I think) makes his position vulnerable to mischaracterization, since this is much easier to do than understand the complex logic of negotiation in his methodology. When it comes to free will, it’s as if he is negotiating between Augustine’s ideas of how grace works and Aristotle’s idea of how human freedom works. Understanding the traditions he is trying to negotiate is often very helpful for interpreting his own position, but this involves familiarizing oneself with such a large body of literature from the Catholic and Orthodox Traditions, it is a daunting task indeed.

    What is never in doubt, however, among the Thomists, is that whatever Aquinas taught on human freedom and grace was brilliant. LoL! On this most of us can agree.

    I am delighted to hear your thoughts on this!


  14. johnkonnor72 says:

    …thanks had to answer on a chat and i found your blog in a pinch this helped…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow T h e o • p h i l o g u e on WordPress.com
%d bloggers like this: