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.