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Thomas Aquinas on Operating, Co-Operating, and Prevenient Grace :: Summa Theologica

I have summarized articles three and four of question 111 in the prima secunda of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica: ”Of the Division of Grace.”   All quotations from the Summa are taken from the English Translation, Summa Theologica, trans. the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 5 vols., rev. ed. 1948; repr., Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1981.

Grace Is Fittingly Divided Into Operating and Co-Operating Grace

IN SUM: Operating grace refers to God’s gracious work in a sinner, i.e. God’s gracious “operating.”  Co-operating grace is the human effect of God’s operating, namely, the human will moving the person unto meritorious works.  Operating grace always comes first, for all co-operating grace is the effect of God’s operating grace.  A person is justified by operating grace, and subsequently consents with this operating grace as a result of such grace.

Grace can refer to God’s moving of the human to will and to act, or it can refer to God’s bestowal of a habitual gift (the gift of a new disposition which then becomes the principle of meritorious works).  Each of these graces can be thought of in terms of operating grace and also co-operating grace.

First, with regard to God’s moving of the human to will and to act, “the operation of an effect is not attributed to the thing moved but to the mover” (I-II.111.2).  Thus, since the human is moved but does not do the moving, this kind of grace is called operating grace, since God is the only one operating.  However, this operating grace causes an effect in the human whereby by the human mind, after being moved, also moves (i.e. moves the other powers—i.e. the will begins to will the good, which moves the person to act exteriorly, etc.].  Thus there is an interior act of the will (ceasing to will evil and beginning to will the good) and also an exterior act subsequently commanded by the will.  In these operations of the human (both interior and exterior) God strengthens the will interiorly “so as to attain the act” and also grants the outward capability of the exterior operation.  Since the human will is also operating as the effect of God’s operating, this kind of grace is called co-operating grace. Augustine says: “He operates that we may will; and when we will, He co-operates that we may be perfect.” (I-II.111.2).

Second, with regard to God’s bestowal of a habitual gift, “inasmuch as this gift heals and justifies the soul, or makes it pleasing to God, is called operating grace; but inasmuch as it is the principle of meritorious works, which spring from the free-will, it is called co-operating grace.” (I-II.111.2)

However, such free will and such works are the effect of God’s operating grace.  “God does not justify us without ourselves,” as Augustine says: “He Who created thee without thyself, will not justify thee without thyself.”  “Whilst we are being justified we consent to God’s justification (justitiae) by a movement of our free-will.  Nevertheless this movement is not the cause of grace, but the effect; hence the whole operation pertains to grace.” (I-II.111.2.ad2).

“Operating and co-operating grace are the same grace” only “they are distinguished by their different effects.”  (111.2.ad.4).

111.3 Grace is Fittingly Divided into Prevenient and Subsequent Grace

IN SUM: Grace refers to the temporal effect of God’s eternal love.  Prevenient grace refers to grace that causes a subsequent effect, subsequent grace refers to this effect inasmuch as it is an effect of the prevenient grace.

“God’s grace is the outcome of His mercy” (I-II.111.3, cf. Ps 59:10; 23:6)

“There are five effects of grace in us:” (I-II.111.3)

  1. to heal the soul
  2. to desire good
  3. to carry into effect the good proposed
  4. to persevere in good
  5. to reach glory

“Grace, inasmuch as it causes the first effect in us, is called prevenient with respect to the second, and inasmuch as it causes the second, it is called subsequent with respect to the first effect.” (I-II.111.3)  Likewise, from #2 on, each grace can be considered both prevenient to the next and subsequent to the previous.

While God’s love is eternal, grace refers to a temporal effect of this love. (I-II.111.3.ad.1)

This division does not divide grace with regard to its essence but only with regard to its effects (as with operating and co-operating grace).  “For even the charity of earth is not voided in heaven.” (I-II.111.3.ad.2)

Through prevenient grace “we are presently justified” (I-II.111.3.ad.2).

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