Aquinas’ Views of the Sacraments and Scripture

Last week, I wrote a few words about the theological system of Thomas Aquinas. I received a number of very good responses from both ministers and laymen. One respondent, in particular, Dr. Henry Krabbendam, sent a paper he wrote on Aquinas that was very enlightening. I have not yet had a chance to read it in detail, but he has done even more research on Aquinas than I have. He wrote me that the theology of Aquinas turns God into the “Unnamable” and is essentially the same as Barthianism. I have no doubt that he is right. Another friend was dismayed that so many Reformed ministers try to combine the system of Thomas Aquinas with reformed orthodoxy. In many ways, this is the problem of reformed scholasticism. Scholasticism before the Reformation was attempting to make fine distinctions about everything. The result was that the Scripture was nuanced into meaninglessness. Thus, God was also nuanced into meaninglessness. The scholastic system of nuanced definitions was rejected by the first generation Reformers. Yet, scholasticism found its way back into even the Protestant and Reformed churches through the second and third generation Reformers who adopted scholastic methods in their theological writings. In some ways, that was like the Protestant counter to the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Of course, the Catholic Counter-Reformation was the Catholic Church’s attempt to answer the reformation. That answer by the Catholics was the Council of Trent document wherein they relied heavily on Thomas Aquinas. Then, the second and third generation Reformers made their response, but it was a response in some respects back towards Catholicism. I think that is why some modern-day reformed scholars will write such non-sense as: ‘Thomas Aquinas is helpful for his minute distinctions on theology’. Actually, that is the problem with Aquinas.       

If I ever write a book on Aquinas I might title it, Thomas Aquinas: the Theologian Behind the Mask. Yet, it was actually not Aquinas who hid his positions behind a mask. No indeed. His Summa Theologica contains millions of words for everyone so inclined to read. Nor does Catholicism throw a mask over Aquinas. They proudly state that the Summa of Aquinas was placed in the middle of the Council of Trent and daily consulted on all points of theology. Indeed, Trent can be described as Thomism come into its own. The Council of Trent’s positions are a summary of the theology of Aquinas. Rather, it is only Protestants who put the mask on Aquinas. They do so by quoting the supposed good things in the Summa while ignoring the errors and even heresies. In other words, Protestants take the bait and ignore the hook. For some reason, Aquinas is Protestantism’s favorite Schoolman. In that way, too many Protestants are beguiled into all the errors of Romanism. The Federal Vision heresy is just one movement that derived its inspiration from Aquinas.  

There are two great truths about Aquinas that we must understand. First, Aquinas was the leading exponent, in the whole history of the church, of the sacramental heresies that are the hallmark of the Council of Trent. The Roman Catholic Church adopted its position on the sacraments at the Council of Vienne in 1311-2, thirty-seven years after Aquinas died. Pelagius, Hugo de St. Victor, Bonaventure, Alexander of Hales, Duns Scotus, and others held to the same sacramental errors, but it was the Summa that gave the clearest expression and defense of that position. When the Council of Vienne convened it was still an open question in the Church whether or not infants are automatically conferred grace in their baptism. Yet, that Council adopted the hereitical position of Aquinas and others that “the sacraments justify and confer grace ex opere operato.” From that point on, the Catholic Church was officially committed to the view that the sacraments contain and confer grace in and of themselves. Such an error is neither small nor irrelevant. As Calvin wrote about it:

Of a certainty it is diabolical. For in promising a righteousness apart from faith, it hurls the soul headlong to destruction. Secondly, because it draws the cause of righteousness from the sacraments, it binds men’s pitiable minds (of themselves more than enough inclined to earth) in this superstition, so that they repose in the appearance of a physical thing rather than God Himself.[i]

Whatever Aquinas says in one place concerning election, regeneration, justification, the bestowal of the Holy Spirit, adoption, sanctification, and other graces, must be considered with the realization that he holds heretical views on the sacraments. In one part of the Summa, you can read what Aquinas says about justification, but then you have to go to another part and see what he says about justification through the sacrament of baptism. All parts of the Summa must be carefully considered in order to have a full understanding of the teaching of Aquinas. Are we justified by faith in Christ alone (Sola Fide) or are we justified through the grace conferred in baptism? Aquinas hedges concerning the first part of that question and unequivocally affirms the second part of it. Yet, Aquinas’ view of sacramental justification is not his only error on the subject. For instance, he trumpeted the position on justification that was given creedal form by the Council of Trent in the following quote:

I answer that, The entire justification of the ungodly consists as to its origin in the infusion of grace. For it is by gracethat free-will is moved and sin is remitted. Now the infusion of grace takes place in an instant and without succession.[ii]

Justification by the infusion of grace is the error/heresy of the Council of Trent and the Roman Catholic Church. Protestants certainly believe that there is an infusion of grace in regeneration, but that grace does not justify a sinner. Tying justification to the infusion of grace is, at the very least, a confusion of regeneration and sanctification with justification. Trent rightly picked up on Aquinas’ teaching about sacramental grace when they stated that the instrumental cause of justification is the sacrament of baptism. Protestants have always held that faith—not the sacrament of baptism—is the instrumental cause of justification. Of course, the sacramental errors of Aquinas made justification a result of baptism. Most of the Protestant advocates of reading Aquinas gloss over his sacramental views that are so fundamental to his whole system. 

Second, some people assert that Aquinas held to Sola Scriptura and quote from a section of the Summa in an effort to prove it. Aquinas most certainly did not hold to the Protestant version of Sola Scriptura because he believed that the revelation in Scripture was only part of what was necessary for our salvation. As he wrote:

It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a doctrine founded on revelation, as well as the philosophical sciences discovered by human reason.[iii]

Thus, Aquinas placed the human reason of the philosophers on the same level as the Scripture. Then, Aquinas held to a different canon of Scripture which included the Apocryphal books rightly rejected by the Reformers. Moreover, those Apocryphal books teach things that contradict the doctrine of salvation in the Protestant Bible. Finally, Aquinas’ methodology in the Summa undermines the idea that he held to Sola Scriptura. His practice was to consider various theological questions, such as, “Whether a natural man can fulfill the commandments of the Law by his natural powers, without grace?” He would then set forth several statements on one side of the issue, followed by the various objections to those statements. Then, Aquinas would give his own views on the question at hand. Scripture was almost never quoted first. The ancient philosophers or other Christian writers were referenced first in most cases. It is actually common for Aquinas to never even refer to Scripture. For instance the question in the middle of this paragraph was answered by Aquinas partly in this manner:

On the second point: what we can do by means of divine help is not absolutely impossible for us. As the philosopher says: “what we can do through our friends, we can in a sense do ourselves” (3 Ethics 3). Hieronymus (Pelagius) accordingly confesses, in the passage quoted, that “our will is free enough to allow us to say that we always need God’s help.”[iv]   

That statement by Pelagius about man’s free will is actually the very opposite of what the Scripture teaches concerning man’s will. Natural men do not “say that we always need God’s help.” Every person by nature believes just the opposite. The natural man believes that he can get along very well without God. He is so blinded by sin that he cannot even see what his problem is. Thus, Aquinas agrees with the false understanding of grace by Pelagius on this question. Aquinas also makes no reference to Scripture in his answers in the whole section about grace. Scripture is only necessary for Aquinas when he feels that natural reason is insufficient. In Escape from Reason, Francis Schaeffer puts his finger on the problem with Aquinas’ theology:

In Aquinas’ view the will of man was fallen, but the intellect was not. From this incomplete view of the biblical Fall flowed all the subsequent difficulties. Man’s intellect became autonomous. In one realm man was now independent, autonomous.

            This sphere of the autonomous in Aquinas takes on various forms. One result, for example, was the development of natural theology. In this view, natural theology is a theology that could be pursued independently from the Scriptures.

            From the basis of this autonomous principle, philosophy also became free, and was separated from revelation. Therefore philosophy began to take wings, as it were, and fly off wherever it wished, without relationship to Scriptures. . . Aquinas had opened the way to an autonomous philosophy, and once the movement gained momentum, there was soon a flood.[v]

Dewey Roberts, pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL.

Please send any donations to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540

[i] John T. McNeil, ed., Ford Lewis Battles, trans., John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967), 2:1289. 

[ii] Accessed on December 28, 2016. 

[iii] A. M. Fairweather, trans. and ed., Nature and Grace: Selections from the Suma Theologica of Thomas Aquinas (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), 36. 

[iv] Fairweather, trans. and ed., Nature and Grace: Selections from the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, 145. 

[v] Francis A. Schaeffer, Escape from Reason (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1968), 11-13. 

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