Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) on predestination, grace and free will – in comparison to the Canons of Dort

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Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) is widely considered the preeminent theologian of the Middle Ages, and is especially important in the Roman Catholic tradition. Here I want us to look briefly at his doctrine of predestination, and especially the relationship between grace and free will, and then compare it to the Reformed position as expounded in the Canons of Dort.

Here is a good summary regarding what Thomas Aquinas taught regarding predestination and free will:

“Now there is no distinction between what flows from free will, and what is of predestination . . . that which flows from free-will is also of predestination. . . .Thus we might say that God pre-ordained to give glory on account of merit, and that He pre-ordained to give grace to merit glory. . . . it is impossible that the whole of the effect of predestination in general should have any cause as coming from us; because whatsoever is in man disposing him towards salvation, is all included under the effect of predestination; even the preparation for grace.”

– Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), Summa Theologica, I. Q.23, A.5

Thomas maintains both God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. Furthermore, he maintains that they operate “savingly” at the same time (i.e., chronologically). God predetermines all things, but He also predetermines the causes of which all things are an effect. Because God’s causality works within created nature, He can cause effects via free will choices. Divine causation is far more transcendent than simply being powerful enough to cause without (or against) man’s will, and it is not simply that He “foreknows” effects. Even free will choices are sovereignly caused by God, but they are caused as free choices.

Thomas on grace and free will:

“If we speak of grace as it signifies a help from God to move us to good, no preparation is required on man’s part, . . . but rather, every preparation in man must be by the help of God moving the soul to good. And thus even the good movement of the free-will, whereby anyone is prepared for receiving the gift of grace is an act of the free-will moved by God.”

– Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), Summa Theologica, II.I, Q.112, A.2

You can see from this passage that the more strict Reformed differentiation between “monergism” and “synergism” isn’t subtle enough to describe Aquinas’s view. This is not “common grace,” but neither is it “saving grace” if one equates that with regeneration. So according to Thomas, the relationship between God’s and man’s will is “monergistic” (operative) in the sense that grace comes from God alone prior to any movement on man’s part, yet it is truly “synergistic” (cooperative) in that God’s grace works in concert with man’s free will choices (and is, in fact, their cause).

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Thus the view of Thomas, evidently, differs from the Reformed view, as is here expounded in the Canons of Dort, III/IV. 11-14:

“Article 11: The Holy Spirit’s Work in Conversion

Moreover, when God carries out this good pleasure in his chosen ones, or works true conversion in them, he not only sees to it that the gospel is proclaimed to them outwardly, and enlightens their minds powerfully by the Holy Spirit so that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God, but, by the effective operation of the same regenerating Spirit, he also penetrates into the inmost being of man, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised. He infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant; he activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds.

Article 12: Regeneration a Supernatural Work

And this is the regeneration, the new creation, the raising from the dead, and the making alive so clearly proclaimed in the Scriptures, which God works in us without our help. But this certainly does not happen only by outward teaching, by moral persuasion, or by such a way of working that, after God has done his work, it remains in man’s power whether or not to be reborn or converted. Rather, it is an entirely supernatural work, one that is at the same time most powerful and most pleasing, a marvelous, hidden, and inexpressible work, which is not lesser than or inferior in power to that of creation or of raising the dead, as Scripture (inspired by the author of this work) teaches. As a result, all those in whose hearts God works in this marvelous way are certainly, unfailingly, and effectively reborn and do actually believe. And then the will, now renewed, is not only activated and motivated by God but in being activated by God is also itself active. For this reason, man himself, by that grace which he has received, is also rightly said to believe and to repent.

Article 13: The Incomprehensible Way of Regeneration

In this life believers cannot fully understand the way this work occurs; meanwhile, they rest content with knowing and experiencing that by this grace of God they do believe with the heart and love their Savior.

Article 14: The Way God Gives Faith

In this way, therefore, faith is a gift of God, not in the sense that it is offered by God for man to choose, but that it is in actual fact bestowed on man, breathed and infused into him. Nor is it a gift in the sense that God bestows only the potential to believe, but then awaits assent–the act of believing–from man’s choice; rather, it is a gift in the sense that he who works both willing and acting and, indeed, works all things in all people produces in man both the will to believe and the belief itself.”

Therefore we see that, whereas with Thomas Aquinas monergism (grace) and synergism (free will) are in concert, the Reformed position is categorically monergistic: Man does indeed “choose” or “come to” Christ as an act of the will, but only after God has first sovereignly liberated man’s will, which was formerly in bondage to sin and thus had a moral disability which prevented the will from choosing, or coming to Christ. And this is the Reformed doctrine of regeneration, where God sovereignly gives new life (rebirth) to a previously spiritually dead person, through the work of the Holy Spirit. Faith (i.e. a true assent of the will to the Gospel) thus can only and does only follow after regeneration has sovereignly been wrought by the Spirit, and man is thus justified by faith (the instrument) in Jesus Christ (the Object of faith) and his imputed righteousness, which renders us pure and spotless before the Father.