Magazine article The Christian Century

Aquinas for Protestants: What Luther Got Wrong

Magazine article The Christian Century

Aquinas for Protestants: What Luther Got Wrong

Article excerpt

THOMAS AQUINAS has had a long but, on the whole, not very happy history among Protestants. While some early Protestant reformers were well versed in Thomistic theology, Martin Luther was not among them.

Most of Luther's important teachers were disciples of the Franciscan theologian William Ockham. The Occamists taught a theology of grace that tilted in a decidedly Pelagian direction. Pelagianism is theological shorthand for a theology that deemphasizes the role played by grace in human salvation and overemphasizes the role played by human free will. Gabriel Biel, the Occamist theologian Luther knew best, even argued in a burst of anthropological optimism that human beings were able to love God perfectly without the assistance of grace. While Biel admitted that the human intellect and will were fallen, he thought they were nevertheless largely undamaged by sin. He concluded therefore that acts of extraordinary moral heroism, unassisted by grace, merited divine favor. Not surprisingly, Luther found no authorization in St. Paul or St. Augustine for such a rosy view of human nature, and he rejected all Occamist accounts of salvation.

A prominent early-20th-century Roman Catholic historian, Joseph Lortz, agreed with Luther that Biel's theology of grace was thoroughly "uncatholic" and he thought Luther was quite right to protest against it. The problem, from Lortz's perspective, was that Luther seemed unaware of the best Catholic antidote to the Pelagianizing tendencies of Biel--the thought of Thomas Aquinas.

If only Luther had been trained in Thomistic theology, argued Lortz, he would have had at his disposal all the resources he needed to oppose Biel and to do so without drifting into what Catholics regard as heresy. Had Luther studied Aquinas at Cologne rather than the Occamists at Erfurt and Wittenberg, he would have found a better way through his theological crisis and would have avoided the tragedy of the Reformation.

Lortz's thesis was immensely influential but not altogether satisfying. The principal difficulty was that it presupposed a state of affairs that did not exist--namely, that only one Thomas Aquinas was on offer in the 16th century. Actually, there were at least three.

The Dominican theologian John Capreolus (d. 1445) portrayed Aquinas as a thoroughly Augustinian theologian. Whenever readers encountered ambiguous passages in Aquinas that might be interpreted in a less than fully Augustinian way, Capreolus advised them to remember this simple rule: always choose the reading closest to the spirit of St. Augustine. That would uncover the mind of St. Thomas.

Thomas de Vio Cardinal Cajetan (d. 1534)--also a Dominican--was not so sure. He was far more impressed by Aquinas the Aristotelian philosopher. In Cajetan's view, Aquinas, more than any other scholastic thinker, had successfully adapted the vocabulary and categories of Aristotle for Christian use. This was not an easy task, and Cajetan could only admire what Aquinas had achieved. Whereas Capreolus read Thomas as a faithful disciple of Augustine, Cajetan read him as the foremost Christian interpreter of Aristotle.

Biel (d. 1495) offered a third version of Aquinas, this one in complete agreement with the Pelagianizing tendencies of the school of Ockham. When Luther read Biel's account of Thomas's theology, he encountered a theologian whose doctrine of sin and grace differed in no significant way from the Occamist teaching Luther had come to despise.

In short, Lortz misread the situation. The problem was not what Luther did not know, but what he did know. Far from offering Luther resources to combat the Occamist account of sin and grace, the Aquinas that Luther knew reinforced it.

NOR WOULD Luther have been helped by paying closer attention to the Aristotelian Aquinas offered Cajetan. Luther thought that Christian theology d be renewed only by breaking free from Aristotle. The problem with Aristotle from Luther's perspective was not that he believed in the eternity of the world and the mortality of the human soul (which he did), but that his philosophical vocabulary was ill-suited for theological use. …

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