EcumenismReformedTheology & Spirituality

Aquinas, Protestants, and the Book I Wish Was Read More

For we think of a thing, in one sense, when we think of the word that signifies it, and in another sense, when we understand the very thing itself.

-Anselm, Proslogion, IV

Problems with Comparative Studies

I’ve noted in another post the resurgence of interest in Thomas Aquinas and Thomism among Protestants. One ‘type’ or genre of writing that is popular in this resurgence is what I’ll call a comparative approach. This approach asks what Thomas (or Thomists) say about x and how that compares to what a Protestant theologian (or tradition—Lutheran, Reformed, etc.) say about x.

There are legitimate advantages to this side-by-side approach. It allows one to take note of similarities and dissimilarities in modes of expression and argumentation. It can then assist in tracing out lines of departure or development, promote a better understanding of substantial disagreements, and help concretize traditionary, conciliatory, or confessional differences.

But there are also dangers inherent with this kind of approach. Here I want to take note of an especially important danger that carefully needs to be avoided. Speaking to my fellow Protestants, and to put it bluntly: in our haste to get to the comparative portion—in order to better understand our own tradition(s) or modes of expression, formulations, etc.—we (arguably often) simply don’t understand Thomas.[1] This is not only true of those times when we are attempting to critique him, it is also true when we offer positive appraisals of his views.

To get to the heart of my concern, the comparative approach very often terminates in surface level reconstructions or surface level comparisons, and therefore draws surface level conclusions. This has been a theme I’ve explored variously in many of my posts here at CP. One of the most concise ways of putting the matter comes from the pen of the seventeenth century reformed theologian, Richard Baxter:

But the greatest enemy to knowledge of all is men’s studying of names and words, instead of things. Both in sciences and Divinity this hath debased men’s understandings. Men get all the terms of art, and theological definitions, distinctions, axioms, &c. at their fingers end. But to study the nature of things themselves, they are utterly careless. (Emphasis mine)

In a good many of the comparative studies of Thomas and Protestants (particularly Reformed Protestants), what is taken note of are differences and similarities of definitions, distinctions, expressions, etc. But this is to remain in the realm of signs. Proper understanding must push beyond the signs to the nature of things.

Arvin Vos: Pressing Past Appearances

Perhaps an example is of some use here. Arvin Vos’s Aquinas, Calvin, and Contemporary Protestant Thought: A Critique of Protestant Views on the Thought of Thomas Aquinas is now, by academic standards, somewhat ‘old.’ But it is not outdated. In my mind it remains exemplary in terms of its use of a comparative method. It is a book I wish were read more, and more frequently.

Let me take a few examples from the first half of the book, where Vos works through several instances of supposed disagreement between Aquinas and the Reformed tradition (or, rather, Calvin): the notion of faith (ch. 1), implicit faith, and the distinction between formed and unformed faith (ch. 2). His aim is to get “beneath and behind the foreboding framework of Aquinas’s detailed distinctions and placid intellectual formulations” and in doing so he discovers that “there is a spirit [in Aquinas’s theology] many Protestants would, I am convinced, find congenial” (xv).

The Notion of Faith

The first issue Vos addresses is the notion of faith in Calvin and Aquinas. For Calvin, says Vos, faith is ‘a firm and sure knowledge’ (9), and yet is “more than understanding…” (6). That is, the certainty of faith is not grounded upon the level of intellectual comprehension. This side of both the fall and of eternity, our ability to grasp intellectually the truths of God and life is severely limited. If our faith were grounded on the ability to comprehend (note: not simply understand), then our faith could have no assurance. Vos sums up Calvin’s notion:

When we examine Calvin’s explanation of his claim that faith is a firm and certain knowledge we find that he holds that it consists more in assurance than in comprehension, that it is more of the heart than of the mind. While it is not without intellectual content, its content is not comprehended. (9)

Calvin’s definition of faith is often contrasted to Aquinas’ by Protestants, notes Vos. And this is because “at first sight…it appears that Aquinas [takes] a position directly opposed to that of Calvin. [Aquinas] denies that faith is knowledge, whereas Calvin insists that it is knowledge (17-18).

Yet according to Vos, Aquinas’s account needs to be considered more carefully. For Aquinas, faith consists in both ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ acts: belief (inner) and confession (outer) (10).  Belief for Thomas, “is unlike both doubt and opinion because it involves certainty of a sort” (11).  Aquinas makes a distinction between two types of intellectual assent. The first comes with comprehension of an object; the second comes by way of the will—assenting to something upon authority, even though full comprehension of the object has not occurred. For Thomas, Christian faith is of the latter type. Its surety comes from the ‘formal object of faith,’ namely God. Once it is known that the content of the faith is revealed by God, one assents to the content even though the content goes beyond comprehension (10-17). Furthermore, “Since God is the cause of faith, this faith is for Aquinas a supernatural act. He maintains that both what is believed and the power to believe are from God, for they go beyond the capacity of the natural power of the human intellect.” (17)

Therefore, according to Vos, “when we examine Aquinas’s analysis of belief, we find that it has the same character Calvin attributes to the knowledge of faith … For Aquinas faith possesses a firm and sure assent because its assent is rooted not in the intellect but rather in the will.” (17-18). There is therefore no “substantive difference” between Calvin and Aquinas “in their views of the nature of faith” (18), even if there are differences of conceptual analysis and modes of expression.

The Notion of Implicit Faith?

Calvin often inveighed against the ‘schoolmen’s’ notion of implicit faith—a notion Aquinas employs. So perhaps this is a point where the two really do diverge. And yet, as Vos points out, Calvin clearly allowed for ignorance of believers with respect to the faith they profess; the knowledge of faith is more to do with assurance than with comprehension (21). As such, Calvin’s critique of the notion of implicit faith had more to do with an abuse he saw in his own day. It (often enough) produced “an inclination to place more confidence in the church than in God” (22), and could, when abused, promote laxity in the pursuit of growing into a full knowledge of God and his ways.

For Aquinas, argues Vos, the distinction between ‘implicit’ and ‘explicit’ faith is analogous to a person’s knowledge of an arithmetical sum (23). Because the person considering an equation, say, 1367 + 1234 = ?, for the first time knows the principles needed to solve the equation, this person can be said to know implicitly the sum. It is different, though, for the one who has in fact solved the equation (1367 + 1234 =2601), and so explicitly knows the sum.

To put it in the realm of belief, I could ask, ‘Did you believe yesterday that an elephant is larger than a grasshopper?’ You would correctly answer, ‘Yes’ (I assume). But I also assume that none of you actually entertained that question yesterday! Nonetheless, it is not as if yesterday, having not entertained the question, you believed that an elephant is smaller than a grasshopper; or that yesterday, having not entertained the question, you don’t know today whether you knew yesterday that in fact an elephant is larger than a grasshopper. No, you did believe yesterday that an elephant is larger—but implicitly.

Vos points out that, for Aquinas, there are truths of the Christian faith which must be explicitly believed. For example, Thomas believed that “now, in the ‘time of grace’ (i.e. after the revelation of Christ and the fullness of the gospel), the truths of the Trinity and the person and work of Christ—as put forth, for example, in the Creed—must be explicitly believed” (25). That is, Thomas did not think one could simply ‘believe in the church’ in some very vague sense, and that would do the salvific trick. But believing in the Biblically-revealed truths about God and the person and work of Christ, as confessed by the Church throughout the ages, entails that there are other truths one implicitly believes—on the basis of their explicit beliefs—even if they have not entertained consciously those implicit beliefs, or have not fully and consciously worked them out yet.

Here again, Vos argues, there is deeper harmony. Aquinas employs the implicit faith distinction to affirm what Calvin himself affirmed: the truths of the Christian faith often exceed our intellectual grasp, and while believing them, there is often much about them we do not (yet) comprehend.[2]

The Notions of Formed and Unformed Faith

This leads us to yet another distinction that found itself the object of Calvin’s ridicule: that between formed and unformed faith. Calvin again critiqued the ‘schoolmen’ for this distinction and, again, many contemporary Protestants follow his lead here.

The distinction, in Aquinas, is simply meant to convey the difference between ‘complete’ faith and ‘incomplete, or imperfect’ faith (29). “Faith is essentially a habit of the intellect, but whether faith is formed or unformed has to do with its relation to the will, with whether it is molded by charity” (31). The implication of this, one that Thomas explicitly notes, is that it would be possible for one to “believe in God without being roused to love him.” (31). In other words, it would be possible to have a kind of bare intellectual assent to the truth of God and the gospel – what Aquinas would call unformed faith—and it not be faith as a virtue, that is formed by love toward God.

This, avers Vos, seems to be what Calvin objects so strenuously to, for “[Calvin] equates unformed faith with mere intellectual assent” (34), and then argues that this type of assent should not be ‘dignified’ by the term ‘faith’ (34-35). That is, mere intellectual assent is no faith. Still, Vos points out, in his attempt to cover the full range of the biblical use of the terms for ‘faith,’ Calvin does distinguish between “divers forms of faith” in the Bible, and so distinguishes “the ‘one kind of faith’ that is found among the pious from all other kinds” (36). So, Calvin’s objections to unformed faith—that it is no faith at all—when read in the fuller context of his own discussions of faith seem to amount to this: that mere intellectual assent is not saving, or complete saving, faith.

And so, there is again no substantial disagreement between Calvin and Aquinas on this point.

“…with regard to unformed faith, Calvin is concerned to show that it is not really faith in the proper, salvific sense of the biblical term, though there are other biblical uses of the term. With this Aquinas is in full agreement … Both Aquinas and Calvin maintain that there are other states that appear to be very similar to faith. Aquinas categorizes some of these under the category of ‘unformed faith,’ whereas Calvin speaks of ‘divers forms of faith.’ Each is trying to find some order in the variety of usages of the term found in Scripture.” (38).

And on we could go with Vos, as he tackles Reformed and Protestant charges against Thomas in the subjects of the relation of faith and theology, the relation of nature and grace, and epistemology. In all cases, Vos demonstrates two important points: first, many Protestant representations of Thomas are rather misrepresentations; second, when one presses beyond the realm of signs, there is very often harmony between what those very Protestants are trying to protect or articulate and what Thomas too is attempting to articulate.

To borrow a Plantingian formula, I might put the matter this way: Between the Thomist and the Reformed understanding of God and the person and work of Christ, there is superficial conflict but deep concord.


Let me add a note by way of conclusion. There will be readers of Thomas, Calvin, Thomists, and Reformed who will want to quibble with—perhaps even vehemently object to—Vos’s own interpretation of these figures and traditions. My point in this article has not been to defend Vos’s exact interpretations of them. Rather, my article is written as a defense of his approach to comparative studies of Protestants and Thomas, namely, that one cannot terminate those studies simply by comparison of modes of expression, or even of definitions and theological formulae. One must press on past the realm of signs to the realm of things.

Why? It is important not simply for the purposes of historical accuracy (though it is not less than that). It is important not simply for ecumenical purposes (though it is also not less than that). It is most important because, in this activity, one fundamentally aims at wisdom. Pushing beyond the realm of signs in one’s theological education is a difficult task. It requires a kind of asceticism of the mind. It requires patience (with ourselves and others), studiosity, and prayer. May the God who grants liberally and without reproach grant us wisdom. And may we who labor toward it be given to say, I have worked harder than all of them, though not I, but the grace of God in me.


[1] Similar things could be said to my Catholic and Orthodox friends about a variety of historical and theological topics, but I’m here speaking from within Protestantism to Protestants about Thomism. I’ll take it for granted that my warning principally applies more broadly.

[2] To be clear, Vos carefully observes, this is not so much a historical thesis about what Calvin would have argued had he read Aquinas (or read him more carefully): “I find no way of determining the extent to which Calvin would find Aquinas’s [as different from the ‘schoolmen’ of Calvin’s Sorbonne] discussion [of implicit faith] inadequate. Certainly, Aquinas demands that all believers must have some knowledge of the essentials of faith, but whether this would satisfy Calvin is another matter. On the other side, it must be said that Aquinas never defended the sort of implicit faith that Calvin attacks—that is, blind trust in the church.” (26) What it illustrates, rather, is that when one presses beyond the surface to the nature of things, a deeper congruence is discovered.

Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel

Joshua is professor of theology at Yellowstone Theological Institute in Bozeman, MT, where he lives with his wife, Bethanne, and their three kids.

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