À propos of nothing I would like to spend a bit of time putting forward Thomas Aquinas’ position on the relationship of nature and grace. The goal here is to exonerate Thomas of the charge of Semi-Pelagianism. This is a fairly common accusation protestants raise against the scholastics, and it would not surprise me if there were some pelagians running around in the later 14th or 15th century, but I do not think the charge sticks well against Thomas–not because I have some prior commitment to Thomas being right all the time–just because I don’t think it happens to be true.
We’ve discussed this topic here before. To recapitulate briefly the debate is about the relation of grace and original sin to the freedom of the will.
Pelagianism is the view that “original sin did not taint human nature (which, being created from God, was divine), and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without Divine aid . . . In short, humanity has full control, and thus full responsibility, for its own salvation . . .” Pelagianism was condemned by the Council of Carthage in 418.
Semi-Pelagianism accepts, against the Pelagians, that no one is capable of earning his own salvation and that everyone is born guilty as a result of original sin. However, against Augustine, they hold that the fallen nature retains sufficient integrity to will the beginning of faith (initium fidei) by itself without grace. Free will having started the process, God’s grace then brings it to a completion. Semi-Pelagianism was officially condemned by the Council of Orange in 529, although apparently this council was not well-known at Thomas’s time. At least Thomas does not seem to reference the heresy or its condemnation. Nevertheless, I think it is pretty clear that Thomas’s view on the relation between nature, grace, and the freedom of the will cannot be described as semi-pelagian.
Throughout his treatment of these topics, Thomas is relying upon the distinction between a perfect state of human nature which existed before the fall of Adam and the corrupted state of human nature post-fall. To explain the difference between the two states, let’s look first at Thomas’s understanding of the effects of sin in general.
For Thomas, sin involves a “triple loss”:
Now man incurs a triple loss by sinning, as was clearly shown above, viz. stain, corruption of natural good, and debt of punishment. He incurs a stain, inasmuch as he forfeits the lustre of grace through the deformity of sin. Natural good is corrupted, inasmuch as man’s nature is disordered by man’s will not being subject to God’s; and this order being overthrown, the consequence is that the whole nature of sinful man remains disordered. Lastly, there is the debt of punishment, inasmuch as by sinning man deserves everlasting damnation. (Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, q. 109, a. 8 body).
It isn’t completely clear to me whether Thomas sees a difference in the analysis of the effects of original sin and sins of commission. I’m pretty sure the above analysis at least covers the effect of sins of commission and it seems to fit well also with what little I know about Thomas’s view of original sin. Thomas, at any rate, follows Augustine in believing that infants are born with a liability to punishment even without having committed any sins of their own, which is why unbaptized babies go to (the nice part of) hell.
Now the assertion that Thomas is a Semi-Pelagian would imply that somehow Thomas believes that one can earn one’s own salvation by exercise of free will. This is the legacy of the Reformers critique against the catholic tradition. However note that the paragraph that follows the one quoted above completely rejects that suggestion.
Now it is manifest that none of these three can be restored except by God. For since the lustre of grace springs from the shedding of Divine light, this lustre cannot be brought back, except God sheds His light anew: hence a habitual gift is necessary, and this is the light of grace. Likewise, the order of nature can only be restored, i.e. man’s will can only be subject to God when God draws man’s will to Himself, as stated above (A). So, too, the guilt of eternal punishment can be remitted by God alone, against Whom the offense was committed and Who is man’s Judge. And thus in order that man rise from sin there is required the help of grace, both as regards a habitual gift, and as regards the internal motion of God.” (Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, q. 109, a. 8 body).
According to Thomas even Adam before the fall needed grace (i.e. the infused virtues of faith, hope and love) to will supernatural good. We, in the fallen state, require these virtues first to heal our natures, then also to enable us to do meritorious works. (ST 1a2ae, q. 109, a. 2 body) Adam before the fall could have done the things that the law required and thus fulfilled it’s content without grace, but he could not have done the things that the law required in the proper way (i.e. out of love) without supernatural grace (ibid. a. 4 body) and without supernatural grace one cannot merit eternal life (ibid. a. 5 body). The effect of all of this is to undercut the worry that some protestants might have about Thomas allowing the will some amount of freedom while under the bondage of sin. Thomas does believe that sin doesn’t take away our power of free choice. (Indeed, how would God justly condemn us for sinning if we had no power to do otherwise?) But Thomas is clear that this power by itself–even in the case of Adam before the fall–is not capable of bringing on to salvation.
Now I imagine it is the word “merit” which would annoy most protestants reading Thomas’s account because Thomas does quite clearly speak about “meriting” salvation. However, it is not the case that he believes that a person by exercise of their free will can do enough good works to deserve to go to heaven. Rather, the “merits” we are speaking about are the ones which arise as a response to the work of the Holy Spirit moving us (presumably through the infusion of the theological virtues in baptism and the continual increase in grace through the eucharist).
If, however, we speak of a meritorious work, inasmuch as it proceeds from the grace of the Holy Ghost moving us to life everlasting, it is meritorious of life everlasting condignly. For thus the value of its merit depends upon the power of the Holy Ghost moving us to life everlasting according to Jn. 4:14: “Shall become in him a fount of water springing up into life everlasting.” And the worth of the work depends on the dignity of grace, whereby a man, being made a partaker of the Divine Nature, is adopted as a son of God, to whom the inheritance is due by right of adoption, according to Rom. 8:17: “If sons, heirs also.” (1a2ae, q. 114, a. 4 body).
In other words, Thomas’s position is not that you do good works to become worthy of salvation. Rather by grace one is made worthy as a partaker of the divine nature, in response to which one does meritorious works through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Now, it is clear that Thomas’s view is not the same as Luther’s. There is no notion here of being saved “by faith alone.” Rather, Thomas is actually being more faithful to Augustine in rejecting the idea that one can be saved by faith apart from works. (Cf. my short piece on Augustine’s De fide et operibus here.) I’m not sure that this means that Thomas’s view is really correct, but it seems to me that Thomas’s account is superior to Luther’s at least insofar as it doesn’t posit that disastrous dichotomy between Law and Gospel and it doesn’t make one want to kick the epistle of James out of the canon.
So, in short, I simply don’t see any way to argue that Thomas is a Semi-Pelagian and I think that if protestants would be a bit more patient in trying to tease out exactly what Thomas is getting at (which I admit is quite a chore) there might be something there that they would find helpful in assessing the cogency of their own understandings of salvation, faith, works, and the freedom of the will.