Sin and Its Yucky Implications for What It Means to Be Human: Engaging with Thomas Aquinas and John Webster

What is sin, and how does it shape what it means to be a human being? Throughout the rest of this post we will mostly engage with the latter part of my question, and leave the former part to the side for a later date.

aquinasAccording to Thomas Aquinas, sin is a ‘wounding of nature’, and by nature he is referring to ‘reason’ or the ‘intellect’ as definitive for what it means to be human at its very ‘essence.’ Note:

So three things oppose virtue: sin (or misdeeds), evil (the opposite of goodness), and vice (disposition unbefitting to one’s nature). Whatever accords with reason is humanly good, whatever goes against reason is humanly bad. Human virtue that makes men and their deeds good befits human nature by befitting reason, whilst vice goes against man’s nature by going against reason. Man’s nature is twofold: he lives by his reason and he lives by his senses. It is through sensing that he learns to reason, but many men never mature beyond the level of sense. Vice and sin result from our following of sense-nature against our rational nature. And going against human rational nature is going against eternal law.[1]

Here we see Thomas elevating reason in ways that, theoanthropologically becomes definitive for what it means to be human. For Thomas he still works within a domain where reason is understood to be something from God, but in his elevating of reason/intellect as the defining feature of what it means to be human, as the defining standard by which we might judge what is ‘good’ or not, he engages in a very modern way of conceiving of what it means to be human, and how we determine what is good and what is not.

Ironically, John Webster takes this modern understanding of ‘reason’ and what it means to be human and moral (thus engaging with sin, holiness, etc.) to task. I say ironically, because as of late Webster has been becoming increasingly Thomist in the way he thinks and does theology. But I believe his critique of the ‘modern’ understanding of what it means to be human and moral could apply at some level to Thomas Aquinas’ usage of ‘reason’ as something that remains something that is somewhat intact and only ‘wounded’[2] even after the fall of humanity into sin. Here is Webster:

… Modernity has characteristically regarded reason as a ‘natural’ faculty – a standard, unvarying and foundational feature of humankind, a basic human capacity or skill. As a natural faculty, reason is, crucially, not involved in the drama of God’s saving work; it is not fallen, and so requires neither to be judged nor to be reconciled nor to be sanctified. Reason simply is; it is humankind in its intellectual nature. Consequently, ‘natural’ reason has been regarded as ‘transcendent’ reason. Reason stands apart from or above all possible convictions, all particular, historical forms of life, observing them and judging them from a distance. Reason does not participate in history but makes judgements about history; it is a transcendent and sovereign intellectual legislator, and as such answerable to none but itself.[3]

The reason I suggest that Webster’s critique of ‘reason’ as a ‘natural’ and definitive capacity of what it means to be human might not only apply to ‘modern’ thinking but also to Thomas Aquinas is because Thomas holds out the idea that ‘reason’ remains only tarnished and incomplete as a result of the ‘fall’, but not necessarily destroyed and polluted to the point of incapacity. For Thomas the mind/intellect or reason remains intact, as it must (since it serves as definitive for what it means to be human), thus only need of restorative ‘medicine’ or grace in order to restore it to full functionability before God; in order for humans to truly flourish at full capacity as good moral beings ‘perfected by the grace of God.’ Thomas writes:

Now this nature is disordered, however, man falls short even of the goodness natural to him, and cannot wholly achieve it by his own natural abilities. Particular good actions he can still perform in virtue of his nature (building houses, planting vineyards and the like); but he falls short of the total goodness suited to his nature. He is like a sick man able to make certain movements by himself, but unable to move like a man in perfect health until he has had medicine to heal him.[4]

Does this abide well with what we see in the Bible, or in the cross of Jesus Christ? No. When Jesus died he took the whole person, the whole humanity in his humanity to the cross and condemned it; the Apostle Paul writes:

For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, …[5]

Humanity did not just need ‘medicine’, and ‘nature’ did not just need to be ‘perfected by grace’ (a favorite Thomas anecdote); humanity (inclusive of reason/mind/intellect) needed to be put to death, not simply healed, it needed to be recreated (ontically at its very essential being) and resurrected anew, afresh in the vicarious humanity of Christ.

And it is this that John Webster understands well in regard to the modern conception of reason as a ‘natural’ faculty, and it is what I am not only agreeing with Webster on, but extrapolating and applying his insight to the theoanthropology and theology in general of Thomas Aquinas. Webster continues to write that,

Such conceptions of reason have become so deeply embedded in modern culture and its most prestigious intellectual institutions that they are scarcely visible to us. But for the Christian confession, these conceptions are disordered. Above all, they are disordered because they extract reason and its operations from the economy of God’s dealings with his creatures. To think of reason as ‘natural’ and ‘transcendent’ in this way  is, by the standard of the Christian confession, corrupt, because it isolates reason from the work of God as creator, reconciler and perfector. Once reason is thought of as ‘natural’ rather than as ‘created’ (or, to put it differently, once the category of ‘the created’ is collapsed into that of ‘the natural’), then reason’s contingency is set aside, and its sufficiency is exalted in detachment from the divine gift of truth. Or again, when reason is expounded as a natural competency, then it is no longer understood as fallen and in need of reconciliation to God. Again, when reason is considered as a human capacity for transcendence, then reason’s continual dependence on the vivifying Spirit is laid to one side, for natural reason does not need to be made holy.

Christian theology, however, must beg to differ. It must beg to differ because the confession of the gospel by which theology governs its life requires it to say that humankind in its entirety, including reason, is enclosed within the history of sin and reconciliation. The history of sin and its overcoming by the grace of God concerns the remaking of humankind as a whole, not simply of what we identify restrictively as its ‘spiritual’ aspect. And so reason, no less than anything else, stands under the divine requirement that it be holy to the Lord its God.[6]

As Thomas Torrance often states ‘we need grace all the way down,’ meaning that we are sinners all the way down, polluted in our whole being. Webster is surely right in his judgment of modern understandings of reason and ‘natural’ capacities. But I can’t help but think that this kind of ‘Thomist Intellectualist’ anthropology we have been visiting hasn’t had a large role in providing for this kind of Western/modern posture and understanding of reason and humanity. Thomas Aquinas, even if he is more sacrosanct in his own self-understanding and mode as the Angelic Doctor leaves the door ajar for the modern conception of humanity and reason as a definitive and ‘transcendent’ reality, even within its own contingent and created reality.


Whether or not my extrapolations are correct it is clear, at least for us Christians, as Webster has been underscoring for us, that we need to be recreated. That we need to become brand new through and through; that we need somebody outside of us to reach down deep inside of our very souls, our very beings and recreate them. We do not simply need medicine, nor do we need to be perfected by grace and elevated to our highest state as created persons. We need something and someOne more. That should be the takeaway of this.

[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae A Concise Translation, ed. Timothy McDermott (Westiminster: Christian Classics, 1989), 249.

[2] See Ibid., 270-71: ‘In the original integrated state of man reason controlled our lower powers perfectly and God perfected the reason subordinated to him. This state was lost to us by Adam’s sin, and the resulting lack of order among the powers of our soul that incline us to virtue we call a wounding of nature. Ignorance is a wound in reason’s response to truth, wickedness in will’s response to good; weakness wounds the response of our aggressive emotions to challenge and difficulty, and disordered desire our affections’ reasonable and balanced response to pleasure. All sins inflict these four wounds blunting reason’s practical sense, hardening the will against good, increasing the difficulty of acting well and inflaming desire.’

[3] John Webster, Holiness (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), Loc. 111, 116 Kindle edition.

[4] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae A Concise Translation, 308.

[5] Romans 8.3, NKJV.

[6] John Webster, Holiness, Loc. 116, 121, 125.