Grace Compared and Correlated: classical Reformed theology versus evangelical Calvinist theology

There is a lot of talk nowadays about the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Typically when it is Reformed Protestants the reference to Aquinas’ theology has more to do tommyaquinaswith his Trinitarian theology, and doctrine of God, and less to do with his soteriology. But in a way they are of a piece; how we conceive of God will implicate how we think of salvation, and other theological places downstream from God. In light of that I thought it would be interesting to present something of a portrait of Aquinas’ doctrine of salvation, and then leave that with some suggestive notes.

Steven Ozment, I have found[1], is a trustworthy guide in elucidating the theology of the medieval and early Reformed periods; as such we will refer to his nutshell description of how salvation looks within a Thomist frame. He writes:

It was a traditional teaching of the medieval church, perhaps best formulated by Thomas Aquinas, that a man who freely performed good works in a state of grace cooperated in the attainment of his salvation. Religious life was organized around this premise. Secular living was in this way taken up into the religious life; good works became the sine qua non of saving faith. He who did his moral best within a state of grace received salvation as his just due. In the technical language of the medieval theologian, faith formed by acts of charity (fides caritate formata) received eternal life as full or condign merit (meritum de condign). Entrance into the state of grace was God’s exclusive and special gift, not man’s achievement, and it was the indispensable foundation for man’s moral cooperation. An infusio gratiae preceded every meritorious act. The steps to salvation were:

1 Gratuitous infusion of grace

2 Moral cooperation: doing the best one can with the aid of grace

3 Reward of eternal life as a just due[2]

Bear in mind the flow of how salvation was appropriated in the medieval Thomist mind started with 1) a gratuitous infusion of grace from God (this is also called created grace where grace is thought of as ‘stuff’ the elect receive in order to cooperate with God in the salvation process through), 2) then the elect are ‘enabled’ to cooperate (as just noted) with God, doing good charitable works, with 3) the hope of being rewarded with eternal life.

It might seem pretty clear why contemporary Reformed Protestants don’t get into Thomas Aquinas’ model of salvation as a fruitful place to develop salvation themes, but the irony is, is that they do. Remember as I noted above that how we think of God will flow downstream and implicate everything else; well, it does.

Closer in time to the medieval period (than us) were the Post-Reformed orthodox theologians. These theologians were men who inhabited the 16th and 17th centuries, and they developed the categories and grammar of Reformed theology that many today are resourcing and developing for contemporary consumption; among not only overtly confessionally Reformed fellowships and communions, but also for ‘conservative’ evangelical Christians at large (think of the work and impact of The Gospel Coalition). The Post-Reformed orthodox theologians, interestingly, developed an understanding of grace and salvation that sounds very similar to what we just read about Aquinas’ and the medieval understanding of salvation (within the Papal Roman Catholic context). Ecclesial historian, Richard Muller in his Latin theological dictionary defines how the Post-Reformed orthodox understood grace and salvation this way:

gratia: grace; in Greek, χάρις;  the gracious or benevolent disposition of God toward sinful mankind and, therefore, the divine operation by which the sinful heart and mind are regenerated and the continuing divine power or operation that cleanses, strengthens, and sanctifies the regenerate. The Protestant scholastics distinguish five actus gratiae, or actualizations of grace. (1) Gratia praeveniens, or prevenient grace, is the grace of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon sinners in and through the Word; it must precede repentance. (2)Gratia praeparens is the preparing grace, according to which the Spirit instills in the repentant sinner a full knowledge of his inability and also his desire to accept the promises of the gospel. This is the stage of the life of the sinners that can be termed the praeparatio ad conversionem (q.v.) and that the Lutheran orthodox characterize as a time of terrores conscientiae (q.v.). Both this preparation for conversion and the terrors of conscience draw directly upon the second use of the law, the usus paedagogicus (see usus legis). (3)Gratia operans, or operating grace, is the effective grace of conversion, according to which the Spirit regenerates the will, illuminates the mind, and imparts faith. Operating grace is, therefore, the grace of justification insofar as it creates in man the means, or medium, faith, through which we are justified by grace…. (4) Gratia cooperans, or cooperating grace, is the continuing grace of the Spirit, also termed gratia inhabitans, indwelling grace, which cooperates with and reinforces the regenerate will and intellect in sanctification. Gratia cooperans is the ground of all works and, insofar as it is a new capacity in the believer for the good, it can be called the habitus gratiae, or disposition of grace. Finally, some of the scholastics make a distinction between gratia cooperans and (5)gratia conservans, or conserving, preserving grace, according to which the Spirit enables the believer to persevere in faith. This latter distinction arises most probably out of the distinction betweensanctificatio (q.v.) and perseverantia (q.v.) in the scholastic ordo salutis (q.v.), or order of salvation….[3]

If we had the space it would be interesting to attempt to draw corollaries between the five ‘actualizations of grace’ and the infusion gratiae (infused grace) that we find in Aquinas. I have done further research on this, and the ‘actualizations of grace’ we find in Protestant orthodox theology come from Aquinas, and for Aquinas it comes from Aristotle. Gratia operans or operating grace, gratia cooperans or cooperating grace, and habitus gratiae or disposition of grace all can be found as foundational pieces within Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of salvation; which is ironic, because these are all fundamental components that shape Protestant Reformed orthodox soteriology.

Why is this important? Because how we think of God affects how we think of salvation, and a host of other things downstream. If Protestant theology was an attempt to protest and break from Roman theology, but the Protestant orthodox period ends up sounding once again like the very theology that the magisterial Reformers (i.e. Martin Luther, John Calvin, et al.) were seeking to break away from; wouldn’t it behoove us to critically engage with what we are being fed by contemporary theologians who are giving us theology/soteriology directly informed by theologian’s theology that is shaped by a theological/soteriological framework that might be suspect? In other words, what if the Protestant orthodox period, instead of being an actual reforming project was instead a return to the theology that the early magisterial reformers protested against? What if the early Reformation was “stillbirthed?”[4]

Is it the best way forward for Protestant Christians to rely on Aristotle for funding our conceptions of God and Grace? It seems like many a theologian in the Reformed and evangelical traditions in the 21st century think so. But do we really want a conception of salvation that has us cooperating with God; with a conception then that has a focus towards our good works as indicatives and proofs of our salvation? Do we want a salvation like this that first points us to ourselves, even if in the name of Christ, which only after we observe our good works we are able to reflexively look to Christ our great hope? What will this do, at the least, to our daily walks and Christian spirituality? There is a better way forward.

Ron Frost, my former historical theology professor in seminary, and mentor offers what he calls Affective Theology as an alternative to the Federal Protestant orthodox theology we just sketched and briefly considered. We here at the evangelical Calvinist offer an alternative that comes from a form of Scottish Theology through Thomas Torrance, and then from Karl Barth. These alternatives, different as they are (Frost’s approach is not related to Thomas Torrance or Karl Barth whatsoever), have a focus towards God in Christ that moves beyond the Aristotelian framed theories of salvation offered by the Post Reformed orthodox as well as what we find in contemporary popular theology like what we are currently finding in the theology promulgated by The Gospel Coalition (and other similar groups: i.e. Together 4 the Gospel etc.).

While I don’t talk about this as much as I used to, it is still this reality that motivates me. Barth and Torrance have become welcome voices for me, but there are other alternative voices in the history of ideas (which Frost really taps into, esp. with reference to Puritan theology). Like it or not there is some competition between ideas here; Federal/Covenantal/Confessional Reformed theology (i.e. corollary with Post-Reformed orthodox theology) versus what we in an umbrella term are calling evangelical Calvinism.

More to be said …


[1] Text we used for my Reformation Theology class in seminary.

[2] Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250–1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven&London: Yale University Press, 1980), 233.

[3] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastics Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 129-30.

[4] See Ronald N. Frost, “Aristotle’s ‘Ethics:’ The ‘Real’ Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal 18:2 (1997).


4 thoughts on “Grace Compared and Correlated: classical Reformed theology versus evangelical Calvinist theology

  1. Muller’s definition of grace is in fact very similar to the ways in which Roman theology parses out and distinguishes between various forms of grace, something that Barth strongly attacked due to its impersonalising and compartmentalizing effects.

    I am also reminded of something that W. Travis McMaken dealt with in his book on baptism that for me was extremely illuminating. Without going into all the details, he essentially argues that much of Protestant soteriology has assumed a Thomistic sacramental system and has simply substituted individual faith in the place of ecclesial rites. Thus, whereas in RC salvation accomplished by Christ becomes ‘effective’ when applied to the individual via baptism, Eucharist, etc., much Protestant theology accords to the faith the same role, i.e. salvation becomes ‘effective’ for the individual on condition of said individual’s faith. Different sacrament, but ultimately the same system.

    I wondering, Bobby, about how classic Calvinist views on election come into play here. I understand the Aristotelian/Thomist conceptions of causality and how those factor in, but I am wondering if similarly Thomistic notions of the relation between nature and grace play a role as well. I am currently reading “Theological Science” and TFT makes the point that medieval theology stunted scientific investigation by viewing nature as “impregnated with final causes” such that those causes could simply be read off the face of nature and traced back in logical sequence to their eternal origin. All of this, of course, was undergirded by a static view of the immutability and impassibility of God that legitimized such a process. Would this be akin to the framework that drives the frequent objection mounted by classic Calvinists that since not all will be saved (i.e. nature evincing final causes), then God could not have intended to save all either in decree (election) or in execution (incarnation/atonement)?


  2. Jonathan,

    I read Travis’ book, and I agree with him there.

    That’s an interesting application of Torrance’s critique, I think, Jonathan (in re to election). I doubt classical Calvinists would agree to that; I would think they would simply attribute the “limited” elect to the arbitrary will of God (Eph 1), and his sovereign choice. But I doubt they would want to argue from the bottom up or a posteriori but rather from a priori and metaphysical grounds (i.e. from the absolute decree itself).


  3. Bobby,

    As I think you know, just because classical Calvinists would not agree to the critique does not necessarily mean that it does not stand. It is possible, at least in theory, that the critique could locate a particular element built in to the system that those who hold it are not entirely aware of. It does seem to me that while they might start a priori from the absolute decree and limit election that way, there is still an a posteriori element that is underlying that approach, i.e. the negation of universal salvation that is thus read back into the decree. An exegesis of a passage like Ephesians 1 is of course never a “pure” reading apart from any theological/philosophical underpinnings, and I am wondering if this is one of them. It really shows itself when you begin to speak of a universal atonement and/or Christ-conditioned election, because the moment you posit a universal intent in relation to these things, the classical Calvinist immediately asks: “Then why are not all saved?”. In other words, they see a logical incoherency with the notion of universal atonement coupled with a negation of universal salvation. But is this not, to a certain extent (and regardless of what they might admit), an an example of a posteriori reasoning, starting with the effect (limited salvation) and working back to the causes (limited atonement/election)?

    By the way, I’ve ordered Ozment’s book and am looking forward to digging in.

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  4. Jonathan,

    I of course agree with you. I was just responding to the idea from a classical calvinist perspective; they obviously would disagree. Or maybe they would agree and say: so what! Posts like mine above are actually an old style of post for me, I used to post posts like this all the time (all the time!), and they really got nowhere.

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