Miscellanies on the Thomist Intellectualist Tradition and its Impact on Reformed Theology


Something that I don’t think most Reformed theologians, whether yet budding, or senior are all that concerned with or cognizant of is the role that their respective anthropology plays in their theological prolegomena. I would say that most if not almost all of North American (and Western) Protestant Reformed theologies are funded by thinkers who are committed, in one form or another, to what is called an intellectualist anthropology. The originator of this type of anthropology, for Christian theological consumption, is most prominently, Thomas Aquinas; indeed Norman Fiering, in his index of medievally derived anthropologies, calls Thomas’s anthropology Thomist intellectualist—which would be a general label for anyone who receives Thomas’s intellectualist anthropology after him, in one way or the other. Here is how Aquinas describes the centrality of the ‘intellect’ or reason as definitive for what it means to be human:

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.[1]

For Thomas, the intellect, in a faculty psychology, is the defining component of what it means to be human. As we can see from his Summa Thomas does not believe that, during the fall, the ‘intellect’ was touched[2], instead it is only the ‘disordered desire [of] our affections’ that corrupts the rest of our humanity; as such the mind/intellect becomes central to what it means to be human relative to God as ultimate mind/intellect and Creator.

Ron Frost develops this further, and the impact this type of intellectualist anthropology had on the theology/soteriology of Post Reformed orthodox theologian William Perkins:

… William Perkins was answering the question of how God reaches humanity—the relation of grace to nature—by reengaging Thomas Aquinas’s thirteenth-century cooperative approach to salvation. Aquinas, with Aristotle, believed that morality is determined by the will, so that virtue is gained by making the virtuous choice. In its Christian expression the human will must be engaged in a saving choice to believe. But Aquinas also held, with Augustine, that the will is crippled by sin. Aquinas’s solution was to synthesize the moral axiom of Aristotle and Augustine’s axiom of disability: God places a newly created gift of grace in the souls of the elect that enables the will to operate once again. By this means of gracious enabling the will receives the necessary power to embrace salvation by an act of faith. This enabling “habit of grace” allows a person to make the saving decision, a decision God crowns with merit.

This cooperative scheme featured the human and divine wills working together, with the mind using the information offered by God. When the will has a set of operations set before it, its challenge is to overcome distracting affections. The greater power of the properly informed will, the greater its ability to defeat faulty passions. The act of believing is thus the premier work of the will, and is only accomplished by the prevenient enabling grace God provides.[3]

It is the mind/intellect that is given primacy in Perkins’s theological anthropology, and we can see (as reported by Frost) how this gets cashed out in Perkins’s soteriology.

Perkins was not alone, he was simply expressing what was common fare among the Post Reformation Protestant scholastic theology he was a part of during his period of history. Richard Muller speaks to the reality of this Thomist intellectualist tradition as he describes Arminius’s context as a theologian of his time:

The enlightenment of the intellect that draws man spiritually into final union with God leads to the “enlargement” of the will “from the inborn agreement of the will the intellect, and the analogy implanted in both, according to which the understanding extends itself to acts of volition, in the very proportion that it understands and knows.” Arminius, in summary, places himself fully into the intellectualist tradition.

What is more, Arminius’ argument for the priority of intellect in the final vision of God perfectly reproduces the classic intellectualist thesis of Thomas Aquinas. For Aquinas, intellect is higher or nobler than will inasmuch as the intellect does not merely address an object that is external to itself (as does the will) but, in addressing the object, also in some sense receives the object into itself and possesses in itself the form of the object. In the final vision of God, according to Aquinas, the soul has direct vision of the divine essence that is higher and nobler than the will’s love of God.

The juxtaposition of an intellectualist philosophical perspective with a practical orientation in Arminius’ theology represents, as noted earlier, a significant departure from the major medieval paradigms and a use of the scholastic past that is best characterized as eclectic. Praxis is, typically, associated with love and will, speculatio or contemplatio with intellect: the intellectualist model will, therefore, advocate a theology that is either primarily or utterly contemplative while the voluntarist model will define theology as primarily or utterly practical. Thus Aquinas assumes that theology is primarily contemplative whereas Scotus defines theology as practical. The Reformed tended toward a compromise that respect the balance of intellect and will but recognized the underlying soteriological issue as voluntaristic and, therefore, defined theology as both speculative and practical with emphasis on the practical….[4]

An Evangelical Calvinist Response

As we have just surveyed—I fear too fragementedly—what was predominate in Post Reformed orthodox theology was a mind/will centered anthropology that reflects (through an analogy of being) upon who God is conceived to be in this frame. The intellectualist tradition presumes that God as eternal ‘being’ implicates (as reflection as it were) what it means to be human being; and thus reasoning from the effect back to the cause, the intellectualist tradition believes that what it means to be God is someone who exists a se as a big intellect. This shapes the way classically Reformed (inclusive of Arminians) thinkers think of God, and it follows then that ‘feeling’ or ‘movement’ in God, which love presupposes upon, is simply an anthropopathism; in other words, love is not real, in an ontological sense. What defines God is something like an ultimate-Spock like being of existence, as such this God relates to humanity in a God-world relation in very impersonal ways (like through decrees).

The evangelical Calvinist after Barth and Torrance, on the other hand, does not think of God from within an intellectualist speculative tradition. Instead evangelical Calvinists along with Athanasius think it is better to think God, and as consequent, theological anthropology, from the eternal relation of Father-Son revealed by the Holy Spirit in Christ in the incarnation of the Son. As Athanasius famously asserts, “Therefore it is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate.” Evangelical Calvinists don’t attempt to think God from an analogy of being (analogia entis) in and from an abstract humanity; we think God from a center in God, in His Self-exegesis in the Son, Jesus Christ.

As we have illustrated in this post, if someone is committed to an intellectualist anthropology and tradition it gets cashed out in interesting ways; particularly with reference to how a thinker conceives of God, and how salvation is understood and given shape after that conception of God. As is the case in all instances, how God is conceived in the first order, will have subsequent and second order consequences for every other theological loci following.

I am afraid I have only started to pull on a whole bunch of threads all at once in this post, but I wanted to start pulling those threads so that maybe someone’s curiosity might be piqued to the point of doing further research themselves. I realize this post has a kind of palpable incoherence to it, but I am simply wanting to provide soundings for you as you come to realize that there are alternative traditions available to you, even in the Reformed world of thought.

What evangelical Calvinism does is to eschew thinking from a center within an abstract humanity; in other words we repudiate the idea that there is an analogy of being between God and humanity. There is no point of contact, then, between God and humanity from whence God can be conceived of apart from God’s own Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. If this is true, evangelical Calvinists have the advantage of the ground of all theological grammar, anthropology, and worship being the Triune life of God itself as ‘mediated’ to humanity in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. We do not have to think God from a faculty psychology as the ground of being from whence we think God. We can eschew thinking God from the accidents and effects that we discover and observe in the created order[5], and instead think directly of God, mediated in the hidden-ness of God in the humanity of God enfleshed in Jesus Christ.



[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Concise Translation, 270-71.

[2] This is an important point because it keeps it keeps the imago Dei intact, and an analogy of being can be interconnected between God’s being (who is ultimate intellect) and human being (who is penultimate intellect).

[3] Ronald N. Frost, “The Bruised Reed: By Richard Sibbes (1577–1635),” in The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics, eds. Kelly M. Kapic and Randall C. Gleason (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 88-9.

[4] Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1991), 78-9.

[5] See Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 7.: “. . . the proposition that “God exists” is self evident in itself, for, as we shall see later, its subject and predicate are identical, since God is his own existence. But, because what it is to be God is not evident to us, the proposition is not self-evident to us, and needs to be made evident. This is done by means of things which, though less evident in themselves, are nevertheless more evident to us, by means, namely of God’s effects.”


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