Nature, Grace and Knowledge of God: Does Michael Allen Really Understand the Thomist’s and Thomas Aquinas’s Position on Created Grace?

Let’s keep on theme. This has been an important thing for me for quite a few years now, and I’m realizing once again that it remains such. It has to do with the theme we’ve been touching on in the last many posts I’ve been writing; i.e. how can a human being have real knowledge of God? This essentially gets underneath that now proverbial question of ‘what hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ Is there something, some moral quality, some created grace, some inherent bent in humanity’s teleology that equips and allows them to know God; or want to know God? There have been many attempts by various theologians over the centuries to engage this question, but I want to start with Holy Scripture; and then think from there. It’s not that those who arrive and different conclusions than me haven’t worked from Scripture, all that that variety illustrates is the impact that certain a priori theological commitments have upon the exegetical practice.

To start, let’s take a look at Romans 3:9-18:

What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. 10 As it is written:“There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” 14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 ruin and misery mark their ways, 17 and the way of peace they do not know.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

I take this, particularly the portion I have emboldened, to be definitive of the state of the human heart coram Deo (‘before God’); and I’m not alone. Most Reformed theologians would want to affirm the traditional doctrine of total depravity although maybe not total inability, but because these same theologians also have, what I would contend is a competing (with Scripture) metaphysic underwriting their approach to Scripture, they at some point have to soften the “way” the Romans passage sounds at a prima facie level. Most Reformed theologians follow in the Thomist tradition; the Thomist tradition, also known as the Thomist Intellectualist tradition sees the human intellect as the definitive component of what makes a human being a human being at an essential level. So they must posit that when the fall of Genesis 3 took place that the intellect, at some level, remained untouched[1]; viz. that it maintained some level of operative power even in its capacity to posit, at the most, God (again we can see how something like this would coalesce with a subsequent [but also prior in a basic way] appeal to the philosophers in order to supply such Reformed theologians with the categories they find useful in their theological endeavors). Such Reformed thinkers have their point of contact precisely at this point; i.e. their point of contact between God and humanity. Yes, they would also recognize that the intellect, while still operative, even if living under the dregs of the fall, and because of such dregs, requires the supplement of grace to enter into the [elect] individual and ‘escalate’ or elevate the intellect to a regenerate status resulting in the person’s ability to fully access God (at least in the ways God has generously decided to accommodate that in ectypal fashion). So the mainstay of classical Calvinist or Reformed theologians really don’t affirm that people are fully or even functionally disabled (as the Romans passage would intimate), instead they must, at some level (and there are various ways to nuance that among such theologians) keep, as a live option, the operation of the intellect such that people, in general, have a capacity towards knowledge of God. Sure, it might not ultimately terminate in a true and saving knowledge of God, but nevertheless that moral ‘point of contact’ and hook remains active in fallen humanity (i.e. a proclivity or at least an ability to seek after God).

I wanted to share the full quote from Allen because it helps illustrate the various ways all of this has unfolded in and among both Roman Catholic and Reformed theologians alike. He notes the differences and even the internecine differences among Catholics and the classically Reformed alike; but what stands out, and this is what I’ll share from Allen simply to illustrate the reality, is their shared point of convergence when it comes to working from the Thomist tradition. Yes, this can take numerable directions, from Henri de Lubac, to Thomas Aquinas, to Herman Bavinck, to Kathryn Tanner; but the point is, they all at some level, one way or the other want to affirm and work from the Thomist intellectualist tradition (e.g. remember how I described, a bit, the theological anthropological component that funds this tradition i.e. ‘the intellect’). Allen writes:

How then does the new life relate to the character of created nature or, more specifically, how does the regenerated being of the saints relate to their given nature as sons of Adam and daughters of Eve? Here we enter debates regarding nature and grace, matters which have marked controversies both in the classical era and also into recent decades. Indeed, twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology debated the relationship of nature and grace at length, pointing to even deeper disputes within the tradition. We do well to attend to these conversations, as they suggest realities present in the medieval and early modern context in which the Reformed tradition was shaped decisively. They also present a conversation wherein the heritage of Reformed thought has been altered or misperceived by much more recent developments. Before turning to specifically Reformed approaches, then, we do well to note the broader trends in Roman Catholicism and to find their roots in a shared Thomist heritage, at which point we are in a position to ask about specific concerns flowing out of the Protestant Reformation.[2]

We note in the last emboldened clause just what I was referring to previously; that Allen fully affirms the reliance for the classically Reformed (including himself) upon the Thomist heritage, and all that attends to that. Like I highlighted earlier, there are multiform ways to flesh out said heritage; nevertheless, in categorical ways, certain features remain basic and fundamental for the Thomistically inspired theologian. This is where I found Allen’s coverage rather lacking; he prefers to gloss over the theological anthropological point that I was noting earlier, and which I only alluded to in my prologue, in regard to grace. Remember I noted that some theologians, the Thomist ones, see some source of contact built into even fallen humanity’s bent or capacity for some knowledge of God (even if that remains fleeting among the reprobate). Thomists, and Thomas Aquinas himself, actually posits a concept of created grace (which I’ve written on before, more than once here at the blog), this is an addition and quality that God (to state it crudely) implants into the accidents of elect humanity which allows them, through moral effort and habituation (habitus) activate and allows them to move beyond the fleeting knowledge that all human beings have, in regard to capacity for knowledge of God, and takes them to the next level. Allen glosses this component—in regard to created grace as a thing or quality or stuff—and simply transubstantiates such thinking from a created stuff/quality to the personal work of the Holy Spirit; he writes:

Grace’s gift does not merely heal sin’s harm by returning one to Eden. Grace also moves us forward such that there is escalation from Eden. Grace is not a stuff or substance, of course, but the personal presence and action of God. Specifically, grace is the life-giving work of Christ by his Holy Spirit. We do well to remember the way in which Thomas Aquinas spoke of this effective presence: “The Holy Spirit makes those to whom he is sent like the one whose Spirit he is.” The Spirit, then, conforms the Christian into the image of the invisible God, to the form of Jesus Christ, for the Spirit is none other than the “Spirit of Christ” (e.g., Rom 8:9; Phil 1:19; 1 Pet 1:11).[3]

I mean who am I to question a genuine theologian, I’m just a blogger, but this makes me seriously wonder whether or not Michael Allen actually understands Thomas Aquinas’s superstructure; particularly when it comes to Thomas’s appropriation of Aristotle’s habitus theology and substance metaphysic. Aquinas writes all over his Summa about grace being a created quality, and refers to it as medicine (which fits well with the kind of intellectualist sin/grace-ailment/medicine symmetry that would be funding Thomas’s theology). Note, as an example of many of instances from Thomas:

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]

This will have to suffice to illustrate how I’m not sure, exactly, Allen is really reading Aquinas right in this regard. You can go read Thomas for yourself to see if I’m misrepresenting Aquinas on this, or if Allen is.[5]

I digress somewhat; but I wanted to note what I think is a misreading in the analysis of Allen in regard to Thomas’s theology. Further, in this process, I’m hoping you can see how this issue, relative to knowledge of God, gets fleshed out in the ways that it does for the classically Calvinist in particular (at least by way of providing some exposure). But furthermore, let me also just note, that because of this kind of Thomist commitment by many of these guys and gals, I think they end up misrepresenting what Scripture asserts about the noetic impact of the fall on humanity’s capacity to have a point of contact and/or capacity for knowledge of God as an inherent capacity in the created nature (even if that’s in the accidents rather than essential as we have been  highlighting). We can see how they must go the direction they do; and we can start to see how their a priori commitment to Aristotle’s categories mediated through Thomas pressures them into this extra-biblical direction.

The tradition Karl Barth et al. offers does not work from the grace/nature combine that most classical theologies work from; particularly as we’ve noticed that in the Thomist frame. Barth’s offering sees all reality funded by God’s grace and then miracle alone; his doctrine of creation is funded by the covenant of grace, which for Barth works from his doctrine of election and God’s choice to be for us in Christ. For Barth the inner reality of creation is God’s covenant life of grace, consequently leading to the idea that creation itself is the external expression of that life as grounded and conditioned by the humanity of God in Jesus Christ.

That’s enough.

 

[1] The Thomist needs the intellect to remain untouched in some way because without that in the fall, if the intellect along with the will and affections (in a tripartite faculty psychology) fell, the human being would no longer be, at a constituent level, a human being; they’d be some sort of monster or zombie. For the Thomist the affections are what not only led to the fall (i.e. the lust of the flesh etc.), but were what actually fell in toto (in totality); the intellect, for the Thomist, was affected by this in some significant ways, but not in the same way that the affections/will were impacted. It is interesting, the Thomists, because they are working, in basic ways, from anthropological categories (i.e. the faculty psychology) that many theologians of today have abandoned for non-reductive physicalism etc.; so we can see a pretty stark repristination project being engaged in by such theologians in our 21st century.

[2] Michael Allen, Sanctification (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2017), 213 kindle edition. [emboldening mine]

[3] Ibid., 215 kindle edition.

[4] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Concise Translation, 16.

[5] See also a paper I wrote many years ago on grace and nature in the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Bear in mind I was very dilettante at this point, in my writing and theologically; but the paper itself will help to illustrate further my point in regard to Allen’s apparent mishandling of Aquinas’s theology on a rather salient front in regard to what Allen is attempting to glean relative to Aquinas’s theology qua Reformed theology simplicter: NATURE AND GRACE IN THE THEOLOGY OF THOMAS AQUINAS.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Analogia Entis, Analogy of Being, Critiquing Classic Calvinism, Michael Allen, Theo-Anthropology, Theory of Revelation, Thomas Aquinas. Bookmark the permalink.