McCormack on Thomas on Justification

From Bruce McCormack’s essay “What’s at Stake in the Current Debate?”

I do not intend this as a “refutation” of Thomas, nor is this McCormack’s larger goal in his essay.  Thomas is simply too powerful a thinker to be refuted in a 600 word blog post. But McCormack nicely highlights conceptual difficulties in Thomas’s account in particular, and various evangelical-catholic paradigms of “ontological healing” in general.

And to be fair, if one were given the option of choosing between a strong Thomism or the evangelical-catholic goofiness today, Thomas is the obvious choice.  But there are more choices.

(1) For Thomas grace is two things: the work of God upon the soul and the effect of that action.

Two things are considered in the soul: the essence of the soul and the work of its powers.  The form of the soul is intellectual in orientation

The Subsistence of the Soul

Thomas: Nothing acts so far as it is in act, and nothing acts except that whereby it is in act. The soul is the form of the thing.  The soul’s powers are its mind and will.

(2) Form is the act in which a thing has its being and subsistence.

For Aquinas justification, in short, will consist of reorienting the intellect back to God’s proper order.  It is important to keep in mind that the soul is a spiritual substance that is intellectual in character (and this isn’t unique to Aquinas.  This is roughly the historic Christian position).

(3) Grace finds its seat in the essence of the soul, not in the powers.

What metaphor does Aquinas use to explain the nature of this grace infused into the soul?  Light.  Light, however, suggests an intellectual range.  This would place grace somewhere else than the essence of the soul–some place like the intellectual powers of mind and will (87).

This doesn’t mean Thomas is wrong, of course, but it does highlight a conceptual confusion.


(4) Justification, for Thomas, is a movement from a state of injustice to a state of justice.

And for those who know their Thomas and Aristotle, this means

(4*) There must be a mover (God), which sets things in motion: the movement itself and the object of the movement.

In short, God moves all things (in justification) according to the proper mode of each.  It looks like this:

Infusion of justifying grace → a movement of free choice → forgiveness of sin

There is one big problem:  infant baptism (89). Infants are not capable of movements of free choice towards justifying grace, and it won’t work, pace Thomas, to speak of this as an exception, since Roman Catholicism practices infant baptism as the norm.

For most of Thomas’s account, justifying grace finds its “point of entry” on the level of the intellectual powers of the soul.  McCormack writes,

“In other words: there would be no need to locate the infusion of grace in the essence of the soul if it were not for the fact that the Church’s accepted practice was to baptize infants.  And that also means that Thomas’s tendency to understand justification as rooted in an ‘ontological healing’ of the soul, rather than in a more personal understanding of the operations of grace, is a function of the fact that the regeneration of the infant is the truly paradigmatic case where that infusion of grace which initiates justification is concerned (89).

Thomas’s project would be largely free from this confusion if, say, he were a Baptist and baptismal justification worked only with adults–but that isn’t the case.  And here is where Thomas will switch metaphors from “light” (which suggests intellectual illumination) to seeing grace as a quasi-substantial “thing.”

Thesis: The work of God in us was being made the basis of God’s forgiveness (90).

And this is what the Reformers rejected and what is at stake.  If imputation holds, then the hierarchical mediations of Rome are unnecessary.  And this is precisely what is glossed over in many “ecumenical” discussions.



Author: Ephraim's Arrow

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, charismatic gifts

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