Carlos Steel on Platonism and Christianity

Carlos Steel is a highly respected scholar and specialist in the history of Platonism from antiquity to the Renaissance. This lecture is a great introduction to the topic of Platonism and its historic relationship to the Christian faith given at the Lumen Christi Institute in 2011. Like any general overview of a topic, however, the way in which the details fit together to form the general narrative is precisely where the problematic questions emerge.

Steel does not shy away from asking difficult questions. Some Platonists joined philosophy to religious ritual (Iamblichus, Proclus, et al.), yet were these philosophers distorting the original message of Plato? Steel replies that these represent “creative developments” of Plato rather than outright distortions, esp. since Plato tended to emphasize the use of prayer in philosophy.

Another difficulty in relation to a Christianized Platonism: Does Augustine’s platonizing of the Gospels represent a corruption of the original message of Christianity? Again, Steel points to elements in the teachings of Jesus and Paul that seem quite commensurable with Plato’s teachings.

Perhaps the most conspicuous difficulty regarding the relationship between these two “philosophies” has to do with authority. Though the Platonists considered Plato to be a divine prophet and he was held in highest authority over other philosophers, he did not hold the authority and claim to divinity which Christians claimed of Jesus. How, then, can Christianity be wedded to a philosophy that promotes a certain freedom of inquiry that seems incompatible with the comparably rigid and authoritative doctrines of the church? The church after all merely uses philosophy to guard its own theology from the aberrant teachings of heresy. Steel merely hints at a solution to this by way of Boethius, noting the latter proposed a better way, a way that permitted the study of philosophy as an exercise detached from the strict sequestering of free thought apparent in theology. One can see at this point in Steel’s argument a particular political theology that denotes a rather strict separation between religion and philosophy, one that a Protestant following the “two Kingdoms” formulation of the Reformers would read rather differently. But alas, this is just an introduction.


Platonic Reasoning as Cure for Materialism: W.G.T. Shedd’s Ontological Argument

It is often quite difficult to trace the influences upon a particular author’s opinion. To use the labels ”Platonic” or “Aristotelian” as the means for discovering the school of thought to which the author belongs can be a dubious method. Many ideas seem Platonic when they are actually essential aspects of religions that would claim no relation to Platonism or Neo-Platonism. And, just because one accepts Platonic ideas does not mean he/she is not Aristotelian in other matters or that he/she belongs to a particular “school” of thought. The case is more clear in authors such as Augustine and Anselm who both tell us that they have read Plato (or Plotinus) and consider the Platonic philosophy to be the most accurate and beneficial philosophy for the explanation of Christian theology.

In the case of W.G.T. Shedd, the conservative 19th century American Presbyterian theologian author of the famous three-volume Systematic Theology, his philosophical influences are quite clear. In the 1884 edition of the Presbyterian Review Shedd offers a defense of Anselm’s classic ontological argument for God’s existence. Not only is Anselm’s a priori method Platonic, depending upon the notion of God as Being which is knowable apart from the senses – not to mention the fact that Plato was the only philosopher available to thinkers in Anselm’s day –  but Shedd’s interpretation and defense of this argument is also Platonic, drawing upon the thoughts of Platonists who post-date Anselm.

Shedd begins his discussion noting that the Reformers and divines of the 16th and 17th centuries favored the ontological argument. Among these learned churchmen are the Cambridge Platonists – Ralph Cudworth, Henry More, and John Smith – who used Anselm’s argument in their battle against the materialism of Thomas Hobbes. Shedd defends the a priori method taking his queues from these men. He notes that the present judgment against this defense of God’s existence is erroneous:

May it not be that the present absorption in the study of visible and material objects has unfitted the mind for the study of ideas, by blunting the keenness of metaphysical conception, so that the needle’s point of the a priori argument is missed, and it is pronounced to be inconclusive? Be this as it may, it will certainly do no harm to the cause of truth, to consider the form and force of this old argument for the being of God. (p. 213)

One of Shedd’s major points in this article cuts against materialism and Kantian subjectivism, the point that if the subjective existence of God is more real than the objective existence – which Shedd notes is the current argument against Anselm’s reasoning – then the presupposed “matter” of materialism will itself be more real subjectively than objectively and thus “the certainty of the material world is gone.” (ibid.) In other words, if one’s idea of “matter” need not correspond to any matter in reality, then one’s knowledge of the material world will not be certain. The same is the case with the idea of God. This assumption rests on the saying of Augustine that, “God is more truly thought than he is described, and exists more truly than he is thought.” In fact, Shedd says of the material world that it is but a shadow when compared with the essence of God, an argument similar to that C.S. Lewis uses against the Pantheistic idea that “spirit” is less than “matter” in Miracles. One element of Anselm’s argument that Shedd praises is his realization that necessity of existence is an attribute of being. It can be affirmed of one being and denied of another. Necessity is a higher attribute of being than contingency, a distinction which differentiates creature from Creator and implies the dependency of the former upon the latter. Quoting the Puritan and Platonist John Howe, Shedd furthers his point that a priori reasoning leads to certain knowledge of God. “It is truly said,” remarks Howe,

of all created things, that their non esse is more than their esse; that is, they have more no-being than being. It is only some limited portion [degree] of being that they have; but there is an infinitude [infinite degree] of being which they have not. And so coming infinitely nearer to nothingness than to fulness of being, they may well enough wear the name of ‘nothing.’ ‘All nations before him are as nothing, and they are counted to him less than nothing’ (Isa. xl. 17). Wherefore the First and Fountain-Being justly appropriates to himself the name I Am, yea tells us, He is, and there is none besides Him; therebye leaving no other name than that of ‘nothing’ unto creatures. (ibid., 216, quoting Howe.)

For Shedd, not only has the materialistic philosophy of his age spoiled the collective Reason so that men look askance at a priori reasoning, but the rejection of this type of argument, Anselm’s specifically, hides a more fundamental rejection of the hyperousia characteristic of God’s nature. If God is hyper-real, if he is Being itself, then he is that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought and so existence is presupposed in the first premise. Shedd even finds evidence in the Scriptures to defend Anselm, reading Exodus 3:13 in a Platonic light:

The truth that absolutely perfect being is necessary being is taught in the revealed name of God. The ontological argument has the endorsement of inspiration. The Hebrew Jehova, in Ex. iii. 13, denotes necessity of existence . . . To give a name, in both Hebrew and the Greek intuition, is to describe the inmost and real nature of the thing. Plato, in the Cratylus (390), represents Socrates as saying that “the right imposition of names is no easy matter, and belongs not to any and everybody, but to him only who has an insight into the nature of things.” The nomenclature given by the unfallen man to the objects of nature (Gen. ii. 19, 20) implies a deep knowledge of nature. And when the deity chooses before all others the name I Am, or Jehovah, for himself, the reference is to his absoluteness and perfection of being. The ethnic names in distinction from the revealed name of the deity, imply attributes, not essence . . . [T]he Hebrew, divinely taught upon this point, chose a term which does not refer to a particular attribute, but to the very being and essence of God, and teaches that the deity must be, and cannot be conceived of as a nonentity. (ibid., 223)

Therefore, even the scriptures approve and require that the idea of God as Being implies a necessary being. In the Shleiermacherian manner, Shedd refers to this idea of God as man’s natural God-consciousness, which must have an objective referent; otherwise it would make as much sense as having the ability of smell with no existing object that can be perceived through the sense of smell. “The subjective requires the antithetic objective . . . in order to escape the absurd supposition that something comes from nothing, or that there is an effect in consciousness without any cause of it.” (ibid., 225)  Surely we may be able to imagine beings that do not exist. But, the absolutely perfect Being is not an object of the imagination but that of reason.

Any one who will examine it [the idea of the absolutely perfect Being], as he finds it in his consciousness, will immediately perceive that it is not a construction of his fancy, like the idea of a winged lion; or of his imagination, like the abstract conception of a house. These latter are attended with the conviction of their unreality, not of the reality. We know that there is nothing objectively correspondent to them. No man is influenced in the least by such ideas. A winged lion, like the heathen idol, “is nothing in the world.” Such purely subjective notions inspire no fear. But not so with the idea of God. “I thought of God, and was troubled,” is true of every man. There has never been a human being old enough to fear, but what has feared the Supreme Being in some way or other. The idea of the deity causes terror sometimes in the atheist himself. But if it were not the representation of a tremendous reality, it would produce no such effects the world over. (ibid., 225.)

Another proof that the idea of God must have an objective referent is the fact that the idea of “self” or “person” demands the existence of one’s own “self” or “person” in actu which in turn demand the existence of God’s “person.” “No man can believe that he is an ego, without believing that God is another ego – the I Am. The attributes of finite personality, namely, freedom and accountability, imply and necessitate the attributes of infinite personality, namely, sovereignty, justice, and omnipotence.” (ibid., p. 225)

Furthermore, Shedd replies to an objection that this idea of God which all men may know does not and should not take away from the mystery of God. If God is the really-Real Being that establishes the basis of all other being then his essence will inevitably be infinitely beyond man’s capacity to trace. This fact is proven with a quotation from the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth, who says:

It is indeed true, that the deity is more incomprehensible to us than anything else whatever: which proceeds from the fulness of his being and perfection, and from the transcendency of his brightness. But for this very same reason may it be said also, in some sense, that he is more knowable and conceivable than anything else; as the sun, though by reason of its excessive splendor it dazzle our weak sight, yet is notwithstanding far more visible, also, than any of the nebulosae stellae, the small, misty stars. (ibid, p. 226., quotting Cudworth)

So, we must maintain the mysterious nature of God but because he is as knowable as the sun’s light is intense we cannot rule out philosophical proofs of his existence, like Anselm’s ontological argument. Yet, we must admit that our own finitude renders our intellects week when exposed to the brightness of the divine Intellect. Thus, Shedd concludes his discussion of a priori reasoning calling on his readership to think like Anselm.

The a priori argument is of uncommon importance in an age inclined to materialism. For it turns the human mind in upon itself and thereby contributes to convince it of the reality of mind, as a different substance from matter. The neglect of a priori methods, and overvaluation of a posteriori, is one of the reasons why matter has so much more reality for many men than mind has. If an object is not considered, it gradually ceases to be regarded as an object at all. When theorists cease to reflect upon purely mental and moral phenomena, they cease to believe that there are any. The gaze of the materialist is intent upon the physical solely . . . What is needed is, the cultivation of philosophy in connection with physics; of a priori methods along with the a posteriori . . . Those a priori methods, consequently, which dispense with physical sensation and outward sensuous observations, are best adapted to convince of the reality of an invisible and immaterial entity like the human spirit, and its infinite antithesis and corresponding object the Eternal Spirit. (ibid., 227)

Shedd’s defense of Anselm came in the era of August Comte and Charles Darwin, an era that saw an increased emphasis on matter in the light of new methods in natural science. His training under the Christian transcendentalist James Marsh, who was himself a disciple of Samuel Taylor Colleridge, most likely shaped his thought toward an a priori method. These presuppositions most likely facilitated his reading of Plato, Anselm, and the Cambridge Platonists.  The battle of the latter against Thomas Hobbes and the materialists of their day probably hit home with Shedd, who found himself doing theological and philosophical battle with materialists of a new and more radical breed.

In some camps rational arguments for God’s existence are seen in a negative light. Some think these arguments only function to lead unbelievers to a purely abstract idea of God, one that has no objective referent. Yet, as Shedd has demonstrated this disagreement assumes that the idea of “that-than-which-nothing-greater-exists” is not a necessary being, whereas Anselm and Augustine originally thought of God as the most Real and concrete Being. Poetry has never written a poem, only poets; but God created poets. Surely Shedd would agree with Lewis that God is trans-concrete and trans-corporeal because existence is his nature.

It almost goes without saying that the Reformed world needs more scholars such as W.G.T. Shedd. We also need to remember men such as he and consider the sources that influenced them and cease to be afraid that “pagan” thinking will lead us astray. In my experience, it is the lack of such sound philosophy that has led theologians to erroneous conclusions. Perhaps a more “Platonic” education will help in the current battle against atheism in both the ecclesiastic and public spheres.

God’s Work In Creatures is Quasi-Natural

Augustine’s words quoted in the gloss mean, not that God is unable to do otherwise than nature does, since his works are often contrary to the wonted course of nature; but that whatever he does in things is not contrary to nature, but is nature in them, forasmuch as he is the author and controller of nature. Thus in the physical order we observe that when an inferior body is moved by a higher, the movement is natural to it, although it may not seem in keeping with the movement which it has by reason of its own nature: thus the tidal movement of the sea is caused by the moon; and this movement is natural to it as the Commentator observes (De coelo et mundo, iii, comm. 20), although water of itself has naturally a downward movement. Thus in all creatures, what God does in them is quasi-natural (quasi pro naturali) to them. Wherefore we distinguish in them a twofold potentiality: a natural potentiality in respect of their proper operations and movements, and another, which we call obediential, in respect of what is done in them by God. (Thomas Aquinas, De potentia, q. 1, a. 3, ad 1.)

The Natural Desire for the Vision of God and the Convergence of the Sciences

Le PenseurAfter reading de Lubac and some of his critics I still think the best interpretation of Thomas’s “natural desire” for the beatific vision comes from Frederick Copleston.  The issue is a confusing one, primarily because we just don’t think in Aristotelian terms anymore.  “Nature” doesn’t mean the same thing for a modern scientist as it did for Thomas, and it doesn’t mean the same thing for a modern Christian as it did for a Medieval Doctor.  Copleston says that Thomas speaks as both a philosopher and a theologian.  De Lubac argued that modern Thomists only saw Thomas as a philosopher and not an Augustinian.  One reason why I respect Copleston so much is that he was a philosopher, yet he argued extensively for the Augustinian heritage of Thomas’s theology.  

Catholics have debated the issue of the “natural desire” for the vision of God, which Thomas says is innate in all men.  The problem with this is that the Aristotelian definition of nature does not allow a desire of anything that is not connatural.  In other words, if man had a natural desire for the supernatural, then either (a) man’s desire is greater than its cause, or (b) the supernatural is not above nature, or (c) both (a) and (b) are the case.  Therefore, as long as we are defining “nature” in Aristotelian terms – he gives four definitions for “nature” with the primary one being quod quid est or the “essence” of a thing – it will be contradictory to speak of a “natural desire” for anything above what is connatural with the thing’s essence.  

De Lubac points out that Christian philosophers have erred in trying to reconcile this apparent contradiction in Thomas.  We should not be surprised that Thomas does not confine himself to the philosophy of Aristotle.  Marie-Dominique Chenu has demonstrated that Thomas is not a strict Aristotelian, an almost obvious observation since Aristotle considered the cosmos to be eternal, he didn’t clarify the transcendence of the Prime Mover, he didn’t ground the forms of things in an eternal Mind, he didn’t speak of an “other worldly” happiness, he didn’t clarify the particularity of the agent intellect, and so on.  Thomas had to go beyond Aristotle in many ways.  Wayne Hankey, Rudi te Velde, and Fran O’Rourke (among others) have demonstrated that Thomas, per his Augustinianism, was heavily influenced by Neo-Platonic thinkers, particularly the Psuedo-Dionysius.  There’s even a book out called Aquinas the Augustinian by CUA press.

One example of modern Philosophers assuming that Thomas’s thought must fit into a pristine Aristotelian mold is P.J. FitzPatrick’s argument that Thomas’s doctrine of transubstantiation commits the Aristotelian fallacy of reification.  How can accidents exist without a substance when the very definition of accident is that it inheres within a substance?  Aristotle must be rolling over in his grave to hear one of his most faithful students commit philosophical blasphemy with such a doctrine.  However, as David Power has demonstrated, Thomas interprets Aristotle through the lens of the Psuedo-Dionysius.  I would clarify this a bit more and say that his Eucharistic theology is more Augustinian than Aristotelian.  Thomas utilized the truth, whether it came from divine revelation or pagan philosophy.  He may have used Aristotelian terminology in his doctrine of the Eucharist but in the end he knew that theology proceeds from more sublime and more certain principles.  Philosophy must be silent in certain realms of theological speculation or, stated more precisely, true philosophy should not contradict divine revelation.

Frederick CoplestonSimilarly, Copleston affirms that Thomas speaks as a theologian when he says that every intellect has a natural desire for the vision of God.  Therefore, the word “nature” may look a bit different to the theologian than to the philosopher.  Thomas did not see himself as a philosopher, that was the term used to describe the pagans.  He was a theologian.  If Holy Scripture gives us a definition of nature that is based on the authority of God, and Aristotle gives us a definition of nature that is reasonable and does not contradict divine authority, then we may utilize the truth as it can be seen in both definitions.  “Nature” for the theologian is the creation of the Triune God, whereas for the philosopher it is the essence or principle of motion in things moved principally by the First Mover.  The former speaks to concrete reality whereas the latter, an abstract one.  These definitions do not contradict each other but demonstrate different perspectives of truth.

Similarly, Thomas says that Adam was created in a supernatural state, using that term in an Aristotelian sense of what is not produced by man’s nature.  But, he also speaks of Adam from the perspective of theology when he refers to man’s first estate as the state of “perfect nature.”  (ST I-II, Q. 109, a.2) He knew from divine revelation that man’s perfection lies in the performance of acts that must come from God.  But, because these divine gifts are given to a creature capable of receiving them we may speak of Adam’s original state as a state of nature. God gave man all of the gifts whereby he may perfect himself.  To speak of a natural perfection, in the Aristotelian sense, is to speak of an imperfect and incomplete perfection – a rather contradictory saying.    

Thomas speaks about nature in a theological sense in other places as well.  Copleston explains his interpretation of Thomas on man’s natural desire for a supernatural blessedness:

In the De Veritate St. Thomas says that man, according to his nature, has a natural appetite for aliqua contemplatio divinorum, such as it is possible for a man to obtain by the power of nature, and that the inclination of his desire towards the supernatural and gratuitous end (the vision of God) is the work of grace.  In this place, then, St. Thomas does not admit a ‘natural desire in the strict sense for the vision of God , and it seems only reasonable to suppose that when in the Summa Theologica and Summa contra Gentiles he speaks of a natural desire for the vision of God, he is not speaking strictly as a philosopher, but as a theologian and philosopher combined, that is , presupposing the supernatural order and interpreting the data of experience in the light of that presupposition. (History of Philosophy, Vol: II, p. 405.)

Copleston interprets Thomas on man’s natural desire for the vision of God as both a theologian and a philosopher.  De Lubac may be accused of only seeing Thomas merely as a theologian, and Cajetan may be critiqued for seeing Thomas primarily as a philosopher. However, Copleston gives a balanced interpretation of this very difficult subject, a subject that touches the very boundary between the queen of the sciences and her handmaiden.  Thomas uses Aristotle as far as he will go but completes the project with truths derived from sacred doctrine.  He speaks of nature as both a philosopher and theologian combined.  The intelligent beings that exist in the concrete world created by God have a natural desire for the Triune God, while those intelligent beings considered within the abstract Aristotelian world have a natural desire for the First Cause. These are not two separate desires, and man does not have two ends.  Rather, this is an example of theology completing and perfecting philosophy.

Christ Abolished the Dividing Wall: Aquinas on the Old Law

Wailing WallMany theologians don’t want to interpret Paul’s statement in Eph. 2:14, 15 about Christ breaking down the “wall of hostility” as referring to an actual abolishing of the Old Law.  Some are also afraid of viewing the passage in terms of Jew/Gentile relations because those within the New Perspective on Paul camp interpret similar passages in that light.  The latter see within 1st Century Judaism an exclusivism that Paul finds more problematic than an apparent legalism.  I found it interesting that Thomas Aquinas includes both of these ideas in his commentary on Paul’s statements in Ephesians 2.  He affirms that the “wall of hostility” is the Old Law and that Christ has broken down this wall, causing the rift between Jew and Gentile to be removed:

What is said here should be understood in this way. For the world is likened to a field, “and the field is the world” (Mt. 13:38); this field of the world is crowded with men, “Increase and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). A barrier, however, runs down the field, some are on one side and the rest on the other. The Old Law can be termed such a barrier, its carnal observances kept the Jews confined: “Before the faith came, we were kept under the law shut up, unto that faith which was to be revealed” (Gal. 3:23). Christ was symbolized through the Old Law: “Behold, he standeth behind our wall” (Cant. 2:9). Christ, however, has put an end to this barrier and, since no division remained, the Jews and the Gentiles became one people. This is what he says: I affirm that he hath made both one by the method of breaking down the middle barrier.

St. ThomasThomas views the Law in cosmic terms.  The Old Law divided the whole world into different classes.  He goes on to explain that this “dividing wall” was never meant to be permanent because it was a wall that lacked mortar: 

I say a barrier of partition and not a wall. A barrier of partition is one in which the stones are not mortared together with cement; it is not built to last permanently but only for a specified time. The Old Law was a barrier of partition for two reasons. First, because it was not mortared together with charity which is, as it were, the cement uniting individuals among themselves and everyone together with Christ. “Be careful to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). The Old Law is a law of fear, persuading men to observe its commands by punishments and threats. While that law was in force, those who kept it out of love belonged by anticipation, as Augustine holds, to the New Testament which is the law of love. “For you have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons” (Rom. 8:15). Secondly, the Old Law is a barrier of partition because it was not meant to last permanently but only for a definite time. “As long as the heir is a child, he differeth nothing from a servant, though he be Lord of all; but is under tutors and governors until the time appointed by the father. So we also, when we were children, were serving under the elements of the world” (Gal. 4:1-3). (Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, II. Lect., 5.)

Moses and Ten CommandmentsIn this passage Thomas affirms that there is not a stark distinction between the two testaments, as if those living under the Old Testament were merely required to meet certain external conditions without any internal motive. Rather, those who lived under the Old Testament participated in the New Testament by keeping the Old Law out of love.  Matthew Lamb explains Thomas’s view of the relationship and difference between the two covenants:

[Thomas borrows from] St Augustine’s De Gratia Christi et Peccato Originali, 2, 24-25 (P.L. 44, col. 398-400); also Contra Adamantum Manich. Discip. 17, (P.L. 42, col. 157-62). In St. Thomas’ view of salvation-history the Old Law had an embryonic relationship to the New: “As the effect is in its cause, or the perfect is in its less perfect beginnings-just as the whole tree is contained in the seed-so is the New Law contained in the Old Law.” S.T. I-II, 107, 3. This is a corollary of the general pattern of God’s salvific revelation to man, it is gradual in order for man to better assimilate it (ibid., 99, 6). Thus the New Covenant fulfills the Old by realizing its deepest potentialities (ibid., 107, 2); they both have the same goal while they differ as less perfect and more perfect in their methods of attaining that goal (ibid., 107, 1). This is why Aquinas characterized the Old Law as one of Fear and the New as one of Love. For a genuine supernatural love could only be offered to God by God himself become man and communicating his love, the Holy Spirit, to other men (S.T. II-II, 24, 2c; III, 8, 6c). Hence Christ is the head of all mankind (ibid., III, 8, 3) and those who observed God’s commands out of supernatural love in the Old Testament really belonged to the New, while those in the New Covenant who still practice virtue out of fear of punishment are acting as though they were under the Old Law (ibid., I-II, 107, 1 ad 2). (Matthew Lamb, Ibid. footnote 56.)

Glorification of ChristThis cosmic and eschatological understanding of the relationship between testaments is essential to understanding Paul’s view of the Old Law.  Those who keep the Old Law under the New Testament are acting as if the dark age of Moses has not been superseded by the light of Christ. Those who attempt to live in the old age are bound to keep the whole law. The faithful who lived before the New Testament were given supernatural charity which actually belonged to a future age. God has providentially guided his people through salvation history in an upward pattern.  The virtues of the new age existed in seed form in the old age and came to full bloom with the incarnation of the eternal Word.  Thomas believed that God is moving his world from death to glorification.

Calvin and Vermigli on Adam’s Original Righteousness, pt. II

“Solummodo hoc inveni quod fecerit Deus hominem rectum et ipse se infinitis miscuerit quaestionibus quis talis ut sapiens est et quis cognovit solutionem verbi.” (Eccl. 7:30)

This verse from the Vulgata was read by the Western church for hundreds of years and interpreted to mean that Adam was created with supernatural gifts that directed him toward his ultimate end in the Heavenly Jerusalem.  Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Peter Martyr Vermigli are among the many who implemented the clause, “God made man just,” in their theological writings as proof of Adam’s original righteousness.   

Thomas appealed to this verse in defense of his belief that Adam was not created in a state of mere nature but was created in grace.  He affirms that some believe that Adam was not created in grace but that grace only came after sin.  He responds that if Adam’s original righteousness was produced from nature the effect (supernatural qualities) would be greater than the cause (nature). (ST I, Q. 95, a. 1.)  According to Thomas, the belief that Adam was created in a state of mere nature is contrary to scripture, reason, and St. Augustine, who says:

For, as soon as our first parents had transgressed the commandment, divine grace forsook them, and they were confounded at their own wickedness … for though their members remained the same, they had shame now where hey had none before.  They experienced a new motion of their flesh, which had become disobedient to them, in strict retribution of their own disobedience to God. (De Civitate Dei, XIII.13) 

This paragraph from Augustine’s City of God provided the foundation for Thomas’s definition of original righteousness (although his definition was not novel). According to Thomas, Adam was created in obedience to God, a status that requires more than just natural gifts.  He explains:

For this rectitude [explained in Eccl. 7:30] consisted in his [Adam’s] reason being subject to God, the lower powers to reason, and the body to the soul:  and the first subjection was the cause of both the second and the third; since while reason was subject to God, the lower powers remained subject to reason, as Augustine says. Now it is clear that such a subjection of the body to the soul and of the lower powers to reason, was not from nature; otherwise it would have remained after sin; since even in the demons the natural gifts remained after sin, as Dionysius declared.  (Ibid.)

This rectitude of the inward parts of man to reason and man to God is a supernatural rectitude that was given to Adam in his created state.  This right ordering is necessary because if man had been created in a state of pure nature he would not have been able to discover divine truths own his own nor acquire divine beatitude merely by natural effort.  His natural inclination toward the common good needed an addition of supernatural charity that directs the entire man toward the Heavenly City.  Thomas explains the different supernatural qualities necessary for man’s beatitude:

[T]o enable us to carry out activities that are ordered toward the end of eternal life, the following are divinely infused in us: first (i’) grace, through which the soul acquires a certain spiritual way of being; then (ii’) faith, hope and charity. Thus by faith, the intelligence may be enlightened concerning the knowledge of supernatural matters, which function at that level just as naturally known principles do at the level of our natural activities. By hope and charity, the will acquires a certain inclination towards that supernatural good; the human will just by its own natural inclination is not sufficiently ordered toward this. (Disputed Questions on the Virtues in General, A. 10, resp.)

This grace and these theological virtues are qualities that were divinely infused within Adam for the purpose of ordering him toward divine things and, should he pass the test, the vision of God. We should remember that when Thomas uses the verb “added” in reference to the grace infused in Adam he is speaking hypothetically, as if Adam existed apart from grace, a concept that Thomas never thought a reality.  Rather, Adam was created in a state of grace, meaning God created him ex nihilo with these virtues naturally engrafted. When it comes to the nature of original sin and Adam’s loss of original righteousness (which is the right order of man to himself and to God) Thomas follows both Anselm and Augustine.  In his Summa theologiae I-II, Q. 82 he asks if original sin is a habit. The first objection replies that original sin is not a habit because Anselm said that it is a privation, which is opposed to habit.  Thomas responds on the authority of Augustine that original sin is not only a privation of original righteousness but is a habit of concupiscence. He affirms:

As bodily sickness is partly a privation, in so far as it denotes the destruction of the equilibrium of health, and partly something positive, viz. the very humors that are inordinately disposed, so too original sin denotes the privation of original justice, and besides this, the inordinate disposition of the parts of the soul.  Consequently it is not a pure privation, but a corrupt habit. (ST I-II, Q. 82., a. 1.)

Thus original sin removes the supernatural qualities that ordered the soul toward God and his supernatural end while at the same time causing a habit of concupiscence within the soul.  Further in the Summa Thomas speaks of the “wounding of nature” in which all of the powers of the soul are disordered due to sin. (ST I-II, Q. 85, a. 3.)  The four parts of the soul each receive a wound which inclines man toward evil.  The intellect receives the wound of ignorance, the will receives malice, the irascible receives weakness, and the concupiscible receives concupiscence. The wound of original sin effects the entire person, not only one part of the soul.  Thomas confirms the material and formal elements of original sin:

[T]he privation of original justice, whereby the will was made subject to God, is the formal element in original sin; while every other disorder of the soul’s powers, is a kind of material element in respect of original sin. Now the inordinateness of the other powers of the soul consists chiefly in their turning inordinately to mutable good; which inordinateness may be called by the general name of concupiscence.  Hence original sin is concupiscence, materially, but privation of original justice, formally. (ST I-II, Q. 82, a. 3.)

Therefore, Thomas believed Adam to have been created in grace with supernatural virtues infused for the sake of attaining the ultimate end. When Adam sinned these gifts of grace were removed and his nature was wounded with a habit of concupiscence.  

Peter Martyr Vermigli, in his commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, also uses Ecclesiastes 7:30 as evidence that Adam was created in grace. He refers to that passage while defending Anselm’s position against Pighius.  Vermigli counters Pighius’s argument that the corruption of original sin is not hereditary but was natural to Adam, saying that the defects came when Adam sinned and his original righteousness was removed “for actions or doinges are not taken away from men, but the power to use them well is taken away.” (Commentarie upon the Epistle to the Romanes, p. 124.) Vermigli argues that sin does not naturally corrupt the whole person but the efficient cause of this corruption of original sin is the justice of God:

whereby the grace of the Spirite and heavenly gifts, wherewith man was endewed before hys fall, were removed from hym when he had sinned. And thys wythdrawing of grace, came of the iustice of God, althoughe the blame bee to bee ascribed to the transgression of the fyrst man: least a man shoulde straight way say that God is the cause of sinne. For when he had once withdrawen his giftes, wherewith he had adorned man straight way vices and corruptions followed of their owne accord, which were before farre from the condicion of man. (Ibid., p. 122.)

In this passage Vermigli affirms that Adam was created in a state of grace. He affirms the same notion in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, where he disagrees with Aristotle’s statement that the virtues are produced and destroyed by and through the same things.  This was one of Aristotle’s arguments against Plato’s concept of innate virtue.  Concerning these things, Vermigli notes:

And whether virtues are present in us by nature is also a question.  If we speak of man as created by God (for all things made by him were supremely good), there can be no doubt that in his created state he was also equipped with virtues.  Just as the heavens did not remain without ornament and the land was immediately covered with plants, so man at his creation did not lack the appropriate virtues. With respect to vitiated and corrupt nature, however, these statements are true in the normal course of things and according to ordinary reason.  Aristotle, however was unable to see this corruption of our nature, since he was left without faith and the light of holy scripture … When it comes to the true virtues, such as faith, hope, charity, and the like, we must say that nothing prevents our nature, in spite of corruption, from being adorned with these charisms, provided that God himself deigns to inspire them. It is against human nature, however, to acquire these virtues by ourselves and through our own efforts. Moreover, it is not always true that we must have actions before we acquire virtues. We say this because of the first man and also because of those whom God immediately infuses with virtues from the moment of their conversion. (emphasis added) (Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, pp. 296, 297.)

Adam was created with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, virtues that cannot be produced by nature but must come from God’s supernatural infusion of these qualities. Vermigli also believed that Adam was given the gifts of the Holy Spirit: fortitude, fear, and the inspirations of God – these are also mentioned by Thomas in ST I-II, Q. 68.  These things “surpass nature.” (Ibid., p. 336) Therefore, Adam did not have them by nature but “even then God himself, of his own benevolence and grace, gave Adam true virtues and adorned him with his beautiful gifts.” (Ibid.) 

Aside from disagreement over the definition of grace and the primacy of charity among the theological virtues Vermigli agrees with Thomas’s doctrine of original righteousness and original sin.  By grace, the lower parts of Adam’s soul were submissive to will and reason and the reason was submissive to God. He affirms, “And these men by Originall iustice understand nothing elles, then the right constitucion of man, when the body obeyeth the soule, and the inferiour partes of the soule obey the superiour partes, and the mind is subiect  unto God and to his law.” (Commentarie upon the Epistle to the Romanes, p. 124.)

Like Thomas, Vermigli combines the opinion of Anselm and Augustine in his definition of original sin: “…we have alleaged Augustines definition, that originall sinne is the concupiscence of the flesh, and Anselmus definition, that it is the want of originall iustice…” (Ibid., p. 129.) Furthermore, Vermigli adds his own definition to these in order to refute Pighius, who misinterpreted Augustine and Anselm, using them to defend his doctrine of pure nature. Therefore, Vermigli adds to, or more precisely, reiterates the classic doctrine of original sin in the following definition:  “Original sinne therefore is the corruption of the whole nature of man, traduced by generation from the fall of our first parent into his posterity, which corruption, were it not for the befefite of Christ, adiudgeth al men borne therein in a maner to infinite evills, and to externall damnation.” (Ibid., p. 125.)

According to John Patrick Donnelly, Vermigli’s definition “gives a new centrality and emphasis to total depravity which is distinctly Reformed.” (Calvinism and Scholasticism, p. 107.) However, Vermigli considered his definition to be a clarification and reiteration of Augustine and Anselm rather than a “distinctively reformed” definition. He affirms this later in his commentary:

With this our definition of originall sinne, wel agreeth the want of originall iustice.  Also with it agreeth the description of Augustine, wherein he saith , that it is the concupiscence of the flesh: so that either of them be rightly understanded. The chiefe of the Scholemen acknowledged this doctrine, as Thomas, Scotus, and in especiall Bonaventure. These appoint for the materiall part in this sinne, the corruption of nature, or concupiscence: and for the formal part, the want of original righteousnes: and so of these two opinions, which we have now rehersed, they make but one. (Ibid., p. 126.)

Here Vermigli confirms that his definition of original sin, and by concomitance original righteousness, is not distinctly Reformed, but in order to refute the Pelagianism of Pighius he emphasizes the essence of the church’s opinion  from Augustine to Scotus: sin does not only affect one part of the soul but the whole person. Neither did Vermigli consider his position terribly different from the Roman Church of his day.

But in this thing he [Pighius] semeth to contmemne the iudgement of his owne Romishe Church, which otherwise he every where maketh equall even, with God himselfe. For, that Church doth in such maner acknowledge originall sinne, that it suffereth not infantes dying without baptisme to be buried… (Ibid., p. 128.)

In conclusion, there is a surprising similarity between the Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas and the Church Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli on the nature of Adam’s original state and the corruption of human nature that followed his fall from grace. In this same commentary Vermigli does openly disagree with St. Thomas. However, his charge is not against a wrongheaded nature/grace distinction, rather an unbiblical definition of grace, a mistaking of the effects of grace for the cause (as Calvin also says). As I demonstrated in this post Vermigli believed that God created Adam in a state of grace with infused theological virtues that caused the submission of his passions to his will, his will to reason, and his reason to God. For Vermigli, as for Thomas, this original internal and external order of Adam is original righteousness. When Adam fell the supernatural gifts were removed and concupiscence corrupted or “wounded” his entire nature, thus leaving him utterly dependant on God’s healing grace. I hope to devote another short post to this same topic so that I may revisit Calvin in light of the current post and talk about the elements in both Vermigli’s and Calvin’s thought that are distinctively Reformed. 

St. Thomas: Faith Must Precede Reason

The Augustinianism of Thomas Aquinas is often neglected, partly because he does not go to great lengths to prove his theological pedigree – it is assumed in many places.  The following quote, in which Thomas is stating the errors into which one may fall while studying sacred doctrine, places him within the tradition of  fides quaerens intellectum:

[O]ne may err because in matters of faith he makes reason precede faith, instead of faith precede reason, as when someone is willing to believe only what he can discover by reason.  It should in fact be just the opposite.  Thus Hillary says: ‘Begin by believing, inquire, press forward, persevere.'” (Expositio super librum Boethii De trinitate, Q. 2, a.1, resp.)