Tag Archives: Thomas Aquinas

How (not) to Speak (about the Power) of God: Some Christmas Reflections on Divine Action

Nativity scenes

Nativity scenes (Photo credit: Boston Public Library)

[With a few revisions, the following is a partial cross-posting from an entry I made last week at Homebrewed Christianity in response to this podcast episode.  The main purpose of what I wrote was to call into question what struck me as a discourteous representation of how Christians have talked about the nature of God’s power for the vast majority of church history.  Bo Sanders kindly pushed back, and then Tony Jones responded to both of our posts and the podcast by asking some follow-up questions for process theology, echoing at least some of my concerns.  Finally, my friend and former classmate Austin Roberts gave these pithy answers for Tony.]

As finite beings, all of our language is only fit to describe finite reality.  This leads some to conclude that all attempts to say anything positive about God are in vain.  But those like Thomas Aquinas for example, and Pseudo-Dionysius, insisted instead that one could indeed ascribe certain attributes to God by following a process of affirmation, negation, and remotion, emanation, or re-reaffirmation when talking about God (e.g., “God is like a parent in some respects, but only in limited correlation or proportionality — not directly or univocally”). This method of theology became known as the via analogia, or the “analogical predication of divine names.”  Thomas also has an account of God’s agency in the world in terms of secondary causality, which is a non-zero sum way of granting freedom to creation and human agents for participation in the purposes of God without infringing upon natural ends.

In other words, while it is fitting to say that God loves us like parents love their children, this love, and this parenthood, are not im-mediately comparable to our finite and human experience of love and parenting.  All the more so when we get into specific human experiences like kids playing in traffic.  The idea that God could intervene to stop traffic is not the same kind of intervention that Christians hope for in the resurrection or in the eschaton (I would not even call it “intervention” — more on this below).  The same goes for talking about God as a “ruler,” or as anything else.  Thus, when assessing and the nature of God’s character with respect to God’s power, we cannot rely too heavily on any one human analogy.  Only in the resounding overflow or of a plurality of names does the nature of God become even partially revealed.  Thus, whatever one makes of traditional accounts of God’s omnipotence, it does not equal “arbitrariness” or Caesar-style trumping power.  I know this doesn’t make things any easier or solve our God-talk problems.  The point is, while I think Christians can and even need to disagree with and reform classical theism in certain respects, we must remember to preserve the integrity (not infallibility!) of the intentions of the best of the tradition rather than dismissing its doctrines as necessarily having distorted the character of the God of Jesus Christ for all the centuries before ours (though I’m not accusing anyone in particular of consistently doing this, despite the polemical tone).

Secondly, The problem of evil has troubled me deeply, and still does.  I do not feel resolved about it at all.  My dissertation is largely about this very subject.  It is one of the main reasons people reject traditional understandings of God’s power, and again, there may be some grounds for rethinking the tradition here.  But I think our refusal to tolerate a fair amount of mystery when it comes to explaining suffering has as much to do with our anthropocentric view of reality as it does with any possible deficiency in God’s character or power.  Much as I want it to, God’s goodness does not necessarily depend on what is good for humans and from our point of view right now (I realize this argument could be turned around and used against “interventionist” theologies as well — I mentioned this ideological risk in the podcast episode).  I say this as someone who is as existentially disturbed by meaningless horrors in history as the next person.  I do not mean this to be a pious refusal of all speculation. I just think it’s an important check on speculation.  Some contemporary theologies characterized by process and postmodern thought are good about critiquing modernity’s “turn” to the human subject, but we still have some modern arrogance to shake off.  The classical tradition was far less anthropocentric than we are — they were more theocentric — even though their universe was thought to be infinitely smaller and ptolemaic!

Third, process theologians like to recite the Philippians 2 hymn, but only the first half of it.  Yes, God’s power is most demonstrated in the self-emptying love of Christ on the cross.  In this sense, God can safely be called a fellow-suffer who understands.  And on this same cross, the power of Caesar is judged, criticized, and exposed as fraudulent.  But only in the resurrection is the power of Caesar truly undermined, which Paul attests in “part two” of the Philippians hymn.  And according to Paul, the power of God is disclosed not as weakness, but in weakness – in becoming weakness, namely.  For without decent, there could be no ascent (metaphorically).

Similarly, the reign of God is known not as much by non-coercive power, as by power from below – power from the margins.  There is a difference here. I am weary of any dualism between nature and super-nature as well, but if the resurrection isn’t meant to be a coercive rupture of the “as is” structure of reality, I don’t know what is.  I suggest, therefore, that Christians are better off not primarily by taking issue with the idea of God having coercive power as such, but with God having top-down power.  It’s a false binary if we’re forced to choose between a Caesar-God and a strictly persuasive God who can’t accomplish her purposes apart from human consent (i.e., as if God asks for permission to redeem…).  God’s top-down action is weak, but bottom-up, it’s strong, transformative and quite forceful.  This doesn’t need to mean it isn’t loving.  Nor does it imply violent retribution, despite what some ahistorical readings of Revelation would have us believe.  Somewhere herein lies an all-important distinction that might just make a way for a real eschatology without giving up the integrity of the physical universe.

So in the spirit of Christmas — given a major theme is the meaning of the incarnation and the picture given in the gospel narratives’ of Jesus’ poor, insignificant, outsider and genocidal birth setting — I propose we think of resurrection and eschatology (how Christ will finally “reign”) as emergent consummation.  The word “consummation” is a fairly traditional way to talk about the fulfillment of God’s purposes in time, but without the patriarchal baggage carried by other words like “triumph” or even “return” (e.g. “return of the king”).  “Emergent,” on the other hand, signals the idea of bottom-up and non-violent force that can nonetheless hardly be stopped.  Maybe this could be a better way then to talk about divine power without relinquishing the effectiveness of divine action.

Aquinas on Original Sin and Human Freedom


The nature of and relationship between original sin and human freedom is perhaps the most basic consideration of a Christian theological anthropology.  The sophisticated and thoroughly systematic outline of these aspects of human nature offered by Thomas Aquinas continues to be relevant for contemporary discussion.  Additionally, the rise of recent feminist, process, and political theologies in particular has rekindled the need for reflection on the role of divine grace and sovereignty with respect to sin and freedom.

It is often questioned for instance whether upholding the classical doctrines of divine immutability, omnipotence and transcendence of space and time is compatible with the belief in original sin and at least some measure of human responsibility for suffering and the fate of the planet.  The specifications of these doctrines themselves are not the primary concern here.  Nor is it the aim of this paper to pay special notice to the novel features of the recent theological developments just mentioned.  Rather it seems that in view of the increasing plurality of perspectives on these issues, a straightforward examination of what exactly Aquinas has said – and to a certain extent the classical tradition as a whole – is appropriate.  The hope in such an endeavor is for the achievement of a newfound appreciation for how Thomas’s understanding of human nature and its good capacities can contribute to creation care and even social theory, as well as a restored recognition of the reverence, piety, and seriousness with which one of the foremost Fathers of the Christian church thought about human responsibility, the dignity of the body, and the severity of sin.

To begin it will be fitting to first look at Aquinas’s metaphysical account of the structure of human beings.  A number of elements treated by Aquinas that concern the relationship between original sin and human freedom cannot be considered here.  There will not be, for example, ample attention given to the topics of sensation, consciousness, natural appetite (ST I, 77-83), of law (I-II, 90-108), the passions (I-II, 22-48), the structure of the human will itself (I-II, 6-21), or God’s government of creatures (I, 103-119) – all of which are important for the theme of this essay.  Brief reference and explanation will be given regarding these articles wherever needed, but the underlying logic of this essay will follow the sequence of these seminal questions: 1) What is the nature of a human being, its place in the order of creation, and its level of freedom such that it is said to be responsible for sin?  2) What, therefore, is the origin and effect of sin? 3) Is God’s will sovereign over the relationship between original sin and human freedom, and if so, how? 4) Finally, what might be critically retrieved for contemporary theology from the facets of Thomistic theology heretofore considered?


Aquinas takes up Aristotle’s description of human beings as hylomorphic (literally hyle or wood, and morphe or shape in Greek) in which, as substances composed of substantial form and primary matter, the soul is related to body as form to matter; that is, the soul is the form of the body, and the body is the essentially or substantially (in the secondary sense, as ousia) determining, individuating matter of the soul.  The body is activated and specified by the form (in contrast to “second matter,” which is said to be “designated”), while the soul, as intellect and will, is the efficient and transcendent cause of the body.  What makes human beings distinct from other animals as a consequence of this composite union is their intellectual capacity to reason and self-reflect, the immaterial power to abstract from the sensible, and thereby also the ability to apprehend the universal (e.g., treeness rather than just particular trees).  This is why Thomas attributes complexity rather than simplicity to human beings.  Thomas calls simple those “lower,” embodied creatures as well as the “higher” disembodied angels or “separated substances” (“substances” in the first sense).  Human beings in contrast are regarded as complex because they are “situated at the juncture of the material and the immaterial”[i] and contain the perfections of both orders.[ii]

By implementing this structure, Aquinas objects to Plato with the accusation that he has “confused the mode of our understanding with the mode of being of things.”[iii]  Abstraction accounts for the modal difference between what is known as a sensible singular and knowledge itself as universal.  This serves to explain why Thomas would see as unnecessary any separate order of Forms corresponding to ideas.  The species or concept of a thing known by the human intellect, for example, is not another thing in itself, but is the very activity of the intellect as it is informed by the thing in the act of knowing it.

It would be misleading to characterize Aquinas’s account of the body-soul/matter-form composition as simply a position between dualism and materialism.  Both dualism and materialism deny the notion that the soul as the animating, organizing and directing principle of the body.[iv]  So while for instance Descartes’s rejection of the body as constitutive of human directly opposes Hobbes’s denial of any immateriality in humanity, neither is concerned with the question of whether there is anything distinctively human about the body.  In both cases, one is left without the essential language of the body as informed by the soul, which surrenders the body’s status to the command of biology.[v]

At the same time, in keeping with the distinction from Plato, Thomas and Aristotle before him are certainly not setting the essence of human being in opposition to nature.  Instead they consider human beings part of nature, and as such strive to simply accentuate the commonalities of the human species.  Etienne Gilson elucidates the point that “it would be completely foreign to the Thomistic perspective to regard the material universe as the result of some calamity and the union of soul and body as the consequence of a fall.”[vi]  The body is not the prison of the soul.  Union of soul and body is not only natural and appropriate, but also provides a suitable vehicle for the communication of love.[vii]


Thomas’s view of nature in general, which includes human nature, regards it as creation, capable of being neither enemy nor friend of humanity but rather the mere context within which relations of enmity or friendship develop between human beings and God.[viii] Aquinas recognizes the role of teleology and final causality, appreciating the importance of hierarchy in nature, and understanding the natural “part” in light of the “whole.”[ix] In this regard, nature is an instrument in God’s service.

Speaking of creation, Aquinas refers to it as the mode by which all things emanate from God as their principle – the producer of being as such, but not necessarily the direct or immediate producer of particular beings.[x]  Incidentally, the evolution of a particular species or even the emergence of life itself is not incompatible with this idea.[xi]  Yet Thomas affirms that, “to create belongs to the action of God alone,” so one need not envision an exaggerated distance, disinterest or disengagement on the part of God in the creation process of particular species or beings either.[xii]  The Divine Will undoubtedly extends to particular goods for Thomas.[xiii]  It is also true to say that God has willed interdependence of natural organisms whereby some creatures survive by the deaths of others, and this does not contradict the “good” of created nature.[xiv]  Nature is good in that it has being.  Consequently, all things move toward God as their suitable good.  They “desire” (appetunt) God as their end in an analogous sense,[xv] “whether this desire is intellectual, sensible, or natural (that is, without cognition).”[xvi]  To illustrate a case of “natural” desire, Stephen Pope cites the example of a plant obtaining sugars by means of photosynthesis.  Concerning human beings and beings in general, Pope explains that

Attaining one’s own good is simultaneously “attaining” God in the sense of becoming more like God. This is because God is that Being who is fully actualized, that Being whose existence is the full and perfect attainment of God’s own good. Thus, to the extent that a particular creature attains its own good and actualizes its own nature, it “moves toward” God (see ST I-II, 1,8). This is the meaning of claiming that nature in its parts and whole is good “by participation.”[xvii]

Furthermore, Aquinas adopts Aristotle’s order of philosophical pedagogy, which begins with logic and mathematics followed by natural philosophy, ethics and politics, and finally metaphysics.  Accordingly, Aristotle’s approach differs significantly from one that begins with the mind-body problem.  Whereas modernists start by examining the “special nature of mental activity,” Thomas and Aristotle proceed via a “general interest in characterizing the relationship, in things of many kinds, between their organizing or structure and their material composition.”[xviii]

It could be observed therefore that from the perspective of Aristotle and Aquinas, the modern quest for certainty is a preoccupation beyond the scope of a human being’s role in the hierarchy of being – namely, to embrace one’s location in the world already, rather than to desperately search for reliable rational entry.

The same degrees of certitude are not available in all kinds of inquiry by human beings.  Unlike the tendency today to privilege scientific or empirical knowledge, the classical tradition as a whole is interested in and motivated by what is assumed to be the natural human longing to acquire wisdom about ultimate principles with respect to the whole of being.  Knowledge is possible only through the senses for Aristotle and Aquinas, meaning that receptive knowledge is essentially sentient.[xix]  The intellect’s transcendence of materiality, on the other hand, gives access to phantasms or sensible images.  And yet the separated existence of the soul is not in accordance with its nature; it receives species by an “influence of the divine light” (lumen glorie) as a materially constituted body.[xx]

Thus an apparent or even arguably irresolvable tension is present between the status of the soul as at once a form and a substance – form emphasizes our likeness with animals in sharing their genus, while substance designates our similarity to angels sharing their intellect.[xxi]  But Thomas holds that something can only be subsistent if it is complete in nature and existing in its own right as a particular thing (hoc aliquid).[xxii]  And since it is essential and not accidental of the soul to be designated by matter, human nature as Aquinas sees it is necessarily associated with bodiliness.[xxiii]  Therefore the soul is only said to be a substance separate from the body in a diminished or analogical sense.  Such is the mysterious union of the body and soul in Aquinas, which ultimately requires recourse to theology for full intelligibility – but not because he is inattentive to laying out the metaphysical principles.  Nevertheless, it is this theological perspective that will ultimately frame the discussion of original sin.  Beforehand, however, it is necessary to address Aquinas’s notion of human freedom.


As can be deduced from the borrowed Aristotelian metaphysical structure of the soul and the body, Aquinas expounds that the existence of human beings is accidental rather than essential to its nature.  In other words, existence is always at some point only a potentiality, whereas for God it is always essentially actualized.  This difference between esse and essentia – which is much more basic to Thomas’s thought than that of Aristotle – is perhaps Thomas’s most profound and valuable contribution.  Thomas holds that God is essentially a “self-subsisting Being” (Ipsum esse perse subsiste)[xxiv] and the “First Agent, who is agent only.”[xxv]  Unlike all finite beings, God as the First Agent does not act to acquire another end – as to attain what God does not already possess – but only “to communicate the divine perfection which is God’s goodness.”[xxvi]  As Pope correctly observes, “this form of action expresses the greatest liberality because it comes, not from need or utility, but from the divine goodness alone.”[xxvii]  It is only with the presupposition of this basic distinction then that a discourse on human freedom can be adequately elucidated.

For Thomas, the human will necessarily desires happiness.[xxviii]  Of course force and coercion manipulate the likelihood of realizing such happiness though, so it is said that human beings have free choice only in means, not ends.[xxix]  The intellect moves the will by proposing various ends to it, but the will moves the intellect “as an agent, as what alters moves what is altered, and what impels moves what is impelled.”[xxx]  Moreover, the will is even able to move itself.[xxxi]  Thomas asserts that the passions reside in the sensitive appetite, but not in a manner independent from the rule of the will.[xxxii]  The passions are subordinate to but also participate in reason as well.  In this way, Aquinas defends that the will is indeed free insofar as humanity is rational.[xxxiii]  For he says that, “reason in contingent matters may follow opposite courses, as we see in dialectic syllogisms and rhetorical arguments . . . particular operations are contingent, and therefore in such matters the judgment of reason may follow opposite courses, and is not determinate to one.”  Hence, it could be argued that Thomas understands reason to be indeterminate, as human beings engage in comparison and are able to amend their judgment of the goodness in things and potential happiness derived from those things.[xxxiv]

This apparent freedom in human decision and action notwithstanding, the influence of Augustine on Aquinas in this particular matter is clear enough.  Unlike the nonvirtuous person, for example, a virtuous person has a proclivity to choose the common good (bonum in comuni) over particular goods.[xxxv]  The question is, “which agent is freer?” And according to Augustine, it is the one who is most contently participating in the universal good, i.e., God.  Freedom then in Thomas’s view is not a product of individual self-creation but rather is fulfilled by “embracing in a concrete and personal way the hierarchy of goods appropriate to our nature.”[xxxvi]

As already stated, Thomas’s explication of human freedom falls under the broader heading of theological anthropology and hence cannot be properly presented without regard for the theocentric orientation of this anthropology.  Thomas says in the Summa Contra Gentiles that the Divine Will does not remove contingency from things; nor does it impose absolute necessity on them.[xxxvii]  The efficacy of the Divine is not only such that what God wills should be, but also that it should be in the mode intended for it.  Therefore, necessity by supposition rather than absolute necessity is the condition of many contingent movements.  Aquinas gives the following example: if Socrates runs, he must also be moved.[xxxviii]  Thus God’s relationship to human freedom and the activity of creation in general is one characterized by intermediary and immediate causes respectively, which are not reducible to each other.  Similarly, Thomas explains that “[virtue] and vice do not originate in the same way: since virtue is caused by the subordination of the appetite to reason, or to the immutable good [perfection], which is God, whereas vice arises from the appetite for mutable good [privation].”[xxxix]

The challenge for Aquinas’s account of human freedom comes by accepting the concept of the will.  Aristotle had not developed such a concept; it seems to have come from Augustine.  In order for free will to be intelligible, the act of the will must be thought to either erupt into the world without a cause or consist of a freedom that is simultaneously compatible with having been caused – that is, not being the source of its own origin. According to Robert Pasnau, “Aquinas’s theory of free decision falls into the class of views now described as compatibilist – accounts on which freedom can coexist with cognitive and volitional systems that function in entirely deterministic ways, necessitated by the sum of prior events.”[xl]

This appears to relegate Aquinas’s philosophical system to some kind of determinism, but this is not the complete picture.  Thomas is elsewhere insistent that free decision is not compatible with determinism.[xli]  Pasnua observes further, however, that,  “Aquinas explains human freedom without any recourse to an uncaused, undetermined act of will or intellect – as if only an uncaused decision could count as a free decision.”[xlii]  Thus, despite the earlier claim to reason’s indeterminacy, supposing that the will is free to make a choice between two options is now in danger of incoherency.

How is it, then, that Aquinas can purport that human beings have free will?  Since Thomas claims with Aristotle that something is free which occurs by cause of itself,[xliii] a tension must be resolved by distinguishing between degrees and qualities of causality.[xliv]  Freedom for Aquinas then does not require that what is free be the first cause of itself; for Aquinas also submits that the will’s movement comes directly from the will and from God.[xlv]  Still, “human beings are in control of their acts because of a capacity for higher-order judgments and higher-order volitions.”[xlvi]  This is why one can choose to abstain from eating despite great hunger.[xlvii]  In this respect, that Thomas situates human beings above the animals is significant – lest the power of human volition be forgotten.

The discussion of freedom inevitably broaches the doctrine of predestination, which is where this analysis must culminate; but one discovers in Aquinas as well that the free will of human beings has been weakened by sin, whereby it is hindered from good by the corruption of nature.  Hence the subject of original sin and its relationship to human freedom must now be considered.


The separation of reason and the senses, however it is broken down, underlies much of the difficulty with respect to morality.  The traditional Christian response to this quandary has been to speak about nature with recourse to the doctrine of original sin.  As one proceeding by way of faith seeking understanding, Thomas writes primarily as a theologian by declaring that the human will “would be naturally capable of complying with the orders issued reason” save for original sin. [xlviii]  Because of this sin, however, any natural moral virtue not informed by charity is judged to be a weakness or imperfection.

Moreover, it is but by revelation that human beings know their true end as union with God.  Hence Gilson explains, “it is essential to purely natural moral virtues that they have ends that fall short of [humanity’s] supernatural end,” and “[s]ince all natural moral virtues suffer this limitation, none of them is fully capable of satisfying the definition of virtue.”[xlix]  Concerning humanity’s culpability for falling short of this end, Thomas writes the following, making an important distinction between original and actual sin:

So too the disorder which is in an individual man … is not voluntary by reason of his personal will, but by reason of the will of the first parent, who through a generative impulse, exerts influence upon all who descend from him by way of origin, even as the will of the soul moves bodily members to their various activities. Accordingly, the sin passing in this way from the first parent to his descendants is called “original,” as a sin passing from the soul to the body’s members is called “actual.” Similarly, even as an actual sin committed through some bodily member is a sin of that member only as part of the man himself, and so is called a “sin of man,” so also original sin is the sin of the individual person only because he receives human nature from the first parent; and it is called “a sin of nature.”[l]

Furthermore, Aquinas calls original sin, as opposed to actual sin, a habit.  He distinguishes between two different kinds of habits, however.  The first kind is that by which power is inclined to an act.  The second kind is “the disposition of a complex nature, whereby that nature is well or ill disposed to something, chiefly when such a disposition has become like a second nature, as in the case of sickness or health.”[li]  A habit in this second sense then is not “infused” or “acquired” but “inborn”; that is, transmitted from humanity’s origin in its “first parent.”  One objection cited by Thomas suggests that original sin is a privation, but in response Thomas insists that it is only a partial privation, which is better expressed as a “corrupt habit.”  This corrupt habit is equally present in all.

Next, Thomas insists that original sin is not ignorance.  In a certain sense he is once more following Augustine who says that, “concupiscence is the guilt of original sin.”  Given that everything takes its species from its form, the species of original sin is taken from its cause.  The cause of original sin, Thomas explains, must be considered with respect to the cause of original justice, which is its contrary.[lii]  The differentiation to be made here is that, materially speaking, original sin is concupiscence, whereas formally speaking it is privation of original justice.  There is some debate about which of these aspects is of greater significance for Aquinas.  Original justice consists in humanity’s will being subject to God’s will, whose function is to move everything else to itself as the end. The qualitative deficiency of nature then – as privation of original justice – might rightly be considered the principle nature of original sin, whereas derivatively sinful acts are better called concupiscence.

The privation of this justice, as already implied above, entails humanity’s inordinate turning by its own will to mutable good as its end, as opposed to the ultimate good, which is God.  This turning away from God by human beings is made possible by the nature of the aforementioned freedom of the will, thus characterizing the relationship between original sin and human freedom.  This does not yet satisfy the requirements for explicating the full extent of the relationship, however, as the function of grace and God’s providence must also be examined.

In an effort to defend Thomas’s account of the relationship between original sin and human responsibility for sin as plausible, Jeremy Cohen offers this assessment:

In the state of original justice, man would have been capable of realizing the spiritual end of communion with God, for which purpose God had indeed created him; without original justice, man can no longer properly order his various drives and appetites, and he falls subject to the frailties of human existence. Original sin, then, defined simply as the loss of original justice, does not of itself produce vice in man or in any active way induce him to sin.[liii]

And though Aquinas concedes that mortality, ignorance, passion and a whole host of other negative consequences resulted from original sin, the view of original sin as the privation of original justice amounts to keeping human nature essentially intact.

To further disclose the cause of original sin, an important question for Aquinas is whether sin infects an individual through the soul or the body.  It would appear at first that if sin comes to us through the soul, God would be the author of sin – a postulation that Thomas rejects, since God cannot will evil.[liv]  There are two ways in which sin can be in something – by principle or instrumental cause on the one hand, or as in its subject on the other.[lv]  Despite being generated by the flesh from parent to child, sin is still originally a condition of the will before the other powers, whose cause is the human subject.[lvi]  This follows the order of perfections from the will down to the passions.[lvii]  It is the soul that is the subject of guilt, not the flesh and its parts.  Furthermore, bodily semen does not by its own power produce the rational soul, but only disposes the matter for it.

At the same time, Thomas maintains that the soul’s stain by sin is caused by the infusion of the soul and the body through carnal generation.  Moreover, he later states that while original sin belongs chiefly to the will, the infection and corruption of sin insofar as it is transmitted belongs specially and proximately to the generative power, the concupiscible faculty and the sense of touch.[lviii]  Hence the will is only remotely infected by the transmission of sin.  The motivation for such a distinction seems to be God’s exoneration from the authorship, or at least from the immediate creation and participation in the transmission of original sin during the generation of new human life by infusing the soul in the body.  But this still leaves an apparent contradiction to be discussed below, particularly since the soul for Aquinas does not exist prior to its infusion with the body.


Covetousness and pride are judged by Thomas to be the root and beginning of all sin respectively.  Thomas identifies covetousness as a “genus comprising all sins” because it denotes a propensity of a corrupt nature to “inordinate desire for any temporal good.”[lix]  The primarily means by which we obtain temporal goods, however, is through riches, which is the interpretation Thomas provides for St. Paul’s maxim that “philarguria is the root of all [kinds of] evil” (1 Tim. 6:10).  Every sin grows out of the love of temporal things, and as Qoheleth says, “all things obey money” (Eccles. 10:19).  The love of God, on the other hand – caritas – is the  opposing virtue.  About pride, the teacher of wisdom also claims that it is the beginning of all sin (Eccles. 10:15).  At its most original level, pride is contempt toward subjection to God’s commands as a result of an inordinate desire to excel.[lx]  So though it denotes a special sin in one sense, it nonetheless is the beginning of every sin in another sense.  A special sin refers to the execution of an intention rather than the intention itself.  Yet again we are given a distinction so subtle – between covetousness and pride that is – that one might wonder whether there is a distinction at all.  Thomas uses “self-love” synonymously with pride, which would seem to be the opposite of caritas in the same instance – just like the love of money.

Going a step further, besides the sin of covetousness and pride, there are still other sins that Aquinas calls “capital vices.”  A capital vice is “one from which other vices arise, chiefly by being their final cause, [whose] origin is formal . . . wherefore a capital vice is not only the principle of others, but also their director and, in a way, their leader: because the art or habit, to which he end belongs, is always the principle and the commander in matters concerning the means.”[lxi]  Thus Thomas nominates the seven capital vices: vainglory, envy, anger, sloth, covetousness, gluttony, and lust.  And still further it is shown how derivative sins can be traced back to the capital vices, such as ignorance to sloth, which pertains to negligence by one who “declines to acquire spiritual goods on account of the attendant labor.”[lxii]

Sin diminishes the good of nature by corrupting and wounding it.  The good of nature was the gift to “the first man” in the state of original justice, and as such comprised an inclination to virtue.[lxiii]  What has been destroyed entirely, however, is precisely this inclination, which is why Thomas says there is a diminution.  This diminution does not consist in such things as being, living, and understanding, however; but neither is it a mere accident to the good nature of the subject.  Rather it affects human nature both by an action of the soul and by the passion of an object acting on the subject’s power – by moving its sensitive appetite – which inclines the reason and will to sin.

At the same time, while he conveys with the tradition that death and bodily defects are the effects of sin and therefore unnatural, Aquinas holds that the good of human nature itself cannot be completely destroyed by sin.  The reason for this is found in the Augustinian notion that evil does exist except in some measure of good.[lxiv]  The natural inclination to virtue in the human nature that is diminished by sin was proper to its rational capacity.  But sin has not totally removed reason from human nature.  What is diminished each time that a human being sins is not its root inclination in sum, but “only the part of the obstacle which is placed against its attaining its term.”[lxv]  What Thomas means here is that sin only destroys by way of sin that has been added on to other sin, as in the example of a finite thing being diminished indefinitely through a continual subtraction of a proportion, not quantity.  For even the “lost,” Thomas avows, retain something of the natural inclination to virtue.  Otherwise they would have no power for remorse.

Sin leaves the powers of the soul destitute of their proper order, which Aquinas terms a wounding of nature.  He explicitly lists the wounds of ignorance, malice, weakness, and concupiscence, which are the result of other sins causing the reason to be obscured, the will to be hardened to evil, good actions to be more difficult, and concupiscence to be more impetuous.[lxvi]  This wounding also includes the privation of mode, species and order.[lxvii]  Remembering that “every being and every good as such depends on its form which it derives its species,” Aquinas avers that mode, species and order are also consequent upon every created good and therefore are subject to the same privation.  This is because “forms of things are like in numbers” so that a form has a certain mode corresponding to its measure.[lxviii]

In addition to being wounded, human nature is said to be stained by sin.  Aquinas affirms that this act of staining causes a loss of “comeliness” in human nature, which is twofold: of the natural light of reason and of the Divine Light (lumen glorie) or Divine Law.  The stain is a privation of union with the Divine and natural light as a result of sin.  Thomas compares sin in this manor to “a shadow, which is the privation of light through the interposition of a body, and which varies according to the diversity of the interposed bodies.”[lxix]  In speaking of these various sins, Thomas declares that the stain on a human being remains after the act of sin has passed. Once moved by grace, however, that individual can return to the Divine Light and to the light of reason as a consequence of the change in his or her will, which is more than simply ceasing to commit the sinful act.[lxx]


From here it is possible to proceed to an account of the function of grace in healing the wounded, stained nature.  This will confer a more comprehensive inquiry into the coherence of the sin and freedom dialectic in Aquinas’s theology.  To review, humanity’s state without grace has been wounded by original sin with a consequent disordering of concupiscence, which prevents acting at all times as reason prescribes.[lxxi] Just as theology does not suppress philosophy – and in the same way that the supernaturally infused virtues do not suppress the natural virtues – neither does grace suppress nature (gratia non tollit naturam); on the contrary, it adds to nature and brings greater perfection to it.[lxxii]

In Thomism, no choice is necessary between nature and grace. Instead, grace presupposes nature, and by way of healing and elevation, perfects it, restoring it to its original capacity.  It does not contradict nature. This reflects the basic theological optimism in Aquinas.  Similarly, theological virtues assist the natural virtues to fully realize fully their proper perfection as virtues.[lxxiii] By extension, a human being can know truth apart from grace, but this does not mean that truth can be known apart from God who is the First Act and Mover; for to know truth is to act by intellectual light, which is a motion produced by creation and subject to the plan of God’s providence.[lxxiv]

When it comes to doing good, because human nature is not entirely corrupted by sin, human beings can work some particular good, “as to build dwellings, plant vineyards, and the like; yet it cannot do all the good natural to it.”[lxxv]  Even if in the state of perfect nature, however, human beings would still need a “gratuitous strength” (grace) infused to natural strength in order to do and wish supernatural good.  In the state of corrupt nature, on the other hand, grace is necessary for healing the corruption of nature, which otherwise follows its private good according to the fallen appetite of rational will.  So too then grace is needed to carry out “works of supernatural virtue, which are meritorious,” which includes fulfilling the commandments of the Divine Law.[lxxvi]  In both cases, therefore, the Divine help is necessary for good acts.  It follows from this for Thomas that human beings can neither merit everlasting life without grace nor prepare themselves to receive this grace.[lxxvii]  With free will, sin, and grace just considered, it is apposite to examine the doctrine of divine election according to Aquinas – the auspice under which freedom, sin, and grace can be reconciled.


Despite the positive light shed herein on Aquinas’s theological anthropology, what is often thought to be a negative side of his theology is exposed upon the consideration of predestination and reprobation.  A full exposition of this doctrine cannot be conducted here, but failing to give a short synopsis would leave a one-sided impression.  It has thus far been noted that in humanity’s corrupt nature, the aid of healing grace is needed not only to love God and neighbor, but finally to obtain salvation.  This grace is always given in mercy, however, so its refusal should not pose an inconsistency in Divine justice.[lxxviii]  For this reason, if unbaptized children or pagans die in a state of unforgiven original sin, Aquinas maintains that their potential for union with Christ has remained unactualized for lack of election.[lxxix]  Predestination consigns some to the attainment of Christ’s saving passion through and faith and charity, while reprobation “permits” others to be excluded from this merciful end.  Predestination therefore is the cause of grace, whereas reprobation is not the cause of sin.  Reprobation is God’s abandonment, however, which leads to eternal punishment.  At the same time, the inculpable unbelief of those who have not heard the preaching of revelation is not what damns, but instead the other sins that cannot be taken away without faith.[lxxx]  This unbelief itself is already a form of punishment for original sin.[lxxxi]  The withdrawal of original justice and grace that makes a human being vulnerable to the stain of sin in the first place has the character of punishment as well.[lxxxii]

Evil and sin are understood as the consequence of God’s creating corruptible beings in a world marked by finitude and chance, and as such are not in conflict with the perfection of creation in its entirety.[lxxxiii]  Since both the generation and corruption of creatures is willed by God, however, in one sense God can be said to will evil – but only to the extent that such evil is assigned to serve the larger good.[lxxxiv]  And in spite of his otherwise optimistic tone regarding nature, “Aquinas’s focus on the good of the whole, and the “fittingness” of the multitude and diversity of creatures, allowed him to acknowledge the real presence of evil in nature.”[lxxxv]

God’s providence over all things is twofold in this schema: immediate and intermediary.  In the first place, the divine mind contains the “ratio” of all causes and effects and therefore the eternal ordering of everything to an end.[lxxxvi]  This is so because the “the order of divine providence remains immutable and certain insofar as all things happen as they have been foreseen,” and as they originate and participate in the actuality and source of all Being.[lxxxvii]  In the second place, however, there are finite, secondary causes by God’s consent and goodness to give creatures the dignity of causality.[lxxxviii]  As Anselm Min explains, these two senses are not mutually exclusive.[lxxxix]

Rational creatures are subject to God’s providence and foresight in such a way to be responsible for their deeds, but this responsible agency cannot be meritorious of grace; nor is it a foreknown, determining factor in God’s election of some and reprobation of others.[xc]  Hence predestination already includes within itself “the dialectic between salvific grace and human freedom.”[xci]  Concerning the reason for such a mysterious vision, the most one might say is that the logic of reprobation is founded in the permission of defect, for the promotion and greater manifestation of the good and perfect ordering of the whole.[xcii]

Nonetheless, one must not take Thomas’s doctrine of predestination in isolation.  Min makes the case that Aquinas – specifically in his earlier work – allows for the possibility of implicit faith and a “moral” way to God: “Aquinas’s God is as supremely “reasonable” God, who provides the means of salvation for everyone according to the nature of each, with full respect for the differences of times, persons, and conditions, never requiring the unnatural or the impossible of anyone.”[xciii]  Min acknowledges as well, however, that Thomas’s agreement with Augustine on reprobation would seem to negate what elsewhere appears to be a “preeminently reasonable, positive, and universalist dynamic of saving grace so evident in Aquinas’s theology.”[xciv]  Aquinas is not as pessimistic as Augustine, but the doctrine of predestination and reprobation certainly seems to portray God’s generosity as somewhat ambivalent or limited.

How might one charitably read this paradox?  Min advises the appropriation of hermeneutical suspicion on the one hand and retrieval on the other.[xcv]  Min underscores the prominent place of the absolute ontological priority the creator over the creature in Aquinas’s theology.[xcvi]  Thomas insists upon not measuring divine justice by human standards and, like Plato, relies upon the “harmony of the order in which each is rendered according to its due.”[xcvii]  Ultimately, God’s will is incomprehensible.  Aquinas is in seamless continuity with classical tradition as a whole by placing a successively glaring emphasis on the transcendence and otherness of God.  In terms of what can be retrieved then, it is exactly this kind of wonder and fearful respect for God’s lordship over creation on the one hand, and a humble appreciation for the thoroughly dependent and finite nature of human beings on the other that has been deficient in so many recent theologies.

With regard to criticism, it not clear given the logic just underlined that the damnation of reprobate human beings is solely their own fault.[xcviii]  Nor is it patently evident how God has not willed sin in creation.  For these reasons, one can justifiably hold deep reservations about the logic of reprobation.  In sum, however, Min’s conclusion is

not that the later Aquinas turned pessimist from his early soteriological optimism but that the [Summa] still bears the unresolved tension between the legacy of the Augustinian doctrine of sin and grace and the more positive directions Aquinas was creatively exploring and ultimate between his own sense of the incomprehensible ultimate sovereignty of divine freedom and his appreciation of the absolute generosity for the divine offer of salvation to all in view of Christ’s death and resurrection for all.[xcix]


There are a plethora of other elements worthy of retrieval in Aquinas, a few of which have roughly been touched on here.  In brusque summation, it is palpable that Thomas is affirmative in his view of nature.  In thinking about sexuality, for instance, he did not see reproduction as unnatural or sinful as a result of “the fall”; nor did he regard the bearing of children as a punishment for original sin – both of which are in contradistinction to Augustine for example.[c] The significance here is that original sin is not a positive trait, and that the goodness of nature holds precedence.

Proceeding from this same reasoning, one can also recall that Aquinas sees organized associations and government as part of the natural order enabling humanity to realize its capacity.[ci]  For Thomas, trade, commerce and the manner of properly ownership could also be performed justly under humanity’s obligation to care for the earth’s resources.  Thus without denying the effects of Adam’s fall on humanity, it is safe to conclude that “the Thomistic position comprised a noteworthy break with previous religious thought and did much to change the prevalent attitudes of European Christendom toward such basic worldly activities.”[cii]

In a time of mass migration, urbanization, depleting, non-renewable and vital resources – in essence, an unprecedented ecological crisis – a high volume of literature and rhetoric that emphasizes humanity’s kinship with nature and responsibility thereof has ensued.  Not only can Aquinas’s theological vision of the goodness of human nature, sin and freedom serve as an authoritative resource for advocating the protection of the planet, but it also proposes a balanced insight into both humanity’s liability for and ability to improve the corrupted condition of things.

Merold Westphal has amusingly remarked that “[c]ompared to Augustine, Luther and Calvin, for example, Aquinas does epistemology as if in the Garden of Even . . .”[ciii]  In doing so, he has typified the tendency on the part of Protestantists and neo-Calvinists specifically to accuse Aquinas of being too naïve about the damaging effects of sin own humanity’s ability to reason and will the good.  In response to such shortsighted criticisms, R.J. Snell retorts: “Original sin [in Aquinas] does more than simply deprive humans of a supernatural gift, for the privation of that gift is the loss of harmony, and that loss diminishes the soul’s natural inclination to virtue.  [For Aquinas,] that the metaphysical structure of the powers is not affected does not mean that the diminishing of inclination is not destructive of proper functioning.”[civ]

What is more, Thomas’s analysis of sin can even speak truth into an era of economic turmoil and globalization.  Relying on the work of Bernard Longergan, Snell extrapolates from Thomas’s portrayal of original sin and comments further about the latent social implications:

[S]in is the cause of decline, of failure to attain our natural good(s).  As a “component in social process,” sin is the “opposite to the development of civilizational order,” and society becomes “in favor of the powerful, the rich, or the most numerous class,” and there results “from sin a bias in favor of certain groups and against other groups.”  In the decline of civilization, creativity is abandoned as those insights which might lead to new policies are refused by the contraction of consciousness, or if those constructive insights are made by some they are rejected as the intelligent policy or idea “has to combine with power, with wealth, with popular notions, before it can be realized.”[cv]

Maurizio Ragazzi echoes Snell but also links this social analysis back to human freedom by arguing that the social dimension of sin does not exclude, but instead is rooted in the free will of each [human being] who remains responsible for all human action attributed to him or her.[cvi]

Thus one finds still another retrievable dimension of Aquinas’s work in these thinkers on the subject of sin and freedom – even with having inventively extended his thought to the modern political realm.[cvii]  With a proper critique of Thomas’s somewhat deterministic theological framework notwithstanding, a myriad of other contemporary reclamations can be made regarding these doctrines.  The nature of the task for modern-day theologians, therefore – with regard to the important job of recovering the many redeemable facets of Thomism – is perhaps better seen in this post-critical light.

[i] Saint Thomas Aquinas, On Human Nature (Hackett Publishing Co., 1999), x.

[ii] ST, I, 77, 2.

[iii] Aquinas, On Human Nature, xv.

[iv] Ibid., vii.

[v] Ibid., viii.

[vi] Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas (University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 189.

[vii] Aquinas, On Human Nature, xxi.

[viii] Stephen J. Pope, “Neither Enemy nor Friend: Nature as Creation in the Theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas,” Zygon 32, no. 2 (June 1, 1997): 222.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] ST I, 45, 5.

[xi] Pope, “Neither Enemy nor Friend: Nature as Creation in the Theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas,” 222.

[xii] ST I, 45, 3.

[xiii] SCG, I, 78.

[xiv] Pope, “Neither Enemy nor Friend: Nature as Creation in the Theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas,” 223.

[xv] ST I, 44, 4 ad 3.

[xvi] Pope, “Neither Enemy nor Friend: Nature as Creation in the Theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas,” 223.

[xvii] Ibid., 225.

[xviii] “Changing Aristotle’s Mind,” in Essays on Aristotle’s De Anima, ed. A. Rorty and M. Nussbaum (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), pp. 28-29.

[xix] Karl Rahner, Spirit in the World (New York: Continuum, 1994), 248.

[xx] Aquinas, On Human Nature, xiii.

[xxi] Ibid., xiv.

[xxii] ST, I, 75, 2, ad 2, and Commentary on the De Anima, Book II, Lecture 1.

[xxiii] Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas, 189.

[xxiv] ST I, 44, 1; also ST I, 11 ad 3, 4.

[xxv] ST I, 44, 4.

[xxvi] ST I, 44, 4.

[xxvii] Pope, “Neither Enemy nor Friend: Nature as Creation in the Theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas.,” 222.

[xxviii] ST, I, 82, 1.

[xxix] ST, I-II, 10, 2.

[xxx] ST, I, 82, 4.

[xxxi] Aquinas, On Human Nature, xvii.

[xxxii] ST I-II 23, 1.

[xxxiii] ST, I, 83, 1.

[xxxiv] Aquinas, On Human Nature, xvii.

[xxxv] Ibid., xviii.

[xxxvi] Ibid., xix.

[xxxvii] SCG I, 35.

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] I-II, 84, 4.

[xl] Robert Pasnau, Thomas Aquinas on Human Nature: A Philosophical Study of Summa Theologiae 1a, 75-89 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 221.

[xli] ST I, 83, 1.

[xlii] Pasnau, Thomas Aquinas on Human Nature: A Philosophical Study of Summa Theologiae 1a, 75-89, 221.

[xliii] ST I, 83, 1.

[xliv] God is the efficient cause of the very being of things.  God is the exemplary cause and final cause of all things.  The formal cause is the form or shape of the thing that makes it what it is.  Human soul is the form of a human being, making it a human body rather than the body of a dog.  Material cause is that by which something is composed, as a table is made of wood.

[xlv] Pasnau, Thomas Aquinas on Human Nature: A Philosophical Study of Summa Theologiae 1a, 75-89, 227.

[xlvi] Ibid., 230.

[xlvii] Ibid., 232.

[xlviii] Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas, 339.

[xlix] Ibid., 340.

[l] ST I-II, 81, 1.

[li] ST I-II, 82, 1.

[lii] ST I-II, 82, 3.

[liii] Jeremy Cohen, “Original Sin as the Evil Inclination: a Polemicist’s Appreciation of Human Nature,” Harvard Theological Review 73, no. 3 (July 1, 1980): 505.

[liv] SCG I, 95.

[lv] ST I-II, 83, 1.

[lvi] ST I-II, 83, 3.

[lvii] It might be objected here that the intellect is higher in the order of perfections than the will so as to be unaffected by original sin, but Thomas says that while “the intellect precedes the will, in one way, by proposing its object to it . . . [i]n another way, the will precedes the intellect, in the order of motion to act, which motion pertains to sin” (I-II, 83, 3).

[lviii] ST I-II, 83, 4.

[lix] ST I-II, 84, 1.

[lx] ST I-II, 84, 2.

[lxi] ST I-II, 84, 3.

[lxii] ST I-II, 84, 4.

[lxiii] ST I-II, 85, 1.

[lxiv] ST I-II, 85, 2.

[lxv] ST I-II, 85, 2.

[lxvi] ST I-II, 85, 3.

[lxvii] ST I-II, 85, 4.

[lxviii] Metaph. viii.

[lxix] ST I-II, 86, 1.

[lxx] ST I-II, 86, 2.

[lxxi] Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas, 339.

[lxxii] Ibid., 343.

[lxxiii] Ibid.

[lxxiv] ST I-II, 109, 1.

[lxxv] ST I-II, 109, 2.

[lxxvi] ST I-II, 109, 4.

[lxxvii] ST I-II, 109, 5-6.

[lxxviii] ST II-II, 2, 5.

[lxxix] ST III, 8, 3.

[lxxx] ST II-II, 10, 1.

[lxxxi] Anselm K. Min, Paths to the Triune God: An Encounter Between Aquinas and Recent Theologies (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), 110.

[lxxxii] ST I-II, 85, 5.

[lxxxiii] Pope, “Neither Enemy nor Friend: Nature as Creation in the Theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas.,” 223.

[lxxxiv] Here the argument is made with reference to God’s secondary acts as the Prime Mover, which cannot be in conflict with God’s nature – in contrast to what was said previously about God’s primary acts which cannot contradict God’s nature.

[lxxxv] Pope, “Neither Enemy nor Friend: Nature as Creation in the Theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas,” 223.

[lxxxvi] Min, Paths to the Triune God, 111.

[lxxxvii] Ibid., 112-3.

[lxxxviii] ST I, 22, 3.

[lxxxix] Min, Paths to the Triune God, 111.

[xc] ST I, 22, 2 ad 5.

[xci] Min, Paths to the Triune God, 116.

[xcii] Ibid., 114, 117.

[xciii] Ibid., 54.

[xciv] Ibid., 110.

[xcv] Ibid., 309.

[xcvi] Ibid., 118.

[xcvii] Ibid., 119.

[xcviii] Ibid., 125.

[xcix] Ibid., 130.

[c] Cohen, “Original Sin as the Evil Inclination: a Polemicist’s Appreciation of Human Nature,” 508.

[ci] Ibid., 514.

[cii] Ibid., 515.

[ciii] Merold Westphal, Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith, 4th ed. (Fordham University Press, 2001), 105.

[civ] R J Snell, “Thomism and noetic sin, transposed: a response to neo-Calvinist objections,” Philosophia Christi 12, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 15.

[cv] Ibid., 24.

[cvi] Maurizio Ragazzi, “The concept of social sin in its Thomistic roots,” Journal of Markets & Morality 7, no. 2 (Fall 2004): 363-408.

[cvii] One must exercise caution in basing any contemporary social criticism on pre-modern philosophy or theology.  The risk of anachronism as a result of reading through a post-Hegelian or Marxist lens is always present.


Aquinas, Saint Thomas. On Human Nature. Hackett Publishing Co., 1999.

Cohen, Jeremy. “Original Sin as the Evil Inclination: a Polemicist’s Appreciation of Human Nature.” Harvard Theological Review 73, no. 3 (July 1, 1980): 495-520.

Gilson, Etienne. The Christian Philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas. University of Notre Dame Press, 1994.

Min, Anselm K. Paths to the Triune God: An Encounter Between Aquinas and Recent Theologies. University of Notre Dame Press, 2005.

Pasnau, Robert, Thomas Aquinas on Human Nature A Philosophical Study of Summa Theologiae 1a, 75-89. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Pope, Stephen J. “Neither Enemy nor Friend: Nature as Creation in the Theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas..” Zygon 32, no. 2 (June 1, 1997): 219-230.

Ragazzi, Maurizio. “The concept of social sin in its Thomistic roots.” Journal of Markets & Morality 7, no. 2 (Fall 2004): 363-408.

Rahner, Karl, Spirit in the World. New York: Continuum, 1994.

Snell, R J. “Thomism and noetic sin, transposed: a response to neo-Calvinist objections.” Philosophia Christi 12, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 7-28.

Westphal, Merold. Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith. 4th ed. Fordham University Press, 2001.