Let me say once again before I start that I’m not protesting anything, so don’t read too much into the word “Protestant.” I’m only using “Catholic” and “Protestant” here to indicate churches of today designated by those terms and tenets of doctrine typically found today in those respective churches.
I’ve said a time or two in earlier posts that little of Thomas Aquinas’s work sounds specifically Catholic to me. But the treatise titled “Before the Resurrection” gets into things that most Protestants would be uncomfortable with: Purgatory and prayers to saints, for example. Protestantism isn’t truly all that opposed to these doctrines. Protestants believe in a process of purging for Christians after death; it’s in I Corinthians 3:12-13. And C. S. Lewis made prayers to saints very palatable when he pointed out simply that asking Christians in Heaven to pray for us isn’t that different from asking the Christians who are living on earth. On the other hand, I don’t know any Protestant who would follow Aquinas’s lead by praying for the elect in Purgatory.
In any case, this section hasn’t helped strengthen and build my own beliefs as much as it has merely clarified the beliefs of fellow Christians. He certainly hasn’t concinced me of an ongoing Purgatory running in time parallel to ours. I’m not sure he’s trying to convince anyone to change his mind on these things, though. It may just be the way it looks to a non-Roman, broad-minded as I may be, but Aquinas here seems far from trying to prove anything and is instead simply laying out the order of a scheme. And the scheme, being a medieval scheme, is orderly indeed. There are two categories of sin: original sin and actual committed sin. Each can either plague a given person or not. Therefore, a departed soul can be in one of four states, and there’s a place for each of them: Hell is for those with both original sin and actual, Limbo for those with original sin only (i.e. unbaptized babies), Purgatory for actual only (the laborers in Purgatory having accepted Christ, they are free from the bondage of orignal sin), and Heaven for the Blessed who are completely cleansed of both. Well, OK, the neat, symmetrical scheme is spoiled by one last place for the dead: the Limbo of the Fathers held those destined for glory who died before the Resurrection of Christ.
Aquinas’s theory of end times also especially intrigued me. As a man of his era, he says nothing about various times at which the Rapture might occur and doesn’t mention the word “Millennium,” two issues that distinguish prominent eschatological views of today. He does refer to Antichrist and the persecution (or Tribulation), but only in passing. Of more urgency to Aquinas are the signs preceding the Day of Judgment and the nature of the fire that will consume the world (“the Final Conflagration”). Will the fire be an earthly fire? (Yes.) Will it cleanse all the elements? (Yes.) WIll it cleanse the heavenly bodies? (No.) In fact, the question of the fire takes up nine articles, far more than any others in this section, so we could say Thomas is in his own way consumed by the consuming fire.
All of “Before the Resurrection” was interesting to me, especially the parts trying to fit in Biblical prophecy with the Aristotelian theory of physics, but the most helpful for me were passages on prayer. On the surface, Aquinas talks about puzzles involving prayers by saints in Heaven, but most of the enigmas apply to prayers by Christians on Earth, as well. Why does God use prayer if He can simply do what He wills? How do predestination and prayer work together? Or in other words, can prayer change God’s mind? Aquinas cuts through the Gordian knot by showing these to be false dichotomies. God does do what He wants, and what He wants is to achieve his purposes through the means of his people’s prayers.