Thursday, October 15, 2015

Aquinas and the Reformation

I can’t pin Will Durant down. Does he think anything about he Renaissance needed correction, or doesn’t he? Although he was a fan of the artistic and literary achievements of the Renaissance, he strongly disapproved of the ecclesiastical immorality and aristocratic abuses of the period. In the first part of his volume on the Reformation,which follows his Renaissance volume, he again clearly outlines the political and social problems in fifteenth-century Germany clamoring for revolutionary change. But once he gets to the actual Reformation, he can’t seem to find any respect for its reforms. The reformers definitely brought new problems along with their solutions, but (as far as I can see from what I’ve read, anyway) Durant can’t see any virtue in the solutions, only that, as he says more than once, “the Reformation killed the Renaissance.”

Durant often lumps all belief in the supernatural together as “superstition,” so I don’t expect him to approve of any specific Reformation doctrine. But his blanket rejection makes it hard for me to tease out two surprises I’ve come across in the last couple of weeks. Both have to do with doctrines Durant links to the Protestant movement: predestination and the notion that the recipient of a sacrament has to have faith in that sacrament in order to receive the benefits. The surprise comes in that I’ve read both teachings in Thomas Aquinas, who, as a Doctor of the Church, can supposedly be trusted as offering pure Roman Catholic doctrine. So why does Durant call the doctrines Protestant?

OK, just because Aquinas is declared a Doctor of the Church doesn’t mean that every Catholic theologian knows everything he ever said – especially not the theologians among the corrupt clergy of Durant’s Renaissance Church. Just because one given Catholic theologian might know what Aquinas said doesn’t mean he believes it. As a non-Roman, I can add that just because a Doctor of the Church says something doesn’t mean it truly aligns with or shapes actual Catholic doctrine. I know I’m not usually going to see the nice straight lines I desire so much to discover in human history. But I’d at least like to know where these lines got broken.

Thomas Aquinas observes that God gives some humans goods that He does not give to others. One is beautiful while another is not, for instance. One has two working hands while another is born with only one. Extending this understanding to invisible gifts, Aquinas teaches that God gives some people the grace to turn from sin back toward their Maker and denies it to others. A human can only be saved through grace, and some simply are not given this saving grace. This is precisely the doctrine of predestination.

Now Calvin sees every action and every thought of every being as having been predetermined by God, even laying the evil plans of demons at God’s door. Aquinas, on the other hand, leaves humans in possession of free will. Everyone has total freedom of will to sin in any way whatsoever. And everyone who by grace is turned to God freely chooses Him because He is so obviously Good. So maybe the Catholic polemicists of the sixteenth century disapproved of Calvin’s version of predestination or Luther’s version. But Durant doesn’t recognize the nuance. He simply says that Catholics viewed predestination as a Protestant heresy and quotes Catholics denouncing the doctrine. So where is the disconnect? Does Durant not understand the distinction? Did he only cite the theologians ignorant of Aquinas’s teaching? Were the theologians themselves ignorant of Aquinas’s teaching? Or did they know about it and yet disagree? I don’t know that I’ll ever get the answers, but when I read over and over that predestination was a Protestant dogma, I can’t help but ask the questions.

Similarly, Aquinas teaches that the recipient of a sacrament has to believe in the sacrament in order to receive its effects. An early Protestant theologian asked a Catholic whether a mouse consuming a crumb of the Host eats bread or eats God. As I read Aquinas, I think he would say that the mouse eats bread. Durant's treatment of this issue prompts all the same questions in my mind as predestination does. But it suggests another layer as well: did the Catholic clergy at the time categorize the doctrine as Protestant rather than Thomist (aka Catholic) only because they saw that accepting it reduced the political power of the priests?

It turns out the history of the Reformation is as messy and complicated as any other history. Go figure. I’m afraid I’ve said enough potentially offensive things for one day, so I’ll quit now.

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