Updated: Feb 13
From the "A Catholic on the Areopagus" blog.
According to the teaching of the Catholic Church, Christians are empowered by divine grace to be able to perform meritorious good works in such a way that although the good works of a Christian are truly and properly said to be gifts from God, they are also truly and properly said to be the merits of the Christian:
If anyone shall say, that the good works of a man that is justified are in such wise the gifts of God, as that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified; or, that the said justified, by the good works which are performed by him through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life, if so be, however, that he depart in grace, and, moreover, an increase of glory; let him be anathema (Council of Trent, On Justification, Canon XXXII).
The reason that the good works of a Christian are able to be supernaturally meritorious is because it is the supernatural grace of God that, in cooperation with the will of the justified Christian, produces them. A common Protestant objection to this doctrine is that even if our good works are the products of God’s grace, what we could contribute to them would only detract from their goodness. Thus, any contribution we could make to our good works would be an evil contribution. Since merit can accrue to us only insofar as we make a good contribution to a praiseworthy action, it follows, therefore, that our good works cannot be meritorious. Everything deserving of praise in our good works is attributable solely to God’s grace. As John Calvin explains:
What all our works can merit Scripture shows when it declares that they cannot stand the view of God, because they are full of impurity; it next shows what the perfect observance of the law (if it can any where be found) will merit when it enjoins, “So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants, we have done that which was our duty to do,” (Luke 17:10); because we make no free-offering to God, but only perform due service by which no favor is deserved. And yet those good works which the Lord has bestowed upon us he counts ours also, and declares, that they are not only acceptable to him, but that he will recompense them. It is ours in return to be animated by this great promise, and to keep up our courage, that we may not weary in well-doing, but feel duly grateful for the great kindness of God. There cannot be a doubt, that every thing in our works which deserves praise is owing to divine grace, and that there is not a particle of it which we can properly ascribe to ourselves. If we truly and seriously acknowledge this, not only confidence, but every idea of merit vanishes. I say we do not, like the Sophists share the praise of works between God and man, but we keep it entire and unimpaired for the Lord. All we assign to man is that, by his impurity he pollutes and contaminates the very works which were good. The most perfect thing which proceeds from man is always polluted by some stain (Institutes of the Christian Religion III, 15, 3). [It [is] beyond dispute, that free will does not enable any man to perform good works, unless he is assisted by grace; indeed, the special grace which the elect alone receive through regeneration (ibid. II, 2, 6). It must not be said that the legitimate use of the first grace is rewarded by subsequent measures of grace, as if man rendered the grace of God effectual by his own industry, nor must it be thought that there is any such remuneration as to make it cease to be the gratuitous grace of God. I admit, then, that believers may expect as a blessing from God, that the better the use they make of previous, the larger the supplies they will receive of future grace; but I say that even this use is of the Lord, and that this remuneration is bestowed freely of mere good will. The trite distinction of operating and co-operating grace is employed no less sinistrously than unhappily. Augustine, indeed, used it, but softened it by a suitable definition—viz. that God, by co-operating, perfects what he begins by operating,—that both graces are the same, but obtain different names from the different manner in which they produce their effects. Whence it follows, that he does not make an apportionment between God and man, as if a proper movement on the part of each produced a mutual concurrence. All he does is to mark a multiplication of grace. To this effect, accordingly, he elsewhere says, that in man good will precedes many gifts from God; but among these gifts is this good will itself. (August. Enchiridion ad Laurent. cap. 32).
Whence it follows, that nothing is left for the will to arrogate as its own. This Paul has expressly stated. For, after saying, “It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do,” he immediately adds, “of his good pleasure,” (Phil. 2:13); indicating by this expression, that the blessing is gratuitous. As to the common saying, that after we have given admission to the first grace, our efforts co-operate with subsequent grace, this is my answer:—If it is meant that after we are once subdued by the power of the Lord to the obedience of righteousness, we proceed voluntarily, and are inclined to follow the movement of grace, I have nothing to object. For it is most certain, that where the grace of God reigns, there is also this readiness to obey. And whence this readiness, but just that the Spirit of God being everywhere consistent with himself, after first begetting a principle of obedience, cherishes and strengthens it for perseverance? If, again, it is meant that man is able of himself to be a fellow-labourer with the grace of God, I hold it to be a most pestilential delusion (ibid. II, 3, 11).
In response, there is some truth to what Calvin says here, but as is his habit, he takes things too far. Calvin’s insistence that “every thing in our works which deserves praise is owing to divine grace” is, in fact, in line with the teaching of Thomists, particularly with respect to the principle of predilection, which St. Thomas Aquinas states as follows:
[S]ince God’s love is the cause of goodness in things…no one thing would be better than another, if God did not will greater good for one than for another (Summa Theologica I, 20, 3).
Calvin states a very similar principle:
In that some excel in acuteness, and some in judgment, while others have greater readiness in learning some peculiar art, God, by this variety commends his favour toward us, lest any one should presume to arrogate to himself that which flows from His mere liberality. For whence is it that one is more excellent than another, but that in a common nature the grace of God is specially displayed in passing by many and thus proclaiming that it is under obligation to none (Institutes II, 2, 17).
Thus, if Peter is converted but Judas is damned, this is only because Peter was given greater grace than Judas. Everything of ours that is good is due to God. “For who sees anything different in you? What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). Commenting on this last verse, St. Thomas says:
[S]omeone could be distinguished from good or from evil men, because he is better than they on account of the blessings he has, such as faith, wisdom and the like. But the Apostle excludes this, saying: What have you that you did not receive? As if to say: Nothing; for all blessings come from God: “When you open your hand, they are filled with good things” (Ps 104:28); “All things come from you, and of your own have we given you” (1 Chr 29:14). From this he draws his conclusion, saying: If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift? Accordingly, a person boasts as though he did not receive, when he boasts in himself and not in God, as those mentioned in Ps 49 (v.6): “Men who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches” (Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians).
For Thomists, even the consent of our free will to salutary acts (i.e., acts of faith and good works in response to grace) is itself a work of grace. As St. Thomas teaches,
God does not justify us without ourselves, because whilst we are being justified we consent to God’s justification (justitiae) by a movement of our free-will. Nevertheless this movement is not the cause of grace, but the effect; hence the whole operation pertains to grace (Summa Theologica I-II, 111, 2).
And as the twentieth-century Thomist Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange explains,
In willing, we co-operate with the divine action and determine ourselves as secondary cause, although we are moved to determine ourselves by the primary Cause (God, His Existence and His Nature, Vol. II, pg. 359).
What is manifest for both St. Thomas and St. Augustine is this, that every good, even the free determination to perform a salutary act, comes from God, and entirely from Him as first cause, even though this determination comes entirely from us as secondary cause. As St. Thomas says: “There is no distinction between what flows from free will and what is of predestination; as there is no distinction between what flows from a secondary cause and from a first cause” [Summa Theologica I, 23, 5] (Predestination: The Meaning of Predestination in Scripture and the Church, pg. 83).
Catholic theology draws a distinction between sufficient grace and efficacious grace. The former gives a person the real power of acting, though without actually producing the salutary act, whereas the latter actually produces the salutary act. With respect to the nature of efficacious grace, Thomists affirm intrinsically efficacious grace. This is in contrast to the Molinist doctrine of extrinsically efficacious grace. To start with the latter, extrinsically efficacious grace is sufficient grace that has been rendered efficacious by the consent of a person’s free will. The consent of the will itself is not caused by the grace. Intrinsically efficacious grace, by contrast, does not rely on the consent of a person’s free will but rather itself gives rise to the consent of a person’s free will (cf. Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought, pg. 208-212). The preservation of free will with respect to extrinsically efficacious grace is obvious. Genuine free will is still preserved with respect to intrinsically efficacious grace because the will, under the movement of intrinsically efficacious grace, retains the real power of acting or not acting, even though it in fact will act in accordance with the movement of grace. This real power of acting or not acting under the efficacious motion of God is what Calvin denied (cf. God, His Existence and His Nature, Vol. II, pg. 358-361; Institutes II, 3, 10). Calvin affirmed that man had free will prior to the Fall:
God has provided the soul of man with intellect, by which he might discern good from evil, just from unjust, and might know what to follow or to shun, reason going before with her lamp; whence philosophers, in reference to her directing power, have called her τὸ ἑγεμονικὸν. To this he has joined will, to which choice belongs. Man excelled in these noble endowments in his primitive condition, when reason, intelligence, prudence, and Judgment, not only sufficed for the government of his earthly life, but also enabled him to rise up to God and eternal happiness. Thereafter choice was added to direct the appetites, and temper all the organic motions; the will being thus perfectly submissive to the authority of reason. In this upright state, man possessed freedom of will, by which, if he chose, he was able to obtain eternal life (Institutes I, 15, 8).
After the Fall, however, Calvin expressly denies the reality of free will. According to Calvin, after the Fall, man’s every action proceeds of necessity—though still “voluntarily” (cf. Institutes II, 2, 7; II, 3, 5)—from either concupiscence or from the divine motion (cf. Institutes II, 3, 5 & 14). We walk either according to the flesh or according to the Sprit (cf. Romans 8:4), not by following but by being pulled:
[S]imply to will is the part of man, to will ill the part of corrupt nature, to will well the part of grace. Moreover, when I say that the will, deprived of liberty, is led or dragged by necessity to evil, it is strange that any should deem the expression harsh, seeing there is no absurdity in it, and it is not at variance with pious use. It does, however, offend those who know not how to distinguish between necessity and compulsion (Institutes, II, 3, 5).
If concupiscence moves the will to act, the will does not have the real power of not acting. The same is true with respect to God moving the will. We are slaves either to sin or to God (cf. Romans 6:15-22; Institutes II, 3, 9). As Martin Luther put it, "The will is a beast of burden. If God mounts it, it wishes and goes as God wills; if Satan mounts it, it wishes and goes as Satan wills; Nor can it choose its rider... the riders contend for its possession" (cf. The Unintended Reformation, pg. 208). Every action of the will thus proceeds of necessity though not by compulsion. For our sin-enslaved wills desire evil. Thus, if they produce evil acts, these acts are what our wills desire. Hence, they are acting in accordance with what they desire and so are not compelled in this sense. If our wills produce good acts, this, too, is of necessity due to God irresistibly moving the will to good. But it is not by compulsion because God, in such moments, inclines the will to desire good. Hence, the will is acting in accordance with its desire. This is full-blown compatibilism of the kind associated with, for instance, David Hume:
The same motives always produce the same actions: The same events follow from the same causes. Ambition, avarice, self-love, vanity, friendship, generosity, public spirit; these passions, mixed in various degrees, and distributed through society, have been, from the beginning of the world, and still are, the source of all the actions and enterprises, which have ever been observed among mankind.
[T]o proceed in this reconciling…of liberty and necessity…it will not require many words to prove…that the whole dispute…has been hitherto merely verbal. For what is meant by liberty, when it is applied to voluntary actions? We cannot surely mean, that actions have so little connexion with motives, inclinations, and circumstances, that one does not follow with a certain degree of uniformity from the other, and that one affords no inference by which we can conclude the existence of the other. For these are plain and acknowledged matters of fact. By liberty, then, we can only mean a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will; that is, if we choose to remain at rest, we may; if we choose to move, we also may…[I]f [this] definition…be admitted; liberty, when opposed to necessity [has] no existence.
[V]oluntary actions [are] subjected to the same laws of necessity with the operations of matter (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section 8: “Of Liberty and Necessity,” Part 1, par. 7, 23, 25, pg. 150, 158-159; Part 2, par. 32, pg. 162).
For Hume, if we act in accordance with what we choose, we act freely. What we choose, however, is determined by causal necessity, the causes in question being “internal character, passions, and affections” (ibid., Part 2, par. 31, pg. 162). If we act due to an external constraint impinging upon our will violently, then we do not act freely. If, however, we act due to the necessity of our nature but free from external imposition, then we act freely. This is exactly in line with Calvin’s conception of “free” will after the Fall:
[L]iberty [appropriately defined] is compatible with our being depraved, the servants of sin, able to do nothing but sin…In this way, then, man is said to have free will, not because he has a free choice of good and evil, but because he acts voluntarily, and not by compulsion. This is perfectly true: but why should so small a matter have been dignified with so proud a title? An admirable freedom! that man is not forced to be the servant of sin, while he is, however, ejthelodou'lo" (a voluntary slave); his will being bound by the fetters of sin (Institutes II, 2, 6-7).
From all of this, Calvin concludes that original sin completely destroyed free will (cf. Institutes II, 2, 8) and grace is irresistible (cf. Institutes II, 3, 10-11). Although he grants a certain kind of “free” will, he thinks that it is hardly worthy of the title (a sentiment that I most certainly agree with). And even after regeneration, the good we do is attributable solely to the work of grace and not to any good contribution from us (cf. Institutes II, 3, 6 & 11-13). Consequently, any possibility of merit is excluded (cf. Institutes III, 15, 3 & 6-7). For Calvin, regeneration is “the commencement of the spiritual life” (Institutes II, 3, 6). In the spiritual life, we are led by the Spirit instead of by the flesh: “[N]othing good can proceed from our will until it be formed again, and that after it is formed again in so far as it is good, it is of God, and not of us” (Institutes II, 3, 8). In contradiction to this, the Council of Trent teaches the following:
If anyone shall say, that the free will of man moved and excited by God, by assenting to God exciting and calling, nowise co-operates to the end that it should dispose and prepare itself for obtaining the grace of justification; and that it cannot refuse consent, if it would, but that, like something inanimate, it does nothing whatever, and is merely in a passive state; let him be anathema (On Justification, Canon IV).
If anyone shall say, that, since Adam’s sin, the free will of man is lost and extinguished; or, that it is a thing with a name only, yea, a title without a reality, a figment, in fine, brought into the Church by Satan; let him be anathema (ibid., Canon VI).
If anyone shall say, that the good works of a man that is justified are in such wise the gifts of God, as that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified; or, that the said justified, by the good works which are performed by him through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life, if so be, however, that he depart in grace, and, moreover, an increase of glory; let him be anathema (ibid., Canon XXXII).
Furthermore, Sacred Scripture rejects Calvin’s assessment of human free will:
It was he who created man in the beginning, and he left him in the power of his own inclination. If you will, you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live. He has placed before you fire and water: stretch out your hand for whichever you wish. Before a man are life and death, good and evil, and whichever he chooses will be given to him (Sirach 15:14-17).
Of course, Calvin rejects the canonical status of Sirach as a book of Scripture, but Calvin has no authority whatsoever to do this. Hence, his heretical rejection of the word of God has no force. “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). We must, of course, emphasize the absolute necessity of grace in all of this, but the point is that we have genuine free will and can choose good or choose evil, even though we are inclined towards evil as a result of original sin. This fact also secures our moral responsibility for sin. If we couldn’t help but sin, then we would not bear moral responsibility for it (cf. Moral Theology, Vol. I, pg. 51-55, par. 97-102). Ought implies can. As St. Thomas Aquinas said very well, “Man has free-will: otherwise counsels, exhortations, commands, prohibitions, rewards and punishments would be in vain” (Summa Theologica I, 83, 1).
Punishment in particular, in the absence of free will, becomes a manifest violation of justice. For how could a just God punish a man who has no choice in doing the evil that he does? Calvin seeks to answer this objection as follows:
In the same way is solved, or rather spontaneously vanishes, another objection—viz. If God not only uses the agency of the wicked, but also governs their counsels and affections, he is the author of all their sins; and, therefore, men, in executing what God has decreed, are unjustly condemned, because they are obeying his will. Here will is improperly confounded with precept, though it is obvious, from innumerable examples, that there is the greatest difference between them. When Absalom defiled his father’s bed, though God was pleased thus to avenge the adultery of David, he did not therefore enjoin an abandoned son to commit incest, unless, perhaps, in respect of David, as David himself says of Shimei’s curses. For, while he confesses that Shimei acts by the order of God, he by no means commends the obedience, as if that petulant dog had been yielding obedience to a divine command; but, recognising in his tongue the scourge of God, he submits patiently to be chastised. Thus we must hold, that while by means of the wicked God performs what he had secretly decreed, they are not excusable as if they were obeying his precept, which of set purpose they violate according to their lust (Institutes I, 18, 4).
This, I must be honest, is sheer sophistry on Calvin’s part. The argument he gives seems to be as follows: God wills for man to do evil, and God’s will is irresistible. However, God has given precepts that prohibit evil, and whoever breaks those precepts is liable to punishment. Thus, even if God wills for man to break His precepts, He still justly punishes him. The breaking of a precept is always and everywhere an absolute sufficient condition for just punishment. To see what’s wrong with this, suppose that I am a father who has two sons, Smith and Jones. And suppose that I issue a precept that prohibits my sons from punching each other. If they violate this precept, they are liable to the punishment of being grounded for a week. Now, suppose that I grab Smith’s hand and make him punch Jones with it. And suppose I then declare that Smith has violated my precept, and I consequently punish him by grounding him for a week. Is this not a blatant injustice on my part? Surely it is. Mutatis mutandis for God punishing evil that, according to Calvin, He Himself wills. Calvin’s account of the justice of divine punishment for sins that God wills is, therefore, incoherent.
What might Calvin’s response to such a charge be? He earlier gives the answer as follows:
[W]hen we cannot comprehend how God can will that to be done which he forbids us to do, let us call to mind our imbecility, and remember that the light in which he dwells is not without cause termed inaccessible (1 Tim. 6:16), because shrouded in darkness (ibid. I, 18, 3).
If anything can be said to possess imbecility, it is Calvin’s thesis that God wills to be done what He forbids and punishes those who so do what He wills. God’s commandments express His will, which Calvin affirms elsewhere:
"With what petulance, too, are we assailed for not being contented with the precepts of the Law, in which the will of God is comprehended, and for maintaining that the world is governed by his secret counsels?" (Institutes I, 17, 2).
"Having already indulged this madness too long, let them learn to repent; or, if they persist in their infatuation, taking no further notice of them, let the children of God remember that all sin is mortal, because it is rebellion against the will of God, and necessarily provokes his anger; and because it is a violation of the Law, against every violation of which, without exception, the judgment of God has been pronounced." (Institutes II, 8, 59, boldface added).
Hence if God forbids something by commandment, then He wills that the thing that is forbidden not be done. Therefore, on Calvin’s view, for any evil that occurs, God both wills it and does not will it, a logical contradiction. Thus, contrary to Calvin, God does not will evil, nor is He directly or indirectly the cause of it. What a far cry Calvin’s view is from St. Augustine (whom Calvin made a habit of selectively quoting):
But when we hear: "All things are from Him, and through Him, and in Him," we ought assuredly to understand all natures which naturally exist. For sins, which do not preserve but vitiate nature, are not from Him; which sins, Holy Scripture in many ways testifies, are from the will of those sinning, especially in the passage where the apostle says: "But do you suppose this, O man, who judges those who do such things, and does them, that you shall escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, and patience, and long-suffering, not knowing that the patience of God leads you to repentance? But according to the hardness of your heart and your impenitent heart, you store up for yourself wrath against the day of wrath and of the revelation of the just judgment of God, who will render unto every one according to his works." Romans 2:3-6 (On the Nature of Good, Ch. 28; cf. ibid., Ch. 33).
Still, in fairness to Calvin, there is a recognized distinction in theology between the divine will of expression and the divine will of good pleasure. Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange explains these concepts as follows:
By the divine will of expression we mean all those external signs that reveal God’s will—commands, prohibitions, the spirit underlying the counsels, and everything that happens by His will or permission. The divine will thus expressed, especially in commands, comes within the domain of obedience…The divine will of good pleasure is the interior act of God’s will, which often is not yet revealed or expressed externally. Upon it depends our still uncertain future—future events, future joys and trials, whether of long or short duration, the hour and circumstances of our death, and so on…[I]n making our will conform daily to the divine will as expressed, we must for the rest abandon ourselves in all confidence to the divine will of good pleasure (Providence, pg. 152-153).
This distinction is implicit in Sacred Scripture: God “accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Romans 11:33-34). “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
It must be said, however, that the distinction between the divine will of expression and the divine will of good pleasure is an epistemic distinction and not an ontological one. In reality, these “two” wills are really just the same one will considered in relation to our knowledge. The aspect of God’s will known to man is His will of expression; the aspect of God’s will unknown to man is His will of good pleasure. Because of this, there can be no contradiction between the divine will of expression and the divine will of good pleasure. God cannot express His will by a commandment but then secretly will contrary to that commandment. God’s will would in such a case be self-undermining, which is absurd. Even when taking into account this distinction, therefore, Calvin’s position remains incoherent.
Let us now return to the issue of efficacious grace. Two arguments that Thomists give for intrinsically efficacious grace as opposed to extrinsically efficacious grace are that the principle of predilection demands intrinsically efficacious grace, and the universal causality of the First Cause (God) does as well. If extrinsically efficacious grace were true, then the consent of our free will, with respect to a salutary act, would operate independently of God’s grace. Consequently, of two persons equally drawn by God’s grace, it might happen that one is converted and the other isn’t even though they have both been given the same grace from God. Thus, the one would make himself better than the other without having received more from God. And this is a clear violation of the principle of predilection (cf. Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought, pg. 210).
With respect to universal causality, no actualization of a potential can be actualized without an actualizer. And if this actualizer itself has actualization of potential, then (for the same reason), it will also require an actualizer of its own. But the series of actualizers cannot regress infinitely. Thus, we must arrive at an actualizer which needs no actualizer itself, i.e., we must arrive at an unactualized actualizer that is ultimately responsible for all actualization. This being, on analysis, is God. Now, for the human free will to move from not acting to acting or even from not intending to act to intending to act entails an actualization of a potential. Therefore, the act or the intent to act of the human free will must be ultimately actualized by God. As the Thomist theologian Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange writes:
If the hand moves, is it not because the will moves it? And if in its turn the will is moved, passing from a state of indetermination to one of determination, must it not be moved by some object attracting it, by some good? And is it sufficient merely for the good to be presented to it? Must not the will direct itself or be directed to it? It does in fact direct itself to the means because it first of all desires the end; but in the case of the first desire of an end, as when we come to the age of reason or when on waking in the morning we begin to exercise our will, is not an impulse from some higher source necessary to start our volitional activity, so as to make our will pass from the state of repose, of inactivity, to that first act which is to be the cause of all the acts that follow? That act contains something new which demands a cause; and the will, not yet in possession of this new perfection, cannot give it to itself (Cf. St. Thomas, Ia IIae, q. 9, a. 4; q. 10, a. 4)…Our will…passes from potency to act…The will could not confer this upon itself, since it did not possess this before (Providence, pg. 6-7).
And as the Calvinist theologian Ron Highfield argues, to say that the human free will can determine itself to act independently of God’s efficacious motion is to make of the free agent “an unmoved mover: a self-originating god” (Four Views on Divine Providence, pg. 65), and this is obviously unacceptable. But then extrinsically efficacious grace cannot be true since it implies that the will determines itself to act (i.e., it intends to act) independently of God’s causality, even though the act, Molinists maintain, cannot be completed without God’s simultaneous concurrence (cf. God, His Existence and His Nature, Vol. II, pg. 515, 539, 545). It follows, therefore, that intrinsically efficacious grace is true.
Molinists, of course, have counterarguments to offer, but the point to stress is that there is a lot of common ground between Thomists and Calvinists on this point, and Thomism is completely within the bounds of orthodoxy in the eyes of the Catholic Church. (Molinism is as well). And while Calvinists can repudiate Molinism with respect to these issues, such repudiation does not touch Thomism and so does not touch Catholicism in general. Calvinists do not have to become Molinists to “swim the Tiber.” Instead, they can embrace Thomism (cf. Jimmy Akin, “A Tiptoe Through TULIP”).
We must now sketch the Thomist view of the causal relationship between God and the world (cf. God, His Existence and His Nature, Vol. II, pg. 145-161; Five Proofs of the Existence of God, pg. 232-238). In so doing, we will sketch two opposing viewpoints. As will be shown, the Thomist perspective on this issue is shared by Calvinists. The first viewpoint is known as occasionalism. This view holds that there are no secondary causes. God alone has causal power. The apparent causality of things in the world is illusory. For example, when an ice cube melts under sunlight, the sunlight is not the cause of the ice cube melting; rather, God causes the ice cube to melt on the occasion of it being under sunlight, thus giving the appearance that the sunlight is the cause. In reality, the sunlight has no causal efficacy at all. The second view is known as mere conservationism. This view holds that there are true secondary causes in the world and that these secondary causes have their causal efficacy independently of God’s causality, although God’s causality is necessary for their initial and continuing existence. Thus, the sunlight is truly the cause of the ice cube melting, and the sunlight causes the ice cube to melt independently of God’s causality, although God is the creator of the sunlight and also preserves the sunlight in existence.
The Thomist view is called concurrentism, which is a kind of middle ground between the extremes of occasionalism and mere conservationism. This is enshrined in the last of the Twenty-Four Thomistic Theses: “[N]o created agent exercises any influence on the being of any effect except through a motion received from the first cause” (The Twenty-Four Thomistic Theses, pg. 50). Commentary on this point is offered by the Thomist P. Lumbreras, O.P., as follows:
[S]ince every agent, by its act, moves toward the effect, this movement cannot be conceived independently of the first mover. The agent depends on God for its existence, for its powers, for the conservation of that existence and of these powers. It depends also on God for the very existence of these powers. Because in exercising these powers the agent passes from Potency to Act, its faculties do not move except in so far as they are moved; there must be a motion coming from the immovable mover (ibid., pg. 51-52).
In line with occasionalism, concurrentism affirms that all causality comes from God. There simply would not be any effects whatsoever without God actively imparting causal power to secondary causes. Against occasionalism, however, concurrentism maintains that secondary causes are true causes and make a causal contribution to the effects they produce. In line with mere conservationism, concurrentism maintains that there are true secondary causes, and that God conserves secondary causes in existence. Against mere conservationism, however, concurrentism maintains that secondary causes cannot act independently of God’s causality even given that they are conserved in existence by God. A secondary cause can act only insofar as it is moved to act by God (cf. Five Proofs of the Existence of God, pg.232-238; God, His Existence and His Nature, Vol. II, pg. 144-152; Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought, pg. 90-91).
Rather than seeking to prove the truth of concurrentism, it suffices for the purpose of answering the present objection to point out that Calvinists hold to concurrentism. Therefore, Thomists and Calvinists share a common framework in which the Calvinist objection can be successfully rebutted. Recall the objection: We cannot contribute anything to our good works. They are produced by God’s grace. If they are produced by God’s grace, then they are not produced by us. Hence, no merit can accrue to us for good works. Calvin seems to hold to a false dilemma in this objection: either God does everything, or man does something. Hence, if God does everything, then man does nothing. This conclusion does not seem consistent with concurrentism; rather, it seems to be indicative of occasionalism. Calvin himself at times seems to hold to occasionalism. Consider the following passages:
But perhaps there will be some who, while they admit that the will is in its own nature averse to righteousness, and is converted solely by the power of God, will yet hold that, when once it is prepared, it performs a part in acting. This they found upon the words of Augustine, that grace precedes every good work; the will accompanying, not leading; a handmaid, and not a guide (August. ad Bonifac. Ep. 106). The words thus not improperly used by this holy writer, Lombard preposterously wrests to the above effect (Lombard, lib. 2, Dist. 25). But I maintain, that as well in the words of the Psalmist which I have quoted, as in other passages of Scripture, two things are clearly taught—viz. that the Lord both corrects, or rather destroys, our depraved will, and also substitutes a good will from himself. In as much as it is prevented by grace, I have no objection to your calling it a handmaid; but in as much as when formed again, it is the work of the Lord, it is erroneous to say, that it accompanies preventing grace as a voluntary attendant. Therefore, Chrysostom is inaccurate in saying, that grace cannot do any thing without will, nor will any thing without grace (Serm. de Invent. Sanct. Crucis); as if grace did not, in terms of the passage lately quoted from Paul, produce the very will itself. The intention of Augustine, in calling the human will the handmaid of grace, was not to assign it a kind of second place to grace in the performance of good works. His object merely was to refute the pestilential dogma of Pelagius, who made human merit the first cause of salvation. As was sufficient for his purpose at the time, he contends that grace is prior to all merit, while, in the meantime, he says nothing of the other question as to the perpetual effect of grace, which, however, he handles admirably in other places. For in saying, as he often does, that the Lord prevents the unwilling in order to make him willing, and follows after the willing that he may not will in vain, he makes Him the sole author of good works. Indeed, his sentiments on this subject are too clear to need any lengthened illustration. “Men,” says he, “labour to find in our will something that is our own, and not God’s; how they can find it, I wot not,” (August. de Remiss. Peccat., lib. 2 c. 18). In his First Book against Pelagius and Celestius, expounding the saying of Christ, “Every man therefore that has heard, and has learned of the Father, cometh unto me,” (John 6:45), he says, “The will is aided not only so as to know what is to be done, but also to do what it knows.” And thus, when God teaches not by the letter of the Law, but by the grace of the Spirit, he so teaches, that every one who has learned, not only knowing, sees, but also willing, desires, and acting, performs (Institutes of the Christian Religion II, 3, 7).
For he says in Jeremiah “I will give them one heart, and one way, that they may fear me for ever;” and a little after he says, “I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me,” (Jer. 32:39, 40). Again, in Ezekiel, “I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh,” (Ezek. 11:19). He could not more clearly claim to himself, and deny to us, everything good and right in our will, than by declaring, that in our conversion there is the creation of a new spirit and a new heart. It always follows, both that nothing good can proceed from our will until it be formed again, and that after it is formed again in so far as it is good, it is of God, and not of us (ibid. II, 3, 8).
Did not arrogance stand in the way, we could not overlook the clear testimony which Christ has borne to the efficacy of his grace. “I,” said he, “am the true vine, and my Father is the husband man.” “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me,” (John 15:1, 4). If we can no more bear fruit of ourselves than a vine can bud when rooted up and deprived of moisture, there is no longer any room to ask what the aptitude of our nature is for good. There is no ambiguity in the conclusion, “For without me ye can do nothing.” He says not that we are too weak to suffice for ourselves; but, by reducing us to nothing, he excludes the idea of our possessing any, even the least ability. If, when engrafted into Christ, we bear fruit like the vine, which draws its vegetative power from the moisture of the ground, and the dew of heaven, and the fostering warmth of the sun, I see nothing in a good work, which we can call our own, without trenching upon what is due to God (ibid. II, 3, 9).
In support of this view, some make an ignorant and false application of the Apostle’s words: “I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me,” (1 Cor. 15:10). The meaning they give them is, that as Paul might have seemed to speak somewhat presumptuously in preferring himself to all the other apostles, he corrects the expression so far by referring the praise to the grace of God, but he, at the same time, calls himself a co-operator with grace. It is strange that this should have proved a stumbling-block to so many writers, otherwise respectable. The Apostle says not that the grace of God laboured with him so as to make him a co-partner in the labour. He rather transfers the whole merit of the labour to grace alone, by thus modifying his first expression, “It was not I,” says he, “that laboured, but the grace of God that was present with me.” Those who have adopted the erroneous interpretation have been misled by an ambiguity in the expression, or rather by a preposterous translation, in which the force of the Greek article is overlooked. For to take the words literally, the Apostle does not say that grace was a fellow-worker with him, but that the grace which was with him was sole worker (ibid. II, 3, 12).
[W]hile grace governs the will, it never falls; but when grace abandons it, it falls forthwith…Thus the will (free will, if you choose to call it so), which is left to man, is…a will which can neither be turned to God, nor continue in God, unless by grace; a will which, whatever its ability may be, derives all that ability from grace (ibid. II, 3, 14).
On the other hand, consider the following passages, which seem to indicate concurrentism: If we design anything contrary to his precept, it is not obedience, but contumacy and transgression. But if he did not will it, we could not do it. I admit this. But do we act wickedly for the purpose of yielding obedience to him? This, assuredly, he does not command. Nay, rather we rush on, not thinking of what he wishes, but so inflamed by our own passionate lust, that, with destined purpose, we strive against him. And in this way, while acting wickedly, we serve his righteous ordination, since in his boundless wisdom he well knows how to use bad instruments for good purposes. And see how absurd this mode of arguing is. They will have it that crimes ought not to be punished in their authors, because they are not committed without the dispensation of God. I concede more—that thieves and murderers, and other evil-doers, are instruments of Divine Providence, being employed by the Lord himself to execute the Judgments which he has resolved to inflict. But I deny that this forms any excuse for their misdeeds. For how? Will they implicate God in the same iniquity with themselves, or will they cloak their depravity by his righteousness? They cannot exculpate themselves, for their own conscience condemns them: they cannot charge God, since they perceive the whole wickedness in themselves, and nothing in Him save the legitimate use of their wickedness. But it is said he works by their means. And whence, I pray, the fœtid odour of a dead body, which has been unconfined and putrefied by the sun’s heat? All see that it is excited by the rays of the sun, but no man therefore says that the fetid odour is in them. In the same way, while the matter and guilt of wickedness belongs to the wicked man, why should it be thought that God contracts any impurity in using it at pleasure as his instrument? Have done, then, with that dog-like petulance which may, indeed, bay from a distance at the justice of God, but cannot reach it! (ibid. I, 17, 5)
In the same way is solved, or rather spontaneously vanishes, another objection—viz. If God not only uses the agency of the wicked, but also governs their counsels and affections, he is the author of all their sins; and, therefore, men, in executing what God has decreed, are unjustly condemned, because they are obeying his will. Here will is improperly confounded with precept, though it is obvious, from innumerable examples, that there is the greatest difference between them. When Absalom defiled his father’s bed, though God was pleased thus to avenge the adultery of David, he did not therefore enjoin an abandoned son to commit incest, unless, perhaps, in respect of David, as David himself says of Shimei’s curses. For, while he confesses that Shimei acts by the order of God, he by no means commends the obedience, as if that petulant dog had been yielding obedience to a divine command; but, recognising in his tongue the scourge of God, he submits patiently to be chastised. Thus we must hold, that while by means of the wicked God performs what he had secretly decreed, they are not excusable as if they were obeying his precept, which of set purpose they violate according to their lust (ibid. I, 18, 4).
In these passages, Calvin is trying to argue that God moves man’s will to evil, but man still makes a contribution to this evil in such a way that they can be justly punished by God for having broken one of His precepts, and God is left “untainted” by the evil that He wills. Notice especially that Calvin attributes disobedience to man’s own wickedness and lust as a contributing cause of evil acts and that God uses evil men as instruments, instruments that make a causal contribution to their effects. As the Calvinist theologian and philosopher Cornelius Van Til put it, "Making the distinction between proximate [i.e., secondary] and remote [i.e., first] causes enables Calvin to do full justice to the longsuffering of God without giving up the decree of God as basic to whatsoever comes to pass" (The Defense of the Faith, pg. 247). This is a clear expression of concurrentism.
Calvin, therefore, can at times seem to blur the line somewhat between occasionalism and concurrentism. On the one hand, when he is discussing the good works of man, he attributes them solely and exclusively to the work of God in such wise that man cannot be said to make any contribution at all. This smacks of occasionalism. On the other hand, when he is discussing the evil works of man, he attributes to man a contribution on his part. This smacks of concurrentism. Calvin’s motivation seems to be to attribute good works entirely to the divine motion so as to rule out the doctrine of merit and to attribute evil works to God insofar as they are works (since every motion is effected by the divine motion) and to man insofar as they are evil. (Whether Calvin’s account of this latter point is coherent is a question for another time). But if God’s motion is needed for the motion of anything, including man, and concurrentism is true, i.e., if it is the case that secondary causes make a real contribution to their effects, then it makes little sense to say that man makes a contribution under one kind of divine motion and not under another with respect to the actions performed by man. There isn’t a sensible via media between occasionalism and concurrentism. Concurrentism is already a middle ground between occasionalism and mere conservationism. Earlier in the Institutes, however, Calvin clearly attributes real causal efficacy to created substances and teaches that God uses secondary causes as instruments:
With regard to inanimate objects again we must hold that though each is possessed of its peculiar properties, yet all of them exert their force only in so far as directed by the immediate hand of God. Hence they are merely instruments, into which God constantly infuses what energy he sees meet, and turns and converts to any purpose at his pleasure. No created object makes a more wonderful or glorious display than the sun. For, besides illuminating the whole world with its brightness, how admirably does it foster and invigorate all animals by its heat, and fertilise the earth by its rays, warming the seeds of grain in its lap, and thereby calling forth the verdant blade! This it supports, increases, and strengthens with additional nurture, till it rises into the stalk; and still feeds it with perpetual moisture, till it comes into flower; and from flower to fruit, which it continues to ripen till it attains maturity. In like manner, by its warmth trees and vines bud, and put forth first their leaves, then their blossom, then their fruit. And the Lord, that he might claim the entire glory of these things as his own, was pleased that light should exist, and that the earth should be replenished with all kinds of herbs and fruits before he made the sun. No pious man, therefore, will make the sun either the necessary or principal cause of those things which existed before the creation of the sun, but only the instrument which God employs, because he so pleases; though he can lay it aside, and act equally well by himself: Again, when we read, that at the prayer of Joshua the sun was stayed in its course (Josh. 10:13); that as a favour to Hezekiah, its shadow receded ten degrees (2 Kings 20:11); by these miracles God declared that the sun does not daily rise and set by a blind instinct of nature, but is governed by Him in its course, that he may renew the remembrance of his paternal favour toward us. Nothing is more natural than for spring, in its turns to succeed winter, summer spring, and autumn summer; but in this series the variations are so great and so unequal as to make it very apparent that every single year, month, and day, is regulated by a new and special providence of God (ibid. I, 16, 2, boldface added).
The Christian, then, being most fully persuaded, that all things come to pass by the dispensation of God, and that nothing happens fortuitously, will always direct his eye to him as the principal cause of events, at the same time paying due regard to inferior causes in their own place. Next, he will have no doubt that a special providence is awake for his preservation, and will not suffer anything to happen that will not turn to his good and safety. But as its business is first with men and then with the other creatures, he will feel assured that the providence of God reigns over both. In regard to men, good as well as bad, he will acknowledge that their counsels, wishes, aims and faculties are so under his hand, that he has full power to turn them in whatever direction, and constrain them as often as he pleases (ibid. I, 17, 6, boldface added).
These passages constitute a clear endorsement of concurrentism and a corresponding rejection of occasionalism. In the first passage, the phrase “merely instruments” might seem to suggest occasionalism. However, the fact that Calvin later notes that God can lay aside the instrument “and act equally well by himself” makes it clear that the instrument plays a genuine causal role for Calvin. And while Calvin focuses on inanimate objects in this passage, in the second passage he extends this concurrentism to the acts of man. Furthermore, in the second passage, Calvin makes an explicit distinction between the “principal cause” and “inferior causes,” demonstrating that he affirms concurrentism.
Calvinists in general are unambiguously concurrentists and affirm the reality and efficacy of secondary causes. For instance, the Calvinist Paul Kjoss Helseth asserts the following:
Reformed believers are persuaded that God actively accomplishes all his good purposes not just by preserving and passively observing what he has created but also by simultaneously working concurrently with created things “to cause them to act as they do” [Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, pg. 142], and governing their activity according to his wisdom to direct them to fulfill… "His all-determining will” [Warfield, “Predestination,” pg. 62] (For Views on Divine Providence, Ch. 1: “God Causes All Things,” pg. 30-31).
Calvinist Ron Highfield states the following (he is even willing to use the word “cooperation”—commonly a swear word among Calvinists!):
I could not act at all if I did not exist, and I exist because God created me. I could do nothing if God were not sustaining me and the world around me during my act. God’s empowering of my action throughout its duration is often called “concurrence,” or cooperation. If God were not also acting in our acts, we could do nothing (ibid., Ch. 3: “God Controls by Liberating,” pg. 162).
Calvinist A.A. Hodge states that the Reformed view of created substances and secondary causation can be summarized by “the following propositions:
Created substances, both spiritual and material, possess real and permanent existence, i.e., they are real entities.
They possess all such active or passive properties as they have been severally endowed with by God.
The properties or active powers have a real, and not merely apparent, efficiency as second causes in producing effects proper to them; and the phenomena alike of consciousness and of the outward world are really produced by the efficient agency of second causes, as we are informed by our native and necessary intuitions.
But these created substances are not self-existent, i.e., the ground of their continued existence is in God and not in themselves.
They continue to exist not merely in virtue of a negative act of God, whereby he merely does not will their destruction, but in virtue of a positive, continued exercise of divine power, whereby they are sustained in being, and in the possession of all their properties and powers with which God has endowed them.
The precise nature of the divine action is, like every mode of the intercourse of the infinite with the finite, inscrutable—but not more mysterious in this case than in every other” (Outlines of Theology, pg. 261-262).
And the Calvinist Herman Bavinck states the following:
In relation to God the secondary causes can be compared to instruments (Isa. 10:15; 13:5; Jer. 50:25; Acts 9:15; Rom. 9:20-23); in relation to their effects and products they are causes in a true sense. And precisely because the primary and the secondary cause do not stand and function dualistically on separate tracks, but the primary works through the secondary, the effect that proceeds from the two is one and the product is one. There is no division of labor between God and his creature, but the same effect is totally the effect of the primary cause as well as totally the effect of the proximate cause. The product is also in the same sense totally the product of the primary as well as totally the product of the secondary cause. But because the primary cause and the secondary cause are not identical and differ essentially, the effect and product are in reality totally the effect and product of the two causes, to be sure, but formally they are only the effect and product of the secondary cause (Reformed Dogmatics, 2:614-615).
Finally, the Westminster Confession declares:
God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established (Westminster Confession III.I).
Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly, yet by the same providence he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently (ibid., V.II).
All of this is in line with the above teaching of Thomism on this issue. It is also in line with the teaching of the Roman Catechism (a.k.a. the Catechism of the Council of Trent):
Not only does God protect and govern all things by His Providence, but He also, by an internal power impels to motion and action whatever moves and acts, and this in such a manner that, although He excludes not, He yet precedes the agency of secondary causes. For His invisible influence extends to all things, and, as the Wise Man says, reaches from end to end mightily, and ordereth all things sweetly [Wisdom 8:1] (taken from David Oderberg's “Divine Premotion,” pp. 208; cf. God, His Existence and His Nature, Vol. II, pg. 525).
Similarly, the doctrine that “God cooperates immediately in every act of His creatures” is a proposition that is given the theological note of sententia communis by Ludwig Ott, which denotes that this is a doctrine that has not been infallibly settled by the Church but is nevertheless the general teaching of (Catholic) theologians (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, pg. 97). Elaborating on this, Ott explains: The cooperation of the causa prima (God) and of the causae secundae (creatures) is not to be conceived as a mechanical working together, but as an organic activity in one another and with one another. Hence it is incorrect to ascribe part of the activity to the divine cause and part to the creature. The action as a whole belongs to the divine as well as to the created cause. The created cause is subordinated to the divine, in such manner, however, that its own causality is not abrogated (ibid., pg. 98).
Thus, when it comes to concurrentism and God’s omnicausality, Thomists and Calvinists are generally on the same page. Differences arise when the issue of God’s causality in relation to sinful acts is brought to the fore (cf. Institutes I, 18; Summa Theologica I, 19, 6 & 9; I, 49, 2; Predestination, III, IX), but discussing this need not detain us for present purposes.
If Calvinists hold to concurrentism, though, then how can they say with Calvin that we contribute to evil works but not to good works? Whence this glaring asymmetry? The answer, I think, lies in Calvin’s notorious doctrine of total depravity:
[T]he whole man, from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot, is so deluged, as it were, that no part remains exempt from sin, and, therefore, everything which proceeds from him is imputed as sin (Institutes, II, 1, 9).
We are all sinners by nature, therefore we are held under the yoke of sin. But if the whole man is subject to the dominion of sin, surely the will, which is its principal seat, must be bound with the closest chains (ibid., II, 2, 27).
[I]t is vain to look for anything good in our nature. I confess indeed, that all…iniquities do not break out in every individual. Still it cannot be denied that the hydra lurks in every breast. For as a body, while it contains and fosters the cause and matter of disease, cannot be called healthy, although pain is not actually felt; so a soul, while teeming with such seeds of vice, cannot be called sound. This similitude, however, does not apply throughout. In a body however morbid the functions of life are performed; but the soul, when plunged into that deadly abyss, not only labours under vice, but is altogether devoid of good (ibid., II, 3, 2).
For Calvin, original sin has completely destroyed any inclination toward good in us. Our nature is completely and entirely corrupted (cf. Institutes II, 3, 2), and our wills are utterly enslaved to sin (cf. Institutes II, 2, 1 & 27) and produce nothing but evil (cf. Institutes II, 2, 26-27; III, 3, 12). Consequently, we sin in everything that we do. Lutheran theology is in harmony with this doctrine (cf. Formula of Concord I, 25; II, 7; Smalcald Articles III, I). For Calvin, this is true even after regeneration (cf. Institutes II, 2, 27). Lutherans, by contrast, admit freedom of the will after regeneration (cf. Formula of Concord I, 14; II, 63-66). So, according to Calvin, if God efficaciously moves our wills to act, the only contribution our fallen and enslaved wills could make would be evil. On Calvin’s view, then, if any of our acts are good, this can be due to God and God alone. We contribute nothing to our good works, or at least nothing good. As Calvin writes:
[L]et us consider, in other respects, whether the will is so utterly vitiated and corrupted in every part as to produce nothing but evil, or whether it retains some portion uninjured, and productive of good desires. Those who ascribe our willing effectually, to the primary grace of God’s (supra, sect. 6), seem conversely to insinuate that the soul has in itself a power of aspiring to good, though a power too feeble to rise to solid affection or active endeavour (Institutes II, 2, 26-27).
And as the above quotations from Calvin show, he clearly rejects the idea that “the soul has in itself a power of aspiring to good,” and this is true even after regeneration if the will is considered in itself apart from the movements of God’s irresistible grace.
Therefore, our evil works have demerit and are deserving of punishment, and our good works have no merit and are not in any way deserving of reward. While this does seem to successfully explain Calvin’s proposed asymmetry between good and evil works, the explanation in question relies on the truth of the doctrine of total depravity. If total depravity is false, therefore, then the asymmetry dissolves, and our good works can be meritorious in virtue of our free will making a contribution to our good works in cooperation with God’s grace, a cooperation, according to Thomists, of a secondary cause subordinated to the First Cause and not a secondary cause coordinated alongside the First Cause, which is rather the Molinist doctrine (cf. Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought, pg. 91; God, His Existence and His Nature, Vol. II, pg. 86, 154-155). Calvinists can repudiate the Molinist doctrine, but they cannot repudiate the Thomist doctrine without thereby repudiating their own doctrine.
The question the answer to which will settle this entire issue, therefore, is whether the doctrine of total depravity is true or false. I have argued against total depravity HERE. In a future post, I will consider the biblical arguments that are offered for total depravity and offer corresponding rebuttals. The conclusion to emphasize in this post is that if Calvinists come to reject the doctrine of total depravity, then they should admit the cogency of the Catholic doctrine of merit, at least as it is understood by Thomists. The bottom line: If the doctrine of total depravity is false, then Calvin's "No Contribution" objection fails.