An Interview with Charles Raith on Aquinas, Calvin, and Ecumenism: Part 1

Charles Raith II is Director of the Paradosis Center for Theology and Scripture and Assistant Professor of Religion and Philosophy at John Brown University. He received his PhD from Ave Maria University. He is author of the book Aquinas and Calvin on Romans: God’s Justification and Our Participation (Oxford University Press), and the forthcoming After Merit: John Calvin’s Theology of Works and Reward (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht). His articles and reviews have appeared in Pro Ecclesia, Nova et Vetera, Logos, Renaissance and Reformation Review, International Journal of Systematic Theology, Journal for Theological Interpretation, and The Thomist. He is currently working on a book manuscript for Continuum Press entitled Ecumenism: A Guide for the Perplexed as well as a co-editing the Oxford Handbook on the Reception of Aquinas (Oxford University Press).

Chad, thanks for talking to us. To begin, could you explain how you became interested in ecumenical theology?

I can think of two primary influences that gave rise to my interest in ecumenism. One is personal. I came to Christ when I was 21 without much background in Christianity. I was baptized in a Southern Baptist church for no other reason than it’s where my younger sister went. When I went to seminary a few years later—an interdenominational seminary—I met Christians from many other denominations, and that started a personal journey of seeking to understand the underlying reasons for denominations, and how it’s possible with a common source of authority, i.e., Scripture, that we have denominations (and have so many!). I always sensed that our denominations are not merely a reflection of diversity in Christ’s body; they also reflect at times division. And this seemed (and still seems) contrary to the Gospel. But that journey was mostly intra-Protestant. The Catholic component was somewhat accidental. My seminary training was under Dean Timothy George, and this was my first introduction to the Evangelical-Catholic dialogue. He was also Southern Baptist but not of the mold I was used to. He helped me understand that the problematic divisions of the Church stretched beyond the boundaries of Protestantism. After seminary I then sat under Dr. Hans Boersma for my Th.M., which only fueled the ecumenical fire, and lastly under Dr. Matthew Levering for my Ph.D., which sealed my fate as an ecumenist. As you may know, Hans and Matthew are both quite engaged in ecumenical work. But even more, they embody in their lives the combination of deep theological commitment with ecumenical sensibilities—an embodiment that I attempt to follow in my own life. So as you can see, ecumenism is just in my blood. It’s God’s handwriting on the wall for me!

In your book on Aquinas and Calvin, you state that “historical theology can serve ecumenical dialogue.” Could you explain how this pertains to ecumenical prospects between Reformed communities and the Catholic Church?

Simply put: we’re not going to get anywhere in ecumenical dialogue if we don’t take our sources seriously. As many seasoned ecumenists have observed, liberal or progressive ecumenism has resulted in a so-called “ecumenical winter.” It seems to lead to a dead end. If ecumenism is to be vibrant in the future, our commitment to our heritages must also be vibrant. At the same time, we have to recognize that our sources developed during a particular time in the midst of particular circumstances. Thus reading our sources contextually provides a broader horizon for properly understanding those sources and applying them today. Historical sensitivity also helps us identify in what ways we are and are not still struggling with the same issues. This can provide space for creative proposals that might move our communities forward. In sum, we neither want to dismiss our sources as unimportant—we are today the product of those sources—nor do we necessarily want to consider them important in the same way as when they were formulated—we’re not necessarily fighting the same battles today that were being fought when the sources arose. Good historical theology can serve this dual conviction.

What do you think is the one most persistent misunderstanding that Catholics have of Reformed soteriology and that Reformed communities have of Catholic soteriology that impedes ecumenical dialogue and progress?

This is a hard question. My first reaction is to point out that from my experience Catholics know very little about Reformed anything. Luther, yes; Calvin, no. Most of my Ph.D. professors and peers had read a number of Luther’s works but had never cracked open the Institutes to any serious extent, much less any other of his important works. But if I had to choose a Catholic misunderstanding of Reformed soteriology, I immediately think of so-called “double predestination.” It seems to come up a lot when Calvin is mentioned, but it doesn’t seem to be well understood. In terms of Reformed misunderstandings of Catholicism, I immediately think of the nature-grace distinction and how it functions soteriologically, as well as the way merit is understood and functions in Catholic practice. But I want to be clear: these are some of the misunderstandings that impede ecumenical progress. These are not the only issues that impede it.

You’ve written some helpful articles on the theological concept of merit in the thought of Aquinas and Calvin. Could you explain why you think that Aquinas anticipates Calvin’s critique of merit and in many ways circumvents Calvin’s objections?

To over simplify but also to get to the point: participation. Calvin’s reaction against merit largely presupposes that the “opponents” uphold a competitive-causal understanding of human-divine activity. In this understanding of divine-human activity, one thinks that either God does a work or humans do the work (or God does “part” of the work and humans do “part”). What earns merit is our “part” in the act. But this is neither Augustinian nor participatory. In a participatory framework, the human actor and the divine actor are both fully actors (though in different ways) in the very same act. When Aquinas claims that in meriting God is rewarding His own work in and through a person, why would Calvin object to this? He wouldn’t. But that is not how Calvin understood merit. And this isn’t because of his misunderstanding. Rather, the Augustinian-Thomistic participatory framework was not the only theology going in his day. 

It is sometimes assumed that Calvin and Aquinas represent two fundamentally opposed theological systems, and you have done much to bring them back in to conversation. However, how would you describe the way(s) Aquinas and Calvin differ most in their theological priorities?

Obviously Calvin and Aquinas wrote in the different times with different sets of “issues” shaping their theologies. For example, Aquinas’s navigation between the “active” and “contemplative” life as part of his defense of the Dominican Order is completely off the radar for Calvin, whose heavy focus on the relationship between faith and justification would have certainly seemed excessive to Aquinas. But is there a fundamental difference in their theologies? Do they have irreconcilable starting points? I do not think so. Aquinas differs from a number of sixteenth-century “Catholic” theologians that are Calvin’s interlocutors, on the one hand, and Calvin is more part of the medieval scholastic conversation, on the other hand, than is often recognized.  They are also both deeply committed to Scripture and the Church’s tradition. And they both utilize ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. They certainly differ on a number of theological points, like the Eucharist and merit. But I think there’s much potential for ecumenical convergence for those who are shaped by Aquinas’s and Calvin’s theologies.

Stay tuned for Part II…

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