by Aaron Anderson
Concluding his essay “Calvin’s Critique of Merit, and Why Aquinas (Mostly) Agrees,” Charles Raith writes:
The vision of rapprochement between Catholic and Reformed theology presented here does not argue that the differences between Calvin and his opponents were in actuality minor issues of little consequence to the Christian faith and therefore should be dismissed as unimportant for ecumenical dialogue; nor does it argue that Calvin and his opponents were actually thinking similar thoughts but simply using different language, resulting in Calvin simply misunderstanding his opponents’ teaching. Rather, Calvin’s issues with his opponents’ teaching on merit were real, substantial, and deserving of Calvin’s critique.
The argument here is simply that they largely miss Aquinas as a target, and if this is so, the title “Common Doctor” may extend to constituting a point of rapprochement between Catholics and Reformed on the topic of merit. This is not to deny that points of difference exist between Aquinas’s and Calvin’s conceptions of merit, particularly as related to the worth of the act and one’s ability to fulfill the law. If genuine rapprochement is to take place, acknowledging these differences will be vital to ecumenical dialogue. And it may be the case, as noted by Otto Herman Pesch, that the concept of “merit,” however one may wish to describe the reality behind it, carries more problems than it solves.
Nevertheless, this essay attempted to contribute to the growing consensus that Calvin’s polemics do not have the teaching of Aquinas in their sights, sometimes even when Calvin thinks they do. One may wonder if Aquinas’s thought had been more fully understood and embraced leading up to the sixteenth century, would the sixteenth century have produced different results. This of course is impossible to answer, but it is possible to say that Aquinas may still have a word for us toward healing our divisions today.
Raith’s two essays on merit (as well as his recent book with OUP) not only contribute to a movement of creative scholarship that aims to demonstrate the common vocabulary and theological concerns of Aquinas and Calvin, but also model argumentatively the kinds of conversations that this forum aspires to.
First, dialogue between Reformed and Catholics should involve shared scholarship without falling in to an “apologetic” key. Note that, after having argued that Calvin’s criticism of merit is largely congruent with Aquinas’ affirmation of merit, Raith does not rush to say that Roman Catholic soteriology trumps Reformed soteriology. Raith can subject Calvin to significant criticism and suggest deficiencies by way of historical and textual analysis without in any way ceding that Catholic theology is therefore superior to Reformed theology, because Aquinas is not the possession of Roman Catholics. Any honest investigation of historical Reformed theology will reveal a surprisingly similar point of departure between many of the Reformers and their Catholic interlocutors: a commitment to engaging sacra doctrina by way of the works of Thomas Aquinas. As many recent studies have shown, the Reformers learned from and critically appropriated much of Aquinas’ thought, as well as the method of the medieval scholastics. Invoking Aquinas as a way to “close down” the arguments of the Reformers is simply a move barred by the weight of history.
Apologetic scholarship tends to situate historical and textual study in terms of polemics, assuming that history can easily confirm what is already assumed. But, history and theology are coordinated in such a way that history can both condition theological thinking, and be directed by that thinking (if this is doubted, reader make haste to the works of the Jesuit historian John W. O’Malley). Apologetic historiography tends to construe the landscape of doctrinal and ecclesial development in shades of sharp discontinuity or epic continuity, to the point that prior theological concerns come to blur the autonomy of historical investigation. Indeed, it is very often the case that Catholic and Protestant apologetics are involved in sweeping historical affirmations precisely when history is not invoked or deemed unimportant to accounts of Reformation-Catholic divides.
For Raith, we can and must let the differences and tensions abide. We cannot dissolve the substance of Reformation protests to simple or naive misunderstandings bound to historical circumstance, and likewise, we cannot refuse the task of evaluating the historical dimensions of Catholic identity to see where our divides are the result of misunderstanding and forgetfulness. And, in the process of investigating our differences, it is imperative that we attend to the shared vocabulary, terminology, and modes of reasoning that make theologians like Aquinas “Common” to Reformed and Catholic traditions, without moving to ideologize personalities and theological determinations.
Second, Raith shows how historical and textual scholarship, with its requisite dispossession and diffusion of ideology, can contribute to ecumenism; indeed, how scholarship can be itself a form of ecumenism. To borrow from the conceptual world of the Catholic and Reformed scholastics on nature and grace, scholarship has, both in its methodology and ends, a proper autonomy and difference from ecumenism’s spiritual impulse to increase Christian unity. However, just as grace does not relate to nature as a “mechanical juxtaposition” (Bavinck, GD I), so ecumenism, the prayerful movement of Christians in to deeper understanding of the life of grace within different churches’ institutional and spiritual dimensions, can be practiced in the form of scholarship, without destroying the integrity of scholarship. Of course, this requires a careful delineation of how the two might relate, which our work strives to unfold. Exemplifying this kind of scholarly ecumenism is certainly no easy task, but Raith’s work shows great advancement in this area, and we hope to continue to model this careful balance.