It’s been going on for almost 400 years now. Luther unleashed an understanding of the gospel and of justification in a way that criticized the Catholic understanding. It could be said, however, that Luther pushed Augustine against Aquinas, but that would not be entirely accurate.
Regardless, Alan J. Spence, in his new book (Justification: A Guide for the Perplexed), pits Augustine over against Aquinas in some notable and even trenchant ways. Here’s a sketch of his sketch:
First, Augustine taught that it was all of grace. In fact, it can be said that “God acknowledges and rewards the love that he instils in us” (55). That is, God prompts grace and love and obedience and then rewards his own promptings of the same.
Do you think there is a distinction of the ground of justification and glorification? How do you understanding the language of “reward” in the New Testament?
Second, Aquinas doesn’t see it this way, and herein lies one of the core differences between classic Catholic and classic Protestant (Lutheran and Reformed at some level) theology. Spence’s presentation:
1. Aquinas equates justification with forgiveness of sins (ST 1.2 q.113, article 1). Righteousness then is about reconciliation with God. This leads to the view that justification involves an infusion of grace. Free will involves God’s act to make it free (but it is not independent of God) and this entails faith and repentance.
2. Aquinas, and this is the big point of Spence’s sketch, clearly distinguishes justification (forgiveness) from glorification. Justification is wholly undeserved mercy. But eternal life (glorification) is granted to the righteous for their loving actions in this life. Eternal life then becomes a reward for loving actions. (This is not simple justice but relative, congruous justice.) All of this then looks like this: mercy generates faith and this leads one into the state of grace, and participation in grace becomes — my term — somewhat dialectical between God and the righteous person so that loving actions are rewarded by God.
An issue here: Gary Anderson has a very good book on the biblical and Jewish notions of sin (Sin: A History) wherein he probes the metaphors of how the Bible/Judaism understood the implication of sin: it shifts from burden to debt, and that means forgiveness shifts from load released to reward/debt cancelled. One possible implication then is that reward language needs to be seen in its history and not necessarily as some kind of one-to-one correspondence to ontological realities. That is, debt and reward are a way of talking about sin and its forgiveness. Jewish “works” when tied to rewards — and Jesus does this often — is not so much about merit but about a fertile context for understanding relationship to God. Anderson’s book, I am saying, is a way of untangling some of this later development.
3. Early Christian and Medieval theology got into the issue of mortal sin. (This got inordinately complex at times and baptisms were postponed until just before death.) In general, Aquinas’ view of justification gets into this discussion. Mortal sin jeopardizes eternal life and this leads to the doctrine of penance, which involves contrition, confession and satisfaction (and this is where Luther’s theology became very polemical). This then leads to the church’s priest being able to absolve a person of sins (so the church becomes central to forgiveness). Purgatory gets involved too.
4. But let’s keep the big picture in mind: Aquinas’ distinction between justification and glorification, and the grounds of each, leads him away from Augustine, who sees it all as God’s own self-reward (my term). Spence admits this is not unlike Romans 5:1-2 where Paul distinguishes justification from glorification.
I’m not with either Augustine or Aquinas here so I have no dog in this fight. But Spence’s own critique of Aquinas ignores what Heb 6:1-8 says as he claims Augustine’s greater stability over Aquinas. I agree with Spence that Aquinas needs to think more in terms of faith when it comes to “mortal” sins. The issue for me is the mortal sin idea and the pursuit of restoration. IF it is mortal, there is no repentance (as Hebrews says); IF repentance and absolution are possible, it is not mortal.