Aquinas and Trent: Part 1Mar 7th, 2009 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts, Featured Articles
One of the most fundamental points of disagreement between Protestants and the Catholic Church, and one that presently keeps us divided, was the subject of the sixth session of the Council of Trent. This session addressed the doctrine of justification. Some Protestants believe that in this session the Catholic Church “anathematized the gospel” and formally committed apostasy. Understandably, in their minds, this is what warrants their remaining separated from the Catholic Church.
Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas over the Heretics
Filippino Lippi (1489-91)
For that reason, dialogue aimed at reconciling Protestants with Catholics simply cannot circumvent the Council of Trent. The more I have studied the Council of Trent, the more I am convinced that it and the rationale underlying its conclusions can be rightly understood only within a broader paradigm. The canons of the sixth session are read by Protestants as if the terms mean what Protestants take the terms to mean, according to a Protestant theological method. By that light it only takes a quick glance to see that Trent anathematized the gospel. St. Paul obviously teaches that we are justified by faith and not by works (Romans 3:20, 28; 9:32, 11:6, Galatians 2:16, 3:2,5,10), and the ninth canon of the sixth session obviously anathematizes the claim that we are justified by faith alone. Therefore, for Protestants it is a very simple deduction that at Trent the Catholic Church formally apostatized. End of discussion.
Or is it?
Certainly we can all agree that the gospel of Jesus Christ is something of such tremendous importance that we should choose death rather than deny, compromise or abandon it. But for that very reason, we should also agree that it is supremely important to be as certain as possible that what we believe to be the gospel is in fact the gospel. To be warranted in separating from the visible Church over the gospel, clearly we would need to be absolutely certain both that we know what is the gospel and that the Church has in fact departed from it. So a great deal of caution is in order when concluding that Trent anathematized the gospel. Too often in my opinion, insufficient study and investigation lie behind the reasoning process by which Protestants conclude that Trent anathematized the gospel. The determination is often made in a rather facile fashion, as exemplified in the previous paragraph.
Imagine trying to map a mountain range while standing on the highest peak with a thick cloud cover at some distance below. You see only certain peaks jutting up through the clouds. To perceive the mountain range rightly, you need to see what is underneath the clouds. In the same way, to understand rightly the meaning and basis of the decrees and canons of the Council of Trent, one must understand the theological and philosophical framework within which the Tridentine bishops were working. The enormous though invisible figure presiding virtually at the Council of Trent was the great Doctor Ecclesiae, St. Thomas Aquinas. It is virtually impossible to understand Trent rightly without understanding the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Why is that? In 1879, in his encyclical Aeterni Patris (On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy), Pope Leo XIII wrote the following:
The ecumenical councils, also, where blossoms the flower of all earthly wisdom, have always been careful to hold Thomas Aquinas in singular honor. In the Councils of Lyons , Vienna [1311-1313], Florence , and the Vatican [1869-1870] one might almost say that Thomas took part and presided over the deliberations and decrees of the Fathers, contending against the errors of the Greeks, of heretics and rationalists, with invincible force and with the happiest results. But the chief and special glory of Thomas, one which he has shared with none of the Catholic Doctors, is that the Fathers of Trent [1545-1563] made it part of the order of conclave to lay upon the altar, together with sacred Scripture and the decrees of the supreme Pontiffs, the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, whence to seek counsel, reason, and inspiration. (Aeterni Patris, 22)
According to Pope Leo XIII, there were three books granted the honor of being placed on the altar at the Council of Trent. One was the Bible, one was the Decretals, and the other was Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. This does not mean that they believed the Summa to be equivalent in authority to Scripture, or that it was to be blindly received as an infallible commentary upon Scripture. Rather, it indicates how much respect the bishops at Trent had for the Summa as summarizing the Church’s organic tradition through which Scripture was to be understood. Keep in mind also that there were no less than twenty-three Dominican bishops in attendance at the Council of Trent, and they also contributed to Aquinas’s role at the Council, because Aquinas was a Dominican. When we read the sixth session of Trent with an understanding of what Aquinas has to say about justification, we see clearly that the bishops at Trent were using Aquinas’s position and arguments in order to formulate and define their own position on this subject. The great Church historian, Philip Hughes, wrote, “Where is the doctrinal definition of this council [i.e. Trent], for comment on which the theological lecturer will not turn for guidance to St. Thomas …?” (The Church in Crisis: A History of the General Councils, 325-1870, p. 324)
Protestants tend to understand a term such as ‘justification’ primarily through an inference from its use in Scripture and in pagan literature contemporary to the authors of Scripture. Protestants also tend to be unfamiliar with Aquinas’s theology and philosophy. The bishops of Trent, by contrast, approached the issue of justification by looking at the Scripture through the eyes of St. Thomas. So, in effect, Protestants approach the issue of justification already in a different theological and philosophical paradigm than were the bishops at the Council of Trent. And when two groups of persons approach the same evidence, each group having its own paradigm, the typical result is disagreement due to misunderstanding.
Since we should not reject what we do not understand, Protestants should reserve judgment about the orthodoxy of Trent until they understand this Thomistic framework. That is because the burden of proof rests on those who would depart from the visible Church; otherwise there is no visible Church. In other words, we cannot just leave the Church and start our own sect whenever we, for any reason, happen to disagree with her theology. We would have to be absolutely certain that the Church has abandoned the gospel. Determining that a Protestant interpretation is more favorable or superior is insufficient; the Catholic position must be shown to be certainly contrary to Scripture. Therefore, if Catholic soteriology is compatible with Scripture, then Protestants should return to the Catholic Church. And every Protestant who knows his history should be the first to acknowledge this. But perceiving the compatibility of Catholic doctrine with Scripture requires first understanding the Thomistic theological and philosophical framework within which the Catholic soteriology promulgated at Trent is situated. So one essential goal of the Protestant-Catholic dialogue aimed at reconciliation and reunion is coming to understand the Thomistic paradigm within which the bishops at the Council of Trent were writing.
With an eye to that end, this is the first of a series of posts, Deo volente, examining the fifth and sixth sessions of the Council of Trent. What I intend to do in this series is present and explain the Thomistic paradigm that lies behind the Council’s teaching in these two sessions. Why am I including the fifth session? Because I believe that in order to understand the sixth session, on justification, we need first to consider and understand the fifth session, on original sin. And since today, March 7, is the day St. Thomas died (and hence is his feast day in the old calendar), this seems to be an appropriate day to begin such a series.
God our merciful Father, grant us the grace and wisdom to be reconciled with one another in full and visible communion. St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us, that we may see the light that illuminated your mind and guided your pen. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Part 2 in this series can be found here.