St. Thomas Aquinas on [the lack of] Certainty of Salvation

02 Nov
Did this man teach that Christians could be certain they were in a state of grace?

Did this man teach that Christians could be certain they were in a state of grace?

The final Reformation post, which is not a re-cycled post, but some comments I made on a blog elsewhere.  Years ago, Andrew Preslar of the Roman Catholic Called to Communion blog, wrote a post called St. Thomas Aquinas on Assurance of Salvation.  I had quite a conversation with him here, to say the least (it went on for many months)

I recalled this morning that my last comment there was deleted.  Andrew’s comment is the last one there now.  It says:

The words that you claim are “mitigated” by St. Thomas and the new Catholic Catechism are embraced not only by simple Catholics, they are embraced by St. Thomas himself and other learned Catholics, including those who compiled the Catechism. The theology and prayers of the Church, concerning the love and mercy of God, are most helpful precisely for persons with highly sensitive consciences, because those persons tend to be most aware of their own sinfulness, and therefore most aware of their need for the love and mercy of God, which is precisely what is confessed and celebrated in the theology and liturgies of the Catholic Church.

My deleted comments where these:


I just can’t see at all what you seem to think is clear and obvious. I agree some of the prayers are excellent – it is the formal theology I have problems with. At this point, it is probably best for me to bow out, for I will simply be repeating what I said in #86 in different ways. Persons can read what you say, what I say there (in particular) and then read Thomas, Trent, and the new catechism to see what matches up best. Maybe in the future we will have new things to discuss, which might shed more light on who is interpreting Thomas more in line with his own thought.

Best regards,


Post number 86, which I mentioned in that comment, is this one, and I confess that it is very technical, as it came about as the fruit of months of discussion:


Good morning. I hope this latest entry from me finds you doing well. I have been thinking and reflecting and praying on these matters very much, and you’ll be happy to know that I condensed a 6 page response to you down to about two and a half!

I think I am beginning to understand St. Thomas much better (getting used to the vocabulary he uses, the grooves along which he thinks, and the way his “filing cabinet” is organized). I recently finished reading and re-reading him regarding the theological virtue of hope (II, II, Q 17, and 18), and related articles (primarily presumption, Q 21).

At one point, Thomas says that when we say “I expect the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come” that future happiness pertains to hope. Hope is fundamentally about the goal of future happiness, which correlates with God Himself as the one who perfects us. Hope is indeed distinct from faith, and in this case “expectation is mentioned in the creed of faith, not as though it were the proper act of faith, but because the act of hope presupposes the act of faith”. “Hence an act of faith is expressed in the act of hope.” (II, II 17, Art. 6)

It is interesting here to unfold the logical implications of this. As regards not just an act of faith but the act of faith, this means that when we freely choose to assent to God’s words, we begin to have faith and with this, knowledge of revealed truth (logically speaking there is no knowledge before the act of faith, which also need not be justifying faith, or faith “formed by love”). On the other hand, as regards the act of hope, here knowledge of divinely revealed truth is presupposed, and the act of the will is likewise important, but also important is the expectation of future things.

This expectation is surely something that is certain, even if, since it has to do with future expectation, it is not “the proper act of faith” but instead the act of hope. This is something that hope can be certain of, namely that Christ will resurrect all people and the give “life of the world to come” to the sheep – those with justifying faith. In like manner, we can say with certainty that those who, in love, continually unite their wills (“hope resides in the will”) with God in this earthly life will be partakers of this “life of the world to come”. As Thomas says, “by leaning in His help”, “moral virtues” “are moved to their acts by the reason”, and therefore “hope [which resides in the will] tends to its end with certainty”

When it comes to the confidence of the believer in his own case (since he cannot have the certainty that he is in a state of grace, either by divine revelation [“the certainty of faith”] or otherwise), the dilemma is the following: is the believer’s hope of eternal life certain as it pertains to the present moment? Or only as it pertains to taking into account “the whole life lived”? Here, we might think of N.T. Wright and his approach to the matter of justification by faith alone. Wright insists that he holds to the doctrine of faith alone as regards the matter of justification in the present. For Wright, the believer can know that he is justified by faith alone in the present as a certain guarantee of his future: God’s final judgment is revealed beforehand. As it regards the actual future justification however, the believer is well aware that the final judgment will be not be simply according to one’s present faith, but will take into account the “the whole life lived”, as Wright puts it (here, many in the Reformation tradition see Wright smuggling in works, thereby undermining the purpose of the doctrine of justification, namely comforting terrified consciences who look to God for mercy). It is clear from Thomas that the believer looks to God – and not himself – for all grace and help. The question is simply whether the believer’s hope of eternal life can be certain as it pertains to the present moment. In other words, for all intents and  purposes, can the Roman Catholic, in the midst of the dark night of the soul, say “hope alone!” and gain peace?

As best I can tell right now, this whole matter is at the very least ambiguous and needs further clarification from the Magisterium. That said, right now, I have read very little of St. Thomas’ corpus. If he did not explicitly address distinctions like those I have laid out above, I wonder if there are things that he has written that would count as very clear evidence pointing in one direction or the other? As it stands now, I must lean with the second option – the certainty of hope pertains to the whole life lived – taking the whole thing into “account”. My reasons and arguments for this are the following:

• Thomas never says we can have “certainty of eternal life” – rather, wayfarers “apprehend happiness as a future possible thing”
• hope does not look to the present but the future
• Thomas is not focusing on a certain word of absolution in the present moment but rather the big picture – a hope that is found in the entire context of man’s nature being brought to ultimate supernatural fulfillment according to God’s arrangement.
• Thomas saying that the future good hoped for is “arduous but possible to obtain”
• it is the blessed in heaven, not those with justifying faith on earth, who “do not hope for the continuation of their Happiness”, “eternal life”, “but are in actual possession of it” (Q 18, Art 2)
• “many who are damned, in this life hoped and never despaired”
• Thomas’ handling of the matter of certainty of one’s “state of grace” – he leads towards and not away from doubt
• It seems that with Thomas, we only know there is certain knowledge (“indubitable knowledge”) and there is opinion (“conjectural knowledge”, guesswork) – and nothing in between
• the Trent passage above uses language pertaining to the emotions and affective aspect of life (i.e. the “sensitive”, “accompanied by passion” for Thomas), not the language of reason and the intellect (“without passion”)
• further, in that same passage, it the phrase “reconciliation with God” could mean two things: either the partial reconciliation with God given in the absolution (eliminating the eternal consequences of sin) or full reconciliation with God [and neighbor] after performing penitential acts (eliminating the temporal consequences of the sins that were at issue).
• I am aware of no RC theologian prior to 1900 (or even 1950) who advocated views like the ones you put forth in this post
• again, the recent catechism, as far as concrete advice regarding this matter is concerned, offers up Joan of Arc’s confession as our model, where doubt is part and parcel of faith

Andrew, I hope that you do not see this conversation as drawing to a close. Do you think that we can go anywhere else from here? What do you think might be the next productive steps? Do you agree with me regarding what I have said about the importance of some good historical research looking into this area in a more in-depth fashion?

Here is a bit more along those lines: “…in Mirror of a Christian Man[, on the ‘eve of the Reformation’,] a German priest named Dietrich Kolde lamented: ‘There are three things I know to be true that frequently make my heart heavy. The first troubles my spirit, because I have to die. The second troubles my heart more, because I do not know when. The third troubles me above all. I do not know where I will go.’” (Denis Janz, Three Reformation Catechisms: Catholic, Anabaptist, Lutheran (New York: Mellen, 1982), 127, quoted in Kolb and Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology, p. 35)

How common was this? Were cases like this isolated and simply exploited by the Reformers of the various stripes? If these cases were not isolated, should they have been, on the basis of the kinds of words you speak? (i.e. perhaps there was a widespread misunderstanding among the church’s priests – including among Thomistic experts like Cajetan – of what the church actually taught?) Or perhaps Thomas’ actual teachings really could have contributed to this lack of confidence? Perhaps Luther understood Thomas much better than some have said?

Again, it seems to me that if we want to really overcome the barriers that divide us, a more in-depth look at the realities on the ground is necessary… showing that the claims of the Reformers about Rome’s promotion of uncertainty as regards the individual’s salvation were false.

In the meantime, here are some more of my most recent thoughts and reflections on our conversation and what it means…. (these posts are a sort of tribute to you:


(bold not in original reply to Andrew)


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Posted by on November 2, 2014 in Uncategorized


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