Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Thomism in Reformed Orthodoxy

Christopher Cleveland, Thomism in John Owen. Aldershot, Ashgate, 2013. 179pp. Hardcover.

Reviewed by Ryan McGraw

Recent scholarship has increasingly mined the medieval roots of Reformed theology. The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas held an essential place in post-Reformation theological education. While various authors accepted, rejected or modified Thomas’s teaching, his influence is important in understanding the development of what is common called Reformed orthodoxy.

This short book is an important contribution to the study of Reformed orthodoxy. Christopher Cleveland traces the influence of Thomas Aquinas and Thomistic authors, both medieval and seventeenth-century, in John Owen’s thought.

He traces this influence in three areas: God as pure act, infused habits of grace, and the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures. Aquinas used the concept of God as “pure act” to argue for the simplicity of God. The idea is that in God there is actuality and no potentiality. This explained God’s immutability and eternality as well as several other divine attributes. Cleveland shows how Owen used this Thomistic concept to refute Arminians, Socinians, and the Lutheran argument for Christ’s human nature taking on divine attributes, such as ubiquity.

The author then illustrates how Owen used extensively the concept of habits of grace in his massive work on the Holy Spirit. In contrast to Aristotle, Aquinas and Owen taught that some habits did not result from learned behavior. Instead, God infused human nature with natural habits that included the intellectual ability to understand the Scriptures, and he endowed believers with a supernatural habit of grace that enabled them to obey God. This habit of grace is equivalent to the biblical doctrine of regeneration. Cleveland divides this subject into two chapters, the second of which traces the relationship between an infused habit of grace and acts of grace in obedience to Christ in sanctification. For Owen, sanctification consisted of an infused habit of holiness. This infused habit is the source of all actual obedience in the Christian life, making the Christian life a supernatural work of divine grace.

Cleveland then explores Owen’s appropriation of Aquinas in describing the hypostatic union between Christ’s divine and human natures. He concludes his book by showing how, in line with his Thomism, Owen built his theology on a distinctively western trinitarianism (156). This is an important point in light of several attempts in recent literature to trace eastern influences in seventeenth-century trinitarian theology. Owen frequently stands at the heart of these attempts.

There are two significant shortcomings of this work. First, Cleveland provides little analysis or evaluation in his research. He demonstrates the influence of Thomism in John Owen, but most of the book consists of large block citations from Owen, Aquinas, Alvarez, and others. Most of his analysis of this material is merely the regurgitation of secondary sources by way of further block citations. His method is to introduce a block citation and then summarize it in his own words. Instead of shedding light on the significance of the quoted material, readers will walk away from Cleveland’s summaries thinking, “I just read this.” This makes the book unnecessarily repetitive. This feature is ubiquitous in this work. Second, in his treatment of infused habits of grace, he slightly misses Owen’s intent in referring to the “old creation” (79-80). Cleveland states that this phrase designated the Spirit’s work in the “inanimate” creation. However, Owen included Adam’s dependence on the Spirit prior to his fall into sin. Owen argued is several places that Adam’s true failure in the garden was that he stopped actively depending on the Holy Spirit in order to obey God. While Cleveland includes a suggestive statement from Carl Trueman to the effect that Owen’s view has potential parallels to Aquinas’s donum super addadum, he does not appear to pick up on the significance of Thomistic influence in this connection. Thomas believed that Adam naturally tended towards corruption and that God gave him a supper added gift of grace in order to prevent this. When Adam fell, he lost this gift and became corrupted. Owen did not believe that God created Adam with a tendency to corruption, but he did believe that Adam required the supernatural grace of the Spirit to prevent his fall. This is a significant Thomistic influence that the author bypasses entirely and possibly misunderstands.

This book is an important first step in expanding our view of medieval influences on one of the most significant thinkers in Reformed orthodoxy. It provides a useful starting point for further research.