book review: Reality, A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought

Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought
by Rev. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., 1950

Garrigou-Lagrange is a Thomist of the old school.  We hear nothing but bad about these guys from the theological schools that vanquished them, but how accurate are the criticisms?  They are clearly not as arrogantly rationalist as we’ve been told.  Not only does Garrigou-Lagrange deny that theological truths can be proved, he denies that it can be proved that they are not contradictory!  The most theology can do is to show that any given putative contradiction is not conclusive, and it can provide arguments of fittingness to plausibly relate the truths of revelation.

This book covers nearly all the same ground as the Summa Theologiae.  Rather than review the whole thing, I will concentrate on two topics of interest to me:  the claim that potency is only limited by act and the cause of sin, with its related issues of sufficient vs. efficacious grace, human free will, and predestination.

Act and potency

Thomists claim that act is only ever limited by potency.  Suarez claims that it can also be limited by the outside cause of the act-potency combination.  Garrigou-Lagrange does not think the Thomist position can be proved, but he gives an argument for it, as follows.  Act itself corresponds to some perfection and has no principle of limitation in itself.  Therefore, where it is found to a limited degree, the cause must reside not in the act itself but in its receptacle, whose role is played by a potency–a capacity to receive act.

This argument is open to a number of objections.  The conclusion depends on the fact that acts are treated abstractly (e.g. “wisdom in itself”) while potencies are implicitly individualized.  (Potency in the abstract does not determine how wisdom is limited in a particular intellect.)  However, this assumption–potency, as matter, being the principle of individuation–is part of the Thomist system, so there is no inconsistency (although we have perhaps just pushed back the statement requiring argument).  Second, it is not clear how this applies to attributes that are not perfections:  location, color, electric charge, topology, being this-or-that species.  These at least involve actualizations, but they have no condition of plenitude but must be this-or-that, and the external cause is a plausible reason.  I think the Thomist reply would be that attributes of this sort are mixtures of potency and act, and that to apply Thomist principles one must first parse them more carefully into unmixed potencies and acts.  I have invoked this argument myself, but I think it would be very illuminating if a Thomist would carry out, or at least attempt, a parsing of this sort for some ordinary material object.

Finally, I’ll warn readers that Aristotelian metaphysics is, I think, more confusing than it needs to be, because multiple terms sometimes play the same role, and a single term sometimes has multiple roles whose equivalence is less than obvious.  For example, potency, matter, and substance all sometimes play the role of ultimate subject, while potency refers to the subject of act, to this subject’s bare capacity to receive act, and to dispositions in a formed substance.  I think Aristotelians and Thomists have gotten so used to this that they don’t realize how tricky it is for outsiders.

Predestination and Theodicy

Why does one man respond to grace and another man not, so that the first but not the second is saved?  Invoking free will is tricky, because Christians believe that meritorious acts are an effect of grace from God.  Molina attempts to reconcile these by saying that grace enables a man to do meritorious acts, but given grace a man must choose to do so.  Two men may have the same “level” of grace, but only one chooses to cooperate with it.  Garrigou-Lagrange, speaking for Thomism, will have none of this.  If the one man responds with no extra grace, what is the cause of this?  If it didn’t come from God, it must originate from the man himself.  But this is impermissible:  all goods must come from God by metaphysical necessity.  Nor is this a philosophical imposition; it’s pretty clearly implied by the theology of Saint Paul.  (I suppose one might say that one man had a better natural disposition, but that also is due to God, so if the goal is to get God off the hook for the sin of the other man, this doesn’t help.)  Thus, Thomists maintain that God grants a special (“efficacious”) grace for each meritorious act that causes that meritorious act.

This does justice to the Christian religious sense, which is based not on a sense of our free will but on our gratitude to God who deserves the whole credit for our salvation.  It does leave a pretty big theodicy problem.  Why didn’t God give this extra grace to the other guy?  Isn’t his sin really God’s sin of omission?  The Thomists answer that the sinning man was given “sufficient grace” to enable him to do good, just not “efficacious grace” to actually do it.  The Molinists reply, “In what sense is this grace ‘sufficient’ if it is certainly inefficacious?  It gives its recipient no real chance of doing good, but just justifies his punishment.  Better to be without it.”  To which the Thomist points out that it is possible to have a capacity even if one doesn’t exercise it, even if it is certain that one will not exercise it.  Here the Thomist is correct metaphysically, but his point does nothing to address the Molinist’s moral concern.  Does it not remain true that God engineered the man’s sin by setting up the circumstances and failing to provide efficacious grace which He could have offered, thus upon His own initiative guaranteeing the sin?

Thomists reply that while efficacious grace precedes (indeed causes) the soul’s cooperation, the withholding of efficacious grace follows the soul’s refusal to cooperate.  I’m sorry, but that makes no sense; you can’t have it both ways.  It seems to me that Thomists must bite the bullet and say that God wills sins, not in themselves (His “all-things-being-equal” antecedent will), but for some other purpose.

Indeed, Garrigou-Lagrange basically does concede this in his section on predestination.  It is commonplace to say that God “allows” evil to bring good out of it.  Is this not metaphysically problematic?  How can good be dependent on evil?  Garrigou-Lagrange has a pretty good answer.  Good doesn’t need evil to exist, but it may need evil to be manifested.  A person may have the virtue of fortitude even if he is never in danger, but he cannot display the virtue of fortitude without danger.  God did not need to create the world to be good, but He needed to create to manifest His goodness.  Similarly, He arranges some to be saved to manifest His mercy and others to be damned to manifest His justice.  This is all quite Biblical and traditional, even if it is rather horrible.

22 Responses

  1. I found some discussion of this on a Traditionalist blog. The answer to the conundrum maybe similar to the answer to Euthyphro’s dilemma (God Himself is Goodness therefore He is the standard for moral order). Since God is Pure Act, He Himself is Causality.

  2. Actually it was a forum I found a discussion of this.

  3. He arranges some to be saved to manifest His mercy and others to be damned to manifest His justice.

    God damns men on account of their sins. Unconditional damnation is straight Calvinism.

    the withholding of efficacious grace follows the soul’s refusal to cooperate

    At what time did you withhold a post about the digits of pi?

    It makes no sense to speak of something which never happens (as opposed to something that does happen) as following or preceding anything else.

    The fact that certain men are not granted efficacious grace is simply a corollary of the fact that certain men are, which in Thomist view is due to God’s unconditional election.

    Without grace, it would be possible to avoid any particular mortal sin, but not to remain without mortal sin for a long time*. Thus God is not the cause of sin when he withholds efficacious grace, He simply fails to prevent it.

    *”So, too, before man’s reason, wherein is mortal sin, is restored by justifying grace, he can avoid each mortal sin, and for a time, since it is not necessary that he should be always actually sinning. But it cannot be that he remains for a long time without mortal sin.”

  4. @ArkansasReactionary

    “The fact that certain men are not granted efficacious grace is simply a corollary of the fact that certain men are”

    English is not my native language but I think there is a word missing there. Could this word be “not elected”?

    I am following this discussion with great interest and I would like to know your arguments.

  5. Hello ArkansasReactionary,

    I’m not sure that you, I, and Calvin have succeeded in disagreeing. We agree that God fails to prevent sins when it is within His power to do so. (The existence of efficacious grace may imply the possibility of its absence but not that its absence should ever be realized.) I in fact agree with the basic Thomist/Calvinist position on predestination. Whether one starts philosophically with classical theism or theologically with Saint Paul, it is hard to reach any other conclusion.

  6. @imnobody00

    If there are people in peril, and I rescue some but not all of them, it follows that some of them were not rescued. At no point did I cause the condition of “not being rescued”. Negatives don’t need to be caused.

    Likewise, in saving certain men, God doesn’t cause the damnation of those who are not saved. Damnation is something that would happen to all men absent the intervention of grace. God simply chooses to prevent it in certain cases but not others.


    There’s a world of difference between the Thomist position and the Calvinst position. Calvinism totally denies the freedom of the will, and consequently denies that the reprobate do (or even could) freely choose mortal sin. This disconnects damnation from justice.

  7. “Whether one starts philosophically with classical theism or theologically with Saint Paul, it is hard to reach any other conclusion.”

    I had to come to predestination through St. Paul. I struggled with Romans 9 for years, then realized that I can’t rip it out of the Bible. Once I accepted it, I then saw election everywhere in Scripture.

  8. @ArkansasReactionary

    Thank you for clarifying.

    “Likewise, in saving certain men, God doesn’t cause the damnation of those who are not saved. Damnation is something that would happen to all men absent the intervention of grace. God simply chooses to prevent it in certain cases but not others.”

    Let me see if I have understood you. According to your position (Thomism), all men are completely depraved so, following their free will without God intervention, men can only choose sin and be damned. Even when they are saved, they don’t collaborate with their salvation (they cannot do that, because of their depravity). They have 0% influence in their salvation.

    The depravation is so complete that men are unable to go to confession without God completely producing that. So God chooses the elect and give them grace to persevere (go to confession, live the Christian life, etc.). The non-elect are not chosen so they follow their natural path to damnation.

    The difference between the saved and the damned is God’s election. This is not God’s fault because men’s depravity is caused by men and not by God. The fact that God chose to create men that were prone to be depraved, has nothing to do.

    Hence, when Jesus preached the Gospel, and said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17, or other similar texts in the Old and New Testament), this was only targeted to the elect. Jesus knew that only the elect could answer positively to that and only because of God’s unconditional election. The entire ministry of Jesus and the entire Christian faith is only for the elect.

    Have I understood you well? If not, what is my mistake?

    In your position, how do you understand “The Lord does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent.” (2 Peter 3:9)? Is not god all-powerful? Why don’t He gives grace to everybody?

  9. In the words of Christ: many are called, but few are chosen (Mat 22:14.

    ‘The non-elect are not chosen so they follow their natural path to damnation.’

    Damnation is not natural. Grace perfects nature. Grace works with it.

  10. @imnobody00

    The phrase “total depravity” generally means that men are incapable of doing any good whatsoever on their own.

    The Catholic view is that, even without the influence of grace, men can do some natural good and can avoid any particular sin (since an act must be voluntary for it to be sinful). But without the aid of grace, it would not be possible to refrain from all mortal sins indefinitely. God offers sufficient grace (that is, enough grace to enable the will to resist all mortal sins and choose to follow God) to all people, but only gives efficacious grace (that is, grace which actually does influence the will to reject all mortal sin and choose to follow God) to some. It is not the case that efficacious grace is intrinsically irresistible, the will of a person who receives efficacious grace still has the power to reject it, but does not do so. Likewise, the will of a reprobate person has the power (due to sufficient grace) to choose to follow God, but does not actually do so. In both cases the person freely chooses.

    Moreover, it is not the case that God created man with a defective nature. God created man in a state of natural perfection, such that (in the original state of innocence) man could have resisted all sin without the aid of grace (though grace would still be required for supernatural merit). It was by the sin of Adam and Eve that human nature became corrupted.

    The dispute between Thomists and Molinists concerns why one person receives efficacious grace and another merely sufficient grace. The Thomist view is that this is due to God’s unconditional election. The Molinist view is that God grants efficacious grace to those He foresees will accept it, and merely sufficient grace to those He foresees will reject it. The problem with Molinism, in my view, is that it effectively turns the human will into its own uncaused cause.

  11. Free will is a difficult concept. It may mean

    1) people make conscious, rational decision (the compatibilist definition, and my own)

    2) their decisions are undetermined by outside secondary causes

    3) their decisions are undetermined by any outside causes, including God’s primary causation

    Everyone agrees that people are free in sense 1. Many of my fellow theists are attached to sense 2, although I don’t see how it matters one way or another. In the third sense, humans are not free, for the reason ArkansasReactionary gives. It would require humans to be completely uncaused causes. In classical theism, as exemplified by Thomism, the analogy between God’s creation and a writer’s carries all the way through. A character is a villain because he freely chooses evil in the story and because that’s how the author wrote him. It makes no sense to say that the author was forced to allow the character to be a villain by his middle knowledge of a character or by that character’s pre-emptive refusal to cooperate with the author’s original evil-free story arc. Similarly, human free will simply isn’t an issue when we’re talking about God’s predestination and reprobation. Grace assists free will in the first sense, the only morally meaningful one. Free will does nothing to get God off the hook for not giving efficacious grace to the reprobate. To explain that, one must invoke a more general theodicy.

  12. Great explanations from you both. I am not in the best state of my brain, being sick, but I will try to do my best. For me (don’t know about you), this is not an intellectual game, but it is a real personal issue and causes me real pain.

    I understand that this is derived from classical theism (I have read about it but I am not an expert). Since nothing happens that it is not caused by God, God is the last cause of a man being saved or damned, since God grants efficacious grace who He wants to. As Bonald says, free will is not an issue because it operates “inside the novel” while unconditional election operates “outside the novel”.

    You can answer like Saint Paul at Romans 9:21 and say that God, as creator, is entitled to do as He wills. Fair enough.

    But, then, you cannot get God off the hook for not giving efficacious grace to the reprobate. It seems to me that Thomism wants to have it both ways. He wants to make the God the cause of everything (because he writes the novel) but not the responsible of the damnation (because the damnation is caused by the sin of the characters inside the novel). ArkansasReactionary says that not saving a person is not equal to being responsible of their damnation. This would be true in a normal sense (with people). But, when God is involved, you cannot say this. Using the C.S.Lewis example,

    “In Hamlet a branch breaks and Ophelia is drowned. Did she die because the branch broke or because Shakespere wanted her to die at that point in the play?…The alternative suggested by the question is not a real alternative at all–once you have grasped that Shakespere is making the whole play.”
    (CS Lewis, God in the Dock, p.79).

    It seems that Thomism says that Shakespeare is the writer of the play, but he is not responsible of the death of Ophelia. Shakespeare didn’t do anything to save Ophelia, but he didn’t do anything to break the branch (the branch broke because it was a weak branch) so he is not responsible. So the the death of Ophelia was to blame only to the branch breaking and Shakespeare had no responsibility about that. This does not seem reasonable to me, because Shakespeare is the writer of the Hamlet universe, so he could do whatever he wanted in this universe, even suspend the law of gravity in the play. However, I may be mistaken about the Thomism position, being bad in philosophy.

    In addition to not finding the Thomist position rationally sustainable, I don’t think that Thomism has to be accepted as an article of faith. I know that some Pauline texts seem to imply this interpretation. However, I don’t see this view compatible with some other Bible verses (“God does not will that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance”) and the spirit of the Gospel. I don’t see the “good news” of the gospel anywhere if Thomism is true. And the Catholic Church has not decided between Thomism and Molinism.

    In a more personal matter, the idea of an all-powerful God creating people only to let them suffer eternal torment because He wants to seems completely repugnant to me. By contrast, I don’t have any problem with God wanting the genocide of the Cannaanites. It would be difficult to distinguish this God from Satan. Of course, being awful is not the same as being false but I don’t think Thomism has the data on its side. As always, I could be mistaken and you are better than me in philosophy.

  13. I forgot to add:

    “The problem with Molinism, in my view, is that it effectively turns the human will into its own uncaused cause.”

    Right, but this is a philosophical problem, not a Christian problem. It is only a problem if classical theism is true. But classical theism is not an article of faith and has other problems with Christian belief. I have never found convincing trying to square divine simplicity with the Trinity, for example.

  14. @imnobody00

    Watch this:

    And have a read of the description.

  15. imnobody00

    Excellent comment. I also find it horrible that God would create souls to be damned so that He can show off how just He is. And yet, I find the theological argument harder to dismiss than the philosophical one. It’s hard to argue that God isn’t to blame for the reprobate’s damnation without ending up a Pelagian. One understands why universalism is so attractive to some (or, failing that, my alternative that damned souls end up in limbo after a finite period of punishment), but that’s difficult to square with a straightforward reading of scripture.

  16. I was just reading something by Joseph Pohle the other day, whom I had assumed was a Thomist of some sort (Feser has recommended him), but with respect to the free will debate, here is what he has to say:

    Thomism is undeniably a grand and strictly logical system, which conveys an imposing conception of the omnipotence, the omni-causality, and the sovereignty of God. But in ruthlessly driving its fundamental principles to their ultimate conclusions, it is led to enunciate some harsh propositions which unpleasantly disturb the harmony of the Thomist system. Its psychological effects are great moral earnestness and a fearsome conception of God, which, while it deeply impresses persons of strong faith, easily drives weak natures into a slough of despair. … Molinism, on the other hand, is characterized by its mild and gentle features, – an exalted conception of the loving Providence of God, His merciful will to save all men, His encompassing grace, His condescension to the weaknesses of human nature. … Psychologically it produces trust in God…

    I’m not very knowledgeable about the Thomist-Molinist debate, but with respect to middle knowledge, the Molinist position has always struck me as ad hoc and convoluted when I’ve seen it described before. Pohle is the first I’ve read who presents it in a way that is neither of these (the Thomist position of physical premotion arguably comes to seem more ad hoc with the infinite number of hypothetical decrees it posits in God as a way of preserving His omniscience).

  17. […] Predestination:  I have a look at Garrigou-Lagrange’s explanation of why God doesn’t give efficacious grace to everyone. […]

  18. This is an old post. I don’t know if somebody will read this.


    “It’s hard to argue that God isn’t to blame for the reprobate’s damnation without ending up a Pelagian.”

    I don’t see it this way. A Pelagian would say that the individual is 100% responsible for his salvation. A Thomist would say that God is 100% responsible for the salvation of individuals.

    The Catholic position is that God offers you salvation but you are able to reject it. You don’t merit salvation (it’s a gift), but you can reject this gift.

    This saves free will and justifies this verse “God does not will that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance”. Being God omnipotent, I don’t find other way of squaring this verse with the reality that some people are damned.

  19. Suppose you don’t reject the gift of salvation but accept it. Did God help you do that, or did you do it yourself? That’s where the Thomist and Calvinist will pounce on you.

  20. So in what way is this not also the Calvinist explanation?

  21. A fair question.

  22. “Suppose you don’t reject the gift of salvation but accept it. Did God help you do that, or did you do it yourself? That’s where the Thomist and Calvinist will pounce on you.”

    God did help but the final decision is mine. This is called “free will”

    If you deny free will, you deny the spirit of the Gospel, which is full of callings to repentance. You reject verses such as “God does not want anybody to perish”. You deny the Gospel as good news.

    In addition, you make God an unfair being. Power comes with responsibility. If God has the. entire power, He has the entire responsibility. If He is fully responsible of the condemnation, the man is not responsible and should not be punished eternally. Thomist and Calvinist want it to have it both ways: God has all the freedom (all the power) in salvation but no responsibility, like a spoiled brat.

    So you deny the Gospel and the goodness of God. And for what? For a philosophical opinion that is moot. You trade your inheritance for a dish of red lentils

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