Thomas and Rome on Predestination

To many Romanists, Thomas Aquinas stands out as the epitome of their tradition. His thinking was the basis for Trent, Vatican I and II. His teaching is extolled as the loftiest and most important Roman “Catholic” theology. In contrast, the average evangelical and many Reformed people reel with horror at the idea of reading Thomas, let alone agreeing with him on anything. To many, he is the epitome of what was wrong with the Medieval theologians. He was too preoccupied with how many angels fit on the head of a needle. He was concerned about things that could not be known and were not important. He was more interested in vain philosophy than in the Scriptures. So the story goes. Though it is true that Thomas said many things that have found their way into Rome’s theology, it does not negate the importance of Thomas for Protestants. When it comes to the doctrine of God and election in particular, we find that it is Protestantism, not Romanism, that represents the continuation and development of Thomas’s ideas.
In order to see this, we must ask the question: what exactly does Rome believe about Predestination? How does it compare with Thomas’s doctrine? In The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), the official statement of faith for Rome, post-Vatican II, the word predestination occurs in six paragraphs (381, 488, 600, 1037, 2012, 2782). Of those six, only two offer any meaningful comments on the doctrine itself. Four of them use the word, but leave it unexplained. Paragraph 381 says, “Man is predestined to reproduce the image of God’s Son made man.” Paragraph 488 says that Mary was predestined. 2012 quotes Ephesians 2 without explanation. Paragraph 2782 quotes Cyril of Jerusalem saying that “God has predestined his people to adoption as sons.” There are only two brief paragraphs in the CCC that give any meaningful comments on the doctrine of predestination itself. Paragraph 600 says, “To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of ‘predestination,’ he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace…”1 Paragraph 1037 denies the doctrine of reprobation. It says, “God predestines no one to go to hell, for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end.”2
As the six sections in the CCC demonstrate, Rome’s official doctrinal position on predestination is extremely vague. From this document alone there are only a few general conclusions that can be drawn. They are that: they deny reprobation, and include mankind’s free response as part of God’s decree. The New Catholic Encyclopedia (NCE), a more recent production by some of Rome’s theologians, offers a more detailed approach to the way that they understand this doctrine. Through analyzing Rome and Thomas, Rome’s departure from Thomas on the doctrine of predestination will be shown. This is demonstrated: first, in Rome’s importation of foreknowledge into the Divine decree; second, in Rome’s rejection of reprobation in any sense; third, in Rome’s idea that God wills the salvation of all men.
Foreknowledge in the Divine Decree
In 1A.23.1 Thomas grounded predestination in Divine providence. Providence is God directing all things to their own ends. Likewise, predestination is God directing specific people towards their supernatural ends. Next, he denied that this predestination places anything in the elect. He wrote in his respondeo, “predestination is not anything in the predestined; but only in the person who predestines.”3 Thomas showed concern to qualify that there is nothing in the elect that would cause God to predestine them. It is entirely because of God’s goodness that he predestined some. It is not based on any foreseen merit, a positive free-will response to grace, or anything else within the person that prompted God to choose them.
This stands in contrast to the NCE. Like Thomas, they define predestination as:
“the ordination of God by which certain men are led efficaciously to the attainment of salvation. On the part of God, this divine ordination involves two actions. There is, first, an act of the divine intellect, by which God infallibly foreknows which men are to be saved and the precise means whereby they will attain this salvation. Second, it includes an act of the will of God by means of which He decrees to save these men in the very fashion that He Himself has planned.”4
The NCE’s definition agrees with Thomas on many points. They both say similar things about the definition of predestination. They also affirm that it is only of grace that a person is chosen. It is not on the basis of foreseen merit before or after grace. Where Rome differs from Thomas is in the role of free will. The one positive statement regarding predestination in the CCC, paragraph 600, says that God includes the free response of each person in his decree. This means that God chose based on who he foresaw would respond of their own free will. At first, this seems to be a small point. This usage of foreknowledge, however, marks a paradigmatic shift away from Thomas. To say as Rome does that the free response of the person to God is included in the Divine will is to make God a contingent being. No longer has he ordained all things or causes all things to come to pass. Rather, God is reacting to human decisions. God now looks ahead in time and determines to elect some based on what they would freely choose to do. Thomas and the Reformed after him, argued that God saving a person is not based on anything inside that person, but simply upon the grace of God.
The Rejection of Reprobation
Not only did Thomas and Rome differ on the relationship between foreknowledge and predestination, but Rome also parted ways with him on the doctrine of reprobation. In the sed contra of 1A.23.3, he quoted Malachi 1:2-3, “I have loved Jacob, but have hated Esau.” He defended reprobation as an important part of providence. He argued that God predestines some to eternal life and some he allows to fall away to their own destruction. He wrote that providence implies permission for “certain defects in those things which are subject to providence.”5 Contrary to objection two, however, he rejected the argument that predestination and reprobation occur in the same way. In his respondeo he said, “reprobation includes the will to permit a person to fall into sin, and to impose the punishment of damnation on account of that sin.”6 Predestination brings about both grace in this life and glory in the next. This is not the case for reprobation. God’s reprobation of sinners is not the cause of sin. Rather, it is the ordination of eternal punishment. The guilt of sin is a result of free will and lack of grace.
Thomas’ argument stands in stark contrast to Rome’s. The NCE argues, “There is neither predestination to evil as a final end nor predestination to any evil deed in particular… God has decreed from all eternity to inflict eternal punishment for the sin of final impenitence, which he has foreseen for all eternity.”7 At first glance, the two seem to be similar. Rome’s formulation, however, is radically different. Because God wills to save all people, he does not predestine anyone to punishment. Rather, it is exclusively through a person’s own failure to take hold of divine grace, that they are condemned. God only ordained that the impenitent will be punished, not that any particular person will be punished. In Thomas’s thought, reprobation was still part of God’s decree. It is a passive permission or a “passing over,” but it is a decree, nonetheless. For Rome, there is no decree to reprobate, as it would be at odds with God’s will to save everyone.
God’s Will to Save All
Finally, Rome and Thomas differed on the scope of salvation. In 1A.19.6, objection one stated the will of God is not always fulfilled. The objector argued that God wills all men to be saved and because not all are, God’s will is not always fulfilled. Thomas offered three solutions to this problem. The first solution is to see this passage in a restricted sense. That is, all those that God wills to save are saved. The second, is to take “all” as “all kinds.” It is not that God wills to save all people, but to save all sorts of people. The third solution is rooted in the difference between God’s antecedent and consequent will. Thomas explained this distinction by an analogy. Generally speaking, it is good that people live, and murder is evil. In the case of a man that is evil and a danger to others, it is good that he be killed in order to preserve the lives of others. Failure to kill a murderer would be a gross miscarriage of justice. This general will Thomas called the antecedent will. This punishment as justice demands is the consequent will. Understood this way, it is then possible to say that God’s will is always fulfilled and yet, not all are saved, though he wills it. He wrote, “In the same way, God antecedently wills all men to be saved, but consequently wills some to be damned, as His justice exacts.”8
Rome denies all three ways of understanding this verse. According to the NCE, the official stance of Rome is, “God sincerely wills the salvation of all men and thus makes the fulfillment of His precepts possible for all” and “Christ died for all men without exception.”9 In Rome’s thought, will in this context seems to mean desire. Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient to pay for all who would come. God desires all to be saved and expands the call to everyone. Ultimately, it is up to the free will of each individual whether or not they will come. In Rome’s view, God is once again made into a contingent being. He no longer has a decree, but only an earnest wish to save those who happen to come to him.
In contemporary Roman theology, the doctrine of predestination is downplayed significantly. The CCC offers very little on the doctrine and the NCE is hesitant to draw strong conclusions. Where they do offer comments, however, they depart significantly from the tradition they claim to uphold. Though many Romanists are quick to identify with Thomas, it is clear that they depart from his doctrine of predestination in crucial ways. They base God’s decree of predestination on the foreknowledge of mankind’s free will. They deny reprobation of any form, saying that God did not decree that anyone would go to hell. He only saw fit to punish final impenitence. Finally, they depart from Thomas on the scope of salvation, saying that God would save the whole world if they would only come. In making these clear departures from Thomas, Rome has declared God to be a contingent being. No longer is God ruling over creation, governing all things according to counsel of his own will. Instead, he is reacting to the whims of human nature, simply hoping that someone will trust in the cross of Christ. Thus, we see that Thomas’ doctrine of predestination is in fact much closer to the Reformed, than it is to Rome.

©Tyler Dowd. All Rights Reserved.



1. Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church (Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 1994), para. 600.
2. Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1037.
3. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Tertia Pars 1 – 59 (Lander, Wyoming: Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2012), 1A.23.2.
4. A.G. Palladino, “Predestination (in Catholic Theology),” in New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., vol. 11 (Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2003), 647.
5. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Tertia Pars 1 – 59, 1A.23.3.
6. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Tertia Pars 1 – 59, 1A.23.3.
7. Palladino, “Predestination (in Catholic Theology),” 651.
8. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Tertia Pars 1 – 59, 1A.19.6.
9. Palladino, “Predestination (in Catholic Theology),” 650.



    Post authored by:

  • Tyler Dowd
    Author Image

    Tyler Dowd is originally from the greater Seattle area. While attending Azusa Pacific University (BM Music & Worship, 2019), his passion for theology and the Scriptures grew. Eventually, the Lord led him to pursue further education at Westminster Seminary California. He is currently pursuing an M.Div and MA. in Historical Theology.

    More by Tyler Dowd ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Why the new obsession with the false equivalency? Is this because of Van Till & Luther? Let the one extol and the other be horrified in their emphasis of what was good and bad, right and wrong. Calvin testifies to many of the good…. Ok, great! Now what?

  2. Sorry, disregard “false equivalency.” Thomas was an Augustine clone on predestination. That’s good! I used him to debate Catholics when I was a cage-stage Calvinist (convert from the RCC).

    CVT’s critique of Aquinas was within a specific context, no?

    When Aquinas was good, he was invaluable. But a wholesale promotion and endorsing of him is going to create confusion. Be specific. What must be rediscovered and why? Where is the reformed world at large going wrong that a rediscovery of Thomism is vital. What’s at stake? Can’t we just read the reformers to know what is vital in his teachings? Who has undermined them?

    • I love CVT but his grasp of the history of theology was not good. He consistently misrepresented Thomas. He misrepresented Reformed scholasticism.

  3. I agree that CVT is very, very sloppy.

    But I do depict a creep in characterization and promotion in which Aquinas is being oversold.

    If it is true that CVT “rejected the metaphysics and epistemology that provided the conceptual framework within which classical theism was developed, stated, and defended. Historically, what has happened when this context is rejected and replaced with a different philosophical context is that an internal tension is introduced, leading to different and novel doctrines of God.” – Dr. Keith A. Mathison, Table Talk

    Classical theism: God is infinite or unlimited in not depending on other things, and in perfection, power, knowledge, goodness and creative responsibility.

    However, CVT’s points which are not unique (see Luther and I’m sure many others in how we may apply their teachings) and are wholly compatible with Reformed doctrine is that man willfully suppresses spiritual and thus natural realities is, well, on point…..

    Is the promotion of Thomism a direct response to a sloppy CVT or something greater? Because I don’t see how a sloppy CVT has led the Reformed community astray wholesale or in various areas. I still think his presuppositional approach to apologetics is sound when considering the spiritual depravity of man. If man is not spiritually depraved a solely rational and metaphysical approach (natural theology) would reap positive results. But even a surface belief in God is common (a nominal Christianity). Start to get into fundamental truths and the percentage of true Christians goes way down. Get into the meat of the word and Reformed doctrines of faith? We’re talking a remnant of acceptance.

    • AJ,

      Tyler’s point, which is a good one, is that the Thomas received by many Romanists is not the Thomas of the Summa. The same thing holds for some evangelical and Reformed folk.

      There were a number of strong Reformed Thomists in the classical period, not the least of whom was Peter Martyr Vermigli. I have an essay coming out in Credo magazine in which I point to Girolamo Zanchi as a Reformed Thomist.

      Have you actually read Thomas?

      I read a fair bit of Thomas every year with my students. I learn from him regularly—every time I read him. Do I agree with him on everything? No! None of the Reformed Thomists accepted everything Thomas taught. In my view his theology was adversely affected by his debt to Platonism (not Aristotle as some have said).

      You’re wrong about Luther and Thomas. See David Bagchi’s seminal essay in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment where David did a terrific job on Luther’s debt to scholasticism. There’s a good case to be made that Luther, since he was trained as a nominalist, only knew Thomas via Biel.

      You need to tried to set aside your bias against Thomas and actually read him. I understand where you are. I was there when I was a seminary student. Then I actually read Thomas and real Thomas scholarship.

  4. An example of the rejection of “natural” realities would be the embrace of LGBTQ thought and practice. If a person is ignorant or even knowledgeable of biblical truth who rejects God’s design in Creation has a problem in which the presuppositional reality is rejected outright on account of spiritual depravity. That’s a reality that should be acknowledged. Not to write somebody off but to speak plainly of these realities.

  5. Not sure I do either, lol….

    It’s a good article. I’m pleased there is a rich church history in support of this difficult but necessary doctrine. Thanks for posting it!

  6. As it happens, I’m reading these two recent books: “The Trinitarian Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas” by Gilles Emery (OUP, 2007) and “The Trinitarian Christology of St. Thomas Aquinas” by Dominic Legge (OUP, 2017). Both men are Catholic scholars. Catholic scholars have done a lot of good work on Aquinas for many, many years, and it’s long past time that Protestants, especially the Reformed, caught up with them. The late Norman Geisler thought the same, publishing “Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal” in 1991. Thomas is valuable for us, too!

    • R. C. Sproul also had many positive things to say about Aquinas, counting him as one of the “good-guy” theologians.

  7. Interesting article. I was part of the Catholic church from my birth in 1949 until I walked away in light of the chaos of Vatican II in 1968.

    Thomas was, as far as I could tell, one of the casualties of Vatican II. Before the council (1962), my teachers and pastors quoted Thomas or referred to him all the time. He was the “angelic doctor,” the greatest theologian that the church had.

    After the council, suddenly no one did. He became, as far as I could tell, an unperson. It wasn’t that the council explicitly disowned him or deemphasized him. I’m not sure why exactly he vanished as thoroughly as he did, but I think his total incompatibility with schemata like Lumen Gentium or Gaudium et Spes or expecially Apostolicam Actuositatem led him to be discarded like some unfashionable clothing or furniture.

    In any case, from 1965 until I left in 1968, I don’t think I heard anyone even mention Thomas, let alone cite his thinking as normative. While I’m no longer in the Catholic church, I still have contact with Catholic family and friends; and I have never heard them cite Thomas.

    So my 2 cents on Rome and Thomas.

  8. Dr. Clark,
    Thank you for posting Tyler Dowd’s article on Thomas Aquinas’ view of Predestination, Foreknowledge, and Reprobation. The precise distinctions Tyler identifies regarding these ideas uncover my bias about Thomas’ writings. How did the Romanists miss these basic differences?

    Fortunately, Aquinas’ theology and philosophy were exempted by the Romanists in 1964 and 65. Will they next reverse their 1323 canonization of Thomas?

  9. Dr. Clark,

    I think you have misunderstood modern Roman Catholic teaching on a number of the points covered in your article. Modern Catholic teaching is not, in fact, contrary to that of St. Thomas.

    It is, admittedly, more difficult in some ways to summarize Catholic teaching on a subject like predestination than it is to summarize the Reformed view because, while for the Reformed, predestination and surrounding topics tend to come up to the level of what might be called “first-order” doctrines, in Catholicism they tend to be treated as “second-order” doctrines–that is, the Reformed focus more primary attention on these doctrines whereas Catholics tend to think of them as deeper corollaries of primary doctrines which don’t need to be as up-front in preaching or general knowledge. That’s why the Catechism of the CC spends so little time on them, for example. Nevertheless, the Church does have teaching on these matters, and Catholic theologians have spent a lot of time over the centuries thinking and talking about them. I agree that interest in these topics has fallen off a bit since the mid-20th-century in a lot of theological circles, but there has been no reversal of the general positions or Church teaching.

    Reformed Christians and Catholics have historically had a hard time understanding each other on these topics. The language, in some areas, is very different, and requires some careful translation. Let me make a few brief comments on some of the points you mentioned and articulate how Catholic doctrine doesn’t imply the problematic things you think it does. I can’t do all the substantiation for this in a comment box, obviously, but see here for my longer overview of Catholic teaching in this area, with citations from the Catechism and elsewhere for substantiation, etc. –

    “They base God’s decree of predestination on the foreknowledge of mankind’s free will.”

    There are different schools of thought on this in the Catholic Church. The Dominican position is closest to the Calvinist language, and it is a perfectly permissible opinion in the Catholic Church today, not condemned at all. But even those positions that are further from Calvinist language are not as problematic as they sound. Some of the Molinists, for example, say that God’s decree of predestination of some persons to eternal life or to damnation is rooted in God’s foreknowledge of what they will choose. But we must remember that, in Catholic doctrine, what people will choose in the future is not a product of independent free will but is connected to how God applies his grace. So these Molinists would say, for example, that God predestines certain individuals to choose Christ by bringing them to Christ through grace, and then, seeing that they will choose Christ through grace, God preordains them to eternal life. You are reading into Catholic teaching the idea that God looks into the future, sees what our free will will do independently of grace, and then elects us based on that, but no Catholic school of thought holds that view.

    “They deny reprobation of any form, saying that God did not decree that anyone would go to hell. He only saw fit to punish final impenitence.”

    You’ve misread Catholic theology here. No Catholic school of thought denies reprobation, in the sense that God chooses in his plan of providence to permit some people to reject God and suffer the consequences of that. Catholic theologians have never liked phrases like “predestination to hell,” etc., not because there is no reprobation, but because, in Catholic context, such phrases are taken to mean either that God ordains innocent people, as such, to go to hell (as opposed to sentencing sinners), or that God actively causes people to end up sinners by working in them a sort of “anti-grace” which is parallel to how grace converts people to the good, or even that God forces people to become sinners. But Catholic theology recognizes that God predestines to bring some to him by grace while allowing others to reject him.

    “Finally, they depart from Thomas on the scope of salvation, saying that God would save the whole world if they would only come.”

    Again, there is misunderstanding here. Yes, Catholic theologians, and the Church, have always taught that God desires the salvation of all people, but this does not mean that God’s providence is not in control of who is saved and who is not. As you mention, St. Thomas, and many theologians, have accounted for predestination on the one hand and God’s desire for the salvation of all on the other by means of distinguishing God’s antecedent and consequent will. God, in itself considered, desires the salvation of all. That is, the salvation of all is, in itself, pleasing to him. However, all things considered, God, in his providence, chooses to bring some to him by grace and to permit others to reject him. Modern Catholic theology continues to hold this point and has not rejected it. There is no idea of God having no control, waiting to see what independent creatures will do independently. You have to read the Catholic language in the context of the rest of Catholic theology. What you have done, rather, is take phrases, ignored their theological context, and inserted into them your own interpretations contrary to Catholic doctrine. (Catholics, unfortunately, do that to Calvinists all the time as well. I find it frustrating on both sides.)

    To close, here is a quote from Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, one of the great 20th century Catholic theologians. Granted, he is writing before VII, but the situation has not changed in terms of what is allowed and what is Church teaching.

    “But in any case, from this minimum admitted by all we get three propositions to which all Catholic theologians subscribe. They are: (1) Predestination to the first grace is not because God foresaw our naturally good works, nor is the beginning of salutary acts due to natural causes; (2) predestination to glory is not because God foresaw we would continue in the performance of supernaturally meritorious acts apart from the special gift of final perseverance; (3) complete predestination, in so far as it comprises the whole series of graces from the first up to glorification, is gratuitous or previous to foreseen merits. These three propositions are admitted by all Catholic theologians.” (Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Predestination [Charlotte, NC: TAN Books, 2013], p. 10).

    • Mark,

      Show me from magisterial teaching, e.g., the Catechism of the Catholic Church or some other such ecclesiastical authoritative teaching where Rome agrees with Thomas. I don’t think it can be done.

      Tyler can speak for himself but I don’t think he misunderstood anything.

      You’ve changed the terms of discussion. Tyler wasn’t discussing the Reformed view(s) of the decrees. He was discussing Thomas.

      As a teacher, were you to submit this as a response to a paper I would say that you’ve tossed a lot of sand in the air to obscure the actual issue.

      Tyler’s question is twofold: has Rome abandoned Thomas on the decree. The answer is yes. Have some Reformed folk assumed things about Thomas that aren’t true? The answer is also yes.

      Without being presumptuous my advice is to read or re-read Thomas on the decree. He is quite clear and quite Augustinian.

      Rome hasn’t been officially, confessional so Augustinian for a very long time.

  10. Thanks for your reply. I apologize for attributing the article to you rather than to Tyler Dowd. I simply failed to notice the author name at the beginning.

    The Catholic view of predestination is not found in the current Catechism, at least not directly. As Tyler has noted, there are a few obscure references, but not enough to understand the teaching. That’s because, as I noted, Catholics tend to think of predestination and related issues as “second-order” theology, whereas the Catechism is trying to lay out the “first-order” theology, and also because, as I noted, Catholic theologians as a whole have not really focused much attention on these issues in recent times. But there has been no reversal of Church teaching or the approved schools of Catholic theology on these topics.

    The best approach to seeing the Catholic teaching on these subjects is, I think, the way I approached it in the article I linked to. I first cited several quotations from the Catechism and from some authoritative councils (Trent, Orange) laying out the key ingredients that inform the Catholic view of predestination and related issues. God is absolutely sovereign. All of our goodness, including our good will, is a product of grace. Etc. These teachings imply certain views relating to predestination and grace, so you can glean Catholic doctrine in these areas from that. And, as you look back through the history of Catholic commentary on these subjects, you can see that, in fact, Catholic theologians have indeed drawn out those implications in formulating their views on predestination, etc.

    Secondly, we can look at certain conciliar definitions regarding predestination, etc., which have been viewed by Catholics in general and by the Church as expressing Catholic teaching on these topics. In my article, I quote the Council of Quiercy (853), for example, and (at the bottom of the article in an addendum) I quote Pope Hadrian I in 785, who summarize standard Catholic teaching. These two quotes, and others, are found in Denzinger, which is a standard summary of the Church’s teaching through the ages. And then you can also look at the consensus opinions of Catholic theologians through the centuries on these topics.

    Putting all the above together, we can indeed make claims about what the Catholic Church teaches, views that are within the bounds of Church teaching, etc. My point in my comment was to point out that ideas that Tyler attributes to modern Church teaching on these subjects are not actually taught by the Church–Tyler has read them into phrases in an isogetical manner–and are, in fact, contrary to Church teaching. For example, Tyler suggests that the Church teaches that God is a contingent being because he is dependent on independent free will choices that are outside the control of his providence, but this is contrary to what the Church clearly teaches. Tyler has read this into phrases using his own interpretations, ignoring the context of Church teaching in general which exclude his interpretations. No school of Catholic thought has ever taught what Tyler says the Church teaches, and all schools of thought have excluded these ideas and condemned them, rightly, as contrary to Catholic doctrine.

    • Mark,

      Neither Augustine nor Thomas (nor the many other Augustinians in the Western church thought of predestination as a “second order” doctrine. You’ve just made my point. The Catechism is the teaching of the Roman communion. The private opinions of Romanists theologians are just that.

      I’m well aware of Denzinger. I use it regularly in my published work. There have been neo-Augustinian statements in the past, as you indicate but Rome’s doctrine is not static. She moves. That’s the point. Rome has abandoned Thomas and Augustine.

      Tyler’s point is that most Romanists don’t know that.

Comments are closed.