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Notes on Aquinas and How He’s Not a Semi-Pelagian

Recently there have been a few discussions about Thomas Aquinas and how he is or isn’t a semi-pelagian.  Shane first brought up the topic here, and was closely followed by Bobby’s dissenting view, here and hereI myself weighed in on the debate and finally cracked a bit further into my copy of the Summa.  And I must definitively side with Shane, that the Angelic Doctor, difficult as he may be in certain aspects of theology, is not in any way a semi-pelagian.  Here are some notes and quotations that I hope will help us bring some clarity to this debate, and the ways in which the ‘semi-pelagian’ label is flung around too flippantly in theological circles today.Here is the definition of semi-pelagianism according to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church:

The name given to doctrines on human nature upheld in the 5th century by a group of theologians who, while not denying the necessity of grace for salvation, maintained that the first steps toward Christian life were ordinarily taken by the human will and that grace supervened only later.

J.N.D. Kelly describes semi-pelagianism as the view that:

“…all sinned in Adam, and no one can rescue himself, but the initial movement of faith (credulitas) is the sinners own. Grace surely assists the man who has begun to will his salvation, but does not implant that will” (Early Christian Doctrines, 170).

Now, Aquinas does say that the natural powers of the soul (intellection, affection, and will) are “neither destroyed, not diminished by sin” (ST 1a2ae, Q. 85, a.1).  And on that note, many passionately protestant detractors are quick to arm their semi-pelagian shotguns and start a theological fire fight.  But, Aquinas is clear that he does not believe that the natural powers of the soul, even before Adam fell, could have brought man into beatification (or maturity/fullness of communion with God). In fact, Aquinas even says that Adam would not have been able to do anything good whatsoever without God’s grace to move him to do the good:

Human nature may be looked at in two ways: first, in its integrity, as it was in our first parent before sin; second, as it is corrupted in us after the sin of our first parent. Now in both states human nature needs the help of God as first mover, to do or wish any good whatsoever, as stated earlier (…). But, in the state of integrity, in terms of the sufficiency of the power of action, human beings by their natural endowments could wish and do the good that was in proportion to human nature, such as the good of acquired virtue, though they could do no good that surpassed human nature, such as the good of infused virtue. In the state of corrupt nature, however, hey are unable to fulfill it by their own natural powers. Yet because human nature is not completely corrupted by sin, so as to be deprived of every natural good, even in the state of corrupted nature it can, by virtue of its natural endowments, work some particular good, such as building dwellings, planting vineyards, and other such things. Yet it cannot do all the good natural to it, so that if falls short in nothing. It is like a sick person who can make some movements by himself, he cannot move fully like the movements of a healthy person, unless cured by the help of medicine.

And thus in the state of nature in its integrity, on needs a strength from grace that is added to natural strength for one reason, namely, in order to do and wish for supernatural good. But in the state of corrupted nature one needs this grace for two reasons: in order to be healed and, beyond this, in order to carry out works of supernatural virtue, which are meritorious. Furthermore, in both states human beings need divine help in order to be moved to act well.” (ST 1a2ae, Q. 109, a.2 body)

In other words, Aquinas believes that even Adam, in his condition of innocence needed grace in order to move him toward any supernatural good (i.e. salvation as full communion with God). The only “good” that Aquinas sees corrupted humanity as being able to is stuff like “building dwellings, planting vineyards”, etc. This is materially no different than the Calvinist who says that even though man is totally depraved, man is not as utterly horrible as he could be. All Aquinas is saying is that basic “goods” about human nature like doing work, building things, and cultivating land are not destroyed by sin. And his point is that it is only those sort of “goods” that man’s “undiminished” reason can attain on its own. Aquinas believes that salvation lies totally outside the realm of anything that human reason could even begin to desire if not moved by grace. Thus he says explicitly:

A person’s turning to God is by free will, and for this reason one is commanded to turn oneself to God, But free will cannot be turned to God unless God himself turns it…

A person can do nothing unless moved by God… Therefore when one is said to do what lies within oneself to do, this is said to be in that person’s power inasmuch as he or she is moved by God.” (ST 1a2ae, Q. 109, a.6, r.1&2)

I hope this will help to clarify the fact that Thomas did not believe human will can begin the process of salvation, which is what semi-pelagianism purports. Rather, he held that for humankind to even will to do good or even to wish to will to do good, it had to first be moved by God’s supernatural grace. This is not semi-pelagianism, it is orthodox Christian theology. We may not agree with his anthropology, or his conception of grace and its relation to the soul, but that doesn’t make him semi-pelagian.

(See also Justo Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought: From Augustine to the Reformation, 57-65; Jarolsav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: Volume 1,319-24 for further discussions of semi-pelagianism.)


  1. On the back end of this, you might want to check out “Justification and Merit Before the Pelagian Controvery” written by Warren Smith in the most recent Pro Ecclesia. According to Augustine’s later writings, his good friend and mentor Ambrose might have been considered a Pelagian. Smith’s is a nice look at the pre-Augustine side.

    Friday, June 22, 2007 at 5:05 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Good to know. And it was great to meet you guys the other night. The possibilities of of future ecclesial friendships and partnerships are always very encouraging for me.

    Friday, June 22, 2007 at 5:48 pm | Permalink
  3. bobby grow wrote:

    Let me go on record, and say that I am a student, which implies that I am open to learning a few things here and there ;) . As a result of the discussion over at my blog, and Shane’s, I will acquiesce, and say that I no longer believe that it is historically tenable to label Aquinas as “semi-Pelagian”; rather he should or could be labeled “semi-Augustinian”. Nevertheless, this does not change my view that the soteriology Aquinas forwarded was and is deficient in many respects, relative to scriptures’ articulation and nuancing of soteriological categories and concepts.

    Saturday, June 23, 2007 at 2:25 am | Permalink
  4. Gojira wrote:

    I wish I could believe you guys were right! ;-)

    Thursday, June 28, 2007 at 5:11 pm | Permalink
  5. Denny Helms wrote:


    I have heard before suggestions that Ambrose held semi-pelagian views. I am not able to locate the article “Justification and Merit Before the Pelagian Controvery” written by Warren Smith. I was hoping you could either provide a link or copy of the article.

    Thank you.

    Denny Helms

    Sunday, September 16, 2007 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

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