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Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth on the Christian life: similarity and differences

  • Nicholas M. Healy (a1)

Aquinas and Barth both describe the Christian life in light of who God is and how God acts, rather than with a primary concern for morality or apologetics. They differ in that Aquinas describes a single, essentially monastic, and normative form of discipleship that, because it cannot be taken up by most Christians, issues in practice in a two-tier conception of the Christian life. By contrast, Barth's account of vocation individualises the call to each Christian so that it is possible for everyone to lead the Christian life equally well yet in very diverse ways. For this reason, and because our true relation to God is hidden, even to ourselves, we may conclude that it is dangerous to make negative judgement as to anyone's standing before God – and therefore their relative standing in the church, too – based upon a view of the normative form of the Christian life.

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1 For Barth this is obvious. It should be for Thomas, too, but if not see e.g. my Thomas Aquinas: Theologian of the Christian Life (Aldershot: Ashgate Press, 2003).

2 Kelsey, David H., Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2009), e.g. p. 27 . Cited henceforth as EE.

3 Barth calls these ‘the three main assertions of dogmatics’ in Church Dogmatics [CD], 13 vols., ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956–75), III/4, p. 24.

4 As Barth put it, dogmatics must have ‘the problem of ethics in view from the very first and cannot legitimately lose sight of it’ (CD III/4, p. 3).

5 Donovan, Oliver O, Resurrection and Moral Order (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 1986), p. 11 .

6 See e.g. Kelsey, David H., To Understand God Truly (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), p. 95 , and his discussion of practices in EE, pp. 193–201.

7 Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1948). Hereafter cited as ST part question.article.

8 Thomas's remarks on the New Law, the law of the Gospel, occur just before he starts his virtue-based account of morality in the second section of the same part, which they are clearly meant to inform. He distinguishes between the primary and secondary aspects of the New Law. The latter consists of the precepts and instruction we receive from the church. But this is given to us only in order to help us accept and respond to the primary aspect, which is the grace of the Holy Spirit at work in the heart of each Christian, and ‘shown forth by faith that works through love’ (ST 1/2 108.1). ‘Added on to our nature by a gift of grace’, and as such different from the natural law, the law of the Gospel is ‘inscribed on our hearts’, ‘not only indicating to us what we should do, but also helping us to accomplish it’ (ST 1/2 106.1 ad 2).

9 Thomas Aquinas, Super Evangelium S. Matthaei Lectura, 24.12, no. 1920.

10 Ibid., 5.2, no. 412.

11 See Sullivan, Francis A., Salvation Outside the Church? (Mahway, NJ: Paulist Press, 1992), p. 52 .

12 See ST 2/2 188.6 for the superiority of the preaching orders over the contemplative, while ST 2/2 188.7 is a relatively long article that rejects poverty as the primary form of perfection and is probably directed towards the Franciscans.

13 Here as occasionally elsewhere I replace gender-exclusive pronouns.

14 Biggar, Nigel, The Hastening that Waits (Oxford: OUP, 1993), p. 134 , see also pp. 44–5.

15 Barth cites what he believed to be the last line of Benedict's Rule: Facientibus haec regna patebunt superna (‘the heavenly kingdom will be opened up to those who follow this rule’). The argument has since been made that it was a somewhat later addition and does not reflect Benedict's own view. Nor does the line does appear in contemporary versions of the Rule on the Benedictine website:

16 An earlier version of this article was presented as a paper to the Karl Barth Society of North American meeting at Princeton, NJ, in June 2013. I am very grateful for the numerous comments and suggestions made there.

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Scottish Journal of Theology
  • ISSN: 0036-9306
  • EISSN: 1475-3065
  • URL: /core/journals/scottish-journal-of-theology
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