John Owen’s Usage of Thomas Aquinas, Part 1

John Owen’s Usage of Thomas Aquinas, Part 1

Recently, Carl Trueman has stated the following: “I had a breakthrough on John Owen when I realized how often he cited Thomas Aquinas in his marginal notes in his texts. Struck me as odd.”

With this in mind, I would like to begin looking through just how extensive this usage really is, since this is a topic that tends to be brought up often.

As a bit of a preliminary, I have been utilizing the epub version of the books of Owen available at along with comparing these with the Banner of Truth volumes (which yields 36 total books). This way, you can feel free to look for yourself and compare my results without cost. Secondly, I have attempted to compile my list using the Banner of Truth volume numbers (which were not part of the listing at as closely as I could match the book with the contents of the Banner of Truth editions. Finally, regarding how I determined whether Thomas was mentioned, I performed several searches such as searching for “Aquinas”, “Thomas”, and even “Angelic Doctor” (as Owen referred to him in only two works) and reviewing the context.

Before I get to the content of the post below, I wish to provide a list of the 20 books out of the 36 works which do not have any mention of Thomas Aquinas (not even in editorial footnotes). And to give you an idea of how long this blog series may be, from the other 16 books there are only 36 mentions of Thomas Aquinas (5 of which will be covered in this post). Finally, I would note that this does not count Owen’s “Biblical Theology” in the list. In that book, Aquinas is mentioned often and with sharp disagreement. I will have a post covering some of that book as well.

Books With No Mention of Thomas Aquinas

Church Officers
The Excellency of Christ
An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Vol. 6 – 8:1 – 10:39
The Lord’s Supper Fully Considered
Owen’s Works, Volume 01 – The Glory of Christ
Owen’s Works, Volume 04, Part 1 – The Work Of The Holy Spirit In Prayer
Owen’s Works, Volume 04, Part 2 – The Work of the Holy Spirit in Regeneration
Owen’s Works, Volume 05, Part 2 – Evidences of Faith
Owen’s Works, Volume 06, Part 1 – Mortification of Sin
Owen’s Works, Volume 06, Part 2 – Of Temptation
Owen’s Works, Volume 06, Part 3 – The Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers
Owen’s Works, Volume 06, Part 4 – The Forgiveness of Sin
Owen’s Works, Volume 07, Part 1 – Apostasy from the Gospel
Owen’s Works, Volume 07, Part 2 – The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded
Owen’s Works, Volume 09 – Sermons to the Church
Owen’s Works, Volume 12 – A Treatise of the Dominion of Sin and Grace
Owen’s Works, Volume 13, Part 2 – Duties of Christian Fellowship
Owen’s Works, Volume 15, Part 2 – Evangelical Love, Church Peace, and Unity
Owen’s Works, Volume 16, Part 1 – The True Nature of a Gospel Church
Walking Humbly With God

In this first part, I want to look at some of the mentions of Thomas Aquinas (outside of the 7 volumes on Hebrews) where John Owen was including Thomas in a list of others who subscribed to a certain viewpoint on various doctrines. Let us take a brief look at this type of reference to Thomas.

In “Owen’s Works, Volume 02, Part 3 – A Brief Declaration and Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity” we find Owen saying that Aquinas was among those schoolmen who many Lutheran authors (with whom Owen agreed) were stating had an improper view of the satisfaction of Christ as it relates to pardon of sin. Owen even said that the belief of Aquinas opened a way for the Socinian error on the same matter:

To the Reader: The Lutherans who have managed these controversies, as Tarnovius, Meisnerus, Calovius, Stegmannus, Martinius, Franzius, with all others of their way, have constantly maintained the same great fundamental principle of this doctrine of the satisfaction of Christ; and it hath well and solidly been of late asserted among ourselves on the same foundation. And as many of these authors do expressly blame some of the schoolmen, as Aquinas, Durandus, Biel, Tataretus, for granting a possibility of pardon without satisfaction, as opening a way to the Socinian error in this matter; so also they fear not to affirm, that the foregoing of this principle of God’s vindictive justice indispensably requiring the punishment of sin, doth not only weaken the cause of the truth, but indeed leave it indefensible. However, I suppose men ought to be wary how they censure the authors mentioned, as such who expose the cause they undertook to defend unto contempt; for greater, more able, and learned defenders, this truth hath not as yet found, nor doth stand in need of.

In “Owen’s Works, Volume 05, Part 1 – The Doctrine of Justification by Faith” we find Thomas also listed among others who held to a viewpoint with which Owen disagreed. It is of great note here is that Owen accuses Thomas of being so beholden to Aristotelian philosophy that they followed him even on their doctrine of justification. He said that Thomas ought to be no guide for us on the doctrine of justification.

General considerations: The Holy Ghost, in expressing the most eminent acts in our justification, especially as unto our believing, or the acting of that faith whereby we are justified, is pleased to make use of many metaphorical expressions. For any to use them now in the same way, and to the same purpose, is esteemed rude, undisciplinary, and even ridiculous; but on what grounds? He that shall deny that there is more spiritual sense and experience conveyed by them into the hearts and minds of believers (which is the life and soul of teaching things practical), than in the most accurate philosophical expressions, is himself really ignorant of the whole truth in this matter. The propriety of such expressions belongs and is confined unto natural science; but spiritual truths are to be taught, “not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth, comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” God is wiser than man; and the Holy Ghost knows better what are the most expedient ways for the illumination of our minds with that knowledge of evangelical truths which it is our duty to have and attain, than the wisest of us all. And other knowledge of or skill in these things, than what is required of us in a way of duty, is not to be valued.

It is, therefore, to no purpose to handle the mysteries of the gospel as if Hilcot and Bricot, Thomas and Gabriel, with all the Sententiarists, Summists, and Quodlibetarians of the old Roman peripatetical school, were to be raked out of their graves to be our guides. Especially will they be of no use unto us in this doctrine of justification. For whereas they pertinaciously adhered unto the philosophy of Aristotle, who knew nothing of any righteousness but what is a habit inherent in ourselves, and the acts of it, they wrested the whole doctrine of justification unto a compliance wherewithal.

Next, we find in “Owen’s Works, Volume 11 – The Doctrine of the Saint’s Perseverance Explained and Confirmed” that Owen had some lengthy discussions in his Preface about beliefs that Thomas Bradwardin and Thomas Aquinas held to. It was only in this work and in Volume 14, on “True and False Religion” that Owen referred to Thomas as the “Angelical Doctor” – as the context shows, he was not using this as a title with approval. Owen states that Bradwardin and many following him had tried to get multiple Popes to issue some sentence against the Pelagianism which was creeping into the Roman Church. Owen would summarize it by stating that “setting aside some such deviations as the above mentioned, whereunto they are enforced by their ignorance of the grace and justification which is in Jesus Christ, there is so much of ancient candid truth, in opposition to the Pelagians and semi-Pelagians, preserved and asserted in the writings of the Dominican friars, as will rise up, as I said before, in judgment against those of our days who, enjoying greater light and advantages, do yet close in with those, and are long since cursed enemies of the grace of God.” Basically, even though there were some “deviations” (such as implicit faith and the efficacy of the sacraments – i.e. baptism regenerated a person and made that person an actual believer, though possibly not one of the elect), there were some things that the current Pope, Innocent X, should have been able to use from those schoolmen which could be used to combat rising Pelagianism in the Church of Rome. The following 3 sections of quotations are all from the Preface and are all close to each other in the same discussion, but they are not consecutive.

Preface to the Reader: With this earnestness, above three hundred years ago, did this profoundly learned man [Bradwardin] press the popes to a determination of these controversies against the Pelagians and their successors in his schools. The same suit hath ever since been continued by very many learned men (in every age) of the communion of the church of Rome, crying out for the papal definitive sentence against the Pelagian errors crept into their church; especially hath this outcry with supplication been renewed by the Dominican friars, ever since the Jesuits have so cunningly gilded over that Pelagian poison, and set it out as the best and most wholesome food for “”holy mother”” and her children. Yea, with such earnestness hath this been in the last age pursued by agents in the court of Rome, that (a congregation de auxiliis being purposely appointed) it was generally supposed one while that they would have prevailed in their suit, and have obtained a definitive sentence on their side against their adversaries. But through the just vengeance of God upon a pack of bloody, persecuting idolaters, giving them up more and more to the belief of lies, contrary almost to the expectation of all men, this very year, 1653, Pope Innocent X., who now wears the triple crown, conjured by the subtlety and dreadful interest of the Jesuits in all nations that as yet wonder after him, by a solemn bull, or papal consistorian determination, in the case of Jansenius, bishop of Ypres, hath turned the scales upon his first suppliants, and cast the cause on the Pelagian side. But of that whole business elsewhere.

I shall not perplex the reader with the horrid names of Trombet, Hilcot, Bricot, Sychet, Tartaret, Brulifer, nor with their more horrid terms and expressions. Let the one Angelical Doctor [i.e., AQUINAS] answer for the rest of his companions.

That this man, then (one of the great masters of the crew), abode by the principles of him before insisted on, may quickly be made evident by some few instances clearing his judgment herein.

And this assertion of the Angelical Doctor is notably confirmed by Didacus Alvarez in his vindication of it from the exception of Medina, that we make use of habits when we will, and if men will make use of their habitual grace, they may persevere without relation to any after grace of God. Saith he, “Respondetur, habitibus quidem nos uti cum volumus, sed ut velimus illis uti, prærequiritur motio Dei efficax, præmovens liberum arbitrium, ut utatur habitu ad operandum, et operetur bonum, præsertim quando habitus sunt supernaturales; quia cum pertineant ad superiorem ordinem, habent specialem rationem, propter quam potentia mere naturalis non utitur eisdem habitibus, nisi speciali Dei auxilio moveatur,” Alvar. De Aux. lib. x. disput. 100. Though received graces are reckoned by him as supernatural habits, yet such as we act not by, nor with, but from new supplies from God.

Having laid down this principle, Thomas proceeds to manifest that there is a special grace of perseverance bestowed by God on some, and that on whomsoever it is bestowed, they certainly and infallibly persevere to the end, pp. quest. 109, a. 10, c.; and Contra Gent. lib. iii. he proves this assertion from p. 6, 1 Pet. 5:10; Ps. 16.

But, to spare the reader, I shall give you this man’s judgment, together with one of his followers, who hath had the happiness to clear his master’s mind above any that have undertaken the maintenance of his doctrine in that part now controverted in the church of Rome; and therein I shall manifest (what I formerly proposed) what beamings and irradiations of this truth do yet glide through that gross darkness which is spread upon the face of the Romish synagogue;—referring what I have farther to add on this head to the account which, God assisting, I shall ere long give of the present Jansenian controversies, in my considerations on Mr Biddle’s catechisms, a task by authority lately imposed on me.

The second principle this learned schoolman insists on is, that this gift of perseverance is peculiar to the elect, or predestinate: Disput. 104, 1, Con. “”Donum perseverantiæ est proprium prædestinatorum, ut nulli alteri conveniat.”” And what he intends by “”prædestinati,”” he informs you according to the judgment of Austin and Thomas: “”Nomine prædestinationis ad gloriam, solum cam prædestinationem intelligunt (Augustinus et Thomas) qua electi ordinantur efficaciter, et transmittuntur ad vitam æternam; cujus effectus sunt vocatio, justificatio, et perseverantia in gratia usque ad finem.”” Not that (or such a) conditional predestination as is pendent in the air, and expectant of men’s good final deportment; but that which is the eternal, free fountain of all that grace whereof in time by Jesus Christ we are made partakers.

And in the pursuit of this proposition, he farther proves at large that the perseverance given to the saints in Christ is not a supplement of helps and advantages, whereby they may preserve it if they will, but such as causes them on whom it is bestowed certainly and actually so to do; and that, in its efficacy and operation, it cannot depend on any free co-operation of our wills, all the good acts tending to our perseverance being fruits of that grace which is bestowed on us, according to the absolute unchangeable decree of the will of God.

This, indeed, is common with this author and the rest of his associates (the Dominicans and present Jansenians) in these controversies, together with the residue of the Romanists, that having their judgments wrested by the abominable figments of implicit faith, and the efficacy of the sacraments of the new testament, conveying, and really exhibiting, the grace signified or sealed by them, they are enforced to grant that many may be, and are, regenerated and made true believers who are not predestinated, and that these cannot persevere, nor shall eventually be saved. Certain it is, that there is not any truth which that generation of men do receive and admit, but more or less it suffers in their hands, from that gross ignorance of the free grace of God in Jesus Christ, the power whereof they are practically under. What the poor vassals and slaves will do upon the late bull of their holy father, casting them in sundry main concernments of their quarrel with their adversaries, is uncertain. Otherwise, setting aside some such deviations as the above mentioned, whereunto they are enforced by their ignorance of the grace and justification which is in Jesus Christ, there is so much of ancient candid truth, in opposition to the Pelagians and semi-Pelagians, preserved and asserted in the writings of the Dominican friars, as will rise up, as I said before, in judgment against those of our days who, enjoying greater light and advantages, do yet close in with those, and are long since cursed enemies of the grace of God.

The above citations where Aquinas was listed among others by John Owen are all of the ones of that type outside of those in some of his volumes on Hebrews. As you can see above, there were three works of this type. In two of them, Owen was clearly opposed to Aquinas. And in the third example, Owen thought that Bradwardin and Aquinas could be useful only insofar as being able to help combat Pelagianism in the Roman Church.

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