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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

“Grace, Predestination, and the Permission of Sin,” by Taylor Patrick O’Neill: A Review

Published Wednesday, January 18, 2023 By Michael Lynch

Unbeknownst to many, the Arminian (or Remonstrant) controversy of the early seventeenth century was not the first major early modern dispute about the perennial philosophical and theological questions touching on the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom. Such an honor must be given to the Roman Catholic dispute leading to the so-called Congregatio De Auxiliis.

Spanning the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Congregatio may no longer garner the attention it once had, but Taylor Patrick O’Neill’s book, Grace, Predestination, and the Permission of Sin, reminds us—intentionally or otherwise—why Dominicans and Jesuits ended up calling each other Pelagians and Calvinists. The Congregatio ended with Pope Paul V concluding that both positions were within the boundaries of orthodoxy, and that the two orders ought not to call the other heretical.

O’Neill defends the Dominican position on helping grace, hence auxilium, stressing the effectuality of divine grace over and against the Jesuit position which emphasized the concurrence of the human will in order for grace to be effectual. However, and perhaps surprisingly, O’Neill’s chief antagonists are not Jesuits, but rather twentieth-century Roman Catholics, especially Dominicans, who expressed similar objections as the early modern Jesuits once had to their Dominican contemporaries. Consonant with the subtitle of the book, A Thomistic Analysis, O’Neill considers Thomas Aquinas, Domingo Báñez, and Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange as representing the authentic Thomistic perspective on how God’s will and grace relates to human free actions. This perspective, derived from these Thomist authors, thus relegates its detractors to unorthodoxy with regard to pure Thomism. O’Neill’s book is not then, strictly speaking, a work of historical theology.

The book is divided into two parts. The first is an exposition of what he claims to be the classic Thomistic position on divine concursus with human actions, discussing physical premotion, the nature of sufficient and effectual grace, and the doctrine of predestination and reprobation. The second part looks at how each of the chosen twentieth-century Roman Catholic theologians—the Dominicans Francisco MarínSola, Jacques Maritain, Jean-Hervé Nicolas, and the Jesuit Bernard Lonergan—sought to revise or soften the aforementioned classic Thomistic position, which these revisionist accounts thought unjustly implicated God with sinful human actions.

In his response to each of these revisionist positions, O’Neill seeks to correct misunderstandings about the Thomistic position as well as respond to arguments which often, to his mind, move towards the Molinist or Jesuit position. For example, O’Neill is at pains to emphasize the dissymmetry between predestination and reprobation—the latter idea being that God has permitted some human beings to fall short of eternal life, and thus end up damned. This leads O’Neill to conclude (following Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange) that reprobation is purely negative (134–41, 281–84).

By contemporary standards, O’Neill wades into fairly complicated topics. Thankfully, O’Neill does a fine job explaining the various technical scholastic distinctions which provided the language for medieval and early modern scholastic discussion and debate on divine grace and human freedom. One such distinction handled by O’Neill is that of absolute necessity (necessity of the consequent) and hypothetical necessity (necessity of the consequence). O’Neill employs this ancient distinction in defense of both physical premotion and God’s decree. How are human beings said to act freely if God has both infallibly decreed us to choose any given course of action, and infallibly moves us to act? Just as God’s knowledge of the future entails that such a future will undoubtedly result, but does not logically entail that the future itself is necessary, so God’s infallible and effectual decree does not take away our human freedom—in fact, God decrees our will to act freely and contingently, rather than out of compulsion and necessity.

Also helpful is O’Neill’s explanation and defense of the Dominican notion of physical premotion or predetermination—a divine action by which God, antecedently, effectually, and infallibly moves the human will in every one of its actions, albeit freely. Apart from Lonergan’s denial of physical premotion (as interpreted in the Báñezian sense), the revisionists appear to have left this idea relatively intact. Such can not be said about the early moderns, some of whom thought it destroyed contingency in our universe and undermined the Christian religion!

Some readers may conclude—and perhaps not unjustifiably—that O’Neill’s insistence (along with the many early modern Dominicans) on physical premotion makes it difficult to resolve how God can place a necessity (albeit hypothetical) on prelapsarian Adam’s will, for example, to desire the forbidden fruit, without the wickedness of the act being imputed to God. Even so, while O’Neill may provide too speculative an account of precisely how and how far our human will depends upon God as a first cause, throughout his book he also insists, in agreement with all theologians worthy of the name, that God immediately concurs with every human action, and that such a concursus is neither simply general nor indifferent, but effectually directs all things according to his will.

O’Neill’s book is not perfect, however. It suffers from a dubious historical method. By choosing the three historical figures he does—Thomas, Báñez, and Garrigou-Lagrange—as the representatives of Thomistic orthodoxy, he is encouraged to overlook the inevitable differences among the three, and appears to read the former two in light of the latter, which has the effect of reading Thomas and Báñez through a twentieth-century lens, rather than in their own historical context. This seems to be why O’Neill, as already noted, consistently attacks the idea of reprobation being a positive decree.

Such a claim is odd, not only because O’Neill quotes Báñez earlier in the book (88) calling it a positive decree (albeit in an objection), but also because many early modern Thomists and even one of Luis Molina’s chief defenders, Gregory of Valencia, explicitly affirmed that it was a positive decree.[1] Indeed, these theologians regularly supported their position with Thomas himself, who calls “permission of sin” an effect of reprobation in Summa Theologica (Iª q. 23 a. 3 co.). O’Neill is right to insist that unlike in predestination whereby God is rightly said to cause the elect to believe and persevere, God does not similarly cause the reprobate to sin. Yet, he is wrong to conclude that there is no legitimate symmetry between reprobation (as preterition) and predestination, as both Báñez and Alvarez make clear in the above citations. The will of God to pass over others (i.e., preterition) is the proverbial other side of the coin to predestination to grace which infallibly leads to glory.

It is not just twentieth-century Dominicans who end up criticized by O’Neill; caught in the crossfire are those poor Jansenists and both Calvin and the Calvinists, who have each, according to O’Neill, made God the author and cause of sin. While such narratives are quite popular, historians of theology have demonstrated that these claims have little basis in reality. For example, many seventeenth-century Calvinists defended the Báñezian notion of physical predetermination against Jesuits and Arminians. O’Neill’s defense of Thomistic orthodoxy implicitly treats such orthodoxy as a relatively narrow stream of the Christian tradition. Yet, had he painted a broader picture of orthodoxy that included Protestants, he could have perhaps taken a step towards inter-confessional theological dialogue! If both the Calvinists and Thomists agree on something, can it possibly be wrong? Instead, he basically rehashes the same, tired criticisms of Calvin (largely on the basis of his critics) rather than engaging the broader Reformed/Calvinistic tradition.

At the end of his book, O’Neill calls for a twenty-first century Thomism which is attentive to twenty-first century needs and recent objections to the Christian faith. While laudable, the early modern period might still provide one of the richest theological landscapes to deal with our philosophical and theological problems. Perhaps this is precisely why O’Neill’s twentieth-century revisionist interlocutors objected to “classic” Thomism in the first place. With the advent of the internet, the digitization of books, and the Post-Reformation Digital Library, sound theological ressourcement is easier than ever. One can now, for the first time in history, read basically any major early modern book with just a few clicks—assuming he or she reads Latin. Early modern scholasticism on both sides of the confessional aisle has bequeathed to us avenues of ecumenical discussion and the necessary categories and distinctions to do theology well if we would but attend to them. We are indebted to O’Neill’s defense of the Thomistic doctrines of predestination and free choice. One can only hope that his work will cause future theologians and scholars to go back to those defenders of that tradition, wherever they may be found, and read them with fresh eyes.

Dr. Michael Lynch teaches language and humanities at Delaware Valley Classical School in New Castle, DE. He is the author of John Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism.


[1] (Cf. Báñez, Commentaria, q. 23. a. 3. concl. 2, 270; Diego Alvarez, De Auxiliis, lib. 11. disp. 109. concls., 708; Gregory of Valencia, Commentariorum, q. 23. de repr. punct. I, 457).

  • Michael Lynch


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