Merit & Grace in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period, Part 2

Continued from the previous post

5) After Aquinas, the tradition stemming from William of Ockham (1287-1347) , indebted to streams coming from Ockham’s own Franciscan tradition, resituate questions of grace and merit within the context of the signs of the Covenant. The two “propositions” on which this new tradition hinged were “God as personal lord and his action as covenant”, with a changed understanding of what is ultimate, making God into something rather like a being: “[t]he Thomistic unmoved mover was becoming the highly mobile covenantal God who acts, a God whose words are deeds and who wants to be known by these deeds.”[1] Neither grace nor knowledge are any longer a matter of direct participation, for God was then taught to be known indirectly through the external mediation of signs, and to deal with us through the medium of signs to which he has bound himself. John Duns Scotus (1265-1308)  seems to have seen the Thomistic distinction between congruous and condign merit as a threat to the freedom of God, however, for he taught that “it is not the supernatural quality of the acts thus engendered but rather God’s acceptation, or willingness, to accept such an act which makes it worthy of eternal reward.”[2] Scotus seems to have perceived the category of congruous or relative merit to be about the worth of the creature’s act relative to the divine end as a means to or as a cause of achieving that end, whereas Aquinas seems to simply address the issue of human participation in the divine movement. Without a metaphysics wherein all things are inherently related to God as to the proper end of their intellectual and voluntary movement, however, the idea of congruous merit before the advent of grace takes on a kind of appeal for the acquisition of this grace, whereas Aquinas clearly states that any such effort is itself a movement of grace, as grace is the final term under the movement of charity, and the final term orders all the subordinate ones, &c.

In the seeming absence of such metaphysical assumptions, and in the presence of Franciscan covenantal theology, Robert Holcot’s (ca. 1290-1349) Lectures on the Wisdom of Solomon distinguishes between the natural value of human actions and their contracted value under the terms of the Covenant. Commercial metaphors are heavy here.

Man would earn salvation according to natural value if his merit were, by its very nature and existence, such that eternal life would be suitable payment for it. According to contracted value, the value of one’s merit would be determined by legal arrangement in the way that a small copper coin which, in natural value, has not the same weight or worth as a loaf of bread is assigned this value by the law of the land.[3]

According to natural value, “our works” do “not earn eternal life fully” (i.e., condignly) “but only partially” (i.e., congruously).[4] There is no sense of “partial” in Aquinas, but rather “relative” because of the necessity of the will’s participation in divinely-implanted motion of grace; yet against the backdrop of the Franciscan covenantal theology, this “partial” is the sense that these terms acquire. According to contracted value, however, “our works are fully worthy of eternal life” “because of grace”, since that is the business arrangement set up according to the terms of the Covenant, Holcot states. That is, God makes “Himself a debtor to the penitent” by the terms of the Covenant. Full (condign) merit is not possible “through any natural act”,[5] but only through the terms of the Covenant. God’s freedom is constrained by his promises. As Oberman argues, “Holcot’s image of man as partner of God did not leave room for St. Augustine’s notion of God’s prevenience in predestination and justification.”[6]

Gabriel Biel (1420-1495) saw God’s grace as unacquirable “through our works like other moral habits”: only God can confer grace, or else the creature could save itself.[7] Grace is “infused love [charity]”,[8] grace “accomplishes in the soul something similar to the effects of a naturally acquired habit”, strengthening human power in the face of sin,[9] being “the gift by which alone we are made good”.[10] The language of will and pleasure becomes much more important here, and arguably more anthropomorphic in tone: “grace is an enrichment of nature that is pleasing to God’s will […] [g]race makes human nature acceptable to God” through God’s ordaining it “toward life eternal.”[11] Meritorious works are thus acceptable works, and acceptance presupposes grace.[12] (It is worth noting, however, that Martin Luther understood Ockham, unlike Biel, to have proposed that divine acceptation did not require grace, and that grace did not necessarily entail acceptation.[13]) Acceptance moves first to the person, then to the works. Grace alone prompts a person to seek the glory of God “as the goal of every action”, instead of being caught in the mire of self-love. Like Aquinas, however, this includes our freedom: “[t]here is no human merit that does not depend partly on free will.” Further, “grace does not determine the will.”[14] The prompting of grace is apparently resistable, even if, nonetheless “grace is related to free will as a rider to the horse.”[15] (That metaphor from Augustine, again!) Just as Aquinas saw the sacraments as instrumental, so too did Biel, though he did so according to this covenantal theology of signs: by his blood Christ “earned efficacy for the sacraments”,[16] which seem to be contingent expressions of God’s free ordinations, rather than natural. None of this is condign, but only congruous on the terms of the Covenant: “God has established the rule [covenant] that whoever turns to Him and does what he can [shall] receive forgiveness of sins from God.”[17] Each grace-prompted work “shall be rewarded by the king above and beyond its value” solely because of the arrangements of the Covenant. Mercantile images, again.

6) While there is no reason to think that Thomistic philosophy and theology might not have been used to criticize the papacy and corruption within the Church, the institutional home for Thomism was the Dominican order, which had become the predominant organ of the Inquisition – notably, against the Franciscans (among others). Ockham was a Franciscan, and though Ockhamist philosophy and theology were not confined to the Franciscan Order (among the texts we have just examined, Robert Holcot [d.1349[18]] was a Dominican[19]), it was predominantly Franciscan. In his book, The Two Reformations, Steven Ozment notes how the via antiqua of the Dominican Thomists was seen as backwards and as oppressive by followers of the via moderna of the Ockhamistic Franciscans, specifically because of the treatment which the latter received at the hands of the former.


[1] Heiko Oberman, The Two Reformations: The Journey From the Last Days to the New World (New Haven: Yale, 2003), 26.

 [2] Heiko Oberman, Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thought Illustrated by Key Documents (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966/1981), 130.

[3] Oberman Forerunners, 143.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Oberman, Forerunners, 149

[6] Oberman, Forerunners, 136.

[7] Oberman, Forerunners, 167-168.

[8] Oberman, Forerunners, 170.

[9] Oberman, Forerunners, 171.

[10] Oberman, Forerunners, 172

[11] Oberman, Forerunners, 168.

[12] Oberman, Forerunners, 169. “It is assumed of a meritorious work that the person who performs it is accepted” and “a meritorious act must be brought forth by the prompting of grace.”

[13] See the Disputation #56.

[14] Oberman, Forerunners, 170.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Oberman, Forerunners, 166.

[17] Oberman, Forerunners, 173.

[18] Heiko Oberman, Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thought Illustrated by Key Documents (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 125.

[19] Oberman, Forerunners, 133.

2 thoughts on “Merit & Grace in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Merit & Grace in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period, Part 1 | Into the Clarities

  2. Pingback: Merit & Grace in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period | Into the Clarities

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