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  • William Green

Reclaiming the Virtues: Lawful Living According to Thomas Aquinas

Johann Gerhard writes, “For just as sin is lawlessness [ἀνομία] (1 John 3:4), so a good work is lawfulness [ἐννομία], conformity of action with God’s Law, which is the norm and standard of good works.”[i] Lutherans are well accustomed to articulating what conformity with God’s Law looks like as it pertains to action. Many of us have been doing this from a young age, memorizing the simple explanation of the Ten Commandments found in Luther’s Small Catechism. What may be less obvious, however, is that our actions are not the only aspect of ourselves that needs to be brought into conformity with God’s Law. Our inclinations (habitus) and desires, even if not acted upon, can become disordered if aimed at an object of evil, or even if we desire some good in a disordered way. This is where the distinction between virtues and vices comes in; virtues are those inclinations which are in accordance with the Law of God, while vices are those which are not.

Compared with other traditions in the Western church, The Lutheran Reformers and their immediate successors wrote relatively little concerning virtues and vices. This isn’t to say that our Lutheran fathers have nothing to say about virtue; certainly, they do. None of them, however, seem to be interested in a deep analysis of specific virtues, or enumerating exactly what virtues the Christian should strive to cultivate. Contrast this with Thomas Aquinas, who saw it fit to include more than 150 questions on specific virtues in his Summa Theologiae. Many of our readers are likely familiar with the cardinal moral and theological virtues. The cardinal moral virtues, according to Aquinas, are those than man can attain and cultivate through his own natural power. Among them are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. The theological virtues, Aquinas argues, are only attainable through supernatural infusion by God. These virtues are faith, hope, and charity.[ii] All other virtues and vices (of which there are dozens than Aquinas names) flow from these seven cardinal virtues. And while people like Luther, Chemnitz, Melanchthon, and Gerhard have written about these virtues in cursory ways, none of them have provided an analysis nearly as comprehensive as the Secunda Secundæ of Aquinas’s Summa. There is no attempt among the Lutheran Reformers to delineate the virtues that can be derived from the theological and cardinal virtues. Contrast this with Aquinas, who has 65 questions in the Summa devoted the virtue of justice alone. He identifies obedience, gratitude, friendliness, liberality, and piety all as species of justice, while mentioning covetousness, flattery, superstition, and prodigality as corresponding vices. Each of these virtues and vices are afforded their own individual questions, each with multiple articles. These articles are full of insights explaining how each virtue is practiced and cultivated in everyday life. While Aquinas is perhaps best known for his overtly theological ideas, his treatise on virtues is one of the greatest storehouses of practical wisdom that Christendom has ever produced.


At this point, we might be inclined to ask why our Lutheran fathers did not see fit to provide any similar analysis of specific virtues. There are several possible reasons. First, we must remember that one of the central issues of the Reformation was the inordinate emphasis on works and merit as they pertain to justification. It could be that the Reformers and their immediate successors were careful not to put an undue emphasis on good works and virtues as they were combating the errors of merited justification and synergism. We see this difference in emphasis most clearly when we contrast Gerhard’s loci On Good Works (where, arguably, we might most expect to find an analysis of virtue) with Aquinas’s Summa. Where Aquinas seems to be chiefly concerned with how one exercises virtues in his daily life, Gerhard instead focuses on the necessity of faith for any work or virtue to be seen as spiritually good.

One should also consider the purpose for which the Summa was written. One of its primary uses was to be a theological compendium for seminarians who hoped to enter the priesthood. If one is to be regularly hearing confessions, it is important to recognize what exactly constitutes sin, and what changes one could recommend to help the penitent avoid falling into the same sin again. This becomes especially important in the Middle Ages when the church put an emphasis on the importance of confessing individual sins. Confessors must be prepared to offer pastoral guidance, helping those under their care to identify specific vices that are leading them to sin, and prescribing the proper remedies. Each of these reasons make identifying specific sins and vices an important skill for those hearing confessions.

Consider also the differences between the Lutheran and medieval conceptions of sin. According to Aquinas, all sins contain an aspect of voluntariness.[iii] This implies that involuntary disordered desires are not sins so long as they are not acted upon. Thus, for Aquinas, there is an important distinction between vices and sins; someone can have a disordered inclination without incurring guilt, assuming that inclination was not cultivated through a voluntary act. The Lutheran reformers, however, assert that any deviation from God’s Law, be it voluntary or involuntary, constitutes sin. In his loci On Actual Sins, Gerhard quotes Melanchthon’s definition of sin given in the Colloquy of Worms, which he says was also approved by Luther: “Sin is a defect or inclination or action conflicting with the Law of God, offending God, damned by God, and making us guilty of the eternal wrath of God and of present and eternal punishments, unless remission should occur on account of the Son, the Mediator.”[iv] This means that all vices, being inclinations that conflict with the Law, are sins in themselves. In this way, the Lutheran view of human nature and sin is more pessimistic than Aquinas’s view. For Aquinas, even though it may be the case that every man is riddled with vices, one can avoid sin if he does not voluntarily act in accordance with one’s vicious inclinations. For the Lutheran, however, man is constantly and inescapably in a state of sin on account of our inability to rid ourselves of our disordered desires and inclinations. The mere presence of a vice is sufficient to condemn us, making us guilty of the eternal wrath of God. This may help explain why the Lutheran reformers were less concerned with enumerating specific virtues and vices. While the medieval priest could counsel his parishioner to avoid sin through being mindful of their vices, the Lutheran pastor will say that the mere presence of a vice should call the sinner to repentance and ultimately trust in Christ’s righteousness imputed to us through faith.

If it is the case that man is inescapably sinful on account of his vices, is there any benefit to devoting ourselves to a careful study of individual vices as we find in the Summa? I argue that there is. First, even if it is the case that we will never be fully rid of vice and sin during our time on this earth, we are still called by the Holy Scriptures to strive to live God-pleasing lives. For the Christian, sanctification is something that begins here and now, even if it only finds its perfect fulfillment in the life to come. Learning to identify specific virtues and vices is an important step toward living a well-ordered life. Living virtuously means living in accordance with God’s laws and precepts. This is something we ought to strive for, and the possibility of moral progress does not in any way conflict with the Lutheran understanding of man’s depravity.

Some might object that that Aquinas’s conception of virtue is wholly incompatible with the Lutheran view of good works. After all, if faith is a necessary condition for good works and true virtue, in what sense can we speak of moral virtues that are attainable through one’s natural powers, especially in the case of those who reject Christ? Gerhard provides a straightforward solution. Even though only good works done in faith are spiritually good, the works of the unregenerate can still be deemed “morally and civilly good.”[v] We can still consider their deeds and virtues “according to the substance of the act,” which is exactly the analysis that Aquinas provides.[vi] Even if the efficient, impulsive, and final causes of the works of the regenerate and unregenerate differ, the analysis of virtue according to the substance of the act remains the same.


Despite these disagreements, there is much we can learn from Aquinas. It is true that our conceptions of sin do not perfectly align, and this disagreement affects how we think about the extent of human sinfulness and our potential for intrinsic righteousness. This does not diminish, however, our agreement regarding the content, form, and nature of the virtues. We agree about what sorts of inclinations and desires are properly ordered, and that is enough to make a study of his work worthwhile and his practical wisdom broadly applicable. We would do well to remember that the virtues themselves are divine gifts that enable us to more easily conform our actions to his Law. When we cooperate with the Spirit in cultivating habits that incline us to keep God’s precepts, we become more like Christ, the perfect exemplar of virtue. Aquinas is a helpful guide in pursuing this goal because even though he misunderstood some truths about the nature of sin, he possessed a profound understanding how to live a well-ordered and God-pleasing life.


[i] Johann Gerhard, On Good Works, ed. Joshua J. Hayes, Aaron Jensen, and Benjamin T. G. Mayes, trans. Richard J. Dinda (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2019) 17.

[ii] Aquinas, ST, pr. II-II.

[iii] See ST I-II, Q. 74, Art. 1-2.

[iv] Johann Gerhard, On Original Sin, On Actual Sins, and On Free Choice, ed. Benjamin T. G. Mayes and Heath R. Curtis, trans. Richard J. Dinda, Theological Commonplaces (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2014) 101.

[v] Johann Gerhard, On Good Works, ed. Joshua J. Hayes, Aaron Jensen, and Benjamin T. G. Mayes, trans. Richard J. Dinda, Theological Commonplaces (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2019) 8–9.

[vi] Ibid.


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