Friday, January 28, 2011

Merit and Grace and Aquinas -- Oh, My!

Dear Leslie,

I think it would be a great idea for a future post on Salvation and the Catholic Standpoint of "Merit" and "Grace".


Well, Shane, guess what? No sooner did I get started on thinking of a good way to summarily and clearly respond to your excellent, though complex, question I found something great! A friend of mine, a professor of Scripture and theology with a PhD and a blog of his own, answered this very question just yesterday! So rather than trying to paraphrase what he said, how ‘bout I just send you to his link?

And before signing off for the night, I’d like to give a shout out to my buddy St. Thomas Aquinas, whose feast we celebrate today! I consider him a buddy now because I have learned many wonderful things about his life, but I must say that before I knew much about him, I think I considered him to be among those sort-of-scary saints. Not that he did anything that scared me – more that he was known by all to be an intellectual giant! I mean, the man’s most famous work, the Summa Theologica, was intended as a sort of beginner’s manual to introduce all of the main theological teachings of the time. Have you ever seen that thing? If it is a beginner’s manual, then I am a big dunce! 

(The term ‘dunce’, by the way, is derived from the name of Franciscan philosopher Blessed John Duns Scotus, who was berated in his own time for arguing scripturally on behalf of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Nobody believed him. But guess what? The little ‘dunce’ was right, after all! Poor guy.)

Anyway, back to St. Thomas Aquinas and his Summa Theologica. This massive work addresses the eternal law, the natural law, and the human law, and Thomas does so by posing questions, possible objections to these questions, and finally an argument to defend and clarify the issue at hand. He cites the Scriptures and many Christian, Jewish, Muslim and ancient pagan scholars while answering these various questions, which makes for interesting reading.

While the format of the Summa is a bit daunting at first, I think anyone can catch on pretty quickly if you stick with it. And it can even be fun! Take, for example, a birthday greeting that I gave to a philosophy student friend of mine on the occasion of his birthday, in the style of St. Thomas’ Summa:

Article 1. Whether we should celebrate the birthday of Kevin?

Objection 1. It seems that we should not still celebrate Kevin's birth today, since he has been on earth for twenty-two years already.

Objection 2. Further, it seems that celebration does not befit an occasion that marks his advancing in age.

Objection 3. Further, as shown above, the day of Kevin's birth far pre-dates the current day in question. Therefore, today is not Kevin's birthday.

On the contrary, It is written, "May the LORD bless you from Zion, all the days of your life" (Ps 128:5).

I answer that, as the Philosopher relates, "Old age: A great sense of calm and freedom. When the passions have relaxed their hold, you ...may have escaped, not from one master but from many" (Plato). We should, therefore, celebrate heartily the anniversary of Kevin’s birth and his advancement in age.

Reply to objection 1. "We are always the same age inside." - Gertrude Stein

Reply to objection 2. "It takes a long time to become young." - Pablo Picasso; and "We turn not older with years, but newer every day." - Emily Dickinson

Reply to objection 3. A birthday is defined by Princeton University as “an anniversary of the day on which a person was born (or the celebration of it).”

See? Philosophy and theology can be fun, and now you, too can impress your friends with your own birthday and holiday greetings in the style of the Summa Theologica!

(If you want to check out the real Summa, go here:

Or if this is all still a little much for you, then maybe you can just share this great quote:

“Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath and a glass of wine.” ~ St. Thomas Aquinas

As always, thanks for tuning in, Coffee Talkers!

Peace and all good,


  1. Haha...Kirstin Deppe, now Sr. Faustina of course, has her birthday on January 28th and I did the same thing for her one year. I don't know what I said, but it was my early college years so it was probably pretty lame.

  2. That's so funny, Kim! I didn't know that Kirstin was an Aquinas baby. My younger daughter is Faustina Maria, so I have a special love for Kirstin's religious name -- it also helps me to keep her in my thoughts and prayers more frequently. (And I'm sure your Thomistic greeting for her was laudable!) :)