Can Thomists be “Reformed” on the Imago Dei?
Is Thomism the solution to the problems which ail contemporary evangelicalism? Some seem to be advocating for a modern retrieval of so-called “Reformed Thomism” from the Westminster Standards and the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith in order to combat an incipient “theistic mutualism” that has infected evangelicals today. While questions concerning the retrieval of Theology Proper from medieval scholastics such as Thomas Aquinas are some of the loudest controversies in Reformed circles, there is one aspect of Thomistic thought which has not been as widely discussed – and it should be considered very carefully before the system is adopted by Reformed evangelicals.
The doctrine of the image of God has great significance for our conception of both God and man, and Thomists and the Reformed have a tremendous difference in their respective conceptions of the image of God in man. While some may not see this as a central issue in the discussion of the retrieval of Thomism because it is filed away under the “doctrine of man” and not theology proper, these rival conceptions of the image of God in man do, in the end, lead to two significantly different conceptions of God.
While some claiming the moniker “Reformed Thomist” are pointing their guns at the modernists and “theistic mutualists,” they overlook the fact that Thomism as a system, in contrast to the Reformed conception, does introduce a sort of “back-door” mutualism by virtue of the re-proportioning of man’s nature in the glorified state into a sort of deity itself, whereby man is able to see the essence of God in his intellect. Contemporary Reformed Evangelicals should caution themselves against over-punching left against mutualism in a way that leaves them imbalanced and defenseless against the devastating attack from a second formidable enemy on the right — Rome.
Can Thomists be “Reformed” on the Imago Dei? Consider now the important distinctions between the Reformed and Thomist conceptions of the image of God and its implications for Theology Proper and the Creator-creature distinction.
Thomist Conception of the Imago Dei
In the Thomist conception of man, the image of God and his likeness are distinguished so that Adam was made in the image of God but was ultimately to be ontologically “reproportioned” into the likeness of God by a special act of grace. Man was created in the image of God but lacked by nature the ability to attain unto the likeness. Man must depend upon the grace of God in the donum superadditum, or the added gift of original righteousness. As Geerhardus Vos described the system, “Only by something that raises him above his created nature does man become a religious being, able to love, to enjoy his God, and to live in Him.” Man was not naturally disposed toward God, nor did he enjoy religious fellowship with God by virtue of his being created in the image of God, but this was bestowed on him by the donum as a special act of grace, accidental and non-essential to the nature of man.
Thomas himself said, “Original righteousness, in which the first man was created, was an accident pertaining to the nature of the species, not as caused by the principles of the species, but as a gift conferred by God on the entire human nature.” Thus, in this conception, religious fellowship with God is not a natural quality of man, and so grace was needed to elevate man for religious fellowship even before the fall. Bavinck critiques that “grace is not merely restorative, but an elevation and completion of nature.” The problem with man in this conception is not merely ethical but ontological. There is an inherent deficiency within man that is a barrier to his experiencing religious fellowship with God. This deficiency was not introduced by the fall but in his very creation. Adam was not naturally disposed toward God but possessed fellowship and communion with God only by that special act of grace in the donum. At the fall, the grace upon which Adam depended upon to bring him into fellowship with God was lost and needed to be regained through the redemption in Jesus Christ. Bavinck says that in the Thomist conception, “Christianity …may also still be a religion of redemption; but preeminently it is not a reparation but an elevation of nature; it serves to elevate nature above itself, that is, to divinize humanity.”
According to Vos, this dichotomy between man and original righteousness results in the “externalist” development of the Roman Catholic sacramental system. Because grace is “something added to man, that he has but is not identified with him, does not enter into his essence.” Thus grace is dispensed to a Christian externally through participation in the sacraments, not man’s internalization of grace through the Gospel expressing itself by faith in Jesus Christ. Sanctification, then, is the infusion of grace through participation in the sacraments. Yet even the holiest man still has a great ontological barrier that prevents his enjoying religious fellowship with God in the “beatitude.” Man in Christ still stands in need of having his nature fundamentally reproportioned in order to “see God” in His essence via the intellect, which in the Thomist conception is the eternal state for all true believers. Spezzano says,
“Not only are the natural powers of intellect and will incapable of attaining supernatural beatitude on their own, but also human nature, as their source, is itself radically insufficient, ontologically underproportioned for eternal life and so incapable of producing the acts necessary to get there.”
And Thomas says,
final Happiness prepared for the saints, surpasses the intellect and will of man; for the Apostle says (1 Cor. 2:9): Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love Him. Therefore man cannot attain Happiness by his natural powers.
In the Thomist conception, eternal blessedness consists of “seeing God” in his essence within the intellect of man. In order for this to take place, man must be ontologically elevated or “reproportioned” in order to see God and enjoy religious fellowship. Again, notice that this grace is not only necessary because of sin but is necessary first because of an inherent deficiency in human nature.
God does not have a body like men; thus, embodied man must be transformed in order to see God in his essence. But what happens to man’s nature – does he yet remain a creature while being transformed to see the essence of God, the visio Dei? In the Thomist conception, Adam is “deified” and made “a partaker of the divine nature” in the sense of transformative grace into the likeness of God. Thus man’s intellect is deified, taking on divine properties, that he might see Divinity itself. This development blurs and confuses the Creator-creature distinction, as man must take on divine properties in order to be reproportioned into the likeness of God. The question arises, is the idea of God becoming like unto man (mutualism) that much more erroneous or dangerous than the idea that man may become God (deification)? Is this not a sort of “back-door” mutualism for man to be “reproportioned” to take on divine properties in order to see and experience the invisible essence of God? If it is indeed a trifling with deity to make him like unto us, as it is, one should equally tremble at the thought of man being a sharer of his nature by means of “partaking of his Godhead.”
Reformed Conception of the Imago Dei
In contrast to the Thomist conception, the Reformed have not made such a sharp dichotomy between the image and the likeness. Man was fundamentally not made insufficient for a relationship with God. By virtue of his creation, pre-fall Adam possessed original righteousness and “natural religious fellowship” with God. Adam was created in “knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness…” He was created wholly “disposed for communion with God.” According to Vos, because he is the image of God, is so naturally inclined toward God that he could not be neutral toward him, but either in complete devotion and worship to God, or radical enmity. If God were to be the “stamp,” man would be the “impression made by this stamp.” In this understanding, there would be no necessity for a special dispensation of grace in a donum superadditum in order to dispose natural man unto God. Man was completely and entirely oriented toward God by virtue of his creation in the image of God, or original righteousness.
Because man was created with original righteousness, in natural religious fellowship with God — in the fall, man actually fell from a state of righteousness and not from a state of grace. Adam stood in no need of grace before the fall, since he possessed original righteousness and enjoyed natural religious fellowship. It was by virtue of the fall of Adam that man, for the first time, lacked original righteousness, became corrupt “in his whole nature,” and “lost communion with God.” According to Calvin, in the fall, “we have degenerated from the true origin and condition of our creation.”
Here there is a fundamental difference between the Reformed and Thomist conception of the image of God. In the Thomist conception, there is no natural degeneration per se, but a removal of supernatural grace that was bestowed upon Adam at his creation, the donum superadditum. In the first place, Adam never possessed communion with God or original righteousness naturally, but only by virtue of the grace of God in the donum. Thus man is not radically depraved by the fall, but is only made weak by the removal of his access to grace. Vos elaborates, “according to us, man is dead and therefore does no good toward God. According to Roman Catholics, he is weakened or ill but nonetheless still always capable with his free will to move himself to do good.” For the Reformed, fallen man can do no good towards God because he is radically depraved and stands in need of the redemption in Christ Jesus and the indwelling Holy Spirit.
In the Reformed conception, the primary problem with man is the loss of original righteous and the radical corruption of his nature. “God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes” (Ecc. 7:29). After the fall, man does not stand in need of his nature being reproportioned or augmented, but he stands in need of redemption and restoration to communion with God which he lost in Adam’s fall into sin. Man stands in need of grace for the first time after the fall into sin, not to elevate his nature, but to cleanse him from his sin and breach of covenant. Man needs grace in order “to escape the wrath and curse of God, due to us for sin.” According to Hodge, “Regeneration is the restoration of human nature to its pristine condition, not a transmutation of that nature into a new form.”
The Reformed conception is careful to maintain the Creator-creature distinction, and in no way “blends” together or confuses the essence of God and the nature of man. According to Van Til, “we must stress the point that man must always be different from God. Man was created in God’s image. We have seen that some of God’s attributes are incommunicable. Man can never in any sense outgrow his creaturehood.” For the Reformed, such a blending of man with God is a serious problem. According to the Westminster Confession of Faith 26:3, “this communion which the saints have with Christ, doth not make them in any wise partakers of the substance of his Godhead; or to be equal with Christ in any respect: either of which to affirm is impious and blasphemous.” The Reformed maintain that man’s likeness to God never results in a change to his nature. “He is like God, to be sure, but always on a creaturely scale.”
Also distinct from the Thomist conception, man’s nature is not reproportioned in order to partake of the essence of God in the visio Dei in glorification. For most of the Reformed, the partaking of God is not the direct sight of the essence of God, but it is the partaking of Christ in glory. The sight of God, the “seeing him as he is,” is the sight of the glorified Christ. Owen says that “Herein is [Christ] glorious, in that he is the great representative of the nature of God and his will unto us; which without him would have been eternally hid from us, or been invisible unto us;—we should never have seen God at any time, here nor hereafter.” Jesus Christ is the true “image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15) and the “exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). For any creature, the “light of the knowledge of the glory of god” must always be observed in “the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6), even in glory. This is because “God is a spirit, and does not have a body like men,” and “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). Thus, the beatific vision is not a sight of the essence of God by means of the reproportioning of our natures into some sort of divine property. It is simply the transformation of our body of sin into conformity with the glorified Christ – redeemed, restored, and glorified to see the risen Lord Jesus Christ and to communion with him in eternal religious fellowship. According to Van Til, “The salvation of man no doubt consists in a visio Dei beatifica, but this beatific vision is such a vision as is possible to finite man.
It is true, however, that some of the Reformed did hold to a visio Dei per essentiam, or a sight of God according to his essence in glory. For instance, Thomas Watson seems to argue for a direct sight of God, seeming to clearly distinguish this from the sight of Christ when he says: “Believers at death shall gain the glorious sight of God. They shall see him, 1st, Intellectually with the eyes of their mind, which divines call the beatifical vision; if there were not such an intellectual sight of God, how do the spirits of just men, made perfect, see him?” Watson here seems to allude to question 90 of the Larger Catechism, which uses the language, “in the immediate vision and fruition of God the Father, of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, to all eternity.” While some of the Reformed did seem to believe in a visio Dei per essentiam, this was clearly not argued on the basis of a reproportioning of man and an alteration of his nature through the transformation of deification. Man was glorified, for sure, but in no way was his creaturehood diminished or mixed with Deity in order to attain the sight of God. Such a doctrine is plainly rejected by the Westminster Confession of Faith in 26:3a: “this communion…doth not make them in any wise partakers of the substance of his Godhead.”
Thomists can’t be Reformed on the Imago Dei
After considering the radical distinction between the Reformed and Thomistic conception of the image of God, a pertinent question arises for contemporary Reformed Evangelicals. Does Thomism as a system really solve the problem of contemporary theistic mutualism? Many are lauding the system as a recovery of the “great tradition” in reaction to modernistic and enlightenment attempts to make God “like ourselves” by scuttling or weakening the doctrines of divine simplicity or immutability, etc. But is this an overreaction? Will Thomism, as a system, function adequately as a solution to the problem of modern evangelicalism’s weak doctrine of God?
In carefully considering the Thomistic doctrine of the image of God, one must wrestle with the sort of “back-door” mutualism which, instead of reimagining God to be like man, reimagines man to be like God. Such a blurring of the Creator-creature distinction is not in accord with the Reformed conception, and this should be taken seriously by all who claim to be Reformed Thomists. Systemic to Thomism is a re-proportioning of man into the likeness of God so that he may partake of the essence of God by taking on divine properties such as a deified intellect. This he receives through deification, the “partaking of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). Can the Thomistic doctrine of God be adopted in isolation from the Thomistic doctrine of the image of God in man? This is a question that Reformed Thomists should grapple with carefully. Even if the answer is yes, Thomism must be considered carefully as a cohesive system, and the boundaries marked very carefully. While there is certainly overlap between the Reformed and Thomas in the area of Theology Proper, the boundaries were clear to the Reformed. Are these boundaries clear to modern “Reformed Thomists”? This question is urgent and warrants the most careful consideration.
 Lane Tipton, The Deeper Protestant Conception of Natural Theology: Natural Theology in Light of Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics, Reformed Forum 2022 Fall/Winter Newsletter.
 Ibid, 547.
 Daria Spezzano, The Glory of God’s Grace: Deification According to St. Thomas Aquinas (Ave Maria, FL: Sapentia Press, 2015), 19.
 The Westminster Confession of Faith (1644), 26:3a.
 Lane Tipton, The Deeper Protestant Conception of Natural Theology: Natural Theology in Light of Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics, Reformed Forum 2022 Fall/Winter Newsletter.
 The Westminster Confession of Faith (1644), 4:2, The Second London Baptist Confession (1689), 4:2.
 Ibid, 13.
 The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647), Question 18 & The Baptist Catechism (1693), Question 21.
 The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647), Question 19 & The Baptist Catechism (1693), Question 22.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 686.
 The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647), Question 85 & The Baptist Catechism (1693), Question 90.
 Archibald Alexander Hodge, A Commentary on the Confession of Faith: With Questions for Theological Students and Bible Classes (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, 1869), 125–126.
 The Westminster Confession of Faith, 26:3.
 A Catechism for Girls and Boys, Question 9.
 Thomas Watson, The Select Works of the Rev. Thomas Watson, Comprising His Celebrated Body of Divinity, in a Series of Lectures on the Shorter Catechism, and Various Sermons and Treatises (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1855), 194.
 The Westminster Larger Catechism (1647), Question 90.
Brice Bigham came on staff at CBTS in 2019. He is an M.Div. Student at CBTS and a Pastoral Intern at Grace Reformed Baptist Church of Owensboro, KY. He lives with his wife Alina and their three children. Brice particularly enjoys church history, gardening, and spending time with his family.