On the Purpose of “Merit” in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas
Medieval Philosophy and Theology, vol. 2 (1992)
I aim in this essay chiefly to provide an adequate answer to the following question: why does Thomas Aquinas affirm the theological notion of ‘merit’ ? On the face of it, the answer to this question appears simple. Conditioned by Reformation debates, we are apt to think that merit’ talk must be designed primarily to advance a set of claims about the dignity and achievement of the human person. By ‘meritorious’ action, a person establishes a right to spiritual reward from God; the affirmation of merit before God would thus testify to the ability of the person to contribute in a meaningful way to his or her own salvation.
While Aquinas throughout his career agrees that human beings do contribute by their actions to their own salvation, in this article I shall argue that by the time of the Summa theobgiae this aspect of merit’talk has receded to secondary importance. Rather, the principal focus of the mature discussion of merit lies elsewhere, in the depiction of the God who is revealed in striking fashion through the salvation of human beings. By the time of the Summa theologίae, the doctrine of merit is primarily designed to allow Thomas Aquinas to speak most appropriately about God.