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St. Thomas On The Virtue of Christ’s Grace — Fr. Brian Davies O.P.

February 21, 2011

Colijn de Coter, Le Trone de Grace - God Father, Christ, Holy Ghost and angels (Throne of Mercy). Right wing: the three weeping Marys (sisters of Saint Mary, Maria Kleophas, Maria Salome and Mary Magdalen) 1482

According to the theology of Aquinas, then, the death of Christ delivers us from the punishment due to sin. But Aquinas believes that it also does more than this. For he wants to say that people are given grace because of Christ’s death and because of his whole life as God incarnate. By itself, he thinks, the satisfaction made by Christ is of limited worth, for a person may hear of it and still remain in sin. `Christ’s satisfaction’, he argues, `brings about its effect in us in so far as we are incorporated into him as members are into the head. But members should be conformed to their head. [Summa theologiae 3a 49.3 ad 3] His judgment, therefore, is that something more is required for Christ’s satisfaction to be effective. And the something in question is grace.

To understand Aquinas’s thinking here we need to remember what we saw concerning his teaching on the grace of Christ as head of the Church. According to him, Christ has the fullness of grace and is therefore the source of grace for those who rally to him. As he writes in the Compendium of Theology:

Since the man Christ possessed supreme fullness of grace, as being the only begotten of the Father, grace overflowed from him to others, so that the son of God, made human, might make people gods and sons and daughters of God, according to the Apostle’s words in Galatians 4: 4: `God sent his son, made of a woman, made under the law, that he might redeem them who were under the law: that we might receive the adoption of sons.’
Compendium Theologiae, Ch. 214.

On this basis Aquinas holds that the grace present in Christ is shared with members of the Church. In his view, those who are members of the Church have, in St Paul’s phrase, `put on Christ’ and are `members’ of his body. This means that they can be considered as one with Christ and as therefore sharing in the grace which belongs to him.

Grace was in Christ. . . not simply as in an individual human being, but as in the Head of the whole Church, to whom all are united as members to the head, forming a single mystic person. In consequence, the merit of Christ extends to others in so far as they are his members. In somewhat similar fashion in individual human beings the action of the head belongs in some measure to all their bodily members.
[Summa theologiae 3a 19.4]

The idea here is that, because of the Incarnation, the relationship between Christ and his father is one which also exists between Christians and God. `Christ and the Church are in a sense one person. On the basis of that unity, he speaks in the name of the Church in the words of the Psalm (2I: I): `O God, my God, look upon me.’ [De Veritate, 29.7] Like St Paul (on whose teaching he is clearly drawing at this point), Aquinas teaches that, just as all people can be said to be `in Adam’, so members of Christ’s Church can be said to be `in Christ’. [Cf. 1 Corinthians 15:21. For a brief account of Paul on `in Adam' and `in Christ' see Morna D. Hooker, Pauline Pieces (London, 1979), ch. 3.] And, so he holds, being in Christ means being the recipient of grace.

Adam’s sin is communicated to others only through bodily generation. In similar fashion Christ’s merit is communicated to others only through the spiritual regeneration of baptism, by which we are incorporated into Christ. `As many of you have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ’ [Galatians 3:27]. Now that it should be given to us to be regenerated in Christ is itself a gift of grace. Our salvation is, then, from the grace of God.
[Summa theologiae 3a 19.4 ad 3]

Being in Christ, says Aquinas, means standing in relation to God as Christ stands. Insofar as he stands as one who is graced, so do those who are in him. And insofar as his life is one which deserves (or merits) acceptance by God or the outpouring of grace, so is that of those who are in him.

There is the same relation between Christ’s deeds for himself and his members, as there is between me and what I do in the state of grace. Now it is clear that if I in the state of grace suffer for justice’s sake, I by that very fact, merit salvation for myself. . . Therefore Christ by his passion merited salvation not only for himself, but for all who are his members, as well. .
[Summa theologiae 3a 48.1]

In fact, so Aquinas adds, `Christ merited eternal salvation for us from the moment of his conception.’ The only reason why his passion is important in this connection is because `on our part there were certain obstacles which prevented us from enjoying the result of his previously acquired merits. In order to remove these obstacles, then, it was necessary for Christ to suffer. . [Summa theologiae 3a 48.1 ad 2] In Aquinas’s view, our sharing in Christ’s merit depends on him making satisfaction, which means that it is tied in with his suffering and death. [He also thinks that by dying, Christ showed how much God loves us, which thereby stirs us to love in return, and which gives us `an example of obedience, humility, constancy, justice, and the other virtues displayed in the passion, which are requisite for human salvation' (Summa theologiae 3a 46. 3).]

This account goes on to develop Aquinas’ thought on Justification but I’ve decided to save that for another day…

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