The metaphysical discussion of evil needs to be supplemented by what Aquinas says about original sin. Previously we noted that Augustine developed his teaching about original sin, in part, to account for the reality of evil and innocent suffering that he saw all around him. Aquinas inherited the church’s teaching about original sin and was aware of developments in the theological tradition that had taken place between the time of Augustine and his own day. The notion of human solidarity in the sin of Adam had been explained in various ways by theologians who wrote before Aquinas. There had also been discussion about the essence of original sin. For example, Anselm of Canterbury had proposed that the essence of original sin consists of the privation of original justice — the loss of the justice possessed by Adam in paradise, due to his disobedience.
Aquinas draws on this idea of original sin as a privation of original justice. For him the state in which Adam and Eve (whom he takes as historical individuals) were created was that of original justice. This condition was not simply a state of natural happiness; it was a way of being made possible by the gift of God’s grace. As Aquinas puts it, “That he [Adam] was actually set up in grace seems to be required by the very rightness (rectitudo) in which God made man for his first state…” (Summa Theologiae 95, 1).
Thus the gift of grace, which for Aquinas refers to the action of God leading us to union with God, was present before the “fall” of the human race.”‘ The state of “rightness” in which the first human beings were created included a harmony between the various powers of the human person. Aquinas describes it as a condition in which human reason was submissive to God, the lower powers of the human soul were submissive to reason, and the body was submissive to the soul (Summa Theologiae, 1, 95, 1). In this graced condition, the first humans possessed all of the virtues. Their entire being was completely oriented to God and to obedience to the divine will.
This state of original justice was for Aquinas a gift divinely bestowed upon human nature in the parents of the human race. It was not something owed to Adam and Eve by reason of nature. It did, however, entail the perfection of human nature, including freedom from suffering and death, the integration of human desires (appetites), and the gift of charity in the will. Aquinas argues that Adam was created immortal because “his soul was equipped by God with a supernatural force capable of preserving the body from all decay, as long as it remained submissive to God itself” (Summa Theologiae 1, 97, 2). Original justice also entailed immunity from suffering. Adam “was immune from it [suffering] both in body and in soul, just as he was immortal, for he could have kept suffering away just as much as death, if he had persisted without sin” (Summa Theologiae, 1, 97, 2).
Moreover, the condition of original justice, while not entailing the beatific vision, included a higher knowledge of God than that possessed by human beings after the fall. Aquinas argues that those who enjoy the vision of God (the knowledge of God possessed by the blessed in heaven) “are so solidly established in the love of God that never can they sin” (Summa Theologiae 1, 94, 1). Since Adam sinned, he could not have had this gift. Nevertheless, “he did know God with a loftier knowledge than we do now and thus his knowledge was somehow or other half way between knowledge in our present state and knowledge in the home-country, where God is seen in his essence” (Summa Theologiae, 1, 94, 1). If there had been no sin, human beings would not have died but would have been transferred into the state of beatitude — the condition of beholding the essence of God.
Given this account of the creation of the first human beings in a state of original justice, Aquinas then views the essence of original sin as the loss, or privation, of original justice. Through the sin of Adam, humanity lost the gift of original justice, and human nature was modified as a result of this privation. Employing Aristotelian terminology, Aquinas speaks of original sin as a “habit,” that is, a disposition according to which a subject is well disposed or ill disposed toward something.
Original sin is “a disordered disposition growing from the dissolution of that harmony in which original justice consisted” (Summa Theologiae I-Il, 82, 1). He likens this disordered disposition to a bodily illness. Human nature has become sick because of the effects of the sin that occurred at the very origins of human history. In this condition, the powers of the human soul have become disturbed. Drawing on the classic image of “wounds,” Aquinas speaks of the wounds of ignorance, malice, weakness, and concupiscence. Ignorance damages human reason, malice wounds the will, weakness affects the irascible appetite (the capacity to face situations that are difficult), and concupiscence wounds the concupiscible appetite (the attraction to things that are desirable). Death and other forms of human suffering are also the results of original sin (Summa Theologiae I-II, 85, 5). He writes:
In this way the sin of the first parents is the cause of death and of all like defects in human nature. For the sin of the first parents removed original justice; through this not only were the lower powers of the soul held harmoniously under the control of reason but the whole body was subordinated to the soul without any defect…. Once, therefore, original justice was lost through the sin of the first parents, just as human nature was injured in soul by the disordering of the powers, so also it became corruptible by reason of the disturbance of the body’s order. (Summa Theologiae I-I1, 85, 5)
A complete treatment of Aquinas’ approach to sin would include an account of his rich and textured theology of grace. In his discussion of grace Aquinas asserts that we need the gift of God’s action within us both as elevating and as healing. First, in order to experience communion with God, we need grace to move us beyond the capacities of human nature. He describes grace as “a certain participation in the divine nature.” By communicating a share in the divine nature God makes us “godlike” (Summa Theologiae 1, 112, 1). While this gift is something that exceeds the capacities of human nature, it is not foreign to our humanity because human nature has its finality in God.”‘ Second, because of the debilitating effects of original sin as well as personal sin, we need God’s grace to heal our sick nature. And Aquinas is convinced that when God graciously acts within us, this divine action makes a real difference. In Aristotelian terms, he speaks of grace as a “habitual gift” that modifies the human spirit, making a person exist differently (Summa Theologiae I-I1, 111, 3). As original sin leaves us with a disordered disposition, grace renews us with a disposition oriented to God. Aquinas conceives of grace “as something which makes a definite, historical difference in people.” It is not just that we are loved by God, we become lovable because of the healing, life-giving action of God within us. In a kind of summary statement, Aquinas offers a deep and expansive account of the effects of grace: “Now there are five effects of grace in us: firstly, the healing of the soul; secondly, willing the good; thirdly, the efficacious performance of the good willed; fourthly, perseverance in the good; fifthly, the attainment of glory” (Summa Theologiae I-Il, 1 1 1, 3). Aquinas, then, underlines the primacy of grace in the Christian life; like Augustine, he is convinced that grace is needed at every step along the path of salvation. And he depicts a God who is generous in offering this grace, bestowing his presence in our lives in a way that is transformative.
Aquinas’ treatment of the effects of original sin in the Summa Theologiae includes an intriguing objection — an argument with which he will not be in full agreement. In addressing the question of whether death and other bodily ills are the effects of sin, he cites an opposing position that claims that if this were the case then baptism and penance, by which sin is removed through sacramental grace, should also remove death and bodily ills. People living in the state of grace, then, should no longer experience suffering and death. In his response to this argument, Aquinas affirms that the grace of these sacraments does in fact remove both sin and the effects of sin.
He quotes the Letter to the Romans, in which Paul speaks of the indwelling Spirit that brings life to our mortal bodies (Romans 8:11). But, Aquinas explains, each of these benefits of the sacraments “takes place according to the order of divine wisdom at a fitting time.” He asserts:
For it is right that we pass to the freedom from death and suffering proper to the glory begun in Christ and acquired by Christ for us only after being made conformed to him in his suffering. Thus it must be that subjection to suffering remain for a time in our bodies that in conformity with Christ we may merit the freedom from suffering proper to the state of glory.
(Summa Theologiae I-II, 85, 5, ad 2)
Thus, for Aquinas, the Christian is meant to configure his or her life to the crucified and risen Lord and, through union with Christ, be delivered from suffering in eternal life. The postponement of this freedom from suffering is in some mysterious way in keeping with the wisdom of God. This reference to conformity to Christ leads us to consider Aquinas’ theology of the incarnation.
The Incarnation and God’s Relation to Human Suffering
How does Aquinas’ theology of Jesus touch upon suffering? We examine three relevant aspects of his thinking about the person and saving work of Jesus: his discussion of the unity of Christ and the communication of idioms; his reflection on the grace of Christ as head of the church; and his treatment of the saving work of Jesus.
- First, in his Christological reflection, Aquinas presumes the teaching of the early councils of the church, especially Ephesus and Chalcedon. The very first question in his treatment of Christ in the Summa Theologiae concerns the fittingness of the incarnation. As such, Aquinas integrates the traditional principle of the communication of idioms into his description of the person of Jesus. Following the teaching of Ephesus, he argues that because Christ is one person in two natures, we may predicate of God that which is attributed to the human nature of Christ (Summa Theologiae III, 16, 4).
Aquinas affirms that “the passion is to be attributed to the divine person, not by reason of Christ’s divine nature which is impassible, but by reason of his human nature” (Summa Theologiae III, 46, 12). He immediately quotes the Third Letter of Cyril to Nestorius, in which Cyril asserts that “the Word of God suffered in the flesh and was crucified in the flesh.” In his exposition of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, he numbers as one of the articles of faith “that the impassible God suffers and dies” (quod in,passibilis Deus patiatur et moriatur). Because of the unity of Christ, the suffering that he undergoes in his human nature can be attributed to the one divine person.
In an essay on Aquinas and human suffering, Michael Dodds highlights the role that the communication of idioms plays in his Christology. For Aquinas, we can truly confess that Jesus’ suffering is the very suffering of God, that the human suffering of Jesus is itself the suffering of the Logos. “And what we say is not a mere matter of words but of fact and reality.” Appealing to this Thomistic teaching as an alternative to the idea that suffering touches the divine nature, Dodds maintains that if we “recognize that… Jesus of Nazareth is God, we will not be inclined to postulate some suffering of the divine nature as belonging more really to God, or being more really God’s own, than is the human suffering of Jesus.” No suffering is “more really God’s own than the suffering of the man, Jesus of Nazareth.” We are predicating of God not some sort of “divine suffering,” but “rather a human suffering like our own.” He who is like us “in all things but sin” “suffers as we do, as human; and yet that human suffering is the suffering of God.”
- Second, like Augustine, Aquinas pays particular attention to the Pauline theme of the Body of Christ and to Christ’s role as the head of the body. This is evident in the question in his Summa Theologiae in which he treats the grace of Christ as the head of the church (Summa Theologiae Ill, 8). Aquinas thinks that all grace derives from Christ as the Son of God — as one who is truly divine. But he also thinks that the humanity of Christ, which possesses the fullness of grace, has an instrumental role in the bestowal of grace upon humanity:
In his view it is not the case that the eternal God remains apart from his creation, handing out grace in the role of a distant divinity with a soft spot for human beings. He holds that God is also a man, and that grace derives from him on that basis and since Christ is the founder of the Church, he puts this by saying that there is such a thing as the grace of Christ as head of the Church.
Thus, appealing to Paul’s statements in Romans 12 and First Corinthians 12, Aquinas affirms that “the whole Church is called one mystical body by analogy with the physical body of man.” The risen Christ has the power to infuse grace into every member of the church (Summa Theologiae III, 8, 1). This influence of Christ in bestowing grace is realized principally through participation in the sacraments.
Aquinas’ reflection on the grace of Christ as head of the church has the effect of illuminating the organic connection between Christ and every member of his body. In his exposition of the Letter to the Ephesians, he says that Christ loves the church “as something of himself” because believers are members of his body. When he discusses the famous passage in Colossians about the suffering of the apostle making up for what is lacking in the suffering of Christ (Colossians 1:24), he refers to the suffering of the whole church whose head is Christ. Aquinas comments, “For this was lacking, that as Christ suffered in his own body, so he would suffer in Paul, his member, and similarly in others.”
For Aquinas, “the sufferings of Paul were the sufferings of Christ, since Paul was a member of Christ. Our sufferings are also Christ’s own, since we are members of Christ.” Aquinas profound reflections on the intimate connection between Christ and the members of the church remind readers of Augustine’s meditations on the “whole Christ.” They manifest his deep conviction about the closeness of Christ to every believer and Christ’s participation in the sufferings of all the members of his body.
3. Third, Aquinas’ exploration of the saving work of Christ (soteriology) also provides insight into his approach to God and the mystery of suffering. In his soteriology, Aquinas draws upon the theory of satisfaction worked out by Anselm of Canterbury in the latter’s Cur Deus Homo. He thinks that one way to express the meaning of the saving work of Christ is to speak of Christ as making satisfaction for the debt owed to God by the human race because of sin.
For Aquinas, however, this was not the only way that God could have saved us. He argues that neither the incarnation nor the passion of Jesus was absolutely necessary for the salvation of the human race. God could have saved us in other ways. If God had wished to free people from sin without any satisfaction, God would not have been acting against justice because God is not answerable to any order outside of Godself. Thomas does think, though, that the incarnation and the passion of Christ represented the most fitting way for God to enact God’s saving power. The incarnation was the best way to evoke faith in us, to build up hope in us, and to enkindle charity in us (Summa Theologiae III, 1, 2). And the passion of Jesus was the most excellent way to liberate humankind from sin because it showed us how much God loves us, provided an example of humility and obedience, and restored human dignity (Summa Theologiae III, 46, 3).
Aquinas expands the range of metaphors used to describe Christ’s saving work beyond that of satisfaction to include merit, sacrifice, and redemption. He does not think that we should focus on just one image in our reflection on salvation. Throughout the discussion in his two Summas, he consistently highlights the obedience and charity of Christ as the true source of salvation. In the Summa Contra Gentiles, he says about the death of Christ “that it had its satisfying power from His charity in which He bore death voluntarily, and not from the iniquity of His killers who sinned in killing Him” (Summa Contra Gentiles IV, 55, 25). In his discussion in the Summa Tbeologiae, when he asks whether God the Father gave Christ over to his passion, he admits that the Father did not shield the Son from suffering. But what is most significant is that the Father filled Christ with charity, inspiring him to will to suffer for us. “It was from love that the Father delivered Christ, and that Christ gave himself up to death” (Summa Tbeologiae III, 47, 3).
Aquinas adds, “To show the abundance of the love which led him to suffer, Christ on the cross sought pardon for his persecutors,” and “Christ’s passion was the offering of a sacrifice inasmuch as Christ, by his own will, suffered death out of love” (Summa Theologiae III, 47, 4, ad 1 and ad 2). He asserts that “the love of the suffering Christ outweighed the wickedness of those who slew him” (Summa Theologiae III, 49, 4, ad 3). Thus, for Aquinas it is the divine and human charity in Christ expressed in and through his suffering that saves, not his suffering as such.
There is no glorification of human suffering in Aquinas’ reflections on Christ. Mary Ann Fatula highlights this salient theme in Aquinas, commenting, “Thomas saw that Jesus’ death saves us not because it was full of pain, but because it was full of love.” Fatula proceeds to observe, “In Christ’s passion, therefore, Thomas contemplates his most intimate act of friendship for us; the salvation that Jesus brings is not only our healing but also the deepest intimacy with him.” Jesus’ free act in taking up his cross is for Aquinas the ultimate act of friendship — love.
Commenting on Aquinas’s discussion of the passion, O’Meara remarks, “In the last analysis it is God’s countering moves of love which save humanity, for Calvary is an example and climax of divine activity struggling with evil in history.”