Archive for the ‘St. Thomas on the New Testament’ Category


Thomas on The Incarnation and God’s Relation to Human Suffering – Fr. Robin Ryan

November 3, 2011

Original Sin
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.

  1.  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.”

  2. 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.”


St. Thomas On Christ’s Grace and Justification — Fr. Brian Davies O.P.

February 22, 2011

Descent of the Holy Spirit upon Mary and the Apostles on Pentecost - by TIZIANO Vecellio - from Santa Maria della Salute, Venice.


As he goes on to develop this account Aquinas observes that Christians receive justification by virtue of Christ’s grace. `By his passion’, he explains, `Christ merited for us the grace of justification and the glory of beatitude. [Summa theologiae 3a 46.3]. Christ, he says, was obedient to his father even to death. Commenting on this notion, he goes on to suggest that `it was altogether fitting that Christ should suffer out of obedience’. And the first reason he gives for saying so is that `his obedience was in keeping with our justification (justificatio).’[ Summa theologiae 3a 47.2]

To understand what this means it is important to recognize that Aquinas taught about justification long before the subject became a matter of controversy during the period of the Reformation and afterwards. So it would be quite wrong to read what he says about it as, for example, a polemic directed against views on justification such as those of Martin Luther (1483-1546). What Aquinas considers under the heading `Justification’ was in his day traditionally dealt with in treatments of Penance, and he himself deals with it in connection with that in Book 4, d. 17 of the Commentary on the Sentences. In the Summa theologiae, his account of justification is part of a wider discussion of grace in general. Hence he speaks in the Prologue to 1a2ae of how we must next consider `the effects of grace’ and `firstly the justification of the unrighteous, which is the effect of operative grace’. `The justification of the unrighteous as a whole’, he says, `consists by way of origin and source in the infusion of grace.’ [Summa theologiae 1a2ae 113.7]

What does this last statement mean? The answer is effectively given in Aquinas’s explanation of what is required for justification. According to this:

Four requirements for the justification of the unrighteous may be listed: namely, the infusion of grace; a movement of free choice directed towards God by faith; a movement of free choice directed towards sin; and the forgiveness of sin.
[Summa theologiae 1a2ae 113.6]

In Aquinas’s thinking, justification occurs as, under the influence of grace, one moves towards God with faith in Christ. Justification, he says, is a `kind of rightness of order in people’s own interior disposition, namely when what is highest in people is subject to God and the lower powers of their souls are subject to what is highest in them, their reason’. [Summa theologiae 1a2ae 113.1] In other words, it is what you have when sinners repent and change direction. Or, as Aquinas also wants to say, it is what you have when God forgives sin.

Some people hold that, when God forgives sin, he goes through a process of some kind. This is because they think of God’s forgiveness by assimilating it to that of human beings. When I forgive you, I have to go through a process. I have to learn of your offence against me. Then I have to decide to ignore it. With that behind me, I must next do something to put my decision into effect — albeit that this may largely mean me not doing something (e.g. not being angry with you). And such, so it has been thought, is how it must be with God. But it should now almost go without saying that Aquinas could never agree with this suggestion — unless it is taken as a metaphor or image of some kind. Since he believes in God’s immutability, he cannot accept that God’s act of forgiveness involves him in going through a process of any kind. For him, therefore, to say that God has forgiven us is equivalent to saying that we have changed direction and turned to him.

An offence is only forgiven someone when the mind of the offended party is reconciled to the offender. And so sin is said to be forgiven us when God is is reconciled to us. Now this reconciliation and peace consists in the love with which God loves us. But God’s love, as far as the divine act is concerned, is eternal and immutable; but as to the effect which it impresses on us, it is sometimes interrupted, namely when we sometimes fall away from it and sometimes regain it. Now the effect of divine love in us which is removed by sin is the grace by which someone becomes worthy of eternal life, from which people are excluded by mortal sin. And therefore the forgiveness of sin would not be intelligible unless there were present an infusion of grace.
[Summa theologiae 1a2ae 113.3]

Though God cannot change, we can. And, when we change by moving towards him, that is because he is drawing us to himself in love, and has therefore forgiven our offence against him. As one of Aquinas’s modern commentators observes: `When God forgives our sin, he is not changing his mind about us; he is changing our mind about him.. . Our sorrow for sin just is the forgiveness of God working within us. [Herbert McCabe, OP, Hope (London, 1987), 17 f.]

For Aquinas, then, justification is a matter of God making us more godly. That is why he discusses it in the context of a treatment of grace in the Summa theologiae. And, for him, it is an effect of the Incarnation since, in his view, the Incarnation is all about God making us more godly through Christ. Aquinas believes that, in the life and death of Christ, God is doing nothing but making his love present in the world. He sees Christ’s life and death as divinity incarnate cancelling the barriers between people and God and calling us to accept that these barriers really have been cancelled. That is why he can say that we are justified by means of Christ.

Notice, however, that in reaching this conclusion, Aquinas is not merely saying that God has deemed people to be at one with him. For some Christian authors, influenced by texts like Romans 3: 28, to say that someone is justified by God does not imply that the person in question is necessarily better than he or she would be if unjustified. It is to say that one has been accepted by God, or acquitted by him, or declared to be right or innocent in his eyes. This seems to have been Luther’s understanding of justification. [`It is clear that, as the soul needs only the Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not by any works; for if it could be justified by anything else, it would not need the Word, and consequently would not need faith' (The Freedom of a Christian: see Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York, 1960, 55. Again: `So the Christian who is consecrated by his faith does good works, but the works do not make him holier or more Christian, for that is the work of faith alone. And if a man were not first a believer and a Christian, all his works would amount to nothing and would be truly wicked and damnable sins' (Ibid. 69).]

One can also find it in Calvin’s declaration that the saved `receive justice, but such as the people of God can obtain in this life. It is possessed only by imputation, because our Lord in his mercy considers them just and innocent. [Institutes of the Christian Religion, edition reprinted under the direction of A. Lefranc (Paris, 1911), 548.] Aquinas, however, thinks of justification as making a difference to people. Because it involves the work of grace, it must also, so he thinks, involve a moving away from sin. In this respect, his teaching on justification is in line with typical medieval accounts considered as contrasting with typically Reformation ones. For, as Alister McGrath explains:

The characteristic medieval understanding of the nature of justification may be summarized thus: justification refers not merely to the beginning of the Christian life, but also to its continuation and ultimate perfection, in which the Christian is made righteous in the sight of God and the sight of men through a fundamental change in his nature, and not merely his status. In effect, the distinction between justification (understood as an external pronouncement of God) and sanctification (understood as the subsequent process of inner renewal), characteristic of the Reformation period, is excluded from the outset. This fundamental difference concerning the nature of justification remains one of the best differentiae between the doctrines of justification associated with the medieval and Reformation periods.
Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justijication: The Beginnings to the Reformation (Cambridge, 1986), 41.

Yet Aquinas is at least in accord with the typically Reformation insistence that justification is a gift of God and not something earned. This, or course, is because of the way in which he thinks of it as an effect of grace. As we saw in Chapter 13, he denies that people can do anything to ensure or prepare for the giving of grace. [Notice, however, that there are grounds for attributing to Aquinas some development of thinking on this issue. In the Commentary on the Sentences he speaks of people being moved to receive grace by secondary causes such as other people or illness. In later works, the emphasis falls on God as moving one to the graced life. See McGrath, lustitia Dei, 82] As he puts it:

If we speak of grace in the sense of the assistance of God moving us towards the good, no preparation as it were anticipating the divine assistance is required on our part; rather, whatever preparation there might be in us derives from the assistance of God moving the soul towards the good. In this sense, that good movement of free choice itself, by which someone prepares to receive the gift of grace, is the action of a free choice moved by God … The principal agent is God moving the free choice; and in this sense it is said that our will is prepared by God, and our steps are directed by the Lord.
[Summa theologiae 1a2ae 112.2] Aquinas is alluding here to Proverbs 8: 35 in the Vulgate translation, and Psalms 36: 23.

In his view, therefore, justification is in no way a consequence of `works’. He certainly does not think that we get to God by confronting him with a righteousness that obliges him to reward us. He thinks that we are justified by God on the basis of sheer liberality. For him, our repentance, and what follows that in the way we behave (our `works’), are the projection into history of God’s eternal love making and sustaining goodness where there is no prior claim obliging him to do so. Luther attacked Aquinas by saying that he taught that we become righteous, not by faith, but by doing righteous acts. He thought that Aquinas belittled the role of grace. But, as Denis R. Janz makes clear, Luther’s understanding of Aquinas was decidedly deficient on this aspect of his teaching.

For Thomas, human beings are not justified by their acts if `justification’ means what it sometimes means for Luther, i.e., the forgiveness of sins. This first step and sine qua non presupposition for progress towards one’s final end, the initium fidei, is `from God moving inwardly through grace’. On the other hand, if `justification’ refers to the entire process by which one reaches the final goal, then human actions are of course part of the process. As Thomas puts it in his commentary on Romans, justification is sola gratia sine operibus precedentibus, but not sola gratia sine operibus subsequentibus. Or, as he says in the Summa Theologiae, the grace of God does not presuppose goodness in human beings but creates it. In view of all this, it is a misunderstanding or at least an oversimplification to say as Luther does that for Thomas, one is justified through one’s good acts.
Denis R. Janz, Luther on Thomas Aquinas (Stuttgart, 1989), 57.


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…


St. Thomas On The Goal Of The Incarnation: Satisfaction — Fr. Brian Davies O.P.

February 18, 2011

The Annunciation by Simone Martini, 1333

“Ave gratia plena dominus tecum” (“Greetings most favored one! The Lord is with thee”) The representation of Gabriel’s voice is interesting. His words are drawn in a straight line from his mouth to Mary’s ear. She’s visibly shrinking back from the angel, not sure what to expect from this encounter. There’s a similar Annunciation dating from slightly later at the Getty Museum, but overall it’s interesting that “word balloons” of one type or another never really caught on, especially when you consider how universally they are used today in narrative art.


In his book The Strangest Way, Fr. Robert Barron relates this scene from the Purgatorio: When Dante and Virgil come to Peter’s Gate, the portal to the mount of Purgatory proper, they face a great bronze door with three steps in front of it colored white, black, and red. These stand for the three attitudes of the repentant soul: confession, contrition, and satisfaction:

“In the brightly polished white of the first step, sinners see themselves with clarity and uncompromising honesty; in the black of the second step, they appreciate the hard, grinding work of contrition, feeling the pain that sin has caused themselves and others; and in the red of the third step, they sense the work of satisfaction that must be done. Acknowledging sin is not enough; restitution must be made in order that justice (right order) might be restored. The word “satisfaction” comes from the Latin satis facere, literally, to make enough, to do the required work.”

The souls doing their purgatorial work release themselves from bondage, because only they know when satisfaction has been done. In the film The Mission, Mendoza, a mercenary and slave trader, murders his brother in a jealous rage. Overwhelmed with guilt, he sits in a squalid cell, refusing to communicate or eat. The Jesuit missionary Fr. Gabriel challenges him with brutal directness, and Mendoza agrees to accompany him to his mission deep in the jungle. But the murderer resolves, as a penance, to drag behind him a terribly heavy bundle containing the accoutrements of his former life — swords, helmets, muskets, and the like.

Through jungle, over mountains, up streams, the poor man drags this load, until his fellow travelers have had enough. They beg Fr. Gabriel, saying, “We think he has taken this far enough.” The priest responds, “But he doesn’t think so, and until he does, I don’t think so either.” Only when he has lugged his penitential burden up a steep cliffside and arrived at the mission does Mendoza relent. When the bundle is cut away, he breaks down in tears both remorseful and joyful: finally he knew that satisfaction had been made. This is Dante’s third step of red.

A lot of what is related in The Mission originates not only in Dante but in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas:

From The Bible To Aquinas
What does this mean, that “the goal of the Incarnation is `our furtherance in good,’ and that ‘it occurred in order to free us from the thraldom of sin … by Christ satisfying for us’. [Summa theologiae 3a, 1.2]? The roots of the idea lie in the Bible. One of the most prominent and influential teachings in the New Testament is that people subject to sin are restored to a right relationship with God by virtue of Christ’s suffering and death. New Testament authors tend to state this as a fact. They do not explain how the operation works. [1Corinthians 15:3; Romans 5:6 ff]

Sometimes, however, they describe the role of Christ by means of language influenced by the Old Testament notion of acts of atonement (‘at-one-ment’/’bringing together’), by which people do what is needed on their part for sin to be forgiven by God. Thus, for example, the author of 1John calls Christ “the expiation (hilasmos) for our sins’, and St Paul asserts that he is `a means of expiation’ (hilasterion) [1John 2: 2; Romans 3:25. Scholars vary in their translation of hilasterion. Some prefer `propitiation' to `expiation'. Cf. John Ziesler, Paul's Letter to the Romans (London, 1989), 112 ff.]‘

In Hebrews 9, Old Testament images connected with atonement abound with reference to Christ’s death. The general idea seems to be that this was the definitive means by which people are reconciled to God, a means which supersedes the Old Testament sacrificial system. In the Middle Ages there were differing interpretations of these texts. Abelard, for instance, argued, or has been thought of as arguing, that they are best understood as teaching us that God has forgiven our sins and provided us with an inspiring token of his love.

It seems to us that we are justified in the blood of Christ and reconciled to God in this: that through the singular grace manifested to us in that his son took our nature and that teaching us both by word and example he persevered even unto death, Jesus bound us closer to himself by love, so that, fired by so great a benefit of divine grace, true charity would no longer be afraid to endure anything for his sake.
[Epistles ad Romanos 2]

Abelard seems to hold that, if God wills to forgive sin, the sin is forgiven and that is the end of it. He also seems to hold that God has willed to redeem humanity. It appears, therefore, that he believes that the death of Christ is not strictly necessary as a means of forgiving sin or reconciling people with God. Rather, it is God loving us in human form and drawing us to himself as we recognize the extent of his love. As one commentator explains, for Abelard, Jesus was not the Man of Sorrows carrying the burden of our guilt or the victim offered up to the Father as a recompense for our sins, so much as the divine Logos made manifest to the world, incarnate because he would reveal to mankind the path of righteousness. is that people subject to sin are restored to a right relationship with God by virtue of Christ’s suffering and death. New Testament authors tend to state this as a fact. They do not explain how the operation works.[1Corinthians 15:3; Romans 5:6 ff]

Sometimes, however, they describe the role of Christ by means of language influenced by the Old Testament notion of acts of atonement (‘at-one-ment’/’bringing together’), by which people do what is needed on their part for sin to be forgiven by God. Thus, for example, the author of 1John calls Christ “the expiation (hilasmos) for our sins’, and St Paul asserts that he is `a means of expiation’ (hilasterion) [1John 2: 2; Romans 3:25. Scholars vary in their translation of hilasterion. Some prefer `propitiation' to `expiation'. Cf. John Ziesler, Paul's Letter to the Romans (London, 1989), 112 ff.]

In Hebrews 9, Old Testament images connected with atonement abound with reference to Christ’s death. The general idea seems to be that this was the definitive means by which people are reconciled to God, a means which supersedes the Old Testament sacrificial system. In the Middle Ages there were differing interpretations of these texts. Abelard, for instance, argued, or has been thought of as arguing, that they are best understood as teaching us that God has forgiven our sins and provided us with an inspiring token of his love.

It seems to us that we are justified in the blood of Christ and reconciled to God in this: that through the singular grace manifested to us in that his son took our nature and that teaching us both by word and example he persevered even unto death, Jesus bound us closer to himself by love, so that, fired by so great a benefit of divine grace, true charity would no longer be afraid to endure anything for his sake.22

Abelard seems to hold that, if God wills to forgive sin, the sin is forgiven and that is the end of it. He also seems to hold that God has willed to redeem humanity. It appears, therefore, that he believes that the death of Christ is not strictly necessary as a means of forgiving sin or reconciling people with God. Rather, it is God loving us in human form and drawing us to himself as we recognize the extent of his love. As one commentator explains, for Abelard,

Jesus was not the Man of Sorrows carrying the burden of our guilt or the victim offered up to the Father as a recompense for our sins, so much as the divine Logos made manifest to the world, incarnate because he would reveal to mankind the path of righteousness. [J. G. Sikes, PeterAbailard (Cambridge, 1932), 208.] Much more widespread than Abelard’s view, however, was the one classically associated with Anselm, for whom the death of Christ brings us to God because it is a matter of `satisfaction’ (satisfactio).

The word `satisfaction’ was a key-term in Roman law. As F. W. Dillistone explains:

[I]t was a word bearing the fundamental idea that wherever the harmonious ordered working of the whole society has been disturbed by a failure to comply with its essential laws … an adequate reparation must be offered not only in the sense of doing now what was originally commanded but also of offering now an extra which can be accepted as sufficient payment for the delinquency.
[F.W. Dillistone, The Christian Understanding of Atonement (Welwyn, 1968), 188]

For Anselm, `satisfaction’ sums up the significance of Christ’s death since, in his view, the death of Christ made amends required to offset the consequences of sin. We have seen how he denies that sin can be simply forgiven by God. He thinks that compensation has to be made, and here he has in mind a giving back of what is not owed. That is to say, the compensation must be a matter of satisfaction. `Every one who sins,’ he argues, `ought to pay back the honor of which he has robbed God; and this is the satisfaction which every sinner owes to God. [Cur Deus homo? I.II.] And, for Anselm, the satisfaction owed here is provided by the death of Christ.

Why? To begin with Anselm suggests that, because satisfaction involves paying more than what is owed, it is necessary that the one who makes it `somehow gives up himself, or something of his, which he does not owe as a debtor’. [Cur Deus homo? 2.11.]  He then goes on to argue that Christ can satisfy for the sin of human beings by dying since sin deserves death and since Christ was sinless.

Is it not proper that, since what is human has departed from God as far as possible in sin, that which is human should make to God the greatest possible satisfaction? … Now nothing can be more severe or difficult for a human being to do for God’s honor, than to suffer death voluntarily when not bound by obligation. . . Therefore, the one who wishes to make atonement for human sin should be one who can die by choosing to do so. [Cur Deus homo? 2.11.]

According to Anselm, Christ made perfect satisfaction for sin, and thereby made it possible for others to turn to God and enter into the destiny originally intended for them, by going to his death without constraint and out of love for others.

Aquinas on Satisfaction
When Aquinas declares that we are freed from sin `by Christ satisfying for us’ he comes very close to Anselm’s position. For one thing, he believes in that in certain circumstances there is a need for satisfaction. He thinks that people who sin produce a kind of disharmony between themselves and God which needs to be erased if proper relationships with God are to be established again. How is it to be erased? Aquinas is clear that the sinner must refrain from sin. But he does not think that things are made right between sinners and God simply because sinners stop sinning. `If someone is parted from another’, he observes, `that person is not reunited to the other as soon as the movement ceases; the person needs to draw nigh to the other and to return by a contrary movement. [Summa theologiae 1a 2ae. 86. 2] On this basis, therefore, Aquinas maintains that repentance is in order. He also thinks that sinners must do something to make up for what they have done in sinning. His view is that sin deserves punishment since it transgresses the order of divine justice. So compensation must be paid.

A sinful act makes people punishable in that they violate the order of divine justice. They return to that order only by some punitive restitution that restores the balance of justice, in this way, namely, that those who by acting against a divine commandment, have indulged their own will beyond what was right, should, according to the order of divine justice, either voluntarily or by constraint be subjected to something not to their liking. [Summa theologiae 1a 2ae. 87. 6]

One might say that God can merely forgive a person who has sinned. And Aquinas would agree. But he would add that forgiveness without compensation does not do enough to meet the requirements of justice. If you wrong me, I may forgive you and act as if nothing has happened. But even my forgiveness cannot abolish the fact that something has happened and that you are, in a sense, indebted to me. By the same token, so Aquinas thinks, for the consequences of sin to be properly dealt with the sinner must take on some form of penance to atone for the sin, or must patiently bear with one imposed by God. [Summa theologiae 1a 2ae. 87. 6] In other words, sinners must acknowledge the need for satisfaction, which Aquinas also sees as having a remedial or healing effect. As he says in his commentary on the Sentences:

Satisfaction can be defined in two ways. One way is with respect to past faults, which it heals (curat) by recompense; thus it is said that satisfaction is a recompense for injury according to justice’s measure. This is also expressed in Anselm’s definition that satisfaction gives to God an honour due him, due because of a fault committed. Satisfaction can also be defined with regard to future faults, from which one is preserved (praeservat) by satisfaction.
[Scriptum super libros Sententiarum 4. 15. 1].

In the Sentences treatment of satisfaction, Aquinas is drawing on two influential definitions of ‘satisfaction’, one from the Liber ecctesiasticorum dogmaticum, 54 (thought by Aquinas’s contemporaries to be by Augustine, but actually produced by Gennadius of Marseille (c.470)), the other from Anselm’s Cur Deus homo? The first definition runs: `Satisfaction is to uproot the causes of sins and to give no opening to their suggestions’ (Satisfactio est peccatorum causas excidere et eorum suggestionibus aditum non indulgere). The second definition is: `Satisfaction consists in giving God due honor’ (Satisfactio est honorem Deo impendere).

In general, then, Aquinas is at one with Anselm in his view that sin requires satisfaction. He also agrees with another element in Anselm’s position. Anselm presupposes that it is possible for satisfaction to be made by someone other than the person who has sinned, and Aquinas shares Anselm’s presupposition here. He does not think that one person can satisfy for another where the satisfaction is thought of as only remedial. He accepts that satisfaction can have a healing effect in the sense that one who makes it behaves in a proper way and may be improved by doing so. But, since my improvement is a fact about me, not you, he denies that, if you make satisfaction on my behalf, it follows that you improve as well.

On the other hand, he allows that you may take on yourself the punishment due to me for my sin. In Galatians 6:2, St Paul writes: `Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.’ With this injunction in mind, Aquinas holds that, just as it is possible in law for people to pay fines on behalf of each other, so it is possible for people to take on themselves the penalty of other people’s sin. He writes:

Satisfactory punishment has a twofold purpose, viz, to pay the debt, and to serve as a remedy for the avoidance of sin. Accordingly, as a remedy against future sin, the satisfaction of one does not profit another, for the flesh of one person is not tamed by another’s fast; nor does one person acquire the habit of well-doing through the actions of another, except accidentally … On the other hand, as regards the payment of the debt, someone can satisfy for another, provided that the person in question is in a state of charity.
[Scriptum super libros Sententiarum 4. 20. 2.].

Elsewhere Aquinas makes the point by saying that `in some cases those who are different in their purely penal obligations remain one in will, through their union in love. [Summa theologiae 1a 2ae. 87. 7]

From all of this, it should be evident how the thinking of Anselm and Aquinas overlaps on the question of satisfaction. Not surprisingly, therefore, it also overlaps when it comes to satisfaction and the Incarnation. For with the Incarnation directly in mind Aquinas offers what one might readily be forgiven for reading as a paraphrase of Anselm’s Cur Deus homo? argument.

Justice demands satisfaction for sin. But God cannot render satisfaction, just as he cannot merit. Such a service pertains to one who is subject to another. Thus God was not in a position to satisfy for the sin of the whole of human nature; and a mere human being was unable to do so … Hence divine Wisdom judged it fitting that God should become human, so that thus one and the same person would be able both to restore the human race and to offer satisfaction.
Compendium Theologiae ch. 200

`A mere human being’, Aquinas observes at one point, `could not have satisfied for the whole human race, and God was not bound to satisfy; hence it was fitting for Jesus Christ to be both God and human. [Summa theologiae 3a 1.2]

People effectively make satisfaction for an offence when they offer to the one who has been offended something accepted as matching or outweighing the former offence. Christ, suffering in a loving and obedient spirit, offered more to God than was demanded in recompense for all the sins of the human race, because first the love which led him to suffer was a great love; secondly, the life he laid down in atonement was of great dignity, since it was the life of God and of a man; and thirdly, his suffering was all-embracing and his pain so great. [Summa theologiae 3a 48.2]

A sin committed against God, says Aquinas, `has a kind of infinity from the infinity of the divine majesty’. [Summa theologiae 3a 1.2 ad2] For proper satisfaction of sin, therefore, `it was necessary that the act of the one satisfying should have an infinite efficacy, as being of God and of what is human’. [Summa theologiae 3a 1.2 ad2]

Although one person can satisfy for another. . . that person cannot satisfy for the whole race because the act of one mere human individual is not equal in value to the good of the whole race. But the action of Christ, being that of one both divine and human, had a dignity that made it worth as much as the good of the entire human race, and so it could satisfy for others.
[De veritate, 29. 7.]

Aquinas also holds that the fact that Christ is without sin means that he can satisfy for sin properly. Commenting on the phrase `through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus’ in Romans 3: 23, he suggests:

It is as if someone, having committed some fault, became indebted to the king and was obliged to pay a fine. Someone else who paid the fine for this person would be said to have redeemed the person. Such a debt was owed by the whole human race because of the sin of the first parents. So it was that no other one apart from Christ was able to satisfy for the sin of the whole human race since he alone was free of every sin.
[Super epistolam ad Romanos lectura 3.1]

On this basis, Aquinas is able to say that Christ was both a priest and a victim, and that his work bore the character of sacrifice. Christ is a priest since he mediates between people and God and since `the characteristic function of a priest is to act as mediator between God and his people’. He communicates to people the things of God and somehow makes reparation for sin. [Summa theologiae 3a. 22. 1] Christ was simultaneously priest and victim, Aquinas goes on to say, since his priestly work was achieved by his offering of himself as a sacrifice (i.e. as something `placed before God with the purpose of raising the human spirit to him’). [Summa theologiae 3a.22.2]

Yet Aquinas’s teaching on the satisfaction of Christ is not quite that of Anselm. For, unlike Anselm, Aquinas does not think that God can only unite people to himself by means of satisfaction. Anselm does seem to think this. At any rate, he does not entertain the notion of it not being so. But the emphasis with Aquinas is different. As Romanus Cessario states, in his thinking satisfaction `is not something God requires of man, or even of Jesus, as a condition for accomplishing his saving plan. Rather it is the means whereby (God in very fact accomplishes his plan to bring all men and women into loving union with himself. [Romanus Cessario, OP, The Godly Image: Christ and Salvation in Catholic Thought from Anseim to Aquinas (Petersham, Mass., 1990), xviii.]

We have already seen that Aquinas explicitly holds that people can be brought to God without satisfaction since we have noted him maintaining that `God in his infinite power could have restored human nature in many other ways’ than by becoming incarnate. Or as he says in another place: `Simply and absolutely speaking, God could have freed us otherwise than by Christ’s passion, for nothing is impossible with God [Summa theologiae 3a 46.2] Now we need to note that he also maintains both that God can pardon sin without exacting any penalty and that there are important senses in which the passion of Christ was unnecessary. `If God had wanted to free people from sin without any satisfaction at all’, he writes, `he would not have been acting against justice.’

God has no one above him, for he is himself the supreme and common good of the entire universe. If then he forgives sin, which is a crime in that it is committed against him, he violates no one’s rights. People who waive satisfaction and forgive an offence done to themselves act mercifully, not unjustly.
[Summa theologiae 3a 46.2 ad 3]

As for Christ’s passion, says Aquinas, this was not necessary in the sense that it was something `which of its nature cannot be otherwise’, i.e. it was not logically necessary. [Summa theologiae 3a 46.1] Nor was it necessary in the sense of being forced on God or Christ by an agent apart from them. `It was not necessary for Christ to suffer from necessity of compulsion, either on God’s part, who ruled that Christ should suffer, or on Christ’s part, who suffered voluntarily.’  [Summa theologiae 3a 46.1]

With respect to satisfaction and Christ, Aquinas’s position is that satisfaction by Christ is necessary only in two senses. The first is a purely logical one. Given that God has ordained that people be brought to God by satisfaction through Christ, and given that God knows how people are to be brought to God, then satisfaction by Christ is necessary.

Since it is impossible for God’s foreknowledge to be deceived and his will and ordinance to be frustrated, then, supposing God’s foreknowledge and ordinance regarding Christ’s passion, it was not possible at the same time for Christ not to suffer and for people to be delivered otherwise than by Christ’s passion.
[Summa theologiae 3a 46.2 ]

Secondly, so Aquinas argues, satisfaction through Christ is necessary in the sense that it is a means of bringing people to God in a way that accords with God’s justice and mercy.

That people should be delivered by Christ’s passion was in keeping with both his mercy and his justice. With his justice, because by his passion Christ made satisfaction for the sin of the human race; and with his mercy, for since no single human being could alone satisfy for the sin of all human nature. . . God gave people his son to satisfy for them. . . And this came of more copious mercy than if he had forgiven sins without satisfaction.
[Summa theologiae 3a 46.1 ad 3]

Aquinas thinks that God could have acted only out of mercy. But he also thinks that in Christ’s passion God was acting both out of mercy and out of justice. He admits that people could have been brought to God without the Incarnation and, therefore, without Christ suffering. But he is governed by the recognition that the Incarnation and the death of Christ have, in fact, occurred. And he thinks it is good that this should be so. His line is that, where an offence against God is at issue, full satisfaction is possible, and that God has actually laid this on. Given the desirability of full (or, as Aquinas calls it, `condign’) satisfaction, his conclusion, then, is that everything possible has been done to set matters right between people and God. `It was’, he explains, `more fitting that we should be delivered by Christ’s passion than simply by God’s good will.’ [Summa theologiae 3a 46. 3]


St. Thomas Aquinas on Sin and the Goodness of the Incarnation – Fr. Brian Davies O.P.

February 17, 2011

Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei, 1640

ACCORDING TO I TIMOTHY 1:15: `Christ Jesus came into the world in order to save sinners.’ And Aquinas, of course, accepts this. `The work of the Incarnation’, he says, `was directed chiefly to the restoration of the human race through the removal of sin.’ [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 5] According to him, God became incarnate so that sinners might be brought back to God. But how can the Incarnation lead to this effect? How can the fact that Christ was God do anything to bring us anything we might think of as salvation?

The General Picture
To begin with, we can start with what he says of the passage in Isaiah in which we read: `For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulder.’[Isaiah 9:16] Aquinas’s Latin Bible (the Vulgate) translates `to us. . . is given’ as datus est nobis, and `upon his shoulder’ as super humerum eius. Treating what `is given’ to us as Christ (the standard Christian reading, of course), he subsequently comments:

Noting the phrase datus est nobis, it can be said that Christ is given to us first as a brother [Song of Songs 8: 1];second as a teacher [Joel 2: 23] … third, as a watchman [Ezeiel. 3]; … fourth, as a defender [Isaiah 19: 20]; … fifth, as a shepherd [Ezekiel 34: 23]; … sixth, as an example for our activities [John 13:15]; … seventh, as food for wayfarers [John 6: 52]; … eighth, as a price of redemption [Matthew 20: 28]; … ninth, as a price of remuneration [Revelations 2:17]. Similarly it should be observed concerning the words super humerum eius that God placed upon the shoulders of Christ first sins, as upon one who satisfies [Isaiah:53:6]; … second a key, as upon a priest [Isaiah 22:2]; … third, principality, as upon a conqueror [Isaiah 9: 6]; … fourth, glory, as upon out who triumphs [Isaiah 22: 24]. [Super Isaiam, 9. I. I.]

The quotation here may seem to lack excitement, for there are no rhetorical flourishes, and the whole thing reads like a list. But the list is important, and its existence serves to tell one a lot about Aquinas’s approach to the life and work of Christ. In just a few lines, he is maintaining that Christ is our brother, watchman, teacher, defender, shepherd, example, food, and means of redemption. He is also telling us that Christ satisfies for sin, that he is our priest, and that he is our ruler and champion.

At the outset, then, we may note a significant fact about the way in which Aquinas conceives of Christ and the achievement of the Incarnation. This is that, unlike some Christian writers, he does not think that we rightly express the truth about Christ by focusing on only one concept or image. `Characteristically, he finds a place for all sorts of insights where others have been hypnotized by one model or another.’ [Herbert McCabe, OP, God Matters (London, 1987), p99] He has a whole range of ways for drawing out the purpose of the Incarnation. He thinks of the life and work of Christ as being significant for various reasons and as having a number of effects.

Just to say this, however, will do little to explain how Aquinas actually does view the life and work of Christ as being for us. To take matters further, therefore, we can turn to what he says about the fittingness of the Incarnation. His treatment of this topic leads him to make several points characteristic of him and is as good a point of entry into the details of his thinking on the life and work of Christ as any other which may be suggested.

Sin and the Incarnation
Presiding over the discussion is the quotation from I Timothy cited above: `Christ Jesus came into the world in order to save sinners.’ In the twelfth century, Rupert of Deutz (c.1075 — 1129/30) held that God would have become incarnate even if people had not sinned.[ He does so in his treatise De gloria et honore Fiji hominis. Rupert of Deutz was the first theologian clearly to articulate the question `Would the Incarnation have occurred if people had not sinned?']

The same view was taught by Grosseteste, and by later Franciscan thinkers including John Duns Scotus (c.1265— 1308).[ Grosseteste's position can be found in his treatise De cessatione legalium, in a sermon, Exiit edictum, and in parts of the Haexemeron. For Scotus's position see Reportata Parisiensia, book 3, d. 7, q. 4. For an account of other medieval authors considering the reasons for the Incarnation, see Peter Raedts, Richard Rufus of Cornwall and the Tradition of Oxford Theology (Oxford, 1987), ch. 9.]

But it is not Aquinas’s view. Or, at any rate, it is not his final view. In the Commentary on the Sentences he concedes that the Incarnation might have taken place even if people had never sinned.[Scriptum super libros Sententiarum 3. 1. 1] And, even in later works, he has no difficulty in entertaining the notion of an incarnation in a world without sin. `Even had sin not existed’, he writes, `God could have become incarnate. [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 3]

He also declares that `the actual union of natures in the person of Christ falls under the eternal predestination of God’. [Summa theologiae 3a, 24. 5] So he does not take the Incarnation to be a kind of afterthought on God’s part. For him, God is one who eternally and changelessly wills to become incarnate. But, true to his theistic agnosticism, Aquinas’s mature verdict in the Summa theologiae is that we do not have sufficient knowledge of God’s will to be confident in holding that reason can assert that the Incarnation was inevitable. His view is that we must rely on revelation to tell us why God became incarnate. And he thinks that revelation tells us that the reason lies in sin. `Everywhere in sacred Scripture’, he observes, `the sin of the first man is given as the reason for the Incarnation. [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 3]

Does this mean that our union with God cannot be brought about without the Incarnation? Before the time of Aquinas, the most important and influential treatment of this question was St Anselm’s Cur Deus homo?, where the conclusion reached was that the human race can only be united to God by virtue of one who is both divine and human. In Anselm’s view, human beings were created for happiness with God lying beyond this life, but there is an obstacle to them receiving this happiness. All people have sinned, and a state of cannot be rectified simply by God forgiving them.’ Anselm defines sin as `nothing else than not to render God his due’, and, on this basis, he argues that recompense or compensation must he paid in order for God’s purpose in creating people to be fulfilled.

He also argues that what is paid must be greater than everything other than God, and that the person to pay it must be greater than everything other than God, from which, he thinks, it follows that only God can pay it. At the same time, however, it is people who ought to make the payment, for it is they who have sinned. Thus, says Anselm, it is necessary for one who is both God and human (deus Homo) to pay what is owed, and, in this sense, the Incarnation was required for people to reach their final goal.[Cur Deus homo? I.11]

There is a great deal in common between this account and that of Aquinas. But Aquinas denies that the Incarnation was necessary for the restoration of humanity, if `necessary’ means that people could not have been restored without it. We can, he says, speak of something as necessary for an end to be achieved `when the goal is simply unattainable without it, e.g. food for sustaining human life’. With this sense of necessity in mind, he adds, `the Incarnation was not necessary for the restoration of human nature, since by his infinite power God had many other ways to accomplish this end’.  Here Aquinas invokes Augustine. `Let us point out that other ways were not wanting to God, whose power rules everything without exception.’ [Summa theologiae 3a, 46. 2]

Yet Augustine goes on to say that, assuming the Incarnation to be given, `there was no other course more fitting for healing our wretchedness’. [Summa theologiae 3a, 46. 2]  And Aquinas agrees with this too. We may also call a thing necessary, he says, `when it is required for a better and more expeditious attainment of the goal, e.g. a horse for a journey’. [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 2] In this sense, he argues, the Incarnation `was needed for the restoration of human nature’. It was, he thinks, a specially fitting way of restoring humanity.

Why? One answer he gives is that the Incarnation shows us God’s goodness. We have already seen that Aquinas denies that the goodness of God entails that God must go out of himself and create. But he does think that goodness in things is caused by God and that it reveals (or `communicates’) something of what God is. He therefore reasons that the Incarnation may be taken as revealing God’s goodness in a special way. It is, he observes, `appropriate for the highest good to communicate itself to the creature in the highest way possible’. [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 1] Given that Christ is God, he adds, we may look to him especially as an outpouring and reflection of God’s goodness. Nothing in creation can reveal God more than God incarnate.

Another point made by Aquinas is that the Incarnation gives us proper warrant for believing the content of faith. For faith is a matter of believing God, and, by virtue of the Incarnation, God has spoken to us in person. Here again Aquinas draws on Augustine. `In order that people might journey more trustfully toward the truth’, he writes, `the Truth itself, the son of God, having assumed human nature, established and founded faith. [The City of God, I 1. 2] He also suggests that, because of the Incarnation, we have the best possible guide for our behavior together with grounds for hope and charity. For, in the person of Christ, God himself serves as an example to us and shows us how much he loves us.

But Aquinas has more to say than this about how the Incarnation is a specially fitting way of restoring humanity. For he also holds that it was a proper, and indeed necessary, means for delivering people from sin and estrangement from God because it was a matter of `satisfaction’ (satisfaction). The goal of the Incarnation, he explains, is `our furtherance in good’. And it occurred `in order to free us from the thraldom of sin … by Christ satisfying for us’. [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 2]. More on this in another post…


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