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Historical Christology

Chapter VIII
Christology of Thomas Aquinas

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Five and a half centuries are a long time between the Council of Constantinople which condemned the Monothelites and the birth of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.) who climaxed the Church's highest period of speculative theology. In the interim the science of Christology had not substantially grown beyond what it was at the end of the patristic age. Yet the person of Christ was not for that reason less dominant in the lives of the faithful, or less relevant in the life of the Church. It was only that generations of battling the Vandal hordes, and more generations in stabilizing European culture precluded serious academic investigation.

With the rise of the great universities, first as day schools attached to monasteries or cathedrals and later as full-blown institutions of higher learning, all branches of human study grew apace--including the religious sciences. The life and teachings of Christ became part of these studies, and by the end of the twelfth century we find a library of manuscript production on every phase of the Incarnation and Redemption.

If the thirteenth has been called "The Greatest of Centuries," it is only because during that remarkable period the genius of Catholicism produced such an array of scholars and saints as the Church had not known since the patristic age. This was the century of the philosopher and experimental scientist Roger Bacon (1214-1294), the poets Alighieri Dante (1265-1321) and Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306), the theologians Bonaventure (1221-1274), Alexander of Hales (1180-1245), Albertus Magnus (1193-1280), and the statesman Louis IX of France. (1215-1270).

Among these St. Thomas Aquinas is commonly ranked the best exponent of the Christian faith at a time when Roman Catholicism had fairly permeated European society and on the eve of the Renascence, which introduced new and challenging elements into Christianity.

Aquinas stands for more than meets the uncritical eye. Any hint of labeling him "medieval" in the pejorative sense betrays ignorance of how truly modern he was. His main contribution to theology (including Christology) was the lesson he taught of how to combine the sacred and secular, i.e., the Christian and non-Christian, in a synthesis that we need especially today.

He recognized there is a legitimate sense in which the Christian can be convinced of the absolute truth of his own position without belittling and much less despising other religious systems than his own. He may consider his own religion normative for others, without looking upon them as empty of content or devoid of profound insight into man's relations with God.

When Thomas Aquinas built the edifice of Medieval Scholasticism and united the corpus of Christian revelation into a marvelous synthesis, the structure he used was mainly that of a "pagan" philosopher, Aristotle, together with borrowings from Homer, Plato, Virgil, Sallust, Seneca, Horace, two great Islamic writers, Averroes, Avicenna and the Jewish Sage, Moses Maimonides.

It is only speculation to surmise what would have been the course of Western religion if the Renascence and Reformation had not occurred. The Renascence revived interest in classical thought and mythology, discovering the riches of Homer and Plato, Virgil and Cicero; and the recovery of an appreciation of the glories of ancient Greece and the splendors of pagan Rome might have led to a corresponding discovery of the wisdom of China and India, as suggested by the sixteenth century labors of Matteo Ricci and Robert de Nobili.

But the Renascence was quickly followed in Northern Europe by the narrowing influence of a new theology which circumscribed the native capacities of human nature. Instead of the broad tolerance of Aquinas whose veneration for Aristotle led him to speak of the Stagirite simply as the Philosopher, "the Calvinistic doctrine of the inherent depravity of unredeemed humanity reacted against a sympathetic understanding of pagan religion." The consequences have been felt for centuries directly in the Protestant tradition and indirectly, through Jensenism, in Catholic circles. (1) Fortunately they are being neutralized on all sides by a return to the wisdom of the early Church, which distinguished in other religions the authentic spirit of God, whose Truth is not limited to one people or nation, and the aberrations caused by the weakness of man's intellect because of the Fall.

The ancient Fathers, Augustine, Jerome, and Prosper of Aquitaine said some harsh things about pagan depravity and the spectacle of a thousand gods. But they never lost sight of the "naturally Christian soul" described by Tertullian, and even defended the classical authors against their traducers, as when Gregory Nazianzen opposed the imprudent zealots who would forbid Christians to learn Greek and Roman writers.

Following in the spirit of this ecumenical outlook, Aquinas brought to theology the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, the system of the Romans, and a salutary rationalism from the Jews and Moslems. True he sifted what he found and was the antithesis of an eclectic who borrows without thinking. But he also used much of what he discovered, notably the principles of Aristotelianism which have added immensely to the Church's understanding of the mysteries of faith.

Concepts like substance and accident, act and potency, matter and form, quality and quantity, nature and person, cause and effect--to name only a few--were refined and developed by Aquinas and applied to revelation with consequences that only one who knows the history of theology can appreciate.

Thomas' Christology is not confined to any one work but diffused through most of his voluminous writing. No doubt the Summa Theologica and commentaries on the New Testament offer the widest range of his thought on the Savior as Incarnate God and Savior of mankind. But almost everything he wrote breathed of Christ, to a point that he reminds us of no one more than St. Paul whose preoccupation with Christ has been called "obsession" by his hostile critics.

In one of his commentaries on the Pauline letters, he gives some inkling of what Christ meant to him and what he would like to have the Savior mean to everyone who reads his writings.

Is the mind filled, you ask, by knowing Christ? Most certainly yes, I reply, for in him are all the treasures of wisdom. God knows all things and his knowledge is compared to a treasure: Wisdom is an infinite treasure to men. A treasury is where riches are amassed, and in divine wisdom all riches are heaped together. All reality is treasured in the Word, notwithstanding the divine generosity which scatters goodness abroad, for God pours wisdom "out upon his works, and upon all flesh, according to his gift."
St. Paul adds that the treasures are hidden. Things are hidden either because our observation is poor or because they are covered: we fail to see a light either because we are blind or it is shuttered. The treasures of understanding and wisdom in the Word of God are unseen either because our eyes are clouded and not clear, or because divine truths are eclipsed by creatures and things of flesh. All the same, creatures are like God, and through the flesh we may catch a glimpse of him: "for the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are made manifest, being understood by the things which are made." Moreover, reflect on the text, "the Word was made flesh."
A man with a dark lantern has no need to search for a light; all he has to do is to open the shutter. A man with a book which tells him what he should know has only to open the book. We have no need to look outside Christ: "I judged not myself to know anything but Christ Jesus." We know that "when he shall appear" that is, when God shall be revealed, "we shall be like to him." (2)

Aquinas followed a logical pattern in his analysis of the cardinal mystery of Christianity. He began with exploring the reason for the Incarnation, then the mode of union of two natures which is called hypostatic. The heart of the study is Christ's human nature in its possession of grace and wisdom, subject to weakness and suffering, and thereby atoning for the sins of a fallen mankind.

Necessity of the Incarnation

St. Augustine had already recognized two kinds of necessity when we speak of the Incarnation. Thomas used Augustine but clarified him by introducing his famous distinction between two ways of attaining a purpose or goal, since in his thinking need always implies means with relation to end. One way is indispensable, the other is more effective.

A means is judged necessary, he said, either because the end cannot be secured without it, thus food is necessary for life, or because the end is better and more suitably reached through it, thus a horse (or in our day, a car) is necessary for a journey. The first kind of necessity does not enter into the Incarnation, for God's almighty power could have restored human nature in many other ways. The necessity was of the second kind, since other ways were not closed to God, who equally commands everything, but no means was more appropriate for healing our sinful state. (3)

It is assumed that God intended to save mankind from its sin, and the only question was how He would do it: first positively by fostering our advancement in good, and then negatively by withdrawing us from evil. On both levels, Redemption by way of Incarnation must have commended itself to God as we see from the experience of Christians since the time of Christ.

Under the first heading let us take faith. We have better guarantee when we believe that God himself is speaking to us. It was that we might set forth more trustfully to the truth that the Son of God, having become man, founded and built faith. Next, take hope, so highly lifted up, for what better could have raised our hope than this proof of God's deep love for us, what more cogent than the Son of God deigning to become our partner in human nature? Then take charity, thereby strongly enkindled, for what mightier cause is there for the Lord's coming than to show us his love? If we have been slow to love in the past let us now hasten to love in return. Again, take right conduct, where an example is set us. Man can be seen but should not be followed, God should be followed but cannot be seen, and therefore God became man that he might both be seen and followed. Finally, with regard to our full sharing in the divinity, which is our true end and bliss bestowed on us through Christ's manhood, Augustine says that he became man that man might become God. (4)

The negative function of the Incarnation is surprising. Besides being secondary to the positive purpose God had in becoming man, it involves the admission of something that many today would demythologize: the role of the evil spirit in man's original fall and of sinfulness which demands an act of mercy on the part of God.

Under the second heading, let us first meditate on how man is taught by the Incarnation not to rank the devil above himself or to be cowed by the author of evil. When a human nature can be so joined to God that there is but one person there, let no proud spirits vaunt themselves above men because they are unearthly and without flesh. We are also taught how great is human dignity lest we sully it with sin. God has now shown us the high place human nature holds in creation, for he entered into it by genuinely becoming man. "You are made a partner of the divine nature: refuse, then to return to your former worthlessness by degenerate intercourse." (5)
In order to do away with our presumption, the grace of God is commended in Jesus Christ, through no preceding merits of our own. Man's pride, his greatest hindrance to clinging to God, is rebuked and cured by humility so great. Finally, in order to free us from the bondage of sin: this should be done in such a way that the devil is overthrown by the justice of a man, and by Christ making satisfaction for us. A mere man could not make satisfaction for the whole human race, and this is no office of God's. How right, then, that our Savior should be both God and man. Pope Leo says that weakness is assumed by strength, lowliness by majesty, mortality by immortality, in order that one and the same mediator between God and men might die in the one and rise in the other. (6) Unless he were God, he could not have brought the remedy; unless he were man, he could not have set the example. (7)

Leaning on Augustine's authority, Thomas holds that God became man only because man had become estranged from God. Therefore, if man had not sinned, the Son of Man would not have come. So there was no cause for Christ to come into this world except to save sinners; abolish disease and injury and there is no call for medicine.

Theologians think differently on the point. Some hold that even if man had not fallen the Son of God would have become incarnate. Others hold the contrary. "Personally I think their opinion is to be preferred."

His rule of interpretation is: deeds done by the divine will above our deserving can come to our knowledge only when revealed in the Bible which declares God's intentions to us. There the motive for the Incarnation is always put down to man's sin. Consequently it is safer to teach that the Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin, and that if sin had not been committed, the Incarnation would not have taken place. "Nevertheless," he concludes, "God's power should not be circumscribed. He might have become incarnate even if sin had never entered the world." (8)

To remove a popular misconception, Aquinas was asked and answered whether the Incarnation was directed to remove only original sin. Emphatically not! God became man to remit every kind of deviation from them divine law, inherited and personal. "Christ came to take away sin...all sin." Yet there is some priority of purpose. The sin we contract on entering life, though less grave and guilty than actual sins, is more widespread. To that extent, it may be said that Christ came principally to take away original sin. Intimated in the Baptists's observation, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world," is the sinfulness of the world, common to everyone through parental descent from Adam. (9)

If we examine the matter still more closely, we see that the reason for the Incarnation may be viewed from our side--where the purpose was redemption--or from Gods' side, and then the motive was His infinite love.

"God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." The cause of every good that comes to us is God and his love. To love is to wish a person well, and since God's will is the cause of things, blessings are showered on us because he loves us. It is his love which causes every perfection, of nature and of grace: "I have loved thee with an everlasting love; therefore with loving kindness have I drawn thee."
His giving of grace issues from great friendship, yes, the very greatest, as appears on four counts. First, because of the person of the lover--God so loved the world. Then, because of the condition of the beloved, that is, human beings, earthly and sinful: God commendeth his love towards us, for when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son. Also because of the magnificence of the gift, for, as Gregory observes, love is proved by deeds. God gives us the costliest gift, his own Son, of same substance with himself, natural, not adopted, his only Son, not one among many, who holds all his love. So does he commend his love for us. Lastly, because of the richness of the fruit, everlasting life, giving which he gives himself, for everlasting life is enjoying God. (10)

The value of looking at the Incarnation from God's viewpoint is to measure it with the rod of infinity, and to expect from Christ infinitely more than just deliverance from evil. If the function of love is to communicate benefits, when Love itself becomes incarnate there is no limit to its generosity towards mankind.

Hypostatic Union

The essence of the mystery of the Incarnation is the hypostatic union, which Chalcedon defined as the union of two real natures, human and divine, in the one person of the Logos of the Father.

St. Thomas begins with a definition of the crucial terms, nature and person, with a distinction between them that is one of the highlights in the history of Christology. "Nature," he explains, specifies what a thing is; "person" individualizes a thing by giving it concrete existence. He explores the connotations which this difference implies, and comes to grips with the only real problem in the mystery: Why was the humanity of Christ capable of being assumed by the divinity? Why, in other words, was it not incommunicable, as Nestorius claimed, while remaining in every other sense a genuine human nature?

We shall follow Thomas' reasoning process, putting into free translation his long treatment of the subject in the Disputed Questions, and the Union of the Word Incarnate, as the clearest exposition of the meaning of the hypostatic union in Christian theology.

To make the question clear he considers, first, what nature is, secondly, what person is, and thirdly, how the union of the Incarnate Word is of person, not of nature.

The term nature was first used about the nativity, or the being born, of living things, plants and animals, and later applied to their inborn qualities. Because native principles are intrinsic (and not imposed from without, as in the case of the violent and artificial) the term later came to signify the inward principle of motion; in this sense nature is the principle of instinctive impulses which well up essentially from within the subject and not from outside. And because such natural movement, as we especially see in the generative activity, reaches to a thing of a specific kind, the term, nature comes last of all to stand for the determinate kind, type, or essence, signified by the definition. Thus, Boethius speaks of a nature as of the informing specific differences in a thing. (11) In this sense do we speak of nature in the present question.

To appreciate what the term person implies, we should see that if there be a thing in which there is only a specific essence, that specific essence will be individually complete in itself; the complete substance and the nature will be really identical, and merely logically distinct. By nature he means the specific essence, and by person the complete substance. (12) But if there be any reality in a thing distinct from the specific essence (which is signified by the definition), whether that be accident or individual matter, then the complete substance will not wholly coincide with the specific nature, but will possess some additional reality. Such is the case with anything composed of matter and form, and also with a person, which Boethius defines as an individual substance of rational nature. (13)

So then, what prevents a reality from being united in person, and not in nature? For an individual substance of a rational nature possesses some reality not proper to his specific nature; this belongs to his person, not his nature. Here we have a hint how human nature can be conceived to be united to the person, and not the nature, of the Word of God, and how manhood can be attributed, not to the divine nature, but to the person of the Word who assumes it.

Union by Division. Doubt and dissension crop up when we start explaining the manner of this conjunction. For, in the usual run of things, when one reality is joined to another, both either fuse essentially or remain separate things arranged together, that is accidentally united. (14) Nestorius, therefore, and Theodore of Mopsuestia before him, were persuaded that human nature was conjoined to the Word accidentally, namely through the indwelling of grace; he meant that the Word was in the man Christ like a divinity in a temple. Here we should notice that when any substance is accidentally conjoined to another it keeps its own exclusive singularity, like the garment a man puts on, or the house which shelters him. Consequently, on this reading, the man Christ would have kept his own distinctive singularity, which is his personality. The Nestorian conclusion was that the human personality of Christ was distinct from the divine personality; the Son of Man is one thing, the Son of God another; and the Blessed Virgin was acknowledged as the Mother of God.

This doctrine disagrees with the Scriptures, which speak differently of Christ and of men in whom the Word of God dwells by grace; of such prophets it is said that the Word of God comes, but of Christ that "the Word was made flesh," that is, a man: the meaning is that the Word of God becomes personally a man. St. Paul speaks of this union as an emptying of the Son of God, (15) not a phrase one would choose to signify indwelling by grace, otherwise it could be applied to the Father and the Holy Ghost who come to us: "if any man love me, my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our abode with him; and, the Spirit dwells with you, and shall be in you." (16) For these and other reasons this error was condemned at the Council of Ephesus.

Some, however, while sustaining the doctrine that human nature was assumed by the Word yet remained separate, and wanting also to avoid having to profess a duality of persons, held that the Word assumed soul and body before they were united and before human personality had been constituted. The main difficulty about this interpretation is that Christ would not have been a true man, for human nature is composed of this union of body and soul. Their error was condemned by the Council of Tours presided over by Alexander III. (17)

Union by Confusion. Others swung to the opposite extreme. They held that human nature entered essentially into the Word, and that one nature was formed from the divine and human nature. Appolinaris of Laodicea put out three dogmatic points. Pope Leo touches on them in his letter to the clergy and people of Constantinople. (18) The first was that the Word took the place of soul, and so came to the flesh: one nature was formed from the Word and the flesh, as with us one nature is formed from soul and body. Here Apollinaris followed Nestorius. But because the Holy Scriptures refer to Christ's soul--"I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it up again," (19) he modified his teaching, and declared, secondly, that in Christ there was an animal or sensitive soul, but not a rational soul: the Word substituted for a human mind in the man Christ. This conclusion, which cannot be justified, is refuted by Augustine: it would mean that the Word assumed an animal nature, but not a human nature. His third point, that the flesh of Christ was not taken from a woman but was wrought from the Word who is thereby altered and changed, is simply impossible. Apollinaris was accordingly condemned at the Council of Constantinople. Eutyches, who followed his third tenet, had been condemned at the Council of Chalcedon.

If the union were not in person, but only by an indwelling, as Nestorius taught, then the Incarnation would have brought nothing fresh. On the other hand, for the union to be of natures, as Apollinaris and Eutyches taught, is out of the question: species are like numbers; add or subtract, and you change them. A properly constituted nature cannot be incremented by another nature, and if another was added then the resulting nature would not be the same as before. The divine nature is quite complete, and cannot possibly be added to; for that matter, human nature is complete enough to disallow the entrance of another nature. In any case, the result would be a compound, neither divine nor human, and Christ would be neither man nor God, which is inadmissible.

Union in One Person. We are led then to the conclusion that human nature is united to the Word neither essentially nor accidentally, but substantially, hypostatically, and personally, substance here means the hypostasis, or complete thing. Among created beings, no example is nearer than that given by the Athanasian Creed, namely, of the union of rational soul with body. The analogy is not with the soul as the form of body, for the Word's relation to human nature cannot be like that of form to matter, but with the soul as using the body as its instrument. In this case the instrument is inborn and conjoined, not adventitious and extraneous: wherefore Damascene calls human nature the organ of the Word. (20) A closer example is mentioned by Augustine: imagine a cosmic soul, as in fact some do, which takes material disposed to receive all forms, and makes of it one person with itself. (21)

Nevertheless, all such examples fall short: thus, to mention one point, principal cause and instrumental cause working together form an accidental whole. Indeed, the Incarnation is a unique union, surpassing every communion known to us. As God is his existence and goodness, so is he essentially his unity. And as his virtue is not limited to the styles of existence and goodness discoverable among creatures, but is capable of expressing itself in manners hitherto undreamt of, so by his infinite power can he make a union in which human nature is taken into the person of the Word. Augustine says about this mystery that, if explanation be sought, let us acknowledge that it is a marvel, and if precedent, then that there was nothing like it before; what God can do let us own we cannot probe, for in such cases the whole reason of the fact lies in the might of the maker. (22)

Since Thomas penned the foregoing, theologians have struggled to unravel his meaning. After centuries of controversy in the early Church, the councils finally clarified the broad outlines of faith: in Christ the two natures are not two persons (Nestorius), nor does the divinity substitute for the rational soul (Apollinaris), nor is the humanity absorbed into the divinity to lose its truly human nature (Eutyches).

With these to build on, Aquinas argued there must be something more to personality than to nature, and he identified this "more" as the real act of complete existence. Thus existence tells us that a thing is, while knowledge of its nature tells us what a thing is. To know that a thing exists is very different from knowing that particular nature it has.

Accordingly, an individual nature receives the quality of incommunicability which describes a person from its own act of existence, something quite distinct from the kind of nature it has. Why, for example, is the human nature I possess not communicable to any other individual of the human family? Precisely because I exist as a complete, autonomous substance. Therefore, if a human nature lacked what is normally (except for a sublime miracle) its natural complement, namely actual existence, it would not be a human person.

This is Thomas' explanation of what occurred at the Incarnation. The humanity of Christ had all that was required for the perfection of a human nature--body and soul, faculties and emotions--all that we have completely. Yet it came into existence and remains so for eternity not by its own natural act of existence (as happens with everyone else) but by the infinite subsistence of the Second Person of the Trinity. Christ is therefore a divine Person because His act of existence, which identifies personality, is not human but divine.

Grace and Wisdom

It is difficult to describe the relationship of Christ's human nature to the divine because we have nothing like it in our experience. The nearest analogy is that of instrument to its vital agent, where the humanity was instrumental to the Word of God.

We should expect an instrument to correspond in quality and precision with the character of the one using it and the delicacy of the work to be done. Where the agent is the Second Person of the Trinity and the task is man's redemption, the humanity would have to be of exquisite perfection to qualify for such sublime instrumentality. Revelation assures us this was the case, and describes the Savior as growing in grace and wisdom, on His human side, from infancy through childhood to adult age.

Three-fold Grace in Christ. Aquinas first considers Christ's fullness of grace. The term grace, he explains, suggests two ideas, not far removed from one another: first, of being in favor; second, of being given a present. For we give gratis to those who are after our own heart and to our liking. We may like them either reservedly or unreservedly; reservedly, when we would give them what is ours, but without entering into intimacy; unreservedly, when we would draw them close to us according to the kind and degree of our liking. Consequently, anybody who has grace has received a gift, but not everybody who has received a gift is held dear. Hence two sorts of grace can be distinguished, one is only a free gift, the other is also a grant of friendship.

Of course by the very force of the idea, grace is never a matter of right. There are two kinds of right, namely, what is due to what we are and what is due to what we do. The first is involved in the demands of our nature; thus it is due that man should have reason and hands and feet; the second is what we deserve by our acts, for example, the reward for labor. All the gifts freely given to men by God surpass the claims of nature and are not acquired by merit--though supernatural rewards are not without the name and style of grace, for grace is the principle of merit, "the gift of God is eternal life," and they are given more abundantly than we deserve. (23)

Now some of these gifts, while exceeding the powers of human nature and granted without our deserving, do not of themselves make us pleasing to God; for example, the gift of prophecy, the working of miracles, special gifts of knowledge and teaching, and so forth. They do not join us to God, though they reflect some divine likeness to God, and have some share in divine goodness, as do all things. But there are also other gifts, freely given, which render us dear to God and united to Him.

Union with God can be by affection or by substance. The first is through charity. St. Paul says that without charity all the other gifts profit nothing. (24) Such grace is common to all the saints. The second union is more than an identification by love and divine indwelling, but is the real unity of one single person or hypostasis. Jesus Christ alone has this unity; he is both God and man. This is the singular grace of being joined to God as one single person; a gift freely given, exceeding natural power, rewarding no merits, and making Christ most dear to God: "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." (25)

Between these graces lies a difference. The first is an habitual state of soul infused by God; the soul cleaves to God by an act of love, a perfect act coming from a habit. But the substantial existence of two natures conjoined in one person is not a habit. The nearer a created reality comes to God the nearer it shares in his goodness and the more lavish the gifts which fill it: the closer the flame, the greater the warmth and light. Nothing nearer to God than a human nature hypostatically united to Him could exist or be thought of.

As a result Christ's soul is more full of grace than any other soul. This habitual grace, however, did not lead up to the hypostatic union, but flowed from it. This is suggested by the Evangelist's turn of speech: "We beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." (26) The man Christ is the only begotten of the Father. Because he is the Word made flesh, was he made full of grace and truth.

The plenitude of nobility is more conspicuous when it gives to others; the brightness of light is judged by the area it illuminates. From Christ's fullness grace is outpoured on us. The Son of God was made man that men might be made gods and become the children of God: "When the fullness of time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons." (27)

Because of this overflow of grace and truth Christ is called the Head of the Church. Motion and sensation spread from the head to other members within the same organism: "God has put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him that fills all in all." (28) He can be called the head, not only of man, but also of angels. because of his dignity and efficacy, not because he is himself of angelic nature: "God raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come." (29)

To summarize with St. Thomas: theological tradition ascribes to Christ a threefold grace. First, the grace of hypostatic union, whereby a human nature is united in person to the Son of God. Second, sanctifying grace, the fullness of which distinguishes Christ above all others. Third, his grace as head of the Church. All three are duly set out by the Evangelist: first: "the Word was made flesh;" second, "and we beheld his glory full of grace and truth;" third, "and of his fullness we have all received." (30)

Two-fold Wisdom in Christ. Although the Evangelist speaks of Christ's growth in grace and wisdom in the same context, actually the two concepts differ widely in the Savior. He possessed grace only as man, since anything like favor or a gift received by God is impossible--God cannot be enriched.

But His wisdom is otherwise. Since in Him there are two natures, the divine and the human, whatever is credited to either must be doubled if it can be doubled. Wisdom is duplicable, analogously, in the Creator and in His intelligent creatures. Consequently we profess two wisdoms in Christ, the uncreated wisdom of God and the created wisdom of man. As the Word of God, he is the conceived and begotten wisdom of the Father: Christ and the power of God, and the wisdom of God. (31) As a man, two kinds of knowledge can be distinguished, one is godlike, the other springs from human effort.

He beheld God's essence and all things in God: that we are bound to say. For the master principle of a movement should be high above the process of movement. The vision of God, in which our eternal salvation is achieved, was rightly anticipated in the author of our salvation. We are the subjects of the process; he is the origin. From the beginning of his life he saw God; unlike the blessed, he did not arrive at the vision of God.

No one was so near to God. Rightly then was his beatific knowledge greater than any other persons's. For there are degrees of vision; God, the cause of all things, is beheld more clearly by some than by others. A cause is seen the more fully the more effects we perceive in it, for the power of a cause is known only by its effects, which, as it were, measure its range. Some gaze on more effects and see their divine meaning better than do others who also see God: theologians work with this clue when they arrange the hierarchies of angels, where the higher ranks instruct the lower. Christ's human soul is set above all other created intelligent substances. With perfect insight he beheld all God's works, past, present, and future. He enlightens the highest angels. In him "are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (32) All things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do." (33)

Not that his soul attained to comprehension of the Divinity. For comprehending means knowing an object as much as it can be known. God's infinite being is infinite truth, and no created mind, even though knowing the infinite, can know it infinitely, or by seeing God can comprehend him. Christ's soul is created, as all about his human nature was created, otherwise no other nature would exist in Christ apart from the divine nature which alone is uncreated.

He is the person of the Word, uncreated and single in two natures; it is for this reason that we do not say that Christ was a creature simply speaking, for his proper name indicates his personality. But we can speak of his body or soul as created. His uncreated wisdom, not his human mind, comprehends God: "No man knows the Son but the Father; neither knows any man the Father, save the Son." (34) His soul, therefore, does not know all God's possible actions, nor all his reasons for acting. All the same, even as man, he is set by God as governor over all creation. Fittingly then he sees in God everything that God does, and in this sense can be called omniscient.

Besides this beatific knowledge in which things are known in the vision of God, there is another mode of knowledge. This starts from creatures themselves. Angels know things in the Word by their "morning" knowledge; they know things as natural objects in themselves by their "evening" knowledge. Now this second mode of knowing differs in men and in angels, for men acquire knowledge from their senses, discerning meanings in phenomena through the process of abstraction, whereas angels have an infused knowledge, and carry from their creation the impression of the meaning and likeness of things. Then to both men and angels is given supernatural communication with divine mysteries, and to foster this knowledge angels are enlightened by angels, and men are instructed by prophetic revelation. Since no created nobility should be denied to Christ's soul, which of all souls is the most excellent, it is fitting that, in addition to the beatific vision, three other types of knowledge should be possessed.

The first is the empirical knowledge which other men, also enjoy, for it is proper to human nature that truth should be discovered through the senses. The second is divinely infused, and informs the mind about all truths which human knowledge reaches or can reach, for it is right that the human nature assumed by the Word of God, which restores human nature, should itself lack no human perfection. The third concerns the mystery of grace. Since Christ was not only the restorer of human nature but also the propagator of grace, he also most fully knew those truths exceeding reason which can be perceived by the Gift of Wisdom and the spirit of prophecy.

To sum up: Christ's soul was raised to the highest level of knowledge possible to any created mind, first, as regards seeing God's essence and all things in God, secondly, by knowing the mysteries of grace, and thirdly, all objects of human knowledge. Here no advance was possible. Obviously in course of time Christ's bodily senses grew more experienced about their environment, and therefore his empirical knowledge could increase. "The boy grew in wisdom and stature." (35) The text can be differently interpreted, to mean, not that he grew wiser, but that his wisdom grew more manifest and instructive to others. It was a providential dispensation to show that he was like other men, for had he displayed adult wisdom in boyhood, the mystery of the Incarnation might well have appeared a piece of play-acting. (36)

Human Weakness

On His own testimony, Christ revealed both sides of His existence, the humble and human together with the sublime and divine. On one side: "My Father is greater than I," and "My soul is sorrowful even unto death." (37) But on the other side, "I and the Father are one," and "All things that the Father has are mine." (38)

His actions also manifest His two natures: the human in that He feared, grieved, hungered, and died; the divine, in that by His own power He cured the sick, raised the dead to life, commanded the elements, cast out devils, forgave sins, rose again when He willed, and ascended into heaven.

Why did the Son of God assume the infirmities of human nature when absolutely speaking He could have redeemed us without any suffering? One reason was that He wished to build up our belief in the Incarnation. Always the needs of faith come first. For since we experience human nature by undergoing trials, had He not gathered them in, He might have seemed, not a real man of flesh and blood, but a ghostly semblance, as the Manichaeans and Docetists held. St. Paul is emphatic: "He emptied Himself, taking upon Himself the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and being found in the fashion of a man." (39) It was in this way that the apostle Thomas, symbolic of all of us, was helped to believe the moment he saw the wounds of the risen Savior.

More profoundly, however, Christ underwent the limitations of human nature as a means of meriting our salvation. Behind His experience of our weakness stands the idea of vicarious expiation. Injustice can be undone by justice, evil by goodness, whether of the man who did wrong or, of a friend who pays in his stead. As Thomas puts it: "Fairness demands that a man who owes a debt because of his wrongdoing should be set free on paying the penalty. What our friends do and endure on our behalf are in a sense our own deeds and sufferings, for friendship is a mutual power uniting two persons and making them somehow one. For this reason a man may be justly discharged because his friend has made restitution." (40)

Our debt of reparation began with the fall of Adam and Eve. With their sin, perdition fell on all their progeny. No single human being could have justly repaired the injury thus done the divine majesty, especially when we add to Adam's sin the cumulative malice of mankind from the dawn of history to the end of time. No one man could offer in strict compensation for the wrong in which everybody shares. Nor would it have been sufficient for an angel or some superior creature, moved by love of the human race, to try to make amends. Angels, too, are only creatures and subject to the same finite capacity of expiation as we.

God alone is of such infinite dignity that atonement can be complete in the flesh he assumes. His human nature, therefore, existed in such a condition that expiation could be made for the sins of everybody. But not all penalties which men incur are of the kind that renders satisfaction. Sin has two phases, the turning to transient advantage, and the consequent turning away from God. Punishment corresponds to both, for, first, a man is hurt by the shortcomings of the things he has chosen to give him pleasure, and, secondly, he has lost grace and the other gifts of God's friendship. How right it is that he should be reclaimed through his very vexation and sadness over the fleeting pleasures to which he has committed himself. As for the penalties which separate him from God, these tell against recovery, for what satisfaction can be offered when the heart is graceless, the mind ignorant, the desires deranged? All these are the penal effect of sin. It is from the other phase of sin that satisfaction can spring, namely, from the sinner's own experience of inward grief and outward loss.

That Christ should assume those consequences of sin which keep men away from God cannot be entertained. How could they have enabled him to make restitution? Indeed he had to be full of grace and wisdom. But the other failings in which man has landed himself, death and distress of mind and body, these Christ chose to share, that by laying down his life for men He might redeem them.

However, these common sufferings fall differently on him and on us. We incur them willy-nilly, for we are born of tainted stock. But Christ, who was born immaculate, chose to accept them. Our weaknesses are inherited, his are adopted. He could have embraced human nature without them, as he did without stigma of blame. It stands to reason that he who is free from wrong should be free also from punishment. Hence He was clearly under no necessity, either congenital or legal, of bearing our weaknesses. Instead, He freely shouldered them.

Our bodily disabilities are punishments for sin. We were exempt from them before our lapse. Christ put them on, and accordingly is said to have worn the likeness of sin: "God sent His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned in the flesh." (41) Here St. Paul calls suffering sin. Also, "in that He dies unto sin once." (42) And, what is more of a marvel, Christ was "made a curse for us;" (43) by taking on Himself the weight of pain He broke up the burden of our crimes and their penalties.

Furthermore, our bodily afflictions are of two kinds: some are common to all, for instance, hunger, thirst, fatigue, pain, death; others are special to individuals, for instance, blindness, leprosy, fever, bodily injury. There is this difference between them: the former are inherited by our descent from our first parents, the latter are induced by individual factors. No reason existed in Christ why He should have been subject to any afflictions, either from His soul, united to the Word of God and full of grace and wisdom, or from his body, well knit, healthy, and formed from the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.

By His own dispensation He laid Himself open to the weakness deriving from our common origin, and He did this in order to earn our salvation. But since He came to restore human nature, He took those only which are everybody's heritage, not those peculiar to individual cases. Damascene says that He assumed our ineradicable defects. (44) Had He submitted Hiself to ignorance and gracelessness, or even to leprosy or blindness, He might have been dishonored or lowered in men's estimation, for which His sharing in our common lot gives no occasion. (45)

Summarily, then, we may say that Christ assumed our human weakness not from compulsion but from choice, and not for His benefit but for ours. This benefit runs the spectrum of divine generosity: from removal of sin to the conferral of grace, and from the least to the highest virtue that His example was intended to evoke.

To make sure there is no doubt what this meant, Aquinas stressed the fact that Christ was not only able to suffer but actually did so. Without actual suffering, there would have been no satisfaction or merit. "Nobody is called good or bad from how they can act, but from how they do act. Praise and blame are awarded for performance, not for promise. For this reason Christ assumed not only our vulnerability in order to save us, but also, to make good our sins, chose actual sufferings." (46)

For us he underwent the suffering owing to us from original sin, sufferings which culminate in death: "the wages of sin is death." (47) He willed to suffer death for our sins so that he might pay the price and free us from the charge of death, although he himself was without crime. He also willed that his own death should not only make redress for us, but also be a sacrament of salvation, in that by the likeness of his death we may die to carnal life and be carried over into spiritual life: "Christ has suffered once for our sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened in the spirit." (48)
Death also he willed in order that by dying he might leave us a perfect example of virtue. Of charity, "for greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." (49) Of fortitude, which cannot be stronger that when holding fast to righteousness despite mortal fear: "consider him that endured such contradiction against himself, lest you be wearied and faint in your minds." (50) Of patience, for he did not allow himself to be overwhelmed by sadness, but calmly sustained death, as was spoken of him in prophecy, "he was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth." (51) Of obedience, for the greater the task the more famous the obedience: "he became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross." (52)

Some have charged Thomas with neglecting the role of Christ as exemplary cause of our salvation, that he practically ignored the need we have of following a pattern of virtue in doing the will of God. It is true that Aquinas lays more stress on the function of Christ's meritorious suffering, but he by no means overlooks what has since become (mainly through Ignatius Loyola) the mainstay, of Christian spirituality, namely, the following of Christ who is the perfect model for us to imitate.

He quotes Augustine to the effect that the Cross was not only a victim's scaffold but also a teacher's rostrum. There we can learn every virtue: obedience to God, even as Christ humbled Himself and was obedient unto death; love and care for our parents, charity towards our neighbor, and prayer for our enemies; there we see patience in adversity and how to persevere to the end.

In the final analysis, only human beings can suffer. Animals have physical pain but, without spiritual faculties their pain never becomes reflective and much less a matter of volitional choice.

If the causes of pain in Christ were manifold, the rational experience of pain and its deliberate acceptance came only from one source, the human will He possessed as a true Son of Man. It is worth reviewing with Aquinas the basis of Catholic teaching that Christ had two wills, a divine and human, and the various aberrations that called into question Christ's finite volition and power of created liberty. In a few paragraphs he brings together the whole of past history on the subject and makes his own synthesis.

"Father, if you be willing, remove this chalice from me: nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done." (53) Those were the words of Christ's prayer in the Garden. Ambrose reminds us that mine is the will he calls his own, mine the sorrow he took; and he explains, that his own will refers to the man, his Father's to the Godhead; the human will is temporal, the divine will is eternal.
Some have taught there was only one will in Christ, but not all were persuaded by the same arguments. Apollinaris maintained there was no rational soul in Christ, but that the Word took the place of the soul and even of mind: and since, as Aristotle says, the will is in the reason, (55) it would follow that in Christ there was no human will, but one single will. Eutyches likewise, and all who held there was but one composite nature in Christ, were compelled to allow but one will. Nestorius, too, came to the same conclusion, though from the different premises that the union was one of will and affection. Later, Macarius, Patriarch of Antioch, Cyrus of Alexandria, and Sergius of Constantinople, and some of their followers, taught that there was but one will in Christ, although they held there were two natures united in one hypostasis: this was because they believed that Christ's human nature was not active with its own motion, but only because it was moved by the Godhead, as appears from the synodical letter of Pope Agatho. (56)
Hence the decision of the Sixth General Council, held at Constantinople, that we must confess, in accordance with what the prophets of old and Christ himself taught us, handed down in the creeds, two natural wills in Christ and two natural operations. (57)
The definition was opportune. For it is certain that the Son of God assumed a perfect human nature. Now the will is like the mind, a natural power which is part of the perfection of human nature; hence we must say that the Son of God assumed a human will together with human nature. By the assumption of a human nature the Son of God suffered no diminution of his divine nature, to which a will also is attributed. Therefore, we are bound to profess two wills in Christ, one human, the other divine.

While St. Thomas did not coin the expression, theandric, he made it his own and used it to help explain how the two natures in Christ co-existed and particularly how His two wills cooperated.

The term "God-human" activity (energia Theandrike) goes back to Dionysius the Areopagite (about 500 A.D.). For a time, it was misused by those who misunderstood Christ's unity in duality. But long before Aquinas, theandric was the canonized form of describing the relationship of Christ's twofold nature in operation.

At the highest level Christ acted as the Logos of the Father, where His operations of mind and will proceeded from the Godhead, in common with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Technically these actions are purely divine and not theandric. They are produced by the Second Person (principium quod = operating source) through the divine nature as operating means (principium quo). Such would be the creation, conservation and providence of the world.

As we approach Christ the God-man, His actions are also "God-manly," hence theandric (Theos = God, andros = man). Yet not all in the same way. Some things which Christ did and does are done by His divinity using the human nature only as instrument, and these are theandric in the strict sense. Another name would be "God-through-man" produced activities. They cover all the operations that God performed (performs) in the person of Christ in such a way that the divine nature produced the effect through the human nature as subordinate instrument agent. The miracles of Christ, His teaching the mysteries of faith, His instituting the Church and sacraments--in a word everything which God alone could know or do, when done by Christ, was done with the cooperation of His humanity as channel or vehicle of the Deity. Theologians prefer to call these "mixed " actions, to distinguish them from those which only God or only man can perform.

However, another series of actions performed by the Savior are also theandric, where the accent is on the human agent working in personal union with the divinity. These may be described as "man-with-God" produced activities, which by themselves are done by other people but in Christ (who is Man-God) become the actions of God. Seeing and hearing, speaking and walking, suffering and dying are human acts. In Christ, however, their operating source (principium quod) is the Second Person while their operating instrument (principium quo is the human nature, yet differently than in the preceding where the stress is on the God-man. Here the accent is on the Man-God.

Aquinas has the great merit of clarity, due in large measure to adopting the philosophy of Aristotle. At this point, he introduces a subtle factor that should bring the sufferings of Christ into closer, and more imitable, focus. We may speak of three kinds of appetitive drive in man: one in the lower faculties of sense and bodily emotions, another on the higher level of non-deliberate volition-- as a spontaneous reaction to desire the pleasant and dread the painful, and on the highest level the power of deliberate choice--which alone determines merit and character.

As before, the biblical evidence is the struggle that Jesus endured in the Garden. That it was a struggle shows He was typically human, that He overcame the urge to resist shows He was consciously free; but both factors prove that He was a man, with a will distinct from that of God--because it shrank from suffering (which we all naturally do) and yet freely accepted the suffering (which we often fail to do).

"Not what I will, but what you will," these words of our Lord show that he willed an object his Father did not will: this will, according to Augustine, could be only from his human heart, since he transfigured our weakness, not into his divine love, but into his human love.
We have already noted in Christ's human nature a twofold power of will, the sensitive appetite or derivative will, and the rational appetite, which acts both non-deliberately and deliberately. When he embarked on his passion he allowed his flesh to do and suffer whatever was natural to it. In like manner he allowed the powers of his soul to follow their bent. Clearly it is the nature of the sensitive appetite to shrink from bodily pain and hurt. So also the non-deliberate will shrinks from what is hostile to nature and what by itself is evil, such as death and the like. For example, the emotions and instinctive will of an ordinary man shrink from cauterization, which may yet be chosen all the same for the sake of health. It was God's will that Christ should undergo pain, suffering, and death, not for themselves, but for the sake of human salvation. Hence his sensitive appetite and non-deliberate will could want what God did not will though deliberately he will always what God willed: "nevertheless, not what I will, but as you will." By his reasoned will he willed to fulfill God's will; by another will he showed that he wished otherwise. (58)

We should be quick to add that though Christ's sensitive and instinctive will wished what God did not will, He was not torn by contradictions. He did not reject the reason which moved His divine will and deliberative human will to choose the Passion. Always His unconditional will was for human salvation. It was neither frustrated nor delayed by His emotions and natural instincts.

Moreover, His mental agony was not such that His will suffered a conflict of reasons, as happens with us when we are caught with a divided mind. This comes from our weakness and inability to know what is simply best in a given situation. Christ had no doubt that the best course for Him was to suffer if we were to be saved.

The Atonement

If the Incarnation was determined by God because of man's sin, so the sufferings and death of Christ were chosen because they are so effective in redeeming from sin. Absolutely speaking, God might have saved man without the Passion, but then we should have been deprived of innumerable benefits.

Seeing God suffering in His humanity proves as nothing else how much He loves us, since the willingness to endure pain is a perfect index to measure the depth of one's love. In the same way, Christ's suffering reflected a host of virtues-‑obedience, humility, constancy and justice--all lucid examples for us to follow. But most important is the ontological relation between Christ's death and our redemption. It was through His pains that we were redeemed.

Christ's Passion is the cause of our salvation in various ways-- efficient cause when to His Godhead (as God He is the creator of divine grace); the meritorious cause when related to His human will (He freely chose to suffer death in His body); the satisfying cause in that it liberates us from the debt of punishment (Christ vicariously suffered that we might be relieved of pain that was due to our sins); the redemptive cause in that it frees us from the bondage of sin (guilt is remitted and the estrangement caused by sin is removed); and the sacrificial cause in that it reconciles us with God (from enemies of God, we become once more His friends). (59)

Christ's role in our redemption was that of mediator between God and His people. As the name implies, the office of mediator is to join opposing parties, where both extremes meet in a middle. To achieve our union with God is Christ's work: "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself." (60) He alone is the perfect mediator between God and men, since the human race was brought into agreement with God through His death: "There is one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ," says St. Paul, and then adds, "who gave Himself as a ransom for all." (61)

A closer scrutiny of Christ's function as mediator reveals that Aquinas developed Soteriology at this point quite beyond those who preceded him, even St. Anselm.

As originally conceived, satisfaction meant the compensation for a debt to be paid or an offense to be expiated. St. Anselm (1033-1109 A.D.) first gave the term theological currency in reference to the Atonement, by interpreting Christ's death as a sufficient vicarious satisfaction for the sins of the world. Prior to Anselm, the mainstream of patristic tradition stressed the negative side of the Redemption, namely, the ransoming from the slavery of sin and the devil. Anselm shifted the emphasis to the contemplation of the guilt of sin. Sin is an insult offered to God, and therefore infinite because an offense to the Infinite. It demands an infinite expiation which only a divine Person can achieve.

Aquinas went along with Anselm in accepting his satisfactional view of the Redemption. But he was unwilling to say that the method of satisfaction was imperative. No matter how "suitable" (conveniens) the method was, it had no intrinsic necessity, because God might have redeemed us without requiring full satisfaction.

In the circumstances, though, Christ's satisfaction was more than adequate. Whereas the offense against God was perpetrated by a finite being, it was only morally infinite (directed against God). Satisfaction on Christ's part, however, was objectively and morally infinite; it was done by a Divine Person suffering in the humanity He assumed.

In Thomistic theology, three elements concur to make satisfaction effective: love, justice and pain. Justice was required on the premise that God was offended and therefore God must repair; pain was required because where sin had been committed through seeking pleasure, its expiation must involve the infliction of pain. But love is what most constitutes satisfaction and, with Christ, was such that its merits far exceed the malice (or opposite of divine love) which called for reparation.

Strict satisfaction is rendered when the person offended is given what he loves as much as, or more than, he hated the offense. By suffering from charity, Christ offered to God more than what was demanded as recompense for the sin of the entire human race. First, from the greatness of his charity. Secondly, from the preciousness of the life he laid down, the life of a man who was God. Thirdly, by the extent and depth of what was accepted. Christ's Passion was more than sufficient, it was superabundant. "He is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world." (62)
Head and members make up, as it were, one mystical body. Therefore the amends made by Christ are made also by all his members. For when two persons live in friendship, one may make satisfaction for the other. It is true that one cannot act as a substitute for the other's contrition and confession. Satisfaction, however, is an external deed, for which we adopt auxiliaries, among which are reckoned our friends. (63)

The final note, that Christ continues making satisfaction for sin through His members in the Mystical Body is among the most satisfying concepts of the Catholic faith, it makes suffering for the followers of Christ meaningful in the deepest sense of that term. Even as He underwent trial and persecution, terminating in death, to atone for men's sins, so the believing Christian strives to put on Christ and cooperate with the Redeemer in His work of salvation.

Objectively no one can add to the merits of Christ, which of themselves are infinite in value and capable of redeeming a thousand worlds. But subjectively the fruits of the Redemption must be applied, i.e., they must be willingly accepted by those for whom Christ died. Their willingness to respond to His saving love is finite, reluctant, and calls for prior help from God in the form of grace. Each person cooperates in his own redemption by a ready obedience to God, by withdrawing from sin and doing penance for his misdeeds. He can help others do the same by joining with Christ's redemptive act through the loving acceptance of pain in order to satisfy the divine justice offended by resistance to the Creator's will.

In the centuries after Aquinas, the doctrine of satisfaction became a stumbling block for many who felt that the Scholastic analysis was too abstract, that Christ's true humanity was obscured in the process of safeguarding His sinlessness, and that Christ literally substituted Himself for mankind as Redeemer to become a sinner in our place. His redemptive sufferings were those of a man condemned to separation from God.

It was on the mystery of the Redemption that the Reformers mainly parted company with Catholic tradition, as brought to a peak in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. The Atonement, he believed, was intended for all mankind; for the Reformers a selective Redemption was conceived. Aquinas thought of the Atonement as directed first to the restoration of man to supernatural friendship with the Creator whom he lost; with the Reformers, it was mostly to hide man's innate sinfulness from the justice of an offended God.

Chapter VIII - References

  1. E.O. James, Comparative Religion, London, 1961, p. 15.

  2. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Collossians, II, 3.

Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon gave to the
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