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Was Aquinas a Calvinist? Well … sort of. I realize the question is anachronistic, but Aquinas retained the doctrines of grace propogated by Augustine that the Calvinist tradition borrowed from during the Protestant Reformation (e.g. the doctrine of unconditional election, predestination, infallible grace, etc.). There are many qualifications to this claim I do not have time to write about here (perhaps in a future post).
Those who hold a Calvinistic notion of predestination have also been known to hold that nevertheless God desires that all people be saved because Scripture affirms it. For this reason 1 Timothy 2:1-4 also appears to many to be a major stumbling block (read: contradiction) to the entire soteriological system known as Calvinism. How can we say that God desires all people to be saved when we know that ultimately God decides who is and who is not saved, yet does not choose everyone. Does God not always do whatever he desires? Does he not desire that all be saved?
I will now call upon Thomas Aquinas, however, to explain to us why this verse, and God’s desire that all be saved, does not contradict the doctrine of predestination. I will first quote the verse itself, then Aquinas:
First of all I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority. … This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. — 1 Tim 2:3-4 (NASB)
Aquinas thinks that the word “all” in this passage likely means “applying to every class of individuals, not to every individual of each class; in which case they mean that God wills some men of every class and condition to be saved, males and females, Jews and Gentiles, great and small, but not all of every condition” (ST I.19.6.ad.1).
He also offers Damascene’s notion of “the antecedent will of God” which is to be contrasted to “the consequent will” of God. Here the point is this: God’s will considered absolutely entails that all men should be saved, but by adding “some additional circumstances” or “by a consequent consideration” the verdict of God’s will may turn out to be reversed (ST I.19.6.ad.1).
For example, considered absolutely it is good that all men should live and be free, unless or until that one person is considered an extreme danger and menace of society by killing and raping others, in which case a good judge may will him to hang or be thrown in jail rather than live and be free.
Thus it may be said that a just judge will simply the hanging of a murderer, but in a qualified manner he would will him to live … Such a qualified will may be called a willingness rather than an absolute will. Thus it is clear that whatever God simply wills takes place; although what He wills antecedently may not take place. (ST I.19.6.ad.1).
While Damascene refers to “antecedent will” and “consequent will,” Aquinas prefers to speak of the former as “willingness” and the latter as “simple will.” Willingness is what God wills with all things being “equal” (as it were), apart from circumstantial suppositions. Simple will is God’s final will once all circumstantial considerations are in view. Not that Aquinas would imagine that there is ever a time when God’s brain fails to consider something with all its attendant circumstances (God is outside of time and doesn’t have a brain). Rather, this language is metaphorical and taken from human speech. God wills that all be saved in the same way that a judge wills all men to be free and live, although given good reason, this will may be reversed. But this does not destroy the “good will” of the judge; therefore, neither should it cause us to call into question God’s good will to those who are damned.
It is indeed striking to me that I had only been exposed to this kind of reasoning through the Calvinist tradition, yet here Aquinas is found using the same reasoning. But my amazement does not stop there, since Aquinas gets his distinctions from St. John of Damascus (Damascene), a Syrian Christian monk and priest († 676-749) venerated as a Saint in both the Catholic Church and in Eastern Orthodoxy.
Although one of the chief virtues of Aquinas’s Summa is its careful reason and rational consistency, there do seem to be areas of tension in spite of its exceptional logical rigor. What I mean is this: Thomas has positional tensions, even if they are not necessarily logical tensions. If one wished to be critical she might consider his explicit reasons for his positional posture as itself illogical inasmuch as he might appear to be somewhat arbitrary (although as I will argue in my conclusion, he is not being arbitrary).
I hope to show that Aquinas’s humility to the Tradition did not entail his absolute rejection of propositions contrary to the Tradition. Instead, Aquinas sought to simultaneously defend the Tradition while aiming to parse in what senses contrary claims might also be true. For a brief post, one example will have to suffice from his treatise on Charity (which is love for God as last end).
Proper Objects of Charity: A Positional Tension
Thomas excludes irrational creatures from the list of objects of charity on the basis that they can have no share in the rational life of man, since charity consists in a certain fellowship of life in the enjoyment of God; a life that irrational creatures have no share in. However, Aquinas allows the body to be considered an object of charity even though he does not consider the body as having the capacity of reason.
Although our bodies are unable to enjoy God by knowing and loving Him, yet by the works which we do through the body, we are able to attain to the perfect knowledge of God. Hence from the enjoyment in the soul there overflows a certain happiness into the body, viz., the flush of health and incorruption, as Augustine states (Ep. ad Dioscor. cxvii). Hence, since the body has, in a fashion, a share of happiness, it can be loved with the love of charity. (ST II-II.25.6.ad.2)
Here Aquinas concedes that the body does not know or love, but the person can come to know and love through the deeds of the body. The instrumentality of the body in knowing and loving, then, is his basis for allowing the body to be considered an object of charity. Hence the body, being “used” by the person for serving God, can in this way become an object of charity even though Aquinas does not consider the body to have the capacity of reason, which belongs to the soul.
This is not a logical contradiction, however, since in the same way Aquinas allows for irrational creatures to be objects of charity.
All friendship is based on some fellowship in life; since nothing is so proper to friendship as to live together, as the Philosopher proves (Ethic. viii. 5). Now irrational creatures can have no fellowship in human life which is regulated by reason. Hence friendship with irrational creatures is impossible, except metaphorically speaking. … Nevertheless we can love irrational creatures out of charity, if we regard them as the good things that we desire for others, in so far, to wit, as we wish for their preservation, to God’s honor and man’s use; thus too does God love them out of charity. (ST II-II.25.4)
Thus, while considered from a logical perspective, Aquinas is being quite consistent. For he affirms that in the most proper sense of the term charity, irrational creatures and the human body cannot be charity’s object since they do not posses the life of reason. On the other hand, inasmuch as they are instrumental to charity, being used in service to God, they can be considered the objects of charity.
However, when we consider Aquinas from a positional perspective, he has postured himself contrary to the former position (that irrational creatures can be the objects of charity) and in defense of the latter position (that the human body can be the object of charity). To say it yet another way, although the sense in which irrational creatures and the human body can be considered objects of charity—by reason of their being instrumental to knowing and loving—is the same in both cases, Aquinas postures himself contrary to the former and in defense of the latter in his dialogical structure.
Aquinas’s Posture as Humble, Not Arbitrary
Is this arbitrary? It may seem arbitrary to us, but most likely Aquinas postures himself throughout the Summa in such a way as to be defending what he considers to be the sacred Tradition. Thus, he is trying to give priority to the senses of propositions that he thinks have been intended by the Tradition, while still conceding the same logic when found in other propositions set against the Tradition.
This seems the most satisfying solution to Aquinas’s otherwise arbitrary posture—his posture is one of humility to the Tradition. Irrational creatures can be the objects of charity in some sense, but this isn’t as important to Aquinas as the fact that the deep fellowship we have with God, as creatures made in his image, is not something irrational creatures can have. For the same reason the human body can be considered as not the proper object of charity by reason of its lack of the faculty of reason. But this is not as important to Aquinas as polemicizing against the Manichean pretensions about the body having been created by an evil principle, thus in article five he postures himself as for the human body as a proper object of charity.
Aquinas did not simply reject the truth claim of the Manichean absolutely, however, for he concedes that if we consider the body under the aspect of sin and corruption, it must be loathed as an evil.
Our bodies can be considered in two ways, first, in respect of their nature, secondly, in respect of the corruption of sin and its punishment. Now the nature of our body was created not by an evil principle, as the Manicheans pretend, but by God. Hence we can use it for God’s service, according to Rom. vi. 13: Present … your members as instruments of justice unto God. Consequently, out of the love of charity with which we love God, we ought to love our bodies also; but we ought not to love the evil effects of sin and the corruption of punishment; we ought rather, by the desire of charity, to long for the removal of such things. (ST II-II.25.5)
Aquinas is here trying to both defend the Tradition and also affirm what he sees as the truth in Manicheanism, which often quoted from biblical passages, as in objection 1:
It would seem that a man ought not to love his body out of charity. For we do not love one with whom we are unwilling to associate. But those who have charity shun the society of the body, according to Rom vii. 24: Who shall deliver me from teh body of this death? and Philip. i. 23: Having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ. Therefore our bodies are not to be loved out of charity. (ST II-II.25.5.obj.1)
In his response to this objection, Aquinas again draws from his synthetically designed distinction.
The Apostle did not shrink from the society of his body, as regards the nature of the body, in fact in this respect he was loth to be deprived thereof, according to 2 Cor v. 4: We would not be unclothed, but clothed over. He did, however, wish to escape from the taint of concupiscence, which remains in the body, and from the corruption of the body which weighs down the soul, so as to hinder it from seeing God. Hence he says expressly: From the body of this death. (ST II-II.25.5.ad.1)
Are we to loathe the body or to love it? Aquinas says, in a word: both (but in different senses). This way of approaching theology might have its misfortunes (such as technical language and “death by a thousand distinctions”), but it has even more to recommend it. By such a synthetic approach, Aquinas has done what so desperately needs imitating in the church today. He fails to allow heat to block out light. Instead of letting his zeal polarize truth claims by defending the Christian Tradition as “true” and attacking every other proposition that seems to contradict it as absolutely “false” or “unbiblical,” he was instead careful to affirm all truth he could see in the opposing positions set against his Tradition.
In doing so, he let as much light in as possible while maintaining the humility necessary in defending a Tradition. If Thomas were to have been so zealous for the Tradition that he failed to look for the truth in other Traditions (which sometimes involved acknowledgment and affirmation of propositions that seemed to be contrary to it), his theological vision would have been myopic and his Summa would not have the synthetic brilliancy that gives it a great deal of its luster and theological durability.
Protestants especially could learn something from Aquinas’s method of synthesis. It is not by accident that the Catholic Tradition (with Thomas as their leading theologian) has been considered the “both/and” tradition, and Protestants have been considered more of an “either/or” tradition (with Luther and Calvin as the leading theologians). I would consider Thomas’s method especially resourceful for ecumenical dialogue, which requires a similar kind of humility that we find Aquinas striving for in his Summa.
Catholics often speak of the “infusion” of grace. Protestants are often allergic to this language, perceiving it to be a threat to the legal status of our justification. But in fact, Protestants also believe in the “infusion” of grace, and some Protestant theologians (read: the brightest ones) are not shy to speak this way (e.g. Jonathan Edwards).
What do Catholics mean when they speak of “infusion”? That’s like asking what Protestants mean when they speak of God’s “giving” grace; it all depends on which Protestant you talk to; there are likely ten different answers for every ten theologians answering. However, a certain continuity can easily be found in the Catholic ways of speaking about “infusion” just as a certain continuity can be found in Protestants who talk about “giving [of grace].”
No theologian influences Catholic ways of theological language more, probably, than St. Thomas Aquinas. What does Aquinas mean when he speaks of “infusion”? For example, Aquinas believes that charity (love for God) is a divine gift of the Holy Spirit that is “infused” into us. What does he mean? Here is a few small excerpts from his writings I believe partly illuminate an answer to this question.
[Charity] is not founded principally on the virtue of a man, but on the goodness of God. ST II-II.23.3.ad.1
Charity is superior to the soul, in as much as it is a participation of the Holy Ghost. ST II-II.23.3.ad.3
The infusion of charity denotes a change to the state of having charity from the state of not having it, so that something must needs come which was not there before. On the other hand, the increase of charity denotes a change to more having from less having, so that there is need, not for anything to be there that was not there before, but for something to be more there that previously was less there. This is what God does when He increases charity, that is He makes it to have a greater hold on the soul, and the likeness of the Holy Ghost to be more perfectly participated by the soul. ST II-II.24.5.ad.3
Here Aquinas distinguishes between infusion and increase. God infuses charity instantaneously (from not having to having is like from not-pregnant to pregnant), and this is different from our increase in charity. Our increase in charity does have a similarity to infusion, however, for according to the Doctor, God is the one who works both in us.
In our last post we looked at Pinckaers criticisms of Ockham’s Other Razor (i.e. William of Ockham’s notion of free will), which he calls “freedom of indifference.” This post is Pinckaers description of what he thinks is a more accurate notion of human freedom: freedom for excellence.
Pinckaers, Servais, O.P. The Sources of Christian Ethics, Translated by Sr. Mary Thomas Noble, O.P. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995.
Freedom for Excellence
Freedom for excellence is first illustrated as akin to a child learning to play the piano. She must have some predispositions to learn—an attraction to music and an “ear for it” (354). In this case, her predispositions enable her to develop the freedom to play beautifully after much discipline (355). Progress is developed by regular exercise, or, a habitus (355). The ability, in the end, to play with ease, compose new music, and delight oneself and all who hear, is the stage of maturity corresponding to freedom (355). Similarly, the virtue of courage is “acquired far more through small victories of self-conquest, repeated day after day, than through dreams of great actions” (356). The author briefly mentions what he calls “the internal harmony of the virtues”—“true courage is worth little without wise discernment as to what should be done, and without self-control, justice, and generosity” (357). A notion of freedom in this framework places predispositions and natural inclinations in service of freedom (rather than opposed to it, as with Ockham’s Other Razor), in fact enabling it (357).
The root of freedom is twofold: 1) a sense of the true and good and 2) a desire for knowledge and happiness (357). These are the semina virtutum (the seeds of virtue). Our natures are inclined to sense the virtues and give spontaneious praise to them, and this is the sequi naturam (follow nature) principle of the ancients and what St. Thomas calls the instinctus rationis (rational instinct). “Far from lessening our freedom, such dispositions are its foundation. We are free, not in spite of them, but because of them” (358).
The Stages of Development
Freedom for excellence “requires the slow, patient work of moral education in order to develop” (359). The author takes us through these stages as he sees them.
Childhood corresponds to what we shall call the stage of discipline, adolescence to the stage of progress, and adulthood to the stage of maturity or the perfection of freedom. (italics added, 359)
The first stage is a delicate affair in which the moral educator must be neither authoritarian nor libertarian, but somewhere in between, making sure the “child” understands that the “discipline, law, and rules are not meant to destroy his freedom … Their purpose is rather to develop his ability to perform actions of real excellence by removing dangerous excesses” that “jeopardize his interior freedom” (360). The student must experience the love of his teacher and the love of God (362). This discipline “appeals to natural dispositions, to a spontaneous sense of truth and goodness, and to the conscience” (360).
The key characteristic of the next stage, the stage of progress is “taking one’s own moral life in hand, by a predominance of initiative and personal effort, by the development of and appreciation and taste for moral quality, and the deepening of an active interiority” (363). In is in this stage that the virtues begin to form and take shape and the “adolescent” begins to find joy in the virtues themselves and develops strong dispositions for action (363).
The final stage is that of maturity (or “perfection” in the human sense of “complete,” 366). This includes mastery of excellent actions and creative fruitfulness (366). In this stage charity is “perfected” or matured such that the persons “chief concern is to be united to God and to find all their joy in him” (368). Yet this joy passes from God to others so as to make their virtue beneficial for the community (367). Pinckaers clarifies that this description in “stages” does not necessarily mean that in experience the process is perfectly “linear,” but involves a “certain dialectic” (372). Also, one should not get the idea that once “maturity” or “perfection” is reached there is no room for growth (373).
Compared with Freedom of Indifference
Compared with the “delicate” process of moral education here, the “theory of freedom of indifference robs discipline and education of the profound, intimate rootedness they require. Education becomes a battle; it can no longer be service or collaboration” (360). Pinckaers attributes the cut-off point in moral education after only the first stage to the position found in the freedom of indifference (362). Whereas freedom to do evil is essential in freedom of indifference, it is a lack of freedom in this model (376). The reduced role of Scripture is also to be blamed on Ockham’s freedom of indifference (377). Pinckaers concludes that freedom for excellence offers “a far better foundation for receiving revelation and grace, particularly through freedom’s natural openness to the true and the good” (377).
The following is the first of two posts dealing with Servais Pinckaers account of two different conceptions of human freedom: freedom for excellence vs. freedom of indifference. Pinckaers thinks that the notion of “freedom of indifference” is bogus, and that the more classical view of free will, freedom for excellence, is much better. NOTE: Ockham’s Other Razor is my label, and does not occur in Pinckaers.
Pinckaers, Servais, O.P. The Sources of Christian Ethics, Translated by Sr. Mary Thomas Noble, O.P. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995.
Freedom for Excellence vs. Freedom of Indifference
Moral theories characteristic of the patristic age and the great scholastic periods were dominated by questions of human happiness and the virtues and conceived of human freedom as freedom for excellence. Modern moral theories are predominated by notions of obligation and commandments and assume a notion of human freedom called freedom of indifference (329).
St. Thomas explained freedom as a faculty proceeding from reason and will, which unite to make the act of choice. … For him, free will was not a prime or originating faculty; it presupposed intelligence and will. It was rooted, therefore, in the inclinations to truth and goodness that constituted these faculties (331).
Ockham, on the contrary, maintained that free will preceded reason and will in such a way as to move them to their acts. ‘For I can freely choose,’ he said, ‘to know or not to know, to will or not to will.’ For him, free will was the prime faculty, anterior to intelligence and will as well as to their acts. (331).
Ockham’s Other Razor: Pinckaers’s Short Narrative of Moral Theory
Pinckaers is partial to Thomistic moral theory and assumes that freedom for excellence is much richer a concept for moral theory than notions of freedom of indifference (329). His disdain for moral theories based on the notion of freedom from indifference is not intended to be subtle in his account of its origins and contours. Pejorative language pervades his description of what he thinks the notion of freedom of indifference causes in moral theory—a “destruction” of the harmony between humanity and nature (333), a “banishing” of considerations of human nature and spiritual spontaneity (333), a “rupturing” of the human soul (335), “the upheaval of all moral ideas and their systematic organization” (335), a “shattering” of the beautiful Thomistic order (337), a “disruption” of the field of moral theory that yields bizarre and uncoordinated contours of human action (338).
The chapter’s basic narrative goes something like this: Moral theories were getting along wonderfully with a rich and orderly account of human nature and morality (based on Aristotle and the Fathers but expressed perhaps most fully in St. Thomas) when Ockham came along and tampered with the notion of human freedom in a way that ruptured the unity and coherency of moral theory and led to unnecessary disjunctions and false dichotomies. Ockham’s view of human freedom was like a germ that infected every aspect of moral theory, completely restructuring it and redefining all its parts. Moral theories have been infected with this disease ever since.
Although perhaps less known, this was Ockham’s Other Razor—the one that took the harmonized parts of the beautiful Thomistic synthesis between human nature and morality and cut them up into disjointed pieces. By Pinckaers’s judgment, Ockham’s Other Razor slit the throat of Thomas’ brilliant synthesis, bleeding the life out of dynamic moral theory.
Pinckaers’s Fuller Account of Ockham’s Other Razor
In Ockham’s view of human freedom, although many things can potentially influence the will, nothing can be allowed to determine the will outside itself—not human reason, not God’s will, or human emotions/desires/passions (331). Thus, it has to have the ability to choose to do what is contrary to reason, God’s will, and human passions. So, for example, it can choose to be happy or not be happy. This will is the ultimate self because even if one aspect of “the self” desires something with great passion, the will has to have the power to say “No!” This freedom was thought to be at the very core of human nature—the very “being” of a person (332). Pinckaers concludes that “this is doubtless the origin of the divorce between moral theory and the desire for happiness, which has been effected in our times” (333).
It is called freedom of indifference not because the human will cannot be influenced by something other than itself, but that it always must retain enough “indifference” (or autonomy) to never be determined by such outside influences, for if it is determined by anything outside itself, it is not ultimately “free.” In fact, “it even seemed that freedom could find no better way of asserting itself than to struggle against” human sensibilities, habits, passions, etc. (335). Only one passion can be considered primitive to man—his passion to self-affirmation, “to the assertion of a radical difference between itself and all else” (338).
No past action can determine any future action; all human action occurs in “isolated succession” such that personality, Pinckaers argues, becomes unintelligible (336-37). Pinckaers complains: “Human discontinuity is one of the basic tenets of Ockham’s psychology” (338). In this view of human freedom, anything that one might conceive of as being able to have a great deal of influence over the will is set against it (loyalty, reason, natural inclinations, desires, God will)—they become a threat to human freedom (340). This also effects the doctrine of God. The moral will is capricious because God is absolutely free—it cannot be derived from the nature of things (342). Since God’s will is revealed in the human conscience, moral theory can be worked out apart from an account of God (349). Reason’s imperatives, however, are irrational (they are not grounded in the nature of things or in the nature of God, 348).
A litany of accusations is leveled throughout Pinckaers’s account of Ockham’s view of human freedom that the reader must carefully consider. It is the “origin of the divorce between moral theory and the desire for happiness” (333); it demands human action occur in “isolated succession,” and thus makes what we call “personality” ultimately unintelligible (336-37); it sets God’s will over against the human will as one higher capricious will against a lower capricious will (342); it makes God’s will irrational because it is not based on the nature of things or on the nature of God himself (348); it creates all sorts of unnecessary dichotomies between freedom and law, freedom and grace, subject and object, etc. (350). There is much overlap between Pinckaers’ critique of freedom of indifference and the more extensive critique leveled by American theologian Jonathan Edwards.
The next post will explore what Pinckaers offers as an alternative to Ockham’s notion of freedom: freedom for excellence.
The following is a book review of: Levering, Matthew. Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008. 310 pp. For the audio version (which has a more elaborate conclusion) click the play button below or download it to your itunes. For a PDF version of this book review, click here.
Levering’s proposal in Participatory Biblical Exegesis poignantly addresses what R.W.L. Moberly calls “a curious situation” in Christian biblical exegesis (2). Modern Christian biblical interpretation has heavily relied on historical-critical methods that tend to preclude interpretations that invoke the most important divine and spiritual realities to which the biblical texts refer (2). Since historical-critical inquiry and discovery has proven fruitful for a fuller understanding of the linear-historical realities of the biblical texts, rather than propose something less than historical-critical methodology, Levering hopes to redeem the valuable finds of historical-critical methodology for Christian interpretation by proposing something more: a broader understanding of history as including also a participatory dimension (1).
His proposal is that history is not merely linear-historical but also metaphysically participatory (finite participation in divine being). Therefore in order to do justice to the human and historical aspects of exegesis, Levering argues that one must go beyond the linear-historical dynamics of the text to account for the realities beyond the words (the res, 11). The ultimate argument of the book, then, is about the nature of history (3).
The Advent of Historical Critical Methods
Chapters one and two seek to demonstrate the “gradual displacement” of the patristic-medieval participatory approach to scripture (14). Levering hopes to shine light on exactly why history came to be conceived as purely linear-historical and divine realities as extrinsic. This metaphysical shift takes place in “the Scotist rupture” of the fourteenth century (19). Scotus rejected the Platonic understanding of participation and the Aristotelian understanding of ultimate teleology that Christian theology had, up to this point in history, largely appropriated in Christian theology (19).
After locating the origins of the modern understanding of history in medieval nominalism, Levering hopes to show the implications such a view of history has for biblical exegesis. He does this by looking at how biblical commentary of the same text (John 3:27-36) drastically changes over time, starting with Aquinas’ exegesis that illumines the participatory elements of historical reality (25) and ending with modern modes of biblical exegesis that marginalize all such approaches (53). For Christian interpreters, “commentaries do not [easily] blend history and theology” because the modern idea of history makes history “exegetically problematic” (52).
Participatory Biblical Exegesis
In chapter three, as Levering begins to offer a vision for participatory biblical exegesis, the real concerns come to the fore as he warns that notions of history and biblical interpretation that do not involve recognition of divine realities are ultimately “anthropocentric (and thus, from a Bible’s perspective, idolatrous)” (64). Renewing the tradition of patristic medieval participatory biblical exegesis, on the other hand, offers Christian interpreters the sorely needed “theocentric model of biblical interpretation” (64). Levering marshals the brilliance of St. Augustine’s insight into the nature of teaching: “all teaching is about res, realities” and therefore, “in order to understand true teaching one must learn how to judge the relative importance of various res, so as to be able to get to the heart of the teaching” (65). To do otherwise would be to cling to “created realities, loving them without reference to their Creator”—a “doomed enterprise” that confuses the means as above the end (65). (Here is the real heart of Levering’s proposal; the rest of the book is historical/theological/exegetical troubleshooting. In this chapter, most of his ideas find expression.)
The ultimate end of all teaching “aims at building up love of God and neighbor in ecclesial communion” (68). Humility requires that one recognize the “norm of Scriptural reading” of the Body of Christ (68). The scriptures ultimate telos (my word, not his) is to mediate an encounter with God: “’existential’ participation” that amounts to God’s own teaching which “re-orders” one’s loves (69). This effectively reverses the hermeneutical priority from linear-historical to existential-participatory (69). The author then further expounds on this key idea through Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of Scripture as “transformative sacra doctrina” (71) that must be understood as a unified whole rather than “a mere repository of facts and ideas” (75).
In the second half of chapter three, Levering is forced to take the reader a step back from the euphoric teachings of Augustine and Aquinas to revisit the muddled issues of contemporary biblical interpretation (76). Levering by then, however, has made his point well: linear-historical tools cannot be employed in a “neutral” fashion (77): they either include or preclude the divine realities as part of real history. Levering claims not only that a participatory mode of exegesis is necessary for discerning the divine res, but he makes the further claim that this approach is “required to account for even the linear-historical complexity of the biblical texts” (77). But is such a participatory perspective able to capture fully the “unsystematic” messiness of human authorship and intention?
Levering argues that his approach does not demand “that all biblical authors/redactors, working in various genres, are saying and intending the same thing,” but only “that Scripture’s human authorial teachings and intensions be recognized as belonging to the participatory framework—divine revelation and inspiration—of the Trinitarian doctrina” (80). Problematic passages must be governed by the schema of doctrina, which includes abandoning a particular explanation of any passage “if it be proved with certainty to be false” (81). Levering backs this claim by appealing to Dei Verbum’s doctrine of inspiration that claims that Biblical interpretation “seeks salvific truth” (83-84). This chapter concludes by an affirmation of the “centrality of God the Teacher, in whose teaching exegetes participate” (89).
God as the Teacher
Chapter four is concerned with affirming the necessary locus of receptivity to God the Teacher—the “divinely ordained fellowship” (90). Here Levering is concerned to show that his proposal is more promising for finding common ground for dialogue with Jewish interpreters than the “comparative textology” of mere historians who ignore the divine and ecclesial aspects of biblical exegesis (96). The Pontifical Biblical Commission document, in spite of its “good job” in some respects, is troubling on account of its “presumption of a solely linear-historical model” to both Jews and Christians who see Scripture as more than just “ancient texts” (96). To do justice to real history, including the “communal participatory appropriation” of Scripture, biblical interpretation must heed the communal traditions in which the biblical texts are “operative” (99). This aspect of historical transmission should distill the fears of “total semantic indeterminacy” (100). To ignore communal interpretation is fatal because the true meaning of Scripture is “embodied” in this “communal, intellectual, moral, and liturgical” history (104, 102).
Communal Context of Kenotic Love
As we discover in chapter five, for Levering, the communal teaching of the Christian church that sets the context for all exegesis is “kenotic love” that includes “cruciform peace” and is therefore more promising that the Spinozian undermining of ecclesial authority (140). In the end, Levering comes through with a robustly Christian biblical exegesis that “under the guidance of the Holy Spirit” in ecclesial communion, understands the fullness of sacred scriptures because it participates in the realities to which they refer—specifically the “Christological plan of human salvation” (143).
Levering’s narrative of the origins of modern notions of history will need to be evaluated by interested historians, and his peculiar Platonic understanding of participation (though nowhere extensively explained) may not be shared by all Christians (although some account of our participation in God is indeed necessary). Certainly, however, Levering has exposed a naïveté in Christian biblical exegesis by showing the woeful inadequacy of any interpretation that does not take the divine realities into account as real history. In this respect, his work is a brilliant myth buster, forcibly deconstructing the illusion of neutrality in historical-critical methods that exclude the divine realities in history and perhaps an eye-opener to what should be more obvious to those who cherish this aspect of Scripture above all else. This insight is especially relevant to those who use the historical-critical method in apologetic postures.
Although Protestants will perhaps wish to dispute his argument for ecclesiologically governed interpretation, I would argue (as a Protestant) that such Protestants engage in performative contradictions anytime they use the word “heretic.” Although Levering’s work still leaves certain questions unanswered, it appears to be more suggestive than comprehensive, inviting other Christians to join him in rethinking an authentically Christian hermeneutical framework that does not shy away from all useful critical tools but keeps the divine realities central to the task of interpretation.
by Bradley R. Cochran
I have summarized all four articles of question 110 in the prima secunda of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica: ”Of the Grace of God As Regards Its Essence.” All quotations from the Summa are taken from the English Translation, Summa Theologica, trans. the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 5 vols., rev. ed. 1948; repr., Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1981.
110.1 Grace Implies Something in the Soul
IN SUM: Grace is not limited to the forgiveness of sins, but signifies various gifts bestowed on man by God including God’s causing good in the soul of the creature. Thus, grace implies something in the soul, which is God’s love effecting new goodness in the soul of the creature.
Grace can mean three things.
- anyone’s love (e.g. the “good graces” of someone)
- any gift freely bestowed (i.e. given gratis) (e.g. someone’s “act of grace”)
- a grateful recompense of a gift given gratis (someone’s gratitude)
Any gift freely given depends on the love, and likewise any gratitude for a gift freely given depends on the gift freely given. Therefore, each subsequent definition after the first depends on the previous notion (#2 presupposes #1, #3 presupposes #2).
With regard to #1, a distinction must be made. Whereas a creature’s love presupposes a perceived good without wholly causing that good, God’s love is always the cause of any creaturely good. “Therefore it is clear that every love of God is followed at some time by a good caused in the creature but not co-eternal with the eternal love” (I-II.110.1).
Now God’s common love causes the good of any creature’s existence and “natural being,” but God’s special love “draws the rational creature above the condition of its nature to a participation of the Divine good” and “it is by this love that God simply wishes the eternal good, which is Himself, for the creature” (I-II.110.1).
Thus, on the one hand, the grace of God implies a gift freely given to a rational creature and his special love even signifies something bestowed on the soul of a created person. On the other hand, the “something” in the soul is simply God’s eternal love.
The word “grace” has been especially applied to the forgiveness of sins, but as Augustine said, we must not limit the word “grace” merely to forgiveness of sins. Yet even “the remission of sins does not take place without some effect divinely caused in us, as will appear later (Q. 113, A. 2)” (I-II.110.1.ad.3).
110.2 Grace Refers to Qualities of the Soul
IN SUM: God not only moves natural creatures to natural good but also bestows upon them certain forms and powers that are principles of acts in order that they be inclined to these movements in an easy and natural way, so also God not only moves the soul in grace, but freely bestows upon the soul new qualities in order that it might be moved easily and sweetly to the supernatural good.
Whoever has God’s grace should be understood to have also some effect of this grace within them, as stated previously. People are helped by God’s gratuitous will in two ways. First, God moves the soul of a person to know, will, and do something, and in these ways the grace of God is not considered a quality per se, but a movement of the soul. “Motion is the act of the mover in the moved” (I-II.110.2). Second, God infuses a habitual gift into the soul so that they are enabled to acquire the supernatural good with ease [and pleasure?]. In this second way, grace can be considered a quality or as consisting in qualities.
Grace acts upon the soul after the manner of a formal cause, “as whiteness makes a thing white, and justice, just” (I-II.110.2.ad.1).
Grace is not considered a “substance” of the soul because it is not part of the soul’s nature but the soul obtains it through a participation in the Divine goodness. Thus, what is substantial in God becomes accidental in the soul by participation. Grace can be considered as simply a participation in this divine goodness. This participation, however, is imperfect. While grace is nobler than the substance of the soul, the soul “has its being” more perfectly in its own substance than in grace, since grace is accidental to the soul by participation. (I-II.110.2.ad.2).
“The being of an accident is to inhere,” thus accidents are said to have being inasmuch as “by them something is.” Thus accidents belong to beings, but are not called “beings” proper. Properly speaking, then, no accident comes into being or is corrupted. However, the subject of an accident can begin or cease to be in act while having this accident. “And thus grace is said to be created inasmuch as men are created [anew] with reference to it, i.e., are given a new being out of nothing, i.e. not from merits, according to Eph. Ii. 10, created in Jesus Christ in good works.” (I-II.110.2.ad.3).
110.3 Grace is Not the Same as Virtue
IN SUM: Because grace precedes charity and the virtues, it is not itself a virtue. However, the infused virtues are oriented to grace (i.e. participation in the Divine nature) as acquired virtues are oriented to human nature. Faith is the first manifestation of grace, but grace cannot be reduced to faith or any of the virtues because it is the root of all infused virtues. Grace is a certain disposition presupposed by the infused virtues [i.e. the disposition of God himself?].
Grace is neither faith nor hope, and as Augustine says “grace foreruns charity.” Therefore it is not a virtue. (I-II.110.3)
Aristotle defined virtue as “a disposition of what is perfect—and I call perfect what is disposed according to its nature” (I-II.110.3). But infused virtues are disposed according to a higher end than human nature—namely, our participation in the nature of God (cf. 2 Pet. 1:4). “And it is in respect of receiving this nature that we are said to be born again sons of God” (I-II.110.3).
Just as “the acquired virtues enable a man to walk, in accordance with the natural light of reason, so do the infused virtues enable a man to walk as befits the light of grace” (I-II.110.3).
“Augustine calls faith that worketh by charity grace, since the act of faith of him that worketh by charity is the first act by which sanctifying grace is manifested.” (I-II.110.3.ad.1).
Grace is “the root of goodness in man” (I-II.110.3.ad2).
Grace can be reduced to a habit or disposition, yet is not the same as virtue because grace “is a certain disposition which is presupposed to the infused virtues, as their principle and root” (I-II.110.3.ad.3).
110.4 Grace Presides Principally In the Essence of the Soul
IN SUM: Since grace is prior to virtue, it must be in the essence of the soul rather than in the powers of the soul. Grace is the principle of meritorious works through the virtues.
“By grace we are born again sons of God. But generation terminates at the essence prior to the [exercise of?] powers. Therefore grace is in the soul’s essence prior to being in the powers.” (I-II.110.4)
If grace were virtue, grace would necessarily reside in the powers of the soul. But since, as we have seen, grace is prior to virtue, it must have a subject prior to the powers of the soul. Therefore, it must be in the essence of the soul. Just as a person’s will participates in the Divine love through the virtue of charity, so does the nature of her soul participate in the Divine Nature (and become more like that Divine Nature) through regeneration or re-creation.
The powers of the soul flow from the essence of the soul. It is through the powers of the soul that the essence of the soul is the principle of vital deeds. Likewise, it is through the medium of the virtues that grace is the principle of meritorious works. (I-II.110.4.ad.1)
The following is simply a barebones sketch of an introduction to Louis Marie Chavet’s provocative critique of traditional Catholic sacramental theology and his alternative proposal. Page numbers refer to his abridged work: Chauvet, The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body. Liturgical Press, 2001.
Chauvet’s Critique of Traditional Sacramental Theology
Chauvet uses the language of a 20th century Catholic Catechism (from the 1950’s) for the definition of the Objectivist Model: The sacraments are “visible signs instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ to produce and increase grace in our souls” (xiv).
He criticizes this model as being too narrow in its emphasis. For example, he notes that Augustine taught that the sacrament was a “sacred sign” or “a sign of a sacred reality.” Thomas Aquinas would come also to use Augustine’s language for the sacrament. But in this catechism, this is not utilized in the definition. Instead, what is important is “the objective efficacy of the sign” (xiv). They are less revelatory signs than as operative means of salvation.
This leads to the images of the sacraments as instruments that have a quasi automatic production as long as the instrument is properly used by the minister. Chavet thinks that this image favors questionable representations of the efficacy ex opere operato. He compliments his criticism by pointing out the fact that in the 1947 catechism’s sixteen lessons on the sacraments, the word “faith” never appears. The only place where the subject is taken into account in this section is the warning that the subject not place any obstacle (mortal sin) to the reception of grace. This is not a well balanced account of sacraments, thinks Chauvet.
Complaining about this narrow approach, he admits that the catechism bears resemblance to Scholastics (e.g. Thomas Aquinas), but only, he says, in overall model. However, the scholastics “strove to purify the images” from false understandings and from being comprehensive by teaching that all concepts and images were approximate, and while the spiritual reality bears similarity to the images, it also bears some measure of dissimilarity (xvi). Thus the sacraments are not instruments, but rather “function a little like instruments” according to the scholastics. “While they contain grace, it is not like a vase containing a remedy” (xvi).
Here he complains that it is easy to see “the importance of the differences between the doctrine of eminent theologians … and what becomes of it in pastoral manuals of catechism and liturgy not always concerned with nuances” (xvi).
Chauvet’s Proposal of Symbol
In the end, Chavet doesn’t even think the Scholastic model with all its nuances is a good overall model for the sacraments, so he proposes the sacraments as “symbol.” In his new model, the sacraments are part of an overall symbolic scheme or order that mediates “the world” by functioning as a language that shapes their perception of the world. In particular, it mediates God’s new world (the kingdom), and thereby the values of that world. The Christian thereby is shaped by the sacraments to take on these values.
This “mediation” (much like language in general) actually constructs (not merely symbolizes) the subjects self identity and personhood. Just as the language of a culture tends to effectively shape the worldview (and therefore values and identity) of those who live in the same culture and speak the same language, so the “language” of the sacraments has a similar efficacy. It is the linguistic “womb” of the mother church, in whose womb the Christian is effectively born.
As symbols, the sacraments effectively symbolize (or “mediate”) the whole of the Christian life in a similar fashion as a synecdoche in poetry where the part of something stands for the whole. In a synecdoche, for example, the “hand” of God stands for the mystery of God himself, thus representing the whole of God by a part of him. In this way, the sacraments mediate the symbolic order of the whole of the Christian life—which means they simultaneously hold in tension things that would otherwise become “desymbolzied” or isolated, and thus misunderstood in terms of their relationship to the whole. In other words, the sacraments seen as a symbol mediating the order of the whole keeps people from thinking of the grace they receive in the sacraments apart from “the other” which it symbolizes—the community of Christians they are obligated to love, the world they are obligated to love as Christ did, etc.
The symbolic way of understanding sacraments entails Chauvet’s development of “symbol” as “a signifying whole,” (13) or, as mediating the realities of the Christian life. Chauvet understands symbols as “fitting together” a symbolic order, providing a unifying meaning to all its parts (without which these realities are “isolated” or “desymbolized,” 15) and designating “the other,” in the case of Christian sacraments, the “symbolic womb” that precedes the Christian and mediates its understanding of the “world” of Christianity (16). As he puts it, “One becomes a Christian only by adopting the ‘mother tongue’ of the church” (17). “The sacraments are expressions” and therefore “they belong to what is called language,” which language is not an “instrument,” but rather a “mediation” of reality and Christian truth (3).
This requires for the Christian to relinquish the temptation for immediacy and “assent to the mediation of the church” (28). Baptism, for example, evokes the larger symbolic order of the church in which, through this baptism, the Christian is initiated into the community where “the other is no longer to be considered a rival or a potential enemy,” but must “be welcomed as a brother or sister” (32). The Eucharist expresses the reality of “the new ‘we’” that “applies also to the whole of the Christian liturgy” that constantly uses the language of “we,” 32). “Every eucharistic assembly truly realizes the church of God” (37).
Compatibility with Traditional Sacramental Theology
This understanding of the sacraments does not necessarily undermine the classical ways with their emphasis on causality and instrumentality. This is because, as Chauvet puts it, “contrary things … are in the same genus, on the same terrain. Our symbolic way supposes a change of terrain” (95). “The sign belongs to the order of knowledge or information or else value, whereas the symbol belongs to the order of recognition or communication between subjects as subjects and is outside the order of value” (76).
So, then, the author concludes that symbols and signs are “not on the same level” (76). Although Chauvet claims his approach is not contrary to the classical approaches, he does, in so many words, claim that it is superior. When he says that the classical approach was “the best one could do at the time,” he implies that his approach is better (95). He spells out this superiority when he says “the symbolic route seems to us to supply an approach much more akin to the sacraments than that of the instrumentality employed by the Scholastics” (95).