A Thomistic Response to N.T. Wright on Metaphysics, Trinitarian Formulas, and the Historical Jesus

In Chapter 4 of Scripture and Metaphysics, Matthew Levering takes on N.T. Wright who argues that traditional Western Trinitarian theology bypasses the narrative account of Scripture especially regarding the historical Jesus, and instead presents a fundamental non-narrative Trinitarian theology which “approache[es] the Christological question by assuming this [ontological] view of god and then fitting Jesus into it” (Wright, “Jesus and the Identity of God,” 54).

Wright begins his essay with a personal anecdote of talking to students who claim to not believe in god. Wright probes them to explain “which god they don’t believe in” and determines that when students say this, what they mean is that they do not believe in a god who sits on high, looking down and casting out judgment, what Wright calls the “spy-in-the-sky.” To these students, Wright responds that he does not believe in such a god either, but rather, believes in the God that is revealed in the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

Wright’s point is that we need historical studies of Jesus because it is all too easy to create an idol of Jesus, a heavenly, perfect, sinless, and non-Jewish Jesus “who wanders round with a faraway look, listening to the music of the angels, remembering the time when he was sitting up in heaven with the other members of Trinity, having angels bring him bananas on golden dishes.” Rather than starting off with the Orthodox, post-Nicaean and post-Chalcedonian Jesus as the second person of the Trinity (what Wright calls the kyriarchal portrait of God), Wright argues that we need to start with the historical Jesus who reveals to us not a creedal formula, but rather, the Old Testament God of Israel:

In Jesus himself, I suggest we see the biblical portrait of YHWH come to life: the loving God, rolling up his sleeves (Isa 52:10) to do in person the job that no one else could do, the creator God giving new life the God who works through his created world and supremely through his human creatures, the faithful God dwelling in the midst of his people, the stern and tender God relentlessly opposed to all that destroys or distorts the good creation, and especially human beings, but recklessly loving all those in need and distress. “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall carry the lambs in his arms; and gently lead those that are with young” (Isa 40:11). It is the OT portrait of YHWH, but it fits Jesus like a glove.

In this chapter, Levering wants to save Aquinas from the implicit criticism of people like Wright, namely, that his conception of Jesus is sterile and formulaic, and completely detached from the Jesus as revealed in Scripture. Instead, Levering claims that Aquinas rejects the kyriarchal portrait of God just as strongly as Wright does. He cites the Tertia Pars, QQ. 46, art. 3. where Aquinas asks whether there was a more suitable way of delivering the human race than by Christ’s passion. In the first objection, alluding to St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, Aquinas states that God could have liberated humankind solely by His Divine Will! This could have not only spared the life of the incarnate son of God but would have more suitably revealed God’s superior power.

But Aquinas rejects the mighty display of God’s power as more suitable than the Passion (as does Wright) on the grounds that Christ’s passion teaches us about the God who saves us: “In the first place, man knows thereby how much god loves him, and is thereby stirred to love him in return, and therein lies the perfection of human salvation” (IIIa, Q. 46, art. 3). As Levering writes:

Christ’s Paschal mystery reveals to human kind the extraordinary depth of God’s love. Without Christ’s passion, humankind would not have known the superabundance of God’s love. The Paschal mystery reveals the Trinity (God-in-himself) in terms of a wisdom of wondrous love,, to the point of the Son of God giving his own life for the salvation of sinners, that is, for the salvation of those who by pride had cut themselves off from God” (Levering 134).

Aquinas does not give us the “disembodied theological cipher” which Wright wants to counter with the historical Jesus, but rather, to use Wright’s own words, “the Jesus whose body was killed as the revelation of the love of God and raised to new life.”

Aquinas gives another reason that Christ’s bloody passion was more fitting than a mighty display of God’s power neatly accomplishing the same task. That is, by his passion, Christ “set us an example of obedience, humility, constancy, justice, and the other virtues displayed in the Passion which are requisite for man’s salvation. Hence it is written (I Peter 2:21): ‘Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow in His steps” (IIIa, Q. 46, art. 3). Levering’s point is this, that like Wright, Aquinas appeals to the cross and the scriptural account of Jesus to dispel what Wright calls the “kyriarchal” or aloof, uncaring and philosophically formulaic God. But unlike Wright wants to argue that his scriptural and historical account of Jesus reveals a God of superabundant love, of humility, and of personified wisdom, as opposed to the philosophical accounts of God that his students reject, Aquinas uses philosophy to probe the depths of this mystery further. Namely, Aquinas draws a Trinitarian conclusion.

Jesus, Aquinas argues, was able to endure such suffering (which we have already established is intended to suitably reveal the intimate love of God that God is willing to suffer with and for God’s people) because of intimate knowledge of the Father. In suffering, and suffering without sin, for the sins of others, Jesus had full knowledge of Father, which gave Jesus the ability to suffer the most profound sorrow for sin out of the love which is manifest in the Father. As Levering writes, “the Father inspired Christ’s human will with this perfect charity by infusing Christ’s humanity with the fullness of the grace of the Holy Spirit. In Christ’s passion, one thus sees manifested the incarnate Son’s obedience to the Father through the Holy Spirit. The Paschal mystery of Jesus Christ reveals God’s wisdom and love in Trinitrarian form” (136).

For Aquinas, the scriptural Jesus, and especially the scriptural account of Jesus’ death reveals the Father as the one who sends the Son as the Father’s Word of love for the world, reveals the incarnate Son who is God’s perfect Word in the world, and reveals the Holy Spirit who enables the incarnate Son to suffer with supernaturally-inspired love. That is, for Aquinas, it is not the study of metaphysics, though metaphysics certainly helps, and not the study of creeds, though creeds are important, but precisely the study of Scripture and especially the Passion which reveals the Trinity.

We see the central and foundational importance of scripture in Aquinas’ Trinitarian formulas elsewhere, specifically in his commentary on John. Commenting on John 5:20, Aquinas writes that “because the Father perfectly loves the Son, this is a sign that the Father has shown him everything and has communicated to him his very own power and nature” (Super Ioan. 5, lect. 3, no. 753). Because the Father gives the Son everything he has, the Son is the perfect image of the Father (Hebrews 1:3, Colossians 1:15) or as Aquinas reflects using metaphysical language “since likeness is a cause of love (for every animal loves its like), wherever a perfect likeness of God is found, there also is found a perfect love of God” (Super Ioan 5, lect. 3, no. 753). Just as the Father bets the Son by absolute self-gift, so too the Son, in order to reveal the Father, must give himself completely.” Hence, we get the Passion.

This is not a way of ignoring the God of Israel which Jesus reveals perfectly through his earthly life (as Wright wants to argue); it is, however, a fuller revelation of the God of Israel. Levering writes, “Before Christ’s coming, the people of Israel knew God the father, but they only knew him as father in the sense of Creator, and as the one and only God. Christ’s disciples, on the other hand, are able to know Father by faith (by the grace of the Holy Spirit) as the Father of the only-begotten son” (139). Aquinas cites John 5:36 on this point: “The very works which m Father has given me to perform—those works that I myself perform—they bear witness to me that the Father sent me.” According to Aquinas, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus, by revealing himself through his works, also reveals the Father. This is the basis of Trinitarian formulas—the works of Jesus as related by Scripture.

Wright wants to say that if we really study the Jesus as revealed in Scripture, we will not get at a creedal Trinitarian formula. The real Jesus and the Second Person of the Trinity have nothing to do with each other. He writes,

After fifteen years of serious historical Jesus study, I still say the creed ex animo; but I now mean something very different by it, not least by the word “god” itself. The portrait has been redrawn. At its heart we discover a human face, surrounded by a crown of thorns. God’s purpose for Israel has been completed. Salvation is of the Jews, and from the King of the Jews it has come. God’s covenant faithfulness has been revealed in the good news of Jesus, bringing salvation for the whole cosmos.

But for Aquinas, as Levering points out, it is precisely by studying this historical, earthly Jesus that we are taught, as Jesus taught his friends, about the Trinity. Jesus teaches us through his words and actions. On this, Aquinas would agree with Wright. But whereas Wright uses only historical and literary methods to understand this Jesus, Aquinas also integrates metaphysical methods to not only exegete the historical Jesus, but also to be conformed to true knowledge of the living God revealed in scripture. Metaphysical speculation does not, as Wright criticizes, lead to the construction of an aloof kyriarchal idol, but rather, seeks to illuminate the true meaning of scriptural narrative of the transcendent and immanent God revealed to Israel as YHWH. In short, metaphysical speculation, in addition to historical and literary methods of understanding, complement one another by instilling within the believer greater contemplative understanding of the mystery of the Trinity. Or as A.F. Gunten, O.P. remarks,

“The texts of Scripture invited [Aquinas] to undertake a philosophical study that bears its fruits. It then permits him to give a more precise interpretation of Scripture.”

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