The Gifts of the Holy Spirit

For the finest Thomistic treatment of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, see John of St. Thomas’ Commentary on Thomas’ text in the Summa.

We don’t really talk about the gifts much anymore. Anybody in CCD or raised on the old Baltimore Catechism could probably rattle them off–wisdom, knowledge, understanding, counsel, piety, fortitude and fear of the Lord. The main scriptural passage in support of the gifts is Isaiah 11: 2-3:

The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, A spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD, and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.

In general, the gifts are considered the works of grace of the Holy Spirit for the sanctification of souls. “Grace,” says St. Thomas, “is nothing but the beginning of eternal life in us.” (II-II 24.3.2). The gifts of the Holy Spirit might be considered the foretaste of eternal life. Everlasting life begins not when we die but the moment we receive grace in our soul.

More specifically, Aquinas considers the gifts habits (habitui) in a similar manner as virtues, but distinct from the virtues. Unlike the moral virtues, the gifts have the intellect and will as their subject. Unlike the theological virtues, save charity, the gifts remain in heaven. The gifts collaborate with the virtues, but a distinction remains.

The key word in talking about the gifts is love, defined as the “desire to be in union with the beloved.” The gifts unite a person to God and give her a participation in the divine life. This is not a transient thing, but a firm and stable disposition according to the intention of God (hence the identification of the gifts as habitui). Dominic Hughes provides an important clarification on this point in his introduction to John of St. Thomas’ commentary:

Looked at from the viewpoint of God and of the infused virtues themselves, man’s supernatural life is solid and stable; looked at from the viewpoint of weak human nature, the supernatural life is held in a fragile vessel that can be easily destroyed by moral sin.

Thus, the “blessed assurance” sung about in church exists only from the divine vantage point. Here on earth, things look a little more tenuous.

Nevertheless, the gifts dispose the Christian to receive immediate direction by the Holy Spirit who leads humans toward their ultimate telos–salvation. Progress in holiness is a matter of relinquishing greater and greater control to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Again, progress in holiness is not something human beings are capable of–“no amount of instruction is sufficient for man to learn perfectly the ways of living in God,” writes Hughes.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit are, therefore, especially ordained to overcome the shortcomings of human knowledge. Even the person enlightened by faith sees “through a veil.” Faith allows one to believe, but belief is not the same as sight. In heaven, faith passes away because we will see God as God is, face to face. Here on earth, this vision is granted by the gifts which enlighten the intellect not to assent to belief, as with faith, but rather, to see. Accordingly,

the gift of understanding gives faith a greater penetration of its own principles, the revealed truths of tradition and Scripture; counsel perfects faith in its practical extension to the multiplicity of human action directed to the final end; it guides immediately the three affective gifts of piety, fortitude and fear of the Lord; the gifts of knowledge and wisdom perfect faith in its act of judgment, whether the judgment is concerned with creatures or with God Himself (Hughes, 17).

The key to the gifts is that they provide a knowledge through connaturality with divine things. Connatural knowledge is an affective union with an object that grants a sort of emotional “knowledge,” a knowledge by love, by inclination (per modum inclinationis) or from instinct (ex instinctu). Knowledge by connaturality is contrasted with the discursive knowledge of the intellect and in some ways is more perfect than intellectual or cognitive knowledge in that it leads to union with the loved object. Connatural knowledge transforms the knower (rather than transforming the object from material to immaterial in the case of cognitive knowledge), and it is in this way that the Holy Spirit works. The grace of the third person of the trinity instills the deep affective, connatural knowledge of God into the believer, thus inclining her toward God by a kind of instinctive movement. Sevais Pinckaers says the result of the gifts is a spiritual “instinct” (instinctus).

What is particularly great about the gifts of the Holy Spirit is that they reveal the great dignity and importance of the emotions in the moral and spiritual life. The gifts transform the emotions to love God, and grant a knowledge of God the intellect is itself incapable of. We should remember this when we try to intellectualize our faith and deny the importance of the emotions. Ss Hughes writes, “If we insist, consciously or unconsciously, on our own initiative, we are doomed to spiritual mediocrity. . . Reason is always valid while we are separated from God by the veil of faith. . . Love is always dissatisfied with the limitations of human knowledge, even when enlightened by faith.”

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2 comments so far

  1. Bob MacDonald on

    Interesting – I recognize some of this personally – but wonder sometimes if it is just my own zeal devouring me. I am surprised at a few of the terms you use –
    1. ‘gifts’ not referring to the Pauline list in 1 Corinthians, but rather the list in Isaiah – more like ‘fruits’ in the Pauline sense (Galatians 6). And
    2. the continuing of faith (three things abide, faith hope and love) where you take the line of the hymn ‘faith will vanish into sight’. I do not know anything direct about such ‘ultimate sight’.

    I think the presence of love on earth is the key – I see it in the actions of others. I don’t dare see it in myself. Such love is the work of Spirit – and as you say it is not an abstraction but concrete and incarnate.

    You undoubtedly are trained in moral theology. I think the clarification from Hughes is likely accurate. There are some actions that are destructive. The Spirit will use these for teaching – but we are slow to learn. I certainly do not define the same set of destructive actions that are traditional. E.g. I am all in favour of women teaching – so I read your blog to be in touch with such. I am also in favour of women in leadership even ordained positions. Not a crime IMO. As for violence, exploitation, abuse of power and privilege, these are contrary to love – even if we can be deceived.

  2. everydaythomist on

    Hey Bob,
    You are right about the fruits. For Thomas, the beatitudes and fruits are closely related with the gifts, and he indeed uses Galatians 6 as the scriptural justification for the fruits (as an aside, we teach the kids at church the fruits with the song “The fruit of the spirit’s not a banana.” Know it?) All the fruits according the Thomas are subsumed under one, which is ultimate beatitude, distinguished only in this life as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. In this life, these are the actions of the Holy Spirit through a human agent as prompted by the gifts.

    As for faith, Aquinas defines it generally as the “substance of things hoped for and the belief in things unseen.” Thus faith cannot persist in heaven if we assume that we will see God, hence no longer the need for a habit of assent to things unseen. However, the gift of understanding which illuminates faith and grants the agent loving assent to things not unseen but seen will remain in heaven (as will all the gifts). In essence, this is just a useful distinction for moral theologians. Assent to God occurs in heaven and on earth, it is just that on earth we assent only by peering through a sometimes very dark veil.

    I am very glad you are in favor of women teaching! So am I, but I think that one of the reasons it is important to be part of a church is that error and self-deception is much more likely in an individual than in a community where fraternal (and sororal) correction is practiced, and where members can help guide one another in the discernment of spirits.

    Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I love learning from and getting challenged by your feedback.


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