Archive for the ‘Trinity’ Tag

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.”

Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology

Metaphysics is that science which studies all that is beyond the natural world, yet still relates to the natural world. Metaphysics studies the nature of being (ontology) and causation and transcendentals (the Beautiful, the Good, the True). Metaphysics (meta ta phusika) itself simply means “beyond the physics” and was the word assigned to the sequel of Aristotle’s book the Physics which examined the natural world. Everything that our senses can perceive is subject to contingency and change and it is these things that are the object of the study of physics. Metaphysics studies those things which are beyond apprehension of our senses. We can perceive a rock or a tree or a piece of cake with our senses, and so these can be the subject of physical inquiry. But we cannot perceive God or the immortal soul or spiritual beings like angels with our senses; these, then, are the subject of metaphysical inquiry.

Aristotle himself did not use this word but called the subject of his book the “First Science,” “Wisdom,” or “Theology.” The subject of his inquiry was specifically the first cause of things or non-material things which do not change. This is sometimes described as “being qua being,” or “being as it is in itself.” Because this was the most fundamental subject, Aquinas thought the study of metaphysics as “wisdom” (sophia), the highest type of knowledge.

Metaphysics has always had a reputation of being about matters which are notoriously difficult. Andronicus of Rhodes probably assigned the title ‘metaphysics’ to Aristotle’s text indicating that the subject matter of the Physics must be fully grasped before one could understand the subject of the sequel. Metaphysicians use phrases like “essence precedes existence” or “substances, while not universals, are subjects of predication that cannot themselves be predicated of things.” Such language is especially prohibitive according to our modern sensibilities which seek to explain all phenomena in positivistic or empirical language. Kant rejected metaphysics because he claimed that the immaterial world was beyond intellectual inquiry. Hume claimed that all we could know was what we could experience, thus precluding metaphysics as a viable mode of inquiry since it was specifically about things which could not be experienced. Modern materialists reject metaphysics because they claim there is no immaterial world–all that exists is what we can apprehend with our senses.

In Christian theology, metaphysical language has been used to talk about and explain various things about God. In the creed, for example, when you say, “begotten not made, one in being with the Father,” you are expressing a metaphysical conclusion which was once a hot debate in the early church. Metaphysics has been especially employed throughout history to discuss the nature of the Incarnation (word becoming flesh) and the Trinity (one being or ousia of three persons or hypostases). Aquinas relied heavily on metaphysical language to explain these mysteries. Aquinas used metaphysical language to talk about God’s simplicity (that he lacks composition), his perfection, his eternity, his immutability, and his power. But he also employs heavily metaphysical language to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. That is, given that God is one and simple, how can we also say that God is three persons?

Much of Protestant theology has assumed an irreconcilable division between Scripture and metaphysics. For many Protestants, the best way to talk about God is not in the metaphysical language of being, but rather in the language that God gives us in Scripture. That is, if we want to understand God, we turn to Scripture which tells us who YHWH is, who Jesus Christ is, and who the Holy Spirit is.

There is good reason for this turn to Scripture, rather than philosophy, in order to understand God. Luther, for example, quite famously said that metaphysics was prohibitive for understanding God, and was a way of getting around the fact that the living God has revealed himself historically in Scripture. Moreover, it is hard to deny that it is much easier to be inspired and captivated by the scriptural tales of the various acts of the God of Israel, and the stories of Jesus, and the Pauline arguments about Jesus’ significance than it is to be inspired and captivated by a discussion like the following from Aquinas’ treatment of the Trinity:

the divine simplicity requires that in God essence is the same as “suppositum,” which in intellectual substances is nothing else than person. But a difficulty seems to arise from the fact that while the divine persons are multiplied, the essence nevertheless retains its unity. And because, as Boethius says (De Trin. i), “relation multiplies the Trinity of persons,” some have thought that in God essence and person differ, forasmuch as they held the relations to be “adjacent”; considering only in the relations the idea of “reference to another,” and not the relations as realities. But as it was shown above (Question 28, Article 2) in creatures relations are accidental, whereas in God they are the divine essence itself. Thence it follows that in God essence is not really distinct from person; and yet that the persons are really distinguished from each other. (Ia, Q. 39, art. 1).

However, the assumed antagonism between Scripture and metaphysics is in many ways a straw man. First of all, Scripture uses metaphysical language to talk about God. When God tells Moses “I AM who AM,” he is using metaphysical language. The Prologue of John is heavily metaphysical:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

Second of all, many of those who use metaphysics, like Aquinas, do not do so in order to replace Scripture, but rather to shed light on the mysteries narrated by Scripture.

Overcoming the antagonism between Scripture and metaphysics is the subject of Matthew Levering’s excellent new book, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, which I will be discussing in subsequent blog posts. Levering argues that metaphysical speculation about God, rather than rendering God distant and meaningless, is necessary to ensure that our worship is oriented towards Israel’s God, rather than culturally relevant idols. Aquinas, he argues, is an invaluable guide for learning how metaphysics enhances our understanding of Scripture and deepens our knowledge and union with God. He writes in the introduction,

We learn from Aquinas how the language of ‘being’ [metaphysical language] preserves Israel’s radical insistence upon the intimate presence in the world of her transcendent god, a presence that is ultimately Messianic, given the evil of the world. Aquinas exposes how the doctrine of divine Personhood attains real knowledge of, without over-narrating, the inner life of God as revealed in Scripture. He finds in the proper names of the Trinity—father, Son, Word, Image, Holy Spirit, Love, Gift—the biblical distinctions of the divine communion-in-unity into which our lives have been salvifically drawn. Against supersessionism, including the unconscious supersessionism that is Trinitarian ontology, he teaches Christians that we must always speak of our triune God under two aspects (4).

Metaphysics, for Aquinas and for Levering who wants to defend Aquinas, belongs to the personal encounter in which human beings use human words and human concepts to truly express divine revelation. Aquinas uses metaphysics to illumine the meaning of Scriptural revelation, to talk in a meaningful way about the God who has made himself known, and ultimately, to help Christians contemplate and enter into greater union with this living God. A Jean Pierre Torrell writes:

When Thomas says that theology is principally speculative, he means that it is in the first instance contemplative; the two words are practically synonymous in Thomas. This is why—we shall not be slow to see this operative in Thomas’ life—research, study, reflection on God can find their source and their completion only in prayer. The Eastern Christians like to say of theology that it is doxology; Thomas would add some further clarifications to that, but he would not reject the intention: the joy of the Friend who is contemplated is completed in song (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Vol. 1: The Person and His Work, 157).

On a final note, I hope this post and the subsequent posts I write on this book and the topic of scripture and metaphysics will foster ecumenical dialogue. As a Roman Catholic married to a member of the Church of Christ, and as a regular mass attendant and active worshipper in a local church of Christ, I am very interested in finding points of similarity and unity between a tradition that is heavily speculative and metaphysical, and a tradition that is historically rationalistic, positivistic, and solely reliant on Scripture to know God and how to worship him. I think that Aquinas is an invaluable resource for this dialogue, and for future ecumenical dialogue between Roman Catholics and other Christian traditions, and I hope that these posts can help to foster an ongoing conversation between different Christians who seek to climb the steep mountain of the knowledge of God.

Baptism: Initiating Christian Unity

I wanted to write a blog post exploring Thomas Aquinas’ treatment of baptism, partially in honor of today’s feast celebrating the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John the Baptist, and partially because Thomas treats baptism in the Tertia Pars (third part) of the Summa, which hardly anyone reads.  Moreover, I have been very interested in the possibility of Christian unity recently, maybe because I am a Roman Catholic marrying a member of the Church of Christ, and a good place to start is baptism, which is the sacrament of Christian initiation.

The Sacrament of Baptism

Baptism, Aquinas says, is outward washing which is a sacramental sign of inward justification (III, Q. 66, art. 1).  It was initiated at Christ’s own baptism, because it was at Christ’s baptism that the act of washing received the power to impart grace.  John’s baptism was different because it only pointed at the fulfillment of the meaning of washing, but did not actually confer grace.  John’s baptism simply pointed to Christ, but when Jesus entered the Jordan to be baptized, the  heavens were ripped open and the Holy Spirit descended.

The opening of the heavens has a threefold significance for Aquinas.  First, it shows that heavenly power would sanctify the practice of baptism.  Second, baptism is a practice of faith, and faith is about “heavenly things which surpass the senses and human reason.”  Third, Jesus’ baptism opened up the gates of heaven which had been previously closed through sin.  The opening of the heavens showed that the heavens were now accessible to the baptized.

So baptism is important, but the sacrament alone is  not enough for the believer to gain heaven.  Thomas says, “Now after baptism man needs to pray continually, in order to enter heaven: for though sins are remitted through baptism, there still remain the fomes of sin assailing us from within, and the world and the devils assailing us from without. And therefore it is said pointedly (Luke 3:21) that “Jesus being baptized and praying, heaven was opened”: because, to wit, the faithful after baptism stand in need of prayer” (III, Q. 39, art. 5).

Form, Matter, and Accidents

Like all sacraments, baptism has form and matter.  The form is the essence of baptism, the principle that makes it what it is.  The form points to the principle cause of the sacrament, which is God, and specifically the God Christians know to be triune.  So the form of baptism is the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” which points to the source and purpose and end of baptism–the Trinity.  The matter is how the form is instantiated, and so the matter of baptism is water.  Matter alone is not enough to make a sacrament; the matter becomes something special when enlivened on the form.

There are lots of what Aquinas calls “accidents” attached to baptism.  These are the things that are not essential to the sacrament, though nevertheless important for some reason.  “Accidents do not diversify the essence of the sacrament,” Aquinas says.  This means that there are lots of things that one could do in the act of baptism that might vary, while not changing the essential nature of the act which is still baptism.

One of these accidents is how the water is conferred to the baptized, namely whether the baptized is immersed or sprinkled.  Catholics typically sprinkle water over the head, but they might be surprised that Aquinas thinks sprinkling is acceptable, but immersion is preferred because it more closely represents Christ’s burial and the idea that the baptized dies with Christ.  Thomas identifies a few circumstances where sprinkling would be acceptable.  These include a shortage of water, a huge number of baptismal candidates (we’re talking thousands) which would make immersion cumbersome, and the feebleness  of the candidate whose life might be endangered by immersion.  This last reason is why Catholics sprinkle, because they baptize infants, too small to be heartily dunked.  We’ll come back to this.

Another accident Aquinas addresses is whether the baptized need to be immersed or sprinkled three times.  I had never really thought about this question until the priest doing pre-Cana with my fiancé and me informed us that my fiancé had only been immersed once, which was not consistent with the form of baptism which requires trine immersion or sprinkling.  This meant we had to get a “disparity of cult” dispensation because the Catholic Church did not recognize the validity of his baptism.  Turns out, Aquinas would disagree “since the Trinity can be represented in the three immersions, and the unity of the Godhead in one immersion” (III, Q. 66, art. 8).  Moreover, the matter of washing is an accident, which does not change the validity of the sacrament, only its licitness.  He does say that trine baptism is now universally recognized by the Church, and baptisms conducted otherwise would not be consistent with the ritual of the church, though they would nevertheless remain valid.   As a good Thomist, I don’t think the “disparity of cult” dispensation was appropriate.

What about rebaptism?  Aquinas says that there is only one baptism for the remission of sins.  Here, because so many Christians practice rebaptism, it is worth quoting Aquinas in full.

First, because Baptism is a spiritual regeneration; inasmuch as a man dies to the old life, and begins to lead the new life. Whence it is written (John 3:5): “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, He cannot see [Vulgate: ‘enter into’] the kingdom of God.” Now one man can be begotten but once. Wherefore Baptism cannot be reiterated, just as neither can carnal generation. . . Secondly, because “we are baptized in Christ’s death,” by which we die unto sin and rise again unto “newness of life” (cf. Romans 6:3-4). Now “Christ died” but “once” (Romans 6:10). Wherefore neither should Baptism be reiterated. For this reason (Hebrews 6:6) is it said against some who wished to be baptized again: “Crucifying again to themselves the Son of God”; on which the gloss observes: “Christ’s one death hallowed the one Baptism.”  Thirdly, because Baptism imprints a character, which is indelible, and is conferred with a certain consecration. Wherefore, just as other consecrations are not reiterated in the Church, so neither is Baptism. . . Fourthly, because Baptism is conferred principally as a remedy against original sin. Wherefore, just as original sin is not renewed, so neither is Baptism reiterated, for as it is written (Romans 5:18), “as by the offense of one, unto all men to condemnation, so also by the justice of one, unto all men to justification of life.”

Recipients

“Men are bound to that without which they cannot obtain salvation. Now it is manifest that no one can obtain salvation but through Christ; wherefore the Apostle says (Romans 5:18): “As by the offense of one unto all men unto condemnation; so also by the justice of one, unto all men unto justification of life.” But for this end is Baptism conferred on a man, that being regenerated thereby, he may be incorporated in Christ, by becoming His member: wherefore it is written (Galatians 3:27): “As many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ.” Consequently it is manifest that all are bound to be baptized: and that without Baptism there is no salvation for men.”

The Christian tradition and the Scriptural witness are clear, as this above quote makes clear, that baptism is an essential part of the Christian faith.  No interior change of heart suffices–you must be baptized.  Doesn’t mean that God can’t save  a person without baptism, but perfect conversion to God belongs to those who are regenerated in Christ, by baptism.  Thomas relies heavily on the example of Christ to back up this point.  If Jesus, who had no sin, saw it fit to be baptized and it was at this event that the heavens opened up to him, so too should we see it fit to be baptized.

What about children?  This seems to me a big sticking point in the practice of baptism between different Christian churches who disapprove of the practice of baptizing infants, as Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and some others do.  Aquinas justifies this practice first with the words of Paul: “For if, by the transgression of one person, death came to reign through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one person Jesus Christ.  In conclusion, just as through one transgression condemnation came upon all, so through one righteous act acquittal and life came to all.”

When Paul says that condemnation came to all, Aquinas takes him to mean everyone, regardless of age.  Infants come into this world marked with the sin of Adam.  Infants come into this world burdened with the punishment for sin, which is death.  Infants come into this world already needing salvation.  And when Paul says that acquittal and life come to all through the one righteous act of Jesus, Aquinas takes him mean that everyone can gain new life through baptism into Christ, regardless of age.  “Our Lord Himself said (John 3:5): “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Consequently it became necessary to baptize children, that, as in birth they incurred damnation through Adam so in a second birth they might obtain salvation through Christ” (III, Q. 68, art. 9).

More generally, Aquinas thinks that the saving act that happens in baptism is an act of God, not an act of the believer.  Baptism is necessary because human beings on their own cannot achieve salvation, but rely exclusively on God.  In light of this, it makes no sense to Aquinas to say that only believers should be baptized.  Aquinas doesn’t think that we even can believe, apart from grace.  Faith is a gift, not an achievement.  In order to make it more likely, therefore, that children grow up in faith, baptism is necessary.  He says “it was fitting that children should receive Baptism, in order that being reared from childhood in things pertaining to the Christian mode of life, they may the more easily persevere therein; according to Proverbs 22:5: “A young man according to his way, even when he is old, he will not depart from it” (ibid.).  For the same reason, Aquinas thinks that baptism should be offered to the mentally ill, those lacking in reason who cannot make a rational statement of faith.  “The little child is made a believer, not as yet by that faith which depends on the will of the believer, but by the sacrament of faith itself,” which causes the habit of faith” (III, Q. 69, art. 6).

The Effect of Baptism

Baptism takes away sin, both original and actual.  It is the initiation of a new life, a life of faith.  Baptism also frees the believer from the punishment of sin, which is death, because just as we die to Christ, so too do we rise with him.  Baptism also confers grace  and the virtues of faith, hope, and love onto the baptized.  This means that the baptized have a diminished concupiscence (proclivity to sin) so as to no longer be enslaved by sin.  In other words, Aquinas thinks that baptism makes it easier to be good, because baptism unites us into the body of Christ, and so we become part of Christ’s good works.  He writes, “so from their spiritual Head, i.e. Christ, do His members derive spiritual sense consisting in the knowledge Of truth, and spiritual movement which results from the instinct of grace. Hence it is written (John 1:14-16): “We have seen Him . . . full of grace and truth; and of His fullness we all have received.” And it follows from this that the baptized are enlightened by Christ as to the knowledge of truth, and made fruitful by Him with the fruitfulness of good works by the infusion of grace.”

Most importantly, as so many Christians heard in the reading from Mark 1 today, baptism rips open the heavens.  The gates of heaven, once closed to human beings because of sin, are now opened through Christ’s baptism and his passion, death, and resurrection.  This is why it is so clear that baptism is the work of God, not man, because man could never open those gates on his own.  We depend on Christ for our salvation, not our own efforts.  And we accept the great grace of baptism in obedience in order gain the grace necessary to join him in eternal life.  All Christians are called to be baptized, and I see no better place than this sacrament of Christian initiation to lay the foundation for Christian unity.

Celebrating God’s Revelation on the Feast of the Epiphany

Today, the Catholic Church observes the Feast of Epiphany, which celebrates the revelation of God to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ.  The Gospel reading for Mass today is the story from Matthew of the revealing of Jesus Christ to the wise men.  The fourth century pope Leo I (also known as Leo the Great) has an impressive homily for today’s feast:

What wondrous faith of perfect knowledge, which was taught [the wise men] not by earthly wisdom, but by the instruction of the Holy Spirit! Whence came it that these men, who had quitted their country without having seen Jesus, and had not noticed anything in His looks to enforce such systematic adoration, observed this method in offering their gifts unless it were that besides the appearance of the star, which attracted their bodily eyes, the more refulgent rays of truth taught their hearts that before they started on their toilsome road, they must understand that He was signified to Whom was owed in gold royal honor, in incense Divine adoration, in myrrh the acknowledgment of mortality.  Such a belief and understanding no doubt, as far as the enlightenment of their faith went, might have been sufficient in themselves and have prevented their using their bodily eyes in inquiring into that which they had beheld with their mind’s fullest gaze. But their sagacious diligence, persevering till they found the child, did good service for future peoples and for the men of our own time.

In light of today’s feast, I think it is appropriate to present a few reflections on what this feast celebrates–the revelation of God.

Thomas Aquinas introduces the Summa Theologica with a discussion of revelation which he calls “knowledge of God” outside of what could be known by human reason alone.  The truths in which revelations consists cannot be grasped by the natural intellect but must nevertheless be accepted on faith.  These truths are invisible, which Aquinas backs up by quoting Hebrews 11:1  “faith is the revelation of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen.”

These truths are also eternal, not like the knowledge of this age which passes away.  Here, Aquinas draws on 1 Corinthians 2:6-10:

Yet we do speak a wisdom to those who are mature, but not a wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away.  Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory, and which none of the rulers of this age knew; for if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.  But as it is written: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him,” this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.  For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God.

An example of such knowledge which exceeds what the natural intellect can achieve on its own is knowledge of the Trinity.  No amount of scientific experimentation will ever yield proof that God is one God in three persons.  No philosophical method can ever lead to the conclusion that God creates, redeems, and sanctifies.  These are called “theological” rather than philosophical truths, and they must be believed to be known.

Human reason can, however, come to some knowledge of God without the light of revelation.  Aquinas says that human beings were created with intellects that naturally seek out the causes of phenomena they observe in the world.  The Magi, for example,  saw a strange star and sought out its cause.  But the cause was not simply some astrological phenomenon, but rather, the unique work of a God revealing himself to the Gentiles.

Because the things we observe in the world are caused by God, human beings can “know that God exists in a general and confused way” (I, Q. 2, art. 1).  We can know God made the stars without really knowing the God who made the stars.

We can also know God as the source and the end of our quest for happiness.  All people desire happiness (beatitude) which is found ultimately only in God, a conviction that provides the foundation for Aquinas’ moral theology.  However, this knowledge regarding God as the source of our ultimate happiness is also confused because not all people know what their happiness consists in, some believing it to be riches or fame or pleasure (which I talked about here).

This general and confused knowledge of God can be demonstrated in five ways, all of which proceed from an observable effect to God who is the cause of this effect.  These five ways will be the subject of another blog post but in brief they are as follows: (1) God is the first mover of all of the universe, put into motion by no other; (2) God is the first efficient cause; (3) God is the only necessary thing amidst all other contingent things which exist; (4) God is the greatest gradation of Being, the most perfect thing of all other things which exist; and (5) God is the intelligent designer of all things which seem to have been made by something for a purpose.

The “five ways” are philosophical ways of talking about God, but they just scratch the surface.  Revelation opens up to us knowledge of the essence of God, not just what God appears to do, but what God is.  The perfection of this revelation is found in the person of Jesus Christ.  By the mystery of the Incarnation, we are brought to knowledge of “the goodness, the wisdom, the justice, and the power or might of God–‘His goodness, for He did not despise the weakness of His own handiwork; His justice, since, on man’s defeat, He caused the tyrant to be overcome by none other than man, and yet He did not snatch men forcibly from death; His wisdom, for He found a suitable discharge for a most heavy debt; His power, or infinite might, for there is nothing greater than for God to become incarnate . . .’” (Damascene, De Fide Orth. iii, 1, cited in Summa Theologica 3, Q. 1, art. 1).  For this reason, Aquinas argues, it was fitting that God become incarnate, so that we may see Jesus and know God.

Aquinas says that humanity’s whole salvation depends on this knowledge of God revealed in Christ.  “Therefore,” he writes, “in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation.  It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation” (I, Q. 1, art. 1–the first article of the Summa Theologica, for what it is worth).  We celebrate this revelation today, the Feast of the Epiphany, and like the three Magi from afar, we too would do wel to fall prostrate at the feet of our savior, and pay him homage.