Lesson 7: St. Thomas Aquinas's Christology

Influence of Greek Christology: translations into Latin were made first available to Thomas in the early 1260s. He was the first among the medieval western theologians to drink deeply of this Greek font. He composed the Catena Aurea, or The Golden Chain, a collection of patristic sayings, both eastern and western, corresponding to each passage from the four Gospels. His passion for the Gospels and the life of Christ is shown by his decision to include an extensive treatment of the mysteries of the Life of Christ in his Summa theologiae. Thomas devotes the Questions 1-26 of the Third Part of his Summa to the hypostatic union of Christ and then Questions 27-59 to the words and deeds of Christ. He is unique among medieval theologians to include such a commentary on the life of Christ in a systematic work of theology.

Christ's Place in the Summa theologiae

Some theologians object to Christ's place in St. Thomas' Summa. The Summa has three parts. The first part treats God and creatures coming forth from him. The second part treats man's return to God through the moral life. The third part treats Christ who as man is our way of returning to God (qui secundum quo domo via est nobis tendendi ad Deum) (prologue, Third Part). There is a great exitus-reditus (emanation and return) scheme that was first described as such by the Dominican Marie-Dominique Chenu in the 1940s. Chenu himself was unsure of how the third part on Christ fit into the neoplatonic theme of emanation and return. But as Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., and others have argued, Christ is the fulfillment of the return. St. Thomas does not merely accept a neoplatonic theme, but Christianizes it. He shows that the return of creatures, specifically man, only occurs in Christ. Christ is not superfluous in St. Thomas's consideration, but instead is fulcrum around which God and his creatures turn. Thomas himself says in his Christology that Christ is the consummation, or fulfillment, of the study of the theology.

One must also recognize also that St. Thomas does not begin his Summa with Christology. We enter the Christian faith through faith in Christ. Thomas knows that basic theological catechesis works with the stories of Christ and Israel from the Scriptures and as summarized in the Creeds which Thomas considered summaries of the whole of Scripture. But a speculative or, better, contemplative approach to theology does not simply consider the reality of God, man and Christ as it appears to us. Speculative theology seeks to consider reality as it is in itself, in other words as it appears to God. Thus, God and man are treated separately before Christ. Although the revelation of Christ is the basis for much of our knowledge of God and man, by treating God and man separately first, we will more adequately be able to approach the mystery of Christ. Another way of putting it is that from our perspective Christ is the center. But from God's perspective, the true perspective, the Trinity is the center. Christ reveals the Trinity to us. We learn sacra doctrina (sacred doctrine or holy teaching) from him. Thomas's theology thus begins with the Triune God as revealed in Christ before considering the God-man.

Thomas distinguishes between the order of discovery and the order of speculative knowledge (Aristotle's scientia). The order of discovery moves from effects to causes. The order of speculative knowledge from knowledge of the causes to explain the effects.

Some charge that in his section on Christology St. Thomas deduces everything from the fact of the hypostatic union. This is not the case at all. Thomas is simply proceeding in a second-order pedogogical manner that moves from the cause -- the hypostatic union -- to the effects -- Christ's life, death, and resurrection.

Christ the Teacher

The theme of Christ as the teacher is a unique motif that unites all the various parts of the Summa theologiae. This is important to understand since it shows that reflection on the mystery of the Person of Christ informs our entire understanding of theology. The moral life (considered in the second part) is also centered on Christ as the teacher. Thomas's consideration of the moral life begins with our vocation to beatitude in the vision of God. He then examines moral action, the passions, virtues and vices, law and grace. This culminates in the New Law of Christ that actually enables man to achieve his supernatural happiness. Christ is the teacher who gives the New Law. But as a divine and human teacher, he gives the New Law primarily as the divine gift of the Holy Spirit and secondarily as teachings about the sacraments and the moral preaching of the Sermon on the Mount. In Thomas's treatment of the virtue of faith he says that faith is accepted from the divine teacher -- Christ. Although Thomas's moral theology relies upon an understanding of human nature and the natural law, his moral theology puts Christ as the origin our strength and the goal of the moral life.

Christ as Example

Throughout Thomas's discussion of Christological issues, he frequently makes reference to the example of Christ. For example, he says that Christ suffered physical ailments such as hunger and thirst to give us an example of patient endurance of suffering. Christ is a moral example for us to follow. But Thomas's theology goes one step beyond this moral exemplarity to include what is best described as ontological exemplarity -- not only acting like Christ, but being like him. To be like Christ means to share in his identity as the Son of God. Thomas knows there is only one Son of God, but affirms that all Christians possess adoptive filiation. We become other sons of God.

The Mystery of the Hypostatic Union

Thomas provides an excellent synthesis of the patristic and early medieval theology. But it is more than a synthesis. It is an ordered presentation of the mystery of the hypostatic union. Thomas treats most of the patristic heresies and shows why they contradict the faith. He also shows how a popular twelfth century Christological view -- that there are two supposites in Christ -- is really just another form of the Nestorian heresy. Thomas achieves remarkable clarity in his presentation of the hypostatic union because throughout his theology he is extremely precise about the distinction between God and creation. Thus he recognizes that a fully human nature is completely compatible with a fully divine nature. One instance of this is that unlike many other medieval theologians, Thomas argued that Christ possessed acquired human knowledge.

Reading Assignment

Michael Dauphinais and Matthew Levering, Knowing the Love of Christ: An Introduction to the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002) Ch. 4-5, pp. 61-89.

Writing Assignment

Write a two-page essay in which you analyze the connection between the mystery of the Person of Jesus Christ as defined by St. Maximus the Confessor and St. Thomas's presentation of Christ as teacher and example.

Suggested Reading

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part III, Qq, 1-4, 7-8, 16, 23, 42. Available on the web. Just type Summa Theologica into a search engine.


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