Happiness and Aquinas’s Philosophy

In Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, he defines man to be made in the image of God, man’s end to be perfect happiness, which may only be attained by seeing God, and asserts the Divine law’s role in the attainment of perfect happiness. Much like Aristotle, Aquinas believes a man is the composition of the body and the soul, the soul is divided into the rational and irrational, and the rational part of the soul is the most essential part to man’s happiness. However, for Aquinas, this is an incomplete definition of man. Man is created in the image of God, which redefines the rational part of the soul. In the beginning of the First Part of the Second Part, he says, “Man is said to be made to God’s image, in so far as the image implies an intelligent being endowed with free-will and self-movement.”

Since man has been created in the image of God, he is endowed intellect, so he may have the capacity to know God, and free will, so he may be able to love God. These two distinct attributes of the rational part of the soul define human nature, and also human actions. He wrote, “Now man is master of his actions through his reason and will; whence, too, the free-will is defined as ‘the faculty and will of reason.’ Therefore those actions are properly called human which proceed from a deliberate will. And if any other actions are found in man, they can be called actions “of a man,” but not properly “human” actions, since they are not proper to man as man.” (1.1) He states that if the will of a man is an essential component to what makes his actions uniquely human actions, then all human acts are aimed toward a good, because the intellect guides the will toward an end. In summary, man is created in the image of God and possesses intellect and free will, and all human actions use intellect and free will.

Aquinas believes that man’s end is happiness, specifically perfect happiness. Again, much like Aristotle, happiness pertains to the rational part of the soul. However, the philosophies and the idea of supreme happiness for Aristotle fell short for Aquinas, and he labeled Aristotle’s happiness as “imperfect happiness”, or happiness that pertains to life on earth. He wrote, “But imperfect happiness, such as can be had here, consists first and principally in contemplation, but secondarily, in an operation of the practical intellect directing human actions and passions.” (3.6) In contrast, perfect happiness consists only of contemplation, whereas imperfect happiness relates to speculative practical intellect on earth. Aquinas stated, “Nevertheless the operations of the senses can belong to happiness, both antecedently and consequently: antecedently, in respect of imperfect happiness, such as can be had in this life, since the operation of the intellect demands a previous operation of the sense; consequently, in that perfect happiness which we await in heaven; because at the resurrection, ‘from the very happiness of the soul.’” (3.3). Even though man is capable of achieving happiness on earth, that happiness is imperfect or incomplete. Perfect happiness, the true end of man, is something that only may be achieved in heaven by seeing God, the beatific vision. Aquinas wrote, “Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence.” (3.8). Nothing on earth will ever make a man completely and perfectly happy; seeing God is man’s perfect end. Since man’s end is God, it is necessary for man to have a way to be directed to his end.

Aquinas has several different kinds of law. The first kind of law is eternal law. Aquinas describes eternal law when he wrote, “Now it is evident, granted that the world is ruled by Divine Providence, that the whole community of the universe is governed by Divine Reason. Wherefore the very Idea of the government of things in God the Ruler of the universe, has the nature of a law. And since the Divine Reason’s conception of things is not subject to time but is eternal, according to Proverbs 8:23, therefore it is that this kind of law must be called eternal.” (91.1) The eternal law dictates all other law, because it is God’s providence. Aquinas then defines the natural law, which is the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law (91.2). From the natural law, we get the human law, which Aquinas defines, “Accordingly we conclude that just as, in the speculative reason, from naturally known indemonstrable principles, we draw the conclusions of the various sciences, the knowledge of which is not imparted to us by nature, but acquired by the efforts of reason, so too it is from the precepts of the natural law, as from general and indemonstrable principles, that the human reason needs to proceed to the more particular determination of certain matters. These particular determinations, devised by human reason, are called human laws.” (91.3). The human law is the law man practices in government. It is derived from the natural law for specific instances that require more particular guidance. Both the natural and human law directs man toward his natural faculty, which is imperfect earthly happiness. However, Aquinas has established that the end of man is perfect happiness, which necessitates a Divine law, so that man might be directed to his end of seeing God. (91.4) The Divine law is the Bible, or “that which is enacted by God and made known to man through revelation.” (Slater). Therefore, all law directs man toward an end. However, natural and human law only directs man to imperfect happiness, whereas the Divine law directs man to perfect and complete happiness, or more specifically God.

Aquinas defines man to be made in the image of God, man’s end to be perfect happiness, which may only be attained by seeing God, and asserts the Divine law’s role in the attainment of perfect happiness. As mentioned above, Aquinas’s philosophy is the completion of the Ancient thought. Aristotle was only able to reason to a first cause, since he only considered happiness which may be attained on earth by the activity of the rational part of the soul. Aquinas, however, acknowledged the first cause, which redefined the entire definition of man, his end, and the role of the law.

The Relationship between Faith and Reason

The work of Thomas Aquinas, though somewhat insignificant in his own day, is arguably some of the most studied, discussed, and revered to emerge from the medieval period. As Plantinga, Thompson and Lundberg maintain, ‘of all the theologians, it is undoubtedly the shadow of Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-74) that looms largest over the Latin theology of the Middle Ages.'[1] Merely one capable theologian amongst many in the Middle ages, the Thomist works have since gathered copious esteem, valued as the perfect manifestation of reason used in defense of faith within a systematized theology. This dynamic between faith and reason is what underpins the entirety of Aquinas’ theology; absolute priority is afforded to faith, reason merely acting as a tool to expound the truths of faith graciously bestowed upon us through revelation. Theology is faith seeking understanding, but the tool of reason utilized to achieve such understanding should never be so arrogantly deployed so as to undermine the truths of faith. In this essay, I will aim to further examine Aquinas’ stance on the correct relationship between faith and reason and, subsequently, assess how this understanding is mapped onto the Thomist theology of the sacraments and, specifically, the Eucharist. Aquinas’ Eucharistic work is perhaps one of his most enduring contributions to theology; indeed, as Davies writes, ‘he is often thought of as the eucharistic theologian par excellence of the Catholic Church…'[2] I will seek to sustain the line of argument that Aquinas’ Eucharistic theology acts as a microcosmic manifestation of his theological method; faith and tradition provide the theological truths which Aquinas subsequently expounds using reasoned argument- not to prove or give credence to his beliefs of faith- but merely to defend them and to understand them on a level beyond the mere acceptance and ascent to certain propositions.

Throughout his career, Aquinas, like most prominent academic theologians, was embroiled in the debate over the correct utilization of philosophy, specifically Aristotle, in the universities. It is due to his desire to reject the adoption of radical Aristotelianism that Aquinas offers a systematic account of the relationship between faith and reason, ultimately granting the latter the position of handmaid to the former. The term ‘handmaid’ has connotations of subordination, however, which seems contrary to Aquinas’ understanding of the two disciplines; as Sigmund writes, ‘for Aquinas…a belief that faith and reason were both valid and divinely legitimated sources of human knowledge meant that neither should be considered as dominating the other.'[3] Both divinely inspired, it is impossible that the disciplines of reason and faith should contradict and, therefore, one cannot exist as subordinate to the other, merely equal and complimentary. As Aquinas writes For that with which the human reason is naturally endowed is clearly most true; so much so, that it is impossible for us to think of such truths as false. Nor is it permissible to believe as false that which we hold by faith, since this is confirmed in a way that is so clearly divine. Since, therefore, only the false is opposed to the true, as is clearly evident from an examination of their definitions, it is impossible that the truth of faith should be opposed to those principles that the human reason knows naturally.[4] This being said, however, reason cannot, according to Aquinas, function alone in determining the highest theological truth. The highest truths about God can only ever be revealed by God himself and cannot be discerned through reason and deduction from nature; as Plantinga, Thompson and Lundberg write, ‘truths such as the triune nature of God or creation ex nihilo could be known only through faith’s dependence on grace…reason is capable of much, but it must be complemented by faith.'[5] Niederbacher offers a neat formula for what Aquinas would consider propositions of faith or ‘credible’ propositions, ones which ‘belong to the object of faith that are believed on God’s authority'[6] ‘A proposition p is a credible proposition if and only if i) p is true ii) p is revealed by God; iii) p is assented to because p is revealed by God; iv) p presents truths about God and created things insofar as they are necessary and sufficient for orienting the life of human beings toward their last end. ‘[7] These propositions can, evidently, be assented to because they are revealed, and not because we reason to them. However, the highest principles of faith, though unable to be demonstrated by human beings, can be defended using reasoned argument, ‘ thus, Aquinas claims, that one should be able to show that these principles of faith are not impossible, that they do not contradict what is self-evident or demonstrable, that defeaters can be defeated, that one can draw conclusions from the principles in a deductive way.'[8] Some of the more basic theological truths, such as that of God’s existence, Aquinas does believe to be rationally demonstrable; when discussing our assent to the precepts of the Decalogue, for example, he does not make reference to divine revelation to explain our knowledge of the content of the natural law but argues that It is therefore evident that since the moral precepts are about matters which concern good morals; and since good morals are those which are in accord with reason; and since also every judgment of human reason must needs be derived in some way from natural reason; it follows, of necessity, that all the moral precepts belong to the law of nature[9] Reason should not be fought against since, as Cross puts it, ‘God’s giving human beings reason is a necessary consequence of his creating human beings: being rational is part of what it is to be human.'[10] It is, however, limited.

Aquinas’ understanding of sacramental theology in general is not something he reasons towards but something he inherits as a truth of faith from the Christian tradition. The sacraments are derived from Christ’s death on the cross since it is in the flesh that he offers, and humans receive, grace. From the pierced side of Christ, the blood and water, the Eucharist and baptism, flow; Aquinas writes that ‘on Romans 5:14: “After the similitude of the transgression of Adam,” etc., the gloss says: “From the side of Christ asleep on the Cross flowed the sacraments which brought salvation to the Church.” Consequently, it seems that the sacraments derive their power from Christ’s Passion.'[11] Faith, for Aquinas, should have implications for the way in which Christians behave; it is through partaking in the sacraments that Christians live a life directed towards God and a life lived in Christ. They serve the dual function of offering sanctification and simultaneously acting as a form of worship. It does seem that Aquinas’ sacramental theology is expounded through the use of reason, however. For example, he emphasizes the dual nature of sacraments as both signs and causes of grace; as Torrell and Guevin observe, ‘ Thomas’s definition of sacrament…brings together both meaning and efficacy in one formula: “the sign of a sacred reality that is acting to sanctify man.”‘[12] Sacraments are signs which represent the sanctification which they bring about, ‘symbols which make real what they symbolize.'[13] Aquinas is also able to assert that sacraments are causes of grace insofar as the materials utilized are those which God uses to provide grace, they are ‘instrumental causes.'[14] Aquinas draws a distinction between this kind of ‘instrumental cause’ and what he calls ‘principal causes’ of grace. He argues that the latter ‘produces its effect in virtue of its form’; God produces grace this way as its principal cause. Sacraments, however, serve as instrumental causes of grace in that they produce grace ‘solely in virtue of the impetus imparted to it by the principal agent…it is by divine institution that they are conferred upon us for the precise purpose of causing grace in and through them.'[15] The instrumental parts of the sacraments are many; as Jordan notes, ‘the same instrumental power is found in the very different elements of a sacrament- in its verbal formulae, its prescribed actions, its material. Finally, the instrumental efficacy of the sacraments depends on the efficacy of the humanity of Christ, itself an instrument of His divinity.'[16]

Aquinas also reasons that the sacraments are necessary for human beings; his reasons are threefold. Firstly, he reasons from the idea that since ‘it is characteristic of divine providence that it provides for each being in a manner corresponding to its own particular way of functioning'[17] to the idea that people are aided by the sacraments in a way which is appropriate to the human way of coming to knowledge- through physical things. His related second reason argues that humans, ‘if they were to be confronted with spiritual realities pure and unalloyed their minds, absorbed as they are in physical things, would be incapable of accepting them.'[18] Finally, he argues that sacraments make worship easier for us since they involve the continuation of our relationship with the physical; as Davies puts it, ‘in Aquinas’ view, sacraments are fun.'[19]

Within his sacramental theology, as a whole, the dynamic between reason and faith which Aquinas has set up becomes manifest; he accepts the necessity and value of sacraments in faith, and accepts the method of administration of the sacraments from tradition; he does, however, use reason to explain the mechanism behind the sacraments and to examine the intricacies of sacramental theology. It is in his treatment of the Eucharist, however, that we can see most clearly the dialectic between reason and faith play out.

The Eucharist is, as Davies notes, ‘the crowning sacrament'[20] for Aquinas (hence his recommendation of daily communion); it is the sacrament towards which all of the others are directed, the culmination of the Christian life, the believer brought into unity with Christ, ‘all the benefits involved in the Incarnation…carry over into the Eucharist.'[21] Through its receivers sharing in the passion, the Eucharist is also a mechanism through which sins are forgiven. In order for these things to be the case, Christ must be truly present in the sacramental bread; Aquinas is emphatic on this point- ‘Christ is sacramentally contained in the Eucharist'[22] , ‘the real body of Christ and his blood are in this sacrament'[23], ‘the reality of this sacrament demands that the very body of Christ exist in it.'[24] The presence of Christ is present in the most direct and imminent sense, hence the import of the Eucharist; as Walsh writes, ‘from the point of view of the one who receives it, the Eucharist gives a bonding with Christ himself, in the full reality of his being, whereas the other sacraments give a transient, functional contact with Christ. The Christ received in the Eucharist is Christ in the fullness of his priesthood and the fullness of his glory.'[25] Aquinas’ assertion of the real presence of Christ, however, is not something which we can argue is derived from reason or philosophical argument, but only through faith. As Davies notes, ‘belief in the literal or non-symbolic eucharistic presence of Christ is not, for him, something grounded on what we might recognize as proof or demonstration. As he sees it, it is something implied by Christian faith.'[26] Indeed, Aquinas asserts that ‘the presence of Christ’s true body and blood in this sacrament cannot be detected by sense, nor understanding, but by faith alone, which rests upon Divine authority.'[27] The real presence of Christ is implicit in scripture through the correct (i.e. literal, non-symbolic) interpretation of the statement ‘this is my body’. For Aquinas, we must take these words as they are written since they are the words of Christ and must, therefore, be true.

Though Christ’s presence in the bread is a belief fostered through faith, Aquinas’ famous doctrine of transubstantiation represents his belief in the ability of reason to expound principles of faith. He affirms transubstantiation as the absolute mechanism through which Christ comes to be present in the sacramental bread and wine; ‘take away the transubstantiation’, writes Kenny, ‘…and you take away the presence.'[28] Aquinas explains transubstantiation as follows: the whole substance of the bread is changed into the whole substance of Christ’s body, and the whole substance of the wine into the whole substance of Christ’s blood. Hence this is not a formal, but a substantial conversion; nor is it a kind of natural movement: but, with a name of its own, it can be called “transubstantiation.”[29] Aquinas adopts the Aristotelian language of substance and accidents in order to explain how the body of Christ is consumed at the Eucharist yet the taste, smell and feel of the bread remain. Though in traditional philosophy, accidents are usually spoken of in terms of being bound to a subject, Aquinas argues that accidents have natures suited to existing in a substance'[30] but, in the Eucharist, the accidents of bread and wine are somehow maintained independent of their respective substances. Cross maintains that Aquinas uses two somewhat inconsistent strategies to defend this view, firstly arguing that the separated accidents ‘acquired individual esse in the substance of the bread and wine'[31] but when separated from this substance, are maintained by God. Kenny offers the useful analogy of the smell of onion lingering after the onion has gone or the imprint of a boot in snow remaining once someone has walked on. In a similar way, the accidents of the bread are real and linger on but, substantially, Christ is present and not bread. The second strategy which Cross identifies is that ‘while the substance of the bread and wine remained, accidents of this kind did not have esse…rather their substance had esse through them…after the consecration, the accidents that remain have esse.'[32]

Aquinas’ doctrine of Transubstantiation is reasoned towards through a series of arguments; the doctrine emerges out of his reasoning from propositions he holds to be true and making deductions from these truths. For example, if it is Christ’s body that is present in the Eucharist (a true statement by faith), then it must be the case that the bread and wine changed into Christ’s body; something can only become something else by being created there (which Christ is not), moving there from another place (an impossible idea, since this would involve Christ moving from his place at the right side of God), or by changing into that thing. He also reasons towards the rejection of the symbolic understanding of the Eucharist by arguing that it would render Christ a liar when stating that ‘this is my body.’ It would be impossible for Christ to be untruthful. In addition, Aquinas notes that if the bread and wine remained throughout the sacrament, Christian believers would be guilty of idolatry when taking the sacrament, since they would be revering as divine something which is not. In all of these arguments we can see the dialogue between faith and reason; true statements of faith give rise to reasoned arguments which defend them. These reasoned arguments, in turn, lead to theological deductions. In conclusion, Aquinas’ Eucharistic theology acts as the perfect microcosm of his method; his attitude to the relationship between faith and reason is mapped onto his Eucharistic theology and, through understanding the steps he takes to arrive at his conclusions, we are able to see the dynamic between faith and reason at play; faith provides the theological truths upon which Aquinas builds, through reason, his sacramental theology. Through defending these undeniable truths of faith, other probable truths become clear, such as the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Aquinas expounds the truths of faith- not to prove or validate his beliefs- but merely to defend them, and to understand them on a level beyond mere acceptance and assent.

Works Cited

[1] Plantinga, R. J., Thompson, T. R. and Lundberg, M. D., An Introduction to Christian Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p468

[2] Davies, B., The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), Ch. 17, p.17

[3] Kretzmann, N. and Stump, E., The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993)

[4] Aquinas, T., Summa Contra Gentiles I, by A. C. Pegis (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975) 7.1.

[5] Plantinga, R. J., Thompson, T. R. and Lundberg, M. D., An Introduction to Christian Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p470

[6] Bruno Niederbacher, The Relation of Reason to Faith. Davies, B. and Stump, E., eds, Oxford Handbook on Aquinas (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press 2012), p.2.

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid, p. 5

[9] Summa theologiae I-II, q. 100, a. 1 c

[10] *Cross, R., The Medieval Christian Philosophers: An Introduction (London: I. B. Tauris, 2014), p.122

[11] Summa theologiae 3.62.5

[12] Torrell, J.-P., Aquinas’s Summa: Background, Structure and Reception (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2005), p. 58

[13] Davies, B., The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), Ch. 17, p.8

[14] ibid.

[15] Summa theologiae 3. 62. 1

[16] Kretzmann, N. and Stump, E., The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p219

[17] Summa Theologiae, 3. 61.1

[18] ibid.

[19] Davies, B., The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), Ch. 17, p.15

[20] ibid, p.17.

[21] ibid, p.19.

[22] Summa Theologiae, 3.73. 5.

[23] ibid. 3. 75. 1

[24] ibid, 3.75.2

[25] Van Nieuwenhove, R. and Wawrykow, J., eds, The Theology of Thomas Aquinas (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), p.360

[26] Davies, B., The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), Ch. 17, p.22

[27] Summa Theologiae, 3. 75.1

[28] Kenny, A., Reason and Religion: Essays in Philosophical Theology (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), p.18

[29] Summa Theologiae, 3.75.4

[30] Davies, B., The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), Ch. 17, p.31

[31] Summa Theologiae III, 77.1.3. Cited in Cross, R., The Medieval Christian Philosophers: An Introduction (London: I. B. Tauris, 2014), 114

[32] Summa Theologiae III, 77.1.4. Cited in Cross, R., The Medieval Christian Philosophers: An Introduction (London: I. B. Tauris, 2014), 114

God, Human Happiness, and the Mystery of It All

In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas argues that true human fulfillment stems from one’s closeness to God. Worldly pursuits, like fame or glory, fall short in comparison to the happiness that comes from arriving at a vision of the divine essence. This beautido, or perfect happiness, comes from a God who is deeply mysterious. His ways are often unknown, and His nature is difficult to comprehend. What is the destiny of human happiness, and what is the nature of the mystery that encompasses it?

The nature of God’s mystery unfolds as humans try to understand Him. In the unassisted human mind, the effects of God are better known than God himself (S. Th. I. Q.1, A.2). Human understanding is cloudy and indirect, as they see an incomplete representation of their creator. When humans try to define this creator, there is “no name or word that can express the divine essence” (S. Th. I, Q.13, A.1). The capabilities of the human mind are inadequate. God is ever present as the “unmovable mover” that exists “in all things”, yet he remains “not comprehended” (S. Th. I, Q.8, A.1). This paradox reflects incomplete human knowledge. Thus, God is not mysterious because of his nature; he is mysterious due to limited human intellect. Humanity’s confusion is caused by its own shortcomings. These flaws stem from the earthly human condition. Humans have a worldly experience, as they “represent Him imperfectly” and grasp knowledge in a way “that belongs to creatures” (S. Th. I, Q.12, A.1). This way of being is inherent in human nature, and it creates distance between humans and God. This innate separation is caused by God, since he is “the cause of existence of all things” (S. Th. I, Q.8, A.1). Human happiness, which requires closeness to God, is hindered (S. Th. II, Q.3, A.8). God’s mystery is caused by flaws in the human condition, which He himself has created.

Are humans destined for unhappiness? For Aquinas, the answer to this question is no. Although God cannot be known comprehensively by human reason, divine revelation elucidates the “mysteries…of faith” (S. Th. 1, Q.13, A.1). Human imperfection is met with divine salvation. God does not abandon the creatures He creates. Even without revelation, Aquinas argues against the notion that humans cannot speak about Him in a reasonable way. Humans can describe God analogically (Discussion, 11/21/2016). God is not entirely unknowable, so humans have the potential to reach happiness. This happiness is made more possible by God empowering the human mind to see his existence “clearly demonstrated” from his effects (S. Th. 1, Q.2, A.2). Although God cannot be seen completely, humans know that the source of their happiness exists. Humans can be pointed in the heavenly direction. They are separate from God “in essence”, but they are close in that “he is the author of the power of understanding” used to comprehend him (S. Th. I, Q.12, A.2). Humans are at a distance from God, but they are not disconnected from Him because reunion is possible. Aquinas is optimistic about the prospects of human happiness. God’s mystery is able to be recognized by human reason and unraveled by divine revelation. With human happiness destined to be fulfilled, what is the purpose of God’s mystery that clouded it in the first place?God’s mystery and the human imperfections that cause it lead to happiness.

Human knowledge is limited, so God reveals himself fully through “Divine revelation…that is Truth” (S. Th. I, Q.1, A.1). By putting humans in a state of incompletion, God can serve as the source of completion. Happiness becomes guaranteed. The divine revelation that leads to this happiness “must be accepted by faith” (S. Th. I, Q.1, A.1). Humans are transformed into creatures of trust and devotion. Happiness becomes a matter of belief, which cannot be taken away. This trust is increasingly necessary as “human knowledge often fails”, while God “is always true…and stable” (S. Th. II, Q.2, A.3). Humans are placed in a state of need, as they flounder in uncovering God’s mystery on their own. Human imperfection, which causes God’ mysterious nature, allows God to be the ultimate provider. Happiness has a never ending source. When humans try to name God, they cannot “adequately represent what God is”, because they “represent him imperfectly” (S. Th. I, Q.13, A.2). Humans are humbled by His existence, as His mysterious nature relieves them of the responsibilities of total knowledge and perfection. A greater, more perfect happiness awaits them. Human beings can “know an effect”, which produces “the desire to know about the cause what it is” (S. Th. II, Q.3, A.8). By keeping his nature a mystery, humans are drawn towards him, and subsequently to happiness.

For Aquinas, God’s mystery points the way to happiness, since Aquinas believes that “Unless he was God, he would not have brought a remedy” (S. Th. II, Q.3, A.8). God’s mystery is accounted by human imperfections, and these flaws serve to shape and guarantee the path to happiness. Humanity is drawn in towards God by the redemption of its imperfections, which is the foundation of happiness. Ultimately, Aquinas aims to teach us what it means to live our best lives. God is the ultimate savior, and living a life of faith and piety brings us closer to Him. We, along with Aquinas and the rest of humanity, can uncover the mystery of God and delight in it every step of the way.

A Complete Human Nature: Understanding Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas, one of the most influential theologians of his time, deals with many hotly contested topics regarding the nature of God and God’s dealings with mankind in Summa Theologica. In the fifth question of Part IIIa, Aquinas discusses Christ’s assumption of a human nature. Although most Christians believe that Jesus became a man in a general sense, the concepts of assumption and of human nature are often poorly understood. The simple phrase “Christ’s assumption of human nature,” then, warrants a thorough explanation. Because of this, Aquinas systematically responds to and rejects many of the objections of his contemporaries. Through his adherence to logical thought and precision of language, Aquinas disproves the claim that Christ did not assume a human mind, asserting instead that the assumption of a human mind was necessary for salvation to occur.

Aquinas believes that definitions are integral to the understanding of theological principles, and the structure of his arguments reflect this belief. He devotes much of his writing to defining terms so that his audience has an accurate understanding of important concepts. Christ’s assumption is no exception. Throughout his discussion, Aquinas reveals the definition of assumption. He says that it is impossible to “assume a body to the unity of the nature” and cites Augustine’s assertion that in the assumption, Christ maintained the fullness of his divinity (S.T. 3a, q. 5, a. 1, ad. 2). Aquinas believes that assumption is not a mixing of two natures; rather, the natures of Christ and man remain distinct. For Aquinas, assumption is the act of taking on another nature that is maintained in its entirety but still remains secondary to the original nature of the Person. Regarding the human nature of Christ, Aquinas comes to the conclusion that human nature consists of two facets: the body and the soul (3a, q. 5, a. 3, co. 1). One aspect of the soul is the mind, which enables man to reason and make decisions (3a, q. 5, a. 4, ad. 3). Using these definitions, Aquinas responds to the claim that Christ did not assume a human mind, and subsequently did not fully assume human nature.

In the discussion preceding the current topic, Aquinas comes to three major conclusions: that Jesus assumed a real body, that Christ’s human body was a physical one, and that Christ also assumed a human soul (3a, q. 5, a. 1-3). In this section, he focuses on the soul and considers whether Christ assumed a complete human soul or whether he omitted the human intellect. The major opposition to the idea of Jesus assuming a human mind is that Christ, with the wisdom of God, did not need a human mind (3a, q. 5, a. 4, arg. 1). God is omniscient, and as a result, so too is Jesus. For Aquinas’ opponents, it is logical that Christ assumed a human body, because God does not have a physical form. It does not make sense to them, though, that Christ would assume a finite mind with limited capacity when he already knows everything. In his response to this argument, Aquinas gives three reasons why it is not only logical but imperative that Christ assumed a human mind.

The simplest reason why Aquinas believes that Christ assumed a human soul in its entirety is because the Bible implies it. Throughout the Gospels, many of Jesus’ actions are indicative of a human intellect. Luke states that “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature,” but an all-knowing God cannot become more wise (Holy Bible, Luke 2:52). Aquinas cites a similar instance as evidence that Christ must have a human intellect. Matthew states that Christ marveled at the faith of the Roman officer (Matthew 8:10). Christ, in this encounter, “see[s] an effect and [is] ignorant of its cause,” and this leads him to marvel (S.T. 3a, q. 5, a. 4, arg. 1). The divine nature of Christ cannot account for this response: Christ, in his divinity, would know why the Roman officer had so much faith and what caused him to express it in that moment. The only way that Christ would have the ability to marvel is if he has a finite mind, which suggests that he assumed one when he came to earth.

Aquinas also rejects the idea of a Christ without a human intellect because it is contrary to the truth of the Incarnation (3a, q. 5, a. 4, arg. 1). The word “incarnation” describes the process of going into the flesh. Flesh does not reference only the body, but “the whole man is signified by flesh” (3a, q. 5, a. 3, ad. 1). In this synecdoche, flesh is used to refer to all of a human’s nature, both the soul and the body. Based on this understanding, one cannot not have true flesh unless one has both a body and a soul. As stated in the Gospel of John, Christ became human flesh, so by definition, he assumed a human body and a human soul (John 1:14). Aquinas claims that the aspect of man’s soul that makes it distinctly human is its rationality, “since our soul differs from an animal soul by the mind alone” (3a, q. 5, a. 4, arg. 1). Because the mind is the distinguishing factor of the human soul, it was necessary that Christ assume a mind in his assumption of human nature. Without one, Jesus would not be “in the flesh” of a human and the Incarnation would cease to be true.

The claim that Christ assumed a human mind is not only evidenced in the Bible by reference to the Incarnation, but is one of the reasons why the Incarnation occurred. For Aquinas, the purpose of the Incarnation was “justification of man from sin” (3a, q. 5, a. 4, arg. 1). Aquinas also cites Damascene, saying that “what was not assumed is not curable” (3a, q. 5, a. 4, arg. 1). Jesus took on a human nature so that he could live a sinless life and die for the sins performed by mankind while in the flesh. Christ’s righteousness in the different aspects of human nature, then, cover the sins done with those faculties. Aquinas says that “the human soul is not capable of sin…except through the mind” (3a, q. 5, a. 4, arg. 1). From this statement, it is apparent that Aquinas believes that the human soul is not inherently sinful; the human soul sins because the mind enables it to sin. The mind houses man’s ability to reason and exercise free will, and through this free will, one is able to choose to sin. Those that argue that Jesus did not assume a human mind are suggesting that the human mind was not justified in Christ’s death. If this is true, then it would mean that the aspect of the soul that supplies the free will to sin was not made righteous through Christ. The mind would not be covered by the grace of God, and would be judged according the standards of holiness set by God. Because man’s mind is imperfect, he would be condemned. Thus, mankind would still be separated from God by sin, and the purpose of the Incarnation would not be fulfilled. Aquinas rejects this claim, though, because it is inconsistent with his understanding of the Incarnation.

This discussion of whether Jesus assumed a human mind is a part of the greater discussion of human nature, the Incarnation, and the act of salvation. Aquinas thinks of the Bible not as the sole source of knowledge about God, but as the foundation for his theological discussions. He uses the Bible to ground the arguments that can be further developed using reason. Specifically in this passage of Summa Theologica, Aquinas argues for Christ’s assumption of true human nature while implicitly asserting the inherent goodness of human nature as God created it. Furthermore, in demonstrating that Christ did have a human mind, Aquinas validates the theological work he is doing. If Christ used his human mind to fulfill the will of the Father, so too can theologians, empowered by the Holy Spirit and covered by God’s grace, use their minds to give glory to God. In this way, Aquinas contributes to the better understanding of God, his nature, and how he relates to mankind.

Doctrine on the Image of God: Comparison of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae to Augustine Earlier Writings

In patristic thought, the philosophers St. Thomas Aquinas and Augustine agree on the philosophy that God is the exemplar of all created things likeness; that creation is an imitation of God’s image. According to their writings, St Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae and Augustine Earlier Writings other concepts of man’s likeness to the image of God are elaborated showing comparisons between the doctrines but also subtle differences. Saint Aquinas and Augustine are prominent for their major contribution to theology and philosophy. Aquinas was influenced by Aristotle while Augustine was more inclined to the philosophies of Plato, the influences of their inspirations are seen in their philosophies of the soul, knowledge, incorporeal and theoretical thinking on reason and faith. Augustine’s views and philosophies influenced some of Aquinas’ ideals in his beliefs. They both agree that God is the entity of ultimate knowledge and man can know God through reason even though they cannot fully understand Him. Augustine’s philosophy elements found in man such as reason, intellect, existence, memory are also seen in Aquinas’ works. In regards to the image of God both the philosophers hold that human beings have an imperfect likeness to God because perfect likeness can only exist in an identical entity. They hold that the perfect image can only exist in the firstborn of creation as it is the most identical. They concur that human beings have the image of God different from other creations such as animals because we have minds. The analysis centers on their philosophical approaches and conclusions regarding their views of faith and reason and the image of God. The analytical comparison of the philosophers’ perceptions of the image of God is conveyed based on their incorporeal and theoretical thinking in their beliefs illustrating the correlations.

In Summa Theologiae, Aquinas belief in the image of God is that man is in the likeness of God through his mind and intellectual capacity. Aquinas states that “God’s likeness in the manner of an image is to be found in man as regards his mind; but as regards his other parts only in the manner of a trace” (Thomas, 2006). The philosophy states that the mind is what makes us the image of God and all other things such as the body only have traces of likeness. Aquinas focus on the mind as the entity with God’s image is consistent in his writing. Aquinas believed in the imperfect likeness because the image of God cannot be equally matched to a human being. The only entity that had a perfect image of God is the first born son of creation. In his philosophy, man is not only in the image of God simply by understanding and having a mind but also a mind that acts, thinks and loves similarly as God. He states that “…thus the image of God is more perfect in the angels than in man because their intellectual nature is more perfect” (Thomas, 2006). The philosophy is stating that angels are more inclined images of God than a man because of their intellectual capacity. Aquinas states that all creatures have the likeness of God to some extent. Every creation has some likeness, but only human beings possess the image of God fully because we have a mind, unlike an animal. Aquinas incorporated both the dynamics of reason and faith in his philosophies more than other philosophers such as Augustine. The amalgamation of both divine and natural worlds made his beliefs on the image of God distinct from other philosophies.

Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae further evaluates the nature of the mind as the locus of God’s image through observing the three properties of the mind which are intellect, memory, and will, an extension of Augustine’s Trinitarian concept. The three aspects encompass the activities of understanding, remembering and loving to be in the likeness of God fully. The aspects transitioned from simply awareness, mind and love because the philosophy had to include the activities of thinking and remembering to be in the image of God fully. Aquinas concludes that the image of the trinity in man had to be shown in the three properties of the mind, intellect, memory, and will (Thomas, 2006). The incorporation of these aspects gave him the ability to understand what proportion creations have the likeness of God. Aquinas states that “Thus it is clear that only intelligent creatures are properly speaking after God’s image” (Thomas, 2006). He comes to the conclusion that creations have a proportion of God’s likeness, but only beings with intellectual capacity are a direct image of God. Aquinas’ philosophies are supported by the belief that faith and reason are not distinct but should always go together. He believed that knowledge is very crucial when it comes to the act of faith. He affirms that faith is an act that involves rationale to an extent since its purpose is the truth. People cannot grasp God as an entity with faith only, but through reason, we can comprehend his being directly. Aquinas thought that all worlds, both divine and natural, originated from God and hence revelation and reason are not supposed to conflict.

Augustine’s philosophy also asserts that humanity exists in the mind hence it is the locus of the image of God. Augustine states, “Some things are made conformable to that first form such as rational and intelligent creatures, among whom a man is rightly said to be made in the image and likeness of God” (Augustinus, 1953). He states that man is in the image of God because God gave him intellect which makes him superior from the animals. He asserts that the image of God is not seen in the mind merely because it understands or loves itself but because it also understands and loves God its creator (Augustinus, 1953). For him, the mind does not exist without self-love, knowledge, and faith in the being. He identifies the aspects that enable us to imagine God is on knowledge, mind, and love; the trinity possesses mutual relations that make it inseparable. The knowledge of oneself is nonexistent without the mind and self-love, and love of oneself cannot exist without the mind or knowledge. Augustine asserts that the trinity is the reason for the image of God to be seen in human beings.

Augustine asserts that to know God through our mind’s ability to know itself makes us in the image of God. He holds that images of things in our minds is better than the things themselves. The human mind is the locus of knowledge and reason, and God’s image living in our minds holds a connection with him. He continues that we can only be in his image and can never be God because we can never be able to know him as he knows himself (Augustinus, 1953). The mind has a unique connection with itself because of the ability to understand and remember. Augustine insists that only man is in the perfect image of God because he is more connected to God than any other being. He believes that even angels are not more in the image of God than a human being. He states “…every natural being, that is, every spiritual and corporeal existent, is good by nature” (Augustinus, 1953). According to Augustine, in the beginning, God created human nature as good after his own likeness. He believes in the goodness of humanity as it was originally molded in the image of God. Augustine also attributed other aspects of the mind to God’s original image of human beings which are conscience and free will. The ability of man to know good and evil through his conscience is human nature in the image of God. He asserts that the ability of the mind to know itself and know it has will are God’s designs in his likeness.

In assessing Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae comparable elements with Augustine’s patristic thought, the text holds similar rudiments and also subtle differences in their understanding of God as the original image that all were created after. They both believe that God is the exemplar of all created things likeness; that creation is an imitation of God’s image. They have different understandings in some of their philosophies due to their perceptions of reason and faith. Augustine solidified the Trinitarian formula of the image of God which includes intellect, memory, and will whereas Aquinas extends the structural definition in the man’s intellectual capacity and reason. Summa Theologiae further elaborates that the trinity comprises of love, awareness and the mind. They agree that the image of God is in the mind and when we know and love God we are to the utmost perfection of His image. They both consider God to be the ultimate entity of the acts of will and intellect. Despite the comparisons, Aquinas perception on the source of the knowledge originates from senses whilst Augustine relies on the divine illumination and goodness of humanity. Aquinas is more inclined to the direct relation of both reason and faith while Augustine believes in faith first before reason comes into play. Summa Theologiae expounds on intellectual capacity and the seamless amalgamation of both faith and reason hence the most perfect intellectual nature is closest to the image of God. In general, their philosophies have been comprehensively important to the metaphysical development as their understanding and ideas of the image of God have assisted in the advancement of theology and philosophy.

Works CitedAugustinus, A. (1953). Augustine Earlier Writings. (J. H. Burleigh, Ed.) London: Westminister Press. Retrieved June 24, 2017

Thomas, A. S. (2006). Summa Theologiae: Volume 13, Man Made to God’s Image. (E. Hill, Ed.) New York: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved June 24, 2017