Maccovius on Whether We Will Fully Comprehend God

Jan Makowski (1588–1644), better known by the Latinized version of his name, Johannes Maccovius, addresses the question of whether we will fully comprehend God in the future life. Answering in the negative, he draws an important distinction between an “essential imperfection” of a creature (i.e., something which is only an imperfection when considered in comparison to God) and a “privative imperfection” (i.e., something properly belonging to a creature, but which it now lacks).

But whatever imperfection is essential to a creature (which is called an imperfection not in comparison with creatures, but with respect to God), is only a denial of the highest perfection, that is, it only means that the creature is not God. If this imperfection were removed, we, in consequence, would be gods; this would be absurd and blasphemous in both speech and thought. On the other hand, a privative imperfection, which denotes a certain lack in the creature when compared with itself, that is, when we consider that a creature is not as perfect as it could be while yet remaining a creature – every imperfection of this kind will be taken away. For example, whatever could perfect the body, in such a way that the body does not cease to be a body (for perfection does not destroy but adorns its subject), and whatever could perfect the soul, in such a way that the soul does not cease to be a soul, will be present in the future life.

And so, it remains to ask: does it pertain to the perfection of the soul that we comprehend the essence of God? I respond, it does not reasonably seem so, the reason for this being that the incomprehensible cannot be comprehended.

— Loci communes theologici (Franeker, 1650), 886

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Cassiodorus’ Monks on 1 Cor 2:8 and God’s Suffering

In 1 Corinthians 2:8, the apostle Paul states that the “Lord of glory” was crucified. This led to certain difficulties on the part of interpreters, wondering how God – who is invincible and immortal – could be said to be crucified, and die. Here are the comments of monks from the monastery of Squillace in southern Italy, founded by Cassiodorus (d.c.580), writing toward the end of the sixth century. They profit from the clarity achieved on such matters by the councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451).

“For if they had known, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory. . . .’” The Lord of glory – and both by merit and nature the Lord of every creature – was made the man Jesus, in whom God could in some way be crucified. “For this reason God also raised him up, and gave him the name that is above every name,” because of the unity of the person (Phil 2:9). God is said to be crucified and the Son of Man to be in the heavens, while when this one was called Lord he was bodily upon the earth. Seeing that Christ, therefore, is a true human being and true God, one person out of a twofold substance, and God a human being, and the same one is king of glory, the Lord of power was not crucified, due to his invincible divinity, yet he was crucified as a man, due to the unity of the person. And so, in a wondrous and unfathomable way God suffered, yet divinity did not suffer. (PL 68:511)

What Makes Theology ‘Biblical’?

What is it that makes theology ‘biblical’? Is a chain of quotations from the Bible a more biblical theology than one that paraphrases the biblical text, or submits its concepts to scrutiny by the biblical text even though it makes use of other language? This conclusion of Wilhelmus G.B.M. Valkenberg on the “biblical theology” of Thomas Aquinas is quite a challenge to what is often said about his work:

The characteristic of ‘biblical theology’ is but loosely connected with the presence of many explicit quotations from Scripture; it is mainly based on the theologically primary function of Scripture as source and framework of theology. As the tests thus far have shown, Scripture has such a function everywhere in Aquinas’ theology; it is more or less clearly expressed in relation to subject-matter and literary genre, but it can be discovered anywhere in a theological reading of Aquinas’ theological texts. In this respect, the Scriptural character of his theology is expressed more clearly in the Summa, but it is present in his earlier works as well. The Summa theologiae may be described as a concentration on the heart of the matter in Aquinas’ theology, not only because it is a work for beginners in theology, who should know the basic auctoritates, but also because Aquinas lectured on Scripture and used Scripture progressively as normative source and framework in his theology. (Words of the Living God: Place and Function of Holy Scripture in the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (Leuven: Peeters, 2000), 189)

Schmaus on Christ’s Relationship to Creatures

I’m not sure I buy all the implications Michael Schmaus (1897-1993) wants to draw from this, writing soon after Vatican II on non-Christian religions, but there’s something very true and beautiful in the thought itself:

. . .Christ, the unsurpassable and universal self-revelation of God, exists for the sake of all [people]. Thus Christ is not, as the word ‘absolute’ taken literally seems to suggest, without relationships. On the contrary, in the whole of creation he is the figure who is richest in relationships and possesses the most intimate relationships.

— Dogma, vol. 1, God and Revelation (NY: Sheed & Ward, 1968), 161

Aquinas on Theologians and the Spirit

In one of his relatively late Quodlibetal Questions, from Advent 1270,1 Thomas Aquinas addresses the question whether all that holy teachers have said has been spoken by the Holy Spirit (XII, q. 17). This is a tremendously important question, since it bears on the authority of theologians and the work of the Spirit in the divine economy. If theologians also speak by the Holy Spirit, how are their words to be distinguished from Scripture? or prophecy?

Questions are then asked regarding four offices: first, the office of expositors of Holy Scripture [q. 17]; second, the office of preachers [q. 18]; third, the office of confessors [q. 19]; fourth, the office of vicars [q. 20].

[a. 1] To the first, it is asked whether everything the holy teachers have said, has been from the Holy Spirit.

It seems the answer is no.

This is because in their statements there are certain false things, for they sometimes disagree in their expositions. Now it is not possible for dissimilar or dissonant things to be true, since both sides of a contradiction cannot be true.

Against this, it pertains to one and the same thing to do something toward an end and to lead to that end. Now the end of Scripture, which is from the Holy Spirit, is human learning. But this human learning cannot come from the Scriptures except through the expositions of the saints. Therefore, the expositions of the saints are from the Holy Spirit.

I respond, it is to be said that the Scriptures are both declared and expounded from the Holy Spirit. This is why 1 Cor 2:14 says, “The natural person does not perceive the things that are of God, but the spiritual person judges all things,” especially those that relate to faith, since faith is a gift of God; and, therefore, the interpretation of words is listed among the other gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:10).

To the first [objection] is it to be said that charisms (gratiae gratis datae) are not habits (habitus), but are particular movements from the Holy Spirit–otherwise, if they were habits, the prophet would have revelation through the gift of prophecy whenever he wished, which is not the case. And so, in regard to the revealing of hidden matters, the mind is sometimes touched by the Holy Spirit and sometimes not, but certain things are hidden from it. This is why Elisha says, “the Lord has hidden it from me” (2 Kgs 4:27). They also sometimes say certain things from themselves; this is clear with Nathan, who counseled David to build the temple, but was later caught and, as it were, led back by God to prohibit David from doing this very thing on the part of God. But this, however, is to be maintained: that whatever is contained in Scripture is true; whoever thinks in opposition to this is a heretic. But expositors, in other matters that do not regard faith, have said many things from their own understanding, and so they could have erred in these matters. Nevertheless, the necessity of the statements of expositors does not imply that it is necessary to believe in them, but only in the canonical Scripture, which is in the Old and New Testament.

Aquinas’ response (which begins with “I respond. . .,” everything before that being arguments pro and con), emphasizes the unity of Scripture and the work of theologians, here characterized as the exposition of Scripture, in the activity of the Holy Spirit. Scripture is “declared” by the Holy Spirit; it is also “expounded” by the Holy Spirit in the work of theologians.

It is the “spiritual” person of 1 Cor 2:14, that is, the person with the Spirit, who is able to correctly understand the Spirit-given Scriptures. Interpreting these Scriptures is also a gift of the Spirit, as Aquinas reads 1 Cor 12:10. Again, Scripture and theology are tied together in the divine economy as objects of the Spirit’s work.

What is the difference then? In his response to the one objection, regarding contradictions in the writings of theologians, Aquinas argues that the ability to interpret Scripture is not a habitus, something we come to possess, but an interruptive gift, a charism, which the Spirit only sometimes allows us to exercise. The comparison with prophecy is suggestive: a prophet like Elisha cannot always see hidden matters, but only when the Spirit of God gives them this ability. This only happens “sometimes” (aliquando), not always. It also happens “sometimes” (aliquando) that instead of relying on the Spirit, prophets speak their own mind, such as in Nathan’s case before David.

This uncertainty in regard to the source of a theologian’s statements–themselves or the Spirit–requires discernment on the part of the student. But Aquinas circles back to the sure source: it is to be held that all that Scripture contains is true; to believe otherwise is heresy. Those who expound Scripture, insofar as what they say relates to faith, speak from the Holy Spirit as part of the Spirit’s twofold work of “declaring” and “expounding” Scripture in the divine economy, to the end of human learning for salvation.

Thus, the work of theologians is “necessary” in the economy, contributing to the end of educating human beings for their salvation, just as Scripture was given to this end. But this necessity does not imply that their words must be believed; faith is to be placed in canonical Scripture alone, contained in the Old and New Testaments.

1 Sandra Edwards, “Introduction,” in St Thomas Aquinas, Quodlibetal Questions 1 and 2, trans. Sandra Edwards (Toronto: PIMS, 1983), 6, citing Mandonnet, van Steenberghen and Weisheipl.

Lombard on the Necessity of Believing in Resurrection

At the very beginning of his treatment of resurrection, the final judgment, and heaven and hell in the Sentences (book IV, dist. 43-50), which will run to the end of his work, Peter Lombard (c.1096-1160) emphasizes the necessity, for Christians, of believing in the future resurrection. He begins:

Finally, we must briefly discuss the condition of resurrection, and the mode of those who will rise, and also the day of judgment and the quality of mercy. “I am unable to satisfy all the questions that are usually raised about this subject, but no Christian should in any way doubt that the flesh of all those who have been born and will be born, and have died and will die, will be resurrected” (Augustine, Enchiridion 23.84). For Isaiah says, “The dead will rise, and those who will be in the tombs will rise” (cf. 26:19).

To a quotation from Augustine’s famous treatment of resurrection in the Enchiridion, he adds biblical confirmation from Isaiah. Lombard then quotes 1 Thess 4:13-17, which gives him the framework for some of distinction 43 on the events surrounding the resurrection (the sound of the trumpet; the middle of the night; then, whether the elect will remember their past sins; those who will be found alive at Christ’s return; in what sense Christ is judge of “the living and the dead”; and that all will rise incorruptible). His first little chapter of the distinction thus concludes: “The truth of resurrection, and the cause and order of those who will rise, is very clearly insinuated in these words.”

The way Lombard begins his treatment of eschatology, quoting Augustine on the necessity of believing in the resurrection–“no Christian should in any way doubt” (nullatenus ambigere debet christianus; Augustine reads, nullo modo dubitare)–is highly instructive. In Christian theology from the Fathers through the Reformation, the resurrection was an indubitable article of faith. Yet it was–and is–also attended by numerous intellectual difficulties: What about those with physical deformities or scars? What about those who are stillborn? What age will one be in the resurrection? Lombard’s dist. 44, which deals with these questions, opens this way: “But some tend to hesitate and ask, at what age and in what bodily state will everyone be resurrected?”

These questions, arising from this “hesitation,” can only be asked on the basis of accepting that there will be a future resurrection–what Lombard calls the veritas resurrectionis, quite clearly insinuated in Is 26 and 1 Thess 4, for instance. How this resurrection will take place is the mystery, and the subject of many scholastic disputations. In modern theology, this intellectual difficulty and mystery begins to creep forward, into faith in the resurrection itself. The seemingly irresolvable difficulties attending the thought of the long dead rising in new bodies, the how, has been thought to challenge the that.

But this distinction is crucial to the New Testament witness about resurrection itself. That Jesus rose from the dead is the central confession of the entire New Testament; how he rises or the “mode” of his rising, why, that is, he sometimes goes unrecognized (Luke 24:16; John 20:14; 21:4) or can pass through closed doors (John 20:19) or disappear (Luke 24:31), is not explained to us. Because Jesus’ resurrection is the “firstfruits” and therefore model of our own (1 Cor 15:20), this is mirrored directly in the theology of our own, future resurrection.

The very layout of Lombard’s treatment of resurrection in book IV is, then, a reflection of the shape of the biblical witness: he begins with the necessity of believing in the resurrection on the basis of Scripture (dist. 43) before moving onto the difficulties implied by this belief, the questions for which Scripture offers no answer (dist. 44). Both of those are, further, encapsulated in the brief, opening quotation from Augustine. That we will rise is a basic Christian confession–“For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died” (1 Thess 4:14)–but how, the “mode” as Lombard calls it, is the mystery.

Gilbert Narcisse on the Reader of Scripture

One of my current projects is the translation of Gilbert Narcisse’s introduction to fundamental theology, Premiers pas en théologie (Paris: Parole et Silence, 2005), from French into English. Even in an introductory text, one finds a number of fascinating and creative thoughts. Here is Narcisse at the beginning of his section on Scripture:

The exegetical experience of the disciples of Emmaus implies that God becomes the reader of Scripture in Christ [Luke 24:27]. To explain Scripture, Jesus does not draw first of all on his divine knowledge but actually on his apprenticeship in the reading of the Torah, first as a child, then before the teachers at twelve years old, and finally in his adulthood. If Christ is fullness, then for the first time in the economy of salvation, Scripture is understood in this same fullness of the incarnate Word. In Christ there resides a fullness of the author and reader of Scripture. Christ is therefore the definitive measure of every understanding of Scripture. Jesus explains Scripture and bears it in this way into his fullness. Of course, Jesus did not read the New Testament. But it is in his act of reading the Old Testament that he realized the fullness expressed in the New Testament. This is why Jesus himself did not write: Scripture always has reference to a fullness which both passes through the letter and surpasses it. This power of the letter can be understood only as one enters into the trinitarian mystery.