How Thomas Aquinas understood the Passion and the Trinity

How Thomas Aquinas understood the Passion and the Trinity

Father Dominic Legge, O.P., delivers the St. Thomas Day Lecture at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paul, Calif., Jan. 28, 2020. Photo courtesy of TAC.
Father Dominic Legge, O.P., delivers the St. Thomas Day Lecture at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paul, Calif., Jan. 28, 2020. Photo courtesy of TAC.

.- Countering a common charge of contemporary theologians, Fr. Dominic Legge, O.P., said Tuesday that St. Thomas Aquinas' account of the Passion is profoundly Trinitarian.

“St. Thomas’s understanding of the entirety of Christ’s life, and above all his passion and glorification, is deeply Trinitarian and offers valuable insights into these central mysteries of the faith,” Fr. Dominic said Jan. 28 during his lecture for St. Thomas Day at the Santa Paula, Calif., campus of Thomas Aquinas College.

“Indeed, especially in his Scripture commentaries, St. Thomas paints this crowning moment of Christ’s earthly life in vibrant, interpersonal Trinitarian color.”

The college celebrates the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas with Mass, a lecture, and leisure.

Fr. Dominic is director of the Thomistic Institute, and an assistant professor of systematic theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Before joining the Order of Preachers, he earned a JD at Yale Law School and practiced constitutional law for the US Department of Justice.

His lecture addressed Aquinas' treatment of Christ's Passion and the Trinity, noting that contemporary theologians commonly charge that the dumb ox did not sufficiently discuss the Trinity while speaking of the Passion.

“My goal is to bring to light Aquinas’s rich account of the cross of Christ as a Trinitarian mystery by which the Son saves us according to a Trinitarian pattern,” Fr. Dominic said.

The priest placed the Trinitarian aspects of the Passion within the context of the divine missions, saying that Christ's Passion is the center of the dispensation of salvation: “Through his passion, Christ manifests the Father, opens the way of our return to him, and, ascending into heaven body and soul, becomes the firstborn of the dead to enter into the Father’s glory.”

Fr. Dominic said that for St. Thomas, the Passion both manifests the mystery of the Trinity and draws us into that same mystery: “The resurrected Christ breathes forth the Holy Spirit in full to the Church, so that we too can share in the divine glory that the Son and Holy Spirit possessed with the Father before the foundation of the world.”

He added that the ultimate cause of the Passion, for Thomas, “is found precisely in the processions of the divine persons at the heart of the Triune mystery, the pattern according to which human beings come from God and that marks out the path of their return.”

The priest outlined six ways in which St. Thomas discusses the relation of the Passion to the Trinity: the Father's love at its origin; the relation of the Father's love to Christ's death; the Spirit and Christ's charity; Christ's obedience to the Father; Christ's cry to the Father from the cross; and the Passion as glorification.

Fr. Dominic noted that in commenting on John 3:16, Thomas referred the verse to the cross, saying it “involves the greatest love because of who is loving – the Father – and who is given to the world: the Son in person, in his divine mission, which culminates in him being 'handed over for us all' in his passion,” which “ produces the greatest possible fruit: the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

He continued to discuss the Father's love, saying that for Aquinas, the Father “does not will Christ’s death or suffering as such; he wills that Christ would have such a perfect charity for us that he would even expose himself to death for our sake.”

“Note the Trinitarian theology that informs Aquinas’s text,” Fr. Dominic said. “The Father is the ultimate origin of Christ’s will to take up the cross, both as God and as man. In generating the Son, the Father gives him 'from all eternity the will of assuming flesh and suffering for us,' and inspires the Son with perfect charity, so that he is willing to suffer and die for our sake.”

Discussing Thomas' Commentary on Romans, the priest said that “Aquinas’s choice of words evokes the invisible mission of the Holy Spirit, since Christ’s human charity is the effect of the Holy Spirit’s proper and personal presence.  By tracing this charity back to the Father, Aquinas is also underlining that every effect of the Spirit’s presence in Christ’s humanity is therefore also from the Father.”

Paying attention to the human nature of Christ, St. Thomas taught that the gifts of the Holy Spirit “ensure that Christ as man wills what God wills according to the mode in which God wills it” and that “the Holy Spirit’s impulse activates Christ’s human will from within, to perform a supremely free human act.”

Continuing to discuss Christ's humanity, Fr. Dominic said that “the incarnation reveals and makes present in a new way the eternal procession of the Son (who then sends the Holy Spirit). Christ’s humanity is marked, to the depths of its being, with the Son’s filial mode; in all that Christ is and does, he is from the Father and is oriented to the Father.”

Because the Son has nothing he has not received from the Father, “the divine will to save us through the cross is found first in the Father, and because the Father inspires Christ as man with charity by giving him the Holy Spirit.”

“To St. Thomas’s mind, the Father’s command neither constrains Christ nor negates his human will, but is rather the Father’s plan for our salvation, which the Son embraces with the perfect charity given him in the Holy Spirit’s invisible mission,” Fr. Dominic stated.

Thus for Aquinas, the cross reveals to the world the love of the divine persons for one another.

Fr. Dominic said that Christ's cry, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me” is regarded by St. Thomas “ as revealing a deep mystery to us, one bracketed by two Christological errors,” either that “the Word, as Word, is abandoned by God” or that it is “spoken by a man who could be separated from God.”

“Aquinas’s solution is that the person of the Word says this as man,” the priest explained. “That is, the subject who speaks is the incarnate Son; he speaks in his human nature, with reference to his humanity’s relation to the Father, not to the Word’s relation to the Father in the divinity.”

Referring to Thomas' commentary on the Psalms, Fr. Dominic said the cry refers to Christ's suffering in the passion, which is permitted by the Father, and it does not have reference “to any separation from God.”

“For Aquinas, then, Christ’s cry from the cross is a revelation and an instruction,” he stated. “It manifests the depth of the mystery of the incarnation, the reality of Christ’s suffering as man, the magnitude of his love for us and for the Father, and, finally, his human confidence in and obedience to the Father.”

Turning finally to Christ's petition about glorification during his prayer for his disciples in John 17, Fr. Dominic said that “for St. Thomas, this petition englobes both the passion itself and the exaltation of Christ in the resurrection, ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit, and it is marked with major Trinitarian themes.”

Christ is glorified by the Father, and the cross is glorious “because it is the culminating moment of Christ’s own self-revelation and self-manifestation: of his loving obedience” and “of his identity as the Son who is from the Father and thus, as man, is ordered entirely to the Father.”

“Perhaps the most fundamental dimension of the cross’s glory for Aquinas is that it reveals the Triune God,” Fr. Dominic concluded.

The Passion and the Resurrection demonstrate Jesus' glory, which reveals that he is the Son. This in turn implies the Holy Spirit, “whose interior illumination causes others to recognize Christ – and especially Christ crucified and raised – as the divine Son.”

Moreover, the Passion and Resurrection reveal the Father, because it is only in his relation to the Father that the Son is the Son.

“Finally, Aquinas concludes by tracing this glorification back to the Father as its origin,” said. Fr. Dominic. “Christ Jesus is made glorious by the Father who has sent him in the glory of the Son, a glory that is from the Father.”

Tags: Thomas Aquinas College, TAC, Fr. Dominic Legge