Friday, December 23, 2011

Aquinas and Christmas

Like the great councils of Nicea, Constantinople I, Ephesus, Chalcedon, and Constantinople III, Aquinas addressed, in his own theory of the Incarnation, many of the Christological concerns that had been prevalent during the patristic period. Indeed, one way to see what he is doing is to try to do justice in a philosophical framework to the insights of these great councils, seeing Christ as having both a human nature and a divine nature and these as united in the one person of the divine Word, each with its own characteristic activity and operations. In my previous paper, I showed how the councils just mentioned addressed these concerns; in the present paper my concern will be to show first of all how Aquinas addresses these. As his own views entail that in some sense Christ is not a human person, I will also show how Aquinas can maintain this in light of Christ’s full humanity. Similarly, in regards to Christ’s full divinity and full humanity, I will describe how it is that Aquinas thinks Christ’s human will can be the principle of its own self-determining action but always as an instrument of and in cooperation with his divine will.

In the Incarnation, what is most essential perhaps is that God becomes man. However, to do justice to the divine transcendence requires explaining this in a way that does not impinge on the transcendence and immutability of God. The distinction between the two natures in Christ provides the beginning of a way to do justice to this. Since God qua God – that is, as existing in and through the divine nature – cannot change, then it must be something else that undergoes a change, since obviously some change does occur with the advent of the Incarnation. So it must be the Creation itself which undergoes change, not the Creator. After all, one can say that the divine Word does change in the sense that at one time certain predicates (such as being a man) cannot be applied to the Word but then later one is indeed able to apply such predicates. But that is compatible with there being no actual change in the Word himself as existing in his divine nature since the change which results in a change in which predicates can be appropriately applied may be in something outside of that divine nature.

This change, which is not in the Word in his divinity but in creation, involves the creation by God of a human nature in personal dependence on the Word as the Word’s own. A bit of creation, in this way, has been taken into the divine life, conjoined to God. It is not a pre-existing human nature but a created nature created precisely as a way of being for the divine Word, itself dependent upon the Word and lacking its own separate individual existence distinct from and apart from the Word since it is itself a mode of the Word’s own existing.

For Aquinas, this change in creation and subsequent relation of dependence of the humanity of the Word on the person of the Word involves the coming into being of new mixed relations rather than relations in which each term is really related to the other. Instead, the human nature is really related to the Word as one of its two modes of existence. The relation is real in it as it comes into existence united to the Word. This involves a real effect in the humanity without a change or any kind of effect in the Word in his divine existence, guaranteeing thus both the possibility of full humanity and full divinity since the two natures thus remain unmixed yet united in the one person of the Word, the human nature subject to change and really related to the divine but the divine nature still immutable and only in ideal relation to the human nature, the relation being in the human nature alone. Because God thus remains immutable in becoming human, we can truly say that it is God in Christ who has become a mutable man, not some other entity which in becoming a human would be subject to change and hence devoid of the divine transcendence proper to God. This works precisely because it is one and the same divine Word who, in addition to his divine nature, has conjoined to him a human nature in addition, thus permitting the communication of idioms when speaking of Christ.

Christ has a full human nature, however, composed of a fully human soul united to a fully human body. The problem is having this body/soul compound and full humanity in Christ yet not have it constitute its own person in addition to the divine person of the Word. A Boethian conception of personhood would let any concrete nature capable of consciousness and freedom to be a person, in which case there would be a human person in addition to divine person of the Word. Aquinas, however, requires of personhood or being a hypostasis that it be complete and existing independently of other things. In this sense, there is only one person in Christ for Aquinas, the divine person of the Word.

A union of joined body and soul, however, would in normal circumstances result in the existence of a human person. In Christ there is no such person but only a human nature since the human nature of Christ does not exist apart from all other hypostases but instead exists only in dependence on the person or hypostasis of the Word. Otherwise, the human nature would have its own human person, existing apart from the Word. The divine person, then, takes the place of the human person, preventing the human nature of Christ from being the mode of existence of a separate human person. If we understand a human person as a human nature existing hypostatically in itself, then on Aquinas’s view, there is no human person of Christ, only a divine person existing compositely in both divine and human natures.

For Aquinas, a person or hypostasis is not equivalent to the modern notion of a personality or a stream of consciousness but an individual existent. Personhood is a matter of who, not of what. The hypostasis of someone specifies who it is, its nature specifies what it is, giving the way in which that who exists. Being fully human, however, is a matter of what one is – one’s nature – not who one is – one’s hypostasis. Whether or not the person who has the human nature is divine or human does not impact the full humanity of that person, since being a divine person in no way effects what that person is. Insofar as they have a full, working human nature, that person is thereby fully human. The absence of a human person does not, in Christ, involve an absence of anything in his humanity but rather is the result of its addition to the divine person. Christ, then, is fully human and in that sense, subsisting in a human nature, can be said to be a human person. But Christ’s personhood does not arise from the human nature on its own, existing apart from everything else, and in that sense Christ is not a human person, but in such a way that his full humanity remains intact.

All this shows, then, that on Aquinas’s views it is truly God who is redeeming us as a man, but in such a way that the divine Word retains his divine transcendence and yet also possesses full humanity and unites both divinity and humanity in a single person. To show, however, that Jesus’ humanity is truly a mediator in our salvation and not simply an instrument of God (and hence is a full humanity and able to save human beings through his life, death, and resurrection), Aquinas must elaborate a dyothelite position which allows for truly human acting and willing. Otherwise, the divine will and activity crowd out the human and it becomes the divine nature alone which is active, the human nature being merely a passive participant and not a truly human source of human willing and human activity. It is the human suffering and willing of the divine Word in a genuinely human fashion that is redemptive, after all.

In Aquinas’s view, it seems that there is first of all a coordination of the divine will and human will in Christ rooted precisely in the fact that it is one person who possesses both wills, both principles of genuinely divine and human activity. The human will of Christ receives its principle of activity and is moved towards the intentions of God by the divine will. In this way, the human will of Christ acts as an instrument of the divine will in bringing about the divine ends. It is not a mere instrument, however, as the actions of the human nature of Christ are mediated by his human will, which is free and self-determining. It is, hence, a conjoined will as the will of the very divine person using it as an instrument, but also an instrument of the rational order with its own principle of action moved via that principle by another principle of action, the divine. It is hence not passive in this interaction but actively pursues and chooses for itself the intentions and goals of the divine will.

The human will of Christ, hence, is moved by the divine will to freely act and is graced by God in its hypostatic union with the person of the Word with the grace necessary to do so. This grace perfects in some way the human nature of Christ, as human nature is always perfected through the infusion of divine grace, which thereby makes Christ’s will free to always follow the good. In this sense of freedom, freedom to do the good, the hypostatic union and corresponding instrumentality of the human will of Christ in fact guarantee the freedom of that will rather than take away from it. The divine will, then, moves the human will of Christ towards freely pursuing the good and the divine ends, but through the self-determining and active principles of the human nature, not directly and without that mediation. As a conjoined will being used by a divine will, the influence of that divine will is one from the inside (internal to that person), as it were, not an external or coercive one. This may very well require, as perhaps Aquinas, White and Crowley seem to think (see, for instance, White 415, 421), a progressive human knowledge in Christ of who he is and of God’s will in given situations, graced upon him as part of the cooperation of his human nature with his divine, thus helping to secure a psychological unity for Christ as a single, integrated person of unmixed humanity and divinity. As already said, this grace perfects Christ’s humanity rather than detracts from it. By always being aware of the good and will of God, Christ, because of his graced human nature and will, always acts in accordance with the good and divine will, the human and divine wills thus being coordinated and yet their own principles of genuinely free activity in the person of Christ.

The person of the divine Word, then, acts as a single person precisely through this coordinated cooperation of his two natures and two wills. The Word is fully God, transcendent and unchanging even in the Incarnation. The Word is fully human, possessed of a union of body and soul with a functioning human life and active, self-determining will. It is one divine person who exists in and acts through each of these natures; there is not a distinct human person in Christ. Hence, it is in Christ truly God who redeems and truly through his own humanity and its activities and will that he does so. Aquinas appears, then, to have further elaborated and defended the very balancing of the various Christological concerns that was so vigorously defended by the great councils of the church.

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