Sunday, August 24, 2008

Theology of St. Thomas - Christ as Head of the Church and of All Men (Part One)

When we speak of Christ as the Head of the Church, we are sometimes careless about what the phrase means. In ST III Q8 A3, St. Thomas shows us how to think carefully about it. In answer to objections that Christ is not the Head of all men, he writes:
On the contrary, It is written (1 Timothy 4:10): "Who is the Saviour of all men, especially of the faithful," and (1 John 2:2): "He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world." Now to save men and to be a propitiation for their sins belongs to Christ as Head. Therefore Christ is the Head of all men.
The typical Protestant approach to these passages is to "explain" them by claiming that they really mean the exact opposite of what they say. So we'll hear them claim something along the lines that because some men go to hell, Christ cannot be their Savior, and therefore (despite the entirely clear words chosen by the Apostle) "all men" only refers to the elect. And so, similarly, do they abuse the words of St. John, turning Scripture on its head for the sake of their theories of Christ's Headship. St. Thomas elucidates:
This is the difference between the natural body of man and the Church's mystical body, that the members of the natural body are all together, and the members of the mystical are not all together--neither as regards their natural being, since the body of the Church is made up of the men who have been from the beginning of the world until its end--nor as regards their supernatural being, since, of those who are at any one time, some there are who are without grace, yet will afterwards obtain it, and some have it already. We must therefore consider the members of the mystical body not only as they are in act, but as they are in potentiality [emphasis added].
This has the virtue of seeming pretty obvious, once it's pointed out. Christ is the Head of the Church, but he's not merely her Head at any specific moment: rather, he is her Head throughout time. Consequently it ought to be clear that we have to think about the members of the Body of Christ not only with respect to those who are Christians (whether alive on earth or in heaven) already, but we must think about them with respect to those who are in potentiality to being Christians: those who have not yet believed, or those who have not yet been born. But not only this. Because even with respect to those who have died already and may be in hell, there was a time when they too were still in potentiality with respect to being members of the Church.
Hence we must say that if we take the whole time of the world in general, Christ is the Head of all men, but diversely. For, first and principally, He is the Head of such as are united to Him by glory; secondly, of those who are actually united to Him by charity; thirdly, of those who are actually united to Him by faith; fourthly, of those who are united to Him merely in potentiality, which is not yet reduced to act, yet will be reduced to act according to Divine predestination; fifthly, of those who are united to Him in potentiality, which will never be reduced to act; such are those men existing in the world, who are not predestined, who, however, on their departure from this world, wholly cease to be members of Christ, as being no longer in potentiality to be united to Christ [emphasis added].
As far as I'm concerned this shows a lot more respect for the text of Scripture than the Protestant efforts I've seen and previously believed (as described above).

With regard to the unbaptized, St. Thomas says
Those who are unbaptized, though not actually in the Church, are in the Church potentially. And this potentiality is rooted in two things--first and principally, in the power of Christ, which is sufficient for the salvation of the whole human race; secondly, in free-will.
And with regard to the fact that there are tares in the Church:
To be "a glorious Church not having spot or wrinkle" is the ultimate end to which we are brought by the Passion of Christ. Hence this will be in heaven, and not on earth, in which "if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves," as is written (1 John 1:8). Nevertheless, there are some, viz. mortal, sins from which they are free who are members of Christ by the actual union of charity; but such as are tainted with these sins are not members of Christ actually, but potentially; except, perhaps, imperfectly, by formless faith, which unites to God, relatively but not simply, viz. so that man partake of the life of grace. For, as is written (James 2:20): "Faith without works is dead." Yet such as these receive from Christ a certain vital act, i.e. to believe, as if a lifeless limb were moved by a man to some extent.
It's wrongheaded to suppose that the presence of sinners in the visible Church somehow justifies the Protestant notion of the "invisible Church."

Unfortunately most Protestant critics of the Church don't bother to try to understand the sort of important distinctions that St. Thomas makes here. Consequently for the sake of avoiding the appearance of being universalists, they will just deny what the Bible plainly says, rather than seeking to understand how it can be that God can say that Christ is the Savior of all men even though some men go to hell. I think the same sort of response must be made regarding their treatment of the distinction between the formal and the material. So James Swan supposes that he has discovered a "hole" in the teaching of the Church when he finds Catholics disagreeing over the meaning of Dei Verbum.

No. He misunderstands (or is unaware of) what we believe concerning implicit faith. But this post is already long enough. Part Two coming up.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Thanks. And a much better way to spend your time than becoming buried in the inanities of Beggar's All or worse, TAO's blog.

BTW: Those who are unbaptized, though not actually in the Church, are in the Church potentially. And this potentiality is rooted in two things--first and principally, in the power of Christ, which is sufficient for the salvation of the whole human race; secondly, in free-will.

I would read this as saying, "everyone is an implied Christian vis a via Archbishop Sheen. Overall he just sounds Thomist, I could never convince myself anything he taught was unorthodox.


Reginald de Piperno said...

Hello Martin,

Thanks for your kind words :-) I'm going to do my best to dispense with the aforementioned Protestant complainers. I have an added incentive; Maritain seems to have suggested that studying apologetics is bad for one's faith, and that instead we ought to focus upon studying the Faith. I don't have a link directly to where he said that, but I found it mentioned in a comment over at Just Thomism (linked in the sidebar).

I would read this as saying, "everyone is an implied Christian

I agree that there is a sense in which we must say this, and I think that this presents a scandal to the black-and-white Protestant. I'm not enough of a philosopher to be certain about this, but if I understand things correctly, their inability to think in such categories seems to be nominalist.

I apologize if I've erroneously given you the impression that I questioned Archbishop Sheen's orthodoxy on anything. I have no reason to do so, particularly since I've never read any of his works and know very little about him. I do know this, though: back in the 50s his TV program was higher-rated than Milton Berle's(!), and when Uncle Miltie was asked about it, he said of the Archbishop, "He has better writers!"



Mike Burgess said...

Abp. Sheen was marvelous. His book "The World's First Love" is indispensible, in my opinion.

Indeed, there were tremendous droves of Protestants who loved watching "Life Is Worth Living" and the subsequent ABC show, "The Fulton Sheen Show," at one point drawing 10,000,000 regular viewers. I wonder if Kennedy would have won if Sheen hadn't been as effective at disabusing many Protestants of commonly held objections (leaving aside whether he was the better candidate).

Anyway, I really enjoyed this post. I was unaware of how explicitly St. Thomas Aquinas had dealt with this once-vexing issue. Pray more and more Reformed people will follow the example of R.C. Sproul et alia in returning to the brilliance and wisdom of St. T.A. Pray also that a new resurgence of Scholasticism will help continue the reforming preservation in the Church which results from ressourcement.

Reginald de Piperno said...

Hi Mike,

I don't know if you saw it but recently TF had a post on the very topic you mention for prayer.


I will only say, if I may paraphrase something from the Mormons, "As Turretinfan is, I once was; as I am, Turretinfan may become." :-) May it please God to make it so.


Mike Burgess said...

Amen, and amen.