20 October, 2004

Aquinas is a genius...

...but you probably knew that already.

(Before I get to the main point: Go Sox! People who don't know baseball won't understand; those who do, will.)

A couple of weeks ago, I was in a Catholic bookstore and after finding what I wanted, I started browsing (always a bad idea). I happened upon the book Aquinas: On Reasons for our Faith Against the Muslims, Armenians and Greeks. That's what the cover says, anyway; Aquinas' actual title was a little more nuanced (and long-winded).

I was reading this book in chapel tonight, and that's what prompted all of the following.

I have always found "the satisfaction theory" to be one of the less convincing arguments as to why Jesus Christ had to die in order to save humanity. I've read St. Anselm's version of it and for some reason something failed to click. (Maybe I wasn't paying enough attention.)

In a grossly oversimplified nutshell: the notion is that human sin created "a legal imbalance" on God's ledger. Someone had to pay the debt that humanity had accumulated, which meant undergoing punishment for the sins of humanity. No one human could undergo it, because no one human could take upon himself the sins of humanity. Hence, Christ became man, and died for us.

Something about this has bothered me for a long, long time. It's seemed to me that the Orthodox criticism of this as overly legalistic, has merit. (That said, my experience with the Orthodox is that they insist on reducing all Catholic theology to Anselm's legalistic theory of divine atonement, as if his was the only word ever spoken on the subject. In this, I think they err.)

Enter Peter Abelard. I haven't actually read his argument, but my understanding of Abelard's argument is that it is somewhat similar to my own understanding. The way I've always thought of it, is that we were so blind and deaf in our sin, that only by committing Deicide could we be shocked into looking outside our own selfish pursuits, which will surely lead us to an eternal agony of isolation and despair, and in turning see that God reaches out not merely to save us, but to make us like himself.

I've always known that I have to accept "the satisfaction theory" to some extent, if only because the Scriptures themselves seem to make a stronger case for that than for my own understanding: consider Isaiah's Suffering Servant.

As I mentioned, I was in chapel tonight reading the aforementioned book, and this marvelous, lucid* text delves into this very question in

Chapter Seven: How the assertion:
the Word of God suffered and died, is to be understood,
and that nothing unfitting is involved in affirming this.

Obviously, I'm not going to reproduce the entire chapter here, but Aquinas' argument is built on several foundations.

The passage that I found illuminating is Aquinas' explanation of punishment. Sin occurs when our will seeks temporal goods instead of the spiritual goods it ought to seek. Very well: punishment seeks to move the will from a disordered state back to a proper state: either by deprivation of the goods which [the sinner] wishes to have or by the infliction of evils which he is naturally disinclined to endure.

Right away I find this more convincing than a divine accounting ledger or a legalistic fiat. (To be fair to Anselm, the "accounting ledger" was how it was explained to me when I was a young Southern Baptist.)

Only now do the usual arguments appear: no man can either suffer the necessary deprivation, nor endure the necessary infliction of evils for his own will to be restored to the order justice, and hence it was necessary for God himself to suffer in man's place: by uniting himself to man in Jesus Christ.

I'm not explaining it very well, I think, but there is something of a marriage of Anselm and Abelard in this, especially if we compare it to Aquinas' discourse in chapter five on why God became man, such as:
[N]othing could be more effective in stimulating our love for God than that the Word of God, through whom all things were made, should for the reparation of our nature assume it, such that the same person might be God and man.

To those who study philosophy and theology, and who can quote Aquinas like my roommate quotes baseball statistics, it's doubtless evident that I'm a rank amateur, and perhaps it is evident as well that I've got quite a few misconceptions about the ideas of Anselm, Abelard, and Aquinas.

Nevertheless, there is something beautiful and uplifting about reading these thoughts. Reading insightful books like this, I feel as if a calm light begins to radiate in front of me, and draws me closer to God. That's a sense I often get when I am reading the best that Catholic thinkers can offer, or when I read about some of the saints (esp. St. Bernadette's visions and her subsequent suffering).

*It may seem lucid to me because I've studied enough philosophy to understand some of Aquinas' jargon.

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