St. Thomas claimed that the Transfiguration was a miracle; but the renowned biblical scholar Cornelius a’ Lapide (d. 1637) holds that it was not a miracle, but rather the cessation of a constant miracle – i.e. the miracle was that Christ did not always shine with the brilliance of his glory. First the two claims:
According to the Angelic Doctor
In the Transfiguration, the glory of the beatific vision (which Christ possessed in his soul since his conception) overflowed into Our Savior’s body not as an immanent quality but after the manner of a transient passion – in other words, the change was only temporary. Moreover, the glory shone in Christ’s body only according to the quality of “clarity” or “brightness” and not according to the other qualities (e.g. subtlety, agility, etc.).
This overflowing of glory was a foretaste of the Resurrection and was miraculous, since the glory of the Resurrection was to be merited by the Cross and it was only by a special divine dispensation that this glory should be experienced in part at the Transfiguration. Thus, the Transfiguration is properly a miracle as a clarity was given to the body of Christ in a most extraordinary manner before his glorification (ST III, q. 45, a. 2).
According to Cornelius a’ Lapide
In his commentary on Matthew, Lapide states that “this splendor, as well as the other gifts of a glorified body, appertained to the body of Christ throughout the whole time of His life, from the very moment of His Conception. Nevertheless, in order that Christ might suffer and have His conversation among men, this glory and all the other gifts which I have spoken of were held back, as it were, in the beatified soul of Christ, so that it did not infuse them into His body by means of a physical emanation. Otherwise they would have shone through His body, like light through a lantern. This repression, therefore, was a miracle. And the cessation of this repression in the Transfiguration, and emanation of the interior splendor into the body of Christ was the cessation of a miracle. But to men it seemed to be a miracle, because it was new, and they were ignorant of the cause.” Thus, he maintains that the Transfiguration was not a miracle, but the “cessation of a miracle,” i.e. the temporary relaxing of a constant miracle by which Christ held back the glory of his soul from his body.
The Transfiguration was a miracle
Lapide’s opinion, however, seems improbable. First, we must recognize that miracles are said to be of three types (ST I-II, q.113, a.10): the first sense of a miracle refers to those acts which can only be performed by God and which inspire wonder and awe in men, because their cause lies hidden (this is the broadest definition and would even include the creation of the world)—and in this sense, the Transfiguration was indeed a miracle and not the cessation of a constant miracle. In a second way, a miracle is said to be when a form is introduced to a body which is beyond the natural capacity of that body (e.g. the resurrection of the body or changing water to wine), in this sense the Transfiguration does not seem to be a miracle, since it is within the body is capable of glory without the addition of a new form. Finally, an event may be called miraculous when it occurs outside the usual order of things (e.g. ecstatic visions, healings, etc.) and in this sense the Transfiguration was miracle.
Moreover, it is in this final sense of “miracle” (an event which occurs outside the usual order of reality) in which an event is most properly called miraculous. Thus, it seems that the Transfiguration of our Lord was not the temporary cessation of a constant miracle, but was itself a miraculous event – this is especially true, considering that Our Savior had not yet merited the glory of his Resurrection through the sufferings of his Passion.