March 7th, Traditional Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas
At Fossa Nuova in the year 1274, having received Holy Viaticum and hearing read the Song of Solomon while commenting on the same sacred text which speaks of the love of Christ and the soul, passed into eternal life the Angelic Thomas, Common Doctor of the Universal Church.
St. Thomas Aquinas, known primarily for his systematic and dogmatic theology and, especially, for his supreme and most enlightened work the Summa Theologica, was in his own life recognized as a Master of Sacred Scripture. The primary work in which he was employed was not composition of dogmatic treatises like the Summa Contra Gentiles and the Summa Theologica, but rather lecturing to university students on the Bible.
The Angelic Doctor was a Scripture commentator and, if we admit (as do the Popes and saints) that the Doctor of the Angels is the greatest theologian in the history of the Church, we must likewise assert that he is the supreme biblical scholar of our tradition – for Scripture is the soul of all theology.
We do well then, on this day in which we remember our Saint, to consider how he read the New Testament. Perhaps his little outline will serve as a roadmap for our own study and prayer.
The Division of Sacred Scripture
The “textual division” of the scholastic period was an interpretive device employed by the biblical commentator to bring out the inherent logic of the sacred text by identifying the principle theme of a given book and then dividing and subdividing the text into smaller and smaller logical unites, often even beyond the point of the modern division into verse.
Each of these units stand in relation to those around it and, indeed, to the entire book. In this way, no text of Scripture can be read in isolation from the whole.
Not only does this tool ensure that no passage of Scripture will be singled out and interpreted apart from the whole, but because the interpretive key of the division is often based on the intention of the human author (or at least on what the scholastic commentator perceived to be the human author’s intention) this tool continually places each passage, indeed each word, of Scripture in the context of the human author’s intention according to which the given book was written.
This tool can be understood best when we see it applied. It may be likened in some respect to the modern idea of an outline.
St. Thomas’ roadmap
In his final exam which won him the title of Doctor of Theology, the young Angel of the Schools states:
“The New Testament, which is ordered to eternal life not only through precepts but also through the gifts of grace, is divided into three parts. In the first the origin of grace is treated, in the Gospels. In the second, the power of grace, and this in the epistles of Paul, hence he begins in the power of the Gospel, in Romans 1:16 saying, For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes. In the third, the execution of the aforesaid virtues is treated, and this in the rest of the books of the New Testament.”
Thus, we see the New Testament divided into three parts
I. The Gospels: The source of grace, Christ himself
II. The Letters of St. Paul: The grace of Christ in itself
III. The rest: The execution of the power of grace in the Church
Now, let us consider each of these parts in detail.
The source of all grace: Christ our Savior
It is clear that Christ is the source of all grace, but in Christ there are two natures: Human and divine. Therefore, John wrote principally of his divine nature, while the other Evangelists focused primarily on his human nature.
But, in the Sacred Humanity of our Savior, we can see a threefold dignity: For he is priest, prophet and king. Thus Matthew wrote of his royal dignity and shows in the beginning how he descended from kings and was adored by Magi kings, Mark speaks of his prophetic dignity by beginning which Christ’s preaching of the Gospel and the call to repentance, and Luke shows our Savior a priest by beginning and ending with the Temple.
I. The source of grace, Christ himself
A. Divinity: John
1. Priest: Luke
2. Prophet: Mark
3. King: Matthew
The grace of Christ
The division of the letter of the Pauline Corpus is rather intricate. We will simply state the first division and will then reproduce the outline.
We consider the grace of Christ in three respects: As it is in the Head of the Mystical Body, as it is in the Body itself, as it is in the principle members of that Body. The outline follows (taken from St. Thomas’ commentary on the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans):
I. The grace of Christ in itself
A. Grace as it exists in the Head, Christ himself (Hebrews)
B. Grace as it exists in the Mystical Body itself
1. The grace of Christ in itself (Romans)
2. Grace in relation to the sacraments
a. The nature of the sacraments (1 Corinthians)
b. The ministers of the sacraments (2 Corinthians)
c. Superfluous sacraments rejected (Galatians)
3. Grace in relation to the unity it produces in the Church
a. The establishment of ecclesial unity (Ephesians)
b. Its consolidation and progress (Philippians)
c. Its defense
i. Its defense against errors (Colossians)
ii. Its defense against persecutions
- Against present persecutions (1 Thessalonians)
- Against future persecutions (2 Thessalonians)
C. Grace as it exists in the principle members
1. Spiritual principle members
a. Establishing, preserving and governing ecclesial unity (1 Timothy)
b. Resistance against persecutors (2 Timothy)
c. Defense against heretics (Titus)
2. Temporal principle members (Philemon)
The power of grace in the life of the Church
Now the power of grace is shown in the progress of the Church. In this we make three distinctions. For we consider the beginning of the Church, her progress, and also the end of the Church at the conclusion of time.
The beginning of the Church is shown in the Acts of the Apostles, but her progress is shown in the Canonical Epistles. While the whole of Scripture concludes with the book of Revelation in which the Church is shown as the spouse of Christ who will share in his glory for all eternity.
III. The power of grace in the life of the Church
1. The beginning of the Church: Acts of the Apostles
2. The progress of the Church: The Canonical Epistles
3. The final glory of the Church: Revelation
Reading Scripture profitably
This method of reading Scripture is most useful insofar as it holds the whole of Scripture together as a single unified and organic “whole”. Indeed, one of the great problems in today’s modern(ist) approach to theology and to the Bible is that individual verses and books are separated from the rest of Scripture. Thus the Sacred Word becomes only a dead letter.
The Spirit, who is the primary author of all Scripture and who directed each of the human authors so that the Bible would come together into a unified whole, this selfsame Spirit of Christ alone gives life.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Pray for us!