"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

— A Commentary on the Third Part of St Thomas' Theological Summa

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.


State of the question. This question is inserted here especially because of Origen's error that was condemned by Pope Vigilius in the following canon: "If anyone says or thinks that our Lord's soul existed and was united with God, the Word, prior to His incarnation and birth from the Virgin, let him be anathema."[758]

Origen said that Christ's soul was created at the beginning of the world, and by the performance of good works merited to be united hypostatically with the Word, and was de facto united with the Word, before it was united with the body in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. Hence Vigilius declared: "If anyone says or thinks that the body of our Lord Jesus Christ was first formed in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, and that afterward God the Word and the soul were united with it, as if He had already existed, let him be anathema."[759]

Hence the teaching of the Church as defined against Origen is that Christ's soul and body, or His entire humanity, was at the same moment assumed by the Word. St. Thomas explains this teaching of the Church especially in the third article of this question. In the other articles, however, especially in the fifth, he considers what was assumed by priority of nature, both on the part of the agent assuming and according to his intention, and thus the entire human nature of Christ was first assumed; and also he considers what was first assumed on the part of the subject assumed in the order of execution, and thus the parts were assumed before the whole, and so the soul was first assumed, and the body through the soul as intermediary, and finally the whole as resulting from each, or the complete human nature.

Thus this distinction being established between priority of time and priority of nature together with the aforesaid subdistinction, the whole of this question will be understood.

First Article: Whether The Son Of God Assumed Flesh Through The Medium Of The Soul

State of the question. In this article soul and body are compared in accordance with the natural order, and thus this article is distinct from the third, although for the benefit of the doctrine St. Thomas begins by distinguishing between the temporal order and the natural order.

There are two conclusions.

First conclusion. In the order of time the Word united the whole human nature of Christ to Himself simultaneously, at the very moment of the creation of Christ's soul.[760]

This conclusion is defined to be of faith against Origen.[761] It will be explained more fully farther on,[762] when St. Thomas, discussing Christ's conception, shows that it is contrary to the faith to say that Christ's flesh was first conceived and afterward was assumed by the Word of God. This assertion is against Photinus who said that Christ was first a mere man and afterward by the sanctity of His life came to be considered the Son of God.[763] In such a case, the Blessed Virgin would not be the Mother of God.

St. Thomas gives us the reason for this conclusion in these words: "If Christ's flesh had been conceived before being assumed by the Word, it would have been at some time a hypostasis other than that of the Word of God,"[764] and so there would have been two hypostases in the Word incarnate, or one would have been destroyed, which is not fitting. Hence Christ's entire humanity was simultaneously assumed.

Second conclusion. In the natural order, however, the Word instantaneously united the flesh with Himself, through the intermediary of the soul, since the soul is mediating link by reason of its dignity and causality. There is clearly here a distinction between priority of time, which is denied, and priority of nature which is affirmed, inasmuch as the very moment that Christ's soul was created, the Word assumed the flesh through the mediation of the soul; otherwise the flesh would not be human.

Third objection. It must be noted that St. Thomas says that, if the medium is taken away, then the extremes are separated. But the soul is taken away by death, though the union of the Word with the flesh still remains; for "what is bestowed through God's grace is never withdrawn except through fault."[765] Therefore the Word was not united with the flesh through the mediation of the soul.

Reply to third objection. The soul, before its separation from the body, rendered the latter apt for assumption, though it did not sever the union of the Word with the flesh; just as the loss of a woman's beauty, though this beauty contributed to her fittingness for marriage, does not sever the marriage bond.

Second Article: Whether The Son Of God Assumed A Soul Through The Medium Of The Spirit Or Mind

The purpose of this article is to explain the following text of St. Augustine, quoted in the counter-argument: "The invisible and unchangeable Truth took a soul by means of the spirit, and a body by means of the soul."

Conclusion. The Word assumed by means of the mind the other parts of the soul, just as He assumed the body by means of the soul, on account of the dignity of the order and the congruity of the assumption; for mind is the highest part of the soul in its relation to the sensitive soul.[766] What is meant by mind is the essence of the spiritual soul from which the higher faculties are derived, those that are purely spiritual, namely, the intellect and will.

Third Article: Whether The Soul Was Assumed Before The Flesh By The Son Of God

This article is strictly concerned with priority of time, for the purpose of denying such priority against Origen, and thus it differs from the first article. Origen not only maintained that all immortal souls were created in the beginning along with the angels, before they were united to bodies, but he also said this especially of Christ's soul, inasmuch as it is nobler than the angels.

Reply. The answer is that Christ's soul was not created prior to its union with the Word, and it is of faith, as evident from the condemnation of Origen by Pope Vigilius.[767]

In the counter-argument St. Thomas quotes the authority of St. John Damascene, who most clearly is against Origen's opinion.

Theological proof. It shows the unfittingness of Origen's view. It is derogatory to Christ's dignity to suppose that His soul was created before its assumption, because then it would have had its own subsistence, and hence there would be two subsistences in Christ, and two supposita, or else one subsistence would have been destroyed, which is unbecoming to Christ, as well as being a mere assertion without any foundation.

Likewise it is derogatory to Christ's dignity to suppose that His soul was created and simultaneously assumed before His body was formed, because then this soul of Christ would not seem to be of the same nature as our souls, which are created at the same time that they are infused into our bodies, inasmuch as it is the very nature of the soul to be the form of the body, and thus it differs from the angels.

As St. Thomas says in this article, quoting St. Leo: "Christ's soul excels our soul not by diversity of genus, but by sublimity of power."[768]

Doubt. Is St. Thomas speaking only of sublimity of supernatural power, that is, of plenitude of grace, whereby Christ's most holy soul excels the sanctity even of the first and second highest among the choirs of angels, namely, the seraphim and cherubim; or has he in mind the natural and individual nobility of the soul, whereby Christ's soul excels in nobility the soul of any human being?

Reply. The holy Doctor admits inequality of power among human souls in the same species.[769]

Since matter and form are mutually causes, and "since the form is not for the matter, but rather the matter for the form,"[770] Providence made Christ's body more apt for its union with the nobler part, which is the soul, just as He made the body of the Blessed Virgin Mary more fitting so that she might be worthy of becoming the Mother of God.

St. Thomas says: "It is plain that the better the disposition of a body, the better the soul allotted to it. This clearly appears in things of different species, and the reason thereof is that act and form are received into matter according to the capacity of matter. Thus, because some men have bodies of better disposition, their souls have a greater power of understanding, wherefore it is said that it is to be observed that 'those who have soft flesh are of apt mind.’[771] Secondly, this occurs in regard to the lower powers of which the intellect has need in its operations; for those in whom the imaginative, cogitative, and memorative powers are of better disposition, are better disposed to understand."[772]

St. Thomas applies this teaching to Christ, showing that the body was miraculously formed from the most pure blood of the Blessed Virgin Mary.[773]

On the one hand, the soul, although it is created and not educed from matter, thus depends materially, but not intrinsically, on the body, and therefore it can continue to exist after its separation from the body.

On the other hand, the body is better disposed, inasmuch as it depends finally and formally and in some way in the evolution of the embryo efficiently on the better disposed soul. Hence St. Thomas says: "What is received in anything can be considered both being and perfection. According to its being it is in the one in which it is received, after the manner of the recipient; nevertheless, the one that received it is drawn to its perfection."[774] Thus heat is received in water, light in the air, the soul in the body, grace in the soul, and the subject that receives is made conformable to the perfection received.

So there is a mutual transcendental relation between matter and form, body and soul, which therefore remains individuated after its separation from the body by reason of this transcendental relation to the body, which will be again informed by the soul on the day of the resurrection of the dead.

Father Gredt correctly remarks that "one human soul differs from another in perfection substantially, of course, though not essentially but accidentally, taking the word 'accidentally' as a predicable accident,"[775] but not as a predicamental accident, which is an operative faculty that is really distinct from substance. Thus the soul of Christ, even as a substance, is individually, although not specifically, nobler than the soul of any other human being, just as His body, which was miraculously formed in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was better disposed than any other human body whatever. It is also evident that the souls of great doctors of the Church, in which there are signs of great genius, are individually nobler than many other souls.

Thus we have a beautiful verification of the principle that causes mutually interact, but in a different genus; for the form determines the matter, and the latter is ordained for the form, as also the agent attains the end which attracts it.

Fourth Article: Whether The Flesh Of Christ Was Assumed By The Word Before Being United With The Soul

State of the question. This article concerns priority of time. The purpose of this article, as stated in the first and second difficulties, is that, according to the teaching of the ancient philosophers, in the conception of other men, living flesh is found in possession of vegetative life, and already of the sensitive life, before the rational soul, which is created by God, comes to it. Thus in the first two objections of this article, disposition of the matter precedes the coming of the form, and in human beings, the body is conceived before the rational soul comes to it.

But, on the other hand, as we stated in the first article, it is evident, concerning the condemnation of Origen's teaching, that the Word assumed simultaneously the flesh and soul of Christ, for flesh is not human before the soul comes to it.

This question presupposes another, namely, whether Christ's flesh was conceived or formed, at least in accordance with its remote natural dispositions, before it was united with the rational soul. The solution of the present article depends on this query, but this point concerns the question of Christ's conception, and is therefore explained farther on.[776]

In the passage quoted above, St. Thomas shows that it is against the faith to say that Christ's flesh was first conceived, and afterward was animated and assumed by the Word. This is evident from what the Church has declared against Origen and against Photinus.[777]

Reply. Christ's flesh ought not to have been assumed before the soul.

Authoritative proof. St. John Damascene says: "At the same time the Word of God was made flesh, and flesh was united to a rational and intellectual soul."[778] This means to say that Christ's flesh was conceived, animated, and assumed simultaneously. This is what the Church declares against Origen and against Photinus.[779]

Theological proof. It is expressed briefly in the last line of the argumentative part of the article. Flesh is not strictly human before it receives the rational soul. But the Word assumed only strictly human flesh. Therefore flesh ought not to have been assumed before the soul.

This is well explained in the body of the article. For human flesh is assumable by the Word according to the order it has to the rational soul. But it has not (at least this immediate) order, before the rational soul comes to it; because the moment that the matter is ultimately disposed for the form, it also receives the form. The whole article must be read.[780]

But how is the difficulty that is presented in the first objection to be solved. It states that our bodies are conceived before they are animated by the rational soul. St. Thomas admits this statement as at least probable in fact, inasmuch as the body first has the vegetative life, then the sensitive life, before it is ultimately disposed for the rational soul, which is created by God instantaneously from nothing, and is not educed from matter.

St. Thomas replies to the first objection of this article, saying that it is certainly so with us, remarking that "before the coming of the human soul, there is no human flesh," but there is in the body a previous but not ultimate disposition for human flesh. He goes on to say: "In the conception of Christ, the Holy Ghost, who is an agent of infinite might, disposed the matter and brought it to its perfection at the same time." Likewise, he says farther on: "Christ's body, on account of the infinite power of the agent, was perfectly disposed instantaneously. Wherefore at once and in the first instant it received a perfect form, that is, the rational soul."[781] Farther on he says: "Christ's conception must be said to be entirely miraculous (on the part of the active power), and in a qualified manner natural (on the part of the matter contributed by the mother)."[782]

Thus in the miraculous conversion of water into wine at Cana, the matter of water (without any previous dispositions) is disposed to receive the form of wine. So also, in the operational order, the conversion of St. Paul was instantaneous; similarly the sanctification of the Blessed Virgin Mary took place at the very moment of her conception, inasmuch as, when her soul was created, it instantaneously received a plenitude of grace, and was preserved from original sin through the merits of Christ. So too, in the natural order, men of great genius solve problems, but, at times, they do not sufficiently prepare their pupils to understand their teaching, which is then understood in a wrong sense, and thus these pupils fall into error.

Different from Christ's conception, St. Thomas does not admit that the rational soul of the Blessed Virgin Mary was created at the moment of her conception, for he distinguishes between this moment and the moment after the animation of her flesh. In this he distinguishes between the virginal conception of Christ and that of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was not miraculous, inasmuch as her conception was not virginal, but natural; for she was born in a natural way from a father and mother. St. Thomas asks whether the Blessed Virgin Mary was sanctified before animation, which is distinct from the passive conception of the body. But complete passive conception of the body, inasmuch as it is distinct from the beginning of this conception, took place in the Blessed Virgin at the same time as animation, which is the usual procedure in human beings.[783]

Reply to third objection. The conception, animation, and assumption of Christ's body were instantaneous. But by priority of nature the body was preserved by the Word as a being, before its animation, because the body is first a being, and then a body.

Nevertheless, as regards the personal union, Christ's body was, in accordance with nature, first united with the soul, before it was united with the Word, because it is from its union with the soul that it is capable of being united with the Word in person; especially since a person, as such, is found only in the rational nature. So it was that during the three days in which our Lord's body was separated from the soul, the Word was not united personally but only subsistentially with Christ's corpse. The entire reply to the third objection should be read.

A question that deserves special attention is: When is the rational soul created? Does this take place at the moment of conception or afterward? Father Gredt says: "The ancient philosophers taught that, first of all, ... the merely vegetative soul that is imperfect and transitory would be educed, and this soul by a process of evolution would become corrupt and would be substituted by another that is imperfect, the sensitive soul, which also becomes corrupt, and forty days after conception the rational soul would finally be created and infused into the body." "Nevertheless," says Father Gredt, "it is better to say with modern philosophers that from the very beginning the germinal cells are united, and there is present a special organization and proximate disposition for the infusion of the rational soul, which is therefore created and infused by God, without the intervention of any other soul.[784]

On the contrary, Father Barbado, O. P., says: "It is not our purpose to decide this question that is so much disputed among Scholastics. However, we must point out that experience shows the foundation for this traditional view, which the ancient philosophers took from embryology, is strongly supported by present-day investigations.... For the egg, in the segmentation process and the follicles in the blastodermic process do not possess actually but only potentially the future organization, and it is only much later that the organs come to perfection."[785]

Moreover, after death or the separation of the rational soul from the body, facts seem to attest that for some time the vegetative soul remains, since the hair and nails still grow. If such be the case after the separation of the rational soul from the body, why not before the creation of the soul?

Fifth Article: Whether The Whole Human Nature Was Assumed Through The Medium Of The Parts

This title is not concerned with the order of time, but with that of nature.

State of the question. The purpose of the article is to explain what St. Augustine means when he says, as quoted in the first objection: "The invisible and unchangeable Truth assumed the soul through the medium of the spirit, and the body through the medium of the soul, and in this way the whole man." We stated in the first article that the Word assumed flesh through the medium of the soul. But the whole human nature results from the union of the parts.

Conclusion. The Word of God assumed the human nature through the medium of the whole. This means the body and the soul, because of their relation to the whole. Evidently the article is concerned only with the order of nature and not with that of time.

Authoritative proof. It is taken from St. John Damascene, who is quoted in the counter-argument.

Theological proof. The order of nature, which concerns us here, is of two kinds. It may be considered either on the part of the agent assuming, or on the part of the subject assumed. In the Incarnation, however, our attention must be given especially to the first kind, because the whole idea of the deed is estimated from the omnipotence of the agent.

But on the part of the agent, that is absolutely first which is first in intention, which is to assume the entire human nature. Therefore the Word of God assumed the parts of the human nature through the medium of the whole, or on account of the whole that was first intended.[786]

Sixth Article: Whether The Human Nature Was Assumed Through The Medium Of Grace

This article is inserted here because of the necessity of explaining the threefold meaning of the word "grace."

1) There is a certain grace that is the uncreated will of God freely doing or donating something. In this sense, it is called effective grace, but not formal grace.

2) In Christ there is the grace of union which is formally in Him, and it is the very personal being of the Word, which terminates, possesses, and sanctifies the human nature of Christ.

3) Habitual grace is also formally in Christ, inhering in His soul' as an accident, which will be more clearly explained in the following question.

Two conclusions follow from this distinction.

1) The hypostatic union did not take place through the medium of the grace of union or through the medium of habitual grace. For the grace of union is the very personal being of Christ, which is the term of the assumption. Habitual grace, which inheres in the soul of Christ, is the consequent effect of the hypostatic union, and this will be made clearer in the following question.

2) The hypostatic union took place by grace that is God's uncreated will, not as a medium, but as efficient cause.

Thus St. Thomas, speaking of the grace that predestines the elect, inquires whether predestination places anything in the predestined, and he replies: "Predestination is not anything in the predestined, but only in the person who predestines.... But the execution of predestination, which is the calling, the justification, the magnification, is in the predestined."[787]

Doubt. Is there a created actuation produced by the uncreated act in the hypostatic union by the very fact that Christ's human nature began to be actuated terminatively by the Word, as Father de la Taille contends? Is the grace of union in Christ anything created, as St. Thomas maintains?

This question is about the same as that concerning the substantial mode whereby Christ's humanity is united with the Word.[788]

Reply. Both parts of the question are denied. St. Thomas says in the present article: "The grace of union is the personal being that is given gratis from above to the human nature in the person of the Word," and therefore it cannot be understood in the sense of a created medium, a created actuation that is produced by the uncreated act. The grace of union is not something created, but it is the very Word that terminates the human nature, both possessing and sanctifying it.

Likewise, when St. Thomas inquires about the union of the two natures in Christ, as to whether it was effected by grace, he replies: "If grace be understood as the will of God gratuitously doing something, ... then the union of the Incarnation took place by grace, ... but not as though there were a habitual grace by means of which the union took place."[789] It would have been so, however, if there were a created and indeed supernatural actuation produced by the uncreated act.

St. Thomas says, too, in the present article: "Grace is an accidental perfection of the soul, and therefore it cannot ordain the soul to personal union, which is not accidental."[790]

We have already quoted the passage in which St. Thomas says: "It must be known that in the union of the divine nature and the human nature, there can be no medium that formally causes the union, to which the human nature is previously joined before it is united with the divine person; just as there can be no mediating being between matter and form, which would be previously in the matter before the substantial form, otherwise accidental being would be prior to substantial being, which is impossible. So also, between nature and suppositum there can be no medium in the above-mentioned manner, since each conjunction is for substantial union."[791] But it is shown that the union, as a real relation of the human nature with the Word, is the consequent or resulting effect; for St. Thomas says: "This relation follows, which is called union; hence union is the medium, not as causing the assumption, but as following it."[792]

St. Thomas also shows elsewhere that the union is declared to be something created since it is a real relation of Christ's human nature to the Word, but it is only a logical relation of the Word to the human nature. Thus creation in the passive sense is a real relation of the creature to the Creator.[793]

As we remarked above,[794] it cannot properly be said that the human nature undergoes a change in its assumption by the Word, and that this change is the finite actuation produced by the uncreated act.

St. Thomas shows that we look upon creation as a change, whereas in reality it is not a change, saying: "Change means that the same something should be different now from what it was previously."[795] But this is impossible in the case of creation, and even in the assumption of Christ's humanity, because the subject that is to undergo the change is not as yet in existence. As Thomas says, "When motion is removed from action and passion, only relation remains."[796] Hence passive creation is simply a relation of dependence, which is likewise the case with Christ's hypostatic union. This means that Christ's human nature is dependent on the Word.

Likewise the formal effect is not distinct from the form that is received in the subject. Thus the formal effect of whiteness is to make a thing white, and it is only by this whiteness that anything is white. Similarly man is made pleasing to God by habitual grace.

Matter is also actuated by form, and there is no distinction between this actuation and its substantial form, otherwise, as St. Thomas stated above, "accidental being would be prior to substantial being, which is impossible."[797]

But if the actuation of prime matter is the same as the formal act that it receives, so also the actuation produced by the uncreated act cannot be anything created, because then there would be a real and infinite distinction between it and the uncreated act.

Thus we terminate the metaphysical questions concerning the mode of the union of the human nature with the Word, first in itself, and then on the part of the person assuming, and of the human nature that is assumed together with its parts, as also the order in which these parts are assumed. Let us pass on now to consider questions that are not so much metaphysical as psychological and spiritual, and that concern the co-assumed parts, such as Christ's grace, knowledge, power, His sensitive nature or His propassions. But metaphysical questions will again arise, when we consider the consequences of the hypostatic union,[798] namely, the truth of the propositions because of the personal unity in Christ, and when we come to inquire whether there is unity of being in Christ, just as there is unity of person in Him.[799]

It is already to some extent apparent that the answer will be in the affirmative.

Index Top




"A single act of uniformity with the divine will suffices to make a saint."

St Alphonsus de Liguori

* * *

"It is vanity to be concerned with the present only and not to make provision for things to come."

Thomas á Kempis

* * *

"Does our conduct correspond with our Faith?"

The Cure D'Ars

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