Aquinas on Theologians and the Spirit

In one of his relatively late Quodlibetal Questions, from Advent 1270,1 Thomas Aquinas addresses the question whether all that holy teachers have said has been spoken by the Holy Spirit (XII, q. 17). This is a tremendously important question, since it bears on the authority of theologians and the work of the Spirit in the divine economy. If theologians also speak by the Holy Spirit, how are their words to be distinguished from Scripture? or prophecy?

Questions are then asked regarding four offices: first, the office of expositors of Holy Scripture [q. 17]; second, the office of preachers [q. 18]; third, the office of confessors [q. 19]; fourth, the office of vicars [q. 20].

[a. 1] To the first, it is asked whether everything the holy teachers have said, has been from the Holy Spirit.

It seems the answer is no.

This is because in their statements there are certain false things, for they sometimes disagree in their expositions. Now it is not possible for dissimilar or dissonant things to be true, since both sides of a contradiction cannot be true.

Against this, it pertains to one and the same thing to do something toward an end and to lead to that end. Now the end of Scripture, which is from the Holy Spirit, is human learning. But this human learning cannot come from the Scriptures except through the expositions of the saints. Therefore, the expositions of the saints are from the Holy Spirit.

I respond, it is to be said that the Scriptures are both declared and expounded from the Holy Spirit. This is why 1 Cor 2:14 says, “The natural person does not perceive the things that are of God, but the spiritual person judges all things,” especially those that relate to faith, since faith is a gift of God; and, therefore, the interpretation of words is listed among the other gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:10).

To the first [objection] is it to be said that charisms (gratiae gratis datae) are not habits (habitus), but are particular movements from the Holy Spirit–otherwise, if they were habits, the prophet would have revelation through the gift of prophecy whenever he wished, which is not the case. And so, in regard to the revealing of hidden matters, the mind is sometimes touched by the Holy Spirit and sometimes not, but certain things are hidden from it. This is why Elisha says, “the Lord has hidden it from me” (2 Kgs 4:27). They also sometimes say certain things from themselves; this is clear with Nathan, who counseled David to build the temple, but was later caught and, as it were, led back by God to prohibit David from doing this very thing on the part of God. But this, however, is to be maintained: that whatever is contained in Scripture is true; whoever thinks in opposition to this is a heretic. But expositors, in other matters that do not regard faith, have said many things from their own understanding, and so they could have erred in these matters. Nevertheless, the necessity of the statements of expositors does not imply that it is necessary to believe in them, but only in the canonical Scripture, which is in the Old and New Testament.

Aquinas’ response (which begins with “I respond. . .,” everything before that being arguments pro and con), emphasizes the unity of Scripture and the work of theologians, here characterized as the exposition of Scripture, in the activity of the Holy Spirit. Scripture is “declared” by the Holy Spirit; it is also “expounded” by the Holy Spirit in the work of theologians.

It is the “spiritual” person of 1 Cor 2:14, that is, the person with the Spirit, who is able to correctly understand the Spirit-given Scriptures. Interpreting these Scriptures is also a gift of the Spirit, as Aquinas reads 1 Cor 12:10. Again, Scripture and theology are tied together in the divine economy as objects of the Spirit’s work.

What is the difference then? In his response to the one objection, regarding contradictions in the writings of theologians, Aquinas argues that the ability to interpret Scripture is not a habitus, something we come to possess, but an interruptive gift, a charism, which the Spirit only sometimes allows us to exercise. The comparison with prophecy is suggestive: a prophet like Elisha cannot always see hidden matters, but only when the Spirit of God gives them this ability. This only happens “sometimes” (aliquando), not always. It also happens “sometimes” (aliquando) that instead of relying on the Spirit, prophets speak their own mind, such as in Nathan’s case before David.

This uncertainty in regard to the source of a theologian’s statements–themselves or the Spirit–requires discernment on the part of the student. But Aquinas circles back to the sure source: it is to be held that all that Scripture contains is true; to believe otherwise is heresy. Those who expound Scripture, insofar as what they say relates to faith, speak from the Holy Spirit as part of the Spirit’s twofold work of “declaring” and “expounding” Scripture in the divine economy, to the end of human learning for salvation.

Thus, the work of theologians is “necessary” in the economy, contributing to the end of educating human beings for their salvation, just as Scripture was given to this end. But this necessity does not imply that their words must be believed; faith is to be placed in canonical Scripture alone, contained in the Old and New Testaments.

1 Sandra Edwards, “Introduction,” in St Thomas Aquinas, Quodlibetal Questions 1 and 2, trans. Sandra Edwards (Toronto: PIMS, 1983), 6, citing Mandonnet, van Steenberghen and Weisheipl.

The Word the Spirit Gives

Just as we read the Scripture figurally, the Spirit reads us figurally. That is to say, just as we read Scripture in light of the full revelation of divine truth in Jesus Christ, the Spirit reads us in light of our full and true reality ‘in Christ’ as well. This, however, is the important difference: the Spirit reads our lives and identities infallibly, in light of the divine Truth whose Spirit he is. The Spirit’s reading of our lives peels back layers of self-deception, conscious or otherwise; his word pierces through to the heart of what matters. This piercing truth, the Spirit’s reading of our lives, our identities and our purpose, is given to us in Spirit-given words, or better, in the Word the Spirit gives.

In 1 Cor. 12:8, Paul speaks of “a word of wisdom (λόγος σοφίας)” and “a word of knowledge (λόγος γνώσεως)” given by the Spirit. The “word of wisdom” generally reveals something of God’s purpose for a particular human life or church community, whereas the “word of knowledge” reveals something particular about a person or community, a significant fact the Spirit uses to convict or encourage. When the Spirit gives these “to one” or “to another,” in order for them to speak this word to a third, he is revealing — drawing back the veil on something hidden. It is a word whose significance is sometimes known only to God and the third person or community; the person delivering the word is a mere messenger.

The Spirit casts this light on our lives or the life of the Church (by means of this charismatic gift) by receiving a word from Christ and delivering it to us. As Jesus himself tells us, the Spirit “will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14). The word the Spirit gives is from the Word himself. This is seen on a grand scale in the biblical “words” delivered to the seven churches of Revelation from Christ when John was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (1:10; 2:1-3:22). But it is also seen in each of our lives as the Spirit gives, “to one” or “to another,” words that reveal how we really stand ‘in Christ’ — words that lay us breathtakingly bare to ourselves, and reduce us to tears of joy, or of sorrow, before him.

What is Spirituality?

What is spirituality? It is often a loose term, whose use justifies a lot of nonsense. Christians, however, have always had a good idea of what could be meant by “spirituality,” even where the word itself was absent. That is because Christians have a very definite idea of what the difference is between the Spirit and spirits. This is perhaps more important for us to recognize than past generations, because one of the effects of secularism is the loss of the sense of “true” and “false,” to the benefit of the “personally meaningful.” This distinction–between “true” and “false”–makes sense of Christian thought. One can’t make sense of the Bible without it: true and false prophets (Deut. 13:1-5); true and false gods (Ex. 12:12; Ps. 96:5; Is. 44:6-20); true and false Christs (Matt. 24:4-5); true and false religion (James 1:27); true and false spirits (1 John 4:1-6).

When Aquinas, then, comes to speak of makes a person “spiritual,” he does so by talking about the Holy Spirit. This Spirit, the true Spirit of God, separates a “spiritual” person from a merely “natural” person, or worse. These are his comments on 1 Corinthians 2:15, “The spiritual person judges all things.”

A person can be called “spiritual” in two senses. In one sense, with regard to the understanding being illuminated by the Spirit of God. For this reason, the Gloss says, “A person is spiritual who, obedient to the Holy Spirit, knows spiritual things faithfully and with the highest degree of certainty.” In another sense, with regard to the will being set aflame by the Holy Spirit. And the Gloss speaks of this sense as follows, “A spiritual life is that by which the Spirit of God has governance, guiding the soul, that is, the natural powers.” (In I Cor. 2.3.117)

Aquinas elaborates on this quite a bit in other writings, particularly in the sections of the Summa theologiae on the theological virtue of faith (2a2ae.1-16). It can put in a much more complicated way, but it can also be put much more simply: a spiritual person is that person illuminated by and set on fire by the Holy Spirit, or even more simply, a spiritual person is that person who has the Spirit of God. Anything else would be a false spirituality.

Barth on God and the Whole Person

Since I finished the dissertation, I’ve been reading chunks of Karl Barth. In Volume I, Part 2 of his 13-part Church Dogmatics, he writes at length of the subjective side of revelation, what might be called the “appropriation” of the objective side of revelation, what Christ has accomplished for us (§16). How does it look, what happens when people get involved with what Christ has done for them? Barth’s answer is simple: the Holy Spirit. And because the Holy Spirit makes us share in what Christ has done, and not something else, this sharing has a definite form: Church, sacraments, Scripture, and preaching (I/2, 249) under the “mastery” of Christ (265ff.).

In light of my dissertation topic, however, I’m particularly interested in how Barth treats how individuals relate to God. One of the questions I tackled (briefly) was whether one or more “faculties” are central to this relation. Is there a decision of the will which is central? A passionate attachment? Does our intellect drive us inevitably to God? Do we have an appetite, a desire for God? Barth gives this answer:


But the possibility given us by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is the possibility of a direct confrontation of the whole man by God. Man is confronted in the totality of his own possibilities, and therefore in all possible conditions and attitudes. In revelation, the whole man is addressed and challenged, judged and pardoned by God. In view of this totality of revelation to us we must not refer the revealedness in us to some obscure or even luminous place apart from our own experience and activity. We must not refer it to a place where we can exempt ourselves from all responsibility. We must not refer it to a place which enables us to count on the fact that God or “it” believes in us, from which we are therefore onlookers both of ourselves and God. In the presence of God there is no such back room. There is only the one well-known place for our physico-psychical existence, although it does include within it many alternative possibilities. It is in this totality that our existence participates in the divine possibility, or else we have no part in it. The point is that the whole area of our possibilities is again enclosed by the divine possibility. That is what we have to reckon with if we would understand our participation in this possibility… Again, we can and must know that all our experience and activity is involved in this standing before God. But we can never say how far this or that impression is our calling, this or that discovery our awakening, this or that decision our conversion, this or that conviction our faith, this or that emotion our love, this or that expectation our hope, and this or that attitude our responsibility and justification before God. For as participators in God’s possibility, all that we see and find is simply ourselves, and all the very selfish, very human states and conditions and attitudes in which we actually find ourselves. We never can and never will comprehend how far the concretion of our situation and our attitude is the concretion of our participation in God’s possibility. (CD I/2, 267-68)

Barth is making a polemic here against various certainties we might have. We cannot claim that an experience, a feeling, a decision guarantees our right standing before God–though these things may be signs of it. Sure. But I’m more interested in the way that Barth says God’s revelation claims all of us, the whole person: all our thought, feeling, emotion, attitude, habit, memory and desires. This means, though I’m not sure if Barth says this himself, that our salvation reforms all the pieces of who we are. But I wonder if saying this means we cannot also say, as would a Kierkegaard or a Blondel, that the will or action plays a central role in our relationship to God in a way that, say, memory does not. Our relation to God certainly does not exclude these other areas, but might there not be a kind of tiered relation, where the will or desire plays a key role?

The Church and the Spirit’s Mission

Ethicist Oliver O’Donovan offers this interesting perspective on the dynamism of church structures:

The catholic identity of the church derives from the progress of the Spirit’s own mission. It is therefore always larger than its ordered structures, taking its shape from the new ground that the Spirit is possessing. It remains for the church’s structures to catch up with this mission, to discern what the Spirit has done, and to construct such ordered links of community as will safeguard brotherly love. Informal Christian phenomena are found all around the margins of the structured church, and to deplore the untidiness of the these is simply to betray an ignorance of what that rock is upon which the church is founded. (The Desire of the Nations, 169-170)

I might want to ask the further question, however, about what role the Spirit might play in reclaiming dead centers of the church—and how this might unsettle church structures.