Thomas Aquinas on the Many Members of the Body

What does it mean to call the Church the Body of Christ? On the one hand, it has something to do with unity with him: his Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church; the Church is so united that it is as if one person with Jesus. So “mystical body of Christ” indicates some kind of mystical union.

On the other hand, there is St. Paul’s frequent teaching about “many parts, one body.” (This is so ubiquitous in Paul as to be arguably his central teaching, his deepest insight after seeing Jesus as the one he persecuted when he persecuted the Church: most obviously in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12-14, Ephesians 1, Ephesians 5, Colossians 1.) In this sense “body” means diversity in unity: “For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us . . . .”

What is the connection between these senses of “body”? I recently found a great passage about it in Thomas Aquinas’s Commentary on Ephesians 1.

St Thomas AquinasPaul says, “he has made him the head over all things for the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” He explains Christ’s power in relation to the Church. . . .

Now a head is related to the other members in three ways: first, by its preeminent placement; second, by the diffusion of powers, since the senses of the other members are derived from their connection to the head; last, by sharing the same nature as the members. . . .

When he says, “which is his body,” he explains what he means, by adding, “and his fullness.” For if someone asks why, in a natural body, there are so many different members, namely head, hands, mouth, etc., the answer is that by their many kinds of actions, they serve the soul, for the soul is the cause, and principle of those actions, and the power of those actions is originally in the soul.

For the body was made for the soul, not the reverse. In this way, the natural body could be called “the fullness of the soul,” for unless there were all the members of the body, the soul could not accomplish all its operations.

It is similar with Christ and the Church. The Church was instituted for Christ, so that the Church is called “his fullness,” the fullness of Christ – that is, so that all the actions which are in Christ’s power could be in a certain sense “filled out” in the members of the Church: when all the spiritual sensitivities, and gifts, and whatever else is in the Church – all of which are first superabundantly in Christ – come forth from him into the members of the Church, and are made perfect in those members.

So Paul adds, “who fills all in all”: namely when the wise one who is a member of the Chruch receives from him the perfect wisdom which is in Christ; the just one receives perfect justice; etc.

Thomas Aquinas on the Greatness of the Apostles

I stumbled on this interesting passage in which Thomas Aquinas, commenting on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, bursts out in praise of the greatness of the Apostles. I knew the tradition had greater devotion than we often do to the Apostles, but I enjoyed reading a sober mind express that devotion.

We each have vocations, and God gives us grace for our vocations. But think of the vocation of the Apostles: to found the Church, to set out when there was no one to help them, to begin the traditions, both of liturgy and of doctrine, on which the Church infallibly stands.

Next time you see a statue of an apostle, imagine what riches of grace God gave them. Love the Church, which is one, holy, catholic and apostolic, and receive her as a gift from Christ. And imagine the power of grace, that could build such a Church, with such depth of wisdom, to stand through the ages as a beacon of hope.

 St Thomas AquinasFirst Paul says: by the riches of his grace, all the faithful, you the same as we, have redemption and the remission of sins through the blood of Christ – but that grace superabounds in us, that is, it is more abundant in the apostles than in others.

We see then the gall, not to mention the error, of those who presume to compare the other saints to the apostles in terms of grace and glory. For it is clear from these words that the apostles have greater grace than any other saints, after Christ and the Virgin Mother.

One might say that the other saints can attain the same merit as the apostles, and thus can receive the same greatness of grace. To this we say that it is true, if by “grace” you mean “merit” – but that is not grace, as Paul says in Romans 11:6.

And thus, as God preordains some saints for higher honors, so he pours into them a more abundant grace – just as he gave a truly singular grace to Christ the man, whom he assumed into the unity of his person. And the glorious virgin Mary, whom he chose as mother, he filled both body and soul with grace.

And so to the apostles: as he called them to unique majesty, he bestowed on them the privilege of a unique grace, which Paul mentions in Romans: we ourselves are given the first fruits of the Spirit (8:23). It is therefore insolent to compare any saint to the apostles.

The grace of God superabounded in the apostles in all wisdom. For the apostles were put forward as pastors of the Chuch. As Jeremiah says: I will give you pastors according to my own heart, and they will pasture you with knowledge and doctrine (3:15)

Now pastors require two things, namely that they be sublime in the knowledge of divine things, and industrious in religious deeds. For those beneath them must be instructed in the faith, and for this is necessary wisdom, which is knowledge of divine things, and so he says [in Ephesians], in all wisdom. I will give you a mouth and wisdom, against which your adversaries cannot speak or resist (Luke 21:15).

Also, they must govern those beneath them in exterior things, and this requires prudence. For they govern the temporalities of the Church, and thus he says prudence. Therefore be prudent (Matt 10:16). Thus we see the advantages given to the apostles with regard to the excellence of wisdom.

Next he speaks of their advantage with regard to the excellence of revelation, that the mystery was made known to us, as if he says, “our wisdom is not that we would know the natures of things, and the movement of the stars, etc., but Christ alone.” For I judge myself not to know anything among you, except Christ Jesus (1 Cor 2:2). Thus he says, the mystery, that is, the sacred secret, namely the mystery of the incarnation, which was hidden from the beginning.

-Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Ephesians

Thomas Aquinas on the Incomprehensibility of God

St Thomas AquinasIt’s good to be reminded that God is beyond us – that what makes him God.  It’s even, says St. Thomas, a way of knowing God: to know him as the one you cannot fathom.

 It’s also good to be reminded that someone like Thomas Aquinas glories in God’s unknowability.  That is, you don’t have to be anti-intellectual in order to rejoice in the unfathomable depths of God.  To say either you like to think or you appreciate mystery is a false dichotomy.  Indeed, I think St. Thomas would say we can appreciate God’s unfathomable depths best when we try to fathom them.

Here’s St. Thomas, in the midst of talking about different ways to know God:


But some come to knowledge of God by the incomprehensibility of the truth.  For every truth which our intellect can contain is finite – for, as Augustine says, everything known is within the limits of the knower’s comprehension.  Thus it must be that the first and highest truth, which is above every intellect, would be incomprehensible and without limits: that is, God.

So in Psalm 8 it says, your magnificence is lifted up above the heavens, that is, above every created intellect, angelic or human.  And this is because, as the Apostle says, he dwells in inaccessible light (1 Tim 5:16).  Isaiah says, I saw the Lord setting upon a thrown, high and lifted up.  By lifted up he means, above all knowing of created intellects.

And John reminds us of this incomprehensibility when he says, No one has ever seen God.

-From the commentary on the prologue to John’s Gospel

Thomas Aquinas and Karol Wojtyła on Mercy

(With thanks to Zack in Rome):

St. Thomas Aquinas defined mercy as “the compassion in our hearts for another person’s misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him” (ST II-II.30.1).

In Love and Responsibility, the future pope wrote: “We love (the person) along with his virtues and vices, in a sense independently of the virtues and despite the vices. The greatness of this love is manifested the most when this person falls, when his weaknesses or even sins come to light. One who truly loves does not then refuse his love, but in a sense loves even more – he loves while being conscious of deficiencies and vices without, however, approving of them. For the person himself never loses his essential value.”