‘To Save the People from Their Sins’

While staying in the rectory of the St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Club at the University of North Dakota, on the shelves of the guest room I noticed the B.A.C. edition of Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae. I had seen this edition before.
With a few moments to spare, I took down the third part of the Summa, the volume devoted to Christ, which has a brief prologue explaining its purpose. Unless we pay attention, the very structure of the Summa will seem strange to us. How to put it? In the first question that follows this prologue, Aquinas asks not “whether the Incarnation was necessary” but whether it was “convenient.” If it was merely “convenient,” but not “necessary,” then the Incarnation did not need to happen. If it did not need to happen, but happened all the same, then we must wonder why it happened in terms other than necessity.
What does this “did not need to happen” mean? Evidently, it means that God could have redeemed the human race in a way other than through the Incarnation of one of the Persons of the Trinity, the Word, the Son. The import of Aquinas’s question, then, is clearly, “Why was it done this way, through the Incarnation?” That is, can we, stimulated by the fact of the Incarnation, find a reason for it that makes sense — perhaps the highest sense? Still, it must be a reason that does not make this Incarnation “necessary,” as if God were determined to use this way and no other. This restriction leads us to wonder: What is higher than “necessity?”
In an essay on the structure of the Summa, the great Dominican theologian Marie-Dominique Chenu wrote:
The vision of God is realized only by and in Christ. Still, to Saint Thomas’ way of thinking, our knowledge of God must be examined first in its own inner structure and ‘demands’ before we can appreciate all the precious and manifold Christ-like ways in which it may manifest itself. The Word, made flesh for our ransoming, is the heart and soul, so to say, of the economy of our Christian redemption; yet the basic source of the understandableness of this economy (to minds such as ours, at any rate) is precisely its property of being a via or means. To see it thus inserted within the ontological framework of grace is not to lessen its inestimable value as a fact of history, unfolding in time (Thomist Reader, 1958).
What this explanation implies is that our philosophical and theological understanding of God does not tell us what God, as a free and personal being, will do in an actual world that He created but did not need to create. He will achieve His purposes in His own way in dealing with creatures that are really free — that is, with us.
Thus, to return to Aquinas’s prologue, he begins by citing the passage of the angel in Matthew (1:24). Christ came to “save His people from their sins.” So we begin with a factual historical situation from Genesis. The actual existing race of men whom Christ came to save has a history in which men are mired because of their sins. This is a fact. They need a way out of their lot that they cannot achieve or imagine by their own powers, individual or collective. Yet they still know by natural reasoning even before Christ’s Incarnation what is right and wrong, but they cannot seem to practice it. What they need is precisely a divine response to their situation, one that respects the freedom of both man and God.
Christ first demonstrates to us that the way of truth is Himself, the point Pope Benedict XVI makes in Jesus of Nazareth. Through His rising again to immortal life, we are able to perceive the significance of the whole theological enterprise. But we can do this only after having first considered what we can know with our human reason about the ultimate end of human life, as well as the virtues and vices. This consideration was the subject of the earlier two books of the Summa. With this background, we can consider and seek to understand as much as we can of this very Savior and His benefices to the human race.
We thus first consider what the Savior is, then the sacraments by which salvation is attained, and finally the end of immortal life to which, through this very resurrection, we arrive. Since the purpose of the divine Savior’s coming is “to save the people from their sins,” the structure of the Incarnation, as it were, takes places through the consequences of these sins. The way that God in His Trinitarian reasoning decides to save us is not through power or necessity, but through our freedom and the divine freedom.
Aquinas’ question was: Whether it was “convenient” that we were redeemed in a peculiar way — through the Incarnation, life, and death of the God-man? It need not have happened this way. What was the via, the way, in which it did happen? We were shown the consequences of our sins by this God-man, who is Christ suffering for us. We remain free to accept or reject this way. But it is a way that is in conformity with the highest in us and in God. It is a way that does not force us to be free, but one that invites us to be free.
The initiative of God in the Incarnation and Redemption stems from something beyond justice and necessity: It is the intervention of a love for us that does not seek to save us by overpowering us. Rather, on seeing the consequences of our sins in Christ, it invites us to understand and choose. It is indeed a most “convenient” way.


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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