Listers, St. Thomas Aquinas asks the question, “Whether Christ’s entire soul enjoyed blessed fruition during the Passion?” In other words, how can Christ call out “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” if he has the grace of Beatific Knowledge? St. Thomas’ article is presented in part.
1. The Problem
In Summa Theologica III.46.8, Aquinas reiterates a common concern regarding Christ’s suffering on the Cross and his Beatific Knowledge:
It would seem that Christ’s entire soul did not enjoy blessed fruition during the Passion. For it is not possible to be sad and glad at the one time, since sadness and gladness are contraries. But Christ’s whole soul suffered grief during the Passion, as was stated above (Article 7). Therefore His whole soul could not enjoy fruition.
Beatific Knowledge comes from one experiencing the Beatific Vision. The beatific vision, the vision of the blessed, or the “science of vision” are all univocal terms that refer to the knowledge of one who has seen God in his essence. St. John refers to the beatific vision when he says that the faithful departed will see God “as he is.” Turning to the biblical tradition within St. John’s Gospel, Christ’s relationship with the Father appears to be in a beatific manner. Christ says, “not that anyone has seen the Father except him who is from God; he has seen the Father,” and furthermore, he states “but you have not known [the Father]; I know him.” Moreover, St. John records, “he who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard.” These passages seem to “put it beyond doubt that the revelatory power of Christ originated not in a revelation made to him nor in his faith, but in the direct knowledge he has of the Father.”1 As articulated in the question, if Christ’s soul had seen God and did indeed have the Beatific Vision, then the fruition of that comprehension would have filled Christ’s soul with immense gladness; however, since Christ suffered grief and cried out in abandonment on the Cross, Christ must not have had Beatific Knowledge.
2. The Answer
Aquinas disagrees with this argument. He answers:
The joy of fruition is not opposed directly to the grief of the Passion, because they have not the same object. Now nothing prevents contraries from being in the same subject, but not according to the same. And so the joy of fruition can appertain to the higher part of reason by its proper act; but grief of the Passion according to the subject. Grief of the Passion belongs to the essence of the soul by reason of the body, whose form the soul is; whereas the joy of fruition (belongs to the soul) by reason of the faculty in which it is subjected.
Can contraries be in the same subject? Aquinas believes so, because he believes that though the higher powers of the soul can have fruition or be glad, the lower powers may suffer. An excellent example of these “contraries” is a mother giving birth. The mother can rejoice in the childbirth, but that does not thwart the lower faculties of the soul from suffering. The higher power of the intellect may be glad that she is giving birth to her child, but that does not stop the lower powers of the senses from suffering. In the midst of joy, there can come a scream of pain. Many who advocate Christ did not have Beatific Knowledge do so on the grounds that if Christ had that fruition of seeing God he would be unable to experience many of the emotions we see him display in the Gospels. In other words, his soul would be so overflowing with the grace of seeing God in his essence he could not be sorrowful or grieve. Christ’s humanity would seem strikingly inhuman as he played out his earthly life.
As in his treatment on the knowledge of Christ, Aquinas tends to “de-mythologize” the idea of Christ having Beatific Knowledge. What then is Christ’s comprehension of the Divine Essence? St. Thomas posits that the soul of Christ could not fully comprehend the Divine Essence. In holding to Christ as one person with two distinct natures, Christ’s soul would have limitations proper to a created soul. As St. Thomas avers, “it is impossible for any creature to comprehend the Divine Essence,” because “the infinite is not comprehended by the finite.”2 Returning to the childbirth example, one of the characteristics of a created rational soul would be that the higher faculties could comprehend a situation and even rejoice in it, while the lower faculties suffered through it. Similarly, Christ’s higher faculties would enjoy the Beatific Knowledge, while the lower faculties suffered. Like the mother crying out, Christ’s cry of abandonment does not negate his Beatific Knowledge.
- Did Christ have Beatific Knowledge? – the commentary on whether or not Christ had Beatific Knowledge comes from the SPL list 8 Considerations on Whether Christ had Acquired, Infused, or Beatific Knowledge. [↩]
- Knowledge of Christ: For a detailed account of the knowledge of Christ see 8 Considerations on Whether Christ had Acquired, Infused, or Beatific Knowledge. [↩]