Christ as Priest Forever in Aquinas’ Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews and Summa Theologica

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Christ as Priest Forever in Aquinas’ Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews and Summa Theologica

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  Christ‟s Eternal Priesthood in Aquinas‟ Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews and Summa Theologiae Thomas Aquinas was a biblical theologian whose theology is rooted in and developed by his reading of Scripture. As  Magister in Sacra Pagina , Aquinas‟ primary role was to read, discuss, and teach Scripture. In the biblical commentaries that Aquinas generated while serving in this role, he developed key theological concepts that shaped hi s teachings. As such, Aquinas‟  biblical commentaries, though often overlooked by scholars, provide valuable insight into Aquinas‟ theology as it is rooted in Scripture. In light of this understanding, I turn, in this paper, to one of Aquinas‟ often overlooked commentaries, the Commentary on the Epistle to the  Hebrews,  and examine its relationship to his most studied theological work, the Summa Theologiae. Specifically, I examine how Aquinas‟ understanding of Christ‟s eternal p riesthood is developed in the commentary and how this concept influences the Summa Theologiae . In order to do this, I will first look at Aquinas as a biblical theologian and at the precedent for making a comparison between his interpretive and theological works. I will then turn to the commentary, discussing how Aquinas‟ treatment of God‟s et ernity in the commentary is similar to his treatment of it in his Summa. I will then consider Aquinas‟ treatment of Christ‟s eternal nature and Incarnation in the commentary, demonstrating how this treatment is similar to his treatment of the concept in the Summa . After this preliminary work, I will turn specifically to Christ‟s eternal priesthood. Just as Aquinas establishes that Christ is an eternal priest in his reading of the epistle, he establishes the same in the Summa Theologiae . In the commentary, A quinas‟ understanding of Christ‟s eternal priesthood implies an eternal priestly activity with effects in the  past, present and future. In the Summa Theologiae , Aquinas develops theological concepts that demonstrate these effects of Christ‟s eternal priest hood. Additionally, in the commentary,    2   Aquinas‟ understanding that Christ, as priest, is the mediator of the New Testament causes him to develop a specific understanding of the natures of the Old and New Testaments. This understanding of the natures of these two testaments is likewise present in the Summa Theologiae.  Aquinas was a biblical theologian and thus Scripture serves as the source of his theology. As Thomas Weinandy, Daniel Keating, and John Yocum write in the preface to their book,  Aquinas on Scripture , “ Thomas Aquinas was deeply and profoundly  a biblical theologian. Whether directly or indirectly, his theology is grounded in, and nourished by, Sacred Scripture.” 1  Although an undeniably brilliant theologian, whose theological contributions are arguably unparalleled, Aquinas never publicly taught from either the Summa Contra Gentiles or Summa Theologiae , which are his most influential and widely studied theological contributions. Rather, “during his entire career he fulfilled the office of „master of the sacred page‟ ( magister in sacra  pagina ) through continuous commentary on the books of the Bible.” 2   The primary focus of Aquinas‟ career was the study and teaching of Scripture. His theological works arose out of his study and close interpretation of the Scripture, and, for Aquinas, the two were fundamentally related. As M.D. Chenu writes, the Summa is embedded in . . . scriptural teaching . . . theology can become a science only inasmuch as it remains in communion with the word of God that has first to be heard for itself. A tree cut from its roots dies, even if it remains standing. 3   1  Thomas Weinandy, et al., preface to  Aquinas on Scripture: An Introduction to his Biblical Commentaries , eds. Thomas Weinandy et al.   (New York: T&T Clark International, 2005), ix. 2  Ibid. 3  M.D. Chenu, Toward Understanding of Saint Aquinas  (Chicago: Henry Regency Company, 1964), 233-234.    3   Similarly, Herwi Rikhof notes that Scripture is “ the framework and source of the theological text itself.” 4  Because Aquinas‟ theological thought is Scripture, one should look to his understanding of Scripture in order to gain a better understanding of his theology. Aquinas‟ b iblical commentaries provide deep insight into his understanding of Scripture. Thus, a study of these commentaries and their relationship to his theological works gives a deeper and more complete understanding of Aquinas‟ theology  than a study of his theological works alone . As Ralph McInerny writes, “one comes from the biblical commentaries to Thomas‟s theology with a better c hance of appreciating the depth of his knowledge and above all its ultimate source.” 5    Nicholas Healy agrees with this sentiment, writing that, “his commentaries are part and parcel of his theological work. They . . . help us better understand more widely read texts like the Summa .” 6   Many scholars note that, for Aquinas, “speculative thinking about divine realities emerges from within biblical exegesis itself”   and that it is important to see how, as a commentator, Aquinas deals with key biblical texts that play a central part in his speculative theology. 7   However, Aquinas‟ b iblical commentaries have been largely ignored for many years. 8    Nicholas Healy notes this deficiency writing, “Thomas Aquinas‟ commentaries on Scripture have never been generally well known to theologians. . . they have not received the kind of 4   Herwi M. Rikhhof, “Thomas at Utrecht,” in Contemplating Aquinas: On the Varieties of  Interpretation, ed. Fergus Kerr (London: SCM Press, 2003), 115. 5  Ralph McInerny, preface to Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews,  by Thomas Aquinas, trans. Chrysostom Baer (South Bend: St. Augustine‟s Press, 2006), viii. 6  Nicholas M. Healy, introduction to  Aquinas on Scripture: An Introduction to his Biblical Commentaries , ed. Thomas G. Weinandy et al. (New York: T&T Clark International, 2005), ix. 6  Ibid. 7  Michael Dauphinais and Matthew Levering, introduction to  Reading John with St. Thomas  Aquinas: Theological Exegesis and Speculative Theology, eds. Michael Dauphinais and Matthew Levering (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005), xiii. 8  McInerny, preface, viii.    4   attention accorded the „major‟ works, the Summa Theologiae  and Summa contra Gentiles .” 9   Chenu also acknowledges the lack of scholarship, writing, “in the history of Thomism the Summa Theologiae has monopolized everyone‟s attention . . . but therein precisely lies a grave  problem.” 10  With a few noteworthy exceptions, including the books  Aquinas on Scripture  and  Reading John with St Thomas Aquinas: Theological Exegesis and Speculative Theology and Elea nore Stump‟s article “Biblical Commentary and Philosophy” in The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas , little modern attention has been given to these commentaries and their relationship to Aquinas‟ greater theological corpus. In this paper, I intend to engage this overlooked subject by following Jean- Pierre Torrell‟s “imperative to read and use in a much deeper fashion these  biblical commentaries in parallel with the greater systematic works.” 11  Most likely, Aquinas delivered his commentary on Hebrews as a series of lectures sometime between 1265 and 1268. 12  Accordingly, his delivery of the commentary corresponds with the beginning his work on the Summa Theologiae , which he wrote between 1265 and 1273. Because he worked on the two simultaneously, one can infer that the significant insights he gained from his reading of the epistle had an impact on the development of his theological thought presented in the work. In fact, Aquinas quotes from the epistle at least 208 times in the Summa Theologiae . 13  However, very little modern attention has been given to Aquinas‟ 9  Healy, introduction, 1. 10  Chenu, Toward Understanding Saint Thomas , 233. 11  Jean-Pierre Torrell,  St. Thomas Aquinas , vol. 1, The Person and his Work (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 55. 12   Chrysostom Baer, “Translator‟s Introduction,” in Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews ,  by Thomas Aquinas, trans. Chrysostom Baer (S outh Bend: St. Augustine‟s Press, 2006), xiv. 13   Thomas Weinandy, “The Supremacy of Christ,” in  Aquinas on Scripture: An Introduction to his Biblical Commentaries , eds. Thomas G. Weinandy et al. (New York: T&T Clark International, 2005), 233.    5   commentary on the epistle. 14  I suggest that by overlooking Aquinas‟ commentary on Hebrews, scholars have overlooked central developments in Aquinas‟ understanding of Scripture that impacted his theology. In interpreting this allegorical epistle, which itself offers an interpretation of temporal events in light of the eternal truth of Christ, Aquinas develops key concepts about the relationship between time and eternity generally and about Christ‟s eternal p riesthood and its implications for temporal history. I will now focus on how these concepts are developed in the commentary itself and how these concepts are in turn manifest in the Summa Theologiae . In commenting on the epistle, Aquinas establishes first that God is eternal and that creation is temporal and mutable. In doing this, Aquinas distinguishes between God‟s eternality and the changeable nature of time. Commenting on Hebrews 1:10-12, Aquinas writes that the writer of the e  pistle “shows the difference between the creator and the creature as regards . . . things which are proper to the creator: first, eternity . . . he posits the termination of creatures; second, the lack of termination of God.” 15  Aquinas reads the section of this passage begin ning “and as a vesture” to refer to the temporality of the created order, specifically the heavens . He claims that “old and new are consequences of time . . . the motion of the heavens is measured by time . . . therefore newness and oldness can be found in the heavens. 16  Temporality is thus marked by a sequence of things coming to be and passing away. Aquinas indicates that the created order exists in time and 14  One notable exception to this is Thomas Weinandy‟s article on the commentary, “The Supremacy of Christ,” which is found in the book  Aquinas on Scripture: an Introduction to his  Biblical Commentaries.   In the article, Weinandy discusses the commentary‟s central theme o f Christ‟s supremacy. While the article provides an excellent treatment of the commentary and I am indebted to many of Weinandy‟s insights, in this paper I intend to focus on a different theme of the commentary, namely Christ‟s eternality and its developme nt in the commentary and impact on the Summa Theologiae . 15  Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews , trans. Chrysostom Baer (South Bend: St. Augustine‟s Press, 2006), 1.5.71, (38).   16  Ibid., 1.5.75, (39).
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