Aquinas: The Spirit’s Mission

Today we’re talking about the idea of missions. There’s a basic idea in the New Testament that both Jesus and the Holy Spirit were sent to Earth – first Jesus turns up, and then after the Resurrection he sends the Spirit to the apostles. In a sense, we can say that both Jesus and the Spirit were/are on a mission. Aquinas has some chat about missions, and eventually he comes to 1a.43.6: Is there an unseen mission to all who share in grace? 

So the basic idea is that if you’re going to heaven, you’re described as sharing in grace. You’ve got the grace of God, your sins have been forgiven, and you’re all set. But we want to say that Moses and his mates are going to heaven, right? It’s not just the New Testament Christians – we’ve got Elijah getting carried up to heaven in a chariot, and presumably some of those other dudes made it in too. But here’s the thing: according to the earlier parts of this question, you only get grace by receiving the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gets sent on a mission, he/she/it turns up in your heart, you receive grace through the Spirit, and then you go to heaven. But if the Spirit gets sent for the first time in Acts, how did all the people before that get grace? Was there an unseen Holy Spirit mission to those Old Testament people, or was there some other mechanism?

Aquinas quotes John 7.39: “Now he [Jesus] said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were yet to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” It seems like a pretty open-and-shut case – we’re explicitly told that at that time there was no Spirit. Or, rather, no Spirit on earth – obviously it’s still hanging around in heaven. But this verse suggests that it hasn’t been sent yet. Aquinas also argues that the Holy Spirit never goes on a mission to Jesus. There’s no separation between Jesus, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, so the Spirit doesn’t need to be sent on a mission to bring grace to Christ. Jesus has grace without a mission from the Spirit; therefore not all of those with grace receive it from the unseen mission of the Spirit; therefore those in the Old Testament might conceivably also have received grace without a mission of the Spirit. Aquinas’s last argument is, uh – I’ll run over it because it’s funny. He argues that the sacraments of the New Law (baptism, communion, etc) contain grace, but that obviously the Spirit doesn’t go on a mission to the sacraments. Therefore, “there is not an invisible mission wherever there is grace.” You might reply that perhaps inanimate objects don’t really receive grace in the same way as humans, and that’s basically what Aquinas concludes: the sacraments are a vehicle for grace, transferring it through to the individual (human) recipients. Obviously God’s not out to save the sacraments. Obviously.

Now, this is where things get interesting. Aquinas can’t just reject John outright, so he interprets the passage differently: when we read that the Spirit had not been sent, it really means sent with a visible sign (as happened on the day of Pentecost). So the Spirit was sent to Moses and the rest of them, but it wasn’t announced as the Spirit. It just kinda turned up and did its thing without really being identified in the same way that it is now. But this gives us an opening, right. It’s saying that it’s possible for people to have received the Spirit without recognising that it is the Spirit. Moses didn’t know Jesus or the Holy Spirit by those names, and yet Aquinas is arguing that the Spirit dwelt within Moses and sent him to heaven anyway. This is a point of leverage for the argument that non-Christians can still go to heaven. We might distinguish between what you call yourself and what you are. Some people might call themselves Christian but not have received grace through the indwelling of the Spirit. Similarly, some people might not call themselves Christian even though they have received the Spirit. Because the people in this second group have received the Spirit, they are – in a very technical and formal sense – Christians. They have received grace and are part of the body of Christ. They are part of the church eternal, even if they’ve never set foot inside a church building. This is the distinction between what you call yourself and what you are: maybe you can be a Christian regardless of whether or not you think of yourself that way. Maybe you’re not a Christian even if you think of yourself in those terms.

Aquinas then goes on to clean up some of the other arguments: for example, he argues that physical baby Jesus did in fact receive a direct mission from the Spirit right at the moment of conception. Jesus only needed the one mission, because after that he was perfect, but for everybody else there’s the first mission (where the Spirit begins indwelling and you share in grace), and then further ongoing missions where the Spirit makes you a less shit person. These ongoing missions aren’t an “intensifying of grace,” but rather the “new revelations of certain mysteries.” I assume that means you learn more about God or the Trinity or something – not entirely sure. At any rate, the basic argument for Aquinas is clear. If you receive the Spirit, you’re going to heaven – and that reception isn’t always marked by visible signs, and it might not be understood by the recipient as the indwelling of the Spirit. Aquinas is opening up some interesting avenues for us. Next week, creation.

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