Aquinas: Nature, Grace, and Glory

There’s a cool idea at the heart of this post, and we’re gonna dig into it. The post will actually be two separate articles – 1a.62.3 and 62.8. They’re related, and neither is long enough to justify a thousand word article, so they’re getting put together. The first one asks whether angels were created in a state of grace, and the second one asks whether angels can sin once they’re in glory. You can take or leave the arguments about angels – I’m more keen on exploring this separation between nature, grace, and glory. For Aquinas, “Grace is the midway term between nature and glory.” We’re in, uh, 1a.62.3.

So there’s nature, which is the kinda natural fallen state that everyone’s running around in. Then there’s grace, which is when you’re basically within kinda the boundaries of Christianity but still not brought into the full knowledge of God. Glory is the final stage – it’s the new heaven and earth, when we come face to face with the divine. It kinda makes sense to say that the angels were created in a state of grace – it explains how some of them were able to fall. If they were in glory, it kinda seems impossible that they’d be able to fall – because there’s no sin in heaven, right. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

Aquinas starts with the arguments against the angels being created in grace. First, he says, “grace is what turns the rational creature towards God. If then the angels were created in it, none of them would have turned away from God.” He wants to suggest that first the angels actually were created in a state of nature, and then elevated through grace into glory.

In his rebuttal to the idea, Aquinas is happy to note that opinions differ on the matter. He’s not really fussed about this one – he’s got his own opinion, of course, but he’s not going in to bat too hard for it. Rather, he says, the view that angels were created in grace “seems more probable and more in line with the teaching of the Fathers.” His argument is almost a little bit whimsical: all things in nature, he says, have a seed state. Trees and animals and all the rest of it – they all have seed states, where they’re in their developmental infancy. Clearly, he says, grace is the seed of glory. So if the angels were made for glory, why not say that they started in a state of grace? That would be the seed state for angels, so to speak – it just makes them cohere a little bit more with the rest of the created world. It’s tidy that way.

The rebuttals to the other arguments are also pretty casual – none of this is super high stakes, it seems. He agrees that grace turns the rational creature towards God, but suggests that there’s a difference between compulsion and inclination. Grace inclines. Further, grace isn’t an outcome of your natural activities. You don’t advance from nature into grace by doing anything yourself. Grace is something given – and if it’s given, why not just say that it’s given alongside nature? Further, we’re only able to do things because of the grace of God, who bestows our natures upon us. Nature results from grace, insofar as it’s a good nature. From that perspective, we might as well say that angels were created in a state of grace.

Right! Now we’re on to 1a.62.8: Can angels sin once in glory? I’ve already kinda jumped the gun here and said no – because obviously not, right, that seems insane. Here’s the arguments in favour of the idea. First, glory does not destroy nature – it completes it. And because “the possibility of failure is inherent in created natures… a blessed angel may still sin.” Second, Aquinas quotes his bud Aristotle: “rational faculties are open to opposite courses.” Because angels in glory still possess their rational faculties, they can still take either course – they can still either sin or not sin. We’re a bit suspicious of this idea though – we covered it last week and Aquinas still has to justify how angels can sin in the first place. So we’ll put it on the backburner. Third, angels still have free will in heaven, and – nope, that’s the same argument again.

In his rebuttal, Aquinas says that angels in glory cannot sin, “because their bliss consists in seeing God’s essence, which is very goodness itself.” This is all the stuff we’ve already talked about – everyone desires goodness, but if the angels see God’s essence perfectly, they understand goodness perfectly. So they accurately choose goodness all the time, because that’s what they want and they know how to get it. Logically, then, before they’re brought into glory, they can’t see God perfectly – and that’s where the gap exists for the devils. They can’t see God perfectly in their state of grace, and so they fuck up. We’ve covered this idea a couple weeks back – angels know God through the mirror of their own being. That’s what Aquinas said in 1a.56.3. What’s made explicit here is that angels only see God through the mirror of their own being while in a state of grace. Once they hit glory, they see Him face to face, and sin becomes impossible. We’re dealing with the actual article around devils & sin next week, but there’s the basic framework.

The direct rebuttals after that are all pretty straightforward. They’re all implicitly things that we’ve talked about now. Having a will doesn’t mean you can sin, because “the will cannot help cleaving to the good qua good, for this is what it tends to of its nature… whatever alternatives [an angel] may choose, God is always the motive; and to act thus is to be without sin.” You still have the ability to make choices in a state of glory, but like Aquinas says: God is always the motive. And to act thus is to be without sin.

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