God is emotionless, and that is Good News for humans: Thoughts about God, humanity, and salvation

I am in a pretty busy time of ministry right now, and I have not had a lot of time to do any real serious writing. I’ve been sitting on this blog post for a while, hoping to get more coherence in my thoughts. I’m posting this now with the hopes that these thoughts will continue to percolate into something helpful. 

The desire for God to have emotions is grounded in a misunderstanding of God’s eternal and self-existent life, the purpose of emotions in human life, and of God’s work of salvation.

In the 1st of the 39 Articles a general statement about the Christian God is made:

THERE is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Here we see God considered in himself in both aspects of who he is: the Unity of the essence and the distinction of persons. In the first half of the statement, several aspects of God’s infinite being and life is established, all of which safeguard against two things: 1) imagining that we can comprehend God, 2) that God is the greatest being in a chain of being. God is not like humans or the created world. He is totally other; not distant, but definitely not a being among other beings. This is how John Webster puts it: “In his inner works, as Father, Son and Spirit, God is plentitude of life and incomparable excellence… in the perfection of his immanent triune life God ‘only’ is God, and God is ‘alone.'” (God without Measure, I.119-120).

Further, Webster argues that God in his plentitude of life and his triunity is Simple. “God has no career, no process of coming-to-be” (Webster, God without Measure, 1.120). Finally, following Aquinas, we say that all creatures are contained within a genus; God is outside and before all genera (ST. 1a.4.3.ad 2).

All this means that God is not like humans, who are created, while God is the fullness of life. Emotions, as they are experienced in human life, are related to the contingency and progression of life, something which is simply not a reality in God. God is the fullness and plentitude of life; he is perfection in all its beauty and light and beyond all measure: as Paul confesses: “he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen” (1 Timothy 6:15-16; see also James 1:17). 

This has been the standard Christian confession for much of history, however, in modern theology, and often times in pastoral care, the question arises whether God should, can or must relate to human experience and emotion. Most understandably, this question arose among theologians after the Jewish Holocaust of World War II.  If we say that God is without passion does this not mean that he is distant and uncaring?

To the contrary, It is my thesis that it is good news that God is passionless, i.e., doesn’t have emotions, especially for the doctrine of human nature and salvation. To prove this thesis, we need to consider the problem from three angles: from the doctrine of God, the doctrine of human nature, and the doctrine of salvation.

God’s infinite, eternal life: 

Building off of what we said above: God’s is infinite life, actuality, and plentitude. To say that God is passionless is to say that he is full of life and being – it is the opposite of aloof. In his infinite life, he is changeless, neither needing anything or advancing towards some goal. God is the creator who does not change; this changelessness is not a defect, but a fact of his being infinite life and goodness. Out of God’s infinite goodness, he creates and sustains the world. Because God is totally complete and full in himself is he able to creates and sustain the created world out of his plentitude and generosity not out of a need for us. If God were not complete in himself and created the world, the world and God’s being would be co-terminus. God would have made the world for his sake, not our own (See Webster, God without Measure, I.126).

God is One, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One could imagine that in the intra-trinitarian relations there is emotion. However, this would be to project some kind of temporal or metaphysical movement in the Trinity. As if God the Father at some time choose to love the Son and the Spirit and thus generate and process them respectively. This would introduce change and progress in the divine life and would collapse the Trinity into created being. Contrary to this, God is eternally the Father generating the SOn and the Father and Son spirating the Holy Spirit, in an eternal, changeless, and infinitely simple way. God’s being is the fullness of life and action; he is the Living God who chooses to create beings who are different than God.

Creatures are from God and are created out of nothing. They are completely dependent on God for their existence and sustenance; everything from God for Creatures is a gift. Further, human creatures are created for fellowship with God. God freely creates creatures and gives them being, “making them for their own sake, not for his” (Webster, God without Measure, I.126). Human existence comes from and returns to God, but God does not depend on creatures. Humans were made for communion with God; this is our end, our telos and a part of that being made by God and toward God is our emotional life.

To be human is to have emotions:

Emotions are a feature of created human nature and correlate to our teleological end – we have emotions because we were created for an end purpose, i.e., life with God in the beatific vision (Ia-IIae Q 1-5). Emotions are an aspect of being contingent creatures on the way to this end.  Emotions are not bad, they are an integral part of human nature that reflect the fact that we were to desire God and love him forever.  Aquinas divides human emotions in terms of longing (concupiscence)  and resistance (Irascible). “For the concupiscible regards as proper to it the notion of the good, as something pleasant to the senses and suitable to nature: whereas the irascible regard the notion of good as something that wards off and repels what is hurtful.”(Ia Q 82.a5). Emotions, properly ordered, draw us towards the good and repel us from what is evil. Emotions are an aspect of humanity’s journey towards God, they are innate to what it means to be human creatures.

One may object at this point and say if we are created in the image of God, doesn’t that mean that emotions are a part of God’s character? Being created in the image of God doesn’t mean that everything we have is identical to God or visa-versa. Obviously, we are not infinite, self-sufficient and eternal. Neither is God changeable, becoming or created. Whatever being made in the image of God means, it does not mean being identical with God or God with us. Because emotions are connected to our mutability, our changing nature that longs for the good, it is not an aspect of being created in the image of God. Rather, emotions draw us toward God who is our good (see Summa Ia-IIae q 22. a 1; q23  a1, a4).

Further, emotions are firmly established on the creature side of the creator-creature divide. the Human desire for God to experience emotions as we do is rooted in our idolatrous desire to see God in our image. If God had emotions as we did, he would not be mighty to save, he would be like us, and we would be lost.

In Scripture, emotional language is used to describe God in the Old and New Testament. I need to think more about the Old Testament language, though traditionally, it has been understood in terms of metaphor and analogy.

But, to properly speak of God having emotions we can only look to the person of Jesus Christ who has a fully human nature in the incarnation.

Pastorally, this is the location we talk about Jesus Christ feeling for us and with us. Further, we have to realize that Christ’s incarnation was not to identify with humanity but to save humanity from death, sin and the devil. The second person of the Trinity experienced human emotion as a correlate of his work of salvation, but it was not the primary purpose. Yet, because The Son of God incarnate has experienced human emotions, he empathizes with our struggle and gives us the Holy Spirit to properly train our emotions. So that we learn to hate evil and love God, with our whole being including our emotions.  (See Hebrews 2; John 11).

 

 

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Running Theological Thoughts: Habakkuk 2:2-5

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Habakkuk 2:2-5

And the Lord answered me:

“Write the vision;
    make it plain on tablets,
    so he may run who reads it.
For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
    it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
    it will surely come; it will not delay.

“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
    but the righteous shall live by his faith.

“Moreover, wine is a traitor,
an arrogant man who is never at rest.
His greed is as wide as Sheol;
like death he has never enough.
He gathers for himself all nations
and collects as his own all peoples.”

 

Observations:

After Habakkuk offers his second complaint to God, he stands on his watch-tower awaiting YHWH’s response, and YHWH answers. He answers Habakkuk by telling him to ‘write the vision’ in big letters on a tablet. YHWH tells Habakkuk that the vision is a future reality and that it will come to pass, though it may seem slow, the reader of the vision must wait for it (vs. 3).

In verse 4, the unrighteous and righteous person are contrasted. The unrighteous man lives in pride, which is cleverly portrayed as a puffed up soul that is crooked. Imagine a huge Thanksgiving Day parade balloon gone all upside down and blown over – that is the prideful person. In contrast, the righteous, who we’ve met twice now (1:4, 13), lives by his faith. In comparison to the prideful person, the righteous await the vision’s fulfillment in humility and trust.

In verse 5,  it seems the vision returns to the prideful person, perhaps as a personification of the Chaldeans who are about to be judged in the following verses. In this verse, the prideful man is portrayed as a ravenous consumer of the whole world, like death and Sheol itself. Unlike the Righteous who waits and trust the prideful consume in greed, frenetic arrogance, and gathers the world like death gathers his victims.

Theological Comments: 

God answers both of Habakkuk’s complaints, showing that all people, both unfaithful Israel, and the violent and arrogant Chaldeans are judged for their sins. God is just in his judgment and does not overlook sin. However, the judgment on the Chaldeans and the whole world will be coming at a future time. God tells Habakkuk to write the vision large, to signify that it will come to pass, but tells Habakkuk that the vision awaits its appointed time; it is coming, but the righteous must await it in faith.

In prophetic literature, there is often a telescoping of events, where the vision refers to something or several somethings in the future. As we read through the Woe’s on the Chaldeans, we will see three levels of telescoping: the judgment of the Chaldeans, the judgment of Sin and death in Christ on the Cross, and the final judgment that all the righteous await in faith.

The vision awaits its appointed time, the appointed time of judgment is the final day, the judgment of the world – the day of the Lord. The day of the Lord is a day of final judgment, which was brought into the present in the crucifixion of Christ. The eschatological judgment of God was transposed into the center of history at the appointed time. It has come in the judgment of the World in the cross of Christ, and yet it still is to come; when the one who took the sins of the world upon himself will judge the world (Matthew 25:31-46).

So the righteous continue to wait; they wait and live by their faith, as the prideful world stumbles on in its consumption and arrogance. The righteous wait and rest in contentment; as the prideful person consumes the world filling up his soul even as he collapses in on himself. What keeps the righteous man buoyant in the midst of the City of Man? What keeps him going as a member of the Pilgrim City of God? The alien righteousness of Christ whose faith the faithful live by.

Paul famously quotes Habakkuk 2:4 in Galatians 3:11, transfiguring the meaning of the text through a Christological reading. Rather than the righteous living by his faith, the righteous now live by faith in Christ. More than that, the righteous have their righteousness not through their works, or their allegiance to God, but through Christ’s righteous life and his faithfulness. The righteous wait in peace, and calm and contentment because they are united to the righteous and faithful one in trusting faith.

Because the righteous receive their righteousness from Christ, the truly righteous one they can rest. Unlike the arrogant, they can be generous and content. The righteous can live righteously because the Righteous One, who is infinite life, was consumed by the greedy jaws of death and Sheol and overcame death with his life. The righteous can rest in contentment and wait as they walk the pilgrim road to the City of God because Righteous one, Jesus Christ lived by faith in God and the righteous who are united to him in faith live in him through the Holy Spirit.

Aquinas and Webster on the Studious Pastor-Theologian

Is curiosity a good or bad thing? If anything it is complicated. On the one hand, we encourage our children to be curious, to explore and discover. On the other hand, the old adage, “curiosity killed the cat” still has currency; usually when parents don’t want to explain something.

I was surprised to discover that the Christian Tradition actually has something to say about curiosity, namely that it is a vice. The virtue that contrasts curiosity is studiousness. In this blog post, I will consider curiosity and studiousness in relation to Theology and the Christian life by examining John Webster and Thomas Aquinas on the topic.

John Webster, following and expanding on Aquinas, defines studiousness as follows:

A strenuous application of the powers of the creaturely intellect, the end of which is to come to know something for the first time, or to apprehend under a new aspect or with a new interest some object already known… Studiousness refers to the activity of the well-ordered creaturely intellect coming to know. (The Dominion of the Word, 194).

This is how Aquinas defines studiousness: “Properly speaking, study denotes keen application of the mind to something.” (IIa IIae 166.1). Curiosity, by contrast, is a vice-filled pursuit of knowledge that Aquinas brilliantly dissects.

First, Aquinas argues, the desire to study and pursue knowledge may be right or wrong. If right, Curiosity can take that right desire down a vice-filled path in two ways: 1) either by taking the pursuit of knowledge to gain pride in one’s knowledge, or 2) to study something in order to sin.

Second, the desire to learn itself can be improperly ordered which results in four further forms of curiosity: 1) a person studies something that distracts them from the thing they should be studying i.e., facebook scrolling instead of homework. 2) when a person learns from a source that is evil or unlawful, i.e., an untrustworthy authority or evil spirits. 3) When a person seeks the truth of creatures without seeking their source and end: God. 4) When a person seeks the truth that is above or beyond his intellectual capacity which easily leads to an error (Aquinas, Summa Theologia, IIaIIae 167.1).

Aquinas’s thoughts on curiosity and studiousness apply to all areas of study, but what of theology and the vocation of Pastor-Theologians and Christians?

According to John Webster, curiosity rears its head in at least five ways in the pursuit of the knowledge of God.

  1. Curiosity appears when Christians forget they are under the instruction and teaching of God. Curiosity detaches the mind from the source of Theology: God.
  2. Curiosity seeks the novel and avoids the discipline of the particular object of theology: God and all things that come from God. Webster says, “In acute form, this becomes a species of intellectual promiscuity, driven by addiction to novelty and a compulsion to repeat the experience of discovery” (Dominion of the Word, 198).
  3. “Curiosity in theology stops short at surfaces, and so inhibits theological intelligence in running towards God.” (Dominion of the Word, 198).
  4. “Curiosity debases the manner in which theological work is undertaken, causing the theologian to adopt a posture at odds with spiritual vocation.”(Dominion of the Word, 199). What does this mean? Basically, theologians can be lured by pride, the desire for new knowledge, fame, and isolation from the church and worship. This can be true of any Christian, the desire to know God and love God is a spiritual and communal endeavor.
  5. Finally, “Curiosity disregards the proper end of theology, which are contemplative and apostolic.” (Dominion of the Word, 199). See my blog post on this topic.

This is Webster’s autopsy of The Curious Theologian, what is the remedy? Webster points to the work of the Holy Spirit: “The Holy Spirit, whose mission is to perfect creatures in realizing the divine purpose for them, secured by the reconciling work of the Son is the fulfillment of the Father’s will. In the Spirit’s original work, the intellect is made new; in the Spirit’s governing work, the intellect is maintained and directed on its true course” (Dominion of the Word, 199). In other words, the Holy Spirit sanctifies the intellect by mortifying and vivifying it, bringing it into alignment with the mind of Christ. Webster outlines three aspects of theological studiousness:

  1. “Christian Theology is an exercise of sanctified studiousness, the work of persons whose intellectual acts are marked by the Spirit’s regenerative presence” (Dominion of the Word, 200). The person becomes studious as they are trained by the Holy Spirit who redirects their desires towards their proper end: God.
  2. “Curiosity falls away as Christian theology directs itself to its singular matter with a definite interest” (Dominion of the Word, 201). By which Webster means God and everything in relation to God, including the whole scope of theology from creation to consummation (see my blog post on the proper order of theology).
  3. “Mortification of curiosity happens as theology is directed to its proper end, which is love: Love of God who gives himself to be known, and love of the saints and the not-yet-saints by communicating what theology has come to know” (Dominion of the Word, 201). In other words, studiousness while concentrated, and full of effort is not for oneself, but for the worship of God and the edification of others.

Curiosity is the unnatural state of human knowledge; it is intellectual pursuit post-fall. We can only become truly studious when we are reconciled to the Truth. We become studious as we are taught by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, who orders our intellectual endeavor and the purpose of our endeavors to their proper end God and others. Studiousness is a virtue that takes practice and effort to attain, an effort that is preceded and followed by the mortifying and vivifying work of God the Holy Spirit.

A question I have, and one I cannot follow up right now, is how Aquinas and Webster’s analysis of Curiosity and Studiousness obtains in other intellectual disciplines and the process of education in general?

Running Theological Thoughts: Habakkuk 1:12-2:1

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Habakkuk’s Response/second complaint

1:12 Are you not from everlasting,
O Lord my God, my Holy One?
We shall not die.
O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment,
and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.
13 You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
the man more righteous than he?
14 You make mankind like the fish of the sea,
like crawling things that have no ruler.
15 He brings all of them up with a hook;
he drags them out with his net;
he gathers them in his dragnet;
so he rejoices and is glad.
16 Therefore he sacrifices to his net
and makes offerings to his dragnet;
for by them he lives in luxury,
and his food is rich.
17 Is he then to keep on emptying his net
and mercilessly killing nations forever?

2:1 I will take my stand at my watchpost
and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,
and what I will answer concerning my complaint.

Observations:

Following the Lord’s response to Habakkuk’s lament about the sin and injustice in Israel, Habakkuk responds to the judgment of Judah through the instrument of the Chaldeans. In verse 12 he begins by acknowledging the person and character of God: he is everlasting, the Lord God, the Holy One, in the form of a question. In response to this question, he says, “We shall not die.” Even in the rightful judgment coming from the Chaldeans, Habakkuk is convinced that God is faithful. He is the Lord and Rock who has established judgment and reproof. Yet, in verse 13, Habakkuk ask God, who cannot abide seeing evil, why he sits idly looking at the sin of the Chaldeans who oppress the righteous. Verses 13-17 describe the violence, injustice, idolatry, and extreme luxury of the wicked Chaldeans. Chapter 2 begins with Habakkuk standing, awaiting God’s response to his plea for justice for the righteous who are oppressed by the wicked Chaldeans.

Reflection on Chapter 1: It is worth noting that Habakkuk has now asked God to bring justice to the unjust and wicked in Judah who oppress the Righteous, and the unjust and wicked Gentiles who God uses to bring about the judgment of the wicked in Judah. As we approach chapter 2, we see that neither Jew or Gentile can be righteous or just in their own strength.

Theological Comments:

Habakkuk uses several significant descriptions of God in verses 12-13. In 12a he describes God as everlasting, the covenant LORD, and Holy. He follows this with the statement, “We shall not die.” How do these connect?

God is his eternal, self-sufficient, infinite life. He is totally different from humans, both ontologically, and morally – he is holy. He is the “I am who I am” who has created the world out of nothing, choose Israel out of nothing, and saved Israel out of death and slavery. He is the everlasting covenant God of Israel. Because God is eternal and everlasting because he is self-sufficient and holy, he is free to create and save humanity. Because he is God who is free and loves, “we shall not die.” Habakkuk trusts that the righteous will live because God is who he is.

In the face of God’s righteous judgment, it takes real faith, hope, and love to believe that we shall not die. Habakkuk trusts that even though the judgment, God will be just to the righteous; he will bring justice even as he uses the unjust Chaldeans to bring judgment. Habakkuk as the mediating prophet looks to who God is and sees the infinite and eternal one and puts his faith in him, finds hope in him, and loves for God and his people. How does he love God and God’s people? He loves God by confessing who he is and trusting in him, he loves his people by crying out for justice and salvation; by standing at his watch-post awaiting God’s response (2:1).

Habakkuk’s honest trust in God subverts how many people approach God. We often approach God either as a projection of our worst fears and self-hate, or a placid reflection of our own self-aggrandized prideful goodness. Habakkuk’s honest trust points to the reality that he is actually talking to and interacting with a personal reality: The infinite personal God. God reveals himself to Habakkuk and Habakkuk interacts with him in honest trust. Habakkuk’s honest trust looks to God to preserve his people even as his people deserve judgment. And God in his infinite life and love does just that.

Even in light of God ordaining evil men to bring about his just judgment, Habakkuk trusts that the Lord is the Rock; the steadfast one who brings judgment and mercy. Habakkuk’s declaration of God’s character and trust in him figures Jesus’s own faith in the Father. Jesus, the Rock of our salvation, received the judgment of our sin for our salvation. Jesus could do this because he was fully God – holy, self-sufficient, the covenant God of Israel who saves, sent from the Father as the eternal Son of God – and fully man – taking our sin and judgment through his death on the cross. Because Jesus is the Holy One, the everlasting God, the Lord who creates and Saves, “we shall not die.” In his death, the Triune God does not look idly on sin but deal with it. This brings us to our next topic.

Verse 13 offers us a bit of a puzzle. In 1:3 Habakkuk asks, “Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you look at wrong?” And yet, Habakkuk then says in vs. 13: “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” God is simultaneously too pure to see evil and look at wrong, yet he idly sees evil and remains silent at wrong.”

It is common to say that God is too holy to behold evil, but this is unhelpful because he obviously does see evil, he does behold the traitor. It would seem better to see this metaphor of not beholding evil as both a confirmation of God’s utter holiness and a call for him to act against evil. God’s holiness cannot abide evil, and yet he idly looks upon it. That is the problem; God’s seeming inaction against evil both in Judah and the Chaldeans. How could God abide the evil of the Chaldeans who worship idols, persecute the righteous, and murder by the thousands? Habakkuk is asking God to bring his holiness to bear on the evil in the world, to bring judgment and restoration. What will God do?

To see how God responds to this call, we will turn to Habakkuk chapter 2 in our next post.

Quote from The Fathers and Mothers of the Church: Aquinas on The love of God and friendship with God

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God’s love and Human love

God loves all existing things. For all existing things, in so far as they exist, are good, since the existence of a thing is itself a good; And likewise, whatever perfection it possesses. Now it has been shown above (Q. 19, A. 4) that God’s will is the cause of all things. It must needs be, therefore, that a thing has existence or any kind of good, only inasmuch as it is willed by God. Hence, since to love anything is nothing else than to will good to that thing, it is manifest that God loves everything that exists. Yet, not as we love. Because since our will is not the cause of the goodness of things, but is moved by its object, our love, whereby we will good to anything, is not the cause of its goodness; but conversely its goodness whether real or imaginary, calls forth our love, by which we will that it should preserve the good it has, and receive besides the good it has not, and to this end, we direct our action: whereas the love of God infuses and creates goodness (ST. Ia Q 20.A2

A few things worth noting:

  1. Existence is good, which is caused by God.
  2. God’s perfect and good will is the cause of all things. His will, however, cannot be disconnected from his goodness. The doctrine of divine simplicity preserves this reality; God’s will is identical with his goodness. Thus, God’s willing of creatures is not arbitrary, but benevolent and purposeful in accordance with God’s character.
  3. Aquinas defines love as willing the good of something. God wills everything into existence, and thus everything that exists is good and is from God.
  4. Humans see the created good in something, that is from God and loves the thing because of the good that is from God. Aquinas notes that this good could be real or imaginary because the good that a human loves can actually be a perversion of the good, i.e., an evil, that they perceive as a good. Thus, a lustful person sees their lust as a good; but it is actually a perversion of love.
  5. Aquinas’s brief anthropology points us to the reality that humans desire the good and are moved by it in others and this is love in humans. God’s love causes existence and moves humans to their end goal; love in humans is supposed to draw us towards our end goal: God. Because of sin, we need our loves and desire for the good re-wired; we need the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us (Romans 5:5).

Charity is Friendship with God 

Charity signifies not only the love of God but also a certain friendship with him; which implies besides love, a certain mutual return of love, together with mutual communion… That this belongs to charity is evident from 1 John 4:16: He that abideth in charity, abideth in God, and God in him, and from 1 Cor 1:9, where it is written: God is faithful, by Whom you are called unto the fellowship of his Son. Now this fellowship of man with God, which consists in a certain familiar colloquy with him, is begun here, by grace, but will be perfected in the future life, by glory each of which things we hold by faith and hope. Wherefore, just as friendship with a person would be impossible, in one disbelieved in or despaired of, the possibility of their fellowship or familiar colloquy; so too, friendship with God which is charity, is impossible without faith, so as to believe in this fellowship and colloquy with God and to hope to attain to this fellowship. Therefore charity is quite impossible without faith and hope. (1a.2ae. 65.a2).

A few things to think about:

  1. Aquinas’s understanding of friendship with God should remind us of John Owen and Richard Hooker in this blog post.  Communion with God is a mutual communion between the triune God and the Christian, which is established by God in his love for us through Christ in the Holy Spirit.
  2. To call charity a mutual return of love signifies a relationship that is established in the Holy Spirit when he is poured into our hearts by Christ. When we speak of the love of God, for Aquinas, we speak of this communion and relationship, first in the Trinity, and then between The triune God and redeemed humanity.
  3. Fellowship or friendship with God begins now and is brought to completion in the beatific vision.
  4. Because this friendship is not one of sight, we hold it by faith and with hope. So friendship with God is Charity, and it is believed by faith and longed for in its fullness by hope. There is an already not/yet dimension to friendship with God in Love.

Quotes from the Fathers and Mothers of the Church: Aquinas: What makes us Happy?

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A few weeks ago my church began running Alpha. In the first session, we ask this question: “If it turned out there was a God after all, and you could ask one question, what would it be?”

As I was listening to other people’s questions and imagining my own question, even though I am a Christian, I was deeply moved by this question: “God, will you, or can you make me happy?”

Now I know that the world “happy’ gets a bad rap. Happy is associated with an emotion, a fleeting feeling. But I think that that desire for happiness or contentment or delight points us to something true real about humanity. It leads us to a fact that whatever way we define happiness, we all know we want it and will do almost anything to strive after it. When we really think about it, happiness strives beyond the feelings towards something deeper, something substantial, something with weight, and value and meaning, something that makes sense of everything else.

Augustine and Aquinas argued that “all men agree in desiring the last end, which is happiness” (Aquinas, 1-2.1a7). Now everyone wants to experience this bliss, this sense of fullness, meaning, purpose or “perfection” as Aquinas calls it. But what will bring about this perfection, this true sense of being who I am supposed to be, that is where it gets all muddled. For Aquinas, the final end of human longing, the end for which we were created, is life in God, communion with God and the vision of God. In fact, the sight of God is called the Beatific Vision which is the same word for happy (Beatitudo).

Now obviously, not many people will agree with either premise of Aquinas’s understanding of happiness: either that we were created for a particular end, and that that particular end is the vision of God. Western culture rejects both of these for a self-made definition of our ends and our beginnings. However, that lingering sense and longing for happiness remain, and Aquinas’s thoughts can help us think through what this longing says about humanity. Aquinas argues that we have this longing because we were created for a particular end, but we are trying to fulfill that end in other things (Aquinas, 1-2.1a7). If we grant that we do long for something beyond ourselves, we can at least listen to what Aquinas says that longing is. Another theologian, Augustine, defined this longing as restlessness and said, “our hearts are restless until they rest in God” (Confessions, 1).

So what of all the things that we think we will find our happiness in? Aquinas goes through a pretty extensive list and tries to demonstrate that no created good will satisfy our longing, will really make us happy. For example, wealth cannot make you happy, because we acquire wealth as a means to a further end, either for the needs of life or to fulfill inordinate desires for other things (Aquinas, 1-2.2a1). Perhaps the most pervasive form of seeking happiness today is physical, either through sex, thrills, or physical exertion. Aquinas basically argues that we are more than physical creatures with physical needs, and thus that ultimate longing will not be fulfilled with physical pleasure. Though, it is understandable that we seek pleasure as our happiness because we are embodied souls (Aquinas, 1-2.2a6). Aquinas covers, wealth, power, fame, glory, intellectual abilities, and shows that all of them will not satisfy our longing for happiness.

In summary, Aquinas argues that no created thing can give us real and true happiness:

It is impossible for a created good to constitute man’s happiness. For happiness is the perfect good, which lulls the appetite altogether; else it would not be the last end, if something yet remained to be desired. Now the object of the will, i.e., of man’s appetite, is the universal good; just as the object of the intellect is the universal true. Hence it is evident that naught can lull man’s will, save the universal good. That is to be found, not in any creature, but in God alone; because every creature has goodness by participation. wherefore, God alone can satisfy the will of man, according to the words of Ps. 102.5: who satisfieth thy desires with good things. Therefore God alone constitutes man’s happiness (Aquinas, 1-2.2a8).

Here Aquinas is saying that the thing we long for in happiness is being wholly contented with nothing left to be desired. The only thing that can satisfy us is that which is perfectly good, beautiful, and true, and that is actually God, who is both the source and end of human existence and desire.

Aquinas goes on to define happiness in light of the fact that God alone can make humanity happy, and how one can then attain such happiness.

To define happiness Aquinas first shows that happiness is a created reality. Why is the important? Because Aquinas is careful to maintain the infinite distinction between God who is our source of happiness and humanity, who finds their fulfillment in creaturely participation in God. (Aquinas, 1-2.3.a1). Humanity is created to enjoy God as creatures, God himself is happiness in his essence, we enjoy God through his Grace (Aquinas, 1-2.3a1). Aquinas proceeds to show that Happiness is nothing less than this: “final and perfect happiness consists in nothing else than the vision of the divine essence” (Aquinas, 1-2.3a8). Why is this the case? Happiness is being fully content, no longer seeking or desiring, and only God is capable of fulfilling such a longing.

In Question 4 Aquinas ponders what is required for happiness, and distinguishes between imperfect and perfect happiness. In this, he acknowledges that humans experience happiness on earth, but it is only a shadow of true perfect happiness, which will be experienced in the Eschaton.

Finally, in question 5 Aquinas asks how we can attain happiness. He affirms that we can attain it, but then asks how. He argues that humans attain happiness through sanctifying grace that comes from the work of Christ on behalf of humanity in his life, death, and resurrection (Aquinas, 1-2.5.a7). Here, Aquinas does argue that humans attain happiness as a reward for works of virtue. But the principle of these works is Grace, which is given without any merit or work.

In summary, Happiness is found in the Vision of God which can only be attained in Christ through Grace. As an Anglican, I would push Aquinas a bit on the idea that meritorious works of virtue giving us access to the beatific vision. Through an Anglican and reformational lens, I would couch what he says in terms of sanctification. I would say that we are justified by faith, in such a way that we are given access to God in Christ now, even as we grow in our sanctification towards the beatific vision in the age to come. All of this is through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, The path to the beatific vision is grounded in Union with Christ; the objective work of Christ is infused into Christian through the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies us and makes us virtuous. Thus, through Union with Christ, there is a foretaste of the beatific vision enjoyed now, one that is nourished through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, and enjoyed in the Body of Christ the Church, through worship, reception of Grace on Word and Sacrament, and service to others. We begin to rest now even as we walk the pilgrim road to the end of our discontent, to the final joy and delight for which we were created. To know God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, even as we are fully known (1 Cor. 13:12).