Today’s Aquinas: What Does It Mean To Be Holy?

Today’s Aquinas: What Does It Mean To Be Holy? September 7, 2015

ThomasAquinas We’re blogging through St. Thomas Aquinas’ Compendium Theologiae, sometimes called his Shorter Summa. Find the previous posts here.

One of the things that makes Thomas difficult to read is that he’s not writing from the ground up, explaining everything in minute detail; rather, he’s writing in a rich intellectual and philosophical context.  He played a major role in bringing that context into the mainstream in Europe, but in general his written works are not centered on it.  Instead they are centered on theological explanations in which he uses his philosophical understanding freely.  And that means that almost every paragraph has sentences that are capable of supporting pages or chapters of unpacking.

Today’s chapter is an excellent example.  Thomas is working towards our creedal understanding of the Holy Spirit, and today he’s addressing the notion of holiness.  What do we mean by the word “holy”?  He begins,

Another point to consider is this. Since good that is loved has the nature of an end, and since the motion of the will is designated good or evil in terms of the end it pursues, the love whereby the supreme good that is God is loved must possess the supereminent goodness that goes by the name of holiness.

We’ll take this bit by bit.  First he says, “…good that is loved has the nature of an end…”.  An end is a goal that we seek.  When I’m hungry and go make myself some lunch, the end I have in view is eating lunch so as not to be hungry.  The good in question is not being hungry.  And to say that I love this good is simply to say that I have chosen to pursue it.

To put it another way, the good is something we know, such as eating prevents starvation, and when I’m hungry I should eat something.  To love a good is to choose it over other goods.  When I choose to go make lunch, I am loving the good of not being hungry.

Talking about goods and ends and choices can get complicated very quickly, because ends naturally come in chains.  I go make lunch so that I can eat lunch so that I won’t be hungry so that I’ll be comfortable and I won’t starve so that I won’t die.  Ultimately I choose to eat lunch because I’m pursuing the end of my own thriving.  The choice to feed myself when I’m hungry is ultimately an act of love for myself.

So the good that we love is also the end that we seek.

Thomas then says, “…the motion of the will is designated good or evil in terms of the end it pursues…”.  In pursuing an end we are always pursuing some good; but it might still be an evil choice.  In seeking revenge against an enemy I might be seeking personal satisfaction and (as I might tell myself) inner peace, but I’m also seeking to harm another human being.  To seek another’s ruin is a bad thing, and so we say that such an action is evil.  On the other hand, eating to keep myself alive is good.

And then he says, “…the love whereby the supreme good that is God is loved must possess the supereminent goodness that goes by the name of holiness.”  To love God is to seek Him as an end, to choose Him.  And since to choose a good end is a good act, and since God (as Thomas has already shown) is supremely and perfectly Good, loving Him is a supremely good act; and this Thomas identifies with holiness.

He then goes on to describe how holiness has been understood in the Eastern and Western traditions of the Church:

This is true whether “holy” is taken as equivalent to “pure,” according to the Greeks, the idea being that in God there is most pure goodness free from all defect, or whether “holy” is taken to mean “firm,” in the view of the Latins, on the score that in God there is unchangeable goodness. In either case, everything dedicated to God is called holy, such as a temple and the vessels of the temple and all objects consecrated to divine service.

So in holiness we have the notions of goodness, of purity, of firmness of purpose, and of being dedicated or set aside for the worship of God.

And so then,

Rightly, then, the Spirit, who represents to us the love whereby God loves Himself, is called the Holy Spirit.

God is perfectly and supremely good, and as Thomas has shown the Spirit is God’s own love for that perfect and supreme goodness.  But love for God is called “holiness”; and as the love of the Spirit is the perfect and supreme love of the perfect and supreme goodness that is God, the Spirit is holiness par excellence.

For this reason the rule of Catholic faith proclaims that the Spirit is holy, in the clause, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

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photo credit: Public Domain; source Wikimedia Commons


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