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Christian Theology Cannot Be Understood without Classical Philosophy

When Christians neglect the reading of Sacred Scripture and don’t care to understand the meaning of what the prophets and apostles have written for us, it’s easy to dismiss Philosophy as unnecessary. Yet, when we do take the study of the Scriptures seriously and seek to understand all that the inspired writers have left for us, we find passages that cannot be understood without knowledge of Philosophy.

A good example is found in St. Paul’s epistle to the Philippians. Philippians 2:6-11 was read at Evening Prayer this evening and I can’t imagine how anyone might understand or explain it without a knolwedge of Philosophy. Here is the biblical text and the explanation from St. Thomas Aquinas:

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

After giving his exhortation, the Apostle urges them to the virtue of humility according to Christ’s example. First, he exhorts them to follow the example of Christ; secondly, he gives the example (2:6).

He says, therefore: Be humble, as I have said; hence have this mind among yourselves, i.e., acquire by experience the mind which you have in Christ Jesus. It should be noted that we should have this mind in five ways according to the five senses: first, to see His glory, so that being enlightened, we may be conformed to Him: “Your eyes will see the king in his beauty” (Is. 33:17); “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18); secondly, to hear His wisdom, in order to become happy: “Happy are these your servants, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom” (1 Kgs. 10:8); “As soon as they heard of me they obeyed me” (Ps. 18:44). Thirdly, to smell the grace of His meekness, that we may run to Him: “Your anointing oils are fragrant… draw me after you” (Cant. 1:3); fourthly, to taste the sweetness of His mercy, that we may always be in God: “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:9); fifthly, to touch His power, that we may be saved: “If I only touch his garment, I shall be made well” (Mt. 9:21).

Then when he says, who, though he was in the form of God, etc., he proposes the example of Christ. First, he mentions Christ’s majesty; secondly, His humility (2:7); thirdly, His exaltation (2:9).

He mentions Christ’s majesty first, in order that His humility might be more easily recommended. In regard to His majesty he proposes two things, namely, the truth of His divine nature, and His equality. He says, therefore: who, namely, Christ, though he was in the form of God. For it is through its form that a thing is said to be in a specific or generic nature; hence the form is called the nature of a thing. Consequently, to be in the form of God is to be in the nature of God. By this is understood that He is true God: [“That we may be in his true Son, Jesus Christ” (1 Jn. 5:20) ]. However, it should not be supposed that the form of God is one thing and God himself another, because in simple and immaterial things, and especially in God, the form is the same as that whose form it is.

But why does he say, in the form, rather than “in the nature”? Because this belongs to the proper names of the Son in three ways: for He is called the Son, the Word and the Image. Now the Son is the one begotten, and the end of begetting is the form. Therefore, to show the perfect Son of God he says, in the form, as though having the form of the Father perfectly. Similarly, a word is not perfect unless it leads to a knowledge of a thing’s nature; and so the Word of God is said to be in the form of God, because He has the entire nature of the Father. Finally, an image is not perfect, unless it has the form of that of which it is the image: “He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature” (Heb. 1:3).

But does He have it perfectly? Yes, because He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. This can be taken two ways: in one way, of His humanity. But this is not the way Paul understood it, because it would be heretical; for it would be a grasping [robbery] if it referred to his humanity. Therefore, it must be explained in another way, namely, of His divinity, according to which equality with God is said of Christ. It is contrary to reason to say otherwise: because the nature of God cannot be received in matter; but the fact that someone existing in a certain nature participates in that nature to a greater or lesser degree is due to the matter; which is not the case here. Therefore, we must say that He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, because He is in the form of God and knows His own nature well. And because He knows this, it is stated in John (5:18): “He called God his Father, making himself equal with God.” But this is not a grasping, as it was when the devil and man wished to be equal to Him: “I will make myself like the Most High” (Is. 14:14); “You will be like God” (Gen. 3:5), for which Christ came to make satisfaction: “What I did not steal must I now restore?” (Ps. 69:4). Then when he says, but emptied himself, he commends Christ’s humility: first, as to the mystery of the incarnation; secondly, as to the mystery of the passion (2:8). In regard to the first: first, he mentions His humility; secondly, its manner and form (2:7).

He says, therefore, He emptied himself. But since He was filled with the divinity, did He empty Himself of that? No, because He remained what He was; and what He was not, He assumed. But this must be understood in regard to the assumption of what He had not, and not according to the assumption of what He had. For just as He descended from heaven, not that He ceased to exist in heaven, but because He began to exist in a new way on earth, so He also emptied Himself, not by putting off His divine nature, but by assuming a human nature.

How beautiful to say that He emptied himself, for the empty is opposed to the full! For the divine nature is sufficiently full, because every perfection of goodness is there. But human nature and the soul are not full, but capable of fulness, because it was made as a slate not written upon. Therefore, human nature is empty. Hence he says, He emptied himself, because He assumed a human nature.

First, he touches on the assumption of human nature when he says, taking the form of a servant. For by reason of his creation man is a servant, and human nature is the form of a servant: “Know that the Lord is God! It is he that made us, and we are his” (Ps. 100:3); “Behold my servant, whom I uphold” (Is. 42:1); “But thou, 0, Lord, art a shield about me” (Ps. 3:4). But why is it more fitting to say the form of a servant, rather than “Servant” Because servant is the name of a hypostasis, which was not assumed, but the nature was; for that which is assumed is distinct from the one assuming it. Therefore, the Son of God did not assume a man, because that would mean that he was other than the Son of God; nevertheless, the Son of God became man. Therefore, He took the nature to His own person, so that the Son of God and the Son of man would be the same in person.

Secondly, he touches on the conformity of His nature to ours when he says, being born in the likeness of men, namely, according to species: “Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect” (Heb. 2:17). If you say that it is not fitting to speak of a species in the Lord Jesus Christ: it is true in the sense that a new species does not arise from His divinity and humanity, as though His divinity and humanity agreed in having one common species of nature, for it would follow that His divine nature, so to say, would have changed.

Thirdly, he mentions the conditions of His human nature when he says, and being found in human form. For He assumed all the defects and properties associated with the human species, except sin; therefore, he says, and being found in human form, namely, in His external life, because He became hungry as a man and tired and so on: “One who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning” (Heb. 4:15); “Afterward [He] appeared upon earth and lived among men” (Bar. 3:37). Thus, we can refer form to outward activities. Or in human form [ in habit ], because He put humanity on as a habit. For there are four kinds of habit [ habitus ] or ways in which something is “had”: one “had thine changes a person without itself being changed, as a fool by wisdom; another is changed and also changes the possessor, as food; a third neither changes the possessor nor is changed, as a ring worn on the finger; another is changed and does not change the possessor, as a dress. And by this likeness the human nature in Christ is called a habit or “something had”; because it comes to the divine person without changing it, but the nature itself was changed for the better, because it was filled with grace and truth: “We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (Jn. 1:14). He says, therefore, being born in the likeness of men, but in such a way that He is not changed, because in habit He was found as a man.

It should be noted that some have fallen into error on account of this phrase, being found in human form. Hence he touches on several opinions: the first is that Christ’s humanity accrues to Him as an accident. This is false, because the person existing in the divine nature became a person existing in the human nature; therefore, it is present not as an accident, but substantially: not that the humanity is united to the Word in His nature, but in His person. By this is excluded the error of Photinus, who said that Christ was true man but not of the Virgin: however, Paul says, he was in the form of God; therefore, He was in the form of God before receiving the form of a servant, as a result of which He is less than the Father, because He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. Arius’ error is also excluded, for he said Christ was less than the Father; but Paul says, He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. And Nestorius’ error, who said that the union should be taken as an indwelling, so that God dwells in the Son of man as in a temple, and that the Son of man is a person distinct from the Son of God. And Rabanus says that the incarnation was an emptying. Now it is evident that the Father and the Holy Spirit are involved in every indwelling; therefore, they too are emptied. But this is false. Furthermore, Paul says, He emptied himself; therefore the person emptied and the one emptying are the same. But this is the Son, because He emptied Himself. Therefore, the union is in the person. Also the error of Eutyches, who said that one nature results from the two. Therefore, He did not receive the form of a servant, but a different one, which is contrary to what the Apostle says. Also the error of Valentinus, who said that He took His body from heaven; and the error of Appollinaris, who said that He had no soul. If this were so, He would not have been born in the likeness of man.

Then when he says, He humbled himself, he commends Christ’s humility as indicated in His passion: first, he shows Christ’s humility; secondly, its manner (2: 8). Therefore He was man, but very great, because the same one is God and man; yet He humbled himself: “The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself” (Si. 3:18); “Learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29).

The manner and the sign of His humility is obedience, whereas it is characteristic of the proud to follow their own will, for a proud person seeks greatness. But it pertains to a great thing that it not be ruled by something else, but that it rule other things; therefore, obedience is contrary to pride.

Hence, in order to show the greatness of Christ’s humility and passion, he says that He became obedient; because if He had not suffered out of obedience, His passion would not be so commendable, for obedience gives merit to our sufferings. But how was He made obedient? Not by His divine will, because it is a rule; but by His human will, which is ruled in all things according to the Father’s will: “Nevertheless, not as I will but as thou wilt” (Mt. 26:39). And it is fitting that He bring obedience into His passion, because the first sin was accomplished by disobedience: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19); [“The obedient man shall speak of victory” (Prov. 21:28) ]. That this obedience is great and commendable is evident from the fact that obedience is great when it follows the will of another against one’s own. Now the movement of the human will tends toward two things, namely, to life and to honor. But Christ did not refuse death: “Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Pet. 3:18). Furthermore, He did not flee ignominy; hence he says, even death on a cross, which is the most shameful: “Let us condemn him to a shameful death7 (Wis. 2:20). Thus, He neither refused death nor an ignominous form of death.

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