Knowing what is "natural": Thomas Aquinas and Luke Timothy Johnson on Romans 1-2.
This article explores such questions by comparing medieval and contemporary interpretations of Romans 1:18-32 and 2:13-16, specifically the commentaries of Thomas Aquinas and the contemporary Catholic biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson. (2) Engaging these two commentaries requires some appreciation of the differences between medieval and modern biblical exegesis. Depending upon one's perspective, medieval exegesis may occasionally seem to stray from the text of Romans, while contemporary exegesis may occasionally seem timid in drawing out the realities that Romans depicts. My hope, however, is that a careful exposition of the various threads of Aquinas's and Johnson's exegeses will provide insight into the basic questions facing all natural law doctrines. This article therefore sets forth in some detail the two commentators' remarks on Romans 1:18-32 and 2:13-16.
I. Romans 2:13-16: Knowing and Doing God's "Law"
After a brief comment on the truth that only those who do the law are justified, Aquinas explores the meaning of Paul's claim that the Gentiles "do by nature what the law requires" (Rom 2:14). Aquinas holds that the "law" in this case means the Mosaic law, but he adds some distinctions. When the Gentiles "do by nature what the law requires," they confirm the character of the moral precepts of the Mosaic law, which according to Aquinas "flow from a dictate of natural reason." (3) Aquinas observes that the Gentiles' ability to "do by nature what the law requires" comes from "the natural law showing them what should be done, as in Ps 4:6: 'There are many who say, Who shows us good things!The light of thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us.'" (4) The moral precepts of the Mosaic law thus belong to the natural law, which the Gentiles possess. Since the Gentiles do not possess the other precepts of the Mosaic law, however, Paul is justified is saying that the Gentiles "have not the law" (2:14).
Do the Gentiles who, according to Paul, obey the moral precepts of the Mosaic law even while being ignorant of the Mosaic law per se do so without grace? Created in the imago dei, the Gentiles share by the light of reason in the natural law, but nonetheless they cannot after the Fall fulfill this law by their natural powers. In saying that the Gentiles fulfill the law "by nature" (2:14), Paul might appear to leave room for the Pelagian heresy that without grace fallen human beings can fulfill the law of justice. Were this the case, however, Paul's claim that "all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin" (Rom 3:9) would make no sense. Aquinas therefore affirms that the Gentiles who successfully "do by nature what the law requires" possess "nature reformed by grace." (5) As examples of holy Gentiles Aquinas mentions persons before and after Christ, among them Job, who by faith already enjoyed the life of grace, and Paul's Gentile converts, whose acceptance of the Gospel gives them, too, the supernatural life.
The holy Gentiles who do what the moral law requires, then, obey the natural law but do so by grace. In this sense, as Paul says, "they are a law to themselves" (2:14) and "what the law requires is written on their hearts" (2:15). To be a law to oneself, Aquinas comments, means not to "need to be compelled from without" (6) in order to know and do the good. Such persons have internalized the moral law not only as regards knowing, but also as regards doing. This internalization is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit, as Aquinas suggests by means of a quotation of 2 Corinthians 3:3. Aquinas credits as well the study of "the precepts of wisdom," (7) our cooperation with the work of the Holy Spirit so as to form our conscience. Following St. Paul's argument in 2:15, Aquinas notes that conscience witnesses to the fact that the natural law is divinely inscribed on our hearts. We will be judged by whether we have obeyed this law--and thus on the day of judgment, the witness of our conscience will make clear to us our own punishment or reward.
The holy Gentiles are thus more than "Gentiles"; they have been caught up and transformed by grace through implicit faith. (8) Those Gentiles who have not relied upon God's grace, but instead have relied upon themselves, are "Gentiles" in the strict sense. This anti-Pelagian point gives shape to Aquinas's doctrinally and patristically attuned exegesis of Romans 2:13-16.
LUKE TIMOTHY JOHNSON
Luke Timothy Johnson's historical-critical exegesis carefully avoids direct reference to anything beyond Paul and his context, including the Church's doctrinal tradition. This is not to say that Johnson's exegesis is more neutrally "objective" (nor would he assume that he is). Johnson manifests particular concern for contemporary issues pertaining to individual conscience and religious pluralism.
Leaving aside (in commenting on Romans 2:14 at least) the question of whether righteousness is possible outside grace, Johnson states that "Paul recognizes the possibility of Gentiles living morally upright lives, even in the context of a sinful world. Otherwise, he would have no basis for positing a Gentile with an 'approving conscience.'" (9) Johnson's Paul is inclusive in the sense that Paul rejects "any claim to special standing Jews might have had on the basis of their ethnic heritage or even the possession of Torah." (10) Johnson recognizes of course that Paul in Romans 3 presents the Jews as possessing the "advantage" of being the bearers of God's words and deeds. This advantage loses its power, in Johnson's view, in large part because Paul argues that the interior conscience is more significant than the exterior religious system. Regarding conscience (Romans 2:15) Johnson affirms, "For Paul, this inner guide is of fundamental importance; in 1 Cor 8:9-10, the individual's conscience (syneidesis) determines the very moral character of an action, and he returns to the same principle in Rom 14:22-23." (11) Paul thus shifts the focus from any particular group, whether Gentiles or Jews, to the [inter.sup.-] or of the person. Similarly, Johnson understands Paul's concept of "sin" as indicating an interiorization: as "a breaking of covenantal obligation," sin consists in a broken "personal relationship, not simply a moral failure." (12) Law, too, has this personal rather than legalistic character, because law in Romans 2 is "a norm placed there by God the creator, the rejection of which is also disobedience." (13)
Aquinas's discussion of Romans 2:14-15 distinguishes, as we have seen, between the ceremonial and the moral precepts of the Mosaic law. The ceremonial precepts are required only of Jews, and only until the time of their fulfillment by Jesus Christ. Aquinas argues that it is this aspect of the Mosaic law that the Gentiles "have not" (2:14), whereas the Gentiles have (by the natural law) the moral precepts of the Mosaic law. Johnson agrees that "Paul speaks of Torah here in its function of providing behavioral norms, but knowing these norms does not replace observing them." (14) Yet, Johnson holds that it would miss the point to imagine that "Paul is adjudicating religious systems, declaring Judaism inferior to a new religion called Christianity, as though Judaism were a 'religion of law' and Christianity a 'religion of grace/Spirit.'" (15) Johnson sees Paul from within the Jewish people, as a man who seeks "the pleroma ('fullness') of his people as an eschatological hope." (16) This fullness of Israel has arrived in Christ Jesus, who gives the Holy Spirit that enables all to fulfill the law. Paul is proclaiming this fulfillment, not engaging in Christian polemics.
Both Aquinas and Johnson draw upon their knowledge of ancient philosophy, though in a different manner. For Aquinas the central figure in this regard is Aristotle. Aquinas explains that the phrase "they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law" means that "they function as a law to themselves by instructing and inducing themselves to the good, because the Philosopher says: 'Law is a statement laying down an obligation and proceeding from prudence and understanding' (Eth. 11)." (17) Johnson, on the other hand, relies upon his knowledge of the context of the prevalent Platonic and Stoic philosophy of Paul's day. As Johnson points out, Philo identifies the Patriarchs, living without the Mosaic law, as "nomoi empsychoi ('ensouled laws')," and the Stoic philosopher Epictetus argues in his Discourses that there is "an internal 'governing principle' that acts as an inner guide to right behavior." (18)
How do the interpretations of Aquinas and Johnson, then, compare thus far? First, Johnson's observations about the interior, personal character of conscience, sin, and law provide valuable insight, although Aquinas's emphasis upon the necessity of grace for the righteous Gentiles indicates, rightly I think, that the Christological mediation of grace is more central to Paul than is interiority. Second, Johnson reads Paul from within Israel: the Old and New Testaments do not form two separate religious systems, but instead the Old Testament's law and promises are fulfilled by Christ, and human beings share in this fulfillment by the grace of the Holy Spirit. The difference in this regard might be that Aquinas would affirm that Paul is "adjudicating religious systems," if this means contrasting the efficacy of Israel's law with the efficacy of Christ's gospel.
Although Johnson does not interpret Paul's righteous Gentile with a doctrinal eye upon the error of Pelagianism, Johnson is aware of the seriousness with which Paul takes the power of sin. As Johnson writes, for Paul, "Law is not the problem. The problem is a disease of the human spirit that can distort even God's good gifts." (19) In light of other texts in Romans, Johnson observes that Paul presents sin and idolatry as ruling despotically over human beings--and ruling so powerfully that only the gift of the Holy Spirit can conquer it. (20) Like Aquinas, Johnson employs parallel biblical passages to elucidate Romans 2:13-16. In addition to placing 2:13-16 in the context of the entire letter to the Romans, Johnson appeals to 1 Corinthians 8:9-10 and Romans 14:22-23 on conscience, and he cites on sin as a rupture of a personal relationship Exodus 10:16 and 23:33, Deuteronomy 1:41 and 9:16, and Psalm 50:4. On Jesus as the eschatological judge (Rom 2:16), he cites New Testament parallels in James, Hebrews, Revelation, Acts, Matthew, and John, as well as in Romans 14:3, 9-11.
Aquinas's "parallel" passages for Romans 2:13-16, one recalls, come both from other texts in Romans and from Deuteronomy, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, Sirach, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, James, and Revelation. Generally his parallel passages are dictated, as Johnson's invariably are, by a clear similarity of theme. For instance, commenting upon Romans 2:15, "They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts," Aquinas cites Jeremiah 31:33, "I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts," Proverbs 3:3, "Let not loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them about your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart," and 2 Corinthians 3:3, "you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts." Yet the parallel passages that he chooses, while united to Romans 2:15 by the image of "written on the heart," serve to move the interpretation beyond mere natural knowledge of "what the law requires" and toward the grace of the Holy Spirit (and our cooperation with it), which in Aquinas's view is the key to understanding the righteous Gentile. In other words, these parallel passages are not strict parallels, but rather offer a theological commentary upon the relationship of divine grace to the natural law after the Fall.
II. Romans 1:18-32 Knowing What Is "Natural"
THOMAS AQUINAS ON NATURAL KNOWLEDGE OF GOD
In meditating upon Romans 1:18-32, Aquinas starts from the contrast between faith in the saving God, and trust in human power or idols. He observes that "the power of gospel-grace was necessary for the Gentiles' salvation, because the wisdom in which they trusted could not save them." (21) The Jewish people, insofar as they lacked faith in a coming Savior, were in the same position: the Law, in itself, could not save, because they could not by their own power obey the Law. Johnson arrives at the same contrast but without Aquinas's historically particular reference to Gentile philosophy or Jewish Law: "The thesis [Rom 1:16-17] argues that God's righteousness comes by gift; here he [Paul] shows how every form of grasping misses the mark." (22) Because idolatry distorts the true relationship between human beings and God, which is properly a relationship of communion fulfilled in ecstasis or self-giving, reliance on human power or idols involves three intrinsic aspects according to Aquinas: punishment, sin against God and other human beings, and suppression of the truth about God (to which even the Jewish people, as witnessed by the prophets' denunciations of idolatry among the people, were susceptible).
In this way Aquinas interprets Romans 1:18, "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth." Citing Wisdom 12:18, "Thou who art sovereign in strength dost judge with mildness," Aquinas is careful to note that the "wrath of God" does not alter God, but simply indicates the punishment that creatures undergo in their twofold injustice. (23) As regards Paul's point that wickedness leads to the suppression of truth, Aquinas comments that "true knowledge of God, by its very nature, leads men to good, but it is held captive, when suppressed by a love of wickedness through which 'truths have vanished from among the sons of men' (Ps 12:2)." (24) Knowing the good and wise God engenders "ecstatic" love of this true God: the will tends to the perfect Good who is known. Wickedness suppresses this knowledge of the perfect Good and in its place promotes the practices of cleaving to lesser goods.
Aquinas thus treats Romans 1:18 as a thesis statement about what happens when faith--whose necessity is taught in verses 16 and 17--is lacking, and human beings instead trust in their own power or in other idols. As Johnson observes, verse 18 is the "antithesis" of the letter's thesis about faith in 1:16-17. (25) Paul goes on to demonstrate his point in verses 19-32 by means of three steps, according to Aquinas. Paul begins with the suppression of knowledge about God, then treats the twofold injustice that follows from such willful idolatry, and lastly exhibits its intrinsic punishment, namely death.
Regarding the suppression of knowledge about God, Paul says, "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made" (1:19-20). Commenting upon this passage, Aquinas holds that Paul's statement that knowledge about God "is plain to them" means "'is manifest to them' from something in them, i.e., from an inner light." (26) Were human beings lacking intelligence, they could not of course know God, but Aquinas claims something more: the intelligence that human beings possess makes manifest the existence of God. (27) Recognition of the existence of God belongs to the natural law. Before explaining how this is so, Aquinas observes that human intelligence is deficient when it comes to knowing God, because we cannot know in this life "what God is." Paul, Aquinas notes, recognizes this apophatic aspect: "Hence, Paul found in Athens an altar dedicated to the unknown God." (28) The priority of this denial that we can know what God is, however, does not mean that we have no knowledge that God is. On the contrary, Aquinas affirms Paul's claim that knowledge about God is "plain" and "clearly perceived in the things that have been made."
According to Aquinas, there are three paths to such knowledge, the latter two of which are based upon the first. This first path is based upon contingent, finite existents, which since they are not existence per se require a cause. Even supposing an infinite chain of contingent, finite existents, finite causality would not suffice to account for the contingent and finite existence of such an infinite chain. Unless the mind wishes to lapse into incoherence, therefore, it must grant that "since these creatures are subject to change and decay, it is necessary to reduce them to some unchangeable and unfailing principle."29 That principle will be an uncreated "cause" that, as existence per se, does not fit into the order of created causes, and that therefore is a cause in a way different from any cause that we know: recall that we cannot know "what God is." Having demon-strated the existence of such an uncreated cause, Pure Act, Aquinas turns to the two modes of true speech about this uncreated cause: the "way of excellence" (God infinitely surpasses all the perfections attributed to him, e.g., "being") and the "way of negation" (denying, as inapplicable to God, all the finite limitations that we associate with attributes).
It might seem that human beings could hardly know such a mysterious uncreated and infinite God. Why would such knowledge be "plain"? Aquinas argues that such knowledge is, or should be, plain for two reasons. First, human intelligence is God's gift, and it possesses the power to rise to the knowledge of its Giver. Here he quotes Psalm 43:3, "Send out your light and your truth." (30) As the psalm suggests, human speculative intellect is not a neutral and sterile tool, but rather is a participation in God's light and truth. Second, God gives "external signs of his wisdom, namely, sense-perceptible creatures: 'He poured her out,' namely, wisdom, 'upon all his works' (Sir 1:9)." (31) Along with Sirach, Aquinas quotes in this regard Wisdom 13:5, "From the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their creator." (32) God's works, sense-perceptible creatures, display a profoundly intelligible and intricate ordering (wisdom), in addition to their manifest contingency, and thereby lead the mind, already ordered to God as a finite participation in divine intellect, to knowledge of God the Creator. Following Paul, Aquinas affirms that we can even know God's "invisible nature," although not as it is in itself (perfectly simple) but by means of diverse true names (e.g., Good, Wise), and God's "eternal power and deity," that is to say God as the uncreated cause of all that is and the uncreated end or goal of all that is (deity, the "common good in which all things share" by participation). (33) Such knowledge is proper to human beings as rational creatures.
LUKE TIMOTHY JOHNSON ON NATURAL KNOWLEDGE OF GOD Johnson's comments on Romans 1:18-20 are close to Aquinas's position, although Johnson hedges his claims by warning against the "post-Enlightenment" autonomy of metaphysical demonstration from theological reflection. He states,
Paul is not engaging here in a post-Enlightenment argument for the existence of God "from design." His starting point is completely different. After the Enlightenment, the existence of God seemed like something that was not in the least obvious and required demonstration. For Paul, as for most humans who have lived in the world, the religious sense of the reality of God is obvious, simply from the fact of existence itself. The existence of God is not the goal of reason; the existence of God is the premise for right reason. God is not what is left over after everything else has been accounted for; God is what enables anything else to be accounted for. (34)
Without advancing developed metaphysical arguments--which in Aquinas's commentary serve to penetrate and illumine the reality of which Paul speaks--Johnson simply claims that "the fact of existence" makes no sense, cannot "be accounted for," unless one posits God. This is of course the essential aspect of Aquinas's analysis as well. (35)
Aquinas and Johnson therefore agree with Paul that the existence of God has been plainly known by human beings through the existence of finite things. As Aquinas affirms, "From the creation of the world men began to know God through the things that were made: 'All men have looked on it' (Job 36:25)." (36) This God, of course, is none other than the Trinity, and the medieval Gloss, cited by Aquinas, employs the method of "appropriation" by which the distinct properties of the Persons are indicated by means of common properties; in this case the "invisible nature" signals the Father, "power" the Son, and "deity" the Holy Spirit. (37)
PRIDE AND KNOWLEDGE
Although knowledge of God as the uncreated cause and end of all things is proper to human beings, in the case of the Gentiles was their manifest lack of knowledge culpable? Paul says it was: "So they are without excuse" (Rom 1:20). Aquinas observes that ignorance can excuse a person from the guilt of a crime, so long as the ignorance itself was not caused by sin. In the case of the Gentiles, Paul suggests that they began by knowing God, and then deteriorated because of their sin into a state of culpable ignorance: "for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened" (1:21). This culpable ignorance has its source, Aquinas thinks, in their failure to pay the two debts mentioned by Paul that belong to the natural law, namely to "honor him as God" and "give thanks to him." These failures indicate that for Paul the Gentiles, at least at first, knew God as above all things and thus as deserving of honor, and as the source of all good and so deserving of thanks. In both cases, however, the Gentiles culpably denied God what was owed him. They constructed a limited God and, in Aquinas's words, they "attributed their blessings to their own talent and power." (38) In short, it was not an innocent ignorance of God that distorted the Gentiles' worship, but rather their willful pride was at fault. As Johnson puts it, "This is an absolutely critical distinction between knowing and acknowledging. To acknowledge God as my creator means to recognize that God has a claim on me that no creature can make, indeed, the ultimate and immediate claim on my very existence. The only proper response, says Paul, is to 'give him glory' (in the RSV, 'honor him')." (39)
Relying upon themselves--self-cleaving rather than self-giving--the Gentiles experienced the full effects of the sin of pride. As Aquinas states, "the human mind is free of futility, only when it leans on God. But when God is rejected and the mind rests in creatures, it incurs futility: 'For all men who were ignorant of God were foolish and could not know God from the good things which are seen' (Wis 13:1); 'The Lord knows the thoughts of man, that they are vain' (Ps 94:11)." (40) Johnson eloquently agrees: "idolatry begins not in the mind but in the will. It is fundamentally an act of disobedience, of failing to 'hear responsively' the claim of the creator on one's life. It is from this basic lie about reality, this 'suppression of the truth' that idolatry begins its distorting effects." (41) The sin of pride radically distorts human knowing, because it causes human beings to turn inwards upon their own resources, and thereby to turn away from the source of their resources. Humility, Aquinas emphasizes, is the condition for human receptivity to "the light of wisdom." (42) Pride turns the human person away from this light, which in human beings is a participated light. Lacking humility, one darkens what ought to be one's natural understanding, in the participated light of wisdom, of God (divine Wisdom) as cause and end; in proudly "claiming to be wise, they became fools" (Rom 1:22). In praise of humility Aquinas offers a powerful array of biblical texts, including citations of Proverbs, the Gospel of Matthew, Ephesians, Isaiah, Job, and Jeremiah--in sum, texts from the Wisdom literature, the prophets, the gospel, and the Apostle to the Gentiles.
As in the Summa theologiae, then, Aquinas connects lack of humility with sins of intemperance. To see why this is so requires exposing the perversity of pride. As a worshipping of the creature rather than the Creator, pride has a ridiculous aspect. Citing texts from 1 Timothy, Proverbs, Wisdom of Solomon, the Psalms, Job, and Ezekiel, Aquinas interprets the passage "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles" (Rom 1:23) as referring both to the Gentiles' refusal to give God glory in worship, and to their worship of mere images of the true divine glory: "they put the first being in last place." (43) The Gentiles, repudiating the true glory, instead trust in images that are lifeless, and indeed not merely images of the human imago dei, but even images of irrational creatures (Johnson points here to Paul's implicit contrast with Genesis 1:26). (44) Repudiating God's glory, human beings end by repudiating their own participated glory, both their immortal destiny and their proper governance of irrational creatures. Things are turned upside down by self-cleaving pride: living, rational creatures with immortal souls bow down before lifeless, irrational creatures solely so as not to give glory to the wondrously glorious source of life, wisdom, and immortality. Perversely and sadly, death and irrationality come to hold sway.
The perversity, or radical disorder, manifest in human beings' worship of lifeless and irrational creatures contains its own punishment: human beings become like what they worship. Just as the imitation of God properly orders and elevates human beings, so also the "imitation" of lifeless and irrational creatures disorders and destroys human beings. Worship of God promotes the governance in the human person of rationality (by which human beings are the "image" of God), whereas worship of irrational creatures promotes the governance of sense desires (which human beings share with the other animals). The fundamental perversity of idolatry or pride leads to the perverse dominance of human sense desires over human rationality. As Aquinas points out, "It is chiefly with respect to the sense appetite that a certain bestial derangement is present in carnal sins." (45) He is careful to observe that this punishment--human beings becoming like animals as regards the governance of sense desires--flows ultimately from the sin of pride itself. Paul's comment, "Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves" (Rom 1:24), does not mean, according to Aquinas, that God directly moved human wills toward evil acts. On the contrary, "God ordains all things to Himself: 'The Lord has made everything for himself' (Prv 16:4)." (46) Rather, God "gave them up" in the sense that God permitted the intrinsic progression of one sin to another. Johnson makes the same (metaphysical) point: "God is simply letting happen what their own choices have set in motion." (47)
Aquinas explores in some detail how particular sins may lead to other sins. He points out, following Augustine, that a sin cannot itself be the punishment for the earlier sin, "because we suffer punishment against our will, whereas sin is voluntary." (48) Yet, as Paul suggests, the punishment of one sin, in this case idolatrous pride, cannot be separated from the sin that follows upon pride. This is so because the punishment of one sin precedes, accompanies, and follows upon the next sin, due to the loss of grace, the disordering of the soul, the bad conscience, and so forth. Self-cleaving pride bears with it the punishment of loss of grace and the disordering of the soul so that the sense passions come to govern. The consequence of our idolatrous pride is that we become enslaved to what is lower in us, and enter upon a course of sin marked by this perverse disorder.
What about, however, the wise Gentiles who seem not to have fallen into the worship of "images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles"? Following Augustine's historical resources, Aquinas thinks of the pantheist Roman historian Varro and especially of the Platonists, who worshipped "the intelligences, i.e., the separated substances." (49) He also considers the diversity of Gentile religion, including its sacrificial worship, its poetic fables, and its "natural theology, which the philosophers observed in the world, when they worshipped the parts of the world." (50) Even in light of this diversity, however, Aquinas agrees with Paul's conclusion that "they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever" (Rom 1:25). He is persuaded that, in various ways, even the philosophers among the Gentiles limited God, for instance by claiming that God "is not all-powerful or all-knowing." (51) To limit God, thereby reducing him to the level of a finite creature, is for Aquinas to change "the true knowledge they received from God into false dogmas with their perverse reasoning." (52) He cites by contrast scriptural texts demanding worship of the Creator, including texts from Jeremiah, the Gospel of John, Deuteronomy, the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, and Isaiah.
AQUINAS ON "DISHONORABLE PASSIONS"
Aquinas then turns to what Paul calls "dishonorable passions" (Rom 1:26), which he understands to be "sins against nature, which are called passions in the sense that a passion implies that a thing is drawn outside the order of its own nature." (53) Such "sins against nature" follow inevitably, as we have seen, from what Aquinas calls sins "against the divine nature." (54) The teleology of human nature, a body-soul unity, is toward knowing and loving God the Creator who is the ultimate end, the beatitude, of human beings. By reversing this fundamental "ecstatic" body-soul teleology through their self-cleaving worship, human beings disorder their own nature, even the teleological inclinations that pertain to their bodily nature as ordered to body-soul fulfillment. Aquinas explains that "something is against man's nature in two ways: in one way, against the nature of what constitutes man, i.e., rationality. ... In another way, something is said to be against man's nature by reason of his general class, which is animal." (55) As we would expect given the body-soul unity of human nature, in both cases human nature possesses a teleology that is ecstatically ordered to an end beyond the self.
Regarding the first meaning of "against nature," namely against rationality, Aquinas gives an example from John Damascene who observes that the angels' sin was "against nature" because they cleaved to themselves rather than to God. The second meaning of "against nature" similarly rejects the teleology of self-giving, the ordering of the body-soul person toward an end beyond the self. Aquinas finds that this teleology is manifest in all animals: "Now it is obvious that according to the intent of nature, sexual union in animals is ordained to the act of generation; hence, every form of union from which generation cannot follow is against the nature of animal as animal." (56) Sexual union, in all species of animals is clearly ordered to the procreation of members of the species. Human sexual union is not ordered to the self, but to the receiving of another person within the openness to further fruitfulness by the procreation of a human being. Spiritual and bodily ecstasis go together.
Deliberately acting against this spiritually established bodily teleology in human beings, Aquinas states, is to act against the "natural law" as a participation in God's plan for human fulfillment. Commenting on Paul's observation that "their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural" (Rom 1:26), Aquinas illumines Paul's point by means of biblical parallel passages: "'Does not nature itself teach you?' (1 Cor 11:14); 'They have transgressed the laws, broken the everlasting covenant,' i.e., the natural law (Is 24:5)." (57) Inscribed in bodily nature itself, most especially rational human nature, is an "ecstatic" teleology that belongs to God's "eternal law" through which he governs all things to their ultimate end. (58) Aquinas thus agrees with the Gloss that the "natural use" reflects the natural law: "it is stated in a gloss that 'the natural use is that a man and a woman come together in one copulation, but it is against nature that a man pollute a man and a woman a woman.'" (59) As Aquinas makes clear in commenting on Romans 1:27, "the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men," nature's "intent," its ordered teleology as given by the Creator, is opposed to sexual union that, by its very structure, does not unite spiritual ecstasis with bodily ecstasis, the relinquishing of oneself to another person (thus within indissoluble marriage) in a mode of body-soul self-gift that is intrinsically open to procreative fruitfulness. (60)
The vice "against the divine nature," idolatrous pride, is thus reflected for Paul, and for Aquinas, in "vices against [human] nature." (61) The self-cleaving of the soul, in the idolatry of pride, is matched by an equal self-cleaving in human sexual acts. Both the soul in its fundamental disorder, and the body in its fundamental disorder, no longer act for an end intrinsically beyond the self; the body-soul person thus acts "against nature."
Aquinas is aware that the Bible earlier connects such sexual sins with the spread of idolatry, both in the contrast of Abraham and Sodom, and in the introduction of such practices in Israel at the time of the Maccabees. (62) Like Paul, Aquinas thinks that such sexual sins merit a just punishment. Regarding Paul's remark that homosexual unions led to men "receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error" (Rom 1:27), Aquinas interprets the punishment as not a physical one but a teleological disordering: "those who insulted God's nature by attributing to creatures what is His alone" receive as punishment "affronts to their own nature." (63)
In order to become holy--to turn from sterile and deadly self-cleaving to fruitful and life-giving cleaving to God--we must rely, not on ourselves, but on the power and righteousness of God in Christ crucified and risen. Aquinas concludes that Paul's discussion of the Gentiles' knowledge, like his discussion of the Jewish law that follows, makes clear that all human beings "need the power of the gospel's grace for salvation." (64)
JOHNSON ON "DISHONORABLE PASSIONS"
In contrast to his strong affirmation of the contemporary applicability of Paul's critique of idolatry, Johnson explains Paul's discussion of homosexual acts by reference to Paul's limited historical context rather than to a broader account of the created purpose of human sexual union. This limited historical context is primarily Paul's Jewishness: "As a Jew, Paul shared his people's ancestral detestation of homosexuality in any form (see Lv 18:22-23), regarding it as a 'perversion' (Lv 18:23)." (65) The Old Testament's teaching against homosexual acts thus becomes, in Johnson's interpretation, an "ancestral" viewpoint. This ancestral stance served Paul by enabling him, in his polemic against the Gentiles in Romans 1, to identify a sin that Jews would particularly associate with Gentiles.
Johnson adds that the example of homosexual acts "could serve, furthermore, as the classic example of how the denial of the 'natural' relation of the world to its creator could end in 'unnatural' relations among humans." (66) Rather than investigating more deeply what might be meant by "unnatural," however, Johnson focuses on the degree of freedom in homosexual acts. Whereas Paul thought of homosexual acts as "freely chosen," Johnson observes,
The critical question for present-day Christians is not exegetical but hermeneutical--that is, what to think and do about suchpassages as these in light of later experience and perception. Is it the case that homosexuality is a vice that is freely chosen? Or is it, as some studies and many people claim, the "natural" mode of sexual expression for a small portion of the world's population? Is homosexuality then, as it seems to Paul, entirely a matter of porneia (sexual sin incompatible with the rule of God, 1 Cor 6:9-11), or is it compatible with a chaste and covenantal relationship? (67)
For Johnson, if homosexuality itself (as opposed to homosexual acts) is not "freely chosen," then it may well follow that it is a "'natural' mode of sexual expression" and thus not, as Paul sees it, "unnatural." (68) Johnson thus misses how "nature," for both Paul and Aquinas, describes an "ecstatic" created teleology. It would have to be shown that the same-sex, intrinsically nonprocreative sexual union in homosexual acts fosters, (rather than turns inward), the body-soul person's ordering to the "other." (69) Or one might say that Johnson recognizes this created teleology as regards the soul and on this ground agrees with Paul's critique of idolatry, but does not recognize this teleology in the nature of the body whose form is the soul. (70)
How then do Romans 1:18-32 and 2:13-16 give insight into natural law? First, Romans makes clear the unity of spiritual teleology and bodily teleology in the human person. (71) For Aquinas as for Paul, the disorder in the bodily teleology mirrors (hylomorphically) the disorder in the spiritual teleology: a reversal has occurred in the actions (of union with God in worship and of sexual union with another person, both forms of "marital" union), in which the radically "ecstatic" end--manifested bodily by the intrinsic openness to the procreative end, the giving of life--is displaced by an end that cannot, within the act itself, express bodily the interdependence, receptivity, and "ecstatic" openness to an other that charity fully requires. Both Paul and Aquinas recognize, of course, that the perversion of idolatry exhibits itself in the whole range of self-centered actions, and not merely in homosexual acts. (72) As Paul puts it,
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God's decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them. (1:28-32)
Romans' presentation of what is "natural" for human actions thus underscores the ordering of human nature through the attractiveness of the good that enables us to be superabundantly fulfilled by supernatural charity or self-giving love. (73)
Second, Romans 1-2 shows that God's command in the Decalogue to worship only God belongs to natural law. To disobey God's commandment is not to go against a merely extrinsic ordering, but rather is to contradict one's intrinsic ordering to one's true flourishing. At times, however, the doctrine of natural law is seen as an effort to constitute a morality "outside Christ," as if pagans can get by with natural law (human commonsense morality), while Jews practice Torah and Christians follow the Sermon on the Mount. Indeed, given the modern understanding of history as a self-enclosed temporal continuum, such a reading of the "righteous Gentiles" in Romans 2 is almost inevitable. Aquinas, in contrast, makes clear that there is no "outside Christ" in which a viable autonomous morality could be constructed: "righteous Gentiles" already participate in the grace of Christ, and do so as united to the historical and visible mediations of God's grace rather than merely as instances of individual conscience.
In short, Romans 1-2 makes clear that natural law is Godcentered, teleological, expressed in the Decalogue, and fulfilled by grace. Just as proper understanding of Scripture is assisted by natural law doctrine, so also proper understanding of natural law doctrine is assisted by Scripture. Biblical revelation both depends upon knowing what is "natural," and assists us in such knowledge. This fruitful circle cannot, after sin, be avoided without loss both to exegesis and to philosophical reflection.
(1.) Unless otherwise noted, the Scripture quotations contained herein are quoted from the The Ignatius Bible, with Apocrypha (Camden, NJ: Thomas Nelson Publishers for Ignatius Press,  1993).
(2.) Jean-Pierre Torrell, OP, observes that the commentary on Romans was written down from lectures given by Aquinas probably during 1272-73, at the very end of his life and while he was also at work on the Summa theologiae. According to Torrell, Aquinas personally corrected the first eight chapters of this commentary. See Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. 1: The Person and HisWork, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 253-54. For analysis of Aquinas's commentary on Romans 2:14-15 and the use of these verses in the Summa theologiae, see B. Montagnes, "Autonomie et dignite de l'homme," Angelicum 51 (1974): 186-211.
(3.) St. Thomas Aquinas, Super Epistolam B. Pauli ad Romanos, ch. 2, lect. 3, [section] 215: "Secundo commendat in eis legis observantiam, cum dicit 'naturaliter faciunt quae sunt legis,' id est, quae lex mandat, scilicet quantum ad praecepta moralia, quae sunt de dictamine rationis naturalis"; unpublished translation by Fabian Larcher, OP.
(4.) Ibid., [section] 216. Cf. Summa theologiae I-II, q. 91, a. 2, which quotes Psalm 4:6 to the same effect, as "implying that the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light. It is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature's participation of the eternal law." For further discussion see especially Craig A. Boyd, "Participation Metaphysics, the Imago Dei, and the Natural Law in Aquinas' Ethics," New Blackfriars 88 (2007): 274-87. On Aquinas's views on human knowing and "participation," see Thomas S. Hibbs, Virtue's Splendor (New York: Fordham University Press, 2001), 34-55; Wayne J. Hankey, "Participatio divini luminis, Aquinas's Doctrine of the Agent Intellect: Our Capacity for Contemplation," Dionysius 22 (2004): 149-74; Richard Schenk, OP, "From Providence to Grace: Thomas Aquinas and the Platonisms of the Mid-Thirteenth Century," Nova et Vetera 3 (2005): 307-20.
(5.) Aquinas, Super Epistolam B. Pauli ad Romanos, ch. 2, lect. 3, [section] 216. In this regard Aquinas agrees with the medieval biblical gloss. See I-II, q. 94, a. 6, obj. 1, where Aquinas observes that "on Rom. ii. 14, 'When the Gentiles who have not the law,' etc., a gloss says that 'the law of righteousness, which sin had blotted out, is graven on the heart of man when he is restored by grace.'"
(6.) Super Epistolam, [section] 217.
(7.) Ibid., [section] 218.
(8.) For Aquinas on implicit faith, see II-II, q. 2, a. 7. Regarding the Gentiles, he observes: "If, however, some were saved without receiving any revelation, they were not saved without faith in a Mediator, for, though they did not believe in Him explicitly, they did, nevertheless, have implicit faith through believing in Divine providence, since they believed that God would deliver mankind in whatever way was pleasing to Him, and according to the revelation of the Spirit to those who knew the truth, as stated in Job xxxv. 11: Who teacheth us more than the beasts of the earth" (II-II, q. 2, a. 7, ad 3).
(9.) Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary (New York: Crossroad, 1997), 38. For other contemporary exegetical readings of Romans 1-2, see, e.g., S. K. Stowers, A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994); N. T. Wright, "The Law in Romans 2," in Paul and the Mosaic Law, ed. J. D. G. Dunn (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1996): 131-50; J.W. Martens, "Romans 2:14-16: A Stoic Reading," New Testament Studies 40 (1994): 55-67; K. R. Snodgrass, "Justification by Grace--to the Doers: An Analysis of the Place of Romans 2 in the Theology of Paul," New Testament Studies 40 (1994): 210-28.
(10.) Johnson, Reading Romans, 38.
(12.) Ibid., 39. Emphasis in original.
(13.) Ibid. Emphasis in original.
(14.) Ibid., 38.
(15.) Ibid., 48.
(17.) Aquinas, Super Epistolam B. Pauli ad Romanos, ch. 2, lect. 3, [section] 217.
(18.) Johnson, Reading Romans, 38. Cf. Gerard Watson, "Natural Law and Stoicism," in Problems in Stoicism, ed. A. A. Long (London: Athlone, 1971), 216-38; Richard A. Horsley, "The Law of Nature in Philo and Cicero," Harvard Theological Review 71 (1978): 35-59.
(19.) Johnson, Reading Romans, 48.
(21.) Aquinas, Super Epistolam B. Pauli ad Romanos, ch. 1, lect. 6, [section] 109.
(22.) Johnson, Reading Romans, 31.
(23.) Johnson makes the same point, observing that the phraseis precisely the sort of expression that would have been instantaneously grasped by Paul's first hearers but seem puzzling and off-putting to present-day readers.
is precisely the sort of expression that would have been instantaneously grasped by Paul's first hearers but seem puzzling and off-putting to present-day readers. The "wrath of God" (orge tou theou) is not a psychological category but a symbol (widely used in Torah) for the retribution that comes to humans as a result of their willful turning away from God; indeed, it is a concept that derives precisely from the prophetic warnings against idolatry (see Isa 51:7, Jer 6:11; 25:25; Hos 13:11; Zeph 1:15). Although it plays a thematic role in Romans (2:5, 8; 3:5; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22; 12:19), it is used elsewhere by Paul as well for the eschatological ("final") threat that looms over those who oppose God. God's wrath is therefore the symbol for the destruction that human beings bring on themselves by rebelling against the truth. For those alienated from the ground of their own being, even God's mercy appears as "anger." It is a retribution that results, not at the whim of an angry despot but as the necessary consequence of a self-distorted existence. (Reading Romans, 32)
(24.) Aquinas, Super Epistolam B. Pauli ad Romanos, ch. 1, lect. 6, [section] 112.
(25.) Johnson, Reading Romans, 30.
(26.) Aquinas, Super Epistolam B. Pauli ad Romanos, ch. 1, lect. 6, [section] 114: "id est manifestum est eis ex eo quod in illis est, id est ex lumine intrinseco."
(27.) I read Aquinas on Romans 1 differently than does Eugene Rogers, who emphasizes that "Thomas's use of the scriptures is not fideist, because he does not seal them off from cosmology, and his use of cosmology is not foundationalist, because he interprets it in light of the scriptures. Rather his use of both scriptures and cosmology is deeply if often tacitly christological" (Rogers, Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: Sacred Doctrine and the Natural Knowledge of God [Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995], 146). To put it simply, I am not worried about "foundationalism."
(28.) Aquinas, Super Epistolam B. Pauli ad Romanos, ch. 1, lect. 6, [section] 114.
(29.) Ibid., [section] 115.
(30.) Ibid., [section] 116.
(32.) Ibid., [section] 118. Cf. Johnson's remark in Reading Romans that Paul's
most obvious influence ... is the Wisdom of Solomon, written ca. 250 b.c.e., a writing included in the LXX but not in the Hebrew canon. Wisdom contains a sustained attack on Egyptian idolators (chapters 13-19), but expresses some sympathy toward those whose "delight in the beauty" of created things might lead them astray (13:3). Paul is much harsher. For him, "there is no excuse" (1:20; 2:1). The reason is his far deeper grasp of the nature of idolatry as a rebellion of the heart rather than a mistake of the mind. For Paul, idolatry is a disease of human freedom, not failed science. He speaks of humans "suppressing the truth," which suggests a conscious and willful choice. (31-32)
(33.) Aquinas, Super Epistolam B. Pauli ad Romanos, ch. 1, lect. 6, [section] 117.
(34.) Johnson, Reading Romans, 32.
(35.) The fact that Johnson advances a metaphysical claim without being able to articulate or develop it as such indicates the limitations that contemporary biblical scholarship sets upon what counts as exegesis.
(36.) Aquinas, Super Epistolam B. Pauli ad Romanos, ch. 1, lect. 6, [section] 121. Aquinas's Latin version of "since the creation of the world" reads "from the creature in the world" ("a creatura mundi") and he offers various interpretations of this misleading text.
(37.) Ibid., [section] 122. On the doctrine of appropriations in Trinitarian theology, see Gilles Emery, OP, "The Personal Mode of Trinitarian Action in Saint Thomas Aquinas," trans. Matthew Levering, The Thomist 69 (2005): 31-77.
(38.) Aquinas, Super Epistolam B. Pauli ad Romanos, ch. 1, lect. 7, [section] 127. Aquinas quotes Sirach 43:30 and 1 Thessalonians 5:18 as parallel biblical texts teaching the elements of true worship.
(39.) Johnson, Reading Romans, 32-33. For philosophical discussion of God's place in natural law (and thus also the first table of the Decalogue as natural law), see Fulvio Di Blasi, God and the Natural Law: A Rereading of Thomas Aquinas, trans. David Thunder (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press, 2006).
(40.) Aquinas, Super Epistolam B. Pauli ad Romanos, ch. 1, lect. 7, [section] 129.
(41.) Johnson, Reading Romans, 33.
(42.) Aquinas, Super Epistolam B. Pauli ad Romanos, ch. 1, lect. 7, [section] 130.
(43.) Ibid., [section]135.
(44.) Johnson, Reading Romans, 33.
(45.) Aquinas, Super Epistolam B. Pauli ad Romanos, ch. 1, lect. 7, [section] 138: "Praecipue tamen circa appetitum sensitivum bestialis quaedam deordinatio pertinet ad peccata carnalia."
(46.) Ibid., [section] 139.
(47.) Johnson, Reading Romans, 34.
(48.) Aquinas, Super Epistolam B. Pauli ad Romanos, ch. 1, lect. 7, [section] 140.
(49.) Ibid., [section] 143.
(50.) Ibid., [section] 145.
(51.) Ibid., [section] 142.
(53.) Ibid., lect. 8, [section] 147: "peccata contra naturam, quae dicuntur passiones, secundum quod proprie passio dicitur ex eo quod aliud trahitur extra ordinem suae naturae."
(54.) Ibid., [section] 146.
(55.) Ibid., [section] 149.
(57.) Ibid. The phrase is "ius naturale." For Aquinas's understanding of this phrase, which can be translated "natural right," see, e.g., II-II, q. 57, a. 2.
(58.) Regarding the body-soul union, Aquinas makes the crucial point
that "we must gather from the form the reason why the matter is such as it is" (I, q. 76, a. 5). The human body shares in the soul's ecstatic ordering. See the excellent discussion of hylomorphism in Jean-Pierre Torrell, OP, Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. 2: Spiritual Master, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2003): 253-59.
(59.) Aquinas, Super Epistolam B. Pauli ad Romanos, ch. 1, lect. 8, [section] 149.
(60.) Ibid.: "naturae intentionem." This hylomorphic teleology is difficult to understand in a culture that envisions the soul as standing apart from the body. Cf. Harold Bloom's The American Religion (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992).
(61.) Aquinas, Super Epistolam B. Pauli ad Romanos, ch. 1, lect. 8, [section] 159.
(62.) Ibid., [section] 151. David Novak, "God and Human Rights in a Secular Society: A Biblical-Talmudic Perspective," in Does Human Rights Need God? ed. Elizabeth M. Bucar and Barbra Barnett (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005): 48-57, offers an insightful reading of Sodom and Gomorrah as exemplars of "a society where basic injustice is built into the very political and legal institutions of the society itself " (54-55), to the point where the society's tradition and institutions have denied the existence of both "divine law" and "divine judgment" (56).
(63.) Aquinas, Super Epistolam B. Pauli ad Romanos, ch. 1, lect. 8, [section]151.
(64.) Ibid., ch. 2, lect. 1, [section]169.
(65.) Johnson, Reading Romans, 34. Paul does indeed share the Rabbinic understanding of idolatry, but this hardly counts against him. In dialogue with Karl Barth and Paul, David Novak has set forth the Rabbinic view in a way that makes manifest its seriousness and depth. See Novak, "Before Revelation: The Rabbis, Paul, and Karl Barth," in Novak, Talking with Christians: Musings of a Jewish Theologian (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 114-22.
(66.) Johnson, Reading Romans, 34.
(67.) Ibid. Robert P. George responds to such arguments in "Nature, Morality and Homosexuality," in his In Defense of Natural Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 276-86, at 281.
(68.) Johnson remarks elsewhere that "for many persons the acceptance of their homosexuality is an acceptance of creation as it applies to them. It is emphatically not a vice that is chosen" (Johnson, "Debate and Discernment, Scripture and the Spirit," in Virtues and Practices in the Christian Tradition, 215-20, at 218). And yet, insofar as it bears fruit in specific homosexual acts, it is an action that is chosen. The question then is whether for human beings to act in accordance with God's plan for the flourishing of persons of human nature means that human beings demonstrate "an acceptance of creation as it applies to them." In this formulation it is each human being that is the norm for creation rather than creation that is the norm for each human being.
(69.) Infertility on the part of the man and/or the woman does not destroy this ecstatic opening, since the body-soul ordering remains the same.
(70.) For exegetical discussion of Paul's understanding of human nature, and in particular Paul's theology of the body, see Karl Olav Sandnes, Belly and Body in the Pauline Epistles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), which makes clear Paul's strong teleological union of body and soul/spirit.
(71.) To give moral weight to bodily teleologies is possible only within a hylomorphic framework that recognizes human beings as created.
(72.) Johnson remarks that "it is important to note that Paul does not make homosexuality the ultimate perversion. He moves in 1:29 from sexual immorality to forms of vice that are far more destructive of persons and human society" (Reading Romans, 35). Certainly, the point is not to single out homosexual acts. But sexuality cannot be severed from its connection to marriage and children, and thus to institutions of human flourishing upon which societies (and the weakest members of societies, children) depend. Sexual sins are not merely, as Johnson suggests, "vices of weakness that mainly bring distress to the self " (35). Cf. Nicholas Boyle, Who AreWe Now? Christian Humanism and the Global Market from Hegel to Heaney (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), 59. See also Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993): 133-44; Lawrence Dewan, OP, "Jean Porter on Natural Law: Thomistic Notes," The Thomist 66 (2002): 275-309, at 303-9.
(73.) For further discussion see Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical Deus caritas est.
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|Publication:||Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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