October 2012 - Vol.  63.

Love and Friendship in Thomas Aquinas, continued
.by Christoph Schönborn 

Part 2 Friendship With God

In the second article of question 23, the doctrine of love as friendship between God and man is once again deepened in a crucial way. The point of departure is the statement by Peter Lombard (d. 1160), the Master of the Sentences, that love is not something created but rather the Holy Spirit himself, who dwells in our soul. In other words, God himself is the love in us. On account of its greatness and preeminent importance, love cannot be something created; it must be immediately divine – indeed, God himself. At first reading, that sounds very pious and sublime. Thomas, however, makes it clear that this makes love, not greater, but fundamentally smaller. In what way?

If the Holy Spirit himself were the love in us, then it would not be an act or an attitude (habitus) of the man. For then loving would not be up to us; it would not depend on our will. We ourselves would not love, but God in us would be loving himself. Here we come across the central point in the anthropology of Saint Thomas, which has implications for all areas of human life. Love would not be love and could not be friendship if it were not also, on the part of man, a genuine, human act (that is, voluntary and rational). If we were moved “passively” to love, like a tool in the hand of a craftsman, then it would not be love, for, as the first article demonstrated, when love is friendship, then reciprocity is an essential feature of it.

But that is precisely what God enables us to do through the communication of himself, whereby he makes us capable of establishing a friendship with him. Thomas formulates it in his own language as follows: In order to be able to love God in friendship, we need a capability that surpasses our natural abilities and makes us “connatural” with God, so to speak, a capability that makes it possible for us really to love God and to be united to him in friendship.

The explanations of Saint Thomas in the second article are also a textbook example of his method, from which we can learn much. Only in the rarest cases do we find polemics in Thomas. He always tries to strengthen the arguments of those whose viewpoint he does not share. Since he is quite objectively concerned about the truth, he strives to emphasize the portion of truth found in other positions, however unlike his own. This becomes evident precisely in this article. As a young professor he wrote a commentary on the Sentences of Master Peter Lombard, which was then the usual university textbook. Hence he respectfully presents the Master’s postulate, too. Just as respectful is the way in which he corrects that position: “If we consider the matter aright, this (that is, the Master’s position) would be, on the contrary, detrimental to charity [love].” Now the Master was part of the Augustinian tradition, and in reference to Augustine (d. 430), Thomas carefully notes that this manner of speaking (namely, identifying the love in man with God himself) was customary among the Platonic philosophers and that Augustine had been steeped (imbutus) in Platonic teachings. This led to many errors, which Thomas carefully but clearly corrects here.


We do not show any particular loyalty to Saint Thomas by defending his opinions as polemically as possible against all other possible viewpoints. We imitate his thought and his virtues to the extent that our search for truth motivates us to consult it wherever we find traces of it. Saint Thomas could never have integrated Aristotle so intensively had he not been supported by the conviction that Christ, the Eternal Word, is the Truth that enlightens every man. Wherever a ray of the light of truth can be found, it is important to inquire, to listen, so as to greet with joy the truth that is manifesting itself. Part of this, of course, is a constant willingness to expose and refute errors for the sake of truth. Both of these, however, greeting the truth and refuting error, require that one be well prepared to converse. Saint Thomas incomparably conducted a dialogue with all the masters of the past and the present. There is probably no better or more reliable guide to a Christian culture of dialogue than Saint Thomas.

Quaestio 23 indicates, so to speak, the anthropological and theological foundation on which this truly Christian and humanistic attitude of Saint Thomas is based: his image of God and man. There can be friendship only when there is genuine reciprocity in freedom: mutuus amor, mutua inhaesio, a real togetherness with and in each other.

The great thing about Saint Thomas’ image of God is that he sees God, not only as the First Cause of everything, but also as being so powerful and great that he has given his creatures the power to be causes themselves, the ability to work on their own and not just passively to be moved by the supreme principle, by the First Cause.

Especially today it would be very timely and important to study carefully Saint Thomas’ discussion with Islamic philosophy, especially that of Averroes. Thomas fought with all the power of his mind against Averroes’ teaching that God alone is the cause of all. God is not exalted by diminishing his creatures. His true greatness is manifested, not in the complete powerlessness of creatures, but rather in their empowerment to be able to work on their own as causes.

The consequence of this view is the whole breadth of the Catholic understanding of secondary causes, of the relative autonomy of secular areas of activity. In my opinion it could be demonstrated that the scientific culture of countries with a Christian character has to do with this view of the independent efficacy of creatures. One would have to show, furthermore, how the Western understanding of participation and democracy developed out of this view. The consequences of Christian humanism become particularly evident in the area of human dignity and human rights.

Of course one would also have to discuss the dangers inherent in this humanism, which come to light when the dependence of the secondary causes on the First Cause is denied, when the autonomy of the world and of man forgets that it is creaturely and arrogates to itself an independence that it does not in fact possess.

There is probably no better place to study this paradox and to take it to heart than the treatise of Saint Thomas on love as friendship: the paradox of the freedom granted to man by God, of the reciprocity between the Eternal One and us that is made possible by God, of the real friendship between him, the Infinite One, and us, his mortal creatures.

> Return to Part 1: Is Love Friendship? by Christoph Schönborn

Excerpt from Happiness, God, and Man, by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, Chapter 2, © 2011 Ignatius Press, San Francisco. Used with permission.] 
Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Vienna, is a highly respected spiritual teacher and writer, and a former student of Pope Benedict XVI. He has written numerous books including Jesus, the Divine Physician, Chance or Purpose?, Behold, God's Son

Jesus Christ, our true friend, 
laid down his life for us
by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

Was it necessary for the Son of God to suffer for us? It was very necessary and for two counts: First as a remedy for our sins, and secondly as a model for us in our behavior.

In the passion of Christ we find a remedy for all the evils which come upon us on account of our sins.

But the passion is not less useful to us as an example. Indeed the passion of Christ is sufficient to instruct us completely in our whole life. For if any one wants to live a perfect life, he has only to despise the things that Christ despised on the cross, and to desire what Christ desired. The cross provides an example of every virtue.

If you are looking for an example of charity, ‘Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ This was what Christ did on the cross. If he gave up his life for us, it ought not to be a burden for us to put up with every evil, whatever it be, for his sake.

If you are looking for patience, you will find it in its highest form on the cross. The greatness of patience is measured by two things, either when someone puts up patiently with grievous things, or when he suffers things which he could have evaded but did not. Christ suffered greatly and with patience on the cross: ‘when he suffered he did not threaten; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, he opened not his mouth.’ 

That is how great was the patience of Christ on the cross: ‘Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame.’

If you are looking for an example of humility, look at the cross. There, God willed to be judged by Pontius Pilate and to die.

If you are looking for an example of obedience, follow him who was obedient to the Father, even unto death. ‘For as by one man’s disobedience’, (this refers to Adam), ‘many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.’

[Excerpt from Conferences on the Creed, Chapter 6]
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