A most important theological discussion extending through the centuries  centers on the reasons for Jesus’ death. Not surprisingly, Thomas Aquinas plays a major role in this discussion, summarizing the tradition that preceded him and setting forth additional principles that influenced those who followed him.

In 1995, the Church’s International Theological Commission published a document, “Select Questions on the Theology of God the Redeemer,” in which they reviewed the tradition and identified key principles regarding  Jesus’ role as Redeemer.

The document calls attention to Thomas’ important contributions. Some interpretations have emphasized the actual sufferings of Jesus. The Theological Commission affirms that Thomas’s teaching that the “satisfaction” for the sins of another is based on “the habit of the soul, whereby one is inclined to wish to satisfy for another, and from which the satisfaction has its efficacy, for satisfaction would not be efficacious unless it proceeded from charity” (3a. 14, 1, ad 1).

What is Thomas saying? Thomas, in no way, diminishes the intensity of Jesus’ sufferings. Thomas attests that  “Jesus did endure every human suffering,” not only physically in each of His bodily parts but also human rejection and shame, including, Thomas notes, “by beholding the tears of His mother and of the disciple whom He loved” (3a. 46, 5).

Nevertheless, Thomas emphasizes that the value of Jesus’ pain was the love with which Jesus suffered. Elsewhere, Thomas affirmed “works done without charity are not satisfactory” (Supplement, 14, 2).

Thomas notes that humans reconcile with each other by offering a gift of value. Thomas declares:

“He properly atones for an offense who offers something which the offended one loves equally or even more than he detested the offense. But by suffering out of love and obedience, Christ gave more to God than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race. First of all, because of the exceeding charity from which He suffered; secondly, on account of the dignity of His life which He laid down in atonement, for it was the life of One who was God and man; thirdly, on account of the grief endured. Therefore Christ’s Passion was not only a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race; ‘He is the propitiation for our sins and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world’ (1 Jn 2:2) (3a. 48, 2).

Thomas teaches: “Christ made satisfaction … by bestowing what was of greatest price – Himself – for us” (3a. 48, 4). Thomas explains: “Christ is said to be ‘offered’ because it was His own will,’ that is, Divine will and deliberate human will,’ although death was contrary to the natural movement of His human will” (3a. 14, 2, ad 1).

The underlying sin of humanity was our lack of love. Nevertheless, Thomas affirms, we continue to belong to God in that our lives are in His power: “… in so far as we come under God’s power, we never ceased to belong to God.” However, in a second way of belonging to God is “being united to Him by charity … in the second way we did cease because of sin” (3a. 48, 4, ad 1).

Thomas clarifies that there are two ways that something may be “necessary.” Jesus’ death was not necessary in the sense that God could not have chosen another way: “If He had willed to free us from sin without any satisfaction, He would not have acted against justice” (3a. 46, 2, ad 3).

Thomas believes that Jesus’ death was in keeping not only with God’s justice but also with His mercy:

“With His justice, because by His Passion Christ made satisfaction for the sin of the human race; and so humanity was set free by Christ’s justice: and with His mercy, for since humanity of itself could not satisfy for the sin of all human nature, God gave us His Son to satisfy for us, ‘Being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God has proposed to be a propitiation, through faith in His blood’ (Rom 3:24-25). And this came of more copious mercy than if He had forgiven sins without satisfaction. Hence, it is said, ‘God, who is rich in mercy, for His exceeding charity whereby He loved us, even when we were dead in sin, has brought us to life together in Christ’ (Eph 2:4).

The document of the Theological Commission stresses that Christ “heals and sanctifies us” not only by the Cross but also by His Incarnation and all His actions. Thomas follows the early Fathers, in recognizing the redemptive power of Jesus’ entire life, beginning with the Incarnation:

“From the beginning of His conception Christ merited our eternal salvation; but on our side there were obstacles, whereby we were hindered from securing the effect of His preceding merits: consequently, in order to remove such hindrances, it was necessary for Christ to suffer”  (3a. 48, 1, ad 2). 

Thomas teaches: “The principle efficient cause of our salvation is God. But Christ’s humanity is the instrument of the Godhead, therefore all Christ’s actions and sufferings operate instrumentally in virtue of His Godhead for our salvation…” (3a. 48, 6).

Thomas explains that Jesus’ Passion, although human, has infinite power because Jesus is also divine: “Christ’s Passion in relation to His flesh is consistent with the infirmity which He took upon Himself, but in relation to the Godhead it draws infinite might from It, ‘The weakness of God is stronger than men’ (1 Cor 1:25); because Christ’s weakness, inasmuch as He is God, has a might exceeding all human power” (3a. 48, 6, ad 1).

Christ’s physical sufferings have a spiritual effect upon us: “Christ’s Passion, although corporeal, has yet a spiritual effect from the Godhead united: and therefore it secures its efficacy by spiritual contact – namely, by faith and the sacraments of faith, as the Apostle says: ‘… whom God put forward as an expiation by His blood, to be received by faith’ (Rom 3:25)” (3a. 48, 6, ad 2).

Our being united with Christ as members of His Body explains how we receive the graces of salvation through Jesus’ Passion and death. Thomas asserts: “Grace was bestowed upon Christ, not only as an individual, but inasmuch as He is the Head of the Church, so that it might overflow to His members” (3a 48, 1).

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.

References to the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas give the part of the Summa, the question and the article. If the passage is found in a response to an objection that Thomas has introduced in the first part of the article, the Latin word “ad,” meaning “to,” is added with the number of the objection.