Wednesday, March 12, 2014

St. Thomas Aquinas on Freedom from Fear of Death

14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. 16 For surely it is not with angels that he is concerned but with the descendants of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted. (Hebrews 2:14-18)

Christ assumed a nature without sin, but with the possibility of suffering, because He assumed a flesh similar to the sinner: ‘In the likeness of sinful flesh’ (Rom. 8:3). Therefore, like the children, He is partaker of flesh and blood, and all in the same way: for it was not imaginary flesh, as the Manicheans say, not was it assumed in the accidental way, as Nestorius said. But true flesh and blood, such as children have, were assumed into the unity of the person.

That Christ is a partaker of flesh and blood is not to be understood as referring to the vices of flesh and blood, because He did not take on sin or commit any; but as referring to the very substance of animated flesh, because He assumed flesh and soul. It also included the possibility of suffering, because He assumed our nature capable of suffering. Therefore, the sense is: Because the children, i.e., the faithful, has a nature capable of suffering, Christ Himself partook of the same, i.e., of flesh and blood. But we partake of them through our person; and Christ in like manner assumed them to His person: ‘The Word was made flesh’ (Jn. 1:14). By flesh and blood can also be understood the flesh and blood of Christ according to the statement: ‘He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood’ (Jn. 6:55), of which the children, i.e., the apostles, partook at the last supper and of which Christ partook: ‘He drank His own blood’, as Chrysostom says.

Then (v. 14b) he shows the benefits His death brought. In regard to this he does two things: first, he shows its usefulness on the part of the devil, who had the power; secondly, on our part who were held (v. 15).

He says, therefore: He partook of flesh and blood, i.e., He assumed a nature in which He could suffer and die, which he could not do in the divine nature, that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, i.e., the devil. But how does the devil have the power of death? For this is God’s prerogative: ‘The Lord kills and makes alive’ (1 Sam. 2:6); ‘I will kill and I will make to live’ (Dt. 32:39). I answer that a judge has the power of death in one way, because he inflicts death, when he punishes with death; but a thief has it another way in the sense of deserving death because of demerit. God has the power of death in the first way: For in what day you shall eat of it, you shall die the death’ (Gen. 2:17). But the devil in the second way, because by persuading men to sin, he yielded him over to death: ‘by the envy of the devil, death came into the world’ (Wis. 2:24). But he says, that he might destroy him, not as to his substance, which is indestructible, nor as to his malice, so that the devil would become good at some time, but as to his power: ‘Despoiling the principalities and powers’ (Col. 2:15).

This was accomplished by the death of Christ in three ways: first, on the part of Christ, for the true nature of justice is that the victor subject the vanquished to himself [major premise]: ‘For by whom a man is overcome, of the same is he the slave’ (2 Pt. 2:19) [Scriptural justification for premise here and as follows]. But Christ overcame the devil [minor premise]: ‘The Lion of the tribe of Judah has prevailed’ (Rev. 5:5). Therefore, it is just that the devil be subject to Him [conclusion]: ‘When a strong man armed keeps his court, those things are in peace which he possesses (Lk. 11:21). Secondly, on the part of the devil: for justice requires that a person who unjustly uses power granted him should lose it. But the devil has been given power over the sinners he seduced, but not over the good. Therefore, because he presumed to extend this power even to Christ, Who did not sin: ‘The prince of this world comes, and in me he has nothing’ (Jn. 14:30), he deserved to lose it. The third reason is on our part: for it is just that the vanquished be the servants of the victor. But man by sin was the servant of the devil: ‘Whoever commits sin is the servant of sin’ (Jn. 8:34); consequently, he was subject to the devil and liable to sin. But Christ paid the price for our sin: ‘Then did I pay that which I took not away’ (Ps. 68:5). Therefore, when the cause of servitude was taken away, man was set free by Christ.

But it should be noted that another satisfaction was suitable. For man was in debt; but one man can satisfy for another out of charity, although no one can satisfy for the entire human race, because he does not have power over it, nor could the entire human race satisfy sufficiently, because it was entirely subject to sin; nor could an angel, because this satisfaction was unto glory, which exceeds the power of an angel. Therefore, it was necessary that the one who satisfied be man and God, Who alone has power over the whole human race. By the death of God and man, therefore, He destroyed him who had the empire of death.

Then (v. 15) another advantage on our part is mentioned. In regard to this it should be noted that a man is a servant of sin to the extent that he is induced to sin. But the most effective inducements to sin are the love of transitory goods and the fear of present punishments: ‘Things set on fire, as to the first and dug down as to the second, shall perish at the rebuke of your countenance’ (Ps. 79:17). But these two amount to the same thing, because the more a person loves something, the more he fears its evil contrary. Hence, we see that savage beasts are kept from the greatest pleasures through fear of punishment; thus fear makes cowards of us all. Hence, if a man overcomes his fears, he overcomes everything; and when fear is overcome, all disordered love of the world is overcome. Thus Christ by His death broke this fear, because He removed the fear of death, and, consequently the love of the present life. For when a person considers that the Son of God, the Lord of death, willed to die, he no longer fears death. That is why before the death of Christ, it was said: ‘O death, how bitter is the remembrance of you’ (Sir. 41:1); but after Christ’s death the Apostle expresses a desire to be dissolved and be with Christ: Hence, we are told: ‘Fear not them that kill the body’ (Mt. 10:28). He says, therefore, and deliver all those who through the fear of death were subject to lifelong service, namely, the servitude of sin.

But Christ freed us from a double servitude, namely, that of the Law and that of sin, since the law is called a yoke which neither we not our fathers were able to bear (Ac. 15:10). Now the difference between the Old and the New Law is fear and love. In the New there is love: ‘If you love me, keep my commandments’ (Jn. 14:15). But the Old was the law of fear: ‘You have not received the spirit of servitude again in fear’ (Rom. 8:15). Therefore, he sways, and deliver them who through the fear of bodily death, which the Law inflicted, were all subject to lifelong servitude.


Source: St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Super Epistolam B. Pauli ad Hebraeos Lectura), trans. by Fabian R. Larcher, DHS Priory website, accessed March 12, 2014, 2.4.138-145.

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