Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Reading Hebrews with St Thomas: St Thomas' Introduction to the Epistle

St Thomas offers both a prologue to the Commentary, and some comments on the structure of Hebrews, both of which are worth contemplating.

The structure and purpose of Hebrews

Aquinas:
He wrote this epistle against the errors of those converts from Judaism who wanted to preserve the legal observances along with the Gospel, as though Christ’s grace were not sufficient for salvation. 
Hence it is divided into two parts: in the first he extols Christ’s grandeur to show the superiority of the New Testament over the Old; secondly, he discusses what unites the members to the head, namely, faith (chap. 11). 
But he intends to show the New Testament’s superiority over the Old by proving Christ’s preeminence over the personnel of the Old Testament, namely, the angels, by whom the Law was handed down: ‘The law was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator’ (Gal. 3:19); and Moses, by whom or through whom it was given: ‘The law was given by Moses’ (Jn. 1:17); ‘There arose no more a prophet in Israel like unto Moses, to whom the Lord spoke face to face’ (Dt. 3:10), and the priesthood by which it was administered: ‘Into the first tabernacle the priests indeed entered, accomplishing the offices of sacrifices’ (Heb. 9:6).  First, therefore, he favors Christ over the angels; secondly, over Moses (chap. 3); thirdly, over the priesthood of the Old Testament (chap. 5). 
Comment: The error of our times is no longer Judaising tendencies, but the arguments used in are still extremely pertinent in countering the modern tendency to downplay the divinity of Jesus.

The transcendence of Christ (Prologue)

 ‘There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours’ (Ps. 86:8).
In these words Christ’s transcendence is described under two aspects: first as compared to other gods, when he says, ‘There is none among the gods like thee, O Lord’; secondly, as reflected in His effects, when he says, ‘nor are there any works like yours’.

In regard to the first it should be noted that although there is but one God by nature, as it says in Deut. 6:4: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord’, nevertheless, by participation there are many gods both in heaven and on earth: ‘For there be gods many, and lords many’ (1 Cor. 8:5). For angels are sometimes called gods: ‘When the sons of God came to stand before the Lord’ (Jb. 1:6 & 11), and also prophets, as is said of Moses: ‘Behold I have appointed you the god of Pharaoh’ (Ex. 7:1), and priests: ‘You shall not speak ill of the gods’, i.e., of the priests (Ex. 22:28); ‘If the thief be not known, the master of the house shall be brought to the gods’ (Ex. 22:8). Angels are called gods on account of their rich splendor of divine brightness: ‘Upon whom shall not his light arise?’ (Jb. 25:3).

Christ is greater than all others called 'gods': But angels are not like unto Christ among the gods, because He is the ‘brightness of the Father’s glory’ (1:3); ‘Setting him on his right hand in the heavenly place above all principality and power and above every name named in this world and in the world to come’ (Eph. 1:20). The prophets are called gods, because the word of God was spoken to them; ‘He called them gods, to whom the word of God was spoken’ (Jn. 10:35). Therefore, Christ is God in some more excellent way, because He is the substantial Word of God. Priests are called gods, because they are God’s ministers: ‘You shall be called priests of the Lord, you ministers of our God’ (Is. 61:6). But Christ is God in a stronger sense, for He is not a minister but the Lord of all: ‘Lord of Lords’ (Rev. 19:16). ‘But Christ was faithful in his own house as a son’ (Heb. 3:6). Christ, therefore, is the great God above all the gods, because He is the splendor, the Word, and the Lord

 Secondly, this transcendence is shown by His works; hence it says, nor are there any works like thine. Here it should be noted that the matchless work of Christ is threefold: one extends to every creature, namely, the work of creation: ‘All things were made through Him’ (Jn. 1:3); a second extends to the rational creature, who is enlightened by Christ, namely, the work of enlightenment: ‘He was the true light which enlightens every man that comes into the world’ (Jn. 1:9); the third extends to justification, which pertains only to the saints, who are vivified and sanctified by Him, i.e., by life-giving grace: ‘And the life was the light of men’ (Jn. 1:4). Now, the other gods cannot perform these works: for the angels are not creators, but creatures ‘Who make your angels spirits’ (Ps. 103:4); prophets are enlightened and not enlighteners: ‘He was not the light, but was to give testimony of the light’ (Jn. 1:8); and priests do not justify: ‘It is impossible that with the blood of oxen and goats sin should be taken away’ (Heb. 10:4).

The transcendence of Christ is thus clearly shown in our text; and this is the subject matter of this epistle to the Hebrews....

Prayer

Lord, 

May our reading and meditation on this your word help protect us against error and lead us to greater understanding and love of you.
  Oh God, as we contemplate your wonderful work of creation, and your work of enlightenment of men, give us too your life-giving grace that we may be sanctified and vivified through Christ,

Amen. 

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