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  • Thomas Aquinas on Divine Beatitude, Freedom, and the Speech of Christ in Psalm 16:2
  • Joel Thomas Chopp

Thomas Aquinas taught that God could have created a world different from our own or refrained from creating any world whatsoever. Thomas also held that this position was clearly taught by Scripture.1 He even goes so far as to describe the main alternative to this view—the belief that God created from natural necessity—as "false and utterly alien to the Catholic faith."2 It seems fair to assume that he judged the theological stakes involved in the issue to be high. In De veritate, q. 23, a. 4, Thomas addresses a question that is integral to his account of divine freedom: whether God wills whatever he wills of necessity. After constructing a metaphysical account of voluntary action, in the concluding portion of his argument he writes: "Likewise, nor is there any necessity in [the divine will] with respect to the whole of creation, because the divine goodness is perfect in itself, and would be so even if no creature were to exist, for 'he has no need of our goods,' as is said in the Psalm [16:2]."3

It is not altogether obvious—at least if one starts from the working assumptions of modern exegesis—how the latter half of Psalm 16:2 (Vulgate 15:2) could be interpreted as concerned with divine freedom, let alone teaching [End Page 217] anything about the modal status of the relation between the divine will and the whole of created reality.4 Read in a particular light, it could even appear plausible that Thomas's citation of the psalm in this context amounts to little more than a pious veneer, hastily glued over a slab of philosophical abstractions. This essay argues that such appearances are mistaken.

In what follows, I will not primarily be arguing for the veracity of Thomas's doctrine of divine freedom, nor even presenting a full account of his views. My aim is more modest. The argument presented here aims to uncover how Thomas arrived at this reading of the psalm, understand how his exegesis relates to his doctrine, and suggest that—given certain beliefs about the nature of Scripture and its interpretation—Thomas's reading is plausible. I conclude by considering obstacles to contemporary theologians following Thomas's reading and provide possible solutions for overcoming them.

My first section begins with an overview of Scholastic exegesis, followed by a brief description of Thomas's doctrine of divine freedom within its thirteenth-century context. To understand how Thomas may have arrived at his reading of Psalm 16:2, my second section provides a series of vignettes of the reception history of this passage. This section begins with Augustine's citation of the psalm at a critical juncture within book 1 of De doctrina christiana, followed by Peter Lombard's incorporation of Augustine's reading of the psalm in the Sentences. The section concludes with an examination of the Postilla super Psalterium of Hugh of Saint Cher. A third section provides a summary of Thomas's interpretation of the psalm throughout his corpus and a brief consideration of the other scriptural passages that Thomas juxtaposed with the psalm. This section concludes with an analysis of the place of the psalm in Thomas's doctrine of divine freedom, focusing on Super Psalmos 15 and De veritate, q. 23, a. 4. Fourth and finally, I conclude with a consideration of and response to obstacles for contemporary theologians who wish to follow Thomas's reading of the text.

Scripture & Divine Freedom in the Thirteenth Century

An Overview of Scholastic Exegesis

Thirty to forty years ago, it was not uncommon to construe the history of [End Page 218] the development of Scholasticism as one of liberation from the scriptural text. While elements of this construal remain in some quarters, the consensus that Scholasticism was an almost exclusively philosophical enterprise with little interest in the sacred page has largely been abandoned. Historical research on the institutional and material conditions of theological education in the universities and a groundswell of research on medieval reception of the Bible have given us a clearer understanding...


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