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  • “To Give Us an Example of Making Progress”: Aquinas on the Perfection and Growth of Christ’s Virtue
  • Michael A. Wahl

ONE OF THE CENTRAL ethical themes of the New Testament is that Jesus provides a model for his followers to imitate.1 In his Last Supper Discourse in John’s Gospel, Jesus himself declares to his apostles, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). Likewise, the First Epistle of Peter reminds its readers, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet 2:21). Saint Paul, too, instructs the Philippians to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5), and he urges the Corinthians to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). The biblical authors insist that throughout Jesus’ life and ministry, and especially in his passion and death, he exemplifies most perfectly the pattern to which his disciples must be conformed.

The exemplarity of Christ is also a prominent and recurring motif in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas.2 Indeed, in the very [End Page 585] opening question of the Tertia pars of the Summa theologiae, Aquinas submits that it was fitting that the Word should become flesh, “with regard to right operation, in which he set us an example.”3 Aquinas thus views the incarnation as, among other things, a form of embodied instruction for humanity.4 In the Summa contra gentiles, he expands on this insight, suggesting that “so that man might be strengthened in virtue, it was necessary for him to receive from God made man both the teaching and the examples of virtue.”5

Aquinas embeds this view of Christ as moral exemplar within a broader metaphysical and soteriological account of Christ’s ontological exemplarity so that the actions of Christ are not only morally instructive but also efficiently salvific. Through the hypostatic union, Christ’s human actions serve instrumentally as efficacious causes of the grace which, by virtue of his headship, he mediates to human beings.6 Moreover, because the nature of an instrument leaves its mark on the effect produced, Christ’s humanity imparts its own distinctive character to the divine grace that is mediated through it. Consequently, the grace that Christ bestows to human beings conforms them to himself as their [End Page 586] ontological exemplar.7 For Aquinas, then, Jesus not only models perfect virtue through his actions, but he also mediates, through those same actions, the grace that conforms the human person to himself and that enables the human person to exercise the very virtues that he displays.8 Christ makes possible the imitation of his moral example by the grace that conforms human beings to him ontologically. Therefore, Aquinas can say not only that “Christ’s action is our instruction,”9 but also that “all Christ’s actions and sufferings operate instrumentally by virtue of his divinity for human salvation.”10

One of the most interesting, but also most frequently overlooked, places where Aquinas takes up this theme of Christ’s exemplarity is in a sermon composed for the First Sunday after Epiphany, likely preached in 1271 during his second regency at Paris.11 The sermon’s opening line foregrounds Christ’s salvific exemplarity as Aquinas declares that “all the things together that the Lord has done or undergone in the flesh are salutary lessons and examples.”12 Aquinas does not intend for this opening flourish to serve merely as a general claim about Christ’s action as instructive, overlooking the concrete particulars of his embodied, salvific teaching. On the contrary, he insists,

Because there is not any age from which the way of salvation is absent—and to the highest extent this applies to the years in which one comes to discernment— the adolescence of Christ is made an example for adolescents. Growth and [End Page 587] progress are proper to adolescents. Therefore, the progress of Christ is made an example for adolescents.13

With these words, Aquinas narrows the sermon’s scope and directs his hearers’ attention to...


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