Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Question 62 - The Perfection of the Angels

Why this Question Matters.

Aquinas is moving towards the culmination of the “Treatise on the Angels” where he will address the puzzling question of how such naturally perfect creatures could possibly have fallen from favour with God by their own choice. Having dealt with the creation of the angels in the previous question, and aiming to address the question of the fall of the bad angels, it is quite natural that he continues to prepare the ground by asking about the elevation of the good angels to grace and glory. If one is to answer the question of how the bad angels fell from grace, it is necessary to understand the mechanism and movement of grace ordered to the beatific vision.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: All rational or intellectual creatures naturally desire their ultimate perfection; that is, all such creatures naturally desire their beatitude. But, Aquinas argues, there are two sorts of perfection for such creatures. On the one hand there is the perfection that follows on from the nature of the creature and which the creature is naturally capable of attaining. One recalls Aristotle in the Ethics concluding that the ultimate human happiness lies in the contemplation of God. But this is contemplation of God considered as first cause rather than contemplation of God in the vision of the divine essence. This latter is the seond perfection of the rational or intellectual creature, when we look forward to seeing God as He is. As we saw in Ia.q12.a4 this sort of perfection lies beyond the natural capabilities of the creature.

Angels seem so wonderful that one might ask whether they were created in beatitude. Aquinas, making the distinction above, answers that they were created in the first sort of natural beatitude. They do not have to go through any sort of discursive reasoning to get to their natural end; it is immediately present to them. However, their supernatural end exceeds the power of their nature and they were not created in the state of contemplating the divine essence.

A2: The ultimate beatitude of the rational creature lies in the vision of God through His essence. If we enquire into how the rational creature can have a movement of the will towards such beatitude, we have to realize that the will’s natural movement is towards what is naturally fitting for it. Hence if the rational creature is to have a movement of the will towards supernatural beatitude he requires the assistance of a supernatural agent; this is what we call grace.

Therefore, despite their many perfections, even the angels need the assistance of grace in order to turn towards God.

The third objection and its reply contain an interesting discussion of the first movement of the will towards God. Zecheriah 1:3 can be read as suggesting that the first movement of the will towards God, preparing for grace, can be within the natural powers of the rational creature. The objection argues that to suggest, on the contrary, that such a preparation for grace requires grace itself would lead to an infinite regress. In answering, Aquinas makes an important distinction between three different types of “turning towards God”. The first type consists in the turning towards God that occurs in the creature that is already enjoying the beatific vision; this is facilitated by the gift of consummated grace. The second type corresponds to the gift of God that justifies the rational creature, making them pleasing to the eyes of God; this is the gift of habitual grace. The third type corresponds to the preparation for grace which is itself a gift of God (sometimes called prevenient grace); God’s gift makes all of this happen and therefore there is no infinite regress. Zecheriah must be interpreted in the light of Lamentations 5:21.

A3: Even though the angels were not created in supernatural beatitude and require grace to turn towards God, it might be the case that they were created in grace. This might appear to be a difficult proposition to argue for, since one would then have to explain how it was possible for some of the angels to fall from grace, given that grace is that supernatural gift that inclines the rational creature towards God.

Aquinas admits that there are different theological opinions on this matter, but favours the opinion whereby the angels were created in habitual grace. The argument that he puts forward is rooted in St Augustine’s notion of the seminales rationes (“seminal reasons”) implanted in creatures. Creation not only creates things in a certain state but also gives to them their developmental direction and the powers with which to go off in those directions; a modern physicist might refer to the initial conditions imposed upon, and the differential equations obeyed by, physical systems. Habitual grace is that grace which is directed towards beatitude but it does not necessitate beatitude (in contrast to consummated grace).

A4: The concept of merit has been controversial in the history of theology, especially in the polemical battles between the Catholic Church and other denominations. Aquinas raises the question of whether the beatified angel merited its beatitude. In order to answer this question in the affirmative, he has to clarify the notion of merit.

The beatific vision of God is the ultimate end of the rational creature. Now, once the rational creature is in a position to be able to attain to the beatific vision (through the gift of sanctifying grace) they attain that ultimate end through their own operation. Now, an operation can be of two kinds: it can either have sufficient power to achieve the end or it does not, in which case it requires further assistance to reach the end. The power of achieving the beatific vision is of the latter kind; even if it is operating for the ultimate end the rational creature requires that end to be given to it as a gift. That gift is given as a result of the merit attributed by God to the rational creature cooperating with sanctifying grace. It is vital to remember that the actions of the rational creature cooperating with sanctifying grace are themselves gifts of God, sometimes called actual graces.

Applying this reasoning to the angels it is clear, pretty much by the definition of the terms involved, that we must say that they do merit their own beatitude. Indeed, Aquinas spends some time in his answer showing that alternative explanations of the relation of grace, merit and beatitude are simply muddled.

A5: We’ve seen (Ia.q58.a3) that the angels attain natural perfection immediately through their natures rather than having to acquire it through some sort of process. A similar thing is true of their attainment of beatitude: an angel is ordered to glory by its merit in the same way that it ordered to natural perfection by its nature. Therefore, as soon as an angel has merited beatitude, it attains it. As the title of the article suggests, the angel attains beatitude immediately after just one meritorious act. Although Aquinas does not discuss here what this single meritorious act may be, he goes on to discuss (in Ia.q64) the fall of the bad angels arising from their refusal to accept the gift of beatitude as gift. From this we may infer that the meritorious act of the angels is to accept that gift as gift.

A6: Given that the angels were created in a hierarchy, one might wonder whether that hierarchy is respected when considering God’s gift of grace and glory to them. In other words, do angels receive grace and glory in proportion to their natural gifts?

Aquinas gives arguments to support the affirmative opinion. The very fact that God created the angels with diverse grades of the angelic nature together with the fact that they were ordained to the beatific vision suggests that the hierarchy would be respected in the consideration of the supernatural gifts. Why else would God have created them in a hierarchy? A second argument is based on the fact that human beings are impeded in the movement of their intellective part by their sentient part; there are plenty of sensuous temptations out there for us. This doesn’t happen in the angels and their intellectual nature is not impeded in its movement which will therefore move with all its strength. Therefore those angels with better natures will turn towards God more firmly and efficaciously. As with humans, angels will receive grace and glory in proportion to the intensity of their conversion to God. Hence the better angels will receive greater grace and glory.

A7: Asking the question of whether natural cognition and natural love remain in the beatified angels allows Aquinas to reiterate his fundamental axiom that grace does not destroy nature, rather it perfects it. So, the natural cognition and love of the angels remain and are perfected when they are raised to the beatific vision of God.

A8: In Ia.q63 Aquinas is going to turn to the difficult question of sin in the angels. As with the other articles of the current question, this article can be seen as laying the preparatory foundation for the later enquiry. Once an angel is beatified, are they able to turn away from God and to sin? Of course not! The beatific vision is the vision of the absolute good; as the will is inclined to the good, so is it impossible for the will to turn away from the good as good.

The third objection claims that to say that the angels cannot sin once they have the beatific vision is to deny them free will. Aquinas parries this argument by claiming that the perfection of free choice lies in the ability to choose whilst maintaining the order imposed by the end. (Recall that free choice is a choice amongst means to an end.) Therefore the fact that the angel is unable to sin means that the choices available to the angel are all truly good (rather than a mixture of true goods and only apparent goods). Therefore the free will is actually perfected in this situation.

A9: Once a creature has achieved beatitude, it is possible for it to progress to a higher level of beatitude? Although Aquinas casts this question in the case of the angels, the answer applies more generally to all rational creatures. Every creature moves towards an end and it is impossible for this end to be indeterminate. It may be that an ultimate end is broken down into a sequence of intermediate ends, but each of these must be determinate or else they simply could not function as ends. If we consider the ultimate end of the rational creature in the beatific vision of God, then it is clear that the creature cannot attain this without the help of God. God provides this ultimate end and, as an end, it must be determinate. This determinacy of end demonstrates that the rational creature attains that particular end in beatitude and no more; God’s predestination for the rational creature determines where they end up.

Aquinas makes the clarification that the degree of beatitude does not lie in what is seen in the beatific vision (the essence of God) but rather the mode by which it is seen. It is only for God to see His own essence in the highest mode; for the rational creature, by nature finite, only a finite mode of the vision of God’s essence is possible. As there is an infinite distance between the creature and the creator and the creature may only have a finite mode of the vision of God’s essence, there are infinitely many finite modes of such vision.

Handy Concepts

  • There are two ends open to the rational creature. On the one hand is the natural end in the contemplation of God as first cause; on the other hand there is the contemplation of the very essence of God. The first is naturally open to the creature; the second is the supernatural gift of God. Angels are created in natural beatitude; to achieve supernatural beatitude, they like humans require the grace of God.
  • Even the first movement of the will towards God requires grace.
  • Habitual grace (gratia gratum faciens) is also called sanctifying grace and sometimes justifying grace. Habitual grace is ordered towards, but does not necessitate, beatitude.
  • Although Aquinas admits of diverse opinions on this matter, he takes the position that the angels were created in habitual grace.
  • The rational creature operating in the friendship of God with the gift of sanctifying grace requires actual graces to co-operate with sanctifying grace in order to merit the beatific vision. Angels, like humans, merit their beatitude.
  • An angel achieves beatitude by means of just one meritorious act.
  • The natural hierarchy of the angels in their creation is reflected in their supernatural hierarchy.
  • Rather than destroying nature, grace perfects it. So the angels’ natural cognition and natural love are perfected in beatitude rather than destroyed.
  • The rational creature in beatitude in unable to turn away from God and sin; rather than representing a constraint on free will this represents its perfection.
  • Angels, like humans, make no progress in beatitude once they have attained it.


  • The first article makes reference to the two ends of the rational creature. This is an important text used in the twentieth century debate over the supernatural.
  • Commentators have noted that the positions that Aquinas takes in the fifth and sixth article are especially speculative.
  • In the ninth article one may ask whether God might have determined intermediate ends in beatitude. Aquinas’s answer discounts the possibility of such intermediate ends by appealing to the predestination of the creature. It seems slightly curious that Aquinas doesn’t attempt an answer based on showing that there could be no means by which the rational creature could progress whilst in beatitude. For the angel, they are all they can be at their creation (they are comprehensors) and only one meritorious act attains their beatitude; for humans, their progress in grace lies in their earthly course as viators. It is worth noting that in the reply to the third objection Aquinas admits that the angels may progress in joy whilst in beatitude.

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