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Circumcision and Grace in St. Thomas Aquinas

This was far too long for a Twitter thread, so I decided to post it here. If you appreciate the work I am doing, please consider becoming a Patron at Patreon.com/Militantthomist or send in a tip through PayPal to MilitantThomist@gmail.com


Apologies in advance for all the Latin (most of it is simple enough to get a general idea or just look up the references on Aquinas.cc)...I have been quite busy and have more work to do.



Introduction

In my last paper, I generally covered what St. Thomas taught concerning the rites of the Old Covenant, their efficacy in relation to the rites of the New Covenant. Yet, there is a more complicated issue that arises when we consider circumcision. While St. Thomas denied the sacramental efficacy as actively ex opere operato concerning these rites of the Mosaic covenant, he affirms that "in circumcisione conferebatur gratia quantum ad omnes gratiae effectus." (ST.III.Q70.A4.C.4)

Yet, it is my position that St. Thomas does not contradict his former position, but is in line with it, affirming that St. Thomas affirms a moral causality to circumcision, that circumcision works passively ex opere operato in relation to children by their parent's faith in the future passion of Christ and ex opere operantis in relation to adults by their own faith in the future passion of Christ, denying an efficient causality, yet affirming a final causality in relation to the passion of Christ.

Terms Defined

In order to properly explain and defend this thesis, we will need to investigate, 1. The distinction between causality ex opere operato and ex opere operantis, 2. Between ex opere operato actively and passively wrought, and 3. The distinction between moral causality and physical causality.

The first distinction to be explained is between causality ex opere operato and ex opere operantis. A sacrament which is ex opere operato works apart from any positive disposition present in the minister or recipient. A sacrament which is ex opere operantis requires a positive disposition present in the recipient (or minister).

The second distinction to be explained is between ex opere operato actively and passively wrought. In the former, the virtue is intrinsic to the sacrament. In the latter, the virtue is not intrinsic, as Fr. Woodbury explains "the sacramental sign being posited [rather than, through the sacramental signs working], God alone infused grace" without a view to one's own moral disposition. (Woodbury, Sacraments in General, 104)

The third distinction is between physical and moral causality. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains, "A physical cause really and immediately produces its effects, either as the principal agent or as the instrument used, as when a sculptor uses a chisel to carve a statue. A moral cause is one which moves or entreats a physical cause to act." (Daniel Kennedy, Sacraments)

Aquinas' Position Stated

First, those positions that Aquinas denied. The first position that St. Thomas denies is that, in circumcision, no grace was given, but only the remission of sins. The second position that St. Thomas denies is that, in circumcision, grace was given, but only the negative effects of grace (i.e., the remission of sin).The third position that St. Thomas denies (one which he held in his Sentences commentary, yet it is important to note that he denies his teaching on the effect of the sacrament, not the manner of causality, therefore we may use his teaching on that matter positively) is that, in circumcision, grace was given, with the negative effects and some of the positive effects (yet, "non sufficiebat reprimere concupiscentiam fomitis, nec etiam ad implendum mandata legis").

Thus, St. Thomas denies any position that denies that grace was given in circumcision in its full effects. Yet, disagreement comes in over the manner in which grace was communicated.

Second, that position which Aquinas espoused. To begin with, Aquinas admits that "in circumcisione originale peccatum remittebatur" (ibid., C.1) and affirms that "in circumcisione conferebatur gratia quantum ad omnes gratiae effectus." (ibid., C.4) Yet, he denied that it was in the same mode as grace is conferred in Baptism. In this, St. Thomas, first sets out the specific mode of the communication of grace in baptism, and, second, contrasts that to the proper mode of the communication of grace in circumcision.

First, in setting out the specific mode of the communication of grace in baptism, he sets forth two propositions. First, in Baptism, grace is conferred "ex virtute ipsius Baptismi," (ibid.) i.e., there is some intrinsic virtue whereby Baptism communicates grace. This describes the physical causality of the sacrament. Second, Baptism has this virtue as the "instrumentum passionis Christi," (ibid.) i.e., the manner in which the passion of Christ relates to the conferral of grace is that of an efficient cause. This describes the sacrament as actively ex opere operato in its relationship to the passion of Christ, i.e., as working the passion of Christ in us (c.f., Romans 6:3)

Second, in contrasting circumcision with baptism, he sets forth two propositions.

First, Circumcision bestowed grace as a "signum fidei passionis Christi futurae," (ibid.) i.e., the manner in which the passion of Christ relates to the conferral of grace is that of a final cause (as it has not yet occured and therefore could not operate as an efficient cause). Further, it is said to relate to Christ's passion thus in another place: "in circumcisione conferebatur gratia inquantum erat signum passionis Christi futurae." (ST.III.Q62.A6.Rep3.4)