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Supernatural virtue

Aristotle’s account of ethics, virtue and the good life had a tremendous impact upon ancient Greek, Roman and Christian thought. Yet the thirteenth century saw a marked increase in theologians who dealt with, and at times incorporated, Aristotle’s thought into Christian theology. Largely responsible for the positive view regarding the use of Aristotle’s works for theology were the English Franciscan Alexander of Hales (c. 1185-1245) and the German Dominican Albert the Great (c. 1206-1280). Nevertheless, it was actually Albert the Great’s prize student, Thomas Aquinas, who offered us the most creative and influential engagement with Aristotle.

At first glance the supernatural virtues of faith, hope and love seem quite different from the natural virtues proposed by Aristotle. First, they are not the mean or middle between two extremes. For Aristotle, having too much courage means not having courage at all, for one has become rash or foolhardy. Having too much temperance means that one ceases to enjoy in moderation everything life has to offer. Such is not the case with the supernatural virtues. One cannot have ‘too much’ faith, hope or love. With these three, the more one has the better! The supernatural virtues are thus not means between extremes, but have opposites instead: unbelief, despair and hatred of God. Second, the supernatural virtues are not gained by practice or repetition. They are directly ‘infused’ or given to people by the Holy Spirit. They are a gift of grace. For instance, when speaking of the supernatural virtue of faith, Thomas maintains that

Two things are requisite for faith. First, that the things which are of faith should be proposed to man ... The second thing requisite for faith is the assent of the believer to the things which are proposed to him ... as regards the first of these, faith must needs be from God. Because those things which are of faith surpass human reason ... As regards the second, viz. man’s assent to the things which are of faith, we may observe a twofold cause, one of external inducement, such as seeing a miracle, or being persuaded by someone to embrace the faith: neither of which is a sufficient cause, since of those who see the same miracle, or who hear the same sermon, some believe, and some do not. Hence we must assert another internal cause, which moves man inwardly to assent to matters of faith. The Pelagians held that this cause was ... man’s free-will: and consequently they said that the beginning of faith is from ourselves . But this is false, for, since man, by assenting to matters of faith, is raised above his nature, this must needs accrue to him from some supernatural principle moving him inwardly; and this is God. Therefore faith, as regards the assent which is the chief act of faith, is from God moving man inwardly by grace.[1]

If faith, hope and love differ so much from the natural virtues, why call them ‘virtues’ at all? Although they differ from the natural virtues, the supernatural virtues are still analogous to them. First, just as with Aristotle’s account of virtues as dispositions or readiness, the supernatural virtues also are the ‘principle’ or ‘source’ of good actions. Second, while the natural virtues direct one towards earthly happiness, the supernatural virtues direct one towards eternal happiness. Third, as the natural virtues perfect and complete one’s faculties and abilities, so do the supernatural virtues. Faith perfects the intellect by directing it to the true. Hope perfects the will by directing it to the divine goodness. Love also perfects the will by directing all of one’s actions to God.

The supernatural virtues not only perfect a faculty, or an aspect of human nature, but they also perfect each other. More specifically, love is the supernatural virtue which perfects both faith and hope.3 In the words of Gal. 5.6, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters, but only faith expressing itself through love. Genuine faith, the type of faith worthy of the name, is faith formed by love (fides caritate formata). Without the ‘form’ of love, of being expressed in acts of love, faith is dead, lifeless and ‘formless’ (fides informis). Such is the kind of faith criticized in Jas. 2.17. Love, then, perfects and completes faith. Hope is also formed or perfected by love. Love for others leads one away from hoping only for oneself. Love for others means that one will also hope for others.[2] In the ‘order of perfection’, then, love is the greatest of these three. Love completes and perfects faith and hope.[3] However, in the ‘order of generation’, or their logical sequential order, faith precedes hope, which precedes love. The person knows God (faith), knows that God is good (hope) and wishes to be united with God (love).

  • [1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica II, q. 6, a. 1.
  • [2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica II—II, q. 17, a. 8.
  • [3] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica II—I, q. 62, a. 4.
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