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St. Thomas Aquinas on Romans

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This man is to me a chosen vessel to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel (Ac 9:15). 1. In sacred Scripture men are compared to vessels from four viewpoints: their construction, contents, use and fruit. From the viewpoint of construction, vessels depend on the good pleasure of their maker: "he reworked it into another vessel as it seemed good to him" (Jer 18:4). In the same way men’s construction1 depends on God’s good pleasure: "He fashioned us and not we ourselves" (Ps 100:3 Vul 99:3); hence Is (45:9) asks: "Does the clay say to him who fashions it, ‘What are you making?’": In the same vein St Paul asks: "Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘ Why have you made me thus?’" (Rom 9:20). Hence, it is the Creator’s will that determines the variety of construction among his vessels: "In a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and earthenware" (2 Tim 2:20). In the above words, blessed Paul is described as a vessel. What sort of vessel he was is described in Sirach (50:9): "As a vessel of solid gold adorned with all kinds of precious stones." He was a golden vessel on account of his brilliant wisdom; what is said in Genesis (2:12) can be understood as speaking of this: "The gold of that land is the best," because, as is said in Proverbs (3:15), "it is more precious than all riches." Whence even blessed Peter bears witness to him: "So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him" (2 Pt 3:15). 1 Latin constitutio can refer both to the "construction" of a vessel and to the "character" of a man. 6 2 Reading propinavit for propinabit. 3 This does not exactly match the phrasing of the Vulgate or of the Hebrew. He was solid on account of the virtue of love, of which the Song of Songs (8:6) says, "Love is strong as death." Hence Paul himself writes: "I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God" (Rom 8:38ff). Furthermore, he was adorned with all manner of precious stones, i.e., with all the virtues, concerning which it says in 1 Cor (3:12): "Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones …, each man’s work will become manifest." Hence, he says: "Our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience that we have conducted ourselves in the world with simplicity of heart and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God" (2 Cor 1:12). 2. The nature of this vessel is thus indicated by the sort of things it poured out;2 for Paul taught the mysteries of the most lofty divinity, which requires wisdom: "Among the mature we do speak wisdom" (1Cor 2:6). He extolled love in the loftiest terms in 1 Corinthians 13. He taught men about the different virtues: "Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, meekness … patience" (Col 3:12). 3. In the second place it is customary for vessels to be filled with some sort of liquid, as is clear in 1King (4:3), "They gave him vessels and she filled them."3 Now it is by reason of what is poured into them that vessels are classified: for some are wine vessels, some oil vessels, and so on. In the same way, God fills men with diverse graces, as though with diverse liquids: "To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit" (1 Cor 12:8). 7 But the vessel about which we are now speaking was filled with a precious liquid, the name of Christ, of which it is said: "Your name is oil poured out" (Song 1:3). Hence, our text says to carry my name, for he seems to have been thoroughly filled with this name, in accord with Revelation 3(:12), "I will write my name upon him." For he possessed this name in the knowledge of his intellect: "For I decided to know nothing among you except Christ" (1 Cor 2:2). He also possessed this name in the love of his affections: "Who will separate us from the love of Christ?" (Rom 8:35); "If any one does not love our Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed" (1 Cor 16:21). Finally, he possessed it in his whole way of life; Hence he said, "It is no longer I who love, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20). 4. In the third place, with regard to use, one should consider that all vessels are set aside for a definite use, but some for a more honorable and some for a baser use: "Has not the potter power to make from the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for dishonor?" (Rom 9:21). So, too, according to God’s decree, men are set aside for different uses: "All men are from the ground and from the earth, whence also Adam was created. In the fullness of his knowledge the Lord distinguished them and appointed their different uses; some of them he blessed and exalted, but some of them he cursed and brought low" (Sir 33:11-12). This vessel, however, was set apart for noble use, for it is a vessel such as carries the divine name; for [the text] says to carry my name. It was, indeed, necessary for this name to be carried, because it was far from men: "Behold the name of the Lord comes from afar" (Is 30:27). 8 It is far from us on account of sin: "Salvation is far from the wicked" (Ps 119:155). It is also far from us on account of the darkness of our understanding; hence it was said of some that "they beheld it from afar" (Heb 11:13) and "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh" (Num 24:17). Consequently, just as the angels bestow God’s light on us as being far from God, so the apostles brought us the gospel teaching from Christ; and just as in the Old Testament after the law of Moses the prophets were read to instruct the people in the teachings of the law—"Remember the law of my servant, Moses" (Mal 4:4)—so also, in the New Testament, after the gospels are read the teachings of the apostles, who handed down to the faithful the words they had heard from the Lord: "For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you" (1 Cor 11:23). 5. The blessed Paul carried Christ’s name, first of all, in his body by imitating his life and sufferings: "I bear on my body the marks of Jesus" (Gal 6:17). 6. Secondly, in his speech, for he names Christ very frequently in his epistles: "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Mt 12:34). Hence, he can be signified by the dove of which it is said that it returned to the ark bearing an olive branch in its mouth (Gen 8:11). For since the olive signifies mercy, it is fittingly taken to stand for Christ’s name, which also signifies mercy: "You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Mt 1:21). This olive branch bearing leaves was brought to the ark, i.e., to the church, when he explained its power and meaning in many ways, disclosing Christ’s grace and mercy. Thus, he says: "I received mercy for this reason that in me, as in the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience" (1 Tim 1:16). Hence, just as the most frequently used writings of the Old Testament in the church are the psalms of David, who 9 obtained pardon after his sin, so the most frequently used writings of the New Testament are the epistles of Paul, who obtained mercy, so that by these examples of sinners might be aroused to hope; although another reason for this custom could be that in each of these writings is contained almost the whole teaching of theology. 7. Thirdly, he carried this name not only to those who were present but also to those absent and as yet unborn by handing down the meaning of the Scriptures: "Take a large tablet and write upon it in common characters" (Is 8:1). 8. In this role of carrying God’s name his excellence is shown in regard to three things: first, in regard to the grace of being chosen; hence he is called a chosen vessel: "He chose us in him before the foundation of the world" (Eph 1:4). Secondly, in regard to his dedication, because he sought nothing of his own but what was Christ’s: "For what we preach is not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord" (2 Cor 4:5). Hence, it is stated that he is a chosen vessel of mine. Thirdly, in regard to his unique excellence: "I worked harder than any of them" (1 Cor 15:10). Hence, he is a chosen vessel of mine in a more outstanding way than the others. 9. As regards fruit, one should consider that that some men are, so to speak, useless vessels, either on account of sin or of error, in accord with Jer (51:34): "He has made me an empty vessel." But Paul was free of sin or of error; consequently, he was a useful chosen vessel, as he himself testified: "If anyone purifies himself from these things," i.e., from errors and sins, "then he will be a vessel set aside for a noble use, useful to the Lord" (2 Tim 2:21). Hence the usefulness or fruit of this vessel is expressed by the words, before the Gentiles, whose teacher he was: "A teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth" (1 Tim 2:7), 10 and kings, to whom he preached the faith of Christ, for example, to Agrippa (Ac 16) and even to Nero and his princes. Hence he says: "What has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole praetorian guard that my imprisonment is for Christ" (Phil 1:12); "Kings shall see and princes shall arise" (Is 49:7). And the sons of Israel, against whom he argued about Christ: "But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ" (Ac 9:22). 10. From the words of our text, therefore, we gather the four causes of this work, i.e. of Paul’s letters, which we have before us. First, the author, in the word, vessel; secondly, the matter, in the words, my name, of which the vessel is full, because this entire teaching is about the teaching of Christ; thirdly, the manner, in the word, carry. For this teaching is conveyed in the manner of letters which were customarily carried by messengers: "So curriers went with letters from the king and his princes" (2 Ch 30:6). Fourthly, the difference [distinctio] of the work in the usefulness mentioned. 11. For he wrote fourteen letters, nine of which instructed the church of the Gentiles; four, the prelates and princes of the church, i.e., kings; and one to the people of Israel, namely, the letter to the Hebrews. For this entire teaching is about Christ’s grace, which can be considered in three ways: In one way, as it is in the Head, namely, Christ, and in this regard it is explained in the letter to the Hebrews. 11 In another way, as it is found in the chief members of the Mystical Body, and this is explained in the letters to the prelates. In a third way, as it is found in the Mystical Body itself, that is, the Church, and this is explained in the letters sent to the Gentiles. These last letters are distinguished from one another according to the three ways the grace of Christ can be considered: in one way, as it is in itself, and thus it is set out in the letter to the Romans; in another way, as it exists in the Sacraments of the Church, which is explained in the two letters to the Corinthians—in the first of these the nature of the Sacraments is treated; in the second, the dignity of the minister—and in the letter to the Galatians, in which superfluous sacraments are rejected against certain men who wanted to join the old sacraments to the new ones. In a third way, Christ’s grace is considered in regard to the unity it produces in the Church. Hence, the Apostle deals first with the establishment of ecclesial unity in the letter to the Ephesians; secondly, with its consolidation and progress in the letter to the Philippians; thirdly, of its defense against certain errors in the letter to the Colossians; against existing persecutions in the first letter to the Thessalonians and against persecutions to come, especially in the time of anti-Christ, in the second letter to the Thessalonians. He instructs the prelates of the Church, both spiritual and temporal. He instructs the spiritual prelates of the Church about establishing, preserving and governing ecclesial unity in the first letter to Timothy, about resistance against persecutors in the second, and about defense against heretics in the letter to Titus. He instructs temporal lords in the letter to Philemon. 12 4 See Eusebius’ Historia Ecclesiastica, book 3, chapter 1. 5 For the pseudo-Clementine writings, see Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed., New Testament Apocrypha (trans. R. McL. Wilson; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965), II: 536-570; for the preaching of Barnabas, see page 538 of the same volume. And thus the division and order of all the epistles is clear. 12. But it appears that the letter to the Romans is not first. For he seems to have written first to the Corinthians, according to the last chapter of Romans (16:1): "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is in the ministry of the church at Cenchreae," which is a Corinthian port. But one should say rather that the letter to the Corinthians is first as regards its time of writing. Nonetheless, the letter to the Romans is placed ahead of it, both because of the dignity of the Romans, who ruled the other nations, since in this letter pride is rebuked, which is the source of all sin (Sir 10:14); and because the order of teaching requires that grace should first be considered in itself before being considered as it as found in the Sacraments. 13. Another question concerns the place from which the Apostle wrote this letter. Augustine says that it was written in Athens, Jerome that it was written from Corinth. Both could be right, because he could have begun it in Athens and finished it in Corinth. 14. Finally, there is an objection against what is said in the gloss, that some believers preached to the Romans before Peter did, whereas in the Ecclesiastical History it says that Peter was the first to preach to them.4 However this can be taken to mean that Peter was the first apostle to teach the Romans and the first to reap a great harvest among them. Already Barnabas had preached at Rome, as the Itinerary of Clement states.5 13
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