Universitas, Number 9, September 2001

The Virtues in Christ

Andrew Nimmo

Jesus Christ was known in His time on earth as a just man. No-one could convict Him of sin. Yet as we know He was not just a man, He was also God. While there is no doubt that Christ had the fullness of virtues, were there any virtues that were incompatible with His being God?

This might seem like a strange question at first until one realizes that some virtues presuppose imperfections which could not be present in the Incarnate Word.

The first virtue which could not be in Christ was faith. Why is this? Because from the moment of the Incarnation Jesus Christ enjoyed the beatific vision in His human intellect. This means that not only did Our Lord know His Father according to His eternal divine knowledge but He also saw Him face to face through the created beatific vision in his human intellect. Our Lord knows the Trinity by divine and human knowledge. From the creation of His human nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary Christ both saw His Father face to face and was conscious of His own divinity. There was never a time when He did not know that He was God, not only because of the beatific vision in His human soul, but more importantly because He was and never ceased to be a divine Person. Whether He was knowing through His divine knowledge or through His human knowledge He was the one divine Person doing the act of knowing. This is of course the mystery of the hypostatic union: one divine Person owning two natures, divine and human.

This vision of the Trinity in Christ's human intellect meant that faith in the Trinity was neither possible nor needed. One does not believe what one already sees. This is what is meant by saying that Christ was a comprehensor. Yet, He is said to be also a wayfarer in that He did not yet enjoy as man all the secondary joys which awaited His triumph over sin and death, a glimpse of which was manifested at the Transfiguration. That Christ was both comprehensor and wayfarer is mysterious but what it meant was that Christ enjoyed the vision in the superior part of His soul, but blocked it from producing its effects in the inferior part of His soul and in His body. He did this in order to be able to suffer both mental and physical agonies even unto death for us and our salvation.

St Thomas puts this well:

"Now before His passion He had beatitude as far as it regards what is proper to the soul; but beatitude was wanting with regard to all else, since His soul was passible, and His body passible and mortal. He was at once comprehensor, inasmuch as He had beatitude proper to the soul, and at the same time wayfarer, inasmuch as He was tending to beatitude, as regards what was wanting to His beatitude." (III Q.15 Art 10)

Did Christ have the virtue of hope? After discussing the question of faith (III Q.7 Art 3), St Thomas in the next article goes on to make a distinction in hope. Christ did not have hope as it is a theological virtue whose object is God, but He did have hope about other things. (Art 4) Hope is about a good unpossessed, yet Christ possessed God in the fullness of the beatific vision. Following the beatific vision in the intellect are beatific love and joy in the will. Christ had the joy of seeing God face to face in His human intellect. He did not need to hope for it. But as regards lesser things which were the reward of His triumph, such as the glorification of His body, He awaited these in hope until His resurrection.

There is no question that Our Lord had the virtue of charity and in the highest degree. Unlike faith and hope, charity is not of itself imperfect and is not incompatible with the beatific vision. Indeed as St Paul says (1 Cor 13:13) charity is greater than faith and hope which will pass away in the attainment of the vision, but charity remains.

What about the moral virtues? The same principle applies. Christ had all moral virtues which did not of themselves imply the possibility of moral imperfection. As the God-Man all Christ's actions were virtuous and He thus exercised the virtues. But there were two moral virtues that were not in Christ because they imply the possibility of sin. They are continence and penance.

Continence is a virtue in the will whose object is inordinate movements of the sensitive appetites. There was always perfect harmony between the divine and human natures of Christ and perfect subordination of the human to the divine. There was no possibility of a rebellion in the human nature because it belonged to a divine Person. Our Lord enjoyed perfect and supreme moral unity and complete dominion over His sensitive appetites. The impossibility of sin in Christ meant that the gift of integrity which gave Adam perfect control over his passions was not necessary in Christ. Christ had no need of the virtue of continence because He could not have unruly passions. (Art.2) This did not preclude Christ from having the virtue of temperance, present in the concupiscible appetite, because its work is to govern passions simply speaking, abstracting from whether they are ordered or disordered.

Christ did not have the virtue of penance because He could not ever have sins to make reparation for. Was this virtue in Our Lady who was sinless? Whereas Our Lord was impeccable, that is incapable of sin, Our Lady was not although she was preserved from original sin and never committed a personal sin. Therefore, because Our Lady was capable of sin, but never did sin the virtue of penance was in her in habit but never in act. This is not to say that Christ and His mother did not perform many acts which were reparative in nature but they were for sins committed by others.

Thus in Christ the virtues of faith, hope, continence and penance were absent. He possessed all other virtues in the greatest fullness.

Andrew Nimmo

Andrew Nimmo is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted September 2001. It was published in Universitas, No. 9 (2001).
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