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Theologian Explains Views of the Virtues of Jesus


Joseph Wawrykow, Ph.D.
Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Describing the virtues of Jesus is no simple matter, given that he was both human and divine, as became clear in a recent lecture by a distinguished scholar of theology.

The talk, “The Virtues of Jesus in Aquinas and Bonaventure,” was sponsored by the theology department as part of the Center for Medieval Studies’ Spring 2011 Lecture Series.

Joseph Wawrykow, Ph.D., professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, spoke on March 25 at the Rose Hill campus.

He gave a wide-ranging talk that began with points of agreement for the two medieval theologians. Both saw Jesus as “the model for authentic human behavior, showing what is possible for those who are in correct relationship with God.”

“For both Aquinas and Bonaventure, what accounts for the moral or spiritual success of any human is grace, and the virtues attendant on grace, the stable dispositions that ennoble their possessor and make possible actions pleasing to God. This is true of [Jesus] as well. Jesus did, and could do, what he did because he had grace and the virtues,” he said.

“Yet Jesus is more than model. He is at the same time the Savior,” a distinction that also informed both scholars’ writings, Wawrykow said. “It is through him that others receive grace and the virtues attendant on grace.”

In various writings of St. Bonaventure, Wawrykow said, “the importance of the humanity of the incarnate Word is striking.” He noted how the virtues of Jesus are made concrete and specific in The Tree of Life: “When discussing Jesus’ affectionate piety, his commitment to others and concern to be a benefit to them, Bonaventure recounts how Jesus … wept for many in their misery, how he lamented the coming destruction of the city whose citizens greeted him so royally upon his entrance … [and]his institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, thus promising his presence as food to his friends to sustain them after his departure on their journey to God as end.”

Wawrykow also discussed the question of whether certain virtues were possible for someone who already had the beatific vision of those in heaven. He noted the assertion by Peter Lombard, bishop of Paris in the mid-12th century, that Jesus couldn’t show faith and hope, which depend on the tension between the present and an unrealized future state.

“One who has a vision of something does not believe that something; one who has reached something and grasped it doesn’t hope for that thing, doesn’t aspire to its reach,” he said. “Faith leads to beatific vision, hope leads to comprehension, but the blessed, those now in heaven, no longer believe, nor do they hope. They don’t need to.”

St. Thomas Aquinas, however, identified some senses in which Christ still had the virtues of faith and hope, “or was perfect or complete in them,” even if he didn’t need them. “Christ possessed hope utterly in a sense, since he held utterly onto God’s help,” Wawrykow said.

Wawrykow’s lecture tied in with the emphasis on Aquinas at the Center for Medieval Studies’ annual conference, held over the following two days. Wawrykow gave a keynote address at the conference, titled “The Metaphysics of Aquinas and Its Modern Interpreters: Theological and Philosophical Perspectives,” which was co-sponsored by the theology and philosophy departments.


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