St. Thomas, “Perfection,” & “Salvation”

For default Lutherans like myself (for such are almost all modern evangelicals) “perfection” is a bad word when it comes to thinking about the Christian life.

And yet, this term is crucial to the way in which the tradition conceives of virtue and the meaning of human life.

As Alisdair McIntyre points out in After Virtue, St. Thomas followed Aristotle in seeing man (or humanity) as a “functional concept.” That is, man is like a hammer or a watch. A watch has a certain purpose or telos: to accurately keep track of time. If a watch performs this function well, we say that it is a good watch, and so also for a hammer which drives nails well.

Now, when it comes to being human, St. Thomas says something similar. Our telos is to grow into the habitual worship of God. Never fully or finally completed, perhaps, on this side of the grave, this journey is nevertheless consummated in the beatific vision, when we will behold God (historically “to see God,” as in Christ’s words in the sermon on the mount, have been understood to be a kind of intellectual beholding) “as he is,” “face to face.”

Now, I think that this perspective sheds much light on the difficult issue of “universal salvation” and many issues related to it. For it is perhaps the case that we can say many, many things about all people, all human beings, which indicate a precious and deep relatedness to God: all are created in God’s image; all are children of God; all have inherent to their personhood “the seeds of the divine logos” (to quote Justin Martyr).

All humans have all of this, but all of this is not enough. For none of this is our telos. All these things are good and wonderful starting points, and these things do in fact indicate that we all belong to God. However, what God wants for us, what God created us to grow into, is this habitual worship of God. This is our purpose; this is our fulfilment.

If a human being does this well, then there is a sense in which she is “a good person.” This is what the tradition (Aristotle, Thomas, Kenneth Kirk) call eudaimonia, “happiness,” “blessedness,” “well-being,” or “success.” This is, I want to suggest, a good way to understand the biblical idea of “salvation.” In which case those who fail to realize this telos are “not saved” in the sense that they are not reaching “perfection,” not reaching their God-given purpose.

This can help to explain how all human beings might be deeply beloved of God (and this despite the reality of the fall), etc., while still preserving the biblical (and historical) sense that not all are, finally in the end, fully “saved.”

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