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St Thomas Aquinas on the Epistle

(1 Cor. 12:1-11)

from his

Commentary on The First Epistle to the Corinthians

translated by Fabian Larcher, O.P.

Thanks to the Aquinas Centre for Theological Renewal

Ava Maria University


1 Corinthians 12:1-6


1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were heathen, you were led astray to dumb idols, however you may have been moved. 3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. 4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one.


709. – After discussing the three sacraments of Baptism, Matrimony and the Eucharist, the Apostle begins to talk about things pertaining to the [res] reality signified in the sacraments. But this is twofold: one is signified and contained, namely, grace, which is conferred at once by the sacrament; the other is signified but not contained, namely, the glory of the resurrection, which is expected at the end.

First, therefore, he deals with the gifts of graces; secondly, with the glory of the resurrection (c. 15). In regard to the first he deals with the charismatic graces; secondly, he prefers to all of these charity, which pertains to sanctifying grace (c. 13); thirdly, he compares the charismatic graces to one another (c. 14).

710. – In regard to the first he does two things: first, he principally explains his intention, saying: I have said that “about other things,” which pertain to the use of the sacraments, “I will give directions when I come.” And this is what he says: Now concerning spiritual gifts, i.e., the gifts of the graces which come from the Holy Spirit, I do not want you to ignorant, brethren.

“For it is the worst form of ingratitude to be ignorant of benefits received,” as Seneca says in the book On Benefits. Therefore, in order that man not be ungrateful to God, he should not be ignorant of spiritual gifts: “We have received the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God” (1 Cor 2:12); “Therefore, my people go into exile for want of knowledge” (Is 5:13), i.e., of spiritual things.

711. – Secondly, when he says, You know that when you were heathen, he follows out his intention: first, he shows the need for spiritual graces; secondly, he presents the distribution of graces (v. 4). Now the need for a thing is best known from its absence. Hence, in regard to the first he does two things: first, he manifests the loss they suffered, before they received grace; secondly, he concludes to the need for grace (v. 3).

712. – First, therefore, he says: You know by experience that when you were heathen, i.e., living as heathen without having yet received grace through Baptism: “We are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners” (Gal 2:15); “The Gentiles living in the futility of their minds” (Eph 4:17). You were led, as though with a ready and constant mind, as Jer (8:6) says: “Everyone turns to his own course, like a horse plunging into battle”; “Their feet run to evil” (Pr 1:16). To dumb idols, namely, to adore and worship, as it says in Ps 114 (v. 5): “They have a mouth but do not speak.” Their lack of speech is particularly stressed, because speech is the proper effect of knowledge. Hence it is shown that idols do not understand and, as a consequence, they have nothing divine, if they are mute.

And this, as you were led, i.e., without any resistance. For they were led, either attracted by the beauty of the idols; hence it says in one of Jerome’s letters: “You will see in Babylon gods of gold and silver; see that fear does not overtake you in them.” Or even by the command of some prince, as it says in Dan (3:1) that Nebuchadnezzar compelled men to adore a golden statue. In 2 Macc it is stated that some were led to the sacrifice with bitter necessity on the king’s birthday. Or even by the instigation of demons, who aspire in a special way to have divine worship paid to them: “All these things will I give you, if falling down you adore me” (Matt 4:9).

Therefore, they went to cultivate idols according as they were led without resistance, as Pr (7:22) says of the silly youth: “All at once he follows her as an ox is led to the slaughter.” This shows that before receiving grace, man quickly runs into sin without resistance.

713. – He makes special mention of the sin of idolatry for three reasons: first, because it is a very grave sin to introduce another God, just as one would sin very gravely against a king by introducing another king into his kingdom. Hence, it says in Jb (31:26): “If I have looked at the sun when it shone, or the moon moving in splendor and my mouth has kissed my hand,” namely, as a worshipper of the sun and moon, which is the greatest iniquity and denial against God Most High. Secondly, because from the sin of idolatry all other sins arise according to Wis (14:27): “For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil.” Thirdly, because this sin was common among the heathens and was not counted; hence it says in Ps 96 (v. 5): “All the gods of the heathens are demons.”

714. – It should be noted that some have said that man existing in mortal sin cannot without grace be freed from the sin he lies under, because the remission of sins is brought about only by grace, as it says in Rom (3:24): “They are justified by his grace”; but he can preserve himself from mortal sin without grace, through free will. But this position does not seem to be true. First, because one cannot preserve himself from mortal sin except by observing all the precepts of the law, since no one sins mortally except by transgressing some precept of the law. And so someone could observe all the precepts without grace – which is the Pelagian heresy. Secondly, because no one can without grace have charity, through which God is loved above all things, as it says in Rom (5:5): “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” But no one can avoid all sins, unless he loves God above all things: just as that is more despised which is loved less.

Therefore, it could happen that for some time a person who lacks grace will abstain from sin, until he encounters that for which he will despise God’s precept, and by which he is led into sin. It is significant that the Apostle says, as you were led.

715. – Then when he says, Therefore, he concludes to two effects of grace: the first is that it makes one abstain from sin; the second is that it makes one do good works (v. 3b).

716. – First, therefore, he says: From the fact that when you were without grace, you ran after sin rapidly, I want you to understand that if you had possessed grace, this would not have happened to you, for no one speaking by the Spirit of God says ‘Jesus be cursed’ [anathema to Jesus], i.e., blasphemes Jesus: “Every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God” (1 Jn. 4:3).

It should be noted that above he said that the gravest sin is blasphemy, which is avoided through grace; hence the other lesser sins are avoided.

By saying, anathema to Jesus, any mortal sin can be understood. For “anathema” signifies separation. It is derived from “ana,” which means “above” and “thesis,” which is a “placing”; as it were, “placed above,” because in olden times things separated from men’s use, were hung up in temples or in public places. But every mortal sin separates from Jesus, as it says in Is (59:2): “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God.” Therefore, who ever sins mortally says in his heart or with his mouth, anathema, i.e., separation from Jesus. Therefore, no one speaking by the spirit of God says anathema to Jesus, because no one through the spirit of God sins mortally because, as it says in Wis (1:5): “The holy spirit of discipline will flee from deceit.”

717. – But according to this it seems that whoever had the Holy Spirit cannot sin mortally; further, it says in 1 John (3:9): “No one born of God commits sin, because God’s seed abides in him.”
The answer is that as far as the Spirit of God is concerned, man does not commit sin but rather is drawn away from sin. But he can sin through a defect of the human will which resists the Holy Spirit, as it says in Ac (7:51): “You always resist the Holy Spirit.” For by the indwelling Holy Spirit the ability to sin is not taken away totally from the free will in this life. Therefore, it is significant that the Apostle did not say: “No one having the Holy Spirit,” but no one speaking by the Spirit of God.

718. – Then when he says, and no one, he mentions the second effect of grace, namely, that without it man cannot perform a good work. He says, therefore: And no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. But against this seems to be the fact that by the Holy Spirit man is introduced to the kingdom of heaven, as it says in Ps 143 (v. 10): “Your good spirit leads me along the right path.” The Lord, however, says: “Not everyone who says, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 7:21). Therefore, not everyone who says “Lord Jesus,” says it in the Holy Spirit.

The answer is that saying something in the Holy Spirit can be understood in two ways: in one way in the Holy Spirit moving but not possessed. For the Holy Spirit moves the hearts of certain men to speak, although He does not dwell in them, as it says in John (11:49) that in predicting the utility of the Lord’s death Caiaphas did not speak from himself but through the Spirit of prophecy. Balaam also predicted many true things, but moved by the Holy Spirit, as it says in Numbers (chaps. 23 & 24), although he did not possess Him. According to this, therefore, it must be understood that no one can say anything true, unless moved by the Holy Spirit, Who is the Spirit of truth, of Whom it is said in John (16:13): “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” Hence Ambrose says in a Gloss: “Every truth by whomsoever spoken is from the Holy Spirit.” This applies especially to matters of faith, which are had by a special revelation of the Holy Spirit. Among these is the fact that Jesus is Lord of them all. Hence it says in Ac (2:36): “Let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

In another way someone speaks in the Holy Spirit moving and possessed. And according to this, what is said here can be verified, but in such a way that “to speak” refers not only to the mouth but also to the heart and the deed. For something is said by the heart as in Ps 14 (v. 1): “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” But something is said by deed, inasmuch as someone by an external work manifests his thought. No one, therefore, except by having the Holy Spirit can say: “Jesus is Lord,” is such a way that he confesses this not only by the mouth but also with the heart reveres Him as Lord and in work obeys Him as Lord.

719. – Therefore, from the foregoing words we can consider three things about grace. First, that without it man cannot avoid sin, as it says in Ps 94 (v. 17): “If the Lord had not been my help, my soul soon would have dwelt in hell.” Secondly, that through it sin is avoided, as it says in 1 John (3:9): “No one born of God commits sin.” Thirdly, that without it a man cannot do good, as it says in John (15:9): “Apart from me you can do nothing.”

720. – Then when he says, There are varieties of gifts, he begins to distinguish the charismatic graces: first, he distinguishes them in general; secondly, he manifests each in particular (v. 7).

721. – In things conferred by the grace of the Holy Spirit three things must be considered. First, indeed, men’s faculty to work; secondly, the authority; thirdly, the execution of both. The faculty is had by the gift of grace; for example, by prophecy or the power to work miracles or by something of that sort. The authority is had through some ministry; for example, by the apostolate or something of that sort. Execution pertains to operation.

First, therefore, he distinguishes the graces; secondly, the ministries; thirdly, the operations. In regard to the first, therefore, he shows the need for grace which, nevertheless, does not come in its totality to all, but only to Christ, to Whom the Spirit was given without measure, as it says in John (3:34). But in regard to others there are divisions of graces, because some abound in one and some in another. For as in a natural body the head has all the senses, while the other members do not; so in the Church Christ alone has all graces, which are divided in the other members. This is signified in Gen (2:12) where it says that a river, namely, of graces, flowed out to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers; and in Matt (25:15) it says that “to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one.”

And although the gifts of graces possessed by diverse persons are diverse, they do not proceed from diverse authors, as the Gentiles believed, who attributed wisdom to Minerva, speech to Mercury, and so on for other gifts. To exclude this, he adds: but the same Spirit, namely, the Holy, Who is the author of all graces: “One body and one Spirit” (Eph 4:4); “The Spirit is one and manifold” (Wis 7:22): one in substance, manifold in graces.

722. – Then he mentions the distinctions of service, saying: And there are varieties of service, i.e., diverse ministries and offices are required to govern the Church. For the prelates of the Church are called servants, as above (4:1): “One should regard us as servants of Christ.” But it pertains to the beauty and perfection of the Church that in it there by diverse ministries, which are signified by the orders of service, which the queen of Sheba admired in Solomon’s house (1 Kg 3:5). Yet all serve one Lord; hence he adds: but the same Lord. “For us there is one Lord Jesus Christ through whom are all things (1 Cor 8:6).

723. – Then he mentions the distinctions of operations, saying: and there are varieties of working, by which one works the good in himself as by services to his neighbor; “Man goes forth to his work” (Ps 104:23), namely, proper to himself: “He distinguished them and appointed their different ways”, i.e., operations (Sir 33:11). All of which come from one source. Hence he adds: But it is the same God who works all, as the first cause creating all actions. But lest the other causes seem to be superfluous, he adds: in every one, because the first cause works in secondary causes: “You have worked all our works in us” (Is. 26:12).

It should be noted that the Apostle very fittingly attributes things to the Spirit Who is love, because from love proceeds that someone is freely given the ministry from the Lord, to Whom He ministers works to God, as to the first movent cause.

And that he says, “spirit,” can be referred to the person of the Holy Spirit, what he calls Lord to the person of the Son, what he calls God in the person of the Father; or these three can be attributed to the Holy Spirit, Who is the Lord God.

1 Corinthians 12:7-11

7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

724. – Having set forth in general the distinction of graces, ministrations and operations, the Apostle here manifests the things he had said in general. First, as to the division of graces; secondly, as to the division of operation (v. 28). In regard to the first he does two things: first, he presents the distinction of graces in general; secondly, he applies a similitude (v. 12). In regard to the first he does three things: first, he lays down the condition of charismatic graces; secondly, he distinguishes them (v. 8); thirdly, he describes their action (v. 11).

725. – First, therefore, he says: It has been stated that there are divisions of graces, to each is given; in which is designated their subject. For just as there is no member in the body, which does not partake in some way of the sense and motion from the head, so no one is in the Church, who does not participate in some grace of the Spirit, as it says in Matt (25:15): “He gave to each according to his ability” and Eph (4:7): “Grace was given to each of us according to the measure of God’s gifts.”

The manifestation of the Spirit, in which is designated the office of charismatic graces. But it pertains to sanctifying grace that through it the Holy Spirit indwells, which, indeed, does not pertain to charismatic graces, but only that through them the Holy Spirit is manifested, as the interior motion of the heart through the voice. Hence in John (3:8) it is said: “You hear his voice” and in Ps 98 (v. 2): “The Lord has made known his victory.

The Holy Spirit is manifested in two ways by graces of this sort. In one way as dwelling in the Church by teaching and sanctifying it, as when a sinner, in whom the Holy Spirit does not dwell, works miracles to show that the faith of the Church which he professes is true: “While God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit.”

In another way the Holy Spirit is manifested by such charismatic graces as dwelling in the one to whom such graces are granted. Hence it says in Ac (6:8) that Stephen, filled with grace, worked prodigies and many signs, whom they chose filled with the Holy Spirit. In this way such graces are granted to the saints.

726. – And lest such a manifestation seems futile, he adds: for the common good. In this is designated the end of these gifts, and this either when the true doctrine of the Church is proved or when someone’s holiness is proposed as an example. Hence he says below (14:12): “Strive to excel in building up the Church”; and above (10:33): “Not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.”

727. – Then when he says, To one is given, he presents the distinction of graces which, indeed, as has been said, are given for the common good. Therefore, it is required to take the distinction in the sense that by one the salvation of others can be procured. Man, indeed, cannot do this by working within, for this belongs to God, but only by persuading outwardly. For this, three things are required: first, the faculty of persuading; secondly, the faculty of confirming the persuasion; thirdly, the faculty of proposing the persuasion intelligibly.

For the faculty of persuading it is required that man have skill in conclusions and certitude of principles in regard to those matters in which he ought to persuade. But in matters that pertain to salvation, some conclusions are principal, namely, divine matters; and to this pertains wisdom, which is the knowledge of divine things, as Augustine says in Book 13, On the Trinity. In regard to this it is said that to one is given through the Spirit, namely, the Holy [Spirit], the utterance of wisdom, so that he can persuade one in things pertaining to the knowledge of divine things: “I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand” (Lk 21:15); “We speak wisdom among the perfect” (1 Cor 2:6).

Secondary conclusions are those which pertain to the knowledge of creatures, the knowledge of which is called scientific, according to Augustine. And in regard to this he adds: and to another is given the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, in order, namely, that that might manifest things of God through creatures. To this knowledge is attributed that by which the holy faith is defended and strengthened, but not anything curious found in human knowledge, as Augustine says. “He gave him knowledge of holy things” (Wis 10:10); “The riches of salvation are wisdom and knowledge” (Is 33:6).

Yet it should be noted that wisdom and knowledge are numbered among the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, as stated in Is (11:2). Hence it is significant that the Apostle places in the charismatic graces not wisdom and knowledge, but the utterance of wisdom and knowledge, which pertain to the ability to persuade other by speech about matters pertaining to wisdom and knowledge.
Now, the principles of the doctrine of salvation are the articles of faith, and in regard to this he adds: to another is given faith by the same Spirit. It is not taken there for the virtue of faith, because this is common to all members of Christ, according to Heb (11:6): “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” But it is taken for the utterance of faith in the sense that a man is able rightly to propose manners of faith, or for the certainty of faith someone has in an excellent way, as in Matt (15:28): “Woman, great is your faith.”

728. – But matters pertaining to the teaching of salvation cannot be confirmed or proved by reason, because they transcend human reason, as Sir (3:23) says: “Matters too great for human wisdom have been shown.” They are confirmed or proved by a divine sign; hence Moses, about to be sent to the people of Israel, received a sign from God through which he could confirm what he said on God’s part, as is clear in Ex (4:1-7), just as a royal sign confirms that something is the command of a king.

But God’s sign is based in one way on something God alone can do, such as miracle, which the Apostle here distinguishes into two kinds. For he says first: to another is given the gift of healing, i.e., through which he can heal someone’s infirmity, by one and the same Spirit. “Heal me, O Lord, and I will be healed” (Jer 17:14). For by these, one is persuaded not only on account of the greatness of the deed, but also on account of the benefit. Secondly, he says: To another the working of miracles, by which a person is persuaded solely by the greatness of the deed; for example, when the sea was divided, as we read in Ex (14:21), or when the sun and moon stood still in the heavens, as we read in Joshua (10:13). “Who has given you the Spirit and works marvels among you?” (Gal 3:5).

In another way a divine sign is based on something God alone can know, i.e., the future contingent, as it says in Is (41:23): “Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods.” As to this he says: to another is given prophecy, which is divine revelation declaring with unchangeable truth among events: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” (Jl 2:28). Another is knowledge of the human heart, as in Jer (17:9): “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt; who can understand it? I, the Lord, search the mind and try the heart.” In regard to this he says: To another the ability to distinguish between spirits, namely, in order that a man be able to discern by what spirit someone is moved to speak or work; for example, whether by the spirit of charity or by the spirit of envy: “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God” (1 Jn. 4:1).

729. – But the faculty of speaking persuasively consists in being able to speak intelligibly to others. This can be prevented in two ways: in one way by a diversity of dialects. Against this is applied the remedy signified by what he says: to another is given various kinds of tongues, namely, in order that he be able to speak in diverse languages, so that he will be understood by all, as it says of the apostles in Ac (2:4) that they spoke in various languages.

In another way by the obscurity of a scripture to be quoted. Against this is given the remedy he mentions: to another the interpretations of speeches, i.e., of difficult scriptures: “I have heard that you can give interpretations of obscure things” (Dan 5:16); “Do no interpretations belong to God?” (Gen 40:8).

730. – Then when he says, all these, he identifies the author of these graces. In regard to this he excludes three errors. The first is that of the Gentiles attributing different gifts to different gods. Against this he says: All these are accomplished by one and the same Spirit: “One body and one spirit” (Eph 4:4).

Secondly, the error of those who attributed to God only a general providence and assigned the distinctions of particular things to second causes alone. Against his he adds: apportioning to each one individually as he wills: “In the fullness of his knowledge the Lord separated them” (Sir 33:11).
Thirdly, he excludes the error of those who attributed the diversity among graces to fate, or to human merit, and not solely to the divine will, as the Macedonians, who said that the Holy Spirit is the servant of the Father and of the Son. And he excludes this by saying: as he wills: “The spirit breathes where he wills” (Jn. 3:8).