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St Thomas Aquinas on the Epistle

(Ephesians 3:13-21)

from his

Commentary on The Epistle to the Ephesians

translated by Fabian Larcher, O.P.

Thanks to the Aquinas Centre for Theological Renewal

Ava Maria University



13 Wherefore I pray you not to faint at my tribulations for you, which is your glory. 14 For this cause I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 of whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named; 16 that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened by his Spirit with might unto the inward man; 17 that Christ may dwell by faith in your hearts; that, being rooted and founded in charity.

After the Apostle has dealt with the dignity of the office belonging to his position (3:3), he goes on to speak of his tribulations and sufferings. In reference to this he does two things:

First, he exhorts them lest they be troubled by his sufferings; they should have patience.

Secondly, since divine assistance is necessary if man is not to become agitated, he prays that they might accomplish this through divine grace (3:14).

About the first he says: Due to the importance and security of my office, which I have through faith in Christ, it happens that I suffer tribulations; but they neither daunt me nor can they tear me away from Christ. "Who then shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation? Or distress? Or famine? Or nakedness? Or danger? Or persecution? Or the sword?" (Rom. 8:35). As though he affirmed that nothing can. Wherefore I urge and pray you not to faint at my tribulations. My sufferings should not be an occasion for you to fail in faith or in good works at all. "Think diligently upon him [Jesus] that endureth such opposition from sinners against himself; that you be not wearied, fainting in your minds" (Heb. 12:3).

I declare that you must not be disheartened, they are for you, for your own utility. "Whether we be in tribulation, it is for your exhortation and salvation; or whether we be comforted, it is for your consolation; or whether we be exhorted, it is for your exhortation and salvation, which worketh the enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer, that our hope for you may be steadfast, knowing that as you are partakers of the sufferings, so shall you be also of the consolation" (2 Cor. 1:6-7). Or, he says for you meaning, for your testing: "As gold in the furnace he hath proved them, and as a victim of a holocaust he hath received them" (Wis. 3:6).

Which is your glory if you do not fall but remain steadfast in sufferings, for "He that shall persevere unto the end, he shall be saved" (Mt. 10:22). In a different way, which is your glory, that is, the endurance of our trials is to your own glory in that God exposes his Apostles and prophets to sorrows and pains on account of your salvation. "For this reason have I hewed them in the prophets, I have slain them by the words of my mouth" (Os. 6:5*). "We are your glory, as you also are ours, in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 1:14).

As a consequence he goes on (v. 14) to implore assistance for them through a prayer that they might derive advantage from his exhortation.

First, he sets down the prayer.

Secondly, confident of its being heard, he adds a thanksgiving (3:20).

The first part has three sections:

First, he mentions to whom the prayer is addressed.

Secondly, the intention of the prayer (3:16).

Thirdly, the prayer's fruit (3:18).

Humility makes a prayer worthy of being heard: "He hath had regard to the prayer of the humble: and he hath not despised their petition" (Ps. 101:18). And, "The prayer of him that humbleth himself shall pierce the clouds: and till it come nigh he will not be comforted." (Ecclus. 35:21). Therefore, he immediately starts his prayer in humility, saying For this cause that you fail not in the faith I bow my knees to the Father. This is a symbol of humility for two reasons. First, a man belittles himself, in a certain way, when he genuflects, and he subjects himself to the one he genuflects before. In such a way he recognizes his own weakness and insignificance. Secondly, physical strength is present in the knees; in bending them a man confesses openly to his lack of strength. Thus external, physical symbols are shown to God for the purpose of renewing and spiritually training the inner soul. [This is expressed] in the prayer of Manasse: "I bend the knee of by heart. . ."95 "For every knee shall be bowed to me: and every tongue shall swear" (Is. 45:24).

He describes next the person to whom the prayer is directed, God, whom he portrays in his nearness and in his authority. For from his relationship to us we are encouraged to pray with confidence. In this regard he states to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and whose children we are also. "Every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights" (Jas. 1:17). "Thou, O Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer: from everlasting is thy name" (Is. 63:16). We are confirmed in the hope of obtaining what we ask for with confidence by his authority since from him all paternity in heaven and earth is named.

At this point the question arises if there is any paternity in heaven. A quick answer would be that in heaven means that paternity is present in God and in Divinity, and that this is the source of all fatherhood. But this is not questioned here, it is known to all the faithful. It is asked whether in heaven, that is, in the angels, there is any paternity.

To this I reply that paternity exists only among beings who live and who know. But life is twofold: it is either actual or potential. To possess the vital activities in potency is to be potentially alive; for example, a person who is sleeping is said to be potentially alive in regard to the external actions [he performs when awake]. But when someone actually performs the vital activities, he is alive in act.96 Thus, not only he who transmits the potency to life is the father of him to whom he gives it, but also he who communicates an act of life can be called a father. Therefore, whoever stimulates another to some vital act, whether it be to good activity, to understanding, to willing or loving, can be given the name of father. "For if you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet not many fathers" (1 Cor. 4:15). Likewise, in the hierarchical acts by which one angel illumines, perfects, and purifies another, it is evident that that angel is the father of the other - just as a teacher is the father of his disciples.

Some doubt that the fatherhood in heaven and on earth is derived from the paternity which exists in the Divinity. It seems not to be, for we give names in accordance with our knowledge of the reality named. And whatever we do know is through creatures; hence, the names we give to the things themselves are applicable primarily, and to a greater degree, to creatures rather than God.

I reply and state that the name of anything we name can be taken in two ways. In one it is expressive or symbolic of an intellectual concept, since words are the marks or signs of the impressions or concepts that are in the soul. In this perspective a name refers to creatures more than to God. However, in the second [the name] discloses the quiddity of the external object which is named; thus it will refer more to God. Therefore, the word paternity, when it signifies a concept formed by our intellect as it is naming a thing, will primarily be applicable to creatures instead of God since creatures are more known to us than God. But when it signifies the reality itself which has been named, then [this reality] is primarily in God rather than in us. For certainly all the power to procreate present in us is from God. So he says of whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named as though to affirm: The fatherhood present in creatures is, as it were, nominal or vocal; but the divine fatherhood by which the Father communicates his whole nature to the Son without any imperfection, this is true paternity.

Next (v. 16), he discloses what he prays for:

First, he does this.

Secondly, he shows through whom he can ask for what he desires (3:16b).

Thus he says: I ask that you do not give up, but be steadfast like men. Yet I know that by yourselves you cannot achieve this without God's gift, so I beg that he would grant it to you since "every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights" (Jas. 1:17). He will do this according to the riches of his glory, that is, in accord with his overflowing majesty and grandeur. "Glory and riches are in his house" (Ps. 111:3), and "with me are riches and glory" (Prov. 8:18). Riches, I say, which will cause you to be strengthened with might. "It is he that giveth strength to the weary, and increaseth force and might to them that are not" (Is. 40:29). This is for the inward man because a man is overcome easily by his enemy if he is not inwardly fortified. [God must] "establish him and strengthen him with judgment and with justice, from henceforth and forever" (Is. 9:7*).

Inserted in the above is the phrase by his Spirit indicating through whom petitions are granted. The Spirit himself fortifies, he is the Spirit of fortitude, and is the source of our not yielding under sufferings. We receive him through a faith which is most strong because it is the substance of the realities we hope for - that is, it makes these desired realities exist within us. Whence 1 Peter 5 (9) [concerning the devil]: "Whom resist ye, strong in faith." And Paul adds that Christ may dwell by faith in your hearts. "Sanctify the Lord Christ in your hearts" (1 Pet. 3:15).

With what? I claim that it should not only be through faith, which as a gift is the strongest, but also through the charity that is in the saints. That you may be rooted and founded in a charity which "beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never falleth away" (1 Cor. 13:7-8). "For love is strong as death. . ." (Cant. 8:6). A tree without roots, or a house lacking a foundation are destroyed easily. In a similar manner, a spiritual edifice not rooted and founded in charity cannot last.


18 You may be able to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth; 19 to know also the charity of Christ, which surpasseth all knowledge; that you may be filled into all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who is able to do all things more abundantly than we desire or understand, according to the power that worketh in us; 21* to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus, unto all the generations of the age of ages, Amen.

Previously the Apostle revealed the object of his petition or prayer in behalf of the Ephesians, a strengthening of spirit in faith and charity (3:14). Consequently, he here shows the fruit of this strengthening through faith and charity; it is a certain type of knowledge. He sets forth:

First, the knowledge itself.

Secondly, the effective power of this awareness or knowledge (3:19b).

He says: You ought to be so rooted and founded in charity, dearly beloved, that you may be able to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth. This can be read in two ways.97 In the first way we are more in accord with the Apostle's thought.

The knowledge of God is necessary for us both in the future life and in the present. For in the future we shall rejoice in our knowledge of God and in our perception of the humanity [the Son] assumed. "Now this is eternal life: that they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent" (Jn. 17:3). [Our Lord compared himself to a door; men will] "go in" to contemplate the divinity, and will "go out" in the contemplation of the humanity, "and shall find pastures" (Jn. 10:9). Faith inaugurates that future knowledge; it is "the substance of things hoped for" (Heb. 11:1), already making the realities we desire exist within us in an inchoate manner. For this reason our faith consists in the divinity and humanity of Christ. "For I judged not myself to know anything among you, but Jesus Christ; and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2). In accord with this he discusses:

First, the knowledge of divinity.

Secondly, the knowledge of the mysteries of the humanity (3:19).

He reveals the knowledge of the divinity to them with the words: that you may be able to comprehend, with all the saints. . . As though he said: Be strong in faith and charity for if you are, you will gain life eternal where you will enjoy God's presence and perfectly know him. It is evident from John 14 (21) that God reveals himself to one who loves: "He that loveth me shall be loved of my Father; and I will love him and will manifest myself to him." It is also clear that he shows himself to one who believes, as a variant reading of Isaias 7 (9) puts it: "Unless you believe, you will not understand."98 You must be fortified by faith and charity in order that you might be able to comprehend.

It should be noted that sometimes to comprehend means "to enclose," and then it is necessary that the comprehending totally contains within itself what is comprehended. At other times it means "to apprehend," and then it affirms a remoteness or distance and yet implies proximity. No created intellect can comprehend God in the first manner. "Peradventure thou wilt comprehend the steps of God, and wilt find out the Almighty perfectly?" (Job 11:7). The answer implied is, No. For one could know him perfectly to the extent that [one knew all] that could be known about him. And this type of knowledge is not referred to in that you may comprehend, but rather the second kind. This latter is one of the three dowries,99 and it is of it that the Apostle speaks here when he says that you may comprehend, meaning, that you may enjoy the presence of God and know him intimately. "Not as though I had already attained, or were already perfect; but I follow after, if I may by any means apprehend [comprehendam], wherein I am also apprehended by Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:12). Such comprehension is common to all his saints; so he adds with all the saints. "This glory is to all his saints" (Ps. 149:9). "So run that you may apprehend [comprehendatis]" (1 Cor. 9:24*).

Note that the words what is the breadth and length and height and depth seem to owe their origin to the passage in Job 11 (7-9). "Peradventure," he says, "thou wilt comprehend the steps of God?" As if he stated that God is incomprehensible. Then he gives the reason for this incomprehensibility by saying: "He is higher than the heaven, and what wilt thou do? He is deeper than hell, and how wilt thou know? The measure of him is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea." Yet from this it appears that Job, in attributing the four different dimensions to him, shows that he is comprehensible. Alluding to these words the Apostle asserts that you may be able to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth; as though he said: May you possess sufficient faith and charity that you might comprehend him to the extent that he is able to be comprehended. Dionysius explains the text in this way.100

Under no pretext should these dimensions be conceived as physically applicable to God, "God is spirit" (Jn. 4:24). They are in God metaphorically. Breadth designates the dimension or extension of his power and divine wisdom over all being. "And he poured her out," namely wisdom, "upon all his works" (Ecclus. 1:10). By length his eternal duration is signified: "But thou, O Lord, endurest forever" (Ps. 101:13), and "holiness becometh thy house, O Lord, unto length of days" (Ps. 92:5). Height or loftiness denotes the perfection and nobility of his nature which infinitely exceeds all creation: "The Lord is high above all nations: and his glory above the heavens" (Ps. 112:4). In depth the incomprehensibility of his wisdom is intimated: "It is a great depth," this divine wisdom, "who shall find it out?" (Eccl. 7:25). Clearly, therefore, the fulfillment of our faith and charity is to arrive at a perfect knowledge of the faith, by it we shall know, to the degree we can attain to it, the infinite extent of his power, the unbounded eternity of his duration, the loftiness of his most perfect nature, and the incomprehensibility and depth of his wisdom.

Next, since further knowledge is also necessary - a knowledge of the mysteries of the humanity - he goes on to know also the charity of Christ. For whatever occurred in the mystery of human redemption and Christ's incarnation was the work of love. He was born out of charity: "For his exceeding charity wherewith he loved us even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together in Christ" (Eph. 2:4-5). That he died also sprang from charity: "Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (Jn. 15:13). And "Christ also hath loved us and hath delivered himself for us, an oblation and a sacrifice to God" (Eph. 5:2). On this account St. Gregory exclaimed: "O the incalculable love of your charity! To redeem slaves you delivered up your Son."101 It follows that to know Christ's love is to know all the mysteries of Christ's Incarnation and our Redemption. These have poured out from the immense charity of God; a charity exceeding every created intelligence and the [combined] knowledge of all of them because it cannot be grasped in thought. Thus he says which surpasseth all natural knowledge and every created intellect: "The peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:7). For the charity of Christ is [the manifestation of] what God the Father has accomplished through Christ: "God indeed was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor. 5:19).

The other manner in which this passage (vv. 18-19) can be read is in reference to the perfection of our charity. As though he stated: Be strong, rooted and founded in charity, that you may comprehend - and not merely know - with all the saints; since this gift of charity is common to all, no one can be holy without charity, as the third chapter of Ephesians indicates.102 May you, I say, comprehend what is the breadth of charity, extending, as it does, even to one's enemies: "Thy commandment is exceeding broad" (Ps. 118:96). For charity is broad in its diffusion: "And the Lord brought me forth into a broad place" (Ps. 17:20*). Its length is seen in its durability, never stopping, it begins in this life and is perfected in glory: "Charity never falleth away" (1 Cor. 13:8), and "Many waters cannot quench charity" (Cant. 8:7). Its height is perceived in its motivation which is heavenly; God is not loved to obtain temporal advantages - which love would be sickly - but he is loved for his own sake alone. "Set thyself up on high and be glorious" (Job 40:5). Depth signifies the source of charity itself. For our love of God does not spring from ourselves, but from the Holy Spirit, as Romans 5 (5) mentions: "The charity of God is poured forth in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost who is given to us." Hence, for one person to possess a love which is lasting, extensive, sublime and deep, while another person does not, arises out of the depth of divine predestination. And "who has measured the depth of the abyss?" (Ecclus. 1:2).

Thus you may be able to comprehend, in the sense of perfectly attaining to, with all the saints, what is the breadth with which your charity should extend even to enemies, and what is the length during which it never ceases, and its height in loving God for his own sake, and the depth of the divine predestination [from which it springs].

At this point it should be realized that it was within Christ's power to choose what type of death he wanted. And since he underwent death out of charity, he chose the death of the cross in which the aforesaid four dimensions are present. The cross-beam has breadth and to it his hands were nailed because through charity our good works ought to stretch out even to adversaries: "The Lord brought me forth into a broad place" (Ps. 17:20*). The trunk of the cross has length against which the whole body leans since charity ought to be enduring, thus sustaining and saving man: "He that shall persevere unto the end, he shall be saved" (Mt. 10:22). The projection of wood [above the cross-beam], against which the head is thrown back, has height since our hope must rise toward the eternal and the divine: "The head of every man is Christ" (1 Cor. 11:3). The cross is braced by its depth which lies concealed beneath the ground; it is not seen because the depth of the divine love which sustains us is not visible insofar as the plans of predestination, as was said above, are beyond our intelligence.

In this manner we should comprehend the power of our love, and of Christ's, realizing that his surpasses human understanding. For no one could know how much Christ has loved us; nor can one know the charity of the knowledge of Christ, [that love] which is possessed with knowledge of Christ. I hold that such charity surpasses a love which is without knowledge.

Is it not correct that a charity with knowledge is more eminent than a charity without knowledge? It seems that it is not, for then a wicked theologian would have a charity of greater dignity than a holy old woman. I reply that what is discussed here is a knowledge which exerts its influence [on one's life and conduct]. For the force of the knowledge stimulates one to love more since the more God is known, so much the more is he loved. For this reason Augustine used to ask: "That I may know You and know myself."103 Or, this is stated here on account of some who possess zeal for God "but not according to knowledge" (Rom. 10:2). A charity coupled with the above mentioned knowledge of Christ surpasses the love of such people.

Next he speaks of the efficacy of a knowledge of the divine. That you may be filled unto all the fullness of God, that is, that you might enjoy a perfect participation in all God's gifts. In other words, that you might possess the fullness of the virtues here, and beatitude in the next life - charity accomplishes just that. "Come over to me, all ye that desire me, and be filled with my fruits" (Ecclus. 24-26).

After this, the Apostle gives thanks to God for hearing his prayer (v. 20). In reference to this he does three things:

First, he mentions the power of God with which he grants petitions.

Secondly, he gives an example of that power (3:20)

Thirdly, he mentions what prompts his thanksgiving (3:21).

He describes the infinite power of God, saying Now to him, meaning to Christ as God and God the Father, who is able to do all things: "Almighty is his name" (Ex. 15:3). "Now, to him that is able to establish you, according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ" (Rom. 16:25). He effects this within us more abundantly than we either would know how to ask for through desire or understand with our intelligence.

He gives an example of this profusion within us [of the divine power], saying according to the power that worketh in us. As if he had stated: It becomes apparent once we consider what he has wrought in us men. For the human mind and will could never imagine, understand or ask that God become man, and that man become God and a sharer in the divine nature. But he has done this in us by his power, and it was accomplished in the Incarnation of his Son. "That through this you may be made partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet. 1:4*). Concerning these matters Ecclesiasticus 18 (2-4) says: "Who is able to declare his works? For who shall search out his glorious acts? And who shall shew forth the power of his majesty? Or, who shall be able to declare his mercy?"

Or, that worketh in us Apostles, to whom he gave the grace of proclaiming the good news of "the unsearchable riches of Christ; and to enlighten all men, that they may see what is the dispensation of the mystery which hath been hidden from eternity in God" (Eph. 3:8).

The subject matter of the thanksgiving is the twofold blessing God has bestowed upon us. The first is the institution of the Church, and the second the Incarnation of his Son. Hence he says to him, God the Father, be glory in the Church for all he has done in the Church he established, and in Christ, that is, through Christ; or for Christ whom he gave to us. To him, I repeat, be glory that his glory might shine forth, not only now, but unto all the generations of the age of ages, meaning in the age which embraces all things.104 "Now, to the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen" (1 Tim. 1:17).