St. Thomas Aquinas

Part I: Chapters 1-7
translated by
James A. Weisheipl, O.P.
Magi Books, Inc., Albany, N.Y.

*1* *2* *3* *4* *5* *6* *7*

Part II: Chapters 8-21
translated by
Fabian R. Larcher, O.P.
Magi Books, Inc., Albany, N.Y., 1998
(notes to these chapters provisional)

*8* *9* *10* *11* *12* *13* *14*
*15* *16* *17* *18* *19* *20* *21*


St. Thomas’ commentary on the Gospel of St. John is unique among his many writings on Sacred Scripture. It is the work of a master theologian, delivered at the University of Paris, then the intellectual center in Christendom, when Thomas was at the height of his fame and apostolic zeal for souls. A fourteenth-century list of Thomas’ writings notes that this commentary is a reportatio by Reginald of Piperno and adds “better than which none can be found.” Footnote A reportatio is a verbal report of an actual lecture taken down by a scribe or student in the course of actual delivery. In this case the scribe was the faithful Friar Reginald of Piperno, who had been the “constant companion,” or socius, for the last fifteen years of Thomas’ short but busy life. The Italian Province of Dominicans wisely provided Thomas with this kind of personal secretary and general factotum after he returned from Paris as a Master in Sacred Theology in 1260. Footnote

A reportatio is not exactly a dictation in our sense of the term; it is more like a student’s notebook in shorthand containing basically the gist of what is being said, but usually with varying numbers of verbal omissions and inaccuracies. But this commentary is more than a mere scribal report. It was in fact “corrected” by Thomas himself—if we are to believe Tolomeo of Lucca, one of Thomas’ early biographers and confreres—before the commentary went into circulation through copies made by hand, the customary mode of publication before the era of the printing press. More than that: according to Bernard Gui, another confrere and early biographer, Thomas himself wrote out in full the commentary on the first five chapters of John (and hence this section ought to be considered an authentic expositio, or authoritative version), while the rest of it survived in the hand of Reginald, corrected by Thomas.

This commentary was very popular in the Middle Ages, and it ranks among the best of Thomas’ work as a master theologian and saintly man of faith. It was read not only by theologians searching for the truth, but also by preachers and pious men and women desiring solid food for meditation and fervent prayer. Scattered throughout the world there still exist thirty-three complete and thirteen incomplete manuscript copies of this work, attesting to its considerable popularity before the age of printing. Innumerable copies of this work have no doubt been lost or destroyed in the tumult of centuries following the Middle Ages.

This detailed commentary is St. Thomas’ personal response to the Word of God Incarnate as described in the sublime words of John “the Divine.” For St. Thomas, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob spoke to his chosen people through the mouth of prophets in the long course of salvation history, “But when the appointed time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born a subject of the Law, to redeem the subjects of the Law and to enable us to be adopted as sons” (Gal 4:4-5). This Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, is the total manifestation of the Father, the Eternal Word made flesh. There is nothing left unsaid in the Word; the Father’s love is complete in the love the Son bears for the Father and for us. Christ’s whole life, his passion, death, and resurrection, are the praise and glory of the Father “through the working of the Holy Spirit.” “You must believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (Jn 14:11). “Whatever you ask for in my name I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (Jn 14:13). Christ’s “food” was to do the will of his Father in all things, thus glorifying the Father in Jesus.

One of St. Thomas’ basic theological principles is that everything Jesus Christ did and said was for our instruction and imitation. Thus the sanctity of our lives is the on-going praise and glory of the Father, through the Son, by the working of the Holy Spirit. The very being of the Father is the unqualified affirmation of love for the Son and for us, in the Son. “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). This love elicits from us an unreserved affirmation of love for God and neighbor, by which God is glorified and resplendent in us. The whole of our happiness is this eternal “glory” in tasting and seeing that the Lord is good (see Ps 34:8). This commentary is St. Thomas’ tasting and seeing the goodness of Jesus, the Word Incarnate, embodied in the tender words of St. John, the “beloved disciple,” who leaned on the breast of the Savior at the Last Supper.

Thomas brought to his writing of this commentary on John all the resources at his disposal—which were considerable—especially the riches of the whole Patristic teaching of the “Saints” (the sancti Doctores), the wealth of a living tradition in the Roman Church contained in its teaching, laws, liturgy, and the living Spirit, as well as fidelity to the infallible norms of the Holy See.

In an address to students and professors of the “Angelicum” (now the Pontifical University of St. Thomas in Rome) given on January 14, 1958, Pope Pius XII extolled the virtues of its patron, the Angelic Doctor, who serves as a divinely inspired guide in both philosophy and theology. Footnote Pope Pius spoke especially of St. Thomas’ own studies as a norm for every student of the religious disciplines. Just as St. Thomas diligently explored and studied the Bible as the font and life-spring of all theological studies, so too should the modern student find in biblical studies the source of his theological development. As St. Thomas himself assures us, “[sacred doctrine] uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures properly and of necessity in its investigations... for our faith is founded on the Revelation made to the Apostles and Prophets, who wrote the canonical books, but not on revelation (if such there be) made to other teachers.” Footnote In this conviction Thomas developed all his own theology. That is to say, the “complement” to Thomas’ speculations and synthesis are to be found in his commentaries on the books of the Old and New Testaments, especially those on the Epistles of St. Paul.

In the opinion of those most expert to judge, Thomas’ commentaries on Scripture “shine with such solidity, subtlety, and precision that they can be numbered among his greatest theological works,” and are to be esteemed as such. “Wherefore, if anyone should neglect them, he is scarcely to be said to clearly and fully enjoy a familiarity and knowledge of the holy Angelic Doctor.” The significant fact is not that Pius XII emphasized the importance of studying Thomas’ biblical commentaries to Dominicans, who had made their special prerogative the teaching of “speculative Thomistic theology” and the pursuit of contemplative prayer. The significant fact is that Pius XII expressed these sentiments shortly before his death and fifteen years after one of his most important encyclicals, Divino afflante spiritu (30 Sept. 1943), the basic charter of all Catholic biblical studies in our day, leading to the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei verbum, of the Second Vatican Council (18 Nov. 1965). In other words, the enormous advances of modern biblical studies do not automatically nullify the importance of St. Thomas’ commentaries on the Sacred Text.

St. Thomas’ commentaries on the Sacred Text are typically medieval, that is, they lack the unction, colloquialism, and engaging informality of Patristic commentaries (which were largely homilies), and the technical and sometimes journalistic resources of modern commentaries, explanations, and paraphrases. In other words, it is easier to read St. Augustine’s commentary on John than it is to read St. Thomas’ or that of any other medieval writer addressing students in the “schools” of Paris and elsewhere. The big difference is between Patristic and Monastic commentaries, which were largely homiletic, pastoral, personal, and mystical, on the one hand, and Scholastic commentaries aimed at teaching students in the university or studium the literal meaning of the text. The style of medieval Scholastic commentaries is rather formal, literal, student-orientated and bookish. This style often makes such commentaries difficult for a modem reader to follow, and to some extent hinders him from deriving the greatest benefit for his mind and heart. At first glance such a “commentary”—with its definitions, divisions, arguments footnotes and concern for the orthodox meaning of the sacred message—may seem like searching for a needle in a haystack. But in the case of Thomas’ commentaries the reader may be confident that his efforts at discovering that needle will prove to be both intellectually and spiritually rewarding; once discovered, it will be valued as “the pearl of great price” (Mt 13:46).

In this introduction I hope to show the historical context of this particular commentary and to indicate some aids to a fruitful study of it.

First of all, this work is a biblical commentary by a master in a medieval university. In the Middle Ages, the Bible and the Bible alone was the official basis for the teaching of theology by fully qualified masters in the major universities of Europe. In fact, one could say with some justification that the ultimate goal of all medieval education was an understanding of the Bible for those who pursued the full course in the Faculty of Theology. Such an understanding was the nature of sacred theology (fides quaerens intellectum, “faith seeking understanding”). It was the source of all preaching of the Word of God, and it was the inexhaustible font of living water for the spiritual life. In order to reach such a lofty goal, much preparation was required. First, tools had to be acquired as a means of such study. This was the role of a good liberal arts education and the acquisition of philosophy, “the handmaid of theology.” The study of the liberal arts and the acquisition of philosophy were functions of the Arts Faculty in the university or studium. Approximately eight years were devoted by medieval students to acquiring these tools—roughly equivalent to our four years of high school and four years of college. After the full course had been completed in “the humanities,” the young man, generally in his mid-twenties, would begin his study of the Sacred Text, having already heard many sermons in Church and having received much instruction at home. His study of the Sacred Text began with listening and reading.

In the Middle Ages, a personal copy of the Bible was relatively rare, certainly outside university circles. Every copy of the Bible was written out by hand on parchment, a writing surface made from carefully treated skins of sheep. Such a copy was extremely expensive and hard to come by. Although every student of theology tried desperately to obtain a personal copy, most people had to rely on hearing the Word read to them and recollecting from memory the actual words of the Bible. For that reason the beginner in theology would listen to older students and the master (professor). One of the older students, the bachelor of theology, read aloud and paraphrased a particular book of the Bible. This bachelor was called a “Cursor Biblicus,” a “runner through” the actual words of the Bible, who did this to acquaint himself and his hearers with the inspired words.

A splendid example of the work of such a “runner” is St. Thomas’ commentary on Isaiah; it is the work of a cursor and not that of a master. Only a master could expound the text with authority and confidence; the bachelor merely skimmed through it as a runner would skim over the course in a race. A higher ranking bachelor devoted his energies mainly to explaining the official theological handbook, the Sentences of Peter Lombard (d. 1160). These Sentences were a systematic collection of Patristic teachings, arranged in four books following the order of the Apostles’ Creed. This bachelor was called the bachalarius Sententiarum, a “Bachelor of the Sentences. “After listening to others for about four years, the young student of theology would himself become a bachelor and perform certain duties under a particular master, his main professor of theology.

Every university in the Middle Ages had a limited number of chairs, or professorships, for the masters to occupy. At the time of St. Thomas, there were twelve chairs of theology at the University of Paris, the Dominicans having two of them. Before occupying one of these chairs, the student had to have devoted many long years to study and actual discussions, or “disputations,” in the university, He had to be at least thirty-five years old before meriting the title of “Master of the Sacred Page” and the right to expound the Bible in an authoritative manner as a true theologian, professionally qualified.

St. Thomas was twice professor of theology at Paris—a fact most unusual in itself. There were very few such cases where a fully fledged master would return to his old chair, thus preventing a new master from occupying it. But the intellectual, social, and religious climate in Paris at that time demanded the return of Thomas to the center of all theological learning in Europe. The new mendicant Orders (mainly Dominicans and Franciscans) were again being attacked by secular (i.e., diocesan) masters of theology, and their right to teach, preach, and beg was challenged by some of the most powerful voices in Europe. The center of this controversy Was the University of Paris, where the very existence of Dominicans and Franciscans was under fire. At the climax of this renewed attack, the second in the history of the Dominican Order, St. Thomas was recalled to Paris by the Master General of the Dominican Order, Blessed John of Vercelli. Thomas arrived in Paris with his companion Reginald in the cold winter of 1269 after the academic term had begun. Immediately Thomas took upon himself the duties of a master in theology, namely, lecturing on a carefully chosen book of the Bible, presiding at academic “disputations” and resolving the question under discussion, and preaching to the university crowd. At the same time, he was composing the Second Part of his Summa theologiae, which he had begun in Rome two years earlier, and dictating a number of literal commentaries on various works of Aristotle for young masters in arts, that is, teachers in the Faculty of Arts, whose duty it was to expound the text of Aristotle. During the two and a half years Thomas spent at Paris the second time, he successfully defended the rights of mendicants to teach, preach, and flourish. During this same Parisian regency he lectured on the Gospel of St. John.

These lectures on John would have been lost to posterity had not the faithful Reginald taken notes, which were later “corrected” by Thomas himself. The reason Thomas “corrected” Reginald’s transcription was that a wealthy secular (i.e., diocesan) student wanted a copy for himself. This student was Adenulf of Anagni, an Italian cleric, provost of Saint-Omer (since 1264), later master in theology (1282-85), and canon of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Adenulf, a student of Thomas during the years 1269-72, offered a considerable amount of money to have a professional scribe make a copy of this remarkable commentary for himself. Without Adenulf’s enthusiasm and money, the “lectures” (lecturae) on John would have remained a simple report, or reportatio. If it had not been for Reginald, apparently, these lectures would have gone completely from history. But the fact is that we do have at hand the acute mind of Thomas Aquinas, a master theologian and saint, on the Gospel of St. John. This commentary reflects the mind of Thomas at its peak, but before he composed the Third Part of the Summa dealing with Christ, the Sacraments, and the Church. It is a scholastic analysis of St. John’s remarkable testimony of the Good News of Salvation, namely, that the Word became flesh, died for our salvation, and is now risen from the dead to come again as our merciful judge.

Earlier, at the request of his intimate friend Pope Urban IV, Thomas had compiled a continuous gloss on all four Gospels, which he had collated from the Latin and Greek Fathers of the Church. Frequently he even instigated new translations of Greek sources, as he himself confessed in the prologue. This continuous gloss, popularly called the Catena Aurea, or “Golden Chain,” was not finished when Urban died in 1264. But Thomas continued his labors on the gloss, which he completed in 1267 and dedicated to Cardinal Annibaldo d’Annibaldi, Thomas’ close friend and former pupil at Paris. The intense labor on the Gospel of John for the Catena molded the mind of Thomas in his personal understanding of the Sacred Text of John. St. John’s Gospel is very difficult to understand. Unlike the Synoptic writers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, St. John’s Gospel is a carefully devised presentation of his personal understanding of the sacred doctrine taught by Jesus, on whose breast he reclined at the Last Supper. John was always known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” For St. Thomas, John, the Son of Zebedee, the author of this Gospel, was a virgin, whose appropriate symbol is the eagle soaring in the heights of contemplation. Thomas’ detailed study of the Latin and Greek Fathers, needed to complete his Gloss on John, prepared him to shed his own light on the text when the opportune moment arrived. That moment arrived when Thomas returned to Paris for the second time (1269-72) at the age of about forty-four, full of strength and vigor.

But his is a typical medieval commentary because, unlike Patristic, monastic, and modern commentaries on John, it utilizes certain techniques familiar to all in the Middle Ages, but strange to us today. First of all, it is a theological commentary concerned with penetrating the literal sense of the words recorded, and seeing through the literal sense to the spiritual. The medieval university theologian was primarily concerned with the literal sense of scripture, that is, with the sacred message intended by the human and divine author. It is therefore primarily concerned with “the theological teaching” of the Bible. St. Thomas did not have at his disposal the infinitely varied techniques of modern biblical scholarship. He knew almost nothing about biblical and near-eastern languages, archeology, philology, comparative religion, and the historical method. If he had, he would most certainly have used them. In the Encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu (30 Sept. 1943), Pope Pius XII urged the importance of textual criticism, biblical and oriental languages, archeology, profane and sacred history, as well as form criticism and the demands of a sound historical method. Footnote He noted with the Angelic Doctor that “in Scripture divine things are presented to us in the manner which is in common use amongst men.” Footnote The Bible is the Word of God in the words of men, and this manner of speaking in various ages to various people must be carefully studied with all the auxiliary sciences. But even after all this has been tended to, there is still “the theological doctrine” contained in the Sacred Books. The modem exegete should use every means available to discover and explain “the literal sense and especially the theological. “ Footnote It is this “theological sense” (sensus theologicus), expounded by St. Thomas in his commentary, that is most fruitful for our meditation, prayer, and preaching the Word of God today.

The literal sense, as St. Thomas teaches, is the objective, formal, and direct meaning intended by the words in the sacred and inspired text. Footnote The author of these words is both God and man, since the Bible is “the inspired Word of God.” Modem biblical techniques, of course, were unknown to Thomas. All he had was his personal copy of the Latin Vulgate (which was not a critical edition), the familiar teaching of all the Latin and Greek Fathers known to him, his own prayerful reflection on the text, and his native genius attentive to the Spirit of God and to the text. Among the human means Thomas had at his disposal were grammar, logic, and Aristotelian philosophy. The literal (or historical) sense was in principle the only basis of theological thought and discussion. The spiritual sense only enlarged, or extended, the basic literal sense. By “spiritual sense” we do not mean the pious, personal, private, and subjective sense a reader might derive from a prayerful reading of the text. Rather, the “spiritual sense” is the enlarged reality “intended” by person, place, or thing signified in the literal, as when the brazen serpent raised by Moses in the desert is taken to signify Christ’s crucifixion as the divine means of healing mankind, or when the paschal lamb is taken to signify Christ who was sacrificed for our sins. The “spiritual sense” is the enlarged sense “intended” by a given symbol in the plan of divine providence.

Since only God as the author of all things can make one symbol significative of another reality, the Bible is the only book that can contain a “spiritual sense” as it was understood by medieval theologians. Consequently only the sacred author himself can inform us of the existence of such a sense. We could never know that one reality is to be taken as a symbol of another reality unless the Sacred Author so informs us in the literal sense. For example, the author of the Book of Numbers (21:19) explains how Moses was directed to make a brazen “serpent” and set it up as a sign; whoever was bitten by one of the fiery serpents and “looked at the sign” that Moses had set up was saved from death. But it is John (3:14 15) who explains that “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may not perish, but may have life everlasting.” The significance of Old Testament texts is declared by the sacred writer when he explains Christ’s actions as being “in fulfillment of the Scriptures.” Similarly St. Paul frequently reveals the “spiritual sense” of the Law and Prophets by declaring the Christian fulfillment in Jesus.

There were three kinds of spiritual sense recognized by medieval theologians: the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical. Footnote When anything in the Old Testament was taken to signify something in the New Testament, this sense was called allegorical. Under this sense would be included all those figures, persons, and events as symbolic of Jesus and his life and death on earth. When anything in the life of Jesus is taken as a model for our life, we call this the moral sense. Under this sense would be included all those virtues presented to us for our imitation of Christ. When anything in the Scriptures is taken to signify something in the eternal kingdom hereafter, for example, “the new Jerusalem,” we call this the anagogical sense. Thus the “spiritual sense” of a passage was taken to be an objective meaning intended by the sacred author, the Holy Spirit. This, of course, presupposes that the authors of the New Testament were inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Whatever personal message one may derive from reading the Bible prayerfully and thoughtfully is purely personal and beyond the science of theology as the study of God’s message to mankind. The personal message is most significant for the reader, but this personal significance must be carefully controlled by objective theological norms such as the Christian faith, sacred doctrine, the constant teaching of the Church, and a prayerful listening to the Holy Spirit.

The most difficult technique of medieval commentators for us to comprehend is the use of logic and the “scholastic method.” Aristotelian logic is the most significant technique contained in the scholastic method. The purpose of the scholastic method was to instill “scientific” knowledge through (1) definition, (2) division, and (3) demonstration, or demonstrative proof. These techniques (or modi sciendi) were taken for granted by every medieval theologian as the best means of learning the truth about anything. It was a method of teaching, the via docendi, which was an imitation of the “way of discovery” (via inveniendi or inventionis). The goal of all education is truth. The goal of theological education is an understanding of the doctrines of revelation, the sacra doctrina. Footnote It is faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum), as St. Anselm puts it, The scholastic method, in a sense, is artificial and humanly contrived by ineans of logic. In the Middle Ages the scholastic method was thought to be the best way of learning everything from A to Z. An example of this method of learning is embedded in Thomas’ commentary on John’s Gospel. It cannot be eliminated. Therefore it depends on us moderns to bend a little by trying to see through it, and not be put off by it. Always one will find definitions, divisions, and proofs in all medieval commentaries, whether they be on Aristotle, Boethius, or the Bible.

The Scholastics had a penchant for order; where none existed, one was imposed. Heeding the words of Aristotle that “it belongs to the wise man to order,” they thought the prerogative of a good teacher was to order all things well, setting out the message, or truth to be conveyed, in an orderly and fitting way. Footnote This is why the first thing one notices when reading a medieval commentary is the division, or the ordering of the whole into parts. The least one can perceive is a beginning, a middle, and an end. But more than not, one can usually perceive some orderly procedure in the middle.

Modern biblical scholars usually see in, St. John’s Gospel a prologue (1:1-14), a middle (cc. 1-20), and an epilogue (c. 21). They then proceed to divide the middle into the Book of Signs (cc. 1-12) and the Book of Glory (cc. 13-20). St. Thomas also divides the Gospel into roughly these two parts, but he considers chapter 12 as belonging to the Book of Glory, because the chapter opens “six days before Passover” with the anointing of the feet of Jesus for his burial (12:1 -11), continues on to the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (12:12-19), builds to the coming of the Greeks (12:20-22), and the long discourse of Jesus in which he cries out, “Father, glorify your name” (12:28). In any case, it is particularly in this second part that Thomas had to use his ingenuity to resolve the discrepancies between John and the Synoptics. The Synoptics compress the public life of Jesus into one year with the one tragic journey of Jesus up to Jerusalem, where he is crucified and dies, to be raised up on the third day. John extends the public life of Jesus into three years with the final year ending in his passion, death, and resurrection. St. Thomas is very much concerned with the literal, or historical, sense of the narrative, especially as concerns the passion, death, and resurrection of the Lord. Throughout the whole exposition of the narrative, Thomas relied heavily on the interpretation of the Fathers of the Church, both Latin and Greek. He quotes the authority of St. Augustine 373 times, St. John Chrysostom 217 times, and Origen 95 times. It is an exposition that relies heavily on the tradition of the Church and on his own prayerful theological reflections.

In the commentary on St. John’s Gospel, Thomas is concerned not only with the literal sense, which for him is of Prime importance and concern, but also with the spiritual sense, as explained above. More than the other Evangelists, John reveals the “fulfillment of the Scriptures,” that is, concern with the prophecies and symbols of the Old Law. Christ’s own prophetic words and actions are seen by John to be a foreshadowing of the passion, death, and resurrection of the Lord by which we are all saved. Above all, for St. Thomas, John is the Evangelist of the divinity of Jesus, “the Word made flesh.” He says, “While the other Evangelists treat principally of the mysteries of the humanity of Christ, John, especially and above all, makes known the divinity of Christ in his Gospel” (Prologue). Thomas, following the lead of St. Jerome, thought that John wrote his Gospel after the other three Gospels had been written, in order to refute new heresies that had arisen concerning the divinity of Christ. Following Jerome, Thomas singled out the Ebionites (whose founder Thomas erroneously thought to have been “Ebion”)—and Cerinthus, a Gnostic heretic who flourished around 100 A.D., as among those who denied the divinity of Christ. Even St. Irenaeus (Adv. haer., III, 11) asserts that St. John wrote his Gospel to refute Cerinthus. Thus, St. Thomas observes in his Prologue, while John did not pass over the mysteries of Christ’s humanity, he especially conveys the divinity of Christ in his Gospel. In this commentary, therefore, Thomas repeatedly refutes the heresies of Apollinaris, Arius, the Arians, Ebionites, Eutyches, the Manichees, Nestorius, Pelagius, the Pelagians, and Sabellius - all of which plagued the Church in the first five centuries of its existence. For Thomas these heresies were not merely false doctrines irrelevant to the modem Christian, but vital guidelines to the purity of the Christian faith, the orthodox teaching of the living Church.

Earlier in his career, Thomas had been asked by the archbishop of Palermo to write a short work that could be memorized, dealing with the articles of faith “from the Creed of the Fathers” (i.e., the Apostles’ Creed) and also the basic errors concerning them; the archbishop apparently asked also for the same presentation for all the sacraments of the Church. Footnote Thomas complied with this request in a most remarkable treatise in two parts: De articulis fidei and De ecclesiae sacramentis. Footnote The wide popularity of this treatise is attested to by the 277 extant manuscripts of this work. The six articles pertaining to the divinity of Christ and the six pertaining to his humanity are set forth, and all the errors concerning the twelve articles of the Creed are briefly named and refuted. Although the sacraments of the Church are implicit in the fourth article of the Creed, they are discussed separately in the second part of the treatise, because the archbishop explicitly asked for a special discussion of the sacraments and the heresies concerning them. Thomas’ knowledge of the various heresies in the history of the Church is most remarkable. All of these same heresies are again discussed in his commentary on John’s Gospel. That is why St. Thomas says in the Prologue, “[This Gospel] refutes all heresies.” The numerous heresies of the past ought to be of great concern to the modern Christian so that he may avoid all taint of them in his own, personal belief. A conscious affirmation of belief in the truth of revealed teaching that developed in the living Church guided by the Spirit of Christ can bring us into a deeper and more meaningful awareness of being united with the Eternal Truth. In this commentary, Thomas is concerned above all with bolstering the faith of the hearer or reader, or, as he put it, “to confirm the Catholic Truth.”

In other words, there are four goals Thomas aimed to achieve in his commentary on St. John:

  1. determination of the literal, or historical, sense of the narrative;
  2. explanation of the spiritual sense as found in the Old Testament (allegorical sense), the goals of our own life in imitating Jesus (moral sense), and life of the “kingdom” here and hereafter (anagogical sense);
  3. refutation of all error through the testimony of the inspired Word of God;
  4. confirmation of the true Catholic Faith given to us by God through his Church, the Body of Christ.

These are the same goals Thomas had set for himself in composing the Catena Aurea, particularly in the Catena on John’s Gospel, which was composed only four or five years earlier. Footnote

There are four outstanding features that will be noticed as one studies the commentary of Thomas on the Gospel of John. First, Thomas had an extraordinary knowledge of the whole Bible. It has been said, not without likelihood, that Thomas memorized the entire Bible during the year he was confined to his family castle at Roccasecca, 1244-45. This is not at all difficult to believe. His memory was far superior to any man-made concordance of the Bible. Thomas always saw the unity of divine revelation. It was the unity of sacra doctrina as a single “science.” Footnote The “orthodox” teaching of Christ, Son of the Living God, cannot be anything but one. Because of this unity, Thomas could use any one part of Sacred Scripture to explain and illumine any other part. Thus Thomas could use the teaching of St. Paul and the Psalms to explain the text of John. This use of one part of revelation to illumine another has been aptly called “the analogy of faith” (secundum rationern fidei, as St. Paul says in Romans 12:6). Footnote

Second, Thomas had an unusual knowledge of the Latin and Greek Fathers of the Church. This knowledge, no doubt aided by his work on the Catena Aurea, is brought to bear on every difficult question or obscure passage in John, even when it is a question of chronology, geography, Jewish customs, or language. The medieval mind associated words, quotations and parallels with uncanny facility, always trying to find the best pertinent quotation from the proper authorities (auctoritates) . Great weight, sometimes of probative value, was always given to the recognized auctoritates, which, in theology were always the Bible and the sancti, meaning recognized or canonized Doctors of the Church, who were the regula fidei (“the rule of faith”), the “norms” of Christian belief. Thomas’ knowledge of these Doctors was prodigious. The contemporaries of Thomas relied heavily on all available works of the Latin Fathers, especially those of St. Augustine. But, as has been pointed out earlier, Thomas not only accepted the eminent authority of St. Augustine, but also had a wealth of Greek sources from which to draw, including the early Ecumenical Councils of the Church, whose Acts were largely neglected or forgotten in the Latin Middle Ages. Footnote

Third, Thomas was, after all, an outstanding theologian for any season. His theology was not only biblical and patristic, but also logical and philosophical. While he absorbed and refined the philosophy of Aristotle, newly translated from the Greek, he never put this philosophy ahead of his Catholic faith. Rather he used that philosophy in obsequium fidei (Phil 2:17), as a “handmaid of theology.” His comprehension of Aristotle and his use of the scholastic method are among the glories of the Middle Ages. In St. Thomas we find an exceptionally gifted mind carefully honed to human perfection by self-discipline, long study, and clear thinking. This was natural talent, ranked by many as a true genius, brought to the highest human perfection by the grace of God.

Finally, Friar Thomas d’Aquino was a saint, one of the great saints in the Latin Church. A basic principle of Thomas’ theology is that “grace perfects nature”; that is, the grace of God never destroys or replaces nature, but builds upon it. For St. Thomas, there is in divine providence a certain kind of proportion between God’s gifts of nature and his gifts of grace. Even when we accept this principle with all the necessary qualifications needed, we can readily see that in the mind and heart of St. Thomas, God’s grace abundantly perfected an already great man. Not only did Thomas meditate prayerfully on the Sacred Scriptures, but lie drew from them substantial nourishment for his soul. This process of enrichment can be seen conspicuously in the commentary on John, particularly the section dealing with the “Last Discourse” of Jesus to his disciples at the Last Supper, collected in “the sayings of Jesus” in chapters 14 to 17. Here Thomas’ discussion of the Son’s procession from the Father while being consubstantially one with the Father, is precise, illuminating, and brilliant; the mission of the Holy Spirit from the Father and from the Son (Filioque) is clearly demonstrated against the Greek Orthodox who used this question as one of the many issues that separated them from Rome, initially in the ninth, and decisively in the eleventh century. But above all, the indwelling of the Holy Trinity in the hearts of the faithful is alive and vital; the extraordinary love Jesus had for his faithful disciples is movingly real and dynamic. In this commentary on John we have all the elements of a real masterpiece of its kind in medieval literature.

St. Thomas was very much impressed by the force and absolute veracity of the Gospel proclaimed by John: “This disciple is the one who vouches for these things and has written them down, and we know that his testimony is true” (Jn 21:24). St. Thomas comments that the Evangelist makes this statement “in the person of the whole Church (in persona totius Ecclesiae) from whom this Gospel is received [by us].” The Evangelist himself knows the veracity of his narrative, and even St. Paul condemns those who would preach a gospel other than the one he had received (see Gal 1:9). The firmness and stability of our Christian faith is the authority of God speaking through Evangelists, Apostles and other authors of the canonical Books of Scripture. Their testimony leaves us without any doubt as to our faith, because “the Canonical Scriptures alone are the rule of faith.” Footnote This sola scriptura of which St. Thomas speaks is far different from the sola scriptura (“only the Bible”) of the Reformers. This battle cry was made famous by Luther, who insisted that what is not contained in the Bible is not “of faith.” But Luther and Thomas (or any other medieval theologian) meant two different things by the word Bible, or Sacred Scriptures. For Luther and the Reformers the Bible was thought of as a finished, edited, and (by then) printed collection, while Thomas and the medieval theologians meant the Sacred Word together with the gloss of the Fathers, liturgy, and the living Church. The Reformers thought of “The Bible” completely devoid of a history and a historical context, devoid of transmission and development; in short, they thought of “The Bible” distinct from the Church. Thus in the face of this misunderstanding, the Council of Trent spoke as though there were two sources of our faith: “the written books and the unwritten traditions.” Footnote But even this manner of speaking was a concession to a false dichotomy that was historically conditioned. The Second Vatican Council, however, described these two sources” more traditionally as a single mirror (veluti speculum sunt) reflecting both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. Footnote

Historically speaking, the revelation given by God and received by the chosen people was prior to any scriptural document. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were given the message of salvation long before there was any question of a written Torah. Christ’s message of salvation was accepted by the Apostles, disciples, and early Christians for a quarter of a century before the first fraction of the New Testament was written—and this by St. Paul (1 Thessalonians, probably at the beginning of 52 A.D.). We must always remember that the Canon of the New Testament was not established as an inspired unit until 382 A.D., at the earliest. That is, the living Church existed long before the New Testament was “written,” and it existed for 350 years before the present books were collected into an exclusive and canonical unity. For this reason, St. Thomas could speak of the “whole Church from whom this Gospel is received.”

Finally, a word should be said in aid of a fruitful reading of St. Thomas’ commentary on John. Although the pericope or section commented upon in every “Lecture” is printed in full at the head of the commentary, it would be best to procure a second copy of the whole text and read the particular chapter in full before proceeding to the comment. It is of utmost importance to follow the divisions of the text made by St. Thomas and always keep the context well in view. The lemmata, or phrases commented upon, are clearly set off from the comment by the printer. Unless the particular lemma is constantly related to the context as a whole, one can easily get lost in the forest of words, cross references, and quotations. Since order and division are such important elements in the scholastic method, these must be continuously related to the whole, whether it be a collection of chapters, an individual chapter, part of a chapter, a parable, narrative, pericope, or sentence. Those who wish to obtain the greatest understanding of the Sacred Text might well augment the study of St. Thomas’ “theological sense” of John with a modern commentary, such as the outstanding commentary by Father Raymond Brown in the Anchor Bible (2 vols.).

For the fruitful reading of St. Thomas’ commentary on John, we should further note that throughout the long history of the Church, listeners and readers of tile Sacred Text have always been encouraged to prepare their minds and souls for a fruitful reception of the Word. The Word of God, like the seed in the parable (Lk 8:15), needs to be received in “good ground” in order to yield fruit a hundredfold. The reception of anything, according to the ancient philosophers, depends on the condition of the receiver. The Word of God is Spirit (Jn 6:63), and only the Holy Spirit cdn prepare the soul for fruitful reception of the Word. In the solemn proclamation of the Gospel in the Liturgy of the Word, the Church prays for the Deacon that the Lord be in his heart and on his lips in order to announce the Holy Gospel of Peace. Footnote Preparing one’s mind and heart by prayer and recollection is of greatest importance for the reception of God’s message for us. This message is directed primarily to us as God’s chosen people, the pilgrim Church on earth, and through the Church to us as individuals beloved by God and “purchased at a great price” (1 Cor 6:20). The message of salvation is addressed to us individually and collectively, and we both individually and collectively must attune our minds and hearts to the Spirit. “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you” (Jn 14:26). The Holy Spirit speaks to our hearts through the Scriptures, inspired and animated by him. The Scriptures as a spiritual resource cannot be dissociated from personal prayer and cultivation of our sacramental life in the Church. Being receptive is the important thing as we begin our study.

Finally, the power of reading or hearing the Sacred Scriptures is so great that it actually forgives sins. Apart from “the Sacraments of the faith” (sacramenta fidei), it is one of the many ways by which our many sins are forgiven. The Fathers of the Church have always listed—along with almsgiving, contrition, and good works—the special efficacy of reading the Scriptures for the forgiveness of sins. The new liturgy of the Mass prompted by the Second Vatican Council still retains the ancient prayer: “May the words of the Gospel wipe away our sins.” The humble and contrite reading of any part of the Scriptures wipes away sin because the power of the Word is the power of God, who alone can forgive sins. Thus we should always approach the Scriptures with a “humble and contrite heart.” The Psalmist declares, “A contrite and humbled heart, 0 God, you will not despise” (Ps 50:19). God always answers a humble and contrite heart in order to glorify himself in us, just as the Father is always glorified in the Son. “Whatever you ask for in my name I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son” Qn 14:13). This “glory” of the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit is sometimes called the indwelling of the Trinity within our souls. It is the “conformity” of our whole being to the Father through the Word animated by the Spirit. In this conformity of our innermost being with the splendor of God lies the whole perfection of the Christian life. In this perfection consists the glory and splendor of God himself. This union of one’s deepest self and the innermost being of God is the answer to the prayer of Jesus to the Father: “That they may be one, as we also are one” (Jn 17:11).

From this it follows that the study of St. Thomas’ commentary on St. John’s Gospel is richly rewarding in healing our wounds and leading us to greater union with the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose message of salvation is here proclaimed by “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (Jn 20:2). For our guide we can have none better than the Angelic Doctor, whom Jesus loved.

James A. Weisheipl, O.P.
Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies
Toronto, Canada


I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, and the whole house was full of his majesty, and the things that were under him filled the temple. (Is 6:1)

1 These are the words of a contemplative, and if we regard them as spoken by John the Evangelist they apply quite well to showing the nature of this Gospel. For as Augustine says in his work, On the Agreement of the Evangelists: “The other Evangelists instruct us in their Gospels on the active life; but John in his Gospel instructs us also on the contemplative life.”

The contemplation of John is described above in three ways, in keeping with the threefold manner in which he contemplated the Lord Jesus. It is described as high, full, and perfect. It is high: I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; it is full: and the whole house was full of his majesty; and it was perfect: and the things that were under him filled the temple.

2 As to the first, we must understand that the Height and sublimity of contemplation consists most of all in the contemplation and knowledge of God. “Lift up your eyes on high, and see who has created these things” (Is 40:26). A man lifts up his eyes on high when he sees and contemplates the Creator of all things. Now since John rose above whatever had been created—mountains, heavens, angels—and reached the Creator of all, as Augustine says, it is clear that his contemplation was most high. Thus, I saw the Lord. And because, as John himself says below (12:41), “Isaiah said this because he had seen his glory,” that is, the glory of Christ, “and spoke of him,” the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne is Christ.

Now a fourfold height is indicated in this contemplation of John. A height of authority; hence he says, I saw the Lord. A height of eternity; when he says, seated. One of dignity, or nobility of nature; so he says, on a high throne. And a height of incomprehensible truth; when he says, lofty. It is in these four ways that the early philosophers arrived at the knowledge of God.

3 Some attained to a knowledge of God through his authority, and this is the most efficacious way. For we see the things in nature acting for an end, and attaining to ends which are both useful and certain. And since they lack intelligence, they are unable to direct themselves, but must be directed and moved by one directing them, and who possesses an intellect. Thus it is that the movement of the things of nature toward a certain end indicates the existence of something higher by which the things of nature are directed to an end and governed. And so, since the whole course of nature advances to an end in an orderly way and is directed, we have to posit something higher w1iich directs and governs them as Lord; and this is God. This authority in governing is shown to be in the Word of God when he says, Lord. Thus the Psalm (88:10) says: “You rule the power of the sea, and you still the swelling of its waves,” as though saying: You are the Lord and govern all things. John shows that he knows this about the Word when he says below (1:11), “He came unto his own,” i.e., to the world, since the whole universe is his own.

4 Others came to a knowledge of God from his eternity. They saw that whatever was in things was changeable, and that the more noble something is in the grades of being, so much the less it has of mutability. For example, the lower bodies are mutable both as to their substance and to place, while the heavenly bodies, which are more noble, are immutable in substance and change only with respect to place. We can clearly conclude from this that the first principle of all things, which is supreme and more noble, is changeless and eternal. The prophet suggests this eternity of the Word when he says, seated, i.e., presiding without any change and eternally. “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever” (Ps 44:7); “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8). John points to this eternity when he says below (1:1), “In the beginning was the Word.”

5 Still others came to a knowledge of God from the dignity of God; and these were the Platonists. They noted that everything which is something by participation is reduced to what is the same thing by essence, as to the first and highest. Thus, all things which are fiery by participation are reduced to fire, which is such by its essence. And so since all things which exist participate in existence (esse) and are beings by participation, there must necessarily be at the summit of all things something which is existence (esse) by its essence, i.e., whose essence is its existence. And this is God, who is the most sufficient, the most eminent, and the most perfect cause of the whole of existence, from, whom all things that are participate existence (esse) . This dignity is shown in the words, on a high throne, which, according to Denis, refer to the divine nature. “The Lord is high above all nations” (Ps 112:4). John shows us this dignity when he says below (1:1), “the Word was God,” with “Word” as subject and “God” as the predicate.

6 Yet others arrived at a knowledge of God from the incomprehensibility of truth. All the truth which our intellect is able to grasp is finite, since according to Augustine, “everything that is known is bounded by the comprehension of the one knowing”; and if it is bounded, it is determined and particularized. Therefore, the first and supreme Truth, which surpasses every intellect, must necessarily be incomprehensible and infinite; and this is God. [fence the Psalm (8:2) says, “Your greatness is above the heavens,” i.e., above every created intellect, angelic and human. The Apostle says this in the words, “He dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Tim 6:16). This incomprehensibility of Truth is shown to us in the word, lofty, that is, above all the knowledge of the created intellect. John implies this incomprehensibility to us when he says below (1:18), “No one has ever seen God.”

Thus, the contemplation of John was high as regards authority, eternity, dignity, and the incomprehensibility of the Word. And John has passed on this contemplation to us in his Gospel.

7 John’s contemplation was also full. Now contemplation is full when someone is able to consider all the effects of a cause in the cause itself, that is, when he knows not only the essence of the cause, but also its power, according as it can extend out to many things. Of this flowing outward we read, “It overflows with wisdom, like the Pishon, and like the Tigris in the days of the new fruits” (Sir 25:35); “The river of God is full with water,” since the divine wisdom has depth in relation to its knowledge of all things (Ps 65:9). “With you from the beginning is wisdom, who knows your works” (Wis 9:9).

Since John the Evangelist was raised up to the contemplation of the nature of the divine Word and of his essence when he said, “In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God,” he immediately tells us of the power of the Word as it extends to all things, saying, “Through him all things came into being.” Thus his contemplation was full. And so after the prophet had said, I saw the Lord seated, he added something about his power, and the whole house was full of his majesty, that is, the whole fullness of things and of the universe is from the majesty and power of God, through whom all things were made, and by whose light all the men coming into this world are enlightened. “The earth and its fullness are the Lord’s” (Ps 23:1).

8 The contemplation of John was also perfect. For contemplation is perfect when the one contemplating is led and raised to the height of the thing contemplated. Should he remain at a lower level, then no matter how high the things which he might contemplate, the contemplation would not be perfect. So in order that it be perfect it is necessary that it rise and attain the end of the thing contemplated, adhering and assenting by affection and understanding to the truth contemplated. Job (37:16) says, “Do you not know the path of the clouds,” that is, the contemplation of those preaching, “how perfect they are?” inasmuch as they adhere firmly by affection and understanding to contemplating the highest truth.

Since John not only taught how Christ Jesus, the Word of God, is God, raised above all things, and how all things were made through him, but also that we are sanctified by him and adhere to him by the grace which he pours into us, he says below (1:16), “Of his fullness we have all received - indeed, grace in return for grace.” It is therefore apparent that his contemplation is perfect. This perfection is shown in the addition, and the things that were under him filled the temple. For “the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor 11:3). The things that are under Christ are the sacraments of his humanity, through which the faithful are filled with the fullness of grace. In this way, then, the things that were under him filled the temple, i.e., the faithful, who are the holy temple of God (1 Cor 3:17) insofar as through the sacraments of his humanity all the faithful of Christ receive from the fullness of his grace.

The contemplation of John was thus full, high, and perfect.

9 We should note, however, that these three characteristics of contemplation belong to the different sciences in different ways. The perfection of contemplation is found in Moral Science, which is concerned with the ultimate end. The fullness of contemplation is possessed by Natural Science, which considers things as proceeding from God. Among the physical [natural] sciences, the height of contemplation is found in Metaphysics. But the Gospel of John contains all together what the above sciences have in a divided way, and so it is most perfect.

10 In this way then, from what has been said, we can understand the matter of this Gospel. For while the other Evangelists treat principally of the mysteries of the humanity of Christ, John, especially and above all, makes known the divinity of Christ in his Gospel, as we saw above. Still, he does not ignore the mysteries of his humanity. He did this because, after the other Evangelists had written their Gospels, heresies had arisen concerning the divinity of Christ, to the effect that Christ was purely and simply a man, as Ebion and Cerinthus falsely thought. And so John the Evangelist, who had drawn the truth about the divinity of the Word from the very fountain-head of the divine breast, wrote this Gospel at the request of the faithful. And in it he gives us the doctrine of the divinity of Christ and refutes all heresies.

The order of this Gospel is clear from the above. For John first shows us the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, when he says below (1:1), “In the beginning was the Word.” He shows secondly how the house was full of his majesty, when he says, “through him all things came into being” (1:3). Thirdly, he shows how the things that were under him filled the temple, when he says, “the Word was made flesh” (1:14). The end of this Gospel is also clear, and it is that the faithful become the temple of God, and become filled with the majesty of God; and so John says below (20:31), “These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.”

The matter of this Gospel, the knowledge of the divinity of the Word, is clear, as well as its order and end.

11 Then follows the condition of the author, who is described above in four ways: as to his name, his virtue, his symbol, and his privilege. He is described as to name as John, the author of this Gospel. “John” is interpreted as “in whom is grace,” since the secrets of the divinity cannot be seen except by those who have the grace of God within themselves. “No one knows the deep things of God but the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2:11).

As concerns his virtue, John saw the Lord seated, because he was a virgin; for it is fitting that such persons see the Lord: “Blessed are the pure in heart” (Mt 5:8).

He is described as to his symbol, for John is symbolized by an eagle. The other three Evangelists, concerned with those things which Christ did in his flesh, are symbolized by animals which walk on the earth, namely, by a man, a bull calf, and a lion. But John flies like an eagle above the cloud of human weakness and looks upon the light of unchanging truth with the most lofty and firm eyes of the heart. And gazing on the very deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which he is equal to the Father, he has striven in this Gospel to confide this above all, to the extent that he believed was sufficient for all. Concerning this flight of John it says in Job (39:27): “Will the eagle,” that is, John, “fly up at your command?” And further on it says, “His eyes look far away,” because the Word of God is seen in the bosom of the Father by the eye of the mind.

John is described as to privilege since, among the other disciples of the Lord, John was more loved by Christ. Without mentioning his own name John refers to himself below (21:20) as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” And because secrets are revealed to friends, “I have called you friends because everything I have heard from my father I have made known to you” (below 15:15), Jesus confided his secrets in a special way to that disciple who was specially loved. Thus it says in Job (36:32): “From the savage,” that is, the proud, “he hides his light,” that is, Christ hides the truth of his divinity, “and shows his friend,” that is, John, “that it belongs to him,” since it is John who sees the light of the Incarnate Word more excellently and expresses it to us, saying “He was the true light” (below 1:19).

Now the matter, order, end and author of this Gospel of the blessed John are clear.