Thomas Aquinas intrigues me. He is a bright light of both intellect and christian profession during Europe’s otherwise Dark Ages. He was a Priest and Philosopher during the 13th Century. Although much of his writing towers well above my diminutive grasp, his presentation often drives me to my trusted measuring instrument to see if it be so.
This is where I come to a curious conundrum. Aquinas develops his moral philosophy around a mixture of traditional christian thought and Aristotle’s atheistic pronouncements. To the point in question, he defines man’s supreme, “species-defining characteristic”–that to which each person is hard-wired–as reason. As a later philosopher coined, “I think, therefore I am.” Aside from the circular reasoning needed to elevate reason as the pinnacle of human definition, I would suggest that there is a different focus upon which Scripture places our greatest end.
For Aquinas, since something achieves goodness to the degree to which it exercises its species-defining powers, it develops that reason’s proper use will result in human goodness (a goodness defined as that which we were created to achieve, rather than a reference to personal righteousness). He does a masterful job in building his case and sustains the christian theology that such achievement can only ever be realized through beatific union with God.
However, reason, as integral as it is to expressing our humanity and as celebrated and accepted as it is among godless think-tanks, is not what the Holy Bible references. If there is such a defining expression of humanity, a characteristic that more than anything else establishes what it means to fulfill our species-unique humanity, it will likely be found in the refuse pile of all that is desired by highly educated, influential, philosophers of lofty minds.
Many will quickly suggest that love, or faith, or some similar fruit of the Spirit should take the place of reason. But, this is a philosophical discussion about the centrality of an expressive characteristic that when exercised in its designed maturity will culminate in what the Creator intended for each human in their pursuit and eventual acquisition of fulfillment-of-purpose. In this case, love is essential for a person to reach this end, as are all the other fruits of the Spirit, but there is one quality that the Bible repeatedly elevates that I would suggest most closely resembles that species-defining quality.
Adam was confronted with this characteristic in the Garden of Eden. The “greatest man” ever born to women, John the Baptist, is defined by this expression. Jesus, the prime example of what God expects of humans, speaks of himself with this exclusive trait. And, as it ought to apply to the rest of us, this is the singular quality that separates those who will be considered great in the culmination of God’s Kingdom.
That characteristic identified within Scripture that, perhaps more than any other, could be singled out and used as a basis for developing our understanding of moral philosophy and ethics, that species-defining characteristic is submission.
Humans were made in the image of God, capable of reasoning, but designed to reflect. Such reflection is not as an equal, for we do not replace God. Nor is such reflection dependent upon our individuality, though such personal uniqueness remains involved. We were created to reflect God to the rest of Creation by willingly submitting our ideas, pursuits, wants, thoughts, and life to his Lordship.
Adam was created with independent free-will, but designed to fulfill his purpose through submission to the primary will of God. He could reason and choose, but he was instructed to submit. He used his reasoning powers to accomplish his God-given job of naming the animals, and he also had another life drawn out of him, but it was in this context that he was tested. History convulses at his choice to submit to his wife’s will rather than God’s.
It was John the Baptist, the one Jesus elevates as greatest, who openly expressed his submission by saying, He must become greater and I less. He did the will of God by submitting his own preferences and comfort (all the way to his death) to that of God.
Jesus tells us that he did nothing and said nothing (thus restrained every aspect of his own independent reasoning) other than what God the Father specifically directed him to do and say. He set aside his immense prerogatives, as we are to imitate, and set the pattern for us to use our reasoning strictly in submission to the will of God. Since the Fall, the will of the flesh has always been in conflict with God’s will, and it is only by denying our reasoned will so far as to ensure submissive obedience to the Spirit’s will that we thereby are granted the ultimate “telos”-end identity of child of God.
Those who want to fulfill human greatness, to attain unto that elevated summit of species-defining satisfaction, to discover the intended magnificence of endless happiness…they must become servant of all. Doesn’t that just boil your blood? Well, not if you’re Christian. That perhaps is one of the reasons Jesus thanks God that he refused to reveal truth to those highly educated. Those who are already high, who have already scraped their way to the top, are extremely unlikely to let go, to willingly lower and submit themselves, to be like a little child.
Reason allows philosophers and those who already enjoy greatness in their own heads to continue to promote what they enjoy. That is the danger to everyone in any type of authority, success, achievement, power, or world-limited enjoyment. Submission requires sacrifice and surrender all the way to the point of loss and death. That is unreasonable to most. Those who lose their life for the sake of submission to Christ are the ONLY ones who will ever find lasting fulfillment and eternal life.
Those formerly identified as the people of God failed at this, because “they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Rom 10:3). What God desires is that believers submit to what he has already accomplished, and instead imitate him in obedience to his words out of honor. We don’t seek to gain eternity with our efforts, we seek to glorify.
The call for Christians is to “submit to one another” out of submissive reverence for Christ. This emphasizes servant leadership under Christ, not mindless servitude to the preferences of others. Adam made that latter mistake. We are expected to take on the burdens of others, care for their genuine needs (not wants), and give up of ourselves beyond all reason, in full faith that God raises the dead and gives life to those who surrender it humbly to his will.
We teach our children to win and succeed, but do we teach them to submit to God and express respectful submission toward all authority? We encourage women to rise above past social dysfunctions, but do we uphold God’s instructions regarding the differences with men and how it impacts their expression of submission in marriages and in the church? We applaud charismatic men who lead, but do we give greater honor to those who do so with restraint and denial of self-indulgence for the sake of elevating those they serve?
True submission looks like weakness, but without giving up. It defies self gratification and undermines the popular, but godless saying, “but God wants me to be happy.” Submission is part of what is meant by choosing “the offense of the cross”. It means surrendering to what Jesus accomplished for us without trying to reason our way into goodness through our own virtues. By nature, we find surrender to be what losers do.
Therein lies the irony. Submission is that illusive, undesired, hidden-in-plain-sight, species-defining characteristic that the prideful disdain to their own destruction and the humble discover like little children to be the defining difference between what they willingly gave up and what they gloriously have been given for eternity.
Will you choose to submit your life, your dreams, your preferences, addictions, sins, hopes, jobs, roles, resources and ideas to the sovereignty of Jesus. It will cost you dearly, but it will be very worth it when all is said and done.
Come Lord Jesus, come!