Life, Concept of (In Theology)

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The concept of life plays a central part in theology both in describing the living God and in explaining the created participation in the divine life that man enjoys by grace in this world and that constitutes his glory in the next. Hence this article speaks (1) of life in general, (2) of the living God, (3) of Christ our life, (4) of the super-natural life of creatures, and (5) of life in heaven.

Life in General. As such, life in general is not the object of theology; still less is the theologian obliged to tie himself to any particular philosophical or scientific explanation of the nature and origin of life. Where human life is concerned, the theologian must insist on the immediate creation of the individual human soul (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 3896), but this does not bar him from speculation on the manner in which the soul informs the body or on the place to be ascribed to the evolutionary process in the explanation of the genesis of life. All that immediately concerns the theologian is that life ultimately stems from the divine act of creation and that the rational life of this individual human soul comes into existence through a direct creative act of God.

But if he is to speak of the living God and of man's supernatural organism, the theologian must speak analogically, in terms borrowed from the natural and created life that he sees around him. Indeed, the need for this is clear both from what God reveals of Himself and from the very terms used by Christ in making known to man his super-natural vocation and destiny. He, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, came that men might have life and have it more abundantly (Jn 14.6; 10.10). To speak of all supernatural life in this analogical way, the theologian must start from created life as he observes it. A living substance he knows as one that is able to move itself, to operate immanently; its life is not so much a quality as the existence proper to such a nature.

The Living God. Hence the question at once arises: Can one speak of life in God? The difficulty, at the level of natural reason, is, as St. Thomas Aquinas points out (Summa theologiae 1a, 18.3 ad 13), that in God there is no motion and that, in view of God's simplicity, one can in no way speak of any principle of life such as one recognizes among creatures in the intellectual or sensible soul. One must, however, reflect that the fundamental concept of life, purified of its creaturely imperfections, consists not in self-movement considered as a transition from potency to act, nor in an essential composition of body and soul, but in a self-determination in act, an independence of operation that, although found in a limited way in living creatures, is found supereminently and perfectly in pure act alone, the unmoved Mover. One cannot say that God has life; one must simply state that He is Life (just as He is Intellect, Will, Omnipotence, etc.) and that He is the source of all life.

In the Old Testament, God is proclaimed as the living God [see life, concept of (in the bible)]: He is truly living, unlike the inanimate idols worshiped by the pagans; He is the living source of all the life one knows; there is in Him an inexhaustible vitality to save and to deliver, to love and to punish; His life is at the root of His eternal fidelity, whereas idols, lifeless themselves, can do nothing for those who have recourse to them [cf. Psalm 113B (115)]. The wisdom books especially, with their insistence on the power of God's knowledge and will, lead one further into the mystery of the divine life; but only in the New Testament is one presented with the fullness of this mystery in the revelation of the Holy trinity, through which one can begin to glimpse the fullness of the interpersonal knowing and loving that is the Divine Life.

Christ Our Life. Because He comes to men from the living Father to win them back from the death of sin, to take men up into the sharing of the Trinitarian life of knowing and loving to which God has gratuitously called them, Christ is "our life" (Col 3.4). This sharing in the divine life is to attain its fullness in the beatific vision (through the communication of the light of glory, lumen gloriae ), but it has its start in this world. By faith and baptism a man is linked to the risen Lord Jesus, now "a life-giving spirit" (1 Cor 15.45), and so shares even now in that "eternal life" of which St. John speaks so frequently. It is through the Holy Spirit, the life-giver, that this union of man with Christ is forged and sustained, and it is to the action of the Spirit that one appropriates both the life of the Church and the supernatural life of the individual Christian.

Supernatural Life of Creatures. Because Scripture (above all St. Paul and St. John) speaks so consistently in terms of new life, rebirth, regeneration, when describing the state of the justified Christian, these terms have entered into the common vocabulary of the Church, and theologians have sought to elaborate and synthesize the data of revelation by the analogical application of the fundamental concepts proper to natural, created life. Men are "partakers of the divine nature" and adoptive sons of God because, by their incorporation into the mystical body of christ and through the divine indwelling, uncreated grace, they receive habitual, or sanctifying, created grace, the vital principle that fits men to know and love God as He is in Himself in a way that is proper to no creature but only to God. Given this fundamental analogy (and its correlative, the death of the soul through mortal sin), it is natural to pursue it through every aspect of the Christian's supernatural life. The virtues (especially the three theological virtues) are seen as the faculties corresponding to the life of grace, immediate principles of supernatural operation by which men are directly conjoined to God's proper knowability and lovability. The Sacraments are the exterior means of the life of grace, either engendering it (Sacraments of the dead) or nourishing it in its various stages (Sacraments of the living). The whole progress of a man toward perfection is, quite simply, his spiritual life.

Life in Heaven. But, as has already been noted, whatever the perfection of supernatural life that may be attained in this world, it is inchoate, imperfect, wholly ordered to the achievement of its consummation in heaven. Only there, in the facial vision of God (strictly supernatural, due to no creature, not even to the angels, though their purely spiritual natural life far exceeds all the created life that man knows), will the supernatural life, the participation in the inner life of the Trinity, which is men's by virtue of their adopted sonship in Christ, reach its fullness. Our life now is hidden with Christ in God (Col 3.3.); "it has not yet appeared what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like to him, for we shall see him as he is" (1 Jn 3.2).

Thus life is at the very center and core of the Christian mystery, or rather, a passover from death to life. God reveals to men His innermost Trinitarian life and sends men His Son, the life of the world, that they may receive a gratuitous share in that same life that is proper to Him alone. "God has given us eternal life; and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has the life. He who has not the Son has not the life" (1 Jn 5.1112).

See Also: elevation of man; intellectual life; man, 3; grace, articles on.

Bibliography: f. mussner, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 195765) 6:853856. h. fries, Handbuch theologischer Grundbegriffe (Munich 196263) 2:2530.

[r. l. stewart]