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Capital Grace in the Thirteenth Century: Christ's Mediation of Grace in Aquinas and His Contemporaries

posted on 2024-02-12, 19:17 authored by Matthew J. Messer

The doctrine of Christ’s grace as head of the Church, or “capital grace,” is an underappreciated but major organizing principle in the Christological teaching of many thirteenth-century scholastics. In this study I trace the motivation, genesis, and development of this concept and the debates it gave rise to, especially over the problem of how to reconcile Christ’s human headship with the efficient causation of grace, and thereby give a coherent account of the saying that “from his fullness we have all received” (John 1:16). Since the causality of Christ’s capital grace is bound up with commitments about its ontology and effects—including the extension of membership in the Church and the constitution of its unity—this study treats the development of capital grace as a holistic doctrine.

The key figure is Thomas Aquinas, whose understanding of Christ’s humanity as an instrument of the Word incarnate presents a radical solution to the original dilemma. To appreciate the creativity and singularity of his mature teaching, one must understand it as a response not only to his predecessors but to his own earlier teaching. I therefore narrate the dialectical outworking of capital grace from its first formulator Alexander of Hales, through its reception in his Franciscan circle (the Summa Halensis and Bonaventure) and in Albert the Great, and through the various stages of Aquinas’s evolving doctrine.

I argue that Aquinas uniquely fulfills the rationale shared by his contemporaries for positing a “capital grace” in Christ, completing in a way their common project. But his uncompromising defense of Christ’s human headship (even over the angels) also exposes the theological limitations of that project. I consider the aftermath of this in the fourteenth century, where the topic of capital grace enters a period of decline.

For all of its theorizers capital grace is a crucial theological concept, bridging Christology, soteriology, and ecclesiology, and is therefore a topic of intrinsic interest. For Aquinas especially, with the efficient causation of grace through Christ’s instrumental humanity, it has further and radical implications for the meaning of the incarnation, the nature of the Church, and the metaphysics of salvation history.


Defense Date


CIP Code

  • 39.0601

Research Director(s)

Joseph P. Wawrykow


  • Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Level

  • Doctoral Dissertation

OCLC Number


Program Name

  • Theology

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