Christ the Centerpiece of All Creation

The Centerpiece of All Creation

The Incarnation is at the center of history (time) and the universe (space). St. Paul speaks of a fullness of time and a fullness of space, both of which converge in the God-Man Jesus Christ. The fullness of time is that moment when chronology and eternity intersect: “But when the fullness of time came, God sent His Son, born of a woman…” (Gal 4:4; cf. Eph 1:8-10). At the moment of the Incarnation the eternal Son of God becomes the temporal Son of Man – He becomes man without ceasing to be God; He enters time without ceasing to be timeless. Time and eternity kiss.

Altar inscription at Nazareth: HERE the Word became flesh

The fullness of space is that location where divinity and humanity meet: “For in Him [Christ] dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col 2:9; cf. 1 Jn 1:1-2); in fact in the Byzantine and Orthodox Liturgy they pray to Mary thus: “He whom the entire universe could not contain was contained within your womb, O Theotokos.” At the Annunciation the immense, infinite Godhead dwells corporally in a finite space, and thus a human mother is pregnant with God, a creature bears her Creator, Mary is true Mother of God. Creator and creature embrace.

God created the universe with this moment and place in mind – His divine plan from the beginning was that all things would hinge on the mystery of Christ. It seems appropriate to cite the words of St. Maximus the Confessor, a prominent Greek Father of the Church (d. 662), here.  He taught that Christ, the Word made flesh, “is the great and hidden mystery, at once the blessed end for which all things are ordained. It is the divine purpose conceived before the beginning of created beings. In defining it we would say that this mystery is the preconceived goal for which everything exists, but which itself exists on account of nothing. With a clear view to this end, God created the essences of created beings, and such is, properly speaking, the terminus of His providence and of the things under His providential care. Inasmuch as it leads to God, it is the recapitulation of the things he has created. It is the mystery which circumscribes all the ages, and which reveals the grand plan of God (cf. Eph 1:10-11), a super-infinite plan infinitely preexisting the ages… Because of Christ – or rather, the whole mystery of Christ – all the ages of time and the beings within those ages have received their beginning and end in Christ.” (Ad Thalassium, q.60; PG 90; 620-621) [one can see more of St. Maximus’ writings on the mystery of Christ here].

The axiom of Aristotle, adopted also by the Subtle Doctor, applies here in a particular way: “What is first in intention is last in execution” (Metaphysica, VI, t.7, c.23). Christ, “the firstborn of every creature” (Col 1:15) and “the beginning of the creation of God” (Apoc 3:14) is first in God’s intention. The entire universe is designed with a view to realizing the centerpiece of all creation, namely the hypostatic union. The realization of this plan, viz. the execution, comes “in the last times” (1 Pt 1:20), “last of all” (Heb 1:2).

As a concrete example, the new foundation of the Carmel of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Fairfield, PA, began with a design, then a shovel. What is first in the intention – a Monastery – is last in the execution.  The project continues moving from the less perfect towards the perfect so that what commenced with a shovel will be fully realized on the day the stunning architectural masterpiece is completed and dedicated (click here for a rendering of the Monastery and Church). The driving force behind the construction is the intention to realize this work for the glory of God. Although God is not constrained by space and time in accomplishing His works, nonetheless, He has freely chosen to operate in this fashion when realizing the Masterpiece of all of His creation, Jesus Christ.

When God begins His work of creation He does so with the end in mind, namely the Incarnate Word who is “the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end” (cf. Apoc 21:6). God speaks: Fiat lux, “Let there be light!” (Gen 1:3), and this sets the plan in motion. Mary speaks: Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum – “Be it done unto me according to thy word” (Lk 1:38) and God’s plan is fully realized. At the “yes” of God the plan is set in motion and light is created; at the “yes” of Mary God’s plan is fully realized and Christ, “the light of the world” (Jn 8:12), “the true Light that enlightens every man” (Jn 1:9; cf. v.4-8) comes into this world. God’s words, fiat lux, were uttered in full view of that day when Christ would be manifested in the flesh. Indeed God saw that “fullness of time” and “fullness of space” when he created time and space in the beginning. Consequently, all history either points towards or flows from that moment when the Word became flesh and all space is ordered to and guided by that locus where the Creator and the creature are united in the Divine Person of the Word.

St. Maximus the Confessor – The Mystery of Christ as the blessed end for which all things are ordained

St. Maximus the Confessor, a prominent Greek Father of the Church (d. 662), in his Questiones ad Thalassium (q.60; PG 90; 620-621) comments on God’s foreknowledge of Christ: “Foreknown, indeed, before the foundation of the world, He has been manifested in the last times for your sakes” (1 Pt 1:20).

Below are the pertinent passages (if you are interested in reading more of his Christology I would highly recommend On the Cosmic Mystery of Christ which provides translations from St Maximus’ two main collections of theological reflections, his Ambigua and his Questions to Thalassius, plus one of his Christological opuscula).

From the pen of St. Maximus the Confessor…

The scriptural text calls the mystery of Christ “Christ.” The great Apostle clearly testifies to this when he speaks of the mystery hidden from the ages, having now been manifested (Col 1:26). He is of course referring to Christ, the whole mystery of Christ, which is manifestly the ineffable and incomprehensible hypostatic union between Christ’s divinity and humanity…

This is the great and hidden mystery, at once the blessed end for which all things are ordained. It is the divine purpose conceived before the beginning of created beings. In defining it we would say that this mystery is the preconceived goal for which everything exists, but which itself exists on account of nothing. With a clear view to this end, God created the essences of created beings, and such is, properly speaking, the terminus of His providence and of the things under His providential care. Inasmuch as it leads to God, it is the recapitulation of the things he has created. It is the mystery which circumscribes all the ages, and which reveals the grand plan of God (cf. Eph 1:10-11), a super-infinite plan infinitely preexisting the ages. The Logos, by essence God, became a messenger of this plan (cf. Is 9:5) when He became a man and, if I may rightly say so, established Himself as the innermost depth of the Father’s goodness while also displaying in Himself the very goal for which His creatures manifestly received the beginning of their existence.

Because of Christ – or rather, the whole mystery of Christ – all the ages of time and the beings within those ages have received their beginning and end in Christ. For the union between a limit of ages and limitlessness, between measure and immeasurability, between finitude and infinity, between Creator and creation, between rest and motion, was conceived before the ages. This union has been manifested in Christ at the end of time and in itself brings God’s foreknowledge to fulfillment, in order that naturally mobile creatures might secure themselves around God’s total and essential immobility, desisting altogether from their movement toward themselves and toward each other. The union has been manifested so that they might also acquire, by experience, an active knowledge of Him in whom they were made worthy to find their stability and to have abiding unchangeably in them the enjoyment of this knowledge…

This mystery was known solely to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit before all the ages. It was know to the Father by His approval (ενδοκια), to the Son by His carrying it out (αυτουρια), and to the Holy Spirit by His cooperation (συνεργεια) in it. For there is one knowledge shared by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit because They also share one essence and power. The Father and the Holy Spirit were not ignorant of the Incarnation of the Son because the whole Father is by essence in the whole Son who Himself carried out the mystery of our salvation through His Incarnation. The Father Himself did not become incarnate but rather approved the Incarnation of the Son. Moreover, the whole Holy Spirit exists by essence in the whole Son, but He too did not become incarnate but rather cooperated in the Son’s ineffable Incarnation for our sake. Whether, then, one speaks of “Christ” or the “mystery of Christ,” the Holy Trinity alone – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – foreknew it. And no one should question how Christ, who is one of the Holy Trinity, was foreknown by the Trinity, when recognizing that Christ was foreknown not as God but as man. In other words, it was His Incarnation for humanity’s sake in the economy of salvation that was foreknown. For that which is eternal and forever transcending cause and reason could never be foreknown. Foreknowledge is of being who have a beginning of existence because they have a cause.

Thus Christ was foreknown not as what He was in Himself by nature but as what He manifested when, in the economy of salvation, He subsequently became human on our behalf. For truly He who is the Creator of the essence of created beings by nature had also to become the very Author of the deification of creatures by grace, in order that the Giver of well-being might appear also as the gracious Giver of eternal well-being. Since, therefore, no created being knows what itself of any other being absolutely is in its essence, it only follows that no created being by nature has foreknowledge of any future beings. Only God, who transcends created beings, and who knows what He Himself is in essence, foreknows the existence of all His creatures even before their creation. And in the future He will by grace confer on those created beings the knowledge of what they themselves and other beings are in essence, and manifest the principles of their origin which preexist uniformly in Him.

Indeed, we reject the argument of some who say that Christ was foreknown before the foundation of the world to those to whom He was later manifested at the end of time, as though those beings were themselves present with the foreknown Christ before the foundation of the world, and as though the scriptural Word were running awry from the truth and suggesting that the essence of rational beings is coeternal with God. For it is impossible to be completely coexistent with Christ, just as it is furthermore impossible ever to depart from Him entirely, since the termination of time is fixed within Christ, as the stability (στασις) of mobile created beings, as stability wherein no created being will know any change at all.

Creed – For us Men AND for our Salvation

The Emperor Constantine with the Bishops of the 1st Council of Nicaea (325), holding the Nicene–Constantinopolitan Creed of 381

One of the common objections to the notion of an unconditional Incarnation is the phrase from the Nicene-Constantinople Creed: “For us men and for our salvation He came down from Heaven…” On the surface it appears to be stating that the motive of the Incarnation is for the salvation of mankind. Since this is from the Councils of the Church one would cease to be a Catholic and begin to be a heretic by not embracing this revealed truth.

There are at least two ways that the Creed can be seen as coherent with the Franciscan thesis of the absolute primacy of Christ. The first is by following along the lines of St. Irenaeus, namely, that the term “salvation” is not restricted to redeeming man from sin, but is a much broader term which includes man’s salvation from sin, viz. Redemption. Salvation comes by justification through faith in Jesus – St. Paul repeats this tirelessly in his Epistles – and this justification makes us children of God, that is, it elevates us from the natural plane (creatures) to a supernatural plane (children of God). I maintain that this economy of grace is the economy of grace established by God from the beginning for Angels and Saints and that this economy is not contingent upon sin. Fr. Alessandro M. Apollonio, FI, explains this more in depth (see here) and I have also dealt with this topic in commenting on Eph. 1:7.

The second way that our Profession “for us men and for our salvation” can be seen as not only coherent, but even affirming the absolute primacy of Christ is by seeing this as two distinct motives: Christ came 1) for us men  AND  2) for our salvation. In this case salvation would be equivalent to Redemption. Christ comes for us men – to bring us into the divine life of grace as adopted children; because of Adam’s sin, Christ also comes for our salvation – to repair the fall and restore us to divine grace. There is a concise explanation of this by a blogger named “Johannes”. In response to the question, “Does Catholic doctrine teach that the Incarnation would have taken place regardless of Adam’s decision?” (original post is here) he writes:

…the open status of the issue within Catholic doctrinal orthodoxy is clear at the beginning of St. Thomas Aquinas’ answer to the corresponding question in his Summa Theologica (ST III, q.1, a.3), by the way he describes his position:

I answer that, There are different opinions about this question. For some say that even if man had not sinned, the Son of Man would have become incarnate. Others assert the contrary, and seemingly our assent ought rather to be given to this opinion.

Notably, a most authoritative text that is compatible with the position of “unconditional Incarnation” of the Son when rightly understood is the Nicene creed, where we profess that:

For us men and for our salvation He came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.

Salvation, in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologies, does not carry a purely negative meaning of taking out sin, but also, and most importantly, a positive meaning of making men “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pe 1:4), a notion the Greek call “theosis”. Though RCs and EOs differ in the way this is achieved (whether by sanctifying grace and charity or by the divine energies), they agree that it implies the elevation of human nature to a super-natural plane (= above the purely natural plane) and that it is a divine work different from the creation of human nature.

Just as the Incarnation was not strictly necessary for God to forgive men’s sins, but was the most fitting way to do it, neither was the Incarnation strictly necessary for God to make men partakers of the divine nature even in the absence of sin, yet, IMO, it was the most fitting way to do it.

Therefore, with “salvation” understood in its positive sense, unconditional Incarnation is wholly compatible with the Son becoming man “for us men and for our salvation”, even if Adam had not sinned.

Bl. Gabriele M. Allegra – absolute primacy of Christ central to understanding the Scripture

I found a concise biographical description of Bl. Gabriele Maria Allegra here and thought I’d repost the text. The original link has a number of photos, including his grave. I have translated some of his pertinent writings on the Franciscan thesis here, here and here.

Bl. Gabriele M. Allegra


Bl. Gabriele M. Allegra (December 26, 1907–January 26, 1976) was a Franciscan Friar and Scripture scholar. He is best known for performing the first complete translation of the Catholic Bible into the Chinese language and is popularly known as the “St. Jerome of China.”

As a Franciscan, missionary and biblical scholar, he saw the doctrine of the absolute primacy of Christ as being central to understanding Sacred Scripture and God’s design in creating and redeeming the universe.

He was renowned for his knowledge of the theology and philosophy of Bl. John Duns Scotus. His Studium Biblicum Translation is often considered the definitive Chinese Bible among Catholics.

Fr. Jack Wintz, OFM – John Duns Scotus: His View of Christ

Below is a delightful synopsis of the Subtle Doctor’s doctrine on the primacy of Christ by Fr. Jack Wintz, OFM. The original post can be found here. Fr. Jack mentions Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, as holding the Franciscan perspective, but it should be noted that 1) Chardin did not embrace the metaphysics or theology of Bl. John Duns Scotus (although Bl. Gabriele M. Allegra, OFM, did try to dialogue with Fr. Chardin on these points and published a book on his dialogues: I have translated excerpts of Bl. Gabriele Allegra’s explanations of the primacy of Christ according to Scotus and posted them here, here and here) and 2) that Chardin’s books were riddled with theological and philosophical errors (which can be seen from this piece by Dr. Dietrich von Hildebrand and this piece posted by the Kolbe Center for Creation). Chardin aside, Fr. Jack was able to summarize the Franciscan view of Christ and the universe in a way that any reader can grasp… and summarizing the Subtle Doctor so that the average person can understand it can be challenging, to say the least.

 

From the pen of Fr. Jack Wintz, OFM:

Fr. Jack Wintz, OFM

John Duns Scotus was born in Scotland in 1266 and educated at England’s Oxford University. He was ordained a priest in 1291. Scotus also studied at the University of Paris and returned to lecture at Oxford and Cambridge. In turn, Scotus went back to teach at the University of Paris.

Eventually, the Franciscan Minister General assigned Scotus to the Franciscan School in Cologne, Germany. Scotus died there in 1308.He is buried in the Franciscan church near the famous Cologne Cathedral. Known as the “Subtle Doctor,” Scotus was beatified in 1993. His beatification is rightly seen as a belated vote of confidence by the church regarding his holiness and virtue, as well as a vote of confidence in Scotus’ theological contributions.

The Word of God

A key point of the Franciscan/Scotistic view, which catches many people by surprise, is this: The Word of God did not become a creature, a human being, because Adam and Eve sinned. Rather, the Divine Word became flesh because, from all eternity, God wanted Jesus Christ to be creation’s most perfect work. Christ was to be the model and crown of creation and of humanity — the glorious destination toward which all creation is straining. In short, the Word would have been incarnated in Christ even if the first man and woman had never sinned.

Scotus’ viewpoint has gained prominence in recent times. It has been adopted by such notable Catholic thinkers as Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet; Thomas Merton, the Trappist writer; and Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit-priest-anthropologist. “Christ is not an afterthought in the divine place,” writes Chardin. “He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all things.”

Not an Afterthought of God

According to Scotus, God’s first intention — from all eternity — was that human nature be glorified by being united to the divine Word. And this was to happen regardless of the first humans’ innocence or sinfulness. To say that the Incarnation of Christ was an afterthought of God, dependent on Adam and Eve’s fall, would be to base the rich Christian theology of Incarnation on sin! Theologians could do better than that — and Duns Scotus did.

Given humanity’s sin, the way Christ eventually came was in the form of a savior whose great act of love and self-surrender set us free.

In Scotus’ view, however, the God-man would have entered creation and human history as the perfect model of the human being fully alive under any circumstance. It was not Adam who provided the blueprint or pattern that God used in shaping the humanity of Christ.

It was the other way around, insists Scotus: Christ was the model in God’s mind according to which Adam and Eve, as well as the rest of the human race, were created. We can rightly say, therefore, that the Incarnation was not simply some kind of “Plan B arrangement,” or “last-minute cure,” to offset the sin of Adam and Eve. On the contrary, it was God’s Plan A from the beginning.

Franciscans and the ‘Primacy of Christ’

Most Franciscans have, in one way or another, embraced this vision. Whether conscious of it or not, we tend to see all created things as pieces of a beautiful puzzle that only makes sense when fitted into the larger framework, that is, into the image of Christ.

For several years, I’ve kept an audiotape on Saint Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and Colossians by Stephen Doyle, OFM, a well-known Franciscan Scripture scholar and popular preacher. I’ve often listened to these tapes because I find in them an engaging explanation of the Franciscan/Scotist approach to the primacy of Christ. Franciscan spirituality simply exudes naturally from this friar as he talks about Paul’s view of Christ, “the firstborn of all creation.”

According to Father Stephen, “There is nothing in this world that makes sense apart from Jesus Christ” and “whatever exists in this world was made for the sake of Jesus Christ.”

He waxes poetic: “If we looked around and listened to this world about us, and if the singing birds could be formed into a chorus and the rustling breeze and tinkling rain could have a voice and the roar of the ocean could be put into words, they would all have one thing to say: ‘We were made for the sake of Jesus Christ.’”

More from Father Stephen

The friar also offers a good answer to the riddle: How can it be that Christ, who came after Adam and Eve, nonetheless came before them in the mind of God? How can the Incarnate Word be first and last at the same time? Borrowing a popular analogy found in Saint Francis de Sales’ Treatise on the Love of God, Father Stephen explains:

If you wanted to make wine, what would you do? First of all, you would have to plant a vineyard. Then you would have to fertilize the vines. You would have to trim them, pick the grapes and let them ferment. Finally, you would get some wine.

What was the first thing on your mind? The wine. What was the last thing you got? The wine.

In the same way, Jesus’ late arrival on the scene, notes Father Stephen, does not contradict his holding first place in God’s mind at the creation of the universe. Christ is the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega.

I hope my two blogs help explain John Duns Scotus’ awesome view of Christ as the “head over all things” (Ephesians 1:22) and the glorious destination toward which all creation is straining.

All Road Leads to God

Similarly, in the ongoing process of creation, there are many elements: minerals, plants, animals, and human persons. In the Christian view, as Saint Paul expresses so well, all these elements and individuals are coming to a culmination in Jesus Christ. God’s plan, indeed, is “to bring everything together under Christ as head” (see Ephesians 1:10, Jerusalem Bible).

It is as though each one of us plays a part in that one sacred Word, that one mysterious drama of love, present in the mind of God from all eternity.

It’s a beautiful, developing drama, a beauty whose end we cannot see. Starting with the first day of creation, the Word of God—the co-eternal mirror of the Father—has been slowly emerging down the ages. The Word has become visible in the Incarnation and will reach its full revelation when Jesus returns in glory on the last day.

Fr. Jack Wintz, OFM