St. Thomas Aquinas: the opinion “no sin, no Incarnation” is more probable Before giving his reserved opinion, he gives a strong “to the contrary” against those who hold an Incarnation even if man had not sinned. He writes:
On the contrary, Augustine says (De Verb. Apost. viii, 2), expounding what is set down in Luke 19:10, “For the Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost”; “Therefore, if man had not sinned, the Son of Man would not have come.” And on 1 Timothy 1:15, “Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners,” a gloss says, “There was no cause of Christ’s coming into the world, except to save sinners. Take away diseases, take away wounds, and there is no need of medicine.” (Summa Theologica P.III, Q.1, Art.3).
The Angelic Doctor holds that this position is more probable due to the Scriptural affirmations that Christ came to save sinners (Lk 19:10 and 1 Tm 1:15 being examples). Besides the great St. Augustine, he thus finds himself aligned with St. Anselm’s soteriological teaching and with his colleague at the University of Paris, St. Bonaventure, just to mention a few. For them, Christ comes as the remedy for sin and any other motives or blessings associated with the Incarnation are subordinate to this; therefore, for them, the primary reason for the Incarnation is the Redemption of man from sin.
Obviously, from this standpoint the supreme Masterpiece of all of God’s creation, indeed its King and Lord, its Alpha and Omega, namely the Incarnate Word, is, in the end, a remedy, a medicine, a cure for man’s fall. This would mean that the Humanity of Christ, His Most Sacred Heart, His Church – in a word, Jesus Himself exists for us as a remedy. His Incarnation, then, is subordinated to man’s sin and need for Redemption. His primacy in all creation, His headship over men and Angels, His kingship, as such, are all dependent upon sin; they are conditioned (and not unconditional); they are relative to sin (and not absolute). I point this out here to spell out some of the consequences of this position. The implications are many and far reaching: ie. the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Immaculate Mother of God and Queen of Heaven is predestined based on man’s need for Redemption (no sin, no Incarnation, and therefore no Mother of God, no Queen of the Angels, etc.); the good Angels are only “accidentally” under Christ’s headship (if at all); Christ “come in the flesh” (1 Jn 4:2), according to Aquinas and this school, would not have come at all and thus would never have been King of the Angels or the universe or anything had Adam not sinned; consequently, the universe is centered on Christ thanks to the “happy fault” of Adam; and the list goes on.
As can be seen throughout this website, and as we will see in later posts, the Scriptures, while they speak of the urgency of man’s absolute need for Redemption after the fall and while they speak at length of Christ’s redemptive mission, nonetheless, also clearly reveal a christocentric “purpose” in creation (cfr. Eph 1:9-11) that does not depend on any foreknowledge of sin, but which is simply God’s design and immutable decree in creating the universe and sending His only begotten Son to recapulate all things in Christ (Col 1:20). I do not grow weary in pointing out that we exist for Christ! and not vice versa (cfr. 1 Cor 3:23; Col 1:16; Rm 14:8; etc.).
We do well to keep these things in mind as we take a look at the specific responses and rationale that St. Thomas Aquinas uses to support what he considers the “more probable” opinion.
When it comes to discussing the the primary motive of the Incarnation there are, in the Western Church, two basic currents of thought which have come to be associated with the “dumb ox,” St. Thomas Aquinas (no sin, no Incarnation), and the “dunce,” Bl. John Duns Scotus (sin or no sin, there would always have been the Incarnation).
First, let me clear the record that the titles of “dumb ox” and “dunce” are certainly not mine. 🙂
The dumb ox: St. Thomas was large in stature, and yet quite humble by virtue. His peers at the University of Paris referred to him as the “dumb ox,” both because of his size and his meekness when presenting his knowledge in front of others. However, after a defence of a difficult thesis in class, the professor – St. Albert the Great – exclaimed, “We call him the dumb ox, but in his teaching he will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world.”
The dunce: The term actually is derived from his name (he was born in Duns, Scotland) and began to be used as a derogatory term in the 16th century after the Anglican and Calvanist revolt against the Church and the humanist revolt against Scholasticism. Simply put, the term referred to any follower of the subtle teachings of Duns Scotus (his followers were known as “Dunsmen”). Hence, a “dunce” was considered to be a stupid numbskull who adhered to scotistic doctrine (loyalty to the Pope, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the absolute primacy of Christ, etc.). The term was eventually transferred into grammar school settings where slow or misbehaving pupils were publicly humiliated by being put in a corner with a silly pointed “dunce cap.” Obviously Scotus was not to the liking of the Protestant reformers nor to the free thinkers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment which grew out of it!
At any rate, from here on I will refer to St. Thomas Aquinas either by name or his well earned title the Angelic Doctor and Bl. John Duns Scotus by name or his well earned title the Subtle Doctor. However, you can feel free to call me dumb or a dunce; given my love and respect for both of these holy men and their profound insights, I would consider it a compliment. 😉
That hypothetical question: Whether, if man had not sinned, God would have become incarnate? (Summa Theologica III, I, 3)
Before we look at the responses of these two great minds, we do well to ask what’s the point of such a question. In fact, my own experience is that in discussing this topic with others they frequently dismiss the whole topic by saying that it is just a hypothetical question that doesn’t really matter. After all, Adam sinned and Jesus came and redeemed us. So what’s the point of discussing this anyway?
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves a question before we dismiss the discussion so lightly: Why did the greatest scholastic minds (and many after them) grapple with a seemingly counterfactual question? Minds like the Abbot Rupert of Deutz, Bishop Robert Grosseteste, Fr. Alexander of Hales, St. Albert the Great, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, Bl. John Duns Scotus, Fr. Francisco Suárez, St. Francis De Sales, St. Lawrence of Brindisi, etc. Perhaps they had nothing better to do than ponder what God might have done in other circumstances? Not quite.
The reason they grappled with this question is because the answer depends on a fact. Jesus came and He came for a reason. What was that reason? Why did He come? Cur Deus Homo?The question which they tackled, namely, if man had not sinned would God have become incarnate, hits the nail right on the head and the response drives the point home. Either He came primarily (or even exclusively) as a remedy for sin, in which case the response is in the negative: if man had not sinned, no, there would have been no Christ; or His coming was at the center of God’s creative plan regardless of sin, in which case the response is in the positive: if man had sinned or not sinned, yes, the Word would have become flesh and dwelt among us. Either way, we are dealing with a fact that determines the response to a hypothetical question – the Word become flesh for a reason, and not by chance.
The opinion of the Angelic Doctor
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. For such things as spring from God’s will, and beyond the creature’s due, can be made known to us only through being revealed in the Sacred Scripture, in which the Divine Will is made known to us. Hence, since everywhere in the Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason of Incarnation, it is more in accordance with this to say that the work of Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin; so that, had sin not existed, Incarnation would not have been. And yet the power of God is not limited to this; even had sin not existed, God could have become incarnate. (Summa Theologica III, I, 3)
The response of St. Thomas is not a definitive one, but rather a selection of what he considers the more probable opinion. Throughout his objections and responses one notes, first, that he respects both responses; second, that he has grappled with the question; third, that he opts for the negative opinion because “since everywhere in the Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason of Incarnation, it is more in accordance with this to say that the work of Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin; so that, had sin not existed, Incarnation would not have been.” In my opinion the statement “everywhere in the Scripture” is a very unfortunate one. One has only to click on the pages of this website to see that Scripture, especially St. Paul’s Epistles to the Romans, Colossians, and Ephesians, assigns quite another reason for the Incarnation. But more on that later (or check out the pages).
At any rate, one of the reasons the Angelic Doctor speaks of this as an opinion, even if he considers it the more probable one, is because he had great respect for two of his professors at the University of Paris who held the opposite opinion, namely, Fr. Alexander of Hales and St. Albert the Great. Fr. Alexander of Hales, also called the Doctor Irrefragibilis, held that the Incarnation was the fruit of God’s diffusive goodness and love, and thus the Incarnation of the Word was not simply to rememdy sin. St. Albert the Great,Doctor universalis, in his commentary on the Sentences states, “to the extent that I can offer my opinion, I believe that the Son of God would have become man even if there had been no sin… Nevertheless, on this subject I say nothing in a definitive manner; but I believe that what I said is more in harmony with the piety of faith” (In Sent. III, d. 20, a.4).
St. Thomas Aquinas upholds that the opposite opinion is possible and probable
In his “I answer that…” cited above, the Angelic Doctor specifically spells out that he could be wrong; that the “the power of God is not limited to this; even had sin not existed, God could have become incarnate.” Not only that, but in his objections he even notes some possible indications in favor of the positive opinion and other motives of the Incarnation that do not depend on man’s need for redemption. God willing, we will look at some of these aspects in our next post…
From St. Clare’s 4th letter to St. Agnes of Prague: “Marvel greatly at the poverty of Him who was placed in a manger and wrapped in swaddling clothes. O marvelous humility and stupendous poverty! The King of the Angels, the Lord of Heaven and earth is laid in a manger!”
As we celebrate 800 years since St. Clare of Assisi made her consecration to God in the Portiuncula Chapel of St. Mary of the Angels, we rejoice in 800 years of contemplation of Jesus poor, humble and crucified within Poor Clare cloisters throughout the ages and throughout the world.
In the citation above, St. Clare invites her sisters to contemplate in awe Jesus Christ, the King of the Angels, laid in a manger. The thought of the Babe of Bethlehem being the King of the Angels should cause one to reflect: Is Jesus the King of the Angels, and more generally the King of all creation, by a divine, immutable decree (sin or no sin)? Or is His Kingship contingent upon man’s sin and need for Redemption (no sin, no Incarnation, and therefore no Christ the King)?
The title “King of the Angels” helps us to see that the God-Man, Jesus Christ, was willed first as King, then all of creation was willed for Him. His Kingship over the Angels as the Word Incarnate, laid in a manger, is essential and central to God’s creative plan and not accidental, a sort of “since God has to come to redeem man, well, you Angels should come under Christ’s Kingship, even though He is only coming to redeem men and be their mediator.”
On August 6th, the Church solemnly celebrates the Transfiguration of Our Lord on Mount Tabor. In this feast God the Father, Son and Spirit reveal the glory of Christ the King in all His splendor to the Church and through the Church to the world. The Church is represented by the Apostles Peter, James and John, and after Christ’s Resurrection their message goes out to all the world.
The Transfiguration is a micro-revelation, if I can coin the term, of God’s creative design. God willed first and foremost to exalt a created nature to the highest possible grace and glory, namely the grace and glory of the hypostatic union whereby the humanity of Christ was predestined and elevated into the fullest participation possible of the divine, intratrinitarian life. This glory shines forth undimmed in the Transfiguration with the witness of the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elias) and the Church (the Apostles). The glory of the humanity of Christ consists in being the Son of the Father: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear Him” (Mt 17:5); the Word made flesh and thus the Light of men (cfr. Jn 1:4,14): He “was transfigured before them. And His face shone as the sun, and His garments became white as snow” (Mt 17:2-3); and the glorious work of the Holy Spirit represented by the “bright cloud” which overshadowed the mountain (v.5; cfr. Lk 1:35; Mt 3:16-17). In a word, Jesus Christ is the Masterpiece of the God’s creation – what Bl. John Duns Scotus calls the summum opus Dei.
While God could have created the humanity of Christ directly out of nothing, or formed it from the dust of the earth as he did Adam, He freely chose that Christ be factum ex muliere – “born of a woman” (Gal 4:4). In other words, in willing the Incarnation God also willed the Divine Maternity. The Blessed Virgin Mary was thus predestined to be the Mother of God in the same decree that willed the Incarnation. With Christ the King of creation there is also Mary the Queen of creation. Two Hearts, one divine plan.
It also pleased God to create Angels and men and predestine the elect to participate in the grace and glory of Christ even before the creation of the world (cfr. Eph 1:4). Thus per ipsum, cum ipso et in ipso – through Him, with Him and in Him all the Angels and Saints can give glory to God in the Holy Spirit. Christ is that one Mediator between God and creation who, by the divine decree, stands at the center, the heart of all of creation as “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). Apart from Him, no one can know or come to the Father.
In essence, Christ is the King of creation. Everything that exists, exists in Him. Everything that exists was created through Him. Everything that exists, exists for Him (cfr. Col 1:15-16).
For the Angels the test was definitive because, being pure spirits, their test was not in the context of space and time. Shown the vision of Jesus and Mary, their King and Queen, they were called to worship Christ the King and submit to Mary the Queen. St. Michael’s response was one of wonder and awe: “Who is like God?”, whereas Satan responded, “Non serviam – I will not serve.” For the fallen angels there could be no Redemption because of the definitive nature of their free choice, their free, definitive rejection of the grace of Christ.
For men, however, the test was and is in the context of time and space. Thanks to God’s mercy, there is the possibility to change, to repent. According to St. Jerome’s commentary on Ephesians 5 (and St. Thomas Aquinas confirms the tradition in his Summa II-II, Q.2, art.7and Summa III, Q.1, art.3) Adam knew of God’s plan to recapitulate all things in Christ, the Incarnate Word, when God put him into the mystic slumber and created Eve. Yes, before the fall, Adam and Eve knew of the Incarnation. This would indicate that the sin of Adam and Eve was, in a certain sense, not just a random disobedience, but a choice not to second God’s plan in Christ. In other words, the tempter led them to seek being like gods apart from Christ instead of seeking to be children of God and to enter into the Trinitarian life in Christ and through His mediation.
Sin did not change God’s plan in its substance. If Adam had not sinned, Christ would have come just the same to glorify God perfectly ad extra and to lead all creation back to its Creator as its Mediator and great High Priest. What sin did was to create a wall, so to speak, between man and God. Man had freely removed himself from God’s plan. God in His mercy wills the remedy: Christ will sacrifice Himself on our behalf and remove the wall that separated us from God and one another. This, however, requires our cooperation with His grace; this requires a response to His Divine Mercy. Man must repent of his wicked ways and acknowledge (in word and deed) Christ the glorious King.
Let us then follow the Church’s lead, let us acknowledge and adore Christ the Supreme King of Glory, as she sings in the Divine Office: Summum Regem gloriae, Christum adoremus!
Two quotes from the POST-SYNODAL APOSTOLIC EXHORTATION VERBUM DOMINI OF THE HOLY FATHER BENEDICT XVI
Sept. 30, 2010 n.8 Scripture tells us that everything that exists does not exist by chance but is willed by God and part of his plan, at whose center is the invitation to partake, in Christ, in the divine life. Creation is born of the Logos and indelibly bears the mark of the creative Reason which orders and directs it;
n.121 The Prologue of John’s Gospel leads us to ponder the fact that everything that exists is under the sign of the Word. The Word goes forth from the Father, comes to dwell in our midst and then returns to the Father in order to bring with him the whole of creation which was made in him and for him.
Pope Benedict XVI, even as Cardinal Ratzinger, has spoken many times in favor of the Incarnation, not only as a redemptive mission, but as the centerpiece of God’s creative plan.
In the quotes above from his Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini he underscores the Scriptural revelation that all things are created in Christ and for Christ (cfr. Col 1:16), that the “center” of all creation is the loving invitation to “partake, in Christ, in the divine life.” In a word, everything that exists, exists in Christ and for Christ. He is at the center, the “firstborn of all creation” in such a way that we can, in Him, become children of God, and thus He is also the “firstborn of many brothers.”
The purpose, then, of our existence is found in Jesus alone. As St. Athanasius pointed out, and St. Augustine affirmed, God became man so that man might become God – that is, the Word Incarnate makes it possible for us to become a “partaker of the divine nature” as St. Peter points out (2 Pt 1:4), what has been called theosis, or diviniziation. Christ’s coming was not only to redeem man, but, as the Pope points out, He was sent forth from the Father, dwelt in our midst and then returned to the Father “in order to bring with Him the whole of creation which was made in Him and for Him.” In other words, Christ comes to elevate man to a supernatural existence in Him for the glory of God, to bring man to the Father and bring him into the divine, Trinitarian life.