Christ, the Beginning of Creation – Part III

Christ, the Beginning of Creation – Part III

by Fr. Maximilian M. Dean

[To see the full article on one page visit Appendix: Christ the Beginning]

Christ as the Beginning: A doctrinal premise

Before exposing that Christ is the Beginning, we do well to establish a few things so as not to stray from true doctrine.

First and foremost, even if we might beg to differ with the first interpretation of the Prologue reported above whereby the Father is the Beginning, nonetheless, all of the doctrine presented by our Doctors – Cyril, Augustine and Bonaventure – in their commentaries on John must be accepted; namely, that the Word in Himself is eternal, uncreated and divine; that He is in the Father by virtue of the same divine nature and that He is at the same time distinct from the Father in His Person.

Moreover, when we say that Christ is the Beginning we absolutely do not mean that the Word in Himself was created. Nor does this mean that the Word had a human nature before the Incarnation or even before the creation of the world. No, what is meant is that God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – willed the Incarnation of the Son first, that is, predestined the Sacred Humanity of Christ to the hypostatic union “before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4) and predestined Him as the “firstborn of every creature” and “before all creatures” (Col 1:15,17) in His intention to create. In the divine design Christ was willed as the “Beginning of the creation of God” (Apoc 3:14) and then God willed all of the rest of creation in Christ, through Christ and unto Christ. After this Beginning, that is, after having willed the Incarnation of the Word in the womb of the Virgin Mary, there begins the execution of God’s design: the creation of the world and, in the end, the full realization of His creative design, the Incarnation itself where God recapitulates or sums up all things under the headship of Christ.

In order to better understand the distinction between intention and execution in the creative plan of God,[1] a teaching very dear to the Subtle Doctor,[2] let us examine the illuminating teaching of Augustine who distinguishes the realization of a project (execution) from the idea to be realized (intention): “If, for example, you must build an edifice, if you must to realize something which is grand, first you conceive the idea in your mind. The idea is already born… Others admire your project and await its wonderful construction; they remain full of admiration before that which they see and love that which they still cannot see: who, in fact, can see an idea? If, therefore, the idea of a man before its grandiose realization can be praised, do you want to measure the greatness of God’s idea which is the Lord Jesus Christ, that is the Word of God?”[3] Even if Augustine does not arrive at the idea of God being the Word Incarnate in the beginning, his thought gives us the possibility of distinguishing God’s idea in creating the world from its realization. It is a philosophical principle which goes back to Aristotle: “That which is first in the intention is last in the execution.”[4] Yet the project is the same whether in the intention or the execution.

What this means is that in the mind of God Christ, His creative Masterpiece,[5] existed before as the idea, as the intention, and then in time this was accomplished when the Word became flesh; first there was the predestination of Christ to glory, then the creation of all things in view of Him and through Him which lead to the full realization of that predestination, namely the Incarnation.[6]

I suppose this could be a cause of confusion to think that Christ, “the Beginning,” comes on the scene not only after the temporal beginning of creation, but even towards the end. And yet that is the fact. St. Peter explains: “Foreknown, indeed, before the foundation of the world, He has been manifested in the last times for your sakes” (1 Pt 1:20). Before His manifestation He was always present in the mind of God as the idea, as created Wisdom, as the intention, as the first predestined, the firstborn, the first one willed. Fr. Ruggero Rosini writes on this point: “For us it is difficult to understand how a future action could influence a present action. For God such a difficulty does not exist: for Him everything is in the present. It was not a difficulty for Him, in fact, to preserve Mary from original sin in view of the future merits of Christ’s death. We must believe, therefore, that for Him there is no difficulty in creating ‘everything by means of Christ’ from the beginning of time.”[7]

To facilitate an understanding of this (and in order not to get lost in the labyrinth of profound thoughts which will be presented), it would be a good idea to utilize this this diagram as a type of ‘roadmap’ [I’ll continue to put it at the end of each post]:

To be continued…

[1] Cfr. Fr. Maximilian M. Dean, A Primer on the Absolute Primacy of Christ, (Academy of the Immaculate, New Bedford 2006) pp.27-29; 56-57; 91-94.

[2] Scotus, when he wrote about the Incarnation not being occasioned by sin, he spoke of the “ordinate volens” where one begins with the imperfect [unrealized] in the intention and finishes with the perfect in the execution. Cfr. Ordinatio, III, d.7, q.3; Opus Parisiense, Lib III, d.7, q.4.

[3] Augustine, Commento al Vangelo di Giovanni, I, n.9 (Città Nuova Editrice, Roma 2005, p.84-85).

[4] Aristotle, Metaphysica, VI, t.7, c.23.

[5] Cfr. Scotus, Opus Parisiense, L. III, d. 7, q. 4, where he calls Christ (the Word Incarnate) the “summum opus Dei” who cannot be “occasionatum” by sin, but rather who was decreed and predestined for the maximum glory of God before any consideration of man’s redemption from sin.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Rosini, op. cit. p.130

Christ, the Beginning of Creation – Part II

Christ, the Beginning of Creation – Part II

by Fr. Maximilian M. Dean, F.I.

[To see the full article on one page visit Appendix: Christ the Beginning]

In the beginning God created

It is not by chance that John wishes to begin his Gospel with the same words that begin all of Sacred Scriptures. As a matter of fact, “in the head of the Book” (Ps 39:8) it is written: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1), and so it is that the “alpha” of all of divine revelation is precisely this in the beginning. But John, being the last writer of the Bible, give the “omega” of revelation, namely, “In the beginning was the Word…” (Jn 1:1). “The Alpha and the Omega” of all of God’s revelation, then, is none other than in the beginning God created and in the beginning was the Word. While everyone immediately recognizes John’s explicit reference to Genesis, not everyone goes on to interpret in the same way the in the beginning of these two passages.

We have seen how Cyril, Augustine and Bonaventure in their commentaries on the Prologue interpreted the in the beginning of John’s Gospel as in the Father, in order to say that the Word was eternally and essentially in the Father who is the beginning par excellence. However, when we read the first line of Genesis it is evident that in the beginning cannot be referring to the Father. In fact, if we say “in the Father God created the heavens and the earth” it does not make any sense. This must also hold true for the Prologue of St. John, otherwise it would break the express and tight bond intended by the Evangelist between his Gospel and the narration of the creation of the universe.

The connection is explicit in every fashion because not only does he start with the same words, not only does he speak of “light” and “darkness,” but he even lists seven days. The first day there is the Word who becomes flesh (Jn 1:1-14) and the testimony of John the Baptist (1:6-8,15,19ff.). Then, subtly, the Evangelist says “the next day” (1:29), “the next day” (1:35), “the next day” (1:43), and then “on the third day” (2:1) in order to arrive at the seventh day with the wedding feast at Cana.

Thus we are speaking about a new creation, about water changed into wine, so to speak, where what counts is being “a new creation” (Gal 6:15) and where Jesus proclaims: “Behold, I make all things new” (Apoc 21:5). For us His coming means a “new” creation, whereas for God it is but the full realization of His original design as the Creator who willed, and still wills, that everything be summed up under the headship of Christ (cfr. Col 1:18,20). For us it is water changed into wine, while for God it is the fulfillment of His plan, already foreseen before the ages: He had always willed “the good wine,” but He had conserved it “until now.”

We need to establish, therefore, that, starting with the first line of Genesis, the biblical expression “in the beginning” refers to creation. What follows is that the expression “in the beginning was the Word” does not express the fact that the eternal Word was in the Father, but rather that the Word Incarnate was the Beginning in which all things were created.

It could not be otherwise because the word beginning, bound to the context and meaning found in Genesis – “In the beginning God created” – speaks not only of the fontal origin of being, but also of its temporal beginning. Neither the eternal Father, nor the eternal Word, nor the eternal Spirit – that is the entire eternal Godhead Three-in-One – none of Them can have a beginning, a principio, like creation does. Each Divine Person, being God, is without beginning, ‘startless’ as it were, by very definition and, as we shall see, the Church does not grow weary in professing and teaching that God, by nature – whether the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit – is before the ages, before and outside of time – in a word, eternal. Creation, on the other hand, has a very specific beginning: “In the beginning God created.”

Let us fix our gaze for a moment upon the Church’s solemn teaching upon this point in order to better understand that in the beginning cannot be referring to the Divinity in Itself – neither the Father nor the Word in Himself. Given that before creation there was no such thing as time (the succession of moments), but only the eternal God, it is clear that He is “before every creature.”[1] As a result the Creeds, Councils and Popes of the Church, whenever they speak of God Three and One – whether of the Divine Essence or of the Three Divine Persons (and the Son in a particular way) – never speak of a beginning.[2] To the contrary, they repeat practically ad infinitum that God is without any beginning and before the ages. Here are some examples amongst many which speak specifically of the Divinity of the Son, but can be referred to the Father and the Spirit as well:

–          Pope St. Leo the Great in 449 explains that the divine nature of Christ comes “from the Father before any beginning,”[3] which means that when we speak of the Word in Himself, as God, He is not in the beginning, but before any beginning.

–          Pope Anastasius II in 497 states that the only-begotten Son, “born of the Father according to the Divinity,” is “before all time, without beginning.”[4] He is not in the beginning, therefore, but without beginning.

–          Pope Hormisdas in 521 writes: “The Son was before time.”[5] As such the Word in Himself, as God, is before time, before the beginning, before any age; while the Word made flesh is in time, in the beginning, in these days, while ever remaining the eternal God. This means that if John wished to speak of the Word in Himself in his Prologue and not the Word made flesh, he would have had to write: Before the ages, before all time was the Word. But what he actually wrote was: “In the beginning was the Word.” We will study this more in depth later.

–          The Council of Constantinople in 553 declares in Canon 2: “If anyone does not confess that God the Word has two births, one that is incorporal, outside of time, before the ages from the Father, the other [is the birth] of Him truly in the last days who descended from Heaven and was incarnate of the holy, glorious and always Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and born of her, let him be anathema.”[6] The Church never speaks of the Divinity of Christ in terms of time, while His Sacred Humanity is always described in time.

–          The Council of Toledo VI in 638 explains that the Son comes from the Father “outside of time, before any creature, without beginning, born [generated] and not created.”[7] It is absolutely clear, therefore, that in speaking of the Divinity and the Divine Persons the Church never speaks of time or of a beginning because God is eternal.

St. Cyril explicitly states: “Besides, in speaking of the Only-Begotten it is not possible to think of a beginning in time since He is before all time and exists before the ages… But since the Son is more ancient than the ages, He could not have been generated in time, but He was always in the Father as from a spring…”[8] The fact is that in Genesis, as is also true of John’s Gospel, in the beginning indicates the start of time, the beginning of creation, and God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is completely outside of time, uncreated, without beginning or end, eternal.

In the beginning, therefore, cannot be applied to the Son in Himself as God, let alone the Father or the Holy Spirit, except by way of an accommodation, that is by using the term beginning as a manner of speaking (i.e. the Father is the “beginning” of the Trinity, that is to say the eternal fountain from which the Son eternally proceeds, but to speak in this way one always has to add that the Father is the ‘beginning’ without a beginning[9] and in the end the accommodation is very limited and does not synchronize, as we shall see, with the rest of Sacred Scripture).

However, in Christ, the Word made flesh, there is a created nature united to the divine nature in the Person of the Word and Christ has His beginning in the “fullness of time” (Gal 4:4). Behold the key to understanding what is meant by “in the beginning God created” and “in the beginning was the Word.” In both of these passages, as we will see with great clarity, we are speaking of the Word Incarnate, the beginning of creation.[10]

Indeed the expression in the beginning can only be applied to God without accommodation in so far as He is incarnate and becomes the “Son of man,” and this is valid only for Christ because neither the Father nor the Spirit assumed flesh of the Virgin, but only the Son. Hence, when the Evangelist days: “In the beginning was the Word,” it must be understood that he is speaking of the Word become man: Christ was the Beginning.

Moreover, the expression in the beginning cannot be applied to the eternal Word in Himself,  without reference to the Incarnation, because, as St. Cyril says of the eternal Word: “The Son, as a matter of fact, is before the ages, and He Himself is the Creator of the ages; nor can He who has a generation [birth] more ancient than time itself be in any way whatsoever limited by time”.[11]

It is necessary to examine the function of the verb to be in the phrase “in the beginning was the Word.” Its function could be understood in two ways:

First, as a predicate adjective where in the beginning is applied to the Word in the sense of the beginning of creation. In other words, when God created the universe He had the decree of the Incarnation before Him, He beheld Jesus, and as such the beginning of creation and of time itself was the Word Incarnate: nothing was created without Him and without Him there is no temporal beginning.

Second, as a predicate nominative where to be means to be equal to. In this case the Incarnate Word was the “principio,” viz. the creative principle/beginning in which everything was made – not just in the temporal sense, but as the fontal origin, the cause of all things. In a word, following the lead of both of these senses it can safely be said that Christ was both the temporal beginning and the fontal origin of creation: “the beginning of the creation of God” (Apoc 3:14).

Besides, with this interpretation the Prologue becomes more consistent: God always refers to the Divinity (and not sometimes to the Divinity and sometimes to the Father); the Word always refers to Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Son of Mary (and not sometimes the uncreated Word in the Father – without reference to the Incarnation – and other times to the Word made flesh – i.e. John the Baptist is giving witness to the Word Incarnate in v.6ff.).

to be continued…

[1] The Son, with the Father and the Spirit, is ante omnem creaturam (cfr. Denz. 490, ecc.).

[2] Ante saecula, ante omnia saecula (cfr. Denz. 76, 301, 357, 617, ecc.), ante tempora (Denz. 368), sine tempore (Denz. 422), intemporaliter (cfr. Denz. 490, 617, ecc.).

[3] Ex Patre ante omne principium (Denz. 297).

[4]Ante omnia quidem saecula sine principio (Denz. 357; cfr. 76, ecc.).

[5] Qui ante tempora erat Filius (Denz. 368).

[6] Ante saecula, sine tempore (Denz. 422). It is sufficient to look at the Councils of Chalcedon and Costantinople I to understand that the teaching of the Word in Himself as ante saecula is a solemnly proclaimed dogma (Denz. 150 e 503-504).

[7] Intemporaliter ante omnem creaturam sine initio (Denz. 490; cfr. 617).

[8] Cyril, op. cit. I, I (p.38).

[9] Cfr. ibid. I, 1 (p.40) and Augustine, Contra Maximin., II, c.17, n.4; PL 42, 784.

[10] Cfr. P. Ruggero Rosini, Il Cristo nella Bibbia, nei Santi Padri, nel Vaticano II, pp. 109-119, where Christ is shown to be the Beginning.

[11] Ibid. I, III (p.58).

Christ, the Beginning of Creation – Part I

Christ, the Beginning of Creation – Part I

by Fr. Maximilian M. Dean, F.I.

[To see the full article on one page visit Appendix: Christ the Beginning]
The scope of this little study is to show that the true meaning of the Prologue of St. John, according to Sacred Scripture and Tradition, is this: Christ, the Word made flesh, the God-Man, is the beginning in which God created everything.

In establishing that Jesus Christ was “the Beginning of the creation of God” (Apoc 3:14), that all things were created by means of Him (cfr. Jn 1:3; Heb 1:2-3; Col 1:16), it follows that the teaching of Bl. John Duns Scotus on the absolute primacy of Christ is not only “probable,” according to the expression of St. Thomas Aquinas,[1] but revealed doctrine. The Beginning of God’s creation could never be “occasioned” [2] by any creature or creaturely need. Why? Because if one were to hold that Christ, the summum opus Dei,[3] was “occasioned,” then He would cease to be the Beginning of the creation of God and would rather be reduced to the remedy of the creation of God; He would cease to be the Firstborn of all creatures and would instead become the ‘afterborn,’ that is, the divine ‘afterthought’ resulting from the foreseen consideration of Adam’s sin. And this, as the Subtle Doctor teaches, is “absurd.” [4]

Let us then study more in depth this assertion: Christ is the Beginning.

“In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God
And the Word was God.
He was in the beginning before God”
(Jn 1:1-2)

This is how John starts his Gospel. And as such we are immediately presented with a very interesting argument: is John, in these initial verses, writing about the Divinity in sé, that is, the Divine Essence and the Divine Persons, without reference to the Incarnation? Or rather is he speaking to us about the Word Incarnate with His two natures, divine and human, and Him before God?

The Divinity in Itself: the Father as the beginning, the Word in the Father

Beyond all doubt the more popular interpretation is that John is speaking of the Divinity in Itself by giving a particular emphasis to the eternal Word in Himself without any reference to the Incarnation. St. Bonaventure states that “this book treats of the Word Incarnate, in whom it considers the double nature, human and divine. It is divided in two parts: in the first part it speaks of the Word in Himself; in the second it speaks of Him in so far as He is united to the flesh.” [5] For Bonaventure, as also for St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Augustine (all three of them wrote commentaries on the Gospel of St. John), these first verses do not, of themselves, have any reference to the Incarnation. They speak exclusively of the Divine Essence and the Divine Persons, in particular the second Person who is the eternal Son with/before the Father.

In the midst of innumerable heresies regarding the Trinity and Christ, Cyril and Augustine refer to these words of the Prologue to combat the erroneous doctrine of the heretics on the Divinity of the Word. For all three of them, therefore, in the beginning is a reference to the Father and to the eternal procession of the Word-Son from Him.

Bonaventure states: “Here the beginning par excellence is the Father, hence the meaning is: In the beginning, that is, in the Father, is the Son who is not separated from the Father by essence.”[6] And Augustine: “There is the beginning which does not have a beginning, and this is the Father; there is the beginning which derives from the beginning, and this is the Son.”[7] And Cyril likewise: “God the Father is the beginning, and the Word was in Him by nature.”[8] Therefore, saying that “in the beginning was the Word” means that the eternal Word is essentially in that “eternal Beginning without beginning,”[9] namely in the Father.

The rich explanation of these Doctors is splendid, of this there is no doubt, and the succinct doctrine that follows in their Gospel commentaries is irrefutable because it is doctrine of the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Faith. The holy martyrs of every age and place have given their lives for this Faith and we too desire to profess this Faith until our death. Yet, without denying in the slightest their pure doctrine, there is a difficulty in imposing such an interpretation on these verses of the Evangelist, a difficulty which even comes out in the teachings of these Doctors themselves. For this reason we will now linger upon these first verses of the Gospel, and in particular upon the words “in the beginning.”

to be continued…

[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, In Sent. III, d.1, q.1, a.3.; cfr. also Summa theol. III, q.1, a.3.

[2] B. John Duns Scotus, Ordinatio, III, d.7, q.3 (ed. C. Balić, Joannis Duns Scoti, doctoris mariani, theologiae marianae elementa… ad fidem codd. Mss., Sebenici, 1933) 4-7; Ordinatio, III (suppl.), d.19; cod. Assisi com.137, fol.161v.; ed. Vivès (Paris, 1894) XIV, 714; Opus Parisiense, Lib III, d.7, q.4 (ed. Balić) 13-15; Lectura Completa, III, d.7, q.3 (ed. Balić) 188; Reportatio Barcinonensis, II, d.7, q.3 (ed. Balić) 183-184.

[3] Scotus, Opus Parisiense, Lib III, d.7, q.4 (ed. Balić) 13-15.

[4] Scotus, ibid.; cfr. also Ordinatio, III, d.7, q.3 (ed. C. Balić, Joannis Duns Scoti, doctoris mariani, theologiae marianae elementa… ad fidem codd. Mss., Sebenici, 1933) 4-7

[5] Saint Bonaventure, Commento al Vangelo di Giovanni, I, I, n.1 (Città Nuova Editrice, Roma 1990, Vol. 1, p.57).

[6] Ibid. I, I, n.2 (p.57).

[7] St. Augustine, Contra Maximin., II, c.17, n.4; PL 42, 784.

[8] St. Cyril of Alexander, Commento al Vangelo di Giovanni, I, 1  (Città Nuova Editrice, Roma 1994, Vol. 1, p.40).

[9] Ibid.