Fr. Reginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. (+1964) was a French Catholic theologian of the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans) who was renowned as a leading neo-Thomist of the 20th century. In commenting on the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas he expanded upon the Angelic Doctor’s response to the question “If Man Had Not Sinned, Would God Have Become Incarnate?” To follow his commentary below it would be helpful to refer to the original thought of St. Thomas in his Summa III, C.3, Q.1, art. 3 (see here) first.
Here I will post his commentary without comment. If anyone follows the position of Bl. John Duns Scotus on the absolute primacy of Christ (sin or no sin) it is extremely useful to understand and consider the contrary position. In the end, as I’m sure Fr. Reginald would agree, what matters is the truth – veritas. So studying both positions helps one to have a fuller understanding of what the truth indeed is. Fr. Reginald, like St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure, and Bl. John Duns Scotus, was versed in both schools
From the pen of Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P….
For these reasons [he’s referring to the “objections” listed by Aquinas in the Summa], Alexander of Hales, St. Albert, and later on Scotus deemed it more probable that the Word would have become incarnate even if man had not sinned.
This question assumes no less importance if it be proposed as follows: What is the fundamental trait of Christ? Is it to be the Savior and victim, or preferably to be the teacher, King of kings, Lord of all? Is it only of secondary importance that He is the Savior and victim?
St. Thomas’ conclusion in the body of this article is the following. “It is more fitting to say that the work of the Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin, so that, had sin not existed, the 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.”
St. Thomas in one of his earlier works gives this opinion as probable, in fact, as more probable. Similarly, in another of his commentaries, he says: “We do not know what God would have ordained (by another decree) if He had not foreknown the sin of man. Nevertheless, authoritative writers seem to state expressly that God would not have become incarnate if man had not sinned. I incline more to this view.”
Proof. St. Thomas proves his conclusion by one argument, for, as we shall immediately see, there is no distinction between the argument “sed contra” and the argument in the body of this article, but he combines them into one argument, which may be presented by the following syllogism.
What depends solely on the will of God, and beyond all to which the creature is entitled, can be made known to us only inasmuch as it is contained in Sacred Scripture.
But everywhere in Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason for the Incarnation.
Therefore it is more fitting to say, since it seems to be more in accordance with the meaning of Sacred Scripture, that the sin of the first man is the reason of the Incarnation. This conclusion is both more and less than a theological conclusion. It is more because it appears to be the meaning of Sacred Scripture; it is less because it is not absolutely certain.
The major is evident, because what depends on the most free will of God is known only to Himself, nor is there any other way by which supernatural gifts can be made known except through revelation, which is contained in Sacred Scripture and also in tradition. Hence the Scripture says: “For who among men is he that can know the counsel of God? Or who can think what the will of God is.”
Proof of minor. Christ Himself testifies, saying: “They that are whole, need not the physician, but they that are sick. I came not to call the just, but sinners to penance.” And again: “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” St. Paul says: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Elsewhere he writes: “God sent His Son made of a woman, made under the law, that He might redeem those who were under the law.” The beloved Apostle testifies: “God so loved the world, as to send His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him may not perish, but may have life everlasting.” St. John the Baptist on seeing Jesus, says: “Behold the Lamb of God… who taketh away the sin of the world.” Likewise the Old Testament assigns the healing of the contrite of heart and the abolition of iniquity from the land, as the only reasons for the promise and expectation of the Moreover, the name Jesus signifies Savior.
But Sacred Scripture does not say explicitly that this reason for the Incarnation is the only possible one, and it speaks with reference to us men and our salvation. Hence the argument from this point of view is not apodictic.
But this argument drawn from Sacred Scripture is fully confirmed by tradition. The Council of Nicaea, in the symbol which, too, the Church sings, says: “Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven. And was made flesh by the Holy Ghost, and was made man.” Likewise, in the Council of Sens and by Innocent II, Abelard’s proposition was condemned, which said: “Christ did not assume our human nature in order to deliver us from the devil’s yoke.”
The Fathers insist upon the above-quoted passages when speaking about the motive of the Incarnation.
St. Irenaeus says: “If no flesh had to be saved, the Word of God would not at all have become flesh.”
St. Cyril of Alexandria remarks: “If we had not sinned, the Son of God would not have become like unto us.”
Other Fathers may be quoted. Thus, St. Athanasius writes: “The Word by no means would have become man unless the necessity of mankind had been the cause.”
St. Gregory Nazianzen declares: “But what was the reason for God to assume our human nature for our sake? Assuredly that He might prepare the way to heaven for us; for what other reason can there be?”
St. Chrysostom, the head of the Greek Church, likewise says: “He assumed this human nature of ours solely on account of His mercy, that He might have mercy on us; there is no other reason whatever than this alone for dispensing us from our obligation.” This means to say that the proximate motive of the efficacious decree of the Incarnation was formally the motive of mercy.
Finally also St. Augustine, the head of the Latin Church, is quoted in the counterargument of this article, who says: “If man had not sinned, the Son of man would not have come.” And elsewhere he says: “Since Adam was made, namely, a righteous man, there was no need of a mediator. But when sins had separated the human race far from God, it was necessary for us to be reconciled to God through a mediator.” The testimony of the gloss, quoted in the counterargument, must be added to the above quotations, namely: “Take away diseases, take away wounds, and there is no need of medicine.”
The Scotists say that these texts from Sacred Scripture and the Fathers prove only that, if Adam had not sinned, Christ would not have come in passible flesh, or as the physician and Savior.
The Thomists reply that in such a case the statements of the Fathers, asserting absolutely, simply, and without restrictions, that Christ would not have come if Adam had not sinned, would be false; or there would certainly be much equivocation concealed in their words. Thus the following affirmation would be false. Christ is not in the Eucharist meaning: He is not in the Eucharist in passible flesh.
But St. Augustine says, as quoted above: “If man had not sinned, the Son of man would not have come,” whereas he ought to have said: He would have come indeed but not in passible flesh, as the Redeemer.
The Scotists also appeal to the words of St. Paul, who says of Christ: “Who is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of every creature, for in Him were all things created in heaven and on earth…. Al] things were created by Him and in Him. And He is before all, and by Him all things consist.”
Concerning this text the Thomists remark that, even if these words refer not only to the Word before the Incarnation, but also to Christ, yet they do not express the proximate motive of the Incarnation, but that Christ is above every creature, by reason of His personality.
Hence many authors say that the opinion of St. Thomas and of St. Bonaventure has its foundation more in the testimony of the Scripture and the Fathers.
Therefore, because of this fundamental argument, St. Thomas rightly says in his conclusion: “Hence, since everywhere in the Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason of the Incarnation, it is more in accordance with this to say that the work of the Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin; so that, had sin not existed, the Incarnation would not have been,” at least in virtue of the present decree; but it could have been regardless of sin in virtue of another decree. This means that the proximate motive of the Incarnation was formally the motive of mercy, namely, to alleviate the misery of the human race.
Confirmation. The Thomists present a second argument which serves as a complete corroboration of the preceding.
Since God’s efficacious decrees are not modified by Him, but from eternity include also all the circumstances of the thing to be produced, the present efficacious decree of the Incarnation from eternity includes the passibility of the flesh. But, as the Scotists concede, the incarnation in passible flesh, supposes the fall. Therefore, in virtue of the present decree, the Word incarnate would not have existed if man had not sinned.
Explanation of the major. God’s efficacious decree includes all the circumstances of the things to be produced, because it is an act of most perfect prudence, which attends to all the circumstances of the object, inasmuch as it is concerned with all the particulars that can and must be done right at the moment. The difference between God and us consists in this, that we intend many things even as much as these efficaciously be in our power, although we do not attend to all the detailed circumstances, because these do not come under our observation simultaneously but successively, nor can we foresee with certainty the absolutely fortuitous circumstances even of the morrow. On the contrary, God knows all future things from eternity, and nothing happens without either a positive or permissive decree of His will, positive as regards that which is real and good, permissive as regards evil. Hence God’s positive efficacious decree, since it is most prudent, includes all the circumstances of the thing to be produced. Hence God, different from us, does not modify His efficacious decrees, and consequently the efficacious decree of the Incarnation in passible flesh, so that de facto the Incarnation takes place, is the only one issued by God, and this decree, as the Scotists concede, supposes the fall of the human race. Therefore, in virtue of the present efficacious decree, if man had not sinned, the Word would not have become incarnate.
Therefore the Scotists ought to say that the decree of the Incarnation considered in itself and not in passible flesh is a conditional and inefficacious decree, like God’s antecedent will of saving the human race, because it is directed to something considered in itself, abstracting, as it were, from particular circumstances of time and place. But it must be added in virtue of the present inefficacious decree, nothing comes into being, for no being or anything good is produced, because these can be produced only according to conditions right at the moment, and at the moment nothing is realized, for the conditional and inefficacious decree does not refer to the existence of things. Hence, in virtue of this particular, inefficacious decree, the Word de facto would not, right in the present circumstances, have become incarnate either in passible or in impassible flesh.
Instance. But perhaps this argument proves only that the reparation of sin was an indispensable condition for the coming of Christ. It does not follow as an immediate consequence that this indispensable condition was the proximate motive of the Incarnation, because not every indispensable condition is the motive of one’s action.
Reply. We say that the Scripture assigns this condition as the motive, and no other proximate motive is assigned to this condition, except the common and ultimate motive in all God’s works, which is the manifestation of His goodness or His glory.
This argument is most forceful. In fact, it appears to be apodictic, inasmuch as it is equivalent to saying that God, unlike us, does not afterward make a change in what He has efficaciously decreed to bring into being. These decrees are, from the moment of their utterance, most perfect and include future circumstances even to the least detail. Thus, in like manner it was decreed by God that Peter was to attain eternal glory only by way of penance after his threefold denial, which was permitted by God. This argument holds good against the opinion of Suarez.
Objection. The election of Peter to heaven is an efficacious decree. But this decree does not include in its object all the circumstances, for instance, whether Peter will reach heaven by means of martyrdom, for this pertains to a subsequent decree. Therefore not every efficacious decree includes all the circumstances.
Reply. I distinguish the major. The election of Peter to heaven is an efficacious decree of the end, this I concede; of the means, this I deny.
I contradistinguish the minor. That the decree does not include all the circumstances of the means, this I concede; of the end, this I deny. Although the decree concerning the end virtually contains the decree concerning the means.
Thus Peter’s election to heaven includes a certain degree of glory for this individual person, together with all the associated circumstances. Similarly, therefore, the decree of the Incarnation ought to terminate in the individual Christ, right now to be born of the Virgin Mary, in passible flesh, just as it actually happened.
The Scotists insist saying: I can decree efficaciously that someone must be paid a debt of one hundred dollars, not considering whether this debt is to be paid in gold or silver.
1. We mortals can certainly do so, for our decrees are from the beginning imperfect, often vaguely expressed, especially if they concern something to be fulfilled in the future.
2. Moreover, the aforesaid decree concerns the end, namely, the price to be paid, not the means by which it is to be paid.
3. This decree does not concern the production of the thing, but the use of a thing already produced, namely, of a sum of gold or silver. On the contrary, the efficacious decree of the Incarnation concerns a thing to be produced right now, hence in passible flesh, as it actually happened. Therefore this argument rests on very solid grounds, that is, after the Incarnation has become an accomplished fact.
Confirmation of proof. St. Thomas confirms his proof by the solution of the objections which he placed at the beginning of this, his third article.
The first objection was proposed by St. Augustine, who says: “Many other things are to be considered in the Incarnation of Christ besides absolution from sin.”
Reply to first objection. “All the other causes which are assigned in the preceding article have to do with a remedy for sin,” since, by the Incarnation man is withdrawn from evil and given the greatest of incentives to practice the virtues of faith, hope, and charity.
We must also concede that God, in the decree of the Incarnation, besides the redemption of the human race, had in mind as the ultimate and common end of all His works, the manifestation of His goodness or of His glory; but now it is a question of the proximate motive of the Incarnation, namely, whether it is connected with sin.
The second objection was: It belongs to God’s omnipotence to manifest Himself by some infinite effect.
Reply to second objection. “The infinity of divine power is shown in the mode of production of things from nothing. Again, it suffices for the perfection of the universe that the creature be ordained in a natural manner to God as to an end (that is, in the purely natural state). But that a creature should be united to God in person exceeds the limits of the perfection of nature.” Therefore, this constitutes the object of a most free decree, the motive of which is made manifest only by revelation.
The third objection was: Human nature has not been made more capable of the grace of the hypostatic union by sin. Therefore, if man had not sinned, God would have willed the Incarnation.
Reply to third objection. St. Thomas concedes the antecedent. He distinguishes the consequent, and concedes that, if man had not sinned, human nature was capable obedientially of the Incarnation; that it would de facto have been raised to the dignity of the hypostatic union in virtue of the present decree, this he denies.
The whole of this beautiful reply to the third objection must be read, because it is of great importance.
There are two things to be noted in this reply.
1) The obediential power concerns a supernatural agent, namely, God whom it obeys; but God, who is absolutely free, does not always complete this obediential power, though He sometimes does so, and gratuitously.
2) “But there is no reason,” says St. Thomas, “why human nature should not have been raised to something greater (de facto) after sin. God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom. Hence it is written (Rom. 5:20): ‘Where sin abounded grace did more abound.’ Hence too, in the blessing of the paschal candle, we say: ‘O happy fault, that merited such and so great a Redeemer. ”
Thus it is confirmed that the motive of the Incarnation was formally the motive of mercy, and, moreover, it is evident that God permitted original sin for a greater good, which is the redemptive Incarnation. Thus causes are to each other causes, though in a different order. In the order of material cause to be perfected, the merciful uplifting of the fallen human race precedes the redemptive Incarnation; but this latter precedes the fall in the order of final cause or of greater good for which reason sin of the first man is permitted. Thus the body of this particular embryo in the order of material cause to be perfected precedes the creation and infusion of this particular soul, and yet this latter precedes the embryo in the order of final cause, for this soul would not be created unless the embryo were disposed to receive it.
Several Thomists insist on this point, as we shall see, such as Godoi, Gonet, Salmanticenses, whose interpretation is already contained in this reply to the third objection, which was not sufficiently considered by John of St. Thomas and Billuart.
The fourth objection was: Christ as man was eternally predestined to be the natural Son of God. But predestination is always fulfilled. Therefore even before sin, it was necessary for the Son of God to become incarnate.
St. Thomas replies: “Predestination presupposes the foreknowledge of future things; and hence, as God predestines the salvation of anyone (for example, of Augustine, to be brought about by the prayers of others, for example, of St. Monica), so also He predestined the work of the Incarnation to be the remedy of human sin.”
This reply of St. Thomas to the fourth objection requires a brief explanation. “Predestination,” says St. Thomas, “presupposes the foreknowledge of future things,” not indeed of all future things. Certainly St. Thomas does not mean that it presupposes the foreknowledge of merits, for then he would contradict himself; but predestination presupposes the foreknowledge of certain future things. Thus, when God predestines Peter, He first wills him eternal life in the order of final cause, but previously in the order of material cause He wills him individuation by means of matter by which he is constituted as Peter. Similarly, when it is a question of the whole human race and of Christ’s predestination as the Redeemer of the human race, this predestination presupposes the foreseeing of Adam’s sin in the order of material cause only. Likewise a foreseen persecution is the occasion for someone being predestined to the grace of martyrdom. The Thomists consider the person of the predestined, native talents, and other natural gifts, temperament, to be effects postulated by predestination, which follow it in the order of final cause. And as Augustine would not have attained eternal life if St. Monica had not prayed for him, so if man had not sinned, the Word would not have become incarnate.
This reply must be correctly understood, so that it be not interpreted as contrary to a previous conclusion,. which stated that the foreknowledge of merits is not the cause of predestination, because the merits of the elect are, on the contrary, the effects of their predestination.
Cajetan explains this point well. He remarks that, when St. Thomas says in his reply to the fourth objection that “predestination presupposes the foreknowledge of future things,” he does not mean “of all future things,” for Peter’s predestination does not presuppose the foreknowledge of Peter’s future eternal happiness, but, on the contrary, the foreknowledge of Peter’s future eternal happiness presupposes Peter’s predestination to eternal happiness, inasmuch as God foresees future things in the decrees of His will. But St. Thomas means in this case that “predestination presupposes the foreknowledge of some future things which are presupposed by predestination.”
Thus St. Thomas considers that Christ’s predestination to natural divine sonship presupposes the foreknowledge of sin, since it was to repair this offense that Christ was predestined; for, as Cajetan observes, the ordering of medicine presupposes knowledge of the disease.
But the difficulty is not solved, for Scotus will argue that this dependence of the Incarnation on sin holds good in the order of execution but not in the order of intention of Christ’s predestination. For the orderly way of willing for anyone is to will the end and those things nearer to the end, than other inferior things. Thus God wills for anyone, such as Adam, before He saw either His merits or a fortiori His demerits. Therefore a fortiori God wills divine natural sonship to Christ before having foreseen Adam’s demerit.
In answer to this objection it can be said, in accordance with the reply to the third objection, what St. Thomas means is that, even in the order of intention, Christ’s predestination is dependent on the foreseeing of Adam’s sin, not indeed that it is dependent on this latter as being the final cause, but as being the material cause that is to be perfected.
Thus, when God predestines Peter, He first wills him eternal happiness in the order of final cause, and He first wills him individuation from matter already qualified in the embryo, in the order of material cause; and “to them that love God all things work together unto good.” He also wills them their physical temperament.
Likewise, when it is a question of the whole human race, and of Christ’s predestination as the Redeemer of the human race, this predestination presupposes the foreseeing of Adam’s sin in the order of material cause only.
This distinction is made by Cajetan on this point, and, although not everything that he says here on the ordering of the divine decrees concerning the three orders of nature, grace, and the hypostatic union are true perhaps, nevertheless this distinction must be and is upheld by subsequent Thomists.
For Cajetan replies by distinguishing the antecedent as follows: in the order of final cause, one who wills methodically, wills the end before other things, this I concede; that one does so in the order of disposing cause, which reduces itself to material cause, this I deny
Thus we will first and preferably health to purification in the order of final cause; contrary to this, however, in the order of material or disposing cause we will purification as a means to health.
This distinction has its foundation in the principle that causes mutually interact, and the application of this principle is afterward developed by the Salmanticenses and Gonet, whose interpretation differs somewhat from Cajetan’s, as will be stated farther on.
Cajetan concludes: “It is evident that the Incarnation can be willed by God, without such an occasion (i. e., Adam’s sin), but it is not evident that it is de facto willed by God independent of such occasion…. We must turn to the Scripture if we wish to know that de facto God ordained that the Incarnation will come to pass, whether Adam did or did not sin. Rut because from the Scripture we have knowledge only of a redemptive Incarnation, we say, although God could have willed the Incarnation even without a future redemption, de facto He willed it only in the redemption; because by revelation, He did not reveal things otherwise to us, and it is only by revelation that we can know His will…. The conclusion is that God willed the greatest good only in conjunction with such less good.” Thus, although God could have willed efficaciously the salvation of the whole human race (which to us appears better), it is certain that He willed efficaciously that many be saved, but not all.
Likewise, as Cajetan says: “It is not derogatory to God’s wisdom to have disposed things so that He will effect so sublime a good as that (of the Incarnation), sin being only the occasion that urged Him to have mercy…. Therefore we must not on this account rejoice at another’s fall (that is, Adam’s), but at the mercy of God, who causes the foreseen fall of one to redound to another’s good.” Hence we conclude that the motive of the Incarnation was formally the motive of mercy, since our salvation was the motive, as stated in the Nicene Creed.
Fifth objection. St. Thomas states that the mystery of the Incarnation was revealed to man in a state of innocence without any reference to future sin. Therefore it has no connection with this sin.
Reply to fifth objection. St. Thomas says: “Nothing prevents an effect from being revealed to one to whom the cause is not revealed.”
What Is Precisely The View Of Scotus?
The question whether Christ was predestined to be the Son of God, affords Scotus the occasion to discuss the problem of the motive of the Incarnation. After replying to the first question in the affirmative, he goes on to show that Christ was predestined as man to the grace of the hypostatic union and to glory independently of the foreseeing of Adam’s sin. Scotus proves his point by seven arguments that have been splendidly reproduced by Cajetan. We shall give here the principal arguments with Cajetan’s replies.
First argument. The predestination of any person whatever to glory precedes naturally, on the part of the object, the foreknowledge of sin or of the damnation of any man whatever. Therefore with far greater reason this is true concerning the predestination of Christ’s soul to supreme glory.
Cajetan replies. He denies the antecedent, because he holds that the foreseeing of sin pertains to the order of general providence, presupposed by the ordering of predestination. But this reply gives rise to many difficulties, since the permission of sin in the life of the predestined, for example, and therefore in the life of Adam himself, is the effect not only of general providence, but also of the predestination of these elect, which itself presupposes the predestination of Christ. Hence theologians in general, and even subsequent Thomists, do not uphold Cajetan in this reply.
But very many Thomists reply as follows. They concede that Christ’s predestination precedes by nature the foreseeing of Adam’s sin in the order of final cause; they deny that it precedes in the order of material or disposing cause.
Thus they concede that Peter’s predestination to glory precedes by nature the foreseeing of his individuation, in the order of final cause; they deny this precedence in the order of material cause. Likewise, one is predestined to the grace of martyrdom, on the occasion of a foreseen persecution.
Second argument. The orderly way of willing is for one to will first the end, and then those things more immediate to the end. Thus God first wills to give heavenly glory to one before grace, and He first wills this to Christ, and then to the predestined as subordinated to Christ. Moreover, God first wills anyone heavenly glory and grace which He may foresee are in opposition because of sin and its consequences. Therefore God first wills heavenly glory to Christ previous to foreseeing Adam’s fall.
Cajetan replies, and this reply is upheld by subsequent Thomists. He distinguishes the major: that the orderly way of willing is for one first to will the end in the order of final cause, this he concedes; in the order of material and disposing cause, this he denies.
By way of example: someone might wish to build the Collegio Angelico in Rome, but has not yet found a suitable place and, having found such a place, his wish of having this college built is realized, or the opportunity offers itself, because he has received the necessary money. Similarly God wills first the soul in the order of final cause, and first the body in the order of material cause, and this particular soul would not be created right at this moment, if this embryonic body were not disposed to receive it. Likewise the Word would not have become incarnate, in virtue of the present decree, unless man had sinned or the human race had to be redeemed.
But you insist. Causes do not mutually interact in the same order. However, this would be the case here in the same order of final cause, if sin is permitted because of this greater good of the Incarnation, and if the Incarnation is willed for our redemption.
Reply. The causes are not in the same order, for sin is permitted because of this greater good of the Incarnation considered as the end for which it is decreed; whereas, on the contrary, the human race to be redeemed stands in relation to the Incarnation in the order of material cause to be perfected, or is the subject to whom the redemptive Incarnation is beneficial. Hence the human race is not called the end for whose sake the Incarnation is decreed, but the end to whom it is beneficial. Therefore the causes are not mutually interactive in the same order. And this very redemption of ours as willed by God, presupposes as a prior requisite in the order of material cause the human race to be redeemed.
So also let us take as example one who saves the life of a boy who, because of his imprudence, falls into the river. The rescuer first wills to save the boy’s life in the order of final cause, but he would not save the boy’s life unless the boy had fallen into the river, and thus had afforded the other the opportunity to come to his rescue. In like manner, the more solemn dogmatic definitions of the Church are always given on the occasion of some error that must be rejected, because it is endangering the freedom of souls.
Third argument. Redemption or the heavenly glory of a soul to be redeemed is not so great a good as the glory of Christ’s soul. Therefore the Redemption does not seem to be the sole reason why God predestined Christ’s soul to so great glory.
Cajetan replies: God could have willed indeed this great good (of Christ’s glory) without its being connected with a less good; but from Sacred Scripture it is evident that He willed this greatest good only as connected with such less good. It is not therefore a question of a possibility, but of a fact. God could have willed efficaciously to save the whole human race, for instance, but from Sacred Scripture it is evident that not all are saved, although, by God’s help, the fulfillment of His commands is always possible. Herein lies a mystery that must be believed according to the testimony of Sacred Scripture and not to be determined in human fashion by a priori reasoning.
Fourth argument. It is not very likely that a less good is the only reason for the existence of so supreme a good.
Reply. The Thomists say that the Incarnation is not an incidental good in the strict sense, but it is only improperly so called. For that which the agent does not intend and which happens by chance, is called strictly incidental; such is the case when one digs a grave, and finds a treasure, or when one rescues a boy accidentally who happens to fall into the river. That is improperly said to be occasioned which depends on some incident, although it be intended by the agent, as the rescuing of a boy who fell into the river. Thus the Incarnation is an incidental good, and it is fitting that evil be the occasion of eliciting from God so great a good, namely, a good that results from His liberality and mercy, because misery is the reason for commiserating.
Scotus overlooks the fact that many of the finer things in life are improperly incidental, especially many heroic acts, such as saving another’s life with danger to one’s own, as in the case of shipwreck or of fire. Such are heroic acts performed in defense of one’s country, on the occasion of an unjust aggressor; hence the glory acquired by many soldiers is thus incidental. Also incidental are heroic acts in defense of one’s faith, such as martyrdom on the occasion of a persecution. The most beautiful dogmatic definitions uttered by the Church on the occasion of the refutation of an error that is threatening to enslave souls, belong to this class. So it was on the occasion of the rise of Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism, that St. Augustine wrote his books On Grace.
But the difference between God and man is that man could not infallibly foresee the occasion that prompted these heroic acts, and so he does them unforeseen. Other arguments of Scotus presented in different aspects repeat the same objection.
The Scotists insist. They say, with Father Chrysostom, that the material cause is not the end (of the Incarnation), nor is the material element in the Incarnation its motive. Therefore the difficulty remains.
Reply. The material element that enters into the redemptive Incarnation is the reason for the Incarnation, since “the alleviation of misery is the reason for commiseration.” Thus in this third article, St. Thomas is able to say: “Redemption is the reason for the Incarnation,” although the Incarnation is not subordinated to the redemption.
All these objections can be reduced to the following syllogistic argument: God cannot will that the higher order should be subjected to the lower, for this would be the inversion of order, or perversion.
But our redemption is inferior to the Incarnation.
Therefore God cannot will the Incarnation to be for our redemption.
Reply. I distinguish the major. That God cannot will the higher order to be subjected to the lower, as being the perfective and ultimate end, this I concede; that God cannot will the higher for the lower, as being the end that must be perfected or repaired from a motive of mercy, this I deny. For the alleviating of misery, is the reason for commiseration. I concede the minor.
I distinguish the conclusion. That God cannot will the higher order to be subjected to the lower on account of this latter being the perfective and especially the ultimate end, this I concede; as being the end that must be perfected or repaired from a motive of mercy, this I deny.
Thus the Thomists say that the redemption of the human race is not the end for the sake of which the Incarnation is decreed, but it is the material element that enters into the motive of the redemptive Incarnation, or the end for which the Incarnation is beneficial. Thus a doctor visits a sick person, or a priest says Mass for the restoration of somebody’s health, for the common good and the glory of God.
Therefore the whole teaching of St. Thomas, of St. Bonaventure, and others is summed up in these words: the motive of the Incarnation was formally the motive of mercy. As the Psalmist says: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak.” “Have mercy on me, for I am poor.” “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am afflicted.”
Cajetan replies most appropriately: “It is not unbefitting God’s wisdom that He was disposed to perform so great a good, only because sin was the occasion that urged Him to be merciful.” “It is because the alleviation of misery is the reason for commiseration,” and divine mercy, alleviating the misery of the human race, is the greatest manifestation of divine goodness and omnipotence. If God’s omnipotence is already made manifest in the creation of a grain of sand from nothing, a fortiori it is shown when He brings good out of evil, and so great a good as eternal life of those justified. St. Thomas says: “In itself mercy is the greatest of virtues (and so it is in God, but not in us, because we have someone above us, who must be honored by the practice of virtues); for it belongs to mercy to be bountiful to others, and, what is more, to succor others in their wants. And this pertains especially to the one who is above others; hence mercy is accounted as being proper to God, and therein His omnipotence is declared to be chiefly manifested.” St. Augustine likewise says: “The justification of the sinner is greater than the creation of heaven and earth; for heaven and earth shall pass away, but the justification of the ungodly shall endure.” But since misery is the reason for having mercy, the alleviation of misery is more the matter about which mercy is concerned; it is the motive of mercy, not indeed as constituting the perfective end, but as being the end in the order of redemption.
In this there is no inversion of orders. There would indeed be a perversion of orders if the higher were ordained for the lower, as if this latter were the ultimate and perfective end; but not, if by way of mercy, the higher is ordered to the lower end for its perfection or reparation.
Thus it is that the Son of God through His incarnation certainly stoops down to us with sublime mercy, so that the saints are moved to tears at the thought of it. But by thus lowering Himself, He in no way subordinates Himself to us; on the contrary, in alleviating our misery, He restores the original subordination, by making us again subordinate to Himself and God the Father. Thus God, by mercifully lowering Himself, has most splendidly made manifest His goodness and omnipotence, since “to have mercy belongs especially to one who is above others.”
In God, inasmuch as He has nobody above Him to whom He would owe allegiance, the greatest of all virtues is mercy, and misery is the reason for being merciful. Thus the beginning of a certain collect reads: “O God, who, more than in all things else, showest forth Thine almighty power by sparing and by having mercy.” Therefore Scotus did not destroy the demonstrative middle term of this article.
The preceding doctrine is certainly what St. Thomas taught. On this point, he wrote: “God therefore did not assume human nature because He loved man, absolutely speaking, more than angels; but because the needs of man were greater; just as the master of a house may give to a sick servant some costly delicacy that he does not give to his own son in sound health.” He also says: “Nor did anything of Christ’s excellence diminish when God delivered Him up to death for the salvation of the human race; rather did He become thereby a glorious conqueror” Of sin, the devil, and death.
The thesis of St. Thomas, as proposed by him, is most convincing inasmuch as he declares mercy to be the motive of the Incarnation; wherefore Christ was the first of the predestined, but He was predestined as Savior and victim, as the victor of sin, the devil, and death. This title of Savior belongs primarily to Christ, as expressed in the name Jesus, which signifies Savior. This title belongs more fundamentally to Him than do such titles as Doctor, or King of kings, Lord of lords.
Christian faith itself seems to teach this doctrine, although the Scripture does not say that mercy was the indispensable motive of the Incarnation. This doctrine is also most beneficial in the spiritual order. urging us to imitate Christ and show zeal for souls.
Cajetan remarks that, as in the act of hope I desire God for myself, because God is my final end (since God is the ultimate end of this act of hope), so Christ is given to us (for our sake or as our end), for the glorification of God (who is the ultimate end for which God performs all His works). Thus the Incarnation is not subordinated to our redemption, but is its eminent cause. Thus contemplation is not subordinated to apostolic action, which must result from the fullness of contemplation, this being its higher source, as St. Thomas points out. Therefore, no matter what the Scotists may say, the words of St. Paul still apply, who says: “For all are yours. And you are Christ’s. And Christ is God’s” In this Thomistic thesis, Christ is not subordinated to us, but we are subordinated to Him.
Agreement and disagreement between Thomists. They all agree upon the principal conclusion as explicitly formulated by St. Thomas, which is: If Adam had not sinned, the Word would not have become incarnate.
But they are not altogether in agreement concerning a secondary issue.
Several Thomists, adopting the views of Cajetan, such as John of St. Thomas and Billuart, refuse to answer the question, why God permitted Adam’s sin and original sin. Moreover, they multiply divine conditional decrees. According to their views: (1) God willed the natural order; (2) the elevation of the human race to the supernatural order; (3) He permitted the sin of the first man; (4) He decreed the redemptive Incarnation in passible flesh.
Other Thomists, such as the Salmanticenses, Godoy, Gonet, and very many of more recent times, insisting on what St. Thomas remarks in this article, and elsewhere, say: Certainly God permits evil only because of a greater good. This doctrine is certain and de fide, otherwise God’s permission of sin would not be a holy act. It cannot indeed be said a priori that God permitted original sin because of some greater good, but, after the fact of the Incarnation, it appears that God permitted original sin because of the redemptive Incarnation, so that the redemption of the fallen human race is prior in the order of material cause to be perfected, and the redemptive Incarnation is prior in the order of final cause. This distinction is made by Cajetan in his commentary on this article, but much of its force is lost inasmuch as he multiplies exceedingly the divine decrees, so different from what he wrote earlier in his commentary.
Moreover, these Thomists say that divine conditional decrees must not be multiplied, for this multiplication results from the weakness of our intellect, and we must do our best to overcome this defect. Hence God, previous to any decree, saw by His knowledge of simple intelligence all possible worlds with all their contents, just as the architect has in mind various possible houses and all their component parts. Thus God had in mind a sinless world not in need of redemption, but brought to perfection by the example of the Word incarnate; also another possible world, in which man sinned, and which was perfected by the redemptive Incarnation. God chose de facto, by a single decree, this latter, in which, therefore, the redemptive Incarnation is prior in the order of final causality (as the soul is prior to the body), and the reparation of the fallen human race is prior in the order of material causality to be perfected, as the body is prior to the soul.
This second interpretation is entirely in conformity with the reply given by St. Thomas to the third objection of this article, and also with a previous statement in his Summa, in which he says: “God loves Christ not only more than He loves the whole human race, but more than He loves the entire created universe, because He willed for Him the greater good in giving Him a name that is above all names, so far as He was true God. Nor did anything of His excellence diminish when God delivered Him up to death for the salvation of the human race; rather did He become thereby a glorious conqueror,” namely, of sin, the devil, and death.
This reply of these Thomists is also precisely what St. Thomas says in his reply to the third objection of this article, in which he quotes the words of St. Paul: “Where sin abounded, grace did more abound,” and of the liturgy: “O happy fault, that merited such and so great a Redeemer!”
And St. Augustine says in his commentary on the forty-seventh psalm: “Therefore Adam fell for our resurrection,” which means that God permitted Adam’s sin for this greater good of the redemptive Incarnation.
Moreover, the divine decrees must not be multiplied without necessity; for this frequency of recourse to divine decrees has its foundation in the imperfection of our manner of understanding the divine decrees. In fact, it is evident that various events of the natural order, such as the death of a good person from some disease, which at first sight seems to depend solely on natural causes and the general provisions of Providence, are to be attributed to the supernatural operation of predestination. Therefore it is apparent that God, by a single decree, willed this present world with its three orders of nature, grace, and the hypostatic union.
The Liberty Of The Decree Concerning The Incarnation: A Comparison Between The Doctrine Of St. Thomas And That Of Scotus
On first consideration, it is surprising that St. Thomas, who is an intellectualist, should say: Since the Incarnation is a most free and absolutely gratuitous gift of God, its motive can be known only by revelation; whereas Scotus, who is a voluntarist inclined to liberalism, wishes to establish this motive of the Incarnation by arguments or quasi a priori reasonings, as the extreme intellectualists do, such as Leibnitz and Malebranche, who say that the Incarnation is morally necessary so that the world may be the best of all possible worlds.
The reason for this difference of opinion between St. Thomas and Scotus seems to consist in this, that St. Thomas, because of his moderate intellectualism, distinguished exactly between the order of nature and the order of grace, by establishing the proper object of the created intellect, whether human or angelic. Hence St. Thomas fully acknowledges God’s perfect liberty in elevating the human nature (or the angelic) to the order of grace, and a fortiori to the hypostatic union. Thus his moderate intellectualism most correctly acknowledges the rights of divine liberty.
On the contrary, Scotus, in virtue of his voluntarism does not succeed in distinguishing so exactly between the orders of nature and of grace; he says that there is in our nature an innate appetite and not merely one that is elicited for the beatific vision, and he adds that, if God had so willed, the beatific vision would be natural for us.
Hence he is inclined to regard the supernatural order as the complement of the natural order, and the hypostatic order as the complement and quasi-normal consummation of the supernatural order. Thus he does not acknowledge sufficiently the rights of divine liberty as regards this twofold elevation; and he speaks finally, almost like the absolute intellectualists of the Leibnitz type, who think that the Incarnation is morally necessary for the world to be the best of all possible worlds. Thus extremes meet.
Absolute intellectualism reduces to an ideal right the accomplished fact. Absolute libertism reduces the right itself to an accomplished fact.
These two systems are in the inverse order, but practically they meet, because both admit that the accomplished fact is the same as the ideal right, and success is identical with morality; yet the followers of the former system insist on the right, whereas the followers of the latter system insist on the accomplished fact. But moderate intellectualism lies between these two extremes, because it safeguards both the validity of the first principles of reason and true liberty, which latter is denied by absolute intellectualism.
Thus in Thomism the Incarnation is seen to be the supreme fact of the entire universe, but it is a contingent fact in which God’s most free and gratuitous love for us is made manifest by way of mercy. “For God so loved the world as to give His only-begotten Son.”
Thus this thesis of St. Thomas, if we compare it with his other theses on moderate intellectualism and liberty, has a deep significance, for it means that, in the supernatural order, inasmuch as this order is gratuitous, divine liberty reigns supreme and its predilection is most free, the motive of which can be known only by revelation. But the discarding of this principle results in the incomplete understanding of several fundamental utterances in the supernatural order, suck as the following words of St. Paul: “But the foolish things of the world hath God chosen that He may confound the wise;… and things that are not, that He might bring to nought things that are.”
But these questions are most profound, and their solution has caused great intellects to take opposite views.
Spiritual corollaries. These corollaries are developed in another book, in which the doctrine of St. Thomas on the motive of the Incarnation is explained not so much scholastically as spiritually. These corollaries are as follows:
1) It follows from this doctrine that it is not something accidental that Christ is the Savior, both priest and victim. This is the dominant trait of Jesus, as the name indicates. Jesus is not especially King of kings and sublime Doctor who happened to become the Savior of humanity and victim on account of the fall of the human race. No, but in virtue of the present decree He came principally and primarily as the Savior of men. His entire life was directed to this final end, namely, the sacrifice on the cross.
2) Christ thus appears nobler, and the unity of His life is better made manifest, since it is the unity of the Savior’s life, who is merciful and also victorious over sin, the devil, and death.
3) Wherefore Christ calls the hour of the Passion “My hour” as if it were pre-eminently this.
4) Therefore in the present economy of salvation, it is not something accidental in the sanctification of souls, that they must carry their cross daily in union with our Savior, as He Himself says.
5) Hence for sanctity, even great sanctity, learning is not necessary, nor the performance of many external works; it suffices for a person to be conformed to the image of Christ crucified, as in the case of St. Benedict Joseph Labre of the seventeenth century, who showed himself a living image of Christ in his poverty and love of the cross.
6) Finally it follows, as St. Thomas explains in his treatise on the effects of baptism, that sanctifying grace in the redeemed is strictly the grace of Christ, for it is not only a participation of the divine nature as in Adam and the angels before the Fall, but it makes us conformable to Christ the Redeemer, and by it we are made living members of His mystical body. Wherefore this grace, inasmuch as it is the grace of Christ, disposes us to live in Christ the Redeemer by a love of the cross, for it disposes us to make reparation for our own sins and the sins of others, inasmuch as the living members of Christ must help one another in the attainment of salvation.
Therefore, it is only after a period of painful probation that any Christian ideal and any Christian society produces true fruits of salvation, for our Lord says: “Unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remaineth alone. But if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”
Thus Christians are made conformable to Christ, who said of Himself to the disciples on the way to Emmaus: “Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and so to enter into His glory?” Hence St. Paul says: “We are heirs indeed of God and joint heirs with Christ; yet so, if we suffer with Him that we may be also glorified with Him.”
These spiritual corollaries are deduced from this teaching.
A certain special opinion. It has been held by some in recent times that so far the question is always presented unfavorably since it always appears in a hypothetical form, namely, “Whether, if man had not sinned, God would have become incarnate.” “For,” as they say, “if man had not sinned (or in this supposition), there would be another order absolutely different from the present order, and what would have happened in such an order God alone can know.” The proper way of positing the question, according to these theologians, must be by presenting it in the form of a positive and universal proposition, that is, “What is the adequate universal reason for the Incarnation in the present order?” Father Roschini replies to this question as follows: “The primary reason of the Incarnation is God’s free election from all eternity of the present order with all that is included in it; inasmuch as only the present order exactly corresponds to the measure and mode likewise freely prearranged by God, by which He willed to bestow His goodness ad extra and hence procure extrinsic glory.”
An answer to Father Roschini’s view appeared in the Angelicum; its gist is as follows: The question posited by the Scholastics concerns the present order, and a new way of presenting the question is outside the scope of the present problem, and brings us only to the common truth that is admitted by all schools of thought. It is most certain to all theologians that the Incarnation depends on God’s free choice of the present order, and what He has ordained for the manifestation of His goodness. This is God’s supreme reason, but, now the question is, what is His proximate reason?
Evidently the hypothetical question put by the great Scholastics concerns the present order; namely, in virtue of the present decree, if we make abstraction of the sin of the first man, would the Word have become incarnate? This abstraction is not a lie, nor does it change the order of the thing considered. It is the same as asking: Would the soul of this particular man have been created if his body in his mother’s womb was not sufficiently developed to be informed by it? Or we might ask: Will this temple remain intact if this particular column is removed? The truth of a conditional proposition, as logic teaches, depends solely on the connection between the condition and the conditioned.
Hence in replying to the objection, we say: If man had not sinned, the present order of things would be changed, I distinguish: if it meant there would be a change in virtue of another decree, this I concede; in virtue of the present decree, this I deny.
As stated in the above-mentioned reply to Father Roschini: “The reasoning of the Scholastics is not, and cannot be, other than this, otherwise how are we to explain the fact that those doctors are so eager in their futile search, concerning which nothing for certain can ever be known?… Without saying, then, what to attribute to those ponderous and so circumspect theologians, with St. Thomas as their leader, a general view of the case would justify us in considering them at least as scholars.”
St. Thomas would have improperly stated the question, or would not have corrected the question improperly stated, a question that is even useless, and of course quite irrelevant.
But it is true to say, with the holy Doctor, that in speaking of another order of things, “We do not know what (God) would have ordained, if He had not had previous knowledge of sin.” St. Thomas says the same in the present article, for he writes: “And yet the power of God is not limited to this; even had sin not existed, God could have become incarnate, namely, in another order of things.”
Final Conclusion: The Motive Of The Incarnation
Therefore it must simply be said that God willed the Incarnation for the manifestation of His goodness by way of mercy for the redemption of the human race, or “for our salvation,” as stated in the Creed.
Those who admit, as the Thomists do, one efficacious decree concerning the redemptive Incarnation in passible flesh, by this very fact must say with St. Thomas that, in virtue of the present decree, “if Adam had not sinned, the Word would not have become incarnate,” or, expressed affirmatively, it must be said that, in the present decree, the redemptive Incarnation supposes the fall of the human race to be redeemed, although this fall was permitted for a greater good, which is the redemptive Incarnation. Thus the creation of the soul presupposes that the embryonic body is sufficiently disposed, and this sufficient predisposition was willed and produced by God for the soul. Causes mutually interact though in a different order, without implying a vicious circle. It would be a vicious circle if we were to say that the permission of Adam’s sin was on account of the Incarnation, and that the Incarnation took place because of the permission of Adam’s sin. The truth is that the Incarnation took place, not on account of the permission of sin, but for its reparation.
It would likewise be a vicious circle to say that men are for the sake of Christ, and in the same way Christ is for the sake of men. But it is true to say that Christ is the destined end of men, and men are the end to whom the redemptive Incarnation is beneficial.
Hence the truth of the assertion is established, that God willed the Incarnation as a manifestation of His goodness by showing His mercy toward men for their redemption, or “for our salvation,” as stated in the Creed.
[A heartfelt congratulations if you read this to the end! If you want to read a scholarly defense of the Franciscan position – on par with Fr. Reginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. – then you can read “Franciscan Christology” by Fr. Dominic Unger, O.F.M. Cap. Although in a more popular style, you can also read where I have commented directly on St. Thomas Aquinas’ position in the Summa Theologica in my posts entitled “The Dumb Ox or the Dunce?“]