On the website “Community in Mission” Msgr. Charles Pope brought up the question which the Medieval theologians had used to determine the primary motive of the Incarnation: If Adam had not sinned, would Christ have come in the flesh? His answer was to cite St. Thomas Aquinas on the subject and then to add his own personal commentary. You can see the original post in its entirety here (and notice the stir it created in the combox!). Since I have already posted St. Thomas’ position with commentary elsewhere I will limit this post to Msgr. Pope’s personal commentary. He writes:
While theological speculation may have its place, it is most certain that the Incarnation was instituted by God first and foremost as a remedy for sin. And while the Incarnation offers more than is required to remedy sin (e.g., an increase in human dignity (since God joined our family), God’s visitation, the opening of a heavenly (not merely earthly) paradise), Scripture presents remedy for sin as God’s primary motive. In remedying our sin, God shows the greatness of His mercy, because He does not merely restore us but elevates us to a higher place than before. The least born in to the Kingdom of God is greater than the exemplar of the Old Covenant, John the Baptist. Had we not sinned and had God merely wanted to elevate us, He could have done so in other ways. Hence, St. Thomas’ position is best suited to the evidence.
First, let me address his conclusion: Hence, St. Thomas’ position is best suited to the evidence. What evidence? Not a single Scripture quote is proffered; with the exception of St. Thomas no Saint, Doctor of the Church, or magisterial document is cited to confirm this “evidence”; not even logic is offered – we are simply told that this position is “most certain”.
Now let’s look at this line by line…
While theological speculation may have its place, it is most certain that the Incarnation was instituted by God first and foremost as a remedy for sin.
“Speculation”: This seems to be the constant lament of Thomists who do not want to discuss the matter any further, namely, that it is all speculative and hypothetical (I tackle this head on here). In reality the Franciscan position is not hypothetical at all: Christ’s predestination was willed before the creation of the world and God willed to give us every spiritual blessing through Him the one Mediator between God and man (cf. Eph 1:3-5; Mt. 11:27; Jn. 14:6; 1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 8:6; 9:15; 12:24). To say that Christ would NOT have come… now that is the height of speculation. Where in the Scripture does it speak of an economy of grace without Christ? Even the Angels are under His headship as the God-Man (cf. Col 1:15:18; 2:10 – see Fr. Gabriel Amorth on this point).
“It is most certain that the Incarnation was instituted by God first and foremost as a remedy for sin”: This requires proof. Scripture, from Genesis to Apocalypse, was written after the fall and it is no surprise that God’s Word to us is dominated by our need for Redemption. So I think we all agree that it is absolutely certain that after the fall Christ came to save sinners (cf. 1 Tim. 1:15; Gal. 4:4-5; Heb. 9:26). But it does not follow that the Incarnation was instituted “first and foremost as a remedy for sin.” St. Thomas argues that this is “more probable” whereas the contrary position is “probable”. Thomas never cites his position as certain.
For Bl. John Duns Scotus what is certain is this: “If man had not sinned, there would have been no need for our redemption. But that God predestined this soul [of Christ] to so great a glory does not seem to be only on account of that [redemption], since the redemption or the glory of the soul to be redeemed is not comparable to the glory of Christ’s soul. Neither is it likely that the highest good in creation is something that was merely occasioned only because of some lesser good; nor is it likely that He predestined Adam to such good before He predestined Christ; and yet this would follow [were the Incarnation occasioned by Adam’s sin]. In fact, if the predestination of Christ’s soul was for the sole purpose of redeeming others, something even more absurd would follow, namely, that in predestining Adam to glory, He would have foreseen him as having fallen into sin before He predestined Christ to glory. (from his Ordinatio).
And while the Incarnation offers more than is required to remedy sin (e.g., an increase in human dignity (since God joined our family), God’s visitation, the opening of a heavenly (not merely earthly) paradise), Scripture presents remedy for sin as God’s primary motive.
As noted above, the Scriptures were written after the fall of man and God’s Word to fallen man is frequently dominated by the revelation of our need for Redemption in Christ, without which we could not be saved. But nowhere does the Sacred Page say that Christ was sent primarily, let alone exclusively, to save man from sin. There are many passages that would indicate the opposite (and this website is chalked full of them!). To say that “Scripture presents remedy for sin as God’s primary motive” as if this were indisputable fact is misleading. St. Thomas does not say that remedy for sin is the “primary” reason and he notes that he feels that his position is “more in accordance” – not certain.
In remedying our sin, God shows the greatness of His mercy, because He does not merely restore us but elevates us to a higher place than before.
Those who hold the Franciscan thesis totally agree that in redeeming mankind God shows the greatness of His mercy; but to say that “He elevates us to a higher place than before” is pure speculation. From the Franciscan perspective we must say this: If we were always predestined to be God’s adopted children in Christ, as St. Paul affirms, then there is only one economy of grace – that which is offered to us by God through Christ Jesus. No other economy of grace has been revealed to us and Adam’s sin does not open the door to a higher elevation in Christ. An example of this is Pope St. John Paul II’s teaching on the Theology of the Body: “…before sin, man bore in his soul the fruit of eternal election in Christ, the eternal Son of the Father…” (see more on this here). How does this reconcile with the thomistic position?
Where in the Holy Bible does it tell us of two economies of divine grace – one for the good Angels and for Adam and Eve before the fall, and another economy for sinful man after the fall? St. Paul proposes only one economy of grace: “by justice unto life everlasting through Jesus Christ” (Rm 5:21 – one can read this commentary on justification through faith – sin or no sin). Even St. Bernard of Clairvaux saw that the good Angels were preserved from sin by the God-Man (see here). And Our Lady… is she elevated to a higher place than before the fall because of Adam’s sin? In a certain sense she is more indebted to God’s mercy than all of us sinners because of the singular grace of the Immaculate Conception where she was preserved free from all taint of original and actual sin (as opposed to being given a remedy or restoration from sin after having contracted it). Clearly Our Lady was elevated above us without being liberated from sin. Unlike the Thomists, the Franciscan school does not hold that Mary receives her singular graces because of the sin of Adam, but that these graces were given because of her eternal predestination in Christ to be His Mother (whether Adam had fallen or not). In other words, after the grace and glory given to the Humanity of Christ no one had a higher place in God’s designs than the Blessed Virgin Mary. Hence Thomists are basically saying that God’s greatest masterpieces in all creation, namely Jesus and Mary, were occasioned by sin and are indebted to Adam for transgressing against God because without his transgression, say the Thomists, Jesus and Mary would not have been predestined to the maximum grace and glory (Christ in His Humanity, Mary as His Mother). According to the logic of Bl. John Duns Scotus it would be “absurd” to say that Jesus, Mary or any Saint was predestined to glory because of another person’s fall.
The least born in to the Kingdom of God is greater than the exemplar of the Old Covenant, John the Baptist.
I’m not sure how this confirms the thomistic position. The people of the Old Covenant lacked the plenitude which came in the “fullness of time” (Gal 4:4) in Christ’s coming and after the establishment of the Sacraments and the Church – but this does not prove that the graces of the Old Covenant were not graces distributed in view of the merits of Christ. Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception is a grace given prior to the Incarnation in view of Christ’s merits and, according to the Franciscan school, all graces to Angels and men from the beginning are bestowed through Christ. To study this more in depth one can download Fr. Dominic Unger’s treatment of Franciscan Christology.
Had we not sinned and had God merely wanted to elevate us, He could have done so in other ways.
True, but He chose to do it this way – the most perfect way. St. Francis de Sales wrote on this very topic (Treatise on Divine Love, Book II, Ch.IV). According to this Doctor of the Church the primary reason for the Incarnation was that God “might communicate Himself” outside Himself (ad extra). From all eternity He saw that the most excellent way to do this was in “uniting Himself to some created nature, in such sort that the creature might be engrafted and implanted in the divinity, and become one single Person with it.” This is the primary reason God willed the Incarnation. Then through Christ and “for His sake” God willed to pour out His goodness on other creatures thus choosing to “create men and angels to accompany His Son, to participate in His grace and glory, to adore and praise Him forever.” What the Thomist is saying when denying the absolute predestination of Christ is that God chose to elevate us in the most perfect way because of Adam’s sin; if Adam had not sinned He would have done it in a less perfect way and would not have predestined the Sacred Humanity to grace and glory nor Mary to be the Immaculate Virgin Mother of God.
While theological speculation may have its place, it is most certain that the Incarnation was instituted by God first and foremost as a remedy for sin… Hence, St. Thomas’ position is best suited to the evidence.
In other words, just follow St. Thomas’ position – no need to speculate any further. Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems to me that the fear of the Thomists is that bright minds will continue to study, reflect upon and discuss the primary motive of the Incarnation; whereas the fear of the Scotists (at least myself) is that bright minds will bury their heads in the sand and cease to study, reflect upon and discuss the primary motive of the Incarnation. In the end it is not about “winning” an argument, but about the truth of God’s revelation being fully known. I’m not alone in believing that we have the key to understanding the entire history of the universe because the “mystery which has been hidden for eternity in God” has now been revealed (Eph 3:9; cfr. Col 1:26; Rm 16:25; 1 Cor 2:7; Eph 1:9; etc.).