Archpriest G. Florovosky: primary motive of the Incarnation – an Orthodox perspective

This is a very well prepared article which was posted at Ad Orientem.

It is well worth the time to read:

The Motive of the Incarnation

-Archpriest G. Florovsky

“I am the Alpha and the Omega.” (Rev. 1:8)


The Christian message was from the very beginning the message of Salvation, and accordingly our Lord was depicted primarily as the Savior, Who has redeemed His people from bondage of sin and corruption. The very fact of the Incarnation was usually interpreted in early Christian theology in the perspective of Redemption. Erroneous conceptions of the Person of Christ with which the early Church had to wrestle were criticized and refuted precisely when they tended to undermine the reality of human Redemption. It was generally assumed that the very meaning of Salvation was that the intimate union between God and man had been restored, and it was inferred that the Redeemed had to belong Himself to both sides, i.e. to be at once both Divine and human, for otherwise the broken communion between God and man would not have been re-established. This was the main line of reasoning of St. Athanasius in his struggle with the Arians, of St. Gregory of Nazianzus in his refutation of Apollinarianism, and of other writers of the IVth and Vth centuries. “That is saved which is united with God,” says St. Gregory of Nazianzus.1 The redeeming aspect and impact of the Incarnation were emphatically stressed by the Fathers. The purpose and the effect of the Incarnation were defined precisely as the Redemption of man and his restoration to those original conditions which were destroyed by the fall and sin. The sin of the world was abrogated and taken away by the Incarnate One, and He only, being both Divine and human, could have done it. On the other hand, it would be unfair to claim that the Fathers regarded this redeeming purpose as the only reason for the Incarnation, so that the Incarnation would not have taken place at all, had not man sinned. In this form the question was never asked by the Fathers. The question about the ultimate motive of the Incarnation was never formally discussed in the Patristic Age. The problem of the relation between the mystery of the Incarnation and the original purpose of Creation was not touched upon by the Fathers; they never elaborated this point systematically. “It may perhaps be truly said that the thought of an Incarnation independent of the Fall harmonizes with the general tenor of Greek theology. Some patristic phrases seem to imply that the thought was distinctly realized here and there, and perhaps discussed.”2 These ‘patristic phrases’ were not collected and examined. In fact, the same Fathers could be quoted in favor of opposite opinions. It is not enough to accumulate quotations, taking them out of their context and ignoring the purpose, very often polemical, for which particular writings were composed. Many of these ‘patristic phrases’ were just ‘occasional’ statements, and they can be used only with utter care and caution. Their proper meaning can be ascertained only when they are read in the context, Le. in the perspective of the thought of each particular writer.


Rupert of Deutz (d. 1135) seems to be the first among the medieval theologians who formally raised the question of the motive of the Incarnation, and his contention was that the Incarnation belonged to the original design of Creation and was therefore independent of the Fall. Incarnation was, in his interpretation, the consummation of the original creative purpose of God, an aim in itself, and not merely a redemptive remedy for human failure.3 Honorius of Autun (d. 1152) was of the same conviction.4 The great doctors of the XHIth century, such as Alexander of Hales and Albert Magnus, admitted the idea of an Incarnation independent of the Fall as a most convenient solution of the problem.5 Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308) elaborated the whole conception with great care and logical consistency. For him the Incarnation apart from the Fall was not merely a most convenient assumption, but rather an indispensable doctrinal presupposition. The Incarnation of the Son of God was for him the very reason of the whole Creation. Otherwise, he thought, this supreme action of God would have been something merely accidental or ‘occasional’. “Again, if the Fall were the cause of the predestination of Christ, it would follow that God’s greatest work was only occasional, for the glory of all will not be so intense as that of Christ, and it seems unreasonable to think that God would have foregone such a work because of Adam’s good deed, if he had not sinned.” The whole question for Duns Scotus was precisely that of the order of Divine ‘predestination’ or purpose, i.e. of the order of thoughts in the Divine counsel of Creation. Christ, the Incarnate, was the first object of the creative will of God, and it was for Christ’s sake that anything else had been created at all. “The Incarnation of Christ was not foreseen occasionally, but was viewed as an immediate end by God from eternity; thus, in speaking about things which are predestined, Christ in human nature was predestined before others, since He is nearer to an end.” This order of ‘purposes’ or ‘previsions’ was, of course, just a logical one. The main emphasis of Duns Scotus was on the unconditional and primordial character of the Divine decree of the Incarnation, seen in the total perspective of Creation.6 Aquinas (1224-1274) also discussed the problem at considerable length. He saw the whole weight of the arguments in favor of the opinion that, even apart from the Fall, “nevertheless, God would have become incarnate,” and he quoted the phrase of St. Augustine: “in the Incarnation of Christ, other things must be considered besides absolution from sin.” (De Trinitate, XIII. 17). But Aquinas could not find, either in Scripture or in the Patristic writings, any definite witness to this Incarnation independent of the Fall, and therefore was inclined to believe that the Son of God would not have been incarnate if the first man did not sin: “Although God could have become incarnate without the existence of sin, it is nevertheless more appropriate to say that, if man had not sinned, God would not have become incarnate, since in Sacred Scripture the reason for the Incarnation is everywhere given as the sin of the first man.” The unfathomable mystery of the Divine will can be comprehended by man only in so far as it is plainly attested in Holy Scripture, “only to the extent that [these things] are transmitted in Sacred Scripture,” or, as Aquinas says in another place, “only in so far as we are informed by the authority of the saints, through whom God has revealed His will.” Christ alone knows the right answer to this question: “The truth of the matter only He can know, Who was born and Who was offerred up, because He so willed.”7 Bonaventura (1221-1274) suggested the same caution. Comparing the two opinions — one in favor of an Incarnation apart from the Fall and the other dependent on it, he concluded: “Both [opinions] excite the soul to devotion by different considerations: the first, however, more consonant with the judgment of reason; yet it appears that the second is more agreeable to the piety of faith.” One should rely rather on the direct testimony of the Scriptures than on the arguments of human logic.8 On the whole, Duns Scotus was followed by the majority of theologians of the Franciscan order, and also by not a few outside it, as, for instance, by Dionysius Carthusianus, by Gabriel Biel, by John Wessel, and, in the time of the Council of Trent, by Giacomo Nachianti, Bishop of Chiozza (Jacobus Naclantus), and also by some of the early Reformers, for instance, by Andreas Osiander.9 This opinion was strongly opposed by others, and not only by the strict Thomists, and the whole problem was much discussed both by Roman Catholic and by Protestant theologians in the XVIIth century.10 Among the Roman Catholic champions of the absolute decree of the Incarnation one should mention especially Fran£ois de Sales and Malebranche. Malebranche strongly insisted on the meta-phycical necessity of the Incarnation, quite apart from the Fall, for otherwise, he contended, there would have been no adequate reason or purpose for the act of Creation itself.11 The controversy is still going on among Roman Catholic theologians, sometimes with excessive heat and vigor, and the question is not settled.12 Among the Anglicans, in the last century, Bishop Wescott strongly pleaded for the ‘absolute motive’, in his admirable essay on “The Gospel of Creation.”13 The late Father Sergii Bulgakov was strongly in favor of the opinion that the Incarnation should be regarded as an absolute decree of God, prior to the catastrophe of the Fall.14


In the course of this age-long discussion a constant appeal has been made to the testimony of the Fathers. Strangely enough, the most important item has been overlooked in this anthology of quotations. Since the question of the motive of the Incarnation was never formally raised in the Patristic age, most of the texts used in the later discussions could not provide any direct guidance.15 St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662) seems to be the only Father who was directly concerned with the problem, although not in the same setting as the later theologians in the West. He stated plainly that the Incarnation should be regarded as an absolute and primary purpose of God in the act of Creation. The nature of the Incarnation, of this union of the Divine majesty with human frailty, is indeed an unfathomable mystery, but we can at least grasp the reason and the purpose of this supreme mystery, its logos and skopos. And this original reason, or the ultimate purpose, was, in the opinion of St. Maximus, precisely the Incarnation itself and then our own incorporation into the Body of the Incarnate One. The phrasing of St. Maximus is straight and clear. The 60th questio ad Thalassium, is a commentary on I Peter, 1:19-20: “[Christ was] like a blameless and spotless lamb, who was foreordained from the foundation of the world.” Now the question is: St. Maximus first briefly summarizes the true teaching about the Person of Christ, and then proceeds: “This is the blessed end, on account of which everything was created. This is the Divine purpose, which was thought of before the beginning of Creation, and which we call an intended fulfillment. All creation exists on account of this fulfillment and yet the fulfillment itself exists because of nothing that was created. Since God had this end in full view, he produced the natures of things. This is truly the fulfillment of Providence and of planning. Through this there is a recapitulation to God of those created by Him. This is the mystery circumscribing all ages, the awesome plan of God, super-infinite and infinitely pre-existing the ages. The Messenger, who is in essence Himself the Word of God, became man on account of this fulfillment. And it may be said that it was He Himself Who restored the manifest innermost depths of the goodness handed down by the Father; and He revealed the fulfillment in Himself, by which creation has won the beginning of true existence. For on account of Christ, that is to say the mystery concerning Christ, all time and that which is in time have found the beginning and the end of their existence in Christ. For before time there was secretly purposed a union of the ages, of the determined and the Indeterminate, of the measurable and the Immeasurable, of the finite and Infinity, of the creation and the Creator, of motion and rest — a union which was made manifest in Christ during these last times.” (M., P.G., XC, 621, A-B.) One has to distinguish most carefully between the eternal being of the Logos, in the bosom of the Holy Trinity, and the ‘economy’ of His Incarnation. ‘Prevision’ is related precisely to the Incarnation: “Therefore Christ was foreknown, not as He was according to His own nature, but as he later appeared incarnate for our sake in accordance with the final economy.” (M., P.G., XC, 624D). The ‘absolute predestination’ of Christ is alluded to with full clarity.16 This conviction was in full agreement with the general tenor of the theological system of St. Maximus, and he returns to the problem on many occasions, both in his answers to Thalassius and in his Ambigua. For instance, in connection with Ephesians 1:9, St. Maximus says: “[By this Incarnation and by our age] he has shown us for what purpose we were made and the greatest good will be of God towards us before the ages.” (M., P.G., 1097C). By his very constitution man anticipates in himself “the great mystery of the Divine purpose,” the ultimate consummation of all things in God. The whole history of Divine Providence is for St. Maximus divided into two great periods: the first culminates in the Incarnation of the Logos and is the story of Divine condescension (“through the Incarnation”); the second is the story of human ascension into the glory of deification, an extension, as it were, of the Incarnation to the whole creation. “Therefore we may divide time into two parts according to its design, and we may distinguish both the ages pertaining to the mystery of the Incarnation of the Divine, and the ages concerning the deification of the human by grace… and to say it concisely: both those ages which concern the descent of God to men, and those which have begun the ascent of men to God… Or, to say it even better, the beginning, the middle, and the end of all the ages, those which have gone by, those of the present time, and those which are yet to come, is our Lord Jesus Christ.” (M., P.G., XC, 320, B-C). The ultimate consummation is linked in the vision of St. Maximus with the primordial creative will and purpose of God, and therefore his whole conception is strictly ‘theocentric’, and at the same time ‘Christocentric’. In no sense, however, does this obscure the sad reality of sin, of the utter misery of sinful existence. The great stress is always laid by St. Maximus on the conversion and cleansing of the human will, on the struggle with passions and with evil. But he views the tragedy of the Fall and the apostasy of the created in the wider perspective of the original plan of Creation.17


What is the actual weight of the witness of St. Maximus ? Was it more than his ‘private opinion,’ and what is the authority of such Opinions’? It is perfectly clear that to the question of the first or ultimate ‘motive’ of the Incarnation no more than a ‘hypothetical’ (or ‘convenient’) answer can be given. But many doctrinal statements are precisely such hypothetical statements or ‘theologoumena’.18 And it seems that the ‘hypothesis’ of an Incarnation apart from the Fall is at least permissible in the system of Orthodox theology and fits well enough into the mainstream of Patristic teaching. An adequate answer to the question of the ‘motive’ of the Incarnaion can be given only in the context of the general doctrine of Creation.

Notes and References

l. Epist. 101, ad Cledoniutn (M., P.G., 37, col. 118).

2. Bishop B. F. Westcott, “The Gospel of Creation,” in The Epistles of St. John, The Greek Text with notes and essays, Third Edition. (Macmillan, 1892), p. 288.

8. Rupertus Tuitensis, De Gloria et honore Filii hominis super Matthaeum, lib. 13, (M., P.L., 148, col. 1628): “Here it is first proper to ask whether or not the Son of God, Whom this discourse concerns, would have become man, even if sin, on account of which all die, had not intervened. There is no doubt that He would not have become mortal and assumed a mortal body if sin had not occurred and caused man to become mortal; only an infidel could be ignorant as to this. The question is: would this have occurred, and would it somehow have been necessary for mankind that God become man, the Head and King of all, as He now is? What will be the answer?” Rupert then quotes from St. Augustine about the eternal predestination of the saints (De Civitate Dei, 14. 23.) and continues: “Since, with regard to the saints and all the elect there is no doubt but that they will all be found, up to the number appointed in God’s plan, about which He says in blessing, before sin, ‘Increase and multiply,’ and it is absurd to think that sin was necessary in order to obtain that number, what must be thought about the very Head and King of all the elect, angels and men, but that He had indeed no necessary cause for becoming man, but that His love’s ‘delights were to be with the children of men.’ [Proverbs 8:31]” Cf. also De Glorificatione Trinitatis, lib. 3. 20 (M., P.L., 169, col. 72): “Therefore, we say quite probably, not so much that man [was made] to make up the number of the angels [i.e., for those who had fallen], but that both angels and men were made because of one man, Jesus Christ, so that, as He Himself was begotten God from God, and was to be found a man, He would have a family prepared on both sides. .. From the beginning, before God made anything, it was in His plan that the Word {Logos} of God, God the Word [Logos], would be made flesh, and dwell among men with great love and the deepest humility, which are His true delights.” (Allusion again to Proverbs 8:31.)

4. Honorius of Autun, Libellus octo quaestionum de angelis et homine, cap. 2 (Μ., P.L., 172, col. 72): “And therefore the first man’s sin was not the cause of Christ’s Incarnation; rather, it was the cause of death and damnation. The cause of Christ’s Incarnation was the predestination of human deification. It was indeed predestined by God from all eternity that man would be deified, for the Lord said, ‘Father, Thou hast loved them* before the creation of the world,’ [cf. John 17:24] those, that is, who are deified through Me… It was necessary, therefore, for Him to become incarnate, so that man could be deified, and thus it does not follow that sin was the cause of His Incarnation, but it follows all the more logically that sin could not alter God’s plan for deifying man; since in fact both the authority of Sacred Scripture and clear reason declare that God would have assumed man even had man never sinned. [*S. Script., Jn. 17:24, reads ‘me’ for ‘them’.”]

5. Alexander Halensis, Summa tkeologica, ed. ad. Claras Aquas, dist. 3, qu. 3, m. 3; Albertus Magnus, In 3, 1. Sententiarum, dist. 20, art. 4, ed. Borgnet, t. 28, 361: “On this question it must be said that the solution is uncertain, but insofar as I can express an opinion, I believe that the Son of God would have been made man, even if sin had never been.”

6. Duns Scotus, Opus Oxoniense, 3, dist. 19, ed. Wadding, t. 7, p. 415. Cf. Reportata Parisiensia, lib. 3, dist. 7, qu. 4, schol. 2, ed. Wadding, t. 11. 1, p. 451. “I say, nevertheless, that the Fall is not the cause of Christ’s predestination. Indeed, even if one angel had not fallen, or one man, Christ would still have been predestined thus—even if others had not been created, but only Christ. This I demonstrate thus: anyone who wills methodically first wills an end, and then more immediately, those things which are more immediate to the end. But God wills most methodically; therefore, He wills thus: first He wills Himself, and everything intrinsic to Himself; more directly, so far as concerns things extrinsic, is the soul of Christ. Therefore, in relation to whatever merit and before whatever dement was foreseen, He foresees that Christ must be united to Him in a substantial union… The disposition and predestination is first complete concerning the elect, and then something is done concerning the reprobate, as a secondary act, lest anyone rejoice as if the loss of another was a reward for himself; therefore, before the foreseen Fall, and before any demerit, the whole process concerning Christ was foreseen… Therefore, I say thus: first, God loves Himself; second, He loves Himself by others, and this love of His is pure; third, He wills that He be loved by another, one who can love Him to the highest degree (in speaking about the love of someone extrinsic); fourth, He foresees the union of that nature which ought to love Him to the highest degree, although none had fallen [i.e., even if no one had fallen] … and, therefore, in the fifth instance, He sees a coming mediator who will suffer and redeem His people; He would not have come as a mediator, to suffer and to redeem, unless someone had first sinned, unless the glory of the flesh had become swelled with pride, unless something needed to be redeemed; otherwise, He would have immediately been the whole Christ glorified.” The same reasoning is in the Opus Oxoniensey dist. 7, qu. 3, scholium 3, Wadding 202. See P. Raymond, “Duns Scot,” in Dictionnaire de la Theologie Catholique, t.4, col. 1890-1891, and his article, “Le Motif de l’lncarnation: Duns Scot et l’ficole scotiste,” in Etudes Franciscaines (1912); also R. ieeberg, Die Tbeologie des Johannes Duns Scotus (Leipzig, 1900), s. 250.

7. Summa theol, 3a, qu. 1, art. 3; in 3 Sentent., dist. 1, qu. 1, art. 3.

8. Bonaventura, in 3 Sentent., dist. 1, qu. 2, ed. Lugduni (1668), pp. 10-12.

9. Cf. A. Michele, “Incarnation,” in Dictionnaire de la Theologie Catholique, t. 7, col. 1495 ss. John Wessel, De causis Incarnationis, lib. 2, c. 7, quoted by G. Ullman, Die Reformatoren vor der Reformation, Bd. 2 (Gotha, 1866), s. 398 ff. On Naclantus see Westcott, op. cit., p. 312 ff. Andreas Osiander, An Filius Dei fuit incarnatus, si peccatum non inter-vents set in mundum? Item de imagine Dei quid sit? Ex cert is et evidentibus S. Scripturae testimoniis et non ex philosophicis et humanae rationis cogitationibus derompta explicatio (Monte Regia Prussiae, 1550); see I. A. Dorner, Entivicklun gsgeschichte der Lehre von der Person Christi, 2 Aufl. (1853), Bd. 2, s. 438 ff. and 584; Otto Ritschl, Dogmengeschichte des Protestantismus, Bd. 2 (Leipzig, 1912), s. 462. Osiander was vigorously criticized by Calvin, Institutio, lib. 2, cap. 12, 4-7, ed. Tholuck, 1, s. 304-309.

10. See for instance the long discussion in “Dogmata Theologica” of L. Thomassin (1619-1695) in tomus 3, De Incamatione Verbi Dei, 2, cap 5 to 11, ed. nova (Parisiis, 1866), pp. 189-249. Thomassin dismisses the Scotist theory as just a “hallucination,” contradicted openly by the evidence of Scripture and the teaching of the Fathers. He gives a long list of Patristic passages, mainly from St. Augustine. Bellarmin (1542-1621) dismisses this idea in one phrase: “For if Adam had remained in that innocence wherein he had been created, doubtless the Son of God would not have suffered; He probably would not even have assumed human flesh, as even Calvin himself teaches”; De Christo, lib. 5, cap. 10, editio prima Romana (Romae, 1832), t. 1, p. 432. Petavius (1583-1652) was little interested in the controversy: “This question is widely and very contentiously disputed in the schools, but, being removed from the controversy, we will explain it in a few words.” There is no evidence for this conception in Tradition, and Petavius gives some few quotations to the opposite effect. “Opus de Theologicis Dogmatibus,” tomus 4, De Incamatione, lib. 2, cap. 17, 7-12, ed. (Venetiis, 1757), pp. 95-96. On the Protestant side see a brief discussion in John Gerhard, Loci Theologici, Locus Quartus, “De Persona et Officio Christi,” cap. 7, with valuable references to the earlier literature and an interesting set of Patristic quotations; ed. Sd. Preuss (Berolini, 1863), t. 1, pp. 513-514, and a longer one in J. A. Quenstedt, Theologia Didactico—Polemica, sive $y sterna Theologicum (Wittebergae, 1961), Pars 3 & 4, Pars 3, Cap. 3, Membrum 1, Sectio 1, Quaestio 1, pp. 108-116. On the other hand, Suarez (1548-1617) advocated a recon-ciliatory view in which both conflicting opinions could be kept together. See his comments on Summa, 3a, Disput. 4, sectio 12, and the whole Disp. 5a, Opera Omnia, ed. Berton (Parisiis, I860), pp. 186-266.

11. Frangois de Sales, Traite de Vamour de Dieu, Iivre 2, ch. 4 and 5, in Oeuvres, edition complete, t. 4 (Annecy, 1894), pp. 99ss. and 102ss. Malebranche, Entretiens sur la Metaphysique et sur la Religion, Edition critique par Armand Cuvillier (Paris, 1948), tome 2, Entretien 9, 6, p. 14: “Oui assurement l’lncarnation du Verbe est le premier et le principal des desseins de Dieu; c’est ce qui justifie sa conduite”; Traite de la Nature et de la Grace (Rotterdam, 1712), Discours 1, 1, p. 2. Seconde Eclaircissement, p. 3O2ss.; Reflexions sur la Promotion Physique (Paris, 1715), p. 300: “II suit evidemment, ce me semble, de ce que je viens de dire, que le premier et le principal dessein de Dieu dans la creation, est 1’Incarnation du Verbe: puisque Jesus Christ est le premier en toutes choses. . . et qu’ainsi, quand 1’homme n’aurait point peche, le Verbe se serait incarne”; cf. p. 211 and passim. See for further information: J. Vidgrain, Le Christianisme dans la philosophie de Maleranche (Paris, 1923), pp. 99ss. and 112ss; H. Gouhier, La Philosophie de Malebranche et son Experience Religieuse (Paris, 1926), p. 22ss.; J. Maydieu, “La Creation du Monde et 1’Incarnation du Verbe dans la Philosophie de Malebranche,” in Bulletin de Litterature Ecclesiastique (Toulouse, 1935). It is of interest to mention that Leibniz also regarded the Incarnation as an absolute purpose in creation; see quotations from his unpublished papers in J. Baruzi, Leibniz et I Organization religieuse de la Terre (Paris, 1907), pp. 273-274.

12. The Scotist point of view has been presented by a Franciscan, Father Chrysostome, in his two books: Christus Alpha et Omega, seu de Christi universali regno (Lille, 1910, published without the name of the author) and Le Motif de 1’Incarnation et les principaux thomistes contemporains (Tours, 1921). The latter was a reply to the critics in which he assembled an impressive array of Patristic texts. The Thomist point of view was taken by Father E. Hogon, Le Mystere de Vlncarnation (Paris, 1913), p. 63ss., and Father Paul Galtier, S. J. De Incarnatione et Redemptione (Parisiis, 1926); see also Father Hilair de Paris, Cur Deus Homo? Dissertario de motivo Incarnationis (Lyons, 1867) [includes an analysis of Patristic texts from the Thomist point of view]. Cf. also the introduction in the book of Dr. Aloysius Spindler, Cur Verbum, caro factum? Das Motiv der Menschiverdung und das Verhaltnis der Erlosung zur Menschwerdung in den christologischen Glaubenskdmpfen des vierten und funten christlichen Jahrhunderts (Paderborn, 1938) [‘Torschungen zur christlichen Literatur— und Dogmengeschichte,” hsgg. von A. Ehrhard und Dr. J. P. Kirsch, Bd. 18, 2 Heft].

13. See note 1 above.

14. Fr. Sergii Bulgakov, Agnets Bozhii (Paris, 1933), p. 191 ff. (in Russian). French translation, Du Verbe Incarne (Paris, 1943).

15. Dr. Spindler was the only student of the problem using the proper historical method in handling the texts.

16. Cf. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Liturgie Cosmique: Maxime le Confesseur (Paris, Aubier, 1947), pp. 204-205; Father Balthasar quotes Qu. ad Talass. 60 and adds that St. Maximus would have taken the Scotist side in the scholastic controversy, yet with an important qualification: “Maxime de reste est totalement etranger au postulat de ce debat scholastique qui imagine la possibilite d’un autre ordre du monde sans pecho et totalement irreel. Pour lui la ‘volonte preexistante’ de Dieu est identique au monde des ‘idees’ et des ‘possibles’: l’ordre des essences et l’ordre des faits coincident en ce point supreme” (in the German edition, Kosmische Liturgie, s. 267-268). See also Dom Polycarp Sherwood, O.S.B., “The Earlier Ambigua of Saint Maximus the Confessor” in Studia Anselmiana (Romae, 1955), fasc. 36, ch. 4, pp. 155ff.

17. The best exposition of the theology of St. Maximus is by S. L. Epifanovich, St. Maximus the Confessor and Byzantine Theology (Kiev, 1915; in Russian); cf. also the chapter on St. Maximus in my book, The Byzantine Fathers (Paris, 1933), pp. 200-227 (in Russian). In addition to the book of Father von Balthasar, quoted above, one may consult with profit the “Introduction” of Dom Polycarp Sherwood to his translation of The Four Centuries on Charity of St. Maximus, Ancient Christian Writers, No. 21 (London and Westminster, Md., 1955). See also Lars Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator: The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor (Lund, 1965).

18. See the definition of “theologoumena” by Bolotov, Thesen iiber das “Filioque,” first published without the name of the author (“von einem russischen Theologen”) in Revue Internationale de Thiologie, No. 24 (Oct.-Dec, 1898), p. 682: “Man kann fragen, was ich unter Theologou-menon verstehe? Seinem Wesen nach ist es auch eine theologische Meinung, aber eine theologische Meinung derer, welche fiir einen jeden ‘Katholiken’ mehr bedeuten als gewohnliche Theologen; es sind die theologische Meinungen der hi. Vater der einen ungeteilten Kirche; es sind die Meinungen der Manner, unter denen auch die mit Recht hoi didaskaloi tes oikoumenes genannten sich befinden.” No “theologoumenon” can claim more than “probability,” and no “theologoumenon” should be accepted if it has been clearly disavowed by an authoritative or “dogmatic” pronouncement of the Church.

The Doctrine of the Absolute Primacy of Christ Prior to Scotus (+1308)

The Absolute Primacy of Christ Prior to Bl. John Duns Scotus

If the doctrine of the absolute primacy of Christ, as maintained by Bl. John Duns Scotus and the Franciscan school, is true, then we would expect to find it in Scripture and Tradition, otherwise it would just be a scotistic novelty. St. Paul warns against innovative theological thinking: “For there shall be a time, when they will not endure sound doctrine; but, according to their own desires, they will heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears” (2 Tm 4:3).

I have given many solid arguments for the absolute primacy from the Sacred Scripture. In the Old Testament there are especially those passages of Solomon which speak of created Wisdom being before God when He created the universe (for a comment on one of these passages, Prov 8:22ff., see here). In the New Testament the primary passages I have focused on are in the Gospel of St. John (see here) and St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, Ephesians and Romans. These are but highlights, but the mystery of Christ, now revealed to us, can be seen throughout the entire Bible once we have the correct vantage point.

Fair enough, but what about Sacred Tradition? Oftentimes the impression one gets in reading about the absolute primacy of Christ is that Bl. John Duns Scotus made this up and the Franciscan school continues to support this novelty, but otherwise it is nowhere to be found in tradition. Not true. Before Scotus both St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure, familiar with the tradition, dealt with the primary motive of the Incarnation and shed light on both sides of the argument. While they sided with a relative primacy of Christ (viz. contingent upon Adam’s sin), there were also their two professors at the University of Paris, St. Albert the Great and Fr. Alexander of Hales who sided with an absolute primacy. Since all four of these great theologians, three of them Doctors of the Church, dealt explicitly with this topic, there can be no question of Scotus being an innovator.

In the East there was St. Maximus the Confessor (+662). Although I have quoted him here, the most thorough presentation I have seen is that of Archpriest G. Florovosky on “The Motive of the Incarnation.” He actually synthesizes the entire tradition on this subject.

In the West it is interesting to note three salient theologians – one in Germany, one in England, one in France – who prior to Scotus (+1308) maintained that Christ’s Incarnation was not the result of Adam’s sin, but decreed by God for its own sake. These three theologians were the Abbot Rupert of Deutz, O.S.B. (+1129) in Germany, Bishop Robert Grosseteste (+1253) in England who taught at the Franciscan school at Oxford starting in 1229, and Fr. Alexander Hales, O.F.M. (+1245) who taught at the University of Paris and was dubbed Doctor Doctorum because he taught the likes of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure. I will be posting some of the insights of these three theologians in future posts.

I would like to conclude by mentioning that three great 20th century scholars on the subject have shown that the absolute primacy of Christ, besides being rooted in the Scripture, is also based on the teaching of the Fathers. The first was Fr. Chrysostom Urrutibéhéty, O.F.M., who wrote a monumental volume in Latin documenting many key arguments for the primacy of Christ largely from the Church Fathers called Christus Alpha et Omega seu De Christi Universali Regno (Lille, France: R. Giard Libraire, 1910). The second work, published in Franciscan Studies vol.22 in 1942, was written by Fr. Dominic Unger, O.F.M.Cap. It was entitled Franciscan Christology: Absolute and Universal Primacy of Christ”. A scanned version of the entire work can be found here. He also wrote many other articles in Franciscan Studies illustrating the doctrine of the absolute primacy from the Fathers of the Church. The third work was put out by Fr. Juniper Carroll, O.F.M., and was entitled Why Jesus Christ?” (Manassas, VA: Trinity Communications, 1986). These three works lay out a generous bibliography of Fathers, Doctors, Saints and theologians throughout the centuries and thus clearly show that the doctrine of the absolute primacy of Christ, rather than being an innovation of Scotus, has been a constant part of the doctrinal heritage of the Church.

The Mystery of the Cross is immersed in the most ardent and tender flames of divine love

The Passion AND the Primacy of Christ?

It is an interesting fact that the Franciscans, renowned for centering their spirituality on Christ Crucified, are the very ones who champion the position that if Adam had not sinned Christ would have come unconditionally. At first glance, this might seem to be a contradiction. Why would an entire religious family, whose Founder, St. Francis of Assisi, bore the marks of the Passion (the stigmata), ever imagine that Jesus would have been incarnate through the working of the Holy Spirit in the virginal womb of Mary even if Adam had not sinned?

Yes, St. Francis, who was the very one who inspired the Christmas creche throughout the world by obtaining from the Pope permission to create a live Nativity scene at Greccio in 1223, is the one who meditated night and day on the Crucifixion. Before receiving the Stigmata in 1224, he had already written the little Office of the Passion which he and the brothers prayed seven times a day to meditate step by step upon the episodes of Our Lord’s Passion from Gethsemani to His ignominious death on the Cross.

His religious family is the one who spread, under St. Bonaventure, the tradition of the Angelus and the ringing of the Church bells three times a day to recall the momentous event when the Word become flesh and dwelt among us; yet, this same religious family in the Holy Land and throughout the world (especially through St. Leonard of Port Maurice) is also responsible for promoting the Stations of the Cross which now can be found in almost every Roman Catholic Church and Chapel in the world.

What should be clear, therefore, is that there is no conflict between the absolute primacy of Christ (sin or no sin) and the centrality of the Cross after the fall of Adam for our Redemption from sin. Bl. John Duns Scotus and the Franciscan school, in proclaiming the absolute primacy of Christ and thus an unconditional Incarnation according to the divine decree, by no means discard the importance of our Redemption from sin. Actually, as we shall see, the absolute primacy of Jesus Christ makes the Passion of Christ all the more precious because He embraced it freely in a redemptive act of love.

The primary motive of the Incarnation

Why did the Word become flesh and dwell in our midst? What was the primary reason for this dramatic condescension on the part of God? Many motives are offered for the Incarnation (man’s divinization, man’s Redemption, Christ’s example of holiness, etc.), but the primary motive according to the Franciscan school was the maximum glory to God.
According to this thought God willed the Incarnation first (in the sense of priority), and in predestining the humanity of Christ to receive and give the maximum glory of God ad extra, God also willed to predestine the elect to grace and glory in Christ before the foundations of the world.

In essence the Incarnation was willed for itself; it was that supreme good through which and for which all of creation exists. Simply put: God willed Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate, and in Him and for Him He created Angels, men and the entire universe.

Hence the predestination of Christ is the source of the predestination of all of the elect: the Virgin Mary, the Angels, the Saints. Likewise, the mediation of Christ and the centrality of His Sacred Heart (and with and subordinate to Him the mediation of Our Lady and her Immaculate Heart) were at the center of God’s creative plan quite apart from any consideration of sin. Adam’s fall did not condition the Incarnation. Sin or no sin, God willed to communicate the maximum grace and glory to a created nature, namely the humanity of Christ, and to receive the greatest possible glory extra sé through the humanity of Christ precisely by the union of the human nature of Christ with the divine nature in the divine Person of the Word.

From the Incarnation we receive every spiritual blessing of the Father. We are chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world and we receive every grace through His most Sacred Heart as the Mediator between God and man.

Sin and the Redemption

Because of our original sin in Adam and our consequent personal sins, a barrier was created by us between God and ourselves. After sin, even if Christ became incarnate, we would not have been able to benefit from His union and mediation without the work of Redemption. To incarnate love God willed to add redemptive mercy, without which we would be left in our sins with no hope of salvation. As a result, after the fall of our first parents the redemptive aspect of the Incarnation takes on a central place. Without the Redemption we are doomed; and since our first parents and their offspring experienced and continue to experience the effects of sin and separation from God, it is obvious that our attention has been fixed on Christ’s work of Redemption because this alone saves us and reconciles us with God. The bloody Passion of Jesus definitively conquers sin, Satan and eternal death. Without this, while the Incarnation in itself would remain the masterpiece of God’s creation and give the Trinity the maximum glory possible in the created universe, for us the Incarnation would not have been a source of grace; rather, it would have been a source of torment. Why? Because without redeeming mercy we would have been left to beat our breasts and say, “If only we had not sinned, how great would our dignity have been through the Incarnation! If only we had not sought to be like gods through our disobedience in Adam, how blessed we would have been to be God’s children through adoption in Christ Jesus! But alas, there is an impenetrable barrier between us and the Good God.”

Let us rejoice indeed that “God commends His charity towards us, because when as yet we were sinners, Christ died for us” (Rm 5:9). God in His mercy reached out to us; He sent His Son to seek and save the lost, to redeem us from our sin and its punishment. Yet, even with this added dimension of the Incarnation – essential for our eternal salvation after Adam’s sin – the divine plan remains completely intact: God predestines the elect to grace and glory in Christ; God places the Heart of Christ at the center of the universe and wills it to be the source of every grace and blessing for Angels and mankind. The only difference is that Christ now comes in passible, mortal flesh so as to redeem us through His bitter Passion.

It was the opinion of Bl. John Duns Scotus and his faithful disciple, Bl. Gabriel Mary Allegra, that the absolute primacy of Jesus (sin or no sin) actually underscores the love and mercy of God precisely because Jesus freely willed it. The Incarnation was the highest good in all of creation in sui iuris; it was, to use the happy expression of Scotus, the summum opus Dei. Hence Jesus did not come solely to redeem us; rather, He chose to redeem us in His love. The Redemption was “necessary,” not because He was sent primarily, let alone necessarily, to die on the infamous Cross, but it was only “necessary” in the sense that God, the Father of mercies, willed to add redemptive mercy to His incarnate love (necessary because it was God’s free choice) and, obviously, “necessary” if we were going to profit from the holy Incarnation of the Word (necessary if we were to be reconciled with God). But Christ was not forced to die on the Cross, compelled to take upon Himself the divine wrath as if sent into the world for the purpose of being tortured by the divine justice so that God might show us mercy. No, the Redemption was a free act of love: freely willed by God and freely embraced by Christ in His humanity. He gave Himself freely to His Passion in love for the Father who willed it and in love for us whom He so lovingly wished to redeem. “No one takes it [My life] from Me, but I lay it down of Myself” (Jn 10:18).

Scotus: Redemption is willed by the heavenly Father in order to attract us to His love and so that man might love God all the more

Rather than describe this in my own words, let me cite Bl. John Duns Scotus and Bl. Gabriel Allegra’s comment (my translation of Allegra’s pertinent passages on this can be found here: Part III – Bl. Gabriel Allegra, OFM: The Primacy of Christ in St. Paul & Duns Scotus).

Scotus writes:

Thus I maintain that all of the things which Christ accomplished for our Redemption were not necessary except for what concerns the preexistent, divine decree – nisi praesupposita ordinatione divina – which decreed/ordered that it be done in this way, and therefore Christ’s suffering was only necessary by way of a necessity of consequence… and therefore we are greatly indebted to Himmultum tenemur Ei. In fact, since man could have been redeemed in another manner and nonetheless God, in His free will, redeemed us in this way, we are much more indebted to Him for this than if we necessarily had to be redeemed in this fashion with no other alternative; He did this above all, as I believe, in order to attract us to His love and because He willed that man be even more bound to God. [emphasis mine]

Bl. Gabriel Allegra comments:

In this [assertion of Scotus] Christian anthropology and the mystery of the Cross are, in my opinion, integrally kept intact – no part of the revealed truth is lost or mitigated. Rather, the mystery of the Cross is actually immersed in the most ardent and tender flames of divine love. This is how Scotus argues, like a new John of Patmos: Given that a finite being cannot, in sinning, commit an offense which has an infinite malice; given that the abasement of the Incarnation in passible flesh was sufficient to reconcile us with God, or further still, that had God disposed it differently the satisfaction given by an Angel or man himself, strengthened anew by grace, would have been sufficient, it follows that the sorrows of the Son of God crucified were willed by God: ad alliciendum nos ad amore suum… et quia voluit hominem amplius teneri Deo, that is, these unspeakable sorrows were willed by the heavenly Father in order to attract us to His love and so that man might love God all the more. Therefore, Scotus continues, no grace which concerns salvation is given to man as wayfarer by the most Holy Trinity except through the merit of this oblation of Christ, consummated on the Cross, through a most beloved Person – the Son – and through the maximum love – the love of the Son. [emphasis mine]


Following this synthesis of Christology Christ is always the First, the One who is above all – proteuon en pasin. In the most tender and delightful mysteries: Bethlehem, Nazareth, Calvary, the Eucharist, and in His most glorious mysteries: the Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost, the glory of His Immaculate Mother and that of His Church, His Sacred Humanity irresistably draws hearts to the love of the Father, of His Christ, of Mary and of His Church. And this is because: ad alliciendum nos ad amorem suum sic fecit… et quia voluit nos amplius teneri Deo… ideo multum tenemur Ei.



In conclusion we can see that the fact that Christ would have come sin or no sin actually deepens our debt to Him for His work of Redemption. There is no conflict between the Passion of Christ and His absolute primacy. Rather, God’s love for us manifested in our Redemption presupposes and builds upon His love for us in the Incarnation. Christ’s Passion is precisely that exceeding charity to which St. Paul refers: “But God, who is rich in mercy, by reason of His very great love wherewith He has loved us even when we were dead by reason of our sins, brought us to life together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and seated us together in Heaven in Christ Jesus, that He might show in the ages to come the overflowing riches of His grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:4-7). Our Lord Himself spoke of it: “Greater love than this no one has, that one lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13).

God’s love for us in the Passion of Jesus is exceedingly great; it is overflowing, superabundant, beyond measure. Let us meditate profoundly on this divine love for us in Christ Jesus. And let us respond to His love freely and fully. “You are My friends,” says Jesus, “if you do the things I have commanded you” (Jn 15:14). Believing and experiencing God’s love for us in Christ, especially in His Passion, Death and Resurrection, should “attract us” to love God, to repay His Love with our love.