Phillippe Yates: Christ is the beginning, the centre and the end of the universe

The following is an excerpt from an article by Philippe Yates in Faith Magazine on the absolute primacy of Christ. To read the full article with all of the footnotes go to their website: FAITH Magazine January-February 2008

The Primacy of Christ in John Duns Scotus: An Assessment
by Phillippe Yates

The Primacy of Christ

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which the Church definitively approved and declared infallible in 1854, was predicated upon the primacy of Christ. For it is precisely because Christ is the summit of creation and the first-born among creation that it is fitting that his mother should be preserved from all stain of sin. It is only fitting that the one for whom creation was made should be born of the holiest of the saints, indeed anything less is scarcely conceivable.

But to understand the primacy of Christ and the novelty of what it means, we should first contrast with it the doctrine that is more familiar. The doctrine that the deacon proclaims in the Exultet on Easter night is what we might call the anthropocentric doctrine of the Incarnation. Adam and Eve were created good, but sinned and fell into the grip of the devil. Their sin cut them off irrevocably from God and so God decided to repair the damage done by sending his Son to take that sin upon himself and so restore human beings to righteousness. But the redemption won by Christ’s death was greater than the original state of innocence for it brought humanity to an intimacy with God that they had not known in Eden, for in the person of Christ humanity was brought into union with God. This is the doctrine that Anselm proclaimed and Aquinas followed. It is a doctrine that is perfectly orthodox.

But there is another manner of looking at the Incarnation, that is also permitted by the Church, although you will find it less widespread. It is a Christocentric thesis, which includes creation and Incarnation in one great theory of the love of God that underlies all existence. This is the theory proposed by Blessed John Duns Scotus in which everything that is is viewed through the lens of the primacy of Christ, the freedom of God and the contingency of the world.

The Purpose of Creation

God is absolutely free and therefore if he creates it is because he wants to create. He wants to create in order to reveal and communicate his goodness and love to another. So creation is a freely willed act of our God who loves and who, St. John tells us, is love. Only a Christian can say that God is love, none of the other religions, monotheistic or other, could possibly make such a claim. But a Christian can, and in order to be true to revelation, must affirm this about God. For God to be love he must be more than one person, for love requires a lover and a beloved. In Scotus’ theology God is the Trinity in a communion of love – an eternal movement of the lover (the Father), the beloved (the Son) and the sharing of love (the Spirit). This Trinity who creates is the model of all reality and especially of human relationships.

God’s love is the cause of creation and it is also at the root of all creation. Because God loves, he wills that the creation he makes should also be infused by love. Since love must go out to another, it is only right and good that the highest object of creation’s love should be God himself, for nothing within creation could be a more fitting object of love than the God who lovingly created.

So God made creation in such a way that it should love, and above all love the divine nature that is the object of love of all the persons in the Trinity. Now for creation to be able to love to the highest extent, there must be at least one created thing capable of the highest love. That created thing is the human nature of Christ. The human nature of Christ was predestined by God to that highest glory of the beatific sharing in the inner life of the divine persons. Once God had decided upon this predestination of Christ’s human nature, then he willed the union of Christ’s divine nature with his human nature in the person of Christ since only a human nature united to the divine nature in one person could love to the highest extent, the extent to which God loves. St. Paul tells us that Christ was the first-born of all creation, and Scotus’ theology makes sense of this affirmation. Scotus did not believe that the acts of creation and Incarnation were separate, but part of one divine plan. So rather than the Incarnation being a sort of “Plan B” to rescue humanity after the fall, in Scotus’ theology it is the whole purpose of creation. Christ is the masterpiece of love in the midst of a creation designed for love, rather than a divine plumber come to fix the mess of original sin. Thus the Incarnation is placed by Scotus in the context of creation and not of human sin.

Since all of creation is made for Christ, then for the coming of Christ there had to be within creation a nature capable of understanding and freely responding to God’s love. Humanity is free to love and has the capacity to understand God, precisely because such a nature is desired by God to be united in Christ to the divine nature of the Son. Creation is a preparation for the Incarnation which is the outcome that God willed from the very outset. St. Paul puts it like this “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now” (Rom 8:22)

Christ and Creation

Aquinas emphasised the material and formal causes in creation, but Scotus placed his emphasis on the final cause as determining the work of the artist. In other words it is the purpose of creation that determines its form. Since creation is created to love, it is ordered to allow it to fulfil the role for which it was created. So we find ourselves in a universe united around its purpose – which is to reflect in love the loving God who created it.

The highest expression of this purpose is the one who loves most perfectly, Christ who is the goal of creation and to whom all of creation tends. For Christ is the meaning and model of all that is created and every creature is made in the image of Christ. Every leaf, stone, fruit, animal and person is an expression of the Word of God, spoken in love. Christ’s entry into creation is not then an entry into an alien environment, but the culmination of all that creation is and means. The Incarnation completes creation rather than supplementing it, as the anthropocentric view of creation would have us believe. Scotus’ theology is an expression of the insight that St. Francis of Assisi expressed in his poem the “Canticle of the Creatures”: God is praised through creatures, precisely because all creatures have life through Christ, in Christ and with Christ. For Christ is the Word through whom all things were made.

This Christoform theology of creation presents Christ as the blueprint for creation. In Christ the divine-human communion reaches its culmination and so in Christ the meaning and purpose of creation reaches its highest point. In Christ, what all of creation is ordered towards, that is the praise and glory of God in a communion of love, finds its centre and its highest meaning. With the Incarnation at its centre, creation becomes a cosmic hymn to the Trinity, in which the universe, bound together in and through the cosmic Christ, offers praise and glory to God.

One Order of Being

So we know God through the created world, but we have not yet looked at howw e know God through the created world. Scotus teaches that the path to knowledge of God runs through our being. For our being and God’s being are of the same order. That is to say that there is a common meeting ground between the Creator and his creatures since all possess being. This doctrine is called that of the univocity of being. For Aquinas God’s being and created being are of a different order and so while we can in some way participate in God’s being we will always be separate from it. Thus, for Aquinas, created reality can teach us what God’s being is like but can never show us what God’s being is. Scotus teaches, by contrast, that there is only one order of being. The first principle of being is one, true and good and all beings are related to it in a way that brings out the unity of all that is. So it is not that there is God on one side in His state of being and creatures on the other in a separate order of being. Instead all being is related in the order of being of which God is the first principle but is not inherently separated from created being.

Scotus does not teach that God’s being and created being are one and the same thing but God’s being and created being are two different modes of being. God’s being is infinite and created being is finite. We can see the sense of this intuitively – for the most surprising thing about existence is that there is anything. What is striking about all that is is that it exists at all, that it “has being”. The only alternative would be for there not to be anything. So it seems reasonable to say that being is one concept.

Because things are, because there is being, we seek to know. What we get to know when we know being, is not just being as created but, because there is but one concept of being, we get to know the first principle of being, God Himself.

Thus our seeking to know creation is not something separated from our seeking to know God. All created things have a dignity in that they all share being not only with one another but with God. So the ineffable being of God is made known through the known existence of creation. In this way, through our contemplation of creation we can apprehend the divine mystery – it is no longer beyond reason. Although of course, since God’s being is infinite and created being finite, the fullness of the mystery still lies beyond reason. Thus in Scotus’ theology creation is endowed with a light that is of the same order as the light that shines in God. Just as looking at a fire we understand what light is so that when we see the sun we can know that it is light that we see – so by looking at creation we can see a spark of life that radiates something of God’s life. Or as Ilia Delio puts it “Creation is not a window but a lamp, and each unique created being radiates the light of God.”

It follows from the essential univocity of being that the divine mystery can be perceived from within the created order. In the Incarnation what is true in the basic created order of things (that God is at the root of all that is and all that is shines forth with the light of God) becomes even more explicitly expressed when a created nature becomes united in one person to the divine nature of the Word. In this way creation reaches its fulfilment.

The Specificity of Being

But if Christ is the pattern of everything in creation, does this not make creation too uniform, too bland, too samey? In Scotus’ philosophy each particular being has its own intrinsic, unique and proper being. Thus everything has an inherent dignity, an essential “thisness” that makes it itself and not something else. So while univocity of being provides a philosophical basis for the unity of all created things his understanding of “thisness” ensures that within that unity each created thing has its own place, a place that can be taken by no other. We tell one thing from another by perceiving the “thisness” that each thing possesses.

When we combine the notions of the primacy of Christ with those of univocity of being and the essential thisness of each thing then we can see a powerful ecological message emerging for the people of our day. For if all things are rooted in a being which is of the same order as the being of God, if all things are predicated on Christ as the first-born of all creation, and if each thing expresses this in a unique, and uniquely beautiful way – then we are forced to contemplate our created order with awe and reverence. For each creature shines with something of God that can be expressed by no other. Each sun, star, proton, grape and grain is charged with a divine meaning – a meaning that no other can express. And each creature speaks to us of Christ who is the first among creatures.