5. Conformity to Christ, Firstborn

B.  Romans 8:29

Continuing with the theme of predestination, we move on to a short, but enlightening verse—Romans 8:29.  We quote it in its context:

v.28  Now we know that for those who love God all things work together unto good, for those who according to His purpose, are saints through His call. 

      v.29  For those whom He has foreknown He has also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He should be the firstborn among many brethren. 

      v.30  And those whom He has predestined, them He has also called; and those whom He has called, them He has also justified, and those whom He has justified, them He has also glorified.

His purpose

We recall that predestination consists in a twofold divine activity.  The first activity is the intention or “purpose” of God which is eternal, before anyone or anything exists; the second activity is the realization of that purpose in time by way of execution.  The Apostle first mentions that the elect, that is, the saints, are chosen according to God’s purpose through His call.  In explaining predestination, Bl. John Duns Scotus refers to the principle of Aristotle: “What is first in intention is last in execution.”[1]  This is precisely what the Apostle reveals—first God forms the intention, He has a purpose from all eternity, and then all things in the order of creation flow according to His plan, which is the execution.

Based on this passage of St. Paul, what is the divine intention?  “For those whom He has foreknown He has also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son.”  (Rom. 8:29).  Before God creates, calls, justifies, and glorifies His saints, He predestines them to be “conformed to the image of His Son.”  This necessarily means that God predestined and foresaw Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate, first in His plan.  The sacred humanity of Christ is predestined to grace and glory and the saints are predestined in Him.

Conformed to whom?

Some have objected that St. Paul might only be speaking here of the Son of God as the Eternal, Uncreated Word and that the elect are predestined from eternity “to become conformed to the image of the Son” apart from the Incarnation.  There are two problems with this interpretation.  First of all, why specifically a predestination to be conformed to the Son and not the whole Trinity?  Since the Word is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, one in being with the Father,” it makes more sense that St. Paul is referring to the Word Incarnate.  In fact, throughout the entire eighth chapter of his Epistle he refers only to Christ, the Word Incarnate, and never to the Uncreated Word as such.  This is confirmed elsewhere when the Apostle speaks clearly of predestination in Christ Jesus, “according to His own purpose and the grace which was granted to us in Christ Jesus before this world existed, but is now made known by the manifestation of our Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Tim.. 1:9-10).  Therefore, the Franciscan school maintains that the elect are predestined to be conformed to the Son precisely because God first sees His Son incarnate, He sees the love burning in the most Sacred Heart of Jesus from all eternity, and then He freely chooses to create and conform His saints to the image of His Son who is “the brightness of His glory and the image of His substance.”  (Heb. 1:3).

The second problem entailed in interpreting this passage only in reference to the Eternal Word is simply that Paul himself indicates the contrary.  If the elect are predestined to be conformed to the image of the Son, it is so “that He should be the firstborn among many brethren.”  Jesus is our brother precisely as the Son of Man, and not as the Uncreated Word.  And along with this short clarification we also see that man exists for Christ, man is predestined in Him so that He might have the absolute primacy.  He is the “firstborn,” not chronologically, but in the mind of God.  God sees the Heart of Christ first, then He sees angels and men in Him who is the “firstborn” in the intention of God, but who comes “last of all in these days” in the order of execution (cf. Heb. 1:2).

Absolute predestination of Christ

Having established the predestination of Christ to grace and glory and the predestination of the saints in Him from Sacred Scripture, we can now appreciate more fully the convincing observations of the Subtle Doctor.  In his Opus Parisiense he writes:

“It is said that the fall of man is the necessary reason for this predestination [of Christ].  Since God saw that man would fall, He saw that He would be redeemed in this way, and so He foresaw [Christ’s] human nature to be assumed and to be glorified with so great a glory.

“I declare, however, that the fall was not the cause of Christ’s predestination.  In fact, even if no man or angel had fallen, nor any man but Christ were to be created, Christ would still have been predestined in this way…”[2]

Before continuing with his proof for this, we note how the predestination of the sacred humanity of Christ to glory through the personal union with the Eternal Word in the Incarnation is not conditioned by anything created, nor by any good or evil act that might be committed by a creature.  Christ is predestined absolutely, a parte rei.  In fact, “if the fall were the reason for Christ’s predestination,” Scotus later writes, “it would follow that the greatest work of God [the Incarnation] was essentially occasioned.”  To say that the summum opus Dei, the greatest work of God, was occasioned by a lesser good, or worse, by an evil act committed by a lesser creature, seems outrageous!  No, Jesus Christ is the first one predestined and this for His own sake, namely to be that creature most perfectly glorified by God and to be that creature to adore Him most perfectly.  To say that God’s Masterpiece in all creation is subordinated to some secondary end or that He is occasioned by the fall of Adam is nonsensical.

To use a simple analogy, we say that “the dog is man’s best friend,” clearly connoting that the lesser being, the dog, is ordered to the higher being, man.  No one would say “man is the dog’s best friend,” as if the free, rational human being exists primarily for the canine.  Although a dog may benefit from his owner, the owner does not exist primarily for his pet.  Similarly, we exist for Christ, not He for us“For if we live, we live to the Lord”  (Rom. 14:8). And although we can benefit from belonging to Christ, nonetheless, He does not exist primarily for us, but we for Him. [St. Paul says, “And you are Christ’s, and Christ is of God” (1 Cor 3:23)].

Scotus describes the hypostatic union as the greatest work of God “because the glory of all creation is not as great in intensity as is the glory of Christ.  Hence, it seems very absurd to claim that God would have left so great a work [i.e. the Incarnation] undone on account of a good deed performed by Adam, such as Adam’s not sinning.”[3]

The proof of Scotus

Now the Subtle Doctor proves the absolute predestination of Christ in this way:

“I prove this as follows: because everyone who wills in an orderly manner, wills first the end, then more immediately those things which are closer to the end; but God wills in a most orderly manner; therefore, that is the way He wills.  In the first place, then, He wills Himself, and immediately after Him, ad extra, is the soul of Christ.  Therefore, after first willing those objects intrinsic to Himself, God willed this glory for Christ.  Therefore, before any merit or demerit, He foresaw that Christ would be united with Him in the oneness of Person.”[4]

Just as an architect wills first the building, then those things closest to the end (i.e. the interior design, the insulation, electricity, plumbing, roof, frame, foundation, etc.); so God, the Divine Architect of the universe, first wills “those objects intrinsic to Himself,” then that which is closest to the end, “the soul of Christ.”  First, God exists in Himself—One in Essence, Three in Persons—then He wills that which is closest to Himself ad extra, namely Jesus Christ, then His Immaculate Mother, then the angels and men, then the natural universe.

For our Blessed this logically proves Christ’s absolute primacy over all creation.  Otherwise, one would have to conclude that God wills in a disorderly fashion.  While God is free, no one denies that God cannot do what is metaphysically impossible.  Based on this axiom, it would be a contradiction for God to will in a disordered way—namely to will His greatest work because of Adam’s sin.

The Incarnation is a pure gift of Love

Scotus emphasizes that “before any merit or demerit, He [God] foresaw that Christ would be united with Him in the oneness of Person.”[5]  The Incarnation is the one completely gratuitous gift of God to a creature apart from any merit or demerit.  All other gifts of God are merited by Christ Himself or by others united to Him, so that even the Immaculate Conception of Mary, although not merited by her, was given to her by virtue of the foreseen merits of Christ.  But the grace and glory given to the sacred humanity of Jesus by virtue of the hypostatic union are a free, gratuitous gift of God who is Himself Love.  This gift of grace and glory to the human nature of Jesus, foreordained by God, was a pure gift.  It was not given based on anyone’s merit and certainly not on account of anyone’s demerit.

In fact, the predestination of each of the elect to glory precedes any liberation from the loss of that glory through sin.  Otherwise, the saints would rejoice over another’s fall.  The Subtle Doctor puts it this way, “The preordination and complete predestination of the elect precedes anything determined concerning the reprobate in fact, lest anyone rejoice over the damnation of another as a benefit to himself.”  If the Sacred Heart of Jesus was predestined to the highest glory solely or primarily because of Adam’s sin, then He Himself would owe a debt of gratitude to Adam for falling.  “Therefore,” Scotus finishes, “the entire process concerning Christ was foreseen prior to the fall and to all demerit.”[6]

“O happy fault”?

On this note, however, we must contend with an impelling objection that might seem to undo all that we have been saying.  There is a saying in the Church that goes like this, lex orandi, lex credendi, the norm of prayer is the norm of faith.  In other words, as the Church prays so she believes—her prayers indicate her Creed.  Now every year at the Easter Vigil there is sung with fervent joy in Catholic churches throughout the world the Exultet.  In the last half of that triumphant hymn the cantor sings, “What good would life have been to us, had Christ not come as our Redeemer?”  Then, a few lines later, “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!”  These are troublesome lines to the scotist, to say the least!  However, this is not a closed case for the thomistic thesis; some observations must be made.

First, notice that these lines speak of a Redeemer.  Nowhere does it say that sin was necessary for the Incarnation, or that Adam’s fall occasioned the eternal predestination of Christ.  Simply put, if Adam had not sinned Christ would not have come as Redeemer and so the sin of Adam can be said to be necessary if Christ is to come as our Redeemer.  ‘No sin, no Redeemer’; but it does not follow ‘no sin, no Incarnation.’  Also, the scotist acknowledges that after the fall life would not be good to us at all without the Redeemer.

Moreover, is holy Mother Church inviting us to rejoice in Adam’s fall?  “O happy fault”!?!  I respond in the negative, and for two reasons.  First of all, this is a poetic hymn praising God for the victory of Christ’s resurrection from the dead.  For example, the earth is invited to “rejoice”—obviously a poetic expression.[7]  The cantor speaks of this night being chosen by God “to see” the Resurrection—poetic in that night cannot “see.”  And so we take the Exultet for what it is, a poetic Easter proclamation of joy and victory.  Besides, to be happy and rejoice at another’s fall would be a sin against charity.  Certainly the Church is not exulting in Adam’s wicked deed, but rejoicing in God’s victory over sin through the Paschal mystery.  In the final analysis, a scotistic Franciscan even more will sing out the Exultet at the Easter Vigil with great jubilation and still hold tenaciously to the absolute primacy of Christ the King.  For it is this very primacy which accounts for our good fortune, despite the apparently definitive success of the serpent and irreversible character of the original disaster.  “O happy fault,” not because it caused the Incarnation, but because God in His mercy willed to remedy our woe in such a perfect way.  The Church, then, is not declaring a relative primacy of Christ in the Exultet, but rather, she is rejoicing wholeheartedly in Christ the King’s victorious resurrection from the dead.


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

[2] Bl. John Duns Scotus, Opus Parisiense, Lib III, d.7, q.4.  This point is further elaborated by Scotus’ critique of St. Anselm’s position on the relation between an Incarnation motivated primarily by the fall of Adam and therefore the need of a Redeemer both divine and human and so capable of condign satisfaction for sin.  The thesis of St. Anselm provides an essential premise for both the soteriology of St. Bonaventure and that of St. Thomas.  Bl. John Duns Scotus locates the primary motive of the Incarnation in something prior to sin, and so is able to establish principles which show why a redemption entailing just satisfaction occasioned by the sin of Adam was in fact chosen in view of the prior, absolute, joint predestination of the Incarnation of the Word and of His Immaculate Mother.  Cf. Lectura III, d. 20.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] On a deeper level this line echoes biblical typology, where “virgin earth” is a type of the Virgin Mary by whom Christ in His human nature was formed, as the first Adam was formed by God from the “virgin earth,” hence, the earth here alludes to the joy of Our Lady, and all united to her, at the Resurrection.