Scotus’ doctrine of the primacy is ahistorical, counterfactual, and hypothetical in nature?!?

Ave Maria!

I recently ran across an article by Fr. John Gavin, SJ, in Faith Magazine which merits some comment. Before commenting on the article, however, let me say that Faith Magazine is one of the very few groups who through the internet and the printed word are taking seriously the doctrine of the absolute primacy of Christ in all of creation and simultaneously not compromising the Catholic Faith in all of its fullness. Their magazine was strongly recommended recently by Fr. Z’s blog and I second that recommendation.

The article in question, The Primacy of Christ and the Cross: Some Considerations from Ambrose of Milan, (Sept.-Oct. 2010) starts off with a solid summary of Scotus and the primacy of Christ in all creation. Fr. Gavin writes:

Today, when many speak of the primacy of Christ in creation, they are referring to the Scotist interpretation of the divine motive for the Incarnation: the Incarnation is the primary end of all creation.[1] Thus, if man had not fallen into sin, the Incarnation would have still taken place. This view is not lacking in Scriptural support: “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him” {Col. 1:16). One can also consider the teachings of such Fathers of the Church as St. Irenaeus of Lyons or St. Maximus the Confessor, and such later thinkers as Henri de Lubac or Hans Urs von Balthasar. In fact, one may argue that it is the predominant viewpoint in contemporary theology.

Whether it is the predominant viewpoint in contemporary theology or not is definitely debatable; but the synthesis of the doctrine is concise and accurate. He also notes how this doctrine underscores man’s divinization in Christ and the fact that the whole universe (and the sciences that study it) only makes sense in the light of Christ:

This perspective has much to commend it. First, it demonstrates that the Incarnation took place for man’s deificatio, the union of man with the divine nature. The primary end of the Word’s enfleshment is divine adoption and union: “God became man, in order that man might become God” (St. Athanasius). Second, some believe this understanding of primacy allows for a Christological framework conducive to the contemporary scientific conception of the universe. In a sense, Christ provides the grand unifying theory long sought by physicists, since creation unfolds within the Word’s dynamic and personal assumption of human nature, “the microcosmos”. All things exist in order to be united and transformed in Christ, and Christ serves as the key for understanding the end of the universe.

Let me note, however, that for Scotus the primary end of the Incarnation is not man’s deificatio or divinization; but rather, the maximum glory of God. According to Scotus the Incarnation is not occasioned by anything in the created world – neither man’s need for Redemption nor man’s divinization. God simply willed it first – primarily – and this without condition. Scotus writes: “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 this way… 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.” [you might want to take a look at the fuller context of these quotation of Scotus’ Opus Parisiense]. While this is a subtle aspect of the Subtle Doctor, it is worth mentioning. 🙂

At any rate, after his synthesis the article makes a disconcerting about-face. Fr. Gavin gives the impression that this doctrine, namely that “the Incarnation is the primary end of all creation,” is dangerous and even out of touch with reality.

Scotus’ doctrine on the primacy: dangerous?

He writes, “But this position is not without its dangers.” Question: If this doctrine is true, can we call it dangerous? I suppose this might have been one of the many objections to Scotus’ teaching on the Immaculate Conception: it was considered “dangerous” to say that Our Lady was preserved from all taint of sin because this might somehow threaten the key doctrine that Jesus is Redeemer of all. But in the end the Church acknowledged that Mary was immaculately conceived and this by way of a preservative redemption in view of the foreseen merits of Jesus Christ.

His doctrine is not dangerous. What is dangerous is the wrong interpretations and applications of the doctrine, and this holds for all Catholic doctrine, all revealed truth. This is why Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to the Church: the Pope and the Magisterium who are our sure guide. If we remain with the Church in her profession of Faith then there is no danger. The Franciscan school has always upheld the doctrine of Scotus on the absolute primacy of Christ sub ductum Ecclesiae – under the guidance of the Church. And, as a matter of fact, the present Pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI, has even promoted discussion in this area by commending Bl. John Duns Scotus christocentric view of the universe and the unconditional decree of the Incarnation [The 1 minute video of the Pope’s address about Scotus in English is worth watching]

Scotus’ perspective is a-historical, counter-factual, hypothetical in nature?!?

After saying that the scotistic position is inherently dangerous, the article continues:

The Scotist position, as one might call it, often leads to an a-historicism that reduces the person of Jesus Christ to alpha and omega points that enclose the divine economy. In fact, this perspective itself is a-historical and counterfactual, as evinced by the very hypothetical nature of the proposition: if man had not fallen, the Incarnation would have still taken place. While a hypothetical stance allows us to perceive important aspects of the divine plan (e.g., the deificatio of man), it unfortunately requires a certain abstraction from the Jesus of history, from our own reality as sinful creatures, and from the salvation won for us upon the Cross.

It is known that Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., was guilty of such things, but then again, he never claimed to be a follower of Scotus. [Dr. Dietrich von Hildebrand gives a solid evaluation of him]. In fact it was the Scotist, Bl. Gabriel M. Allegra, OFM, who read his books, dialogued with him at length about the doctrine of Bl. John Duns Scotus, and all along maintained the censure of these books. If Fr. Chardin had embraced the doctrine of Scotus, and this sub ductum Ecclesiae, then perhaps he might have avoided some of the pitfalls in his writings which tended to confuse science with philosophy and theology without making proper distinctions, tended to see theology as being in contradiction with the reality of science, which failed to speak properly of original sin and man’s redemption, etc. Scotus, on the other hand, never used this terminology: “alpha and omega point of the divine economy.” To my knowledge, he himself never makes reference to Christ as the Alpha and Omega in asserting the absolute, unconditional predestination of Christ.

Be that as it may, Scotus was by no stretch of the imagination out of touch with reality (“a-historical”). The Incarnation is real history, indeed the center of the real, factual history of the universe. His doctrine on the predestination of Christ – often dubbed the “Franciscan thesis” – cannot but lead one to adore Christ, the historical Christ, who is true God and true man. Franciscans, after all, are famous for spreading the Christmas creche and for promoting the Stations of the Cross. There is nothing “counter-factual” in asserting that Christ’s predestination is absolute: sin or no sin. Rather, Scotus (and many others before and after him) are pondering about the motive of the actual Incarnation. The Word became flesh – fact – but why did He become flesh? The hypothetical question of the Medeival Theologians served only to reflect on the reason why God willed the Incarnation in the first place. By no means were their responses divorced from the historical fact of the Incarnation. As I wrote in my book A Primer on the Absolute Primacy of Christ [here’s the weblink to the passage]:

In reflecting on the reason for the Incarnation, keep in mind that we are not considering a hypothetical question of what might or might not have happened if Adam had not sinned. Rather, faced with the fact of the Incarnation we are seeking—with our human intelligence (philosophy) and through divine revelation (theology)—“to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know Christ’s love which surpasses all knowledge, in order that you may be filled unto all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:18-19).

Scotus: the best synthesis of Christ’s primacy and His redeeming mission

Scotus and the Franciscan school never in the slightest deny or downplay, but rather affirm and adore Jesus as described by Fr. Gavin in his beautiful words: “Jesus of Nazareth, the Word incarnate, who was born, grew in strength and wisdom, preached and performed mighty signs, freely gave his life on the cross, was raised and is now seated at the right hand of the Father.” Hence, I do not agree with his conclusion that “One must say, therefore, that God made this universe on the basis of the free and loving sacrifice of Jesus, not solely on the basis of a vision of the cosmic Christ.”

From the sound perspective of Scotus, if we are going to understand the “why” of the Incarnation we must start from the divine plan and not from man’s need after sin; we must start from above, and not from below. The reason for the Incarnation must be found in God’s will. This is not a divorce from reality, history or facts; rather, it is THE reality, THE center of history, THE fact that guides the creative and redeeming hand of God.

It is for this reason that I wholeheartedly agree with the marvelous synthesis of the Christology of Scotus made by Bl. Gabriel M. Allegra (+1976). It is in this fuller Christological perspective that the assertions of Scotus make sense. In fact, as Bl. Gabriel repeatedly points out, it is precisely the perspective of Scotus that keeps both the key elements intact, namely, the universal primacy of Christ in all of creation and the Redemption of the human race. Bl. Allegra writes: “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.”

In all truth, the doctrine of the absolute primacy of Jesus of Nazareth (sin or no sin) is both factual and historical. It is the Thomistic position which infers the hypothetical, counterfactual: If Adam had not sinned, there would be no Incarnation. Now that’s extremely hypothetical!

Thus the conclusion of Fr. Gavin seems actually to find its solution in the very doctrine he criticizes. He writes: “Thus, a teaching regarding the primacy of Christ must not limit itself to a hypothetical stance that, despite its importance, runs the risk of reducing Christ to a final cause or to a unifying theory. It must balance such a view with the tradition that highlights the crucified and risen Lord of history, Jesus of Nazareth, who came that we might be saved (“O felix culpa!”).” But it is precisely Scotus who balances both of these elements without reducing Jesus either to a “unifying theory” Ă  la Chardin or to a “divine scapegoat theory” Ă  la Calvin.

As for the felix culpa, well, as Scotus puts it: “Christ would not have come as Redeemer if man had not fallen” – this is true – but it does not follow that He would not have become Incarnate at all. I have commented elsewhere more extensively on the “Oh happy fault” of the Exultet. The Church is by no means rejoicing over the fall of Adam, but in God’s victory over sin through the Paschal mystery.

In Corde Matris,
fr maximilian mary dean