Summary of Bishop Robert Grosseteste by Fr. Eric Wood

Summary of the Primacy of Christ according to Bishop Robert Grosseteste (ca. 1175-1253) by Fr. Eric Wood

(The following passage is taken from Fr. Eric Wood’s Master’s Degree Thesis at the Athenaeum of Ohio. The full document with footnotes – which is well worth reading – can be found HERE).

The debate over the primacy of Christ began in Anselm and Rupert [of Deutz] as a discussion concerning the necessity of Christ’s Incarnation and passion. The issue continued to be developed for the most part through the work of theologians within the Franciscan Order who tended to affirm the position of Rupert, though not universally. The non-universality of the thesis within the Order notwithstanding, Rupert’s position nevertheless became known as the Franciscan thesis. One of the first who influenced the Order, to begin dealing with the issue was Robert Grosseteste. Grosseteste was the chancellor of the University of Oxford, bishop of Lincoln, and the first instructor of the friars in England. Like Rupert he looked at the issue as a question concerning the necessity of the Incarnation, and as a counterfactual claim which he believed could help us understand certain aspects of the present economy of salvation. Though Grosseteste is not given enough credit for the part he plays, there are indications that he had an influence on other Franciscan thinkers, including the two main luminaries, Bonaventure and Scotus.

Grosseteste employed a very similar method as Rupert, though there is little evidence he knew much of what Rupert had to say on the question. For in the areas of his
theological teaching, Grosseteste, as a magister in sacra pagina, was known for his adherence to the Scriptures. It makes sense, observes Daniel Horan, that the Scriptures would be a “starting point for Grosseteste’s exploration of the necessity of the Incarnation. However, it should also be noted that, according James Ginther, Grosseteste believed it was the “responsibility of the speculative theologian to provide a rational account of what was gained from the study of Scripture.” This is what led Grosseteste to operate not just as a scriptural exegete but also as a speculative theologian in his study of the question concerning the necessity of the Incarnation. Due to his turn to more speculative or philosophical explanations, Grosseteste becomes very hesitant to push forward his opinion as the authentic teaching of the Church. Only those aspects which he definitively takes from the Scriptures does he present with any authority. Nevertheless, he is the first to use speculative/theological explanations in favor of the Franciscan school of thought, and can be seen as a bridge between Rupert and later defenders of the position.

Grosseteste takes up the question of the necessity of Christ’s Incarnation mainly in De Cessatione Legalium, Exiit Edictum
(a Christmas homily), and Hexaemeron. His arguments from Scripture deal specifically with Old Testament themes in which he attempts to present Christ, the God-man, as the only possible fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and blessings. While it may seem from this that his motivation was to counter Jewish attacks against the faith, James Ginther believes there is very little evidence to support this statement. Rather, he suggests Grosseteste’s motivation was simply to understand the place of the Old law within the context of Christ and the New law.

Greater importance is attributed to Grosseteste’s arguments of a more speculative nature, for it is here that he employs the hypothetical statement in question. Though
Grosseteste acknowledges that Fathers such as St. Gregory, St. Augustine, and St. Anselm all declared that the human race could only be saved through the God-man, he does not believe it had occurred to these men to ask whether or not the Incarnation would have taken place had the human race not sinned (though there is evidence to suggest otherwise). While it may seem odd that such medieval thinkers would put so much effort into a counter-factual claim, James Ginther offers an explanation as to why Grosseteste believed it was important to consider. First of all, Grosseteste uses the hypothetical in order to “highlight specific true conditions of the world as it is now.” Secondly, he is using the hypothetical to prove a greater thesis; to show how sin cannot be the direct cause of the Incarnation, so as to establish “reasons for the Incarnation that not only function in a world as it is now, but also in a world devoid of all sin. Grosseteste’s aim is not to separate the Incarnation from Christ’s saving work, but rather to elucidate its twofold role.”

In this effort Grosseteste offers five different arguments all supported by a theology rooted in Pseudo-Dionysius and the Neo-platonic tradition. The first is based
upon the goodness of God and makes use of St. Anselm’s definition of God as a “greater Good than can even be thought.” The argument also draws upon the Pseudo-Dionysian concept of the good being self-diffusive. God created the world in such a way that it would be capable of receiving God’s goodness in the highest possible way. As Grosseteste states, “supreme goodness [God] pours in as great a good as it is capable of. But the universe is capable of this good, namely, that it have a part of itself as the God-man. There is nothing that can exist in the universe if the universe is incapable of containing it; and the universe already has this good. Therefore, it is capable of this good, and was not made capable of this good by the fall of man.” The fact that God is the supreme good and the universe is capable of the God-man leads him to say that the God-man would have come despite the fall. Thus the world would have been created in such a way so as to receive the greatest good, which Grosseteste says can only be the Incarnate God.

The second argument is based upon the idea that the hypostatic union of the Word of God was achieved primarily through the intellectum or “intellect,” a position he takes from Peter Lombard and John Damascene. From this, Grosseteste will say that the human flesh was equally assumable, if not more, considering the weakening of the intellect due to sin, prior to the fall as it was after man had sinned. “Either the assumption of the flesh by the Word through the mediation of the soul [intellect] was more possible when man was in Paradise [prior to the fall] than it would be now [after the fall], or at least it was as possible as it would be now.” At this point Grosseteste returns to his first argument by stating it makes sense to say that God would have become incarnate, considering it would have been just as possible if not more, even if we had not sinned because the whole of creation is better “than it could in any way be without this good [the God-man]… Either, then one must say that God would have become man even if man had not fallen, or that the whole of creation is now inestimably better than it would have been if man had not fallen.”

The third argument is based upon a distinction which Grosseteste makes in his understanding of justice and sanctification. Put simply, he argues that the human race, even apart from the fall, is in need of the Incarnation for the sake of sanctification (though not justice). For only in the God-man can the human race be sanctified and lifted up as children of the most high God. In this, Grosseteste does not believe being sanctified is the same as being justified.

The fourth argument arises from Grosseteste’s reading of Ephesians 1:22 and 5:23. According to these passages Christ is meant to be head of the Church apart from any act of sin on humanity’s part. That such a holy institution as the Church should be dependent on the sin of the human race makes no sense to Grosseteste for this very reason. Thus, he concludes that the Incarnation was always intended because Christ was predestined to a nuptial relationship with the Church. “Before he fell, Adam prophesied the marriage of Christ and the Church. . .”

In many ways, the fifth and final explanation brings us to the heart of Grosseteste’s theology and what is characteristic of the Franciscan mindset. The argument is based upon the understanding of the universe as a unified creation, with Christ (the Incarnate God) as the unifying principle. Such a principle could not be accomplished in man alone (apart from his union with the Word of God). The unifying principle, according to Grosseteste, must be more worthy than all other creatures, and thus it can only be the God-man. As Horan describes it, “The Incarnation was necessary to unify all parts of creation and to complete the capacity for fulfillment God intended for the universe

Despite his hesitancy to enter into the area of speculative thought, Grosseteste’s use of Pseudo-Dionysius to support a christocentric view of creation breaks new ground in the development of the Church’s understanding of the primacy of Christ. Ginther argues, “The question [the hypothetical] had been posed before, but Grosseteste is the first to address the problem with such intensity that it created a new topic for scholastic theologians to examine for the rest of the century.” Because his arguments in favor of Rupert’s thesis were speculative and theological, Grosseteste influenced a list of other theologians including Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure, and Bl. John Duns Scotus, all of whom express very similar christocentric theological systems. These men, specifically the latter two, will become the great thinkers of the Middle Ages who will provide the most profound developments in our understanding of Christ’s primacy.