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.