The dumb ox or the dunce? Part I A

When it comes to discussing the the primary motive of the Incarnation there are, in the Western Church, two basic currents of thought which have come to be associated with the “dumb ox,” St. Thomas Aquinas (no sin, no Incarnation), and the “dunce,” Bl. John Duns Scotus (sin or no sin, there would always have been the Incarnation).

First, let me clear the record that the titles of “dumb ox” and “dunce” are certainly not mine. 🙂

The dumb ox: St. Thomas was large in stature, and yet quite humble by virtue. His peers at the University of Paris referred to him as the “dumb ox,” both because of his size and his meekness when presenting his knowledge in front of others. However, after a defence of a difficult thesis in class, the professor – St. Albert the Great – exclaimed, “We call him the dumb ox, but in his teaching he will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world.”

The dunce: The term actually is derived from his name (he was born in Duns, Scotland) and began to be used as a derogatory term in the 16th century after the Anglican and Calvanist revolt against the Church and the humanist revolt against Scholasticism. Simply put, the term referred to any follower of the subtle teachings of Duns Scotus (his followers were known as “Dunsmen”). Hence, a “dunce” was considered to be a stupid numbskull who adhered to scotistic doctrine (loyalty to the Pope, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the absolute primacy of Christ, etc.). The term was eventually transferred into grammar school settings where slow or misbehaving pupils were publicly humiliated by being put in a corner with a silly pointed “dunce cap.” Obviously Scotus was not to the liking of the Protestant reformers nor to the free thinkers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment which grew out of it!

At any rate, from here on I will refer to St. Thomas Aquinas either by name or his well earned title the Angelic Doctor and Bl. John Duns Scotus by name or his well earned title the Subtle Doctor. However, you can feel free to call me dumb or a dunce; given my love and respect for both of these holy men and their profound insights, I would consider it a compliment. 😉

That hypothetical question: Whether, if man had not sinned, God would have become incarnate?
(Summa Theologica III, I, 3)

Before we look at the responses of these two great minds, we do well to ask what’s the point of such a question. In fact, my own experience is that in discussing this topic with others they frequently dismiss the whole topic by saying that it is just a hypothetical question that doesn’t really matter. After all, Adam sinned and Jesus came and redeemed us. So what’s the point of discussing this anyway?

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves a question before we dismiss the discussion so lightly: Why did the greatest scholastic minds (and many after them) grapple with a seemingly counterfactual question? Minds like the Abbot Rupert of Deutz, Bishop Robert Grosseteste, Fr. Alexander of Hales, St. Albert the Great, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, Bl. John Duns Scotus, Fr. Francisco Suárez, St. Francis De Sales, St. Lawrence of Brindisi, etc. Perhaps they had nothing better to do than ponder what God might have done in other circumstances? Not quite.

The reason they grappled with this question is because the answer depends on a fact. Jesus came and He came for a reason. What was that reason? Why did He come? Cur Deus Homo?The question which they tackled, namely, if man had not sinned would God have become incarnate, hits the nail right on the head and the response drives the point home. Either He came primarily (or even exclusively) as a remedy for sin, in which case the response is in the negative: if man had not sinned, no, there would have been no Christ; or His coming was at the center of God’s creative plan regardless of sin, in which case the response is in the positive: if man had sinned or not sinned, yes, the Word would have become flesh and dwelt among us. Either way, we are dealing with a fact that determines the response to a hypothetical question – the Word become flesh for a reason, and not by chance.

The opinion of the Angelic Doctor

I answer that, There are different opinions about this question. For some say that even if man had not sinned, the Son of Man would have become incarnate. Others assert the contrary, and seemingly our assent ought rather to be given to this opinion.
For such things as spring from God’s will, and beyond the creature’s due, can be made known to us only through being revealed in the Sacred Scripture, in which the Divine Will is made known to us. Hence, since everywhere in the Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason of Incarnation, it is more in accordance with this to say that the work of Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin; so that, had sin not existed, Incarnation would not have been. And yet the power of God is not limited to this; even had sin not existed, God could have become incarnate.
(Summa Theologica III, I, 3)

The response of St. Thomas is not a definitive one, but rather a selection of what he considers the more probable opinion. Throughout his objections and responses one notes, first, that he respects both responses; second, that he has grappled with the question; third, that he opts for the negative opinion because “since everywhere in the Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason of Incarnation, it is more in accordance with this to say that the work of Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin; so that, had sin not existed, Incarnation would not have been.” In my opinion the statement “everywhere in the Scripture” is a very unfortunate one. One has only to click on the pages of this website to see that Scripture, especially St. Paul’s Epistles to the Romans, Colossians, and Ephesians, assigns quite another reason for the Incarnation. But more on that later (or check out the pages).

At any rate, one of the reasons the Angelic Doctor speaks of this as an opinion, even if he considers it the more probable one, is because he had great respect for two of his professors at the University of Paris who held the opposite opinion, namely, Fr. Alexander of Hales and St. Albert the Great. Fr. Alexander of Hales, also called the Doctor Irrefragibilis, held that the Incarnation was the fruit of God’s diffusive goodness and love, and thus the Incarnation of the Word was not simply to rememdy sin. St. Albert the Great, Doctor universalis, in his commentary on the Sentences states, “to the extent that I can offer my opinion, I believe that the Son of God would have become man even if there had been no sin… Nevertheless, on this subject I say nothing in a definitive manner; but I believe that what I said is more in harmony with the piety of faith” (In Sent. III, d. 20, a.4).

St. Thomas Aquinas upholds that the opposite opinion is possible and probable

In his “I answer that…” cited above, the Angelic Doctor specifically spells out that he could be wrong; that the “the power of God is not limited to this; even had sin not existed, God could have become incarnate.” Not only that, but in his objections he even notes some possible indications in favor of the positive opinion and other motives of the Incarnation that do not depend on man’s need for redemption. God willing, we will look at some of these aspects in our next post…

Fr. Maximilian M. Dean