The term “absolute primacy of Christ”

Someone recently asked me about the origins of the expression “absolute primacy of Christ” which is not found in the writings of Bl. John Duns Scotus himself. The terms were developed by his disciples, by what is called the “Franciscan school”. I asked Fr. Peter M. Fehlner, F.I. – my professor in dogmatic theology – about the origins of the term and here is his response:

Ave Maria

Dear Fr. Maximilian,

The use of the phrase “absolute primacy” to describe the distinctive features of the Scotistic thesis on the primary motive of the Incarnation is a very ancient one in the Franciscan school. I know of no study, however, devoted to the history of the term in general or within the Franciscan school of theology, or whether it is even possible to determine who used the term first, although use in English of absolute seems to have begun toward the end of the middle ages, viz., precisely when scotism was one of the predominant schools of Catholic theology.

What I suggest by way of reply is a brief discussion of the meaning of absolute and primacy and then “absolute primacy of Christ”. You can find this in any good unabridged dictionary of English (e.g., Oxford Dictinary). Absolute as used in many areas of learning, including theological study of the Godhead and of the divine perfections, means totally independent, unrestricted, unconditional, free of dependence on or relation to (literally: released from in Latin). Conjoined with the word primacy (firstness in Latin, as Bonaventure speaks of the absolute personal firstness of the Father in regarding the other divine Persons and of the essential firstness of all three persons, viz., not related to creation, although creation is related to, dependent on the Creator, even rational creatures) in the case of the motive of the Incarnation means not ordered to some other created reality as to an end, but an end in itself and the end of all other creatures, creation itself and redemption. Thus absolute primacy of Christ sums up the thesis of Scotus neatly: unrestricted, unconditional primacy in creation to which all else in creation is ordered as to their end, not a relative primacy in a particular order, viz., as King of all the redeemed, but not of the Angels who had no need of redemption. The thomistic thesis involves a relative primacy: in the order of redemption, but not per se in the order of creation where the primacy of Christ is only per accidens in virtue of the fact that He comes primarily as redeemer, and not as Savior of all, even if not in need of redemption. From this (thomistic position) it follows the grace of angels and of Adam and Eve before the fall was only a grace of God, not of Christ.

I hope this helps.

In the Immaculate,
Fr. Peter