God ab intra first, then His creation ad extra
Before looking directly at Ven. Mary of Agreda’s writings, we do well to underscore the divine vantage point from which flows the doctrine of the absolute primacy of Christ. In this way we will be in a better position to appreciate more fully the revelations of the Venerable. In my treatise on the absolute primacy of Christ according to the teachings of Bl. John Duns Scotus I wrote:
As we shall see, one of the most beautiful aspects of the Subtle Doctor’s teaching on the absolute primacy of Christ is that it begins from above (with God’s plan), and not from below (with man’s need). Scotus’ theology seeks to see the created world from God’s point of view, ad mentem Dei, and not to subordinate His eternal decrees to man’s temporal and spiritual needs. God’s works are not conditioned. God is God; then God, in His goodness, freely wills to create the universe according to a fixed plan.
It is a fact that dogmatic theology tends to go in this order: God the Trinity, creation, the fall, then Christology. Why? Because it is presupposed (clearly a thomistic presupposition) that Christ comes as a remedy for man’s sin. But from the Franciscan perspective this is putting the cart before the horse.
The Franciscan scheme of things would look like this: God the Trinity, Christ, the rest of creation in and for Christ, the fall, then soteriology. God, knows and loves Himself ab intra in the eternal now of His divine beatitude. Then (we are speaking of priority, not of time) He wills to communicate His love and truth ad extra in the most perfect way possible, namely by uniting a created nature to the Divinity in the Incarnation of the Word. Christ indeed is the beginning of God’s creation. After Christ, but in the same decree, God wills and predestines the Virgin Mary to be His Mother and the elect to be His Angels and Saints (filial adoption: He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world… to be His children. See Eph 1:4). In other words, creation hinges upon the predestination of Christ to grace and glory; everything is created for Him (Col 1:16-17). It is in the context of the absolute primacy of Christ that the Franciscan school speaks of the fall and the Redemption, whereas the thomistic school would speak of Christ’s coming and primacy within the context of the fall and man’s need for Redemption.
Here are two pertinent quotes of Scotus showing the priority of the Incarnation in the divine decree of creation (prior to any consideration of man’s sin):
“I prove this as follows: because everyone who wills in an orderly manner, wills first the end, then more immediately those things which are closer to the end; but God wills in a most orderly manner; therefore, that is the way He wills. In the first place, then, He wills Himself, and immediately after Him, ad extra, is the soul of Christ. 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.” (Opus Parisiense, Lib III, d.7, q.4)
“Therefore, since the positive act of the divine will regarding the predestined in common precedes all the acts of His will concerning either the reprobate or the fall of anyone whatever, it does not seem that the predestination of Christ to be the Head of the heavenly court was occasioned by the fall or by the demerit of the reprobate. Therefore, God first loves Himself, and nearest in relation to this is his love for the soul of Christ that is to have the greatest glory in the world. And among all created things to be willed, this was first willed—an existence foreseen prior to all merit and hence prior to all demerit.” (Reportatio Barcinonensis, II, d.7, q.3)
In Ven. Mary of Agreda’s first book on Mary’s Conception, after describing the reason that she, an “ignorant woman” as she calls herself, would dare to write on the life and privileges of the Blessed Virgin Mary, she plunges into the most sublime theology: the divine Trinity in Himself, whose ways are inscrutable. She describes, with a theological precision that is astonishing, the life of the Blessed Trinity ab intra. “I saw the Lord as He was before He had created anything,” she writes (n.30). And here is what she saw (and I quote at length):
“I saw the Most High, at the same time understanding how His Majesty is in Himself; I received a clear intelligence and a true perception of what is meant by a God, infinite in His substance and attributes, eternal, exalted above all, being three in Person, and one true God. Three in Person, because of the three activities of knowing, comprehending and loving each other; one, so as to secure the boon of eternal unity. It is the Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. The Father is not made, nor created, nor begotten, nor can He be generated or have a beginning. I perceived that the Son derives His origin from the Father alone by eternal generation; and that They are equal in their duration from eternity; and that He is begotten by the fecundity of the intelligence of the Father. The Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son through love. In their indivisible Trinity there is nothing which can be called first or last, greater or smaller: all three Persons are equally eternal and eternally equal; there is unity of essence in a trinity of Persons. Nor are the Persons mingled in order to form one God, nor the divine substance separated or divided in order to form three Persons, being distinct as the Father, as the Son and as the Holy Ghost. They are nevertheless one and the same Divinity, equal in Each is the glory, and majesty, the power, the eternity, the immensity, the wisdom and sanctity, and all the attributes. And though there are three Persons, in whom these infinite perfections subsist, He is the one and true God, the Holy, the Just, the powerful, the Eternal and Measureless. (n.27)
It is in this context – God knowing, comprehending and loving within Himself – that the decree of creation issues forth. Notice the motivation for creating in the Venerable’s description:
“I understood that the Most High was in the quiescent state of His own Being, when the three Persons (according to our way of understanding things), decreed to communicate His perfections as a free gift. For greater clearness, I must remark, that God comprehends in Himself all things by one indivisible, most simple and instantaneous act. He does not go on from the understanding of one thing to the understanding of another like we do, distinguishing and perceiving first one thing by an act of understanding, and after that proceeding to the knowledge of others by their connection with those already known. God knows them conjointly all at once, without before or after, since all are together and at once contained in the divine and uncreated knowledge and science, just as they are comprehended and enclosed in His infinite Being, as in their first beginning. (n.31)
Note two things: First, she affirms that creation was “decreed to communicate His perfections as a free gift.” God, in His love and goodness, wills creation so as to communicate Himself ad extra. And the most perfect way to communicate Himself would be??? Ah, yes, by the Incarnation! But I anticipate (this is precisely what St. Francis de Sales, Doctor of the Church, taught, by the way).
Secondly, she struggles to deal with the problem of God’s timelessness and the priority He had in creating. Priority, while it does not imply time, can only be expressed by us using limited human language. So while God wills everything simultaneously, there is a priority of importance, a primacy, and the absolute primacy in God’s creative plan is Jesus Christ.
This latter point is very important because many who oppose the Franciscan thesis use this as an escape hatch to avoid the argument at hand. They say that God is outside of time and would have foreseen Adam’s sin and hence could have willed Christ even before Adam’s fall because God foresaw His fall outside of time. But the thing they don’t acknowledge is that in saying that Christ came primarily as a remedy for sin they themselves are speaking of a priority in God’s creative plan – it’s a different priority, but a priority nonetheless. So no matter how you slice it (thomistically or scotistically), one has to speak of priority in the divine plan. What was God’s primary reason in creating, in willing the Incarnation? Both schools of thought have an answer and both acknowledge that God is outside of time and foresaw everything. So there is no escape hatch; either Christ was willed first and absolutely, or He was willed as a remedy to man’s sin and thus relative to man’s need for Redemption.
Because this is essential to grasping the “divine instances” revealed to Ven. Mary of Agreda, you might want to take a look at this before plunging into Part III…