St. John the Evangelist, the disciple whom Jesus loved, relates a fact—Verbum caro factum est; the Word was made flesh. We know the fact of the Incarnation (Jn. 1:14) and we know the how—He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary (cf. Lk. 1:30-35; Mt. 1:18-25). Our question is not what took place nor how it came about. Our question is ‘Why did it take place at all?’
In reflecting on the reason for the Incarnation, keep in mind that we are not considering a hypothetical question of what might or might not have happened if Adam had not sinned. Rather, faced with the fact of the Incarnation we are seeking—with our human intelligence (philosophy) and through divine revelation (theology)—“to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know Christ’s love which surpasses all knowledge, in order that you may be filled unto all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:18-19).
In pondering the primary reason for the Incarnation of the Eternal Word we are joining the company of Apostles, Fathers, Doctors, Saints, theologians, mystics and contemplatives down through the ages who marveled in awe at the God-Man, at “One like to a Son of Man, clothed with a garment reaching to the ankle, and girt about the breasts with a golden girdle. But His head and His hair were white as wool, and as snow, and His eyes were as a flame of fire, and His voice like the voice of many waters… and His countenance was like the sun shining in its power. And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as one dead. And He laid His right hand upon me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last’” (Apoc. 1:13-17).
With reverence and love we adore Jesus, true God and true man, and I pray that the “God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may grant you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in deep knowledge of Him: the eyes of your mind being enlightened” (Eph. 1:17-18). The “mystery of Christ… has been revealed” (Eph. 3:3-5) and, as the Holy Apostle says, God’s “grace has abounded beyond all measure in us in all wisdom and prudence, so that He may make known to us the mystery of His will according to His good pleasure” (Eph. 1:8-9).
Why the God-Man?
In discussing the raison d’être of the Incarnation many frequently fall into the hypothetical question, ‘If Adam had not sinned, would the Son of God have come in the flesh?’ It is important to note that theologians on both sides are asking this question in light of the fact—Christ did indeed come; Christ is our Redeemer. No one is denying the present economy of God’s providence; rather, the hypothetical question serves to shed light on the primary reason for the coming of Christ.
In general there are only two proposed answers to this question (although there have been attempts at conciliatory answers). On the one hand, there are those who say that the Incarnation is a response to man’s sin. According to them the Incarnation is conditional. St. Augustine, Father and Doctor of the Church says, “If man had not sinned, the Son of Man would not have come.” Thus ‘no sin, no Incarnation.’ This position has come to be known as the thomistic thesis, associated as it is with the great St. Thomas Aquinas who held this position and developed the argument. While St. Thomas wrote that “this is not a very important question” given the actual economy of grace and he himself admits that the opposite “opinion can also be called probable”; nonetheless, he took a definitive stance and this position has borne his name ever since.
In his Summa theologica he writes that “the work of the Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin, so that, if sin had not existed [viz. if Adam had not sinned], the Incarnation would not have been.” [For a more in depth discussion of the position of St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica and the Scotistic positions in defense of the absolute primacy of Christ, one can read the posts entitled The Dumb Ox or the Dunce]
Obviously St. Augustine, St. Thomas and many others answer the hypothetical question thus: the immediate reason for the Incarnation is man’s redemption from sin. As St. Ambrose puts it, “What was the cause of the Incarnation if not the redemption of the flesh that had sinned?” The silence of many Fathers on whether ‘immediate’ is synonymous with ‘primary’ is not necessarily proof that they held what later came to be known as the thomistic thesis.
Be that as it may, Scripture is replete with apparent affirmations of the thomistic thesis. “And He hath borne the sins of many,” was Isaias’ theme of the Suffering Servant (cf. Is. 53). St. Paul writes to St. Timothy, “This saying is true and worthy of entire acceptance, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief” (1 Tim. 1:15). Elsewhere the Apostle writes, “But when the fullness of time came, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). In the letter to the Hebrews it is written, “But as it is, once for all at the end of the ages, He has appeared for the destruction of sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Heb. 9:26).
At this point one might ask, ‘Why go on? The answer is crystal clear.’ But let us not be too hasty! While the Scriptures clearly state that Jesus Christ came to save sinners, they do not state that this is the primary or ultimate reason, let alone the only reason for His coming.
No one denies that redemption from sin is prominent in the Scripture. However, keep in mind that all Sacred Scripture was written after original sin. Consequently, our need for redemption is extremely urgent and the remedy for our sin is a most prominent theme throughout. Be that as is it may, the Bible never definitively states that the primary reason of the Incarnation is man’s redemption from sin. In fact, as the reader shall see, it strongly suggests just the opposite: the wonder of the redemption is dependent precisely on the prior willing of the Incarnation and is a marvelous manifestation of the absolute predestination of Christ and Mary.
Before looking at those who give a resounding ‘yes’ to the hypothetical question, ‘If Adam had not sinned, would Christ have come?’, let us briefly expose some of the weaknesses of the thomistic thesis.
First of all, according to the thomistic school, God’s two great Masterpieces in creation, namely the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, are contingent upon sin. Remember, ‘no sin, no Incarnation,’ and therefore no Mother of God either. Although this sounds radical, it is the logical conclusion. St. Thomas of Villanova (a strict thomist) states plainly that the Blessed Virgin Mary would not have existed if Adam had not fallen. St. Alphonsus holds that Our Lady owes all her grace, glory and dignity to man’s fall—without sinners she “would never have been worthy of so great a Son.”
Further, if man’s redemption is the primary reason, then sin has the upper hand. In other words, all the positive blessings of the Incarnation which can be expressed quite apart from redemption would hinge upon sin—our divinization in Christ (2 Cor. 8:9), our adoption as sons of God (cf. Jn. 1:12; Rm. 8:14-17), our eternal predestination in Christ (cf. Rm. 8:29; Eph. 1:3-6), etc. Are all these blessings really because of Adam’s fall?
Perhaps the most troublesome aspect of the thomistic thesis is this: St. Paul’s insistence on the absolute primacy of Christ. Every Bible-believing Christian must believe in the primacy of Jesus Christ. “Again, He is the head of His body, the Church; He, who is the beginning, the firstborn of the dead, that in all things He may have the first place” (Col. 1:18). No one argues against the primacy of God’s Son “come in the flesh” (1 Jn. 4:2). However, if the Word became flesh only, or even primarily, to redeem man from sin, then His primacy is a relative primacy; in other words, the thomists hold that Christ, the end or final cause of all creation, holds primacy only because of Adam’s sin. If Adam had not sinned, Christ would not be the end for which all creation exists and the Sacred Heart of Jesus would not even exist! Hence a relative primacy (related or linked to sin as its condition).
Franciscan thesis—Incarnation, sin or no sin
But St. Paul speaks of an absolute primacy of Christ! From all eternity, “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4), God wills the Incarnation absolutely and then, seeing His Masterpiece in creation from all eternity, He wills to create us in, through and unto Him. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature. For in Him were created all things in the heavens and on the earth… All things have been created through and unto Him. Again, He is the head of His body, the Church; He, who is the beginning, the firstborn of the dead, that in all things He may have the first place [primatum tenens]” (Col. 1:15-18).
This brings us full force to the Franciscan, or scotistic answer to Cur Deus Homo? Why the God-Man?
Jesus Christ was absolutely predestined to grace and glory quite apart from sin, and the elect (both men and angels) were chosen and predestined in Him by an eternal decree before the universe had been created (cf. Eph. 1:3-6). St. Maximus the Confessor writes succinctly, “This is that great and hidden mystery. This is the blessed end for which all things were created. This is the divine purpose foreknown before the beginning of creation… Really, it was for the sake of Christ, that is the mystery of Christ, that all the ages and all the things of all the ages themselves received the beginning and end of existence in Christ.”
Amongst the greatest minds and most inflamed hearts to deal with this thesis was St. Francis de Sales. He avoided the controversy and with calm precision treated the matter in his Treatise on the Love of God. The primary reason for the Incarnation was that God “might communicate Himself” outside Himself (ad extra). From all eternity He saw that the most excellent way to do this was in “uniting Himself to some created nature, in such sort that the creature might be engrafted and implanted in the divinity, and become one single Person with it.” Thus God willed the Incarnation. Through Christ and “for His sake” God willed to pour out His goodness on other creatures thus choosing to “create men and angels to accompany His Son, to participate in His grace and glory, to adore and praise Him forever.”
Another Doctor of the Church, St. Lawrence of Brindisi, expresses it this way: “Therefore, God ordained from all eternity to communicate the infinite treasures of His goodness, to show forth the infinite charity of His mystery by this divine Incarnation in order that Christ might be great and might sit as King at the right hand of God.” [More quotes on the absolute primacy from his Mariale can be found here]
And so the scotistic thesis responds to the hypothetical question in the affirmative. St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi sums it up well: “If Adam had not sinned, the Word would have become incarnate just the same.”
St. Bernardine of Siena makes it abundantly clear that if Adam sinned, yes, Christ had to become incarnate; “and if he did not sin, He still had to become incarnate: in any hypothesis, He had to become incarnate.”
And the Venerable Mother Mary of Agreda, marveling at the diversity of opinions in regard to the “principal motive of the Incarnation,” received this answer from the Lord, “Know, that the principal and legitimate end of the decree, which I had in view in resolving to communicate My Divinity in the hypostatic union of the Word with human nature, was the glory, which would redound to My name through this communication, and also that which was to redound to the creatures capable thereof. This decree would without doubt have been executed in the Incarnation, even if the first man had not sinned: for it was an express decree, substantially independent of any condition.”
Although our short treatise does not permit an exhaustive dossier of scotists, we do well to mention one more before we move on to Bl. John Duns Scotus himself.
St. Albert the Great, Doctor of the Church and interestingly one of St. Thomas Aquinas’ professors, humbly held that this position was “more in harmony with the piety of faith.” In his commentary on the Sentences he writes, “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.”
 St. Augustine, Serm. 174, 2; PL 38, 940.
 St. Thomas Aquinas, In 1 Tim., c.1, lect.4.
 St. Thomas Aquinas, In Sent. III, d.1, q.1, a.3.
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theol. III, q.1, a.3 (Benziger Brothers, NY, 1947) 2028.
 St. Ambrose, De Inc. dom. sacram., c.6, n.56; PL 16, 832.
 St. Thomas of Villanova, Sermón II de la Nativ. de María; in Obras de Santo Tomás de Villaneuva; sermons de la Virgen y obras castellanas (ed. B.A.C., Madrid, 1952) 199.
 St. Alphonsus Liguori, The Glories of Mary, P.I, c.6, sect.2 (ed. by Rev. Eugene Grimm, Brooklyn, 1931) 197; cf. sect.3, 206-207.
 Cur Deus Homo? This is the title of St. Anselm’s famous treatise on the “necessity” of the Incarnation for our redemption. But in the light of scotistic reflection we might rephrase the famous title of St. Anselm to read Cur Homo Deus? God did not primarily become man in order to redeem him in justice, but rather literally by the Incarnation He made a man God, a Divine Person capable therefore as man of giving the Father a maximum possible glory and redeeming the rest of His brethren in a most perfect way.
 St. Maximus, Ad Thalassium, q.60; PG 90, 620-621.
 St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, Book II, c.4 (Burns & Oats, 1884—reprinted by TAN, 1997) 73-76.
 St. Lawrence of Brindisi, “Deus ergo ab aeterno ad communicandos infinitos thesaurus bonitatis suae, ad ostendendam infinitam caritatem suam sacramentum hoc divinae incarnationis ordinavit, ut Christus esset magnus, et sederet rex ad dexteram Dei” in Mariale, vol. 1, 81-82 (translation is mine); cf. Fr. Dominic Unger, FS vol. 23 (N.S. vol.2), No.3 (St. Bonaventure, 1942) 457.
 St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi, Oeuvres…, p.3, c.3 (trans. from the Italian by A. Bruniaux; Paris, 1873) II, 35.
 St. Bernardine of Siena, Prediche volgari, ed. L. Bianchi (Siena, 1888) III, 414-415.
 Ven. Mary of Agreda, City of God, Book I, c.III, #72-73 (trans. by Fiscar Marison; Corcoran Publishing Co., Albuquerque, 1949) 75-76; cf. Book I, chapters 3-11 (#26-163) which explain the divine decrees regarding Christ and Our Lady.
 St. Albert the Great, In Sent. III, d. 20, a.4; op. omn. ed. Vivès (Paris, 1894) XXVIII, 361.