4. Predestination in Christ

Scriptural Foundations

             At this point we do well to look at the Scriptural foundations for Scotus’ doctrine on the absolute primacy of Christ.  The three key passages are found in St. Paul’s Epistles.  The first is the Canticle in the Epistle to the Ephesians which Holy Mother Church chants every week in the Liturgy of the Hours of the Roman Rite (Monday, Evening Prayer).

A.  Ephesians 1:3-10

      v.3  Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing on high in Christ.

v.4  Even as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blemish in His sight in love.

      v.5  He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ as His sons, according to the purpose of His will,

      v.6  unto the praise of the glory of His grace, with which He has favored us in His beloved Son.

      v.7  In Him we have redemption through His blood, the remission of sins, according to the riches of His grace.

v.8  This grace has abounded beyond measure in us in all wisdom and prudence,

      v.9  so that He may make known to us the mystery of His will according to His good pleasure.  And this His good pleasure He purposed in Him

      v.10  to be dispensed in the fullness of the times: to re-establish all things in Christ, both those in the heavens and those on the earth.

Verses 3-6, absolute predestination

In verses 3-6, St. Paul could not be clearer—in God’s eternal design, “before the foundation of the world,” He has first predestined Christ to glory then, “in Him” He has predestined the elect to be His adopted children “according to the purpose of His will.”  The predestination of Jesus Christ and the predestination of the elect in Him is absolute and the primary blessings of this are to “be holy and without blemish in His sight in love…to be adopted sons…unto the praise of the glory of His grace, with which He has favored us in His beloved Son.”

By virtue of the divine decree, Jesus is the perfect Glorifier of God ad extra and Jesus is the creature most perfectly glorified by God; the elect, by virtue of their predestination in Him, glorify God and are blessed by the Lord “with every spiritual blessing on high in Christ.”  Here we see the primary reason for God’s free, creative act—grace and glory.  Notice that there is no mention of sin in these verses.

Verse 7, Christ as Redeemer

Like St. Paul, neither Scotus nor the Franciscan school deny or downplay the coming of Christ as Redeemer.  Far from it!  Rather they underscore not simply the character of that redemption as satisfaction of divine justice, but why in the first place such a mode of redemption should have been chosen by the Father, and why it is the most perfect among possible solutions, a perfection and superabundance (cf. Rom 5:12 ff.).  Even the Immaculate Conception, according to the Subtle Doctor, is the “perfect fruit of a perfect redemption by a perfect Redeemer.”[1]  Hence, when we add to the absolute predestination of Christ to grace and glory His work of redemption, we add a most precious jewel in His royal crown.  For, as the Apostle goes on to say in the next verse, “in Him we have redemption through His blood, the remission of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (Eph. 1:7).  After the fall of our first parents, we are unable to benefit from the Incarnation of the Word unless we are first redeemed [see these two diagrams of the economy of divine grace before and after the fall].  The saints from the time of Adam on, although predestined in Christ Jesus, find themselves cut off from grace by sin and deserving of the punishment due to sin.  They were “dead” by reason of their offenses and sins, “children of wrath.”  “But God, who is rich in mercy, by reason of His very great love wherewith He has loved us even when we were dead by reason of our sins, brought us to life together with Christ…” (cf. Eph. 2: 1-10).

Jesus Christ indeed came into this world to redeem man from sin.  However, nowhere in Scripture does it say that He came primarily, let alone exclusively, for the redemption.  In fact, it is the Sacred Page which tells us of the many other blessings bestowed through the Incarnation: filial adoption (Eph. 1:5; Gal. 4:5; etc.); deification (2 Pt. 1:4; 2 Cor. 8:9); enlightenment (Jn. 1:9); revelation of the Father (Mt. 11:27; Jn. 1:18; 12:45; 14:9), etc.

Franciscans have always been preachers of “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).  After all, their Founder and spiritual Father St. Francis of Assisi bore the wounds of Christ in his body.  Moreover, his sons who have been caring for the sacred places in the Holy Land since the 14th century have spread everywhere the devotion to the Stations of the Cross, so much so that hardly a chapel in the world is without them.

Belief in the absolute primacy of Christ underscores that God did not send His Son as an afterthought, as a consequence of sin, as if sin made the Incarnation necessary.  No, God sent His Son “by reason of His very great love” (Eph. 2:4).  God freely and eternally decreed the blessings of the Incarnation for Christ and, in Him and through Him, for all the elect.  Sin or no sin, Jesus Christ was predestined and the elect in Him; because of man’s sin, however, the most salient feature of the Incarnate Word’s earthly life was His redemptive Passion.  If Adam had not sinned, Christ would not have had to shed His Precious Blood; neither would His Immaculate Mother have had to endure the sword of sorrow, but more on that later.

Christ came “for our salvation”

It is worth noting that the Nicene Creed, after professing the Divinity of the Eternal Son of God, declares: “For us men and for our salvation He came down from Heaven.”  Three distinctions need to be made here.  First, those holding to the absolute primacy of the Word made flesh never deny that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ came to redeem us.  He comes as Redeemer; but this is not the primary reason God wills the Incarnation.  Christ is willed first for His own sake, for the glory He will give to the Father in Himself; then, secondarily, He is willed for our redemption.  Thus the absolute primacy of Christ acknowledges that Christ came for man’s redemption secondarily.

Secondly, as St. Irenaeus (d. 190) points out,[2] “redemption” and “salvation” are not synonyms.  Since the Scriptures are written after the fall, there is no question that salvation from sin (redemption) is emphasized.  But a careful reading of the Epistle to the Romans shows that salvation has a much broader meaning.  It refers to being justified through faith.  A person who is justified by faith is saved; he is transformed from within by sanctifying grace.  In the case of fallen man it is a salvation which transforms one from being in a state of sin into being in a state of grace: “So that as sin has reigned unto death, so also grace may reign by justice unto life everlasting through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  (Rom. 5:21).  But the state of grace is first and foremost an ontological elevation for man.  Apart from sin, to be justified, to be saved, means to be elevated or transformed from being a mere natural creature into being a “new creation,” a supernatural creature able to call God “Abba Father”!  Salvation from sin is part of this ontological elevation which remedies our moral deficiency after the fall; however, “our salvation” is primarily what the Church Fathers call divinization or deification—to become, as St. Peter puts it, “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt. 1:4).[3]  And it is St. Peter who emphasizes that there is salvation in no other name under Heaven but Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 4: 8-12).

Thirdly, redemption is not restricted simply to liberating one from sin, but can also refer to preventing one from contracting original sin or committing actual sin.  This is precisely the case with the Immaculate Virgin Mary—she is the perfect fruit of a perfect redemption wrought by a perfect Redeemer.[4]  Hers is a preservative redemption; ours a liberative redemption.  St. Lawrence of Brindisi held that if Adam had not sinned, Christ could have come as Savior with preventative medicine instead of a remedy for sickness already contracted.  It can be argued that the good angels received the grace to serve Him and the preventative medicine not to sin from His coming as Savior.  In fact, Savior (soter) primarily connotes one who preserves.  In the Old Testament, for example, Joseph was called “Savior of the world” because he preserved everyone from famine (Gen. 41:45). [5]

[See also St. Bernard’s explanation of how Jesus Christ could be Redeemer of the good Angels by way of preservation: St. Bernard of Clairvaux – Christ redeemed the good Angels]

Verses 8-9, the mystery of His will

St. Paul, after mentioning the redemption in his Canticle, continues: “This grace has abounded beyond 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.  And this His good pleasure He purposed in Him to be dispensed in the fullness of times: to re-establish [the Greek reads “to sum up under one heading”] all things in Christ, both those in the heavens and those on earth.”  (Eph. 1:8-10).

St. Paul speaks of a hidden mystery: “Yes, to me, the very least of all the saints, there was given this grace… to enlighten all men as to what is the dispensation of the mystery which has been hidden from eternity in God who created all things; in order that through the Church there be made known to the Principalities and the Powers in the heavens the manifold wisdom of God according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  (Eph. 3:7-11).  This mystery was first made known to St. Paul by revelation (cf. Eph. 3:3-5).  It is “the mystery which has been hidden for ages and generations” (Col. 1:26).  “But we speak of the wisdom of God, mysterious, hidden, which God foreordained before the world unto our glory.”  (1 Cor. 2:7).

What is this mystery?  St. Maximus the Confessor, a prominent Greek Father of the Church (d. 662), comments on this.  Christ, the Word made flesh,

“is that great and hidden mystery.  This is that blessed end for which all things were created.  This is the divine scope foreknown before the beginning of creatures, which we define to be the end that was foreknown, on account of which all things [exist], but itself [exists] on account of nothing.  With this end in view God produced the essences of creatures.  This is properly the end of providence and of the things foreknown… this is the mystery that contains all the ages and that manifests the great plan of God which is infinite and pre-existed the ages, and the things in the ages themselves received the beginning and the end of existence in Christ… This [hypostatic union] was made when Christ appeared in the last times.  By itself it is the fulfillment of the foreknowledge of God.”[6]

[For an Orthodox perspective on the absolute primacy of Christ one can read the insights of the Archpriest G. Florovsky’s insights]

This mystery, namely the Incarnation of the Eternal Son of God, is made known to us “in the last times,” as St. Maximus puts it referring to the expression in the Epistle to the Hebrews (1:2; cf. 1 Pt 1:20); but St. Paul also refers to it more exquisitely as the “fullness of times” (Eph. 1:10), an expression he uses also in Galatians 4:4 where he speaks of God sending His Son, born of a woman, that we might receive the adoption of sons.  Indeed if God’s eternal decree was the absolute primacy of Jesus Christ, then the Incarnation and birth of Jesus is truly the “fullness of times.”  All of creation, all of history, points to Christ the King and exists for Him.

Verse 10, the headship of Christ

 At this point in the Canticle, St. Paul himself proclaims the mystery: “to re-establish all things in Christ, both in the heavens and those on the earth.”  (Eph. 1:10).  Sadly the Latin and many English translations are rendered differently than Paul’s original Greek.  In fact, St. Jerome in translating the Bible into Latin was surprised at the word instaurare (restore, re-establish, reconcile) found in other Latin translations of the passage during his time.  However, because this translation was already well-known to Latin-speaking Christians, he opted to leave it as is.[7]  The Greek word anakephalaiōsasthei means “to sum up under one heading.”  Thus a more literal translation might read, “And this His good pleasure He purposed in Him to be dispensed in the fullness of times: to sum up all things under the headship of Christ, both in the heavens and those on the earth.”  This is a clear assertion of the absolute primacy of Christ over men and angels, a theme that we will treat more at length when we look at the Epistle to the Colossians.

Although we have finished examining this passage, we do well to note what the Apostle adds in the next verse, “In Him, I say, in whom we also have been called by a special choice, having been predestined in the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, to contribute to the praise of His glory” (Eph. 1:11-12).  God’s purpose, then, is the absolute predestination of Christ to grace and glory, and in Him, by “a special choice,” the elect are “predestined… to contribute to the praise of His glory.”


[1] Bl. John Duns Scotus, Ordinatio III, d.3.

[2] Cf. Fr. Dominic Unger, OFM Cap., Christ’s Role in the Universe according to St. Irenaeus, in FS 26 (1945) 3-20, 114-137.

[3] The theology of deification or divinization in Christ is considered one of the chief contributions of St. Athanasius, cf. Fr. Dominic Unger, OFM Cap., A Special Aspect of Athanasian Soteriology—Part I, in FS vol.6, no.1 (1946) 30-53; cf. also Fr. Unger’s treatment of St. Cyril of Alexandria in this regard, Christ Jesus the Secure Foundation—According to St. Cyril of Alexandria—Part I, in FS vol.7 (1947) 18-25.

[4] Cf. Bl. John Duns Scotus, Ordinatio, III, d.3; cf. also Fr. Peter Fehlner, FI, The Sense of Marian Coredemption in St. Bonaventure and Bl. John Duns Scotus, in Mary at the Foot of the Cross (Academy of the Immaculate, New Bedford, 2001) 103-118.

[5] Cf. St. Lawrence of Brindisi, Mariale, vol.1, p.86; cf. Fr. Dominic Unger, OFM Cap., Franciscan Christology: Absolute and Universal Primacy of Christ, in FS vol.22 (N.S. 2) no.4 (1942) 461.

[6] St. Maximus, Ad Thalassium, q.60; PG 90; 620-621; Cf. Fr. Dominic Unger, OFM Cap., Christ Jesus, Center and Final Scope of all Creation According to St. Maximus Confessor, in FS vol.9, no.1 (1949) 50-62.

[7] St. Jerome, In Eph. ad Eph., I, 1, 10; PL 26, 483