Someone recently directed me to this post of Fr. Brian Mullady, O.P., at the Homiletic and Pastoral Review website. I find it especially ironic in that, after two millenia of reflection upon the primary motive of the Incarnation with Doctors of the Church falling on both sides, Fr. Mullady’s response to “an interesting theological question” comes with the authoritative title “Questions Answered”.
And the question submitted…
Question: I’ve read, though not in any real depth, the two schools of thought: One that Jesus became man primarily so as to suffer as man, and die for the redemption of each one of us. The other being that the Son of God most likely would have come as man even if He didn’t have to redeem the world. Which one is true?
Fr. Mullady opines that this question is one “which unfortunately has occupied a good deal of argument over many centuries.” Sigh… I guess for the Thomist it will always be “unfortunate” that such a central discussion as the raison d’être of the Incarnation occupy “a good deal of argument.” I suppose he would have us accept St. Thomas Aquinas’ answer and not think about it anymore.
In fact this is how the Thomists felt about the Immaculate Conception right up until 1854. A little anecdote which literally illustrates this historical reality: when I was the Father Guardian at the ancient Franciscan Convento Bosco ai frati in Tuscany, it gave me a hearty chuckle to see an old painting on the back of the stunning Baroque high altar in the choir of the friars (only the friars would have seen this when chanting their Divine Office): the painting portrayed the true story of the Inquisition coming to a town and burning all of the “heretical” books at the command of a Dominican Saint, (yes, halo and all!) and one of the books being burned was defending the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. How “unfortunate” that those Franciscans kept defending a position which was contrary to that of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bernard of Clairvaux! But what is important is not that the Dominicans or the Franciscans “win” any given argument, but only that the truth wins – and in 1854 the Immaculate Conception was declared a dogma of Faith that has been revealed by God through Scripture and Tradition. And let it be known that St. Thomas’ theological insight and terminology of transubstantiation is now defined by the Church (Bl. Scotus, like St. John Damascene, held to consubstantiation). Let the truth shine forth – nothing more and nothing less!
With regards to the primary motive of the Incarnation the fact is, to use Fr. Mullady’s own words, “The Church has never made a judgment on the correct answer to this, and it remains a legitimate subject of theological speculation and argument.” Amen to that! The motive of the Incarnation and the question that the scholastics used to discern it was a central one. St. Thomas himself placed this in a prominent place in his Summa Theologica. It was a question which was part of the very fabric of scholastic theology (viz. theologians like St. Anselm, Abbot Rupert of Deutz, St. Albert the Great, Fr. Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure, Bishop Robert Grosseteste, Bl. John Duns Scotus… just to name a few who, like St. Thomas, felt that it was an important question to grapple with).
Sadly, Fr. Mullady misrepresents the Franciscan position on the absolute primacy of Christ and discourages the very discussion which earlier he said “remains a legitimate subject of theological speculation and argument.”
Misrepresenting the Franciscan position
Here is Fr. Mullady’s take on the Franciscan thesis: “The Franciscan school of thought has generally been characterized by the opinion that Christ would have become incarnate, even had man not sinned, simply from love for the human race. One may ask how this befits the truth and justice of God. One may also question why God would have taken flesh when it was, in no sense, necessary. Why would the infinite God subject His person to such an ignominious death as the cross if there were no need for such a thing? Man would be able to experience communion with God, and go to heaven without such a terrible suffering inflicted on the divine person of the Word. Though it is true that God is infinitely good, and that goodness is diffusive of itself, whatever good might be gained from this seems absurd. God’s freedom to do such a thing is beyond dispute, but his freedom is not logically contradictory or absurd.”
To say that the Franciscan school is characterized by the opinion that Christ would have become incarnate “from love for the human race” is simply not true. According to Bl. John Duns Scotus who champions the Franciscan position of the absolute primacy of Christ (sin or no sin), the decree of the Incarnation was not “occasioned” by any contingent being or need – it was willed for its own sake. In his Opus Parisiensis Scotus writes:
I declare, however, that the fall was not the cause of Christ’s predestination. In fact, even if no man or angel had fallen, nor any man but Christ were to be created, Christ would still have been predestined this way. 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.
It seems appropriate here to reiterate what St. Francis de Sales wrote on this very topic (Treatise on Divine Love, Book II, Ch.IV). In my little treatise A Primer on the Absolute Primacy of Christ I quote and summarize his insight as follows:
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.”
Thus the Franciscan Thesis is NOT that Christ would have come “simply from love of the human race,” as Fr. Mullady puts it, but because of the glory of God that would come from communicating Himself to a created nature in the most perfect way. Why he thinks that this is “logically contradictory or absurd” is a mystery to me.
That aside, it is no small blunder on Fr. Mullady’s part to begin a paragraph with “the Franciscan school of thought…” and then go on to say: “Why would the infinite God subject His person to such an ignominious death as the cross if there were no need for such a thing?” The question that was originally asked of Fr. Mullady says nothing of Christ being crucified if Adam had not sinned, but only asks about the Incarnation. Apparently Fr. Mullady has the impression that “the Franciscan school of thought” holds that Christ would have come in passible flesh and died on the Cross even if Adam had not sinned, but none of the scholastics who held that the Incarnation was not conditioned by sin held that Christ would have been crucified.
The Dominican Doctor of the Church, professor of St. Thomas Aquinas at the University of Paris, St. Albert the Great 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.” (In Sent. III, d. 20, a.4; op. omn. ed. Vivès – Paris, 1894 – XXVIII, 361). St. Albert certainly did not hold that if Adam had not sinned Christ would have have “subject His person to such an ignominious death as the cross if there were no need for such a thing.” And St. Albert the Great is not noted for being “logically contradictory or absurd.” Fr. Mullady is entitled to his opinion; but I wish he had not misrepresented the Franciscan school of thought.
Many motives for the Incarnation
St. Thomas quotes St. Augustine regarding the motives of the Incarnation: “Many other things are to be considered about the Incarnation of Christ besides absolution from sin” (De Trin. xiii, 17). So the statement of Fr. Mullady in his “Questions Answered” is baffling. According to him the discussion is over and done with because, “Salvation from sin is, thus, the only motive we know of, and it is best not to speculate further.”
What about the many positive blessings of the Incarnation which can be expressed quite apart from the redemption? I think, for example, of our divinization in Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 8:9; 2 Pt. 1:4), our adoption as sons of God (cf. Jn. 1:12; Rm. 8:14-17; Gal. 4:4-7; Eph. 1:3-6), our eternal predestination in Christ (cf. Rm. 8:29; Eph. 1:3-6), Christ as our Model and Way (Jn. 14:6), the Church with Christ as head and our own incorporation into His Mystical Body (Col. 1:24; 1 Cor. 12:13ff.), the Kingship of Christ over all creation as Alpha and Omega (Jn. 19:36; Apoc. 1:8), the mediation of Christ as the one Mediator between God and man (Mt. 11:27; Jn. 14:6; 1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 8:6; 9:15; 12:24), etc. Even The Catechsim of the Catholic Church tells us that the Church “knows of” different motives for the Incarnation:
“The Word became flesh in order to save us by reconciling us with God so that thus we might know God’s love… to be our model of holiness… to make us ‘partakers of the divine nature’.” (CCC §457-460)
It is a simple fact that Christ gives the maximum glory to God the Most Holy Trinity in His Sacred Humanity (cf. Jn. 17:4) and that we give glory to God through, with and in Christ. That is the economy of grace that has been revealed to us. This perfect glory given to God through the Incarnate Word… is it all because of sin? Is it possible, plausible, even probable that the Incarnation, that summum opus Dei, was first in God’s intention when creating the universe? Is this, to use the words of Fr. Mullady, “logically contradictory or absurd”? Yet St. Thomas confirms the patristic tradition that Adam knew about the mystery of the Incarnation before the fall and it would seem to me “logically contradictory or absurd” to say that God would have revealed the great mystery of Christ and His Church to Adam before the fall if Christ’s coming was exclusively or primarily in order to work out our “salvation from sin.” To be honest, saying that Christ would NOT have come if Adam had not sinned is the epitome of hypothetical conjecture. Unlike Fr. Mullady, I believe that it is best to continue to reflect on God’s primary motive in willing the Incarnation, that is, until the Church makes a solemn declaration (something which Fr. Louis – aka Thomas Merton – so ardently longed for).
Incarnation not necessary without sin
Among the questions that Fr. Mullady raises about the Franciscan position there is this one: “One may also question why God would have taken flesh when it was, in no sense, necessary.”
And Bl. John Duns Scotus would reply:
Again, if the fall were the reason for Christ’s predestination, it would follow that the greatest work of God [summum opus Dei—namely, the Incarnation] was essentially occasioned: greatest work, because the glory of all creation is not as great in intensity as is the glory of Christ. Hence, it seems very absurd to claim that God would have left so great a work [i.e. the Incarnation] undone on account of a good deed performed by Adam, such as Adam’s not sinning. (Opus Parisiense)
The Franciscans never say that the Incarnation was necessary. Actually, neither was creation or the redemption for that matter. It’s not a question of necessity, but of God’s good pleasure, of His inscrutable designs in creating: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with spiritual blessings in heavenly places, in Christ: As He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and unspotted in His sight in charity. Who hath predestinated us unto the adoption of children through Jesus Christ unto Himself: according to the purpose of His will: Unto the praise of the glory of His grace, in which He hath graced us in His beloved Son. (Eph. 1:3-6). So, why would “God have taken flesh when it was, in no sense, necessary?” What was the purpose of His will? St. Paul gives us the answer; God willed the Incarnation and all of creation unto the praise of the glory of His grace – εἰς ἔπαινον δόξης τῆς χάριτος αὐτοῦ – in laudem gloriae gratiae suae!