St. Francis of Assisi & the absolute primacy of Christ

Franciscan Christology starts with St. Francis

In the 28 Admonitions of St. Francis of Assisi, the Seraphic Father makes a subtle point which underscores that man was created for Christ, that man was created in the image of Christ. The theological implications of his teaching verify the truth of the doctrine of the absolute primacy of Jesus Christ.

First let us see his text (the important Christocentric phrase is emphasized), then we can draw out some if its implications, tying it in with Sacred Scripture, especially St. Paul.

Admonition 5: That no one should glory save in the Cross of the Lord

Consider, O man, how great the excellence in which the Lord has placed you because He has created and formed you to the image of His beloved Son according to the body and to His own likeness according to the spirit. And all the creatures that are under heaven serve and know and obey their Creator in their own way better than you. And even the demons did not crucify Him, but you together with them crucified Him and still crucify Him by taking delight in vices and sins. Wherefore then can you glory For if you were so clever and wise that you possessed all science, and if you knew how to interpret every form of language and to investigate heavenly things minutely, you could not glory in all this, because one demon has known more of heavenly things and still knows more of earthly things than all men, although there may be some man who has received from the Lord a special knowledge of sovereign wisdom. In like manner, if you were handsomer and richer than all others, and even if you could work wonders and put the demons to flight, all these things are hurtful to you and in nowise belong to you, and in them you cannot glory; that, however, in which we may glory is in our infirmities, and in bearing daily the holy cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Obviously the central point of the Poverello is that no one should glory (like a demon) in anything except the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ, but should humbly acknowledge that he, through his sins, has crucified the Lord of glory.

The sublte Christological point that we want to consider briefly here is the fact that St. Francis, in making this admonition, presumes that man’s excellence consists in having been created and formed according to the image of the Word Incarnate – “His Beloved Son according to the body.”

This phrase, if it is true, bores a hole in the Thomistic position on the Incarnation (namely, that the primary motive of the Incarnation is to redeem man from sin and, therefore, if Adam had never sinned Christ would never have come). Why does this ruin their argument? Because the position of St. Thomas would fall into what is called a circular argument (circulus in probando). Here’s why: If, as the Thomists maintain (and some of them dogmatically!), the Incarnation of the Word was willed primarily as a remedy for sin (so man in the divine priority is foreseen and willed by God first, then in foreseeing man’s sin Christ is willed by God as a remedy). But if man “before the creation of the world” (Eph 1:4) was created in the image of Christ, the Incarnate Word, then we would have a logical impossibility: God wills to create man in the image of Christ “according to the body”, but foreseeing the sin of man He wills Christ as the remedy of sin, yet had Adam not sinned Christ would not come, but that would mean that man would not have been created in the image of Christ to start with. If all of this is confusing to you, then you have followed my point well because the Thomist argument has a hole in it.

The Franciscan school on this point, it would seem to me, is more scriptural and logical. Scriptural because it lines up with the creation account, the Wisdom literature, the Pauline Epistles and even the scriptural interpretations of Bl. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body; logical because it just makes sense. 🙂

With regards to the Scripture, St. Paul gives us the hermeneutic (the interpretative key) for understanding Genesis 1 & 2. How do we interpret correctly the creation of man ad imaginem et similitudinem nostram (Gn 1:26)? Very simply put, since God first and foremost willed the Incarnation – His Masterpiece, the summum opus Dei as Bl. John Duns Scotus puts it– and then wills everything else in view of the Incarnate Word, it follows that God made us in His image and likeness because we are made in the image likeness of Christ: “He has created and formed you to the image of His beloved Son according to the body and to His own likeness according to the spirit,” as St. Francis states.

Examine, for example, St. Paul’s teaching on Christ. Christ, the Incarnate Word, “is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). Therefore, as I wrote in my book on the absolute primacy:

The Eternal Word [not Incarnate] is not the image of the invisible Godhead because He Himself is the invisible God—“God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God… one in being with the Father.” Furthermore, the Apostle indicates by the word “invisible” that this “image of the invisible God” is a visible image; otherwise the verse makes no sense. So he is referring to the Word Incarnate as the visible image of the invisible God. In describing to the Corinthians the Gospel he preaches and mentioning those who are perishing, he adds: “In their case, the god of this world has blinded their unbelieving minds, that they should not see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4). Notice who the image of God is — Christ!

The Greek word that is translated ‘image’ is eikon. Since we are familiar with icons in the Eastern Churches, perhaps Paul’s meaning is more clear if we translate “He is the image of the invisible God” as, “He is the icon (eikon) of the invisible God.” Now an icon implies two things. The first is representation. In this case the sacred humanity of Christ re-presents to us the Divinity. As the Church teaches, “Everything in Christ’s human nature is to be attributed to His Divine Person as its proper subject.” Thus the Christ re-presents the Godhead to us in flesh and blood, “For in Him dwells all the fullness of Godhead bodily.” (Col. 2:9).

Another aspect of an icon is manifestation. The humanity of Christ is the icon that visibly manifests God in the created universe. In fact, St. John’s Prologue, after declaring that “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14), goes on to announce, “No one has at any time seen God. The only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has revealed Him.” (Jn. 1:18). Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate, reveals the invisible God to us in His sacred humanity. “He who sees Me, sees Him who sent Me.” (Jn. 12:45). Hence, He is the visible, manifesting icon of the invisible God.

What follows is this:

the Franciscan view of the creation of man: “Let Us make man to Our image and likeness.” (Gen. 1:26). According to the Franciscan thesis, when God creates He already foresees the Heart of Jesus—Christ is the ‘first predestined’ before the foundations of the world. He sees Jesus and He wills Him to be the perfect image and likeness of the invisible Godhead in the created universe by means of the Incarnation; then, beholding the excellence and perfection of Jesus Christ from all eternity, He creates the world. Christ is thus the Exemplar, the Model, the Alpha, the First. So God makes men according to His image and likeness with Christ in mind. Christ is the Prototype and we are modeled on Him. Consequently, when Adam falls and mars man’s likeness to God, Christ repairs what was lost by His redemption so that we can indeed be conformed to Him. Is this not what Paul indicated in Romans? “For those whom He has foreknown He has also predestined to become conformed to the image of the Son.” (Rom. 8:29). According to the Franciscan thesis, then, Jesus Christ is truly the raison d’être of all creation, of all that is not God.
 
This interpretation of Christ as the image of the invisible Godhead, foreknown before the creation of the universe, is found in the Church Fathers when they comment on the Wisdom passages of the Old Testament. For example they consistently interpret Proverbs 8:22-9:6 as referring to the Incarnate Word: “I [the Word made flesh] was set up from eternity… when He prepared the heavens, I was present… when He balanced the foundations of the earth, I was with Him forming all things, and was delighted every day, playing before Him at all times; playing in the world. And My delights were to be with the children of men…” That God had Incarnate Wisdom before Him when creating the universe according to this passage was held by St. Justin Martyr, St. Athanasius, St. Gregory of Nazianzen, St. Ambrose, St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome, and many others as well.

 
 


 
 

If, as St. Francis says, we are “created and formed you to the image of His beloved Son according to the body,” what logically flows is that God first willed Christ, predestining His Sacred Humanity to grace and glory, and then predestined us “in Christ before the creation of the world” (Eph 1:4). That fact of sin created the need for our Redemption; but had man not sinned, he would always have been made in the image and likeness of God according to the image of Christ – “For those whom He has foreknown He has also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He should be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rm 8:29; cfr. Col 1:15).
 
This insight is but the tip of the iceburg. The Seraphic Saint of Assisi indicated in many ways that he held the doctrine of the absolute primacy of Christ to be true, even if he did not use our present terminology in expressing it. This can be clearly seen in Fr. Johannes Schneider’s conference (video and written), which we hope to post here soon.
 
Pax et bonum!
 
St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us!
 

In Corde Matris,

fr maximilian mary dean, F.I.