What follows is a republished version of a post I ran on Christmas day in the Year of Our Lord, 2012. I’ll even leave the comments that were published from thoughtful readers at that time. Enjoy!
Merry Christmas, everyone! On December 25, we Christians celebrate the birth into time of our King, our Redeemer, and our God. That day is the day we celebrate the birth of the Christ, the anointed one, born in Bethlehem. We call it the Feast of the Nativity.
As feasts in the Church go, this is a biggie. As Deacon Greg shared on his blog the other day, St. John Chrysostom, in a homily dated from the year 386, invites us to,
Behold a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.
It’s a great homily, and it ranks right up there beside his Easter homily (one of my favorites, too) as a sign that golden-mouthed (“chrysostom”) is what this great preaching saint truly is. It should come as no surprise to you that he is also a Doctor of the Church. What does that mean, exactly?
Well, it’s a special title accorded by the Church to certain saints whose writings and sermons, etc., are useful to Christians “in any age of the Church.” Such men and women are also known for the depth of their understanding and the orthodoxy of their theological teachings as pertains to Catholicism, and as such, Christianity.
In other words, they are the A-Team, whose thoughts and words have built upon the foundations of Holy Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, to help build up the Magisterium, or the teaching office, of the Church. There are currently thirty-five Doctors of the Church in number, with a 34th to be added soon when St. Hildegarde of Bingen joins their ranks this coming Fall.
What does all this have to do with the Mystery of the Incarnation? Be patient with me and I, Joe Six-Pack, regular guy, no schooling in theology, etc., will attempt to explain.
You may recall that a while back I mentioned that I was warming up to St. Thomas Aquinas. Thomas, see, is a Doctor of the Church and if I had to rank them in order of importance, he sits atop the stack. He is A #1. That’s probably wrong of me to assert this, but remember that I’m self-taught in these matters and very prone to error.
Thomas is known as the Angelic Doctor, and also as the Common Doctor. The former for his deep insight into the mysteries of the faith, and his ability to understand them and make them known to folks like us, and the latter because his thoughts undergird many (if not all) of the teachings of the Catholic Church. Blessed Pope John XXIII bestowed upon him the title “Common Doctor” when he addressed a Thomistic Conference back in September of 1960. Regarding Aquinas he writes,
His teaching was, more than any other, fully in keeping with the truths that God has revealed, with the writings of the Holy Fathers, and with the principles of right reason and therefore Holy Church has adopted it as her own, and has given the name of common or universal teacher to its author.
Long before this, in his encyclical Aeterni Patris in 1879, Pope Leo XIII argued persuasively that the teachings of St. Thomas could be relied upon unreservedly. So we should be very interested in much of what the Angelic Doctor has to say on every subject under the sun.
Would it surprise you that St. Thomas left open a question regarding the Mystery of the Incarnation?
I suppose I should first ask if it would surprise you that there are theories (three of them!) about the purpose of the Incarnation in the first place. Just yesterday I was floating along in blissful ignorance of them myself. But thanks to something I stumbled upon in the YIMCatholic Bookshelf, in the preface of a compilation of St. Thomas’ thoughts on the doctrine of the Incarnation, I’m quite possibly a changed man as a result.
In 1868, see, an Anglican cleric named William Gilson Humphrey put together what he called A Digest of the Doctrine of St. Thomas on the Incarnation. In the preface, he notes that Raymond Lully had a theory (remember him?), Aquinas, and a third by Bl. John Duns Scotus, whose idea was followed by heavy thinkers (Suárez, for instance), and the Franciscans, as it turns out.
Here is what Humphrey shared that, though it hasn’t sealed the deal on pushing me towards becoming a Franciscan, has me leaning towards the Scotists and this idea because it paints a picture that I can a) grasp clearly, and b) which I find quite beautiful.
Wow. Basically, this makes the Incarnation the pinnacle of God’s work of creation. He wills Christ first of all as the summum opus Dei, and his love for us, and for the angelic hosts, is so vast that God planned to enter into his handiwork “before the foundation of the world,” without his doing so being contingent upon mankind sinning. Which helps explain why Satan, and his followers, rebelled and started a war in heaven. I clearly remember being taught this in RCIA, by the priest teaching our class. Lucifer rebelled when he learned that God intended to become human. The idea that God would enter into the glory of his creation as a human, “lower than the angels,” was repugnant to Lucifer. And contrary to Humphrey’s thinking in the preface to his digest, St. Thomas did not refute any of this, as he made obvious while pondering this mystery.
The third view of the Incarnation is that taken by the Scotists, by Suarez, and by many other theologians both ancient and modern. It teaches—and so far in accordance with Thomist theology, that Jesus came principally to save sinners, and for that end came in passible flesh; but here its agreement ceases. It asserts that even if Adam had never sinned, Jesus would yet have come, and come by means of Mary, in impassible flesh; that He was predestinated the Firstborn of creatures before the decree which permitted sin; that the Incarnation was from the first an intentional and integral part of the scheme of creation; that it was not merely occasioned by sin, but that sin only determined the manner of it, and its accompaniments of suffering and death. And it is as regards the manner of the Incarnation alone, as speaking of our Lord’s coming in passible and mortal flesh, that the Scotists understand those passages in Holy Scripture, in the writings of the Fathers, and in the Office Books of the Church, which at first sight seem to make for the Thomist view. The Scotists dwell very much on the doctrine that Jesus was decreed before all creation, and therefore before the permission of sin. They hold that all men exist because of Christ, and not Christ because of them, that all creation was for Him, and was not only decreed subsequently to His predestination, but for His sole sake.
They found again upon His being the First Begotten and Exemplar of the predestinate. And they go on to establish their view by arguments drawn from reason, from the natural order of things, from the relative value of means and ends, from the grace of the unfallen Adam, which is alleged to have been conferred on him because of Christ, from the Incarnation having, as St. Thomas teaches, been revealed to Adam, who, although he lost hope and the love of God when he sinned, did not lose his faith.
They urge further, that on the Thomist view, Christ was only an “occasioned good,” and, a still more unworthy supposition, occasioned by sin; or again, that Christ would have to rejoice in Adam’s sin, as owing to it His existence, grace, and His glory as man.
Again, it is said, that if Christ was decreed after us, and because of us, and only to redeem us, three monstrous consequences would follow:
1. That Christ would owe us a debt of gratitude.
2. That we should in certain respects be more excellent than He.
3. That sin was necessary to His existence.
On the Scotist view of the Incarnation the following would be the order of the Divine Decrees—the order of intention, that is, for there can of course be no order of time with God.
1. God understood Himself as the Sovereign Good.
2. He understood all creatures.
3. He predestinated creatures to grace and glory.
4. He foresaw men falling in Adam.
5. He pre-ordained the Passion of Christ as the remedy for this fall.
Thus Christ in the Flesh, and all the elect members of His mystical Body also, were foreseen and predestined to grace and glory, before the foresight either of sin or of the Passion.
It will be observed that both Thomists and Scotists lay the utmost stress on the doctrine that Jesus came, as He has come, expressly and principally to redeem mankind from sin, and that consequently a remedial character pervades all His mysteries, both such as have to do with His being our example, and such as have to do with His being our atonement, while the same character is stamped also upon His enactments as our legislator.
Further, the Thomists allow that redemption from sin was by no means the sole end of the Incarnation. They admit that the manifestation of the Divine Omnipotence, Wisdom, and Goodness was one end, and the Headship of the whole Church of angels and men was another.
Both views then have much in common: there may be no insurmountable repugnance between them, it may be that a little modification would reconcile them, and yet it is a patent fact that each gives a distinct tone and coloring to a man’s theology, and altering his standpoint affects his views on every subject that falls.
For Aquinas points this out in his answer to the following question from the Summa Theologica,
That’s from Article 3 of Question 1 (The fitness of the Incarnation) from Part III of the Summa. And if you would have asked me to answer it at any time before Christmas Eve yesterday, I would have answered in the negative. And by doing so, I’d have been in pretty good company, as that is what I have always thought and believed. It’s the reason that a good Thomist, and Christian, would believe: Christ became man to redeem us because of the fall of our first parents. It’s a simple answer meaning that Jesus was born to save us from our sins. I could rattle off tons of scripture to support this, of course, as well as find the thoughts of St. Thomas to back it up.
But here’s the thing. St. Thomas, in his humility, gave himself an out. He writes (emphasis is mine),
I answer that, there are different opinions about this question. For some say that even if man had not sinned, the Son of Man would have become incarnate. Others assert the contrary, and seemingly our assent ought rather to be given to this opinion.
For such things as spring from God’s will, and beyond the creature’s due, can be made known to us only through being revealed in the Sacred Scripture, in which the Divine Will is made known to us. Hence, since everywhere in the Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason of Incarnation, it is more in accordance with this to say that the work of Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin; so that, had sin not existed, Incarnation would not have been. And yet the power of God is not limited to this; even had sin not existed, God could have become incarnate.
St. Francis of Assisi is not a Doctor of the Church. And way down on the scale of official saints lies Blessed John Duns Scotus, a Franciscan friar who was known by the sobriquet Doctor Subtilis (Subtle Doctor), but who is far from being a Doctor of the Church too. In fact, he wasn’t beatified until March 20, 1993, by Bl. Pope John Paul II, who called him a “minstrel of the Incarnate Word and defender of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.”
Regardless of his newfound place in the ranks of the saints, his thoughts on the Incarnation are, as outlined above, amazing and wonderful to me. And I don’t have to risk being labeled a heretic for believing them.
Here’s what the citation from the Catholic Encyclopedia says about Scotus’ theory of the Incarnation,
In his Christology, Scotus insists strongly on the reality of Christ’s Humanity. Though it has no personality and no subsistence of its own, it has its own existence. The unio hypostatica and the communicatio idiomatum are explained in accordance with the doctrine of the Church, with no leaning to either Nestorianism or Adoptionism. It is true that Scotus explains the influence of the hypostatic union upon the human nature of Christ and upon His work differently from St. Thomas. Since this union in no way changes the human nature of Christ, it does not of itself impart to the Humanity the beatific vision or impeccability. These prerogatives were given to Christ with the fullness of grace which He received in consequence of that union. God would have become man even if Adam had not sinned, since He willed that in Christ humanity and the world should be united with Himself by the closest possible bond. Scotus also defends energetically the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin. All objections founded on original sin and the universal need of redemption are solved.
The merits of Christ are infinite only in a broader sense, but of themselves they are entirely sufficient to give adequate satisfaction to the Divine justice; there is no deficiency to be supplied by God’s mercy. But there is needed a merciful acceptation of the work of Christ, since in the sight of God there is no real merit in the strictest sense of the word.
Scotus is a genuine Scholastic philosopher who works out ideas taken from Aristotle, St. Augustine, and the preceding Scholastics. He is universally recognized as a deep thinker, an original mind, and a sharp critic; a thoroughly scientific man, who without personal bias proceeds objectively, stating his own doctrines with modesty and with a certain reserve.
That citation is, I grant you, from long ago (1909). Would it interest you to see something more recent? Perhaps something penned by Pope Benedict XVI himself? Take a look at this from a General Audience given back on July 7, 2010 on the Scottish saint.
First of all he meditated on the Mystery of the Incarnation and, unlike many Christian thinkers of the time, held that the Son of God would have been made man even if humanity had not sinned. He says in his Reportatio Parisiensis: “To think that God would have given up such a task had Adam not sinned would be quite unreasonable! I say, therefore, that the fall was not the cause of Christ’s predestination and that if no one had fallen, neither the angel nor man in this hypothesis Christ would still have been predestined in the same way” (in III Sent., d. 7, 4). This perhaps somewhat surprising thought crystallized because, in the opinion of Duns Scotus the Incarnation of the Son of God, planned from all eternity by God the Father at the level of love is the fulfilment of creation and enables every creature, in Christ and through Christ, to be filled with grace and to praise and glorify God in eternity. Although Duns Scotus was aware that in fact, because of original sin, Christ redeemed us with his Passion, Death and Resurrection, he reaffirmed that the Incarnation is the greatest and most beautiful work of the entire history of salvation, that it is not conditioned by any contingent fact but is God’s original idea of ultimately uniting with himself the whole of creation, in the Person and Flesh of the Son.
He goes on to praise the ramifications of Duns Scotus’ thoughts as follows,
Dear brothers and sisters, this strongly “Christocentric” theological vision opens us to contemplation, wonder and gratitude: Christ is the center of history and of the cosmos, it is he who gives meaning, dignity and value to our lives!
Indeed, it is wonderful!
This post is quite long, and I’m sure you’ve had enough of your mind being stretched for one day. I’ll close with an opinion that I think this Scotist/Franciscan view of the Incarnation is one that is more amenable to productive dialogue in Christian apologetics. The Scotist view helps me to understand Christ’s role as the Alpha and the Omega in a clearer way while building upon what John the Apostle writes in his gospel, and what he records that Jesus siad to Nicodemus,
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”
Thanks be to God!
Places worth visiting for more information on Scotian/Franciscan thoughts on the Incarnation:
Website of Fr. Maximilian Mary Dean, F.I., The Absolute Primacy of Christ.
Fr. Maximilians’ YouTube Channel.
Taylor Marshall: Would Christ Have Become Man if Man had not Sinned?
Bl. Pope John Paul II: The Mystery of Predestination in Christ.
Christendom Awake: John Duns Scotus and His Defense of the Immaculate Conception.
*This photograph belongs to the author.