Roger Nesbitt FAITH Magazine November-December 2009
Fr Roger Nesbitt, Chairman of the Faith movement, and Parish Priest of Folkestone shows how the early Fathers harmoniously developed scriptural themes to present the Person of God-made-Man as the necessary completion of creation. He also brings out and reflects upon tensions in the developing tradition on this point. This article has been developed in a collaborative manner through Faith movement symposia.
A Vision For Our Times
Through the Faith movement we promote a vision of creation and revelation as one Christ-centred work of God. The so called “Scotist” perspective on the Incarnation is integral to that vision. This does not mean that we downplay the reality of sin and the importance of the cross, far from it, but we think that it is only by understanding the cosmic significance of the Incarnation that we can understand the full drama and measure of redemption.
The issue of the motive for the Incarnation has never been formally defined, but we can find at least a presumption of the Scotist perspective in many important magisterial texts, and an almost overwhelming wealth of opinions in its favour among the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, (for a comprehensive discussion of the sources see Dean, Maximilian Mary, A Primer on the Absolute Primacy of Christ, Academy of the Immaculate, 2006).
On the question of the purpose of the Incarnation the Catechism says that, “He came for us and for our salvation” … “in order to save us by reconciling us with God”, and quotes St Gregory of Nyssa: “Did not they (the sickness and slavery of humanity) move God to descend to human nature and visit it, since humanity was in such a miserable state.” But it also lists three other motives for the Incarnation: “… so that we might know the love of God”; for Christ”… to be our model of holiness” and “… to make us partakers of the divine nature”, citing St Irenaeus and quoting St Athanasius famously that “God became a man so that we might become God”. Then it quotes an early work of St. Thomas Aquinas: “The only begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in His divinity, assumed our nature, so that He, made man, might make men gods.”
Tension and Debate in The Tradition
St. Thomas is often regarded as the greatest champion of the opposing view of the Incarnation, which accordingly became known as the Thomist’ view. However, while in his earliest work he thinks it “probable” on balance that the Word would not have become flesh unless we had fallen in the later De Veritate he says that the primacy of Christ is the end to which the whole of creation is ordered and is the principle of our predestination into the supernatural life. Yet again in the Summa, while he still finds the idea of Christ coming to fulfill and perfect his creatures whether or not they had sinned to be a theologically beautiful and inspiring vision, he feels that the authority of Scripture and is lacking and thinks it “most probable” that God would not become man except as a remedy for sin His earliest commentators attempted to synthesize these varying statements – speculating that God may have become man in a sinless world, but with “impassable” flesh, incapable of suffering.
The speculative question: “Would Jesus have come had there been no sin?” was not actually framed in that way until the twelfth century. The earlier Fathers typically wrote in response to current controversies, emphasizing whatever aspect of the Christian mystery seemed appropriate to the moment. Varying emphases, sometimes concentrating on the redemptive reality of Christ’s mission, sometimes on his cosmic significance, can therefore be found throughout the tradition, often in the same writer according to context.
This should not really be surprising, nor is there any inherent contradiction between the two thoughts, unless there is a specific denial that Christ would have come apart from sin, and that is rare. As we have seen Aquinas is far from categorical on the subject, only cautious out of concern over an apparent lack of Scriptural warrant. Although that perception is rather puzzling, since the New Testament provides ample support for the Incarnational vision of creation, and the Greek Fathers frequently refer to these texts.
The Evidence of Scripture
The early evangelizers naturally emphasized first the centrality of the atonement outlined, for example, in Hebrews 2:14-15. But many other Scripture texts also
give a wider context and fuller exposition of the mystery of Christ, and these are also found throughout the patristic writings.
When Martha confessed her faith in Jesus saying: “You are the Christ; the one who was to come into the world.” (John 11:27) she was not expecting the crucifixion, but she seems to have spoken out of a common expectation that the Messiah had been decreed in the eternal plans of God. Some of the rabbis said clearly “the world was not made except for the Messiah,” and “from the beginning of the world God desired to dwell among His creatures and this desire was fulfilled when the tabernacle was erected in the wilderness.”
This saying from a first century collection of Syrian Rabbis echoes the exact word used in the prologue of St. John “The Word was made flesh and tabernacled (literally: ‘pitched his tent’) among us” (John 1:14). The Feast of Tabernacles celebrated the presence of God on earth in the Tent of Meeting in the desert and later the Holy of Holies in the Temple, but its true fulfillment was in the tabernacle of Christ’s own humanity.
To many pious Jews, therefore, the idea of the Incarnation, while certainly being a revelation, may not have been a complete novelty. The crucifixion was the truly scandalous thought, so much so that much of the New Testament is devoted to showing the necessity of the cross from the prophecies of the Old Testament.
Yet even in the pages of the Gospels the Lord’s mission is not presented simply as a response to sin. Jesus weeps over Jerusalem because she did not recognize “the hour of her visitation” (Luke 19:44). The Messiah’s visitation among his people is not prompted by sin, it is sin which undermines the joy of his coming. His vocation is first and foremost a positive one: “I have come so that you may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10); “so that my joy may be in you and your joy be complete” (John 15:11); and so that you “may be with me where I am” (John 17:24).
The Heir of The Vineyard
In the parable of the vineyard Our Lord speaks of himself as the rightful “heir” of creation. “He came into his own” (John 1:11), the Greek making it quite clear that this does not just mean he came to his own people but into his own his own domain. Again the parable shows that he is not heir to the Father’s vineyard because of sin, it is sin that seeks to rob him of his rightful inheritance.
In his triumphal entry into Jerusalem Jesus dismisses the misgivings of the Pharisees about the crowds adoring welcome saying: “If they were silent the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:40) implying that he is the fulfillment of every aspect of created being, even the very foundations of matter.
At his trial Jesus proclaims, “Yes, I am a King, but now, I tell you, my Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). The kingdom of Christ was originally intended as
the perfection and glorification of this created order, but sin changes the manner of his Kingship and delays his final triumph until the new creation is complete.
“Before the Foundation of the World”
In his teaching about that final triumph and judgment Jesus tells us that he will say to the righteous: “Come you blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world”(Matthew 25:34J. He also uses same phraseology in his farewell discourse at the Last Supper:
“Father I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, so that they may see the glory you have given me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” (John 17:24).
This thought is then repeated and preserved throughout the New Testament. 1 Peter speaks of Christ making us “co-sharers of the divine nature” through the Incarnation; something “even the angels longed to catch a glimpse of.” St Peter says this was “premeditated before the foundation of the world, but revealed.., at the end of the ages for our sake” (1 Peter 1:20).
In his First Letter to the Corinthians St Paul speaks of “the things God has prepared for those who love Him; things beyond the mind of man… a mystery… predestined to be for our glory before the ages began” (1 Corinthians 2:6-10). Romans similarly affirms that we were “predestined before time began to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He should be the firstborn among many brethren.” (Romans 8:28).
Ephesians again uses the exact formula of the Lord’s own words: “Before the foundation of the world He chose us, chose us in Christ, that we should be holy and blameless before Him and to live through love in His presence; determining that we should become His adopted sons through Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 1:3-12)
Sin is forseen and accounted for in the eternal counsels of the Trinity, for we have redemption “through His blood, such is the richness of the grace He has showered upon us” (Ephesians 1:6), but the order of priority is plain.
“He has let us know the mystery of His purpose, the hidden plan He so kindly made in Christ from the beginning, to act upon in the fullness of time, that He would bring all things together under Christ as head, everything in heaven and on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10).
Human Nature Created in View of Christ
Drawing on this Pauline thought and vocabulary in the immediate post-apostolic era St. Irenaeus wrote: “Christ recapitulates in himself the orders of the flesh and the spirit.” This is often portrayed as a particularly Greek way of thinking, but it is really a Hebrew mode of thought. There are many rabbinic comments to the
effect that “the whole of creation is featured in man”. Another rabbinic text says that “He created man from below and the soul from above, and this is meant by the verse – ‘God founded the earth with Wisdom’ (Proverbs 3:19)”. This is saying that the Wisdom of God is most perfectly manifest in human nature which bridges and combines both physical and spiritual orders of creation.
An early Christian writer in Syria developed this line of thought as follows: “In as much as in Man are joined the seen and the unseen things, he is the truth of those things which are in Jesus Christ.” Human nature as flesh and spirit was created not only ‘in Wisdom’, but specifically ‘in Jesus Christ’ the Incarnate Wisdom of God who recapitulates all things in himself.
St John Damascene also explains the Incarnation in almost exactly the same terms:
“Since man is a microcosm, the knot that ties together all substances visible and invisible, because he himself is both, it was most fitting that the Lord and ruler of all things should desire that in His only begotten and consubstantial Son, the unity of divinity with humanity should be realized and by this means the unity of divinity with all things, so that God should be all in all.”
In another passage of the Adversus Haeresis St Irenaeus wrote that: “Unless flesh and blood stood in need of salvation then the Incarnation would be meaningless.” At first sight this might appear to be a strongly Thomist’ statement, but he then goes on to say: “The flesh, in order to be capable of eternal life, is in need of salvation to heaven and participation in God through Christ.” The meaning of “salvation” here is not saving from sin but from futility. Flesh and blood is mortal and cannot enter communion with the divine unless God unites human nature with himself.
Human nature is only meaningful because it is made in view of Christ who is to come at the fullness of time and confer immortality through union with himself and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Since the fall, humanity is also in need of restoration and atonement by a further and radical gift of mercy in Christ.
The Son of Man
The Pauline presentation of Christ as the ‘New Adam’, is rooted in the Lord’s preferred title for Himself – Son of Man which, in turn derives from the messianic vision of Daniel 7:9-10. The title, therefore, also speaks of Christ as the head and humanity. For the Jewish rabbis and for the early Christian theologians ‘Adam’ is a prophetic image of the messianic Son of Man, which means that Christ is prophesied and prefigured not just in the age of innocence before sin, but in the being, in the very flesh and blood of Adam before he fell.
St Cyril of Alexandria denounces as impiety the opinion that Christ is for us rather than we are for Christ.Others explicitly affirm that Adam was created in the
St Clement of Alexandria, St Jerome, St Augustineand St Ambrose all wrote along similar lines. St. Ambrose, of course, also wrote the Exultet with its famous exclamation “0 happy fault! 0 necessary sin of Adam, that won for us so great a Redeemer.” This is a clear example of the shifting focus found in the tradition at times. It would actually be heresy to try to turn St. Ambrose’s poetic and hyperbolic expression “necessary sin” into a dogmatic and, even worse, a practical truth. Sin is permitted in God’s eternal purpose, never willed or necessary. Sin evokes, one might even say provokes, within the human heart of Christ an even greater outpouring of undeserved love, but it is never the author of that love nor the reason for the existence of that most Sacred Heart.
The Catechism synthesizes these twin emphases for us in the following way:
“Christians of the first centuries said: The world was created for the sake of the Church. God created the world for the sake of communion with His divine life, a communion brought about by the convocation of men in Christ, and this convocation is the Church. The Church is the goal of all things and God permitted such painful upheavals as the angel’s fall and man’s sin only as occasions and means for displaying all the power of His arm and the whole measure of the love He wanted to give the world.”
Our Lord also refers to Himself as “The Bridegroom” of the world, a title also rooted in Hebrew Prophecy (see especially Isaiah 61:10-62:5). If the figure of Adam is a type of Christ then ‘Eve’ is a type of the Church. In Genesis the woman was taken from the sleeping body of the man and reunited with him in marriage. So the physical creation which culminates in human nature is ‘taken from’ the patrimony of the flesh of Christ. The cosmos which is made for the sake of the Church – the Woman crowned with the stars (cf. Revelation 12:1) – is decreed towards union with God in the flesh of Christ. The greeting of Adam to His Bride “flesh of my flesh, bone of my bones” is, prophetically speaking, that of Christ to His Church. It is St Ambrose again who is most explicit about this perennial patristic theme.
It is from this perspective that St Paul can affirm that every marriage is a share in work of Christ and the Church, which is the primary mystery. St John of the Cross, later developed this theme in his mystical poem on the Heavenly Bride and Groom.
The Firstborn of all Creation
St Paul to the Colossians teaches that:
“He is the image of the invisible God and the first born of all creation, for in Him were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and everything invisible… all things were created through Him and for Him. Before anything was created, He existed, and He holds all things in unity. Now the Church is His Body, He is its Head” (Colossians 1:15-18).
This refers not just to the eternal person of God the Son but to his Incarnation: “In His body dwells the fullness of the Godhead, and in Him too you find your own fulfillment, in the one who is Head of every Sovereignty and Power.” (2:9-10) The Incarnation is for our fulfillment not just our rescue.
The phrase “firstborn of creation” could be misunderstood to mean that Christ was the first creature to be created, which is what the Arians of the fourth century said, citing this text and Proverbs 8:4 which underlies it. St Athanasius answered them saying it is not the person of Christ who is created but His “work and office was appointed before the creation of the world”; and the rest of the material creation is aligned on His coming “like stones cemented in form and order”
St Athanasius continues:
“Therefore we can see the meaning of the Word taking upon Himself our mortal flesh and being created as a ‘beginning’ of God’s works… Before we were created, we had been elected in the predestined Incarnation of the Son, to spiritual and everlasting life and happiness. Our life was founded, it was established and hidden in Christ before anything ever was… Thus all our happiness being connected with Him, we become sharers with Him in the everlasting joys of heaven.”
Alpha and Omega
The Colossians hymn is thought to be an extended commentary on the first word of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning” (Hebrew B’reshit). So for St Athanasius as for St. Paul, and indeed for St. John (cf. John 1:1), “In the beginning” means ‘In Christ’ through whom, in whom and for whom everything exists.
Athanasius goes on to explain that when He adopted our nature into “closest communion with Himself”, he also took “with it that sentence of death which it had incurred… (thus)… from all eternity He provided first for our being, and afterwards for our redemption.” In this he was following the order of St Paul’s thinking, who sees the redemptive office of Christ as the most fitting crowning of his already predestined Incarnational primacy.
“As He is the Beginning, so was He first to be born from the dead so that He should be first in every way; because God wanted all perfection to be found in Him. And all things are reconciled through Him and for Him, everything in heaven
and everything on earth, when He made peace by His death on the cross.” (Colossians 1:18-20, see also the Philippians 2 hymn, “he was humbler stilt’)
The Fathers spoke of the Incarnation as the plenary manifestation of the divine majesty, citing Titus 2:11 and 3:4 and Revelation 3:14 (see also 2 Corinthians 1:20) where Christ is named as the great “Amen”. Revelation also speaks of him as the “Alpha and Omega” (Revelation 21:6 & 22:13), the beginning and the end of all God’s works. These titles are difficult to explain unless we accept the Johannine, Pauline, Petrine teaching that the Incarnation is decreed as the first thought upon which creation is aligned. He comes to complete the covenant communion of life and joy between God and Man. Sin broke the covenant and dishonoured the Messiah, but where sin abounded grace has super-abounded with an even greater outpouring of undeserved love in the Paschal Mystery.
The Predestined Glory of Christ’s Humanity
This appears to be the completely consistent apostolic vision and this remains the dominant theology of the Eastern Church, not just academically, but liturgically and spiritually. In the Western scholastic tradition this theology has been named ‘Scotist’ after Blessed John Duns Scotus who frames the question in terms of the glorification of the human nature of Christ as the highest good of creation:
“Now the human nature in Christ was predestined to be glorified, and in order to be glorified it was predestined to be united to the Word … and therefore he intends glory to this soul before he wills glory to any other soul and to every other soul he wills glory before taking into account the opposite of these habits.
“… neither is it likely that the highest good in the whole of creation is merely something that chanced to take place, and that only because of some lesser good. Nor is it probable that God predestined Adam to such a good, before he predestined Christ. Yet all of this would follow, yes and something even more absurd. If the predestination of Christ’s soul was for the sole purpose of redeeming others, it would follow that in foreordaining Adam to glory, God would have had to foresee him as falling into sin before he could have predestined Christ to glory.
“Consequently we can say that God selected for his heavenly choir all the angels and men he wished to have with their varied degrees of perfection, and all this before considering either the sin or the punishment of the sinner. No one therefore is predestined simply because God foresaw another would fall, lest anyone have reason to rejoice at the misfortune of another.”
The Providential Order of Love
Other saintly champions of the Scotist view in the Middle ages include St Catherine of Siena, St Bernadine of Siena and St Bonaventure. Of the great
thinkers of the Counter Reformation St. Francis de Sales is the most explicit in his Treatise on the Love of God, where he gives a complete Scotist synthesis of the “providential order of God”, which he says comes directly from his “study of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Fathers.”
“From eternity God knew that He would make on innumerable throng of creatures… and that He would communicate Himself to them. He saw that among all the ways of communicating Himself there is none so excellent as that of joining Himself to a created nature in such a way that the creature would be engrafted and implanted in the Godhead so as to become with it one single person.
“After choosing for this happy state the sacred humanity of our Saviour, supreme providence then decreed that He would not restrict His bounty to the person of His beloved Son, for that Son’s sake He would diffuse it among many other creatures”.
Aware of a criticism sometimes leveled at the Scotist view, St Francis says of the Incarnation that “this sovereign sweetness was communicated perfectly outside itself to a creature” by God’s own free and eternal choice, and this is the basis of the created order as God freely willed to make it. The “original justice” in which men and angels were created “was naught else but the most sweet love which would dispose them for, turn them towards, and set them on the way of eternal happiness.”
God indeed foresaw that both men and angels would rebel. He had created them in love, which of its nature is free and involves the possibility of rejection. With the angels the rejection was total and unprompted by anything except formal self adoration, but with man it was otherwise; humanity is frail and was sorely tempted from the outside. But most of all God treated humanity with mercy because “… it was from human nature that He had decided to take a most blessed portion for union with His divinity.”
So far from sin motivating the Incarnation, it is the Incarnation that is the motivation of Divine mercy towards us because it is the foundation of our nature in the first place. Through the Incarnation he willed to make himself “companion to our miseries” and to “show the riches of His goodness, through a copious redemption”.
The Catholic Principle Par Excellence
John Henry Newman later found the Scotist perspective to be truest to the Greek Fathers he studied so closely. Faber too wrote from the same point of view in his treatise on the Blessed Sacrament. In The Development of Christian Doctrine Newman says that the teaching on the Incarnation “establishes in the very idea of Christianity the sacramental principle as its characteristic” because: “It is our Lord’s intention in the Incarnation to make us what He is Himself.” It also teaches
us “that matter is an essential part of us, and as well as mind, is capable of sanctification”.
The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of the Second Vatican Council Gaudium et Spes sums up the perspective with the arresting statement: “The Church believes that the key, the centre and the purpose of the whole of man’s history is to be found in its Lord and Master”.
The Council called for a re-presentation of Christ to the world in a way which would draw on the whole wealth of Catholic tradition and shed the light of Christ on the best insights of the modern world. From all that we now know of the unity of the sciences and the dynamic unfolding of creation we are in an even better position to vindicate the Scotist line as the only worthy and coherent account of the Mystery of Christ. If we are to re-evangelise the modern world, and in the process answer the false or flawed theologies which have arisen to plague us in the last thirty years, we must be able to offer something deeper and more fulfilling, but completely true to the apostolic faith. The vision of Christ and His Church explored here is central to that task too.
We can show how God freely created us for fulfilment in the wisdom and joy which is His own Being. The Father thinks and wills us through the Incarnate Son for whose sake we are wanted and destined unto Himself in the love who is the Holy Spirit. This is the source of our dignity as human beings and the full meaning of being created “in the image of God”. We are built on Christ. Sin cannot be foundational to our humanity and most certainly not to His.
Man was made in view of Christ, not Christ in view of sin. His birth from Mary was not simply a means towards crucifixion. He did not merely borrow our humanity in order to die. He entered nature which had been prepared for Him since the beginning. He truly came into His own and in Him we see how God has loved us with the total fullness of Himself. But when He found us broken and alienated from eternal life He loved us also to the utmost of His psyche and the last drop of His blood on the cross.
Note by BB: I am glad to see Fr Nesbitt still batting for Christ. He taught me chemistry at A Level, and was my favourite teacher by far. He also got me interested in the Faith Society, which I joined, where I played not even a minor role, only as an “extra”-I was surrounded there by giants!
His nickname amongst the pupils was [THAT’S ENOUGH REMINISCENCE! -Ed]