For those who are unfamiliar, the question of the “motive” of the Incarnation has a long history. Though it has its roots in the writings of the Church Fathers, it did not receive its first systematic treatment until the time of medieval scholasticism. At that juncture, opposing theses were advanced by two of the most authoritative scholastic theologians of the 13th century: St. Thomas Aquinas and Bl. John Duns Scotus. The former, which we may call the Thomistic thesis, argued that if Adam had not sinned, God would not have become man. Thomas wrote the following in his Summa Theologica: “the work of the Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin; so that, had sin not existed, the Incarnation would not have been.”1 Thus, for Thomas, the only reason for the Incarnation is the redemption of fallen man. The Scotistic thesis, on the other hand, argued that the Incarnation was willed by God from all eternity prior to any consideration of sin, and thus it would have come about even had Adam not sinned. For Scotus, God created the world and everyone in it for the sake of Christ, sin or no sin. Christ, then, was not an afterthought of God, but rather the first thought, so to speak.
The debate over which of the two theses was the correct one took center stage in the Christological writings of the early modern period. In fact, according to Trent Pomplun, “it could be argued that [during this period] no controversy was so celebrated as the age-old debate between Thomists and Scotists about the so-called ‘motive’ of the Incarnation.”2 All serious theologians of the major religious orders (i.e. Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, etc.) took part in the debate. The Dominicans, with some notable exceptions, adhered to the Thomistic thesis, while the Franciscans for the most part adopted that of Scotus. But even Dominicans like Capreolus (ca. 1380-1444) and Cajetan (ca. 1468-1534) had to wrestle with some of the principles of Scotus’s thesis, such as the application of the signa rationes to God’s eternal decree, all the while trying to remain faithful to Thomas’s overall position. The Jesuits either sided with one of the two theses or proposed a mitigated form of either thesis. By the eighteenth century, Scotus’s teaching had pretty much won out, though many Dominicans continued to voice their opposition to it. As it stands, the debate continues to this very day, though it is no longer one of the major points of discussion in contemporary Christologies.
Scotistic Thesis: The Absolute Primacy of Christ
Now that we have a basic understanding of the two theses, as well as a brief historical background of the debate’s development, I would like to devote the remainder of this article to outlining the essential features of Scotus’s teaching concerning the primary motive of the Incarnation.
Scotus begins his treatment of the question “from above,” that is, with predestination, which he defines as “an act of the divine will, whereby an intellectual creature is chosen for grace and for glory.”3 The 20th century Scotist, Fr. Ruggero Rosini, O.F.M, highlighted three key components to Scotus’s doctrine of predestination: 1) it is a free act of the divine will, not one of divine foreknowledge, 2) it is an absolute act, not a conditional one, and 3) it is a simultaneous act, not a successive one.4
1) By characterizing predestination as a free act of the divine will and not of divine foreknowledge, Scotus is insisting that God’s will, not his intellect, is the formal cause of all contingent things. God does not predestine souls to grace and glory based on what he foresees or foreknows will happen in time, but rather he predestines them on the basis of his own intrinsic goodness prior to such considerations. In order to understand the motive behind the predestination of the Incarnation, then, we must look to the “reasons of the divine will,” which are governed primarily by the logic of spontaneity, that is, the fittingness decreed by divine charity.5 Those reasons are contained within the divine will itself, not the divine foreknowledge, otherwise the Incarnation would be determined by some kind of natural necessity6 or mathematical proportionality7 stemming from the divine intellect’s foreknowledge of man’s sin.
2) Predestination, then, is an eternal and absolute act, meaning that it is not conditioned by contingent events which God foreknows will happen in the future. God does not predestine conditionally, i.e. “on the condition that” or “as a result of this condition,” but absolutely, and this because he judges the predestined object to be a fitting expression of his own divine goodness. If this were not the case, then the divine will would be dependent on something outside of itself in the ordering of its decrees. God’s decrees would be subordinated to and shaped by the future contingent choices of men and women. Thus, the decrees would become nothing more than reactions to what God foreknew we would or would not do, instead of being independent determinations of the divine will. If, however, God decrees that the Word will become incarnate, this is an absolute decree; it is not occasioned by the fact that God foreknows Adam will sin.
3) Furthermore, predestination is a simultaneous act, which means that God predestines Christ, Mary, the angels, and men to grace and glory in one and the same decree. There are, to be sure, logical instants or priorities in this decree (the signa rationes), but they are not successive or chronological. The logical instants are determined by God in an orderly manner, according as they are nearer or farther from the preordained end. Scotus remarks that
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 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.8
While it is true that God predestines souls to grace and glory in one simultaneous decree, nevertheless the predestination of Christ is logically prior to that of any other soul, and this is because the soul of Christ, in virtue of its decreed hypostatic union with the Word, is closest to the end, namely the glory of the beatific vision. The second logical instant of God’s eternal decree is the predestination of Mary to be the Mother of God, and so on with other souls according to the various degrees of perfection that God wills each soul to possess.
In the Words of Scotus
To get a clearer indication of Scotus’s thought on this matter, I would like now to quote at length one of the more pertinent texts of Scotus concerning the absolute primacy of Christ. The following quote comes from Scotus’s Ordinatio:
At this point, however, two questions arise. First, whether this predestination [of Christ] necessarily presupposes the fall of human nature; which is what many authorities seem to be saying, to the effect that the Son of God would never have become incarnate if man had not fallen.
Without attempting to settle the matter dogmatically, one may state in according with the last mentioned opinion in distinction 41 of the First Book [of Sentences] that, in so far as the objects intended by God are concerned, since the predestination in general of anyone to glory is prior by nature to the prevision of anyone’s sin or damnation, this is all the more so true of the predestination of that soul chosen for the greatest glory. For it appears to be universally true that he who wills in an orderly manner intends first that which is nearest the end. And so just as he first intends one to have glory before grace, so also among those predestined to glory, he who wills in an orderly fashion would seem to intend first the glory of the one he wishes to be nearest the end. Thus, he wills glory for this soul before he wills glory for any other soul, and for every other soul he wills glory and grace before he foresees those things which are the opposite of these habits [i.e. sin or damnation] …
If man had not sinned, there would have been no need for our redemption. But that God predestined this soul [of Christ] to so great a glory does not seem to be only on account of that [redemption], since the redemption or the glory of the soul to be redeemed is not comparable to the glory of Christ’s soul. Neither is it likely that the highest good in creation is something that was merely occasioned only because of some lesser good; nor is it likely that he predestined Adam to such good before he predestined Christ; and yet this would follow [were the Incarnation occasioned by Adam’s sin]. In fact, if the predestination of Christ’s soul was for the sole purpose of redeeming others, something even more absurd would follow, namely, that in predestining Adam to glory, he would have foreseen him as having fallen into sin before he predestined Christ to glory.
It can be said, therefore, that with a priority of nature God chose for his heavenly court all the angels and men he wished to have with their various degrees of perfection before he foresaw either sin or the punishment for sinners; and no one has been predestined only because somebody else’s sin was foreseen, lest anyone have reason to rejoice over the fall of another.9
The aforementioned quote from Scotus provides a neat synthesis of his overall thesis concerning the absolute primacy of Christ. While much more could be said, and indeed much more needs to be said to fully grasp the profound insights of Scotus on this question, nevertheless I believe that what has been recounted here is sufficient for our purposes. A more detailed analysis would require us to make a number of subtle theological distinctions that would leave us all with a headache, so I will spare the reader of that trauma. No need to grab your Ibuprofen! That being said, the main point to take away from this brief article is the following: Scotus believes that the primary motive of the Incarnation, its inner ratio, is not the redemption of fallen man, but rather the maximum enjoyment of the divine goodness by the human nature of Christ, and this simply because God saw it to be most fitting and beautiful. The Incarnation is an end in itself; it is not willed for the sake of anything or anyone else. On the contrary, everything (plants, animals, etc) and everyone (men and angels) are created for the sake of Christ. Through the mediation of Christ men and angels are able to enjoy the divine goodness as well, but not apart from that mediation, and this irrespective of whether or not sin enters the picture.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, q. 1, a. 3.
Trent Pomplun, “Baroque Catholic Theologies of Christ and Mary,” in The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theology, 1600-1800, eds. Ulrich L. Lehner, Richard A. Muller, and A. G. Roeber (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016), 104.
Bl. John Duns Scotus, Ordinatio, I, d. 40, q. un., n. 4.
Fr. Ruggero Rosini, Mariology of Blessed John Duns Scotus, trans. Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, ed. Fr. Peter M. Fehlner (New Bedford, MA: Academy of the Immaculate, 2008), 16-17.
Cf. Fr. Peter M. Fehlner, “Redemption, Metaphysics and the Immaculate Conception,” in Mary at the Foot of the Cross V - Redemption and Coredemption under the Sign of the Immaculate Conception (New Bedford, MA: Academy of the Immaculate, 2005), 223.
I.e. God necessarily had to will the Incarnation as a remedy for sin.
I.e. God willed the Incarnation so that an infinite atonement could be made for the “infinite” offense against God caused by man’s sin.
Bl. John Duns Scotus, Reportatio Parisiensis, III, d. 7, q. 4.
Scotus, Ordinatio, III, d. 7, q. 3.