I want this post to piggyback on the discussion taking place about sola Scriptura. To be honest, I tend to avoid that debate, partially because it seems to devolve more quickly than others into pedantic, hairsplitting, pulpit-pounding backbiting; it’s a credit to this blog and its readers that that has not happened thus far.
All I would like to contribute, as an oblique consideration, is how the question, “Cur Deus homo?” stands in light of its scriptural basis and how its status might be addressed “solely” from sola Scriptura. The scriptural basis for the exact and most fundamental reason for the Incarnation is (notoriously) moot, and because of this I think it can shed light on the issues of doctrinal authority and religious assent in the sola Scriptura debate.
Cur Verbum caro factum est? As I think most everyone here knows, there are two main theses about the Incarnation. On the one hand, it is claimed that the Word became flesh because of the fall of humankind in Adam. On the other hand, it is claimed that the Word would have incarnated regardless of Adam’s fall or otherwise. The first thesis we can call the ‘redemptive’ theory of Incarnation, while the second we might call the ‘absolutist’ theory.
My question is: Are Protestants allowed to argue for the truth of the absolutist theory of the Incarnation? If not, why not? If so, how? Before answering, please consider the following quotations (found in “Cur Deus Homo? The Motive of the Incarnation” by Fr. George Florovsky).
Since, according to Florovsky, the early Fathers did not explicitly ponder the question whether a fall-free world would have still seen the Incarnation, he cites, as the first self-conscious advocate of the absolutist theory amidst the debate, Rupert Deutz, who writes:
“Therefore, we say quite probably, not so much that man [was made] to make up the number of the angels [i.e., for those who had fallen], but that both angels and men were made because of one man, Jesus Christ, so that, as He Himself was begotten God from God, and was to be found a man, He would have a family prepared on both sides. … From the beginning, before God made anything, it was in His plan that the Word [Logos] of God, God the Word [Logos], would be made flesh, and dwell among men with great love and the deepest humility, which are His true delights.”
–– (Rupertus Tuitensis, De Glorificatione Trinitatis, lib. 3. 20 (M., P.L., 169, col. 72)
Next Florovsky cites Honorius of Autun, writing in his Libellus octo quaestionum de angelis et homine, that
“the first man’s sin was not the cause of Christ’s Incarnation; rather, it was the cause of death and damnation. The cause of Christ’s Incarnation was the predestination of human deification. It was indeed predestined by God from all eternity that man would be deified, for the Lord said, ‘Father, Thou hast loved them* before the creation of the world,’ [cf. John 17:24] those, that is, who are deified through Me….”
–– ibid., cap. 2 (Μ., P.L., 172, col. 72)
Whereupon Florovsky considers the views of Duns Scotus:
“The Incarnation of the Son of God was for him the very reason of the whole Creation. Otherwise, he thought, this supreme action of God would have been something merely accidental or “occasional”. ‘Again, if the Fall were the cause of the predestination of Christ, it would follow that God’s greatest work was only occasional, for the glory of all will not be so intense as that of Christ, and it seems unreasonable to think that God would have foregone such a work because of Adam’s good deed, if he had not sinned.‘”
Elsewhere Scotus says, “the Fall is not the cause of Christ’s predestination. Indeed, even if one angel had not fallen, or one man, Christ would still have been predestined thus—even if others had not been created, but only Christ.” He continues:
“This I demonstrate thus: anyone who wills methodically first wills an end, and then more immediately, those things which are more immediate to the end. But God wills most methodically; therefore, He wills thus: first He wills Himself, and everything intrinsic to Himself; more directly, so far as concerns things extrinsic, is the soul of Christ. Therefore, in relation to whatever merit and before whatever demerit was foreseen, He foresees that Christ must be united to Him in a substantial union…. The disposition and predestination is first complete concerning the elect, and then something is done concerning the reprobate, as a secondary act, lest anyone rejoice as if the loss of another was a reward for himself; therefore, before the foreseen Fall, and before any demerit, the whole process concerning Christ was foreseen…. He would not have come as a mediator, to suffer and to redeem, unless someone had first sinned, unless the glory of the flesh had become swelled with pride, unless something needed to be redeemed; otherwise, He would have immediately been the whole Christ glorified.“
Next, Florovsky takes a brief look at St. Thomas’ views on the matter:
“Aquinas … saw the whole weight of the arguments in favor of the opinion that, even apart from the Fall, “nevertheless, God would have become incarnate,” and he quoted the phrase of St. Augustine: ‘in the Incarnation of Christ, other things must be considered besides absolution from sin.’ (De Trinitate, XIII. 17). But Aquinas could not find, either in Scripture or in the Patristic writings, any definite witness to this Incarnation independent of the Fall, and therefore was inclined to believe that the Son of God would not have been incarnate if the first man did not sin: “Although God could have become incarnate without the existence of sin, it is nevertheless more appropriate to say that, if man had not sinned, God would not have become incarnate, since in Sacred Scripture the reason for the Incarnation is everywhere given as the sin of the first man.“
Then Florovsky turns to Bonaventure’s claims, which closely align with St. Thomas’:
“Comparing the two opinions — one in favor of an Incarnation apart from the Fall and the other dependent on it, he concluded: ‘Both [opinions] excite the soul to devotion by different considerations: the first, however, more consonant with the judgment of reason; yet it appears that the second is more agreeable to the piety of faith.’ One should rely rather on the direct testimony of the Scriptures than on the arguments of human logic.“
Florovsky mentions the fact that St. Francois de Sales argued for the absolutist theory. Florovsky does not cite St. Francois, but I will. In his Treatise on the Love of God (Bk. 2, ch. 4), he writes:
“God knew from all eternity that he could make an innumerable multitude of creatures with divers perfections and qualities, to whom he might communicate himself, and considering that amongst all the different communications there was none so excellent as that of 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, his infinite goodness, which of itself and by itself tends towards communication, resolved and determined to communicate himself in this manner. So that, as eternally there is an essential communication in God by which the Father communicates all his infinite and indivisible divinity to the Son in producing him, and the Father and the Son together producing the Holy Ghost communicate to him also their own singular divinity;—so this sovereign sweetness was so perfectly communicated externally to a creature, that the created nature and the divinity, retaining each of them its own properties, were notwithstanding so united together that they were but one same person. …
“Furthermore the sacred providence determined to produce all other things as well natural as supernatural in behalf of Our Saviour, in order that angels and men might, by serving him, share in his glory; on which account, although God willed to create both angels and men with free-will, free with a true freedom to choose evil or good, still, to show that on the part of the divine goodness they were dedicated to good and to glory, he created them all in original justice, which is no other thing than a most sweet love, which disposed, turned and set them forward towards eternal felicity. …
“He … foresaw that the first man would abuse his liberty and forsaking grace would lose glory, yet would he not treat human nature so rigorously as he determined to treat the angelic. It was human nature of which he had determined to take a blessed portion to unite it to his divinity. …”
In the third section of Florovsky’s essay, he focuses on St. Maximus as a major advocate of the absolutist theory, although not one consciously debating the possibility of an alternate fall-free world (cf. the note* at the end of this post):
“The 60th Questio ad Thalassium, is a commentary on I Peter, 1:19-20: ‘[Christ was] like a blameless and spotless lamb, who was foreordained from the foundation of the world.’ … St. Maximus first briefly summarizes the true teaching about the Person of Christ, and then proceeds: ‘This is the blessed end, on account of which everything was created. This is the Divine purpose, which was thought of before the beginning of Creation, and which we call an intended fulfillment. All creation exists on account of this fulfillment and yet the fulfillment itself exists because of nothing that was created. Since God had this end in full view, he produced the natures of things. This is truly the fulfillment of Providence and of planning. Through this there is a recapitulation to God of those created by Him. … The Messenger, who is in essence Himself the Word of God, became man on account of this fulfillment. And it may be said that it was He Himself Who restored the manifest innermost depths of the goodness handed down by the Father; and He revealed the fulfillment in Himself, by which creation has won the beginning of true existence. For on account of Christ, that is to say the mystery concerning Christ, all time and that which is in time have found the beginning and the end of their existence in Christ. For before time there was secretly purposed a union of the ages, of the determined and the Indeterminate, of the measurable and the Immeasurable, of the finite and Infinity, of the creation and the Creator, of motion and rest — a union which was made manifest in Christ during these last times.”
–– (M., P.G., XC, 621, A-B.)
I have cited all these writings to throw light on an evident tension in the debate, namely, how strongly or weakly eminent theologians rely on the explicit teaching of Scripture to address a question like this. The application this debate has for the sola Scriptura debate is this: if a Protestant, for example, argues from Scripture that the redemptive theory is the truth, since, as St. Thomas says, “in Sacred Scripture the reason for the Incarnation is everywhere given as the sin of the first man.” The Protestant thereby implies that the absolutist theory is a mere conjecture, based, at best, on the Church’s doctrinal tradition and doctors. This of course indicates that the only certain and authoritative grounds for Christian DOCTRINE are the express contents of Scripture.
In that case, however, he begins to stumble. For by calling the express teaching of Scripture the only sure basis of doctrine, he compromises the idea that the established contents (canon) of Scripture are Christian DOCTRINE, since, after all, the canon is not expressly taught in Scripture. Without a rigorous Scriptural argument to support the canon of Scripture, it is, for the sola Scripturist, a theologoumenon just like, arguendo, the absolutist theory of the Incarnation. If, however, the canon is established and accepted based on traditional, extra-scriptural sources of doctrinal authority, then the canon becomes just as defensible or indefensible as the absolutist theory of the Incarnation. Round and round we go.
This analysis is not novel with me. It is an intrinsically retorsive (love that word) defect in the sola Scriptura position. Nonetheless, I thought it would be a bit novel to throw a different angle of light on the problem vis-à-vis a very profound doctrinal matter, to wit, the motive for the Incarnation.
It is also patent that the themes of the divine nature, predestination, and creation voiced in the above quotations might spark fruitful dialogue on those hallowed, hoary old topics.
Heck, if nothing else, perhaps this post can spiral into a round of pedantic, hair-splitting, pulpit-pounding backbiting.😉
* Florovsky adds: “Hans Urs von Balthasar, Liturgie Cosmique: Maxime le Confesseur (Paris, Aubier, 1947), pp. 204-205 … quotes Qu. ad Talass. 60 and adds that St. Maximus would have taken the Scotist side in the scholastic controversy, yet with an important qualification: ‘Maxime de reste est totalement etranger au postulat de ce debat scholastique qui imagine la possibilite d’un autre ordre du monde sans pecho et totalement irreel. Pour lui la ‘volonte preexistante’ de Dieu est identique au monde des ‘idees’ et des ‘possibles’: l’ordre des essences et l’ordre des faits coincident en ce point supreme’ (in the German edition, Kosmische Liturgie, S. 267-268).