Cur Deus Homo? The Motive of the Incarnation

Feast of St Euplus the Holy Martyr & Archdeacon of Cantania

Christ_2.jpegI AM THE Alpha and the Omega” (Rev. 1:8). The Christian message was from the very beginning the message of Salvation, and accordingly our Lord was depicted primarily as the Savior, Who has redeemed His people from bondage of sin and corruption. The very fact of the Incarnation was usually interpreted in early Christian theology in the perspective of Redemption. Erroneous conceptions of the Person of Christ with which the early Church had to wrestle were criticized and refuted precisely when they tended to undermine the reality of human Redemption. It was generally assumed that the very meaning of Salvation was that the intimate union between God and man had been restored, and it was inferred that the Redeemed had to belong Himself to both sides, i.e., to be at once both Divine and human, for otherwise the broken communion between God and man would not have been re-established. This was the main line of reasoning of St. Athanasius in his struggle with the Arians, of St. Gregory of Nazianzus in his refutation of Apollinarianism, and of other writers of the 4th and 5th centuries. “That is saved which is united with God,” says St. Gregory of Nazianzus (Epistle 101, ad Cledonium). The redeeming aspect and impact of the Incarnation were emphatically stressed by the Fathers. The purpose and the effect of the Incarnation were defined precisely as the Redemption of man and his restoration to those original conditions which were destroyed by the fall and sin. The sin of the world was abrogated and taken away by the Incarnate One, and He only, being both Divine and human, could have done it. On the other hand, it would be unfair to claim that the Fathers regarded this redeeming purpose as the only reason for the Incarnation, so that the Incarnation would not have taken place at all, had not man sinned. In this form the question was never asked by the Fathers. The question about the ultimate motive of the Incarnation was never formally discussed in the Patristic Age. The problem of the relation between the mystery of the Incarnation and the original purpose of Creation was not touched upon by the Fathers; they never elaborated this point systematically. “It may perhaps be truly said that the thought of an Incarnation independent of the Fall harmonize with the general tenor of Greek theology. Some patristic phrases seem to imply that the thought was distinctly realized here and there, and perhaps discussed” (Bp. B. F. Westcott, “The Gospel of Creation” in The Epistles of St. John, The Greek Text with Notes and Essays, p. 288). These “patristic phrases” were not collected and examined. In fact, the same Fathers could be quoted in favor of opposite opinions. It is not enough to accumulate quotations, taking them out of their context and ignoring the purpose, very often polemical, for which particular writings were composed. Many of these “patristic phrases” were just “occasional” statements, and they can be used only with utter care and caution. Their proper meaning can be ascertained only when they are read in the context, i.e., in the perspective of the thought of each particular writer.


Rupert of Deutz (d. 1135) seems to be the first among the medieval theologians who formally raised the question of the motive of the Incarnation, and his contention was that the Incarnation belonged to the original design of Creation and was therefore independent of the Fall. Incarnation was, in his interpretation, the consummation of the original creative purpose of God, an aim in itself, and not merely a redemptive remedy for human failure (cf. De Gloria et honore Filii hominis super Matthaeum, Book 13 in Migne, P.L., 148, col. 1628). Honorius of Autun (d. 1152) was of the same conviction (Libellus octo quaestionum de angelis et homine, Ch. 2 in Migne, P.L., 172, col. 72). The great doctors of the 13th century, such as Alexander of Hales and Albert Magnus, admitted the idea of an Incarnation independent of the Fall as a most convenient solution to the problem (cf. Alexander of Hales, Summa Theologica, dist. 3, qu. 3, m. 3; and Albert the Great, In 3, 1 and Sententiarum, dist. 20, art. 4). Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308) elaborated the whole conception with great care and logical consistency. For him the Incarnation apart from the Fall was not merely a most convenient assumption, but rather an indispensible doctrinal presupposition. 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.” The whole question for Duns Scotus was precisely that of the order of Divine “predestination” or purpose, i.e., of the order of thoughts in the Divine counsel of Creation. Christ, the Incarnate, was the first object of the creative will of God, and it was for Christ’s sake that anything else had been created at all. “The Incarnation of Christ was not foreseen occasionally, but was viewed as an immediate end by God from eternity; thus, in speaking about things which are predestined, Christ in human nature was predestined before others, since He is nearer to an end.” This order of “purposes” or “previsions” was, of course, just a logical one. The main emphasis of Duns Scotus was on the unconditional and primordial character of the Divine decree of the Incarnation, seen in the total perspective of Creation (Duns Scotus, Opus Oxoniense, 3, dist. 19; see also Reportata Parisiensia, lib. 3, dist. 7, qu. 4, schol. 2). Aquinas (1224-1274) also discussed the problem at considerable length. He 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, 13.17). 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.” The unfathomable mystery of the Divine will can be comprehended by man only in so far as it is plainly attested in Holy Scripture, “only to the extent that [these things] are transmitted in Sacred Scripture,” or, as Aquinas says in another place, “only in so far as we are informed by the authority of the saints, through whom God has revealed His will.” Christ alone knows the right answer to this question: “The truth of the matter only He can know, Who was born and Who was offered up, because He so willed” (Summa Theologica, 3, qu. 1, art. 3; and In Sententiarum, 3, dist. 1, qu. 1, art. 3). Bonaventure (1221-1274) suggested the same caution. 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 argument of human logic (Bonaventure, In Sententiarum, 3, dist. 1, qu. 2). On the whole, Duns Scotus was followed by the majority of theologians of the Franciscan order, and also by not a few outside it, as, for instance, by Dionysius Carthusianus, by Gabriel Biel, by John Wessel, and, in the time of the Council of Trent, by Giacomo Nachianti, Bishop of Chiozza (Jacobus Naclantus), and also by some of the early Reformers, for instance by Andreas Osiander. This opinion was strongly opposed by others, and not only by the strict Thomists, and the whole problem was much discussed both by Roman Catholic and by Protestant theologians in the 17th century. Among the Roman Catholic champions of the absolute decree of the Incarnation one should mention especially François de Sales and Malebranche. Malebranche strongly insisted on the metaphysical necessity of the Incarnation, quite apart from the Fall, for otherwise, he contended, there would have been no adequate reason or purpose for the act of Creation itself (François de Sales, Traité de l’amour de Dieu, book 2, ch. 4 and 5; Malebranche, Entretiens sur la Métaphysique et sur la Religion, Interviews 9, 6). The controversy is still going on among Roman Catholic theologians, sometimes with excessive heat and vigor, and the question is not settled. Among the Anglicans, in the last century, Bishop Wescott strongly pleaded for the “absolute motive”, in his admirable essay on “The Gospel of Creation.” The late Father Sergii Bulgakov was strongly in favor of the opinion that the Incarnation should be regarded as an absolute decree of God, prior to the catastrophe of the Fall (cf. The Lamb of God).

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In the course of this age-long discussion a constant appeal has been made to the testimony of the Fathers. Strangely enough, the most important item has been overlooked in this anthology of quotations. Since the question of the motive of the Incarnation was never formally raised in the Patristic age, most of the texts used in the later discussions could not provide any direct guidance. St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662) seems to be the only Father who was directly concerned with the problem, although not in the same setting as the later theologians in the West. He stated plainly that the Incarnation should be regarded as an absolute and primary purpose of God in the act of Creation. The nature of the Incarnation, of this union of the Divine majesty with human frailty, is indeed an unfathomable mystery, but we can at least grasp the reason and the purpose of this supreme mystery, its logos and skopos. And this original reason, or the ultimate purpose, was, in the opinion of St. Maximus, precisely the Incarnation itself and then our own incorporation into the Body of the Incarnate One. The phrasing of St. Maximus is straight and clear. The 60th Questio ad Thalassium is a commentary on 1 Peter 1:19-20: “[Christ was] like a blameless and spotless lamb, who was foreordained from the foundation of the world.” Now the question is: 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 nature of things. This is truly the fulfillment of Providence and planning. Through this there is a recapitulation to God of those created by Him. This is the mystery circumscribing all ages, the awesome plan of God, super-infinite and infinitely pre-existing the ages. 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.

One has to distinguish most carefully between the eternal being of the Logos, in the bosom of the Trinity, and the “economy” of His Incarnation. “Prevision” is related precisely to the Incarnation: “Therefore Christ was foreknown, not as He was according to His own nature, but as He later appeared incarnate for our sake in accordance with the final economy.” The “absolute predestination” of Christ is alluded to with full clarity. This conviction was in full agreement with the general tenor of the theological system of St. Maximus, and he returns to the problem on many occasions, both in his answers to Thalassius and in his Amgigua. For instance, in connection with Ephesians 1:9, St. Maximus says: “[By this Incarnation and by our age] He has shown us for what purpose we were made and the greatest good will be of God towards us before the ages.” By His very constitution man anticipates in Himself “the great mystery of the Divine purpose,” the ultimate consummation of all things in God. The whole history of Divine Providence is for St. Maximus divided into two great periods: the first culminates in the Incarnation of the Logos and is the story of Divine condescension (“through the Incarnation”); the second is the story of human ascension into the glory of deification, an extension, as it were, of the Incarnation to the whole creation.

Therefore we may divide time into two parts according to its design, and we may distinguish both the ages pertaining to the mystery of the Incarnation of the Divine, and the ages concerning the deification of the human by grace. . . and to say it concisely: both those ages which concern the descent of God to men, and those which have begun the ascent of men to God. . . Or, to say it even better, the beginning, the middle, and the end of all the ages, those which have gone by, those of the present time, and those which are yet to come, is our Lord Jesus Christ.

The ultimate consummation is linked in the vision of St. Maximus with the primordial creative will and purpose of God, and therefore his whole conception is strictly “theocentric”, and at the same time “Christocentric”. In no sense, however, does this obscure the sad reality of sin, of the utter misery of sinful existence. The great stress is always laid by St. Maximus on the conversion and cleansing of the human will, on the struggle with passions and with evil. But he views the tragedy of the Fall and the apostasy of the created in the wider perspective of the original plan of Creation.


What is the actual weight of the witness of St. Maximus? Was it more than his “private opinion”, and what is the authority of such “opinions”? It is perfectly clear that to the question of the first or ultimate “motive” of the Incarnation no more than a “hypothetical” (or “convenient”) answer can be given. But many doctrinal statements are precisely such hypothetical statements or “theologoumena”. And it seems that the “hypothesis” of an Incarnation apart from the Fall is at least permissible in the system of Orthodox theology and fits well enough into the mainstream of Patristic teaching. An adequate answer to the question of the “motive” of the Incarnation can be given only in the context of the general doctrine of Creation.

Fr. Georges Florovsky (1893-1979) was an Orthodox Christian priest who was heavily involved in the ecumenical movement and advocated a return to the early Christian Fathers as a way for divided Christendom to recover a common Christian mind.


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