St. Thomas Aquinas on Sin and the Goodness of the Incarnation – Fr. Brian Davies O.P.

February 17, 2011

Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei, 1640

ACCORDING TO I TIMOTHY 1:15: `Christ Jesus came into the world in order to save sinners.’ And Aquinas, of course, accepts this. `The work of the Incarnation’, he says, `was directed chiefly to the restoration of the human race through the removal of sin.’ [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 5] According to him, God became incarnate so that sinners might be brought back to God. But how can the Incarnation lead to this effect? How can the fact that Christ was God do anything to bring us anything we might think of as salvation?

The General Picture
To begin with, we can start with what he says of the passage in Isaiah in which we read: `For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulder.’[Isaiah 9:16] Aquinas’s Latin Bible (the Vulgate) translates `to us. . . is given’ as datus est nobis, and `upon his shoulder’ as super humerum eius. Treating what `is given’ to us as Christ (the standard Christian reading, of course), he subsequently comments:

Noting the phrase datus est nobis, it can be said that Christ is given to us first as a brother [Song of Songs 8: 1];second as a teacher [Joel 2: 23] … third, as a watchman [Ezeiel. 3]; … fourth, as a defender [Isaiah 19: 20]; … fifth, as a shepherd [Ezekiel 34: 23]; … sixth, as an example for our activities [John 13:15]; … seventh, as food for wayfarers [John 6: 52]; … eighth, as a price of redemption [Matthew 20: 28]; … ninth, as a price of remuneration [Revelations 2:17]. Similarly it should be observed concerning the words super humerum eius that God placed upon the shoulders of Christ first sins, as upon one who satisfies [Isaiah:53:6]; … second a key, as upon a priest [Isaiah 22:2]; … third, principality, as upon a conqueror [Isaiah 9: 6]; … fourth, glory, as upon out who triumphs [Isaiah 22: 24]. [Super Isaiam, 9. I. I.]

The quotation here may seem to lack excitement, for there are no rhetorical flourishes, and the whole thing reads like a list. But the list is important, and its existence serves to tell one a lot about Aquinas’s approach to the life and work of Christ. In just a few lines, he is maintaining that Christ is our brother, watchman, teacher, defender, shepherd, example, food, and means of redemption. He is also telling us that Christ satisfies for sin, that he is our priest, and that he is our ruler and champion.

At the outset, then, we may note a significant fact about the way in which Aquinas conceives of Christ and the achievement of the Incarnation. This is that, unlike some Christian writers, he does not think that we rightly express the truth about Christ by focusing on only one concept or image. `Characteristically, he finds a place for all sorts of insights where others have been hypnotized by one model or another.’ [Herbert McCabe, OP, God Matters (London, 1987), p99] He has a whole range of ways for drawing out the purpose of the Incarnation. He thinks of the life and work of Christ as being significant for various reasons and as having a number of effects.

Just to say this, however, will do little to explain how Aquinas actually does view the life and work of Christ as being for us. To take matters further, therefore, we can turn to what he says about the fittingness of the Incarnation. His treatment of this topic leads him to make several points characteristic of him and is as good a point of entry into the details of his thinking on the life and work of Christ as any other which may be suggested.

Sin and the Incarnation
Presiding over the discussion is the quotation from I Timothy cited above: `Christ Jesus came into the world in order to save sinners.’ In the twelfth century, Rupert of Deutz (c.1075 — 1129/30) held that God would have become incarnate even if people had not sinned.[ He does so in his treatise De gloria et honore Fiji hominis. Rupert of Deutz was the first theologian clearly to articulate the question `Would the Incarnation have occurred if people had not sinned?']

The same view was taught by Grosseteste, and by later Franciscan thinkers including John Duns Scotus (c.1265— 1308).[ Grosseteste's position can be found in his treatise De cessatione legalium, in a sermon, Exiit edictum, and in parts of the Haexemeron. For Scotus's position see Reportata Parisiensia, book 3, d. 7, q. 4. For an account of other medieval authors considering the reasons for the Incarnation, see Peter Raedts, Richard Rufus of Cornwall and the Tradition of Oxford Theology (Oxford, 1987), ch. 9.]

But it is not Aquinas’s view. Or, at any rate, it is not his final view. In the Commentary on the Sentences he concedes that the Incarnation might have taken place even if people had never sinned.[Scriptum super libros Sententiarum 3. 1. 1] And, even in later works, he has no difficulty in entertaining the notion of an incarnation in a world without sin. `Even had sin not existed’, he writes, `God could have become incarnate. [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 3]

He also declares that `the actual union of natures in the person of Christ falls under the eternal predestination of God’. [Summa theologiae 3a, 24. 5] So he does not take the Incarnation to be a kind of afterthought on God’s part. For him, God is one who eternally and changelessly wills to become incarnate. But, true to his theistic agnosticism, Aquinas’s mature verdict in the Summa theologiae is that we do not have sufficient knowledge of God’s will to be confident in holding that reason can assert that the Incarnation was inevitable. His view is that we must rely on revelation to tell us why God became incarnate. And he thinks that revelation tells us that the reason lies in sin. `Everywhere in sacred Scripture’, he observes, `the sin of the first man is given as the reason for the Incarnation. [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 3]

Does this mean that our union with God cannot be brought about without the Incarnation? Before the time of Aquinas, the most important and influential treatment of this question was St Anselm’s Cur Deus homo?, where the conclusion reached was that the human race can only be united to God by virtue of one who is both divine and human. In Anselm’s view, human beings were created for happiness with God lying beyond this life, but there is an obstacle to them receiving this happiness. All people have sinned, and a state of cannot be rectified simply by God forgiving them.’ Anselm defines sin as `nothing else than not to render God his due’, and, on this basis, he argues that recompense or compensation must he paid in order for God’s purpose in creating people to be fulfilled.

He also argues that what is paid must be greater than everything other than God, and that the person to pay it must be greater than everything other than God, from which, he thinks, it follows that only God can pay it. At the same time, however, it is people who ought to make the payment, for it is they who have sinned. Thus, says Anselm, it is necessary for one who is both God and human (deus Homo) to pay what is owed, and, in this sense, the Incarnation was required for people to reach their final goal.[Cur Deus homo? I.11]

There is a great deal in common between this account and that of Aquinas. But Aquinas denies that the Incarnation was necessary for the restoration of humanity, if `necessary’ means that people could not have been restored without it. We can, he says, speak of something as necessary for an end to be achieved `when the goal is simply unattainable without it, e.g. food for sustaining human life’. With this sense of necessity in mind, he adds, `the Incarnation was not necessary for the restoration of human nature, since by his infinite power God had many other ways to accomplish this end’.  Here Aquinas invokes Augustine. `Let us point out that other ways were not wanting to God, whose power rules everything without exception.’ [Summa theologiae 3a, 46. 2]

Yet Augustine goes on to say that, assuming the Incarnation to be given, `there was no other course more fitting for healing our wretchedness’. [Summa theologiae 3a, 46. 2]  And Aquinas agrees with this too. We may also call a thing necessary, he says, `when it is required for a better and more expeditious attainment of the goal, e.g. a horse for a journey’. [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 2] In this sense, he argues, the Incarnation `was needed for the restoration of human nature’. It was, he thinks, a specially fitting way of restoring humanity.

Why? One answer he gives is that the Incarnation shows us God’s goodness. We have already seen that Aquinas denies that the goodness of God entails that God must go out of himself and create. But he does think that goodness in things is caused by God and that it reveals (or `communicates’) something of what God is. He therefore reasons that the Incarnation may be taken as revealing God’s goodness in a special way. It is, he observes, `appropriate for the highest good to communicate itself to the creature in the highest way possible’. [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 1] Given that Christ is God, he adds, we may look to him especially as an outpouring and reflection of God’s goodness. Nothing in creation can reveal God more than God incarnate.

Another point made by Aquinas is that the Incarnation gives us proper warrant for believing the content of faith. For faith is a matter of believing God, and, by virtue of the Incarnation, God has spoken to us in person. Here again Aquinas draws on Augustine. `In order that people might journey more trustfully toward the truth’, he writes, `the Truth itself, the son of God, having assumed human nature, established and founded faith. [The City of God, I 1. 2] He also suggests that, because of the Incarnation, we have the best possible guide for our behavior together with grounds for hope and charity. For, in the person of Christ, God himself serves as an example to us and shows us how much he loves us.

But Aquinas has more to say than this about how the Incarnation is a specially fitting way of restoring humanity. For he also holds that it was a proper, and indeed necessary, means for delivering people from sin and estrangement from God because it was a matter of `satisfaction’ (satisfaction). The goal of the Incarnation, he explains, is `our furtherance in good’. And it occurred `in order to free us from the thraldom of sin … by Christ satisfying for us’. [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 2]. More on this in another post…

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