The Centrality of Christ In the Plan of Creation

Stephen Boyle FAITH Magazine November-December 2004

A Long Standing Question

Would Jesus have come if there had been no sin? This question has taxed the minds of the greatest theologians of the Church. Two renowned theologians immediately come to mind in such a debate: the Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas and the Franciscan Blessed. Duns Scotus. The Thomistic position is that Jesus came due to sin, in contrast, the opinion that the Incarnation was in the plan of God from the beginning of creation, is the Scotist position. It is the intention of this article to examine the reasons why these two theologians held their opposing views, and also to indicate the Holy Father’s position in this matter, in specific relation to the Mass.

"For the Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.(Lk. 19:10)” It is this quote which St. Thomas uses to sum up his position. He sees no reason to believe that Jesus Christ would have come without the advent of sin, as in his opinion e the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason for the Incarnation everywhere in the Sacred Scripture. Therefore, for St. Thomas the work of the Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin. Had sin not existed, the Incarnation would not have happened.

St. Thomas is open to the idea that the Incarnation could have happened without sin, indicating that there is a logic to such a view, and admitting that it is possible in theory However he finds no evidence for it in the scriptures and the writings of the Fathers. St. Thomas could concieve that without sin man could have a totally natural fulfilment, as opposed to one in union with God. He recognised that the redemption won by Christ’s death was greater than the original state of innocence, for it brought humanity to an intimacy with God that they had not know in Eden. In the person of Christ, humanity was brought into union with God. “For God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom; hence it is written (Rm. 5:20): ‘Where sin abounded, grace did more abound.’Hence, too, in the blessing of the Paschal candle, we say: ‘O happy fault, that merited such and so great a Redeemer.’”[1]

The Greatest Work of God

It seems fair to summarise St Thomas’ view by saying that he relied on the direct testimony of two scources, the Scriptures and the Church Fathers, rather than on the arguments of human logic, and since he found no evidence for the Scotist position in either source, he did not entertain it. In the end, for St. Thomas, 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.”[2]

For Scotus, the Incarnation of the Son of God is not to be seen as a contingency plan when the original creative process of God goes awry because of sin: It was the very reason for creation. In his view it surely demeans the great work of God in making us his sons and daughters to see the incarnation as just 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.”[3]

The Greatest Good in the Universe

Duns Scotus saw it as inconceivable that the Incarnation, the ‘greatest good in the universe’, could be determined by some lesser good, i.e.Man’s redemption. In the Divine plan of creation, it was the Incarnation that came first, and it was only fro the sake of this that there was creation at all. Christ is at the centre of the universe as the very reason for its existence. The emphasis on the coming of Christ is not as an assuager of the universe’s guilt, but as the supreme manifestation of his love for creation. Due to this Scotist position, Franciscans would credit their theology of the Incarnation as being based on love rather than sin.

The view that God created out of love is key to Scotus’ understanding of creation. Creation is called to love, as it is infused with the love of God, and it is fitting that the highest object of creation’s love should be God himself, for nothing within creation could be a more fitting object of love than the God who lovingly created. So God created in such a way that it should love, and above all love Him. Now for creation to be able to love to the highest extent, there must be at least one creature capable of the highest love. That creature is Christ, for only a human nature united to the divine nature in one person could love to the highest extent, the extent to which God loves. Since the whole of creation is made for Christ, then for Incarnation to come about there had to be withincreation a nature capable of understanding and freely responding to God’s love. Humanity is free to love and has the capacity to understand God, precisely because such a nature is desired by God to be united in Christ to the divine nature of the Son.

Christ Reveals Man to Himself

Thus in a wonderful unity we see the centrality of Christ in creation, and also that the dignity of Man is bound up in the Incarnation. As the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes puts it: Christ “fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”.(n.22)

It would seem reasonable to suggest that if the Incarnation has a cosmological significance, then it must have been in the mind of God from the beginning. From this the view of St.Thomas that there is no scriptural basis to the Scotist position would seem to be incorrect. That Christ has a cosmic meaning and is head of creation is the doctrine of St. Paul in his letters to the Ephesians and Colossians, as we shall see later. As evidence for this cosmic aspect to the Incarnation, the Pope turns to St. John’s Gospel: “Creation itself acquires its full meaning since, as John recalls in the Prologue to his Gospel, ‘all things were made through him(Jn 1:3).’” (Dies Domine, 2)

The Witness of the Fathers

It is also incorrect to say that the early Fathers had nothing to say on the subject of the place of the Incarnation in the plan of God for creation. St Methodius of Olympus (martyred 311) and Ephraem of Syria (Died 345) indicate Scotist positions in their writings.St. Irenaeus had a clear undertanding that the world was made for the Church. He also understood that man was not perfect from the beginning , and that Christ came to perfect man. Man is made to the image and likeness of God but the perfect likeness is given by Christ through the incarnation. Irenaeus did not consider this perfection to be brought about by a “happy fault” but to be part of God’s plan from the beginning:

“For there is the one Son, who accomplished His Father's will; and one human race also in which the mysteries of God are wrought, "which the angels desire to look into;" and they are not able to search out the wisdom of God, by means of Which His handiwork, confirmed and incorporated with His Son, is brought to perfection; that His offspring, the First-begotten Word, should descend to the creature (facturam), that is, to what had been moulded (plasma), and that it should be contained by Him; and, on the other hand, the creature should contain the Word, and ascend to Him, passing beyond the angels, and be made after the image and likeness of God.”[4]
It is true to say that the reason for the Incarnation was never formally raised in the Patristic age. St. Maximus the Confessor (580- 662) seems to be the only one of the Fathers who was directly concerned with the issue, and he gives a powerful pointer to the Scotist position. In the following quote, commenting on the first letter of St Peter, one of the things St. Maximus states plainly is that the Incarnation should be regarded

“as an absolute and primary purpose of God in the act of Creation”:.. “[Christ was] like a blameless and spotless lamb, who was foreordained from the foundation of the world.....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 fulfilment. All creation exists on account of this fulfilment and yet the fulfilment 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 fulfilment of Providence and of 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 fulfilment. 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 fulfilment 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.”[5]

Pope John Paul II's Development of Doctrine

he Centrality of Christ in the plan of Creation One of Cardinal Newman’s “tests” of a true development of doctrine was early anticipation. As I have indicated in a far from exhaustive study, there is clear evidence that the “Scotist” understanding of the incarnation is part of the thinking of some of the fathers of the Church.

Two quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church indicate how the debate has not been formally resolved. We have first of all:
The work of creation culminates in the greater work of redemption. The first creation finds its meaning and summit in Christ, the splendour of which surpasses that of the first creation”.(CCC.349) .
Later on however we find:

"The design to embrace his Father's plan of redeeming love inspired Jesus' whole like, for his redemptive passion was the very reason for His Incarnation" (CCC 607)
We can now examine the Holy Father’s position on this issue. We will consider just a few of his references which refer to Christ from a cosmological viewpoint, concentrating on his teachings on the Mass with reference to its cosmological significance, We will hopefully demonstrate that the Pope holds the Scotist position.

The first words of the Pope’s first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, immediately refer to the cosmological significance of Christ: “The Redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the centre of the universe and of history” (n.1). Fifteen years later, in the apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente written in preparation for the Jubilee year of 2000, the centrality of the Incarnation in the plan of God and creation is made abundantly clear “Christ is the one who reveals God’s plan for all creation and man in particular.....Christ, true God and true Man, the Lord of the Cosmos, is also the Lord of History, ...... In him the Father has spoken the definitive word about mankind and its history.” (n.4,5)

The Cosmic Meaning of the Incarnation

The Holy Father’s cosmological approach to the Incarnation is summed up in a quote from the encyclical Dominum et Vivificantem:

“The Incarnation of God the Son signifies the taking up into unity with God not only of human nature, but in this human nature , in a sense, of everything that is ‘flesh’: the whole of humanity, the entire visible and material world. The incarnation, then, also has a cosmic significance, a cosmic dimension. The ‘first born of all creation’, becoming incarnate in the individual humanity of Christ, unites himself in some way with the entire reality of man, which is also ‘flesh’ - and in this reality with all ‘flesh’, with the whole of creation.”(n.50).
There are many other occasions when the Pope makes clear his vision of the cosmological dimension to the Incarnation, and it would follow that once Christ is seen as the fulfilment of all of creation, then one must envisage the Incarnation as part of the plan of God from the beginning, and not dependant on the sin of Adam.

The 'Eucharistic Potential' of Creation

But it is when we have the Pope speaking on the Mass that we see his thoughts on the cosmological significance of the Incarnation most clearly. At the general Audience on the 27th of September, 2000, he speaks of the world destined to be assumed in the Eucharist of the Lord:
“As St Paul recalls, we must also glorify God in our bodies, that is, in our whole existence, because our bodies are temples of the Spirit who is within us (cf. 1 Cor 6:19, 20). In this light one can also speak of a cosmic celebration of divine glory. The world created, “so often disfigured by selfishness and greed”, has in itself a “Eucharistic potential”: it is “destined to be assumed in the Eucharist of the Lord, in his Passover, present in the sacrifice of the altar” (Orientale lumen, n.11). ”
On the 2nd May 2001 at the Wednesday audience the Pope, commenting on the canticle of Daniel refers to Christ as “the culmination of God’s plan for the cosmos and for history” :
“’Bless the Lord, all works of the Lord’ (Dn 3:57). A cosmic dimension imbues this Canticle taken from the Book of Daniel, which the Liturgy of the Hours proposes for Sunday Lauds in the first and third weeks. This marvellous litany-like prayer is well-suited to the Dies Domini, the Day of the Lord, that lets us contemplate in the risen Christ the culmination of God’s plan for the cosmos and for history. Indeed, in him, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of history (cf. Rev 22:13), creation itself acquires its full meaning since, as John recalls in the Prologue to his Gospel, “all things were made through him” (Jn 1:3).”
Cosmological Dimension of the Eucharist

In the Angelus address on 17th June of the same year he refers to the cosmic relevance of the Eucharist: “It is a feast in which we rejoice over the extraordinary gift of the Bread of life which,as Christ promised, guarantees eternal life - the Bread that is really his flesh, his humanity, through which God sanctifies hearts, people, communities, nations and the whole cosmos.”

His thoughts can be summed up with a quote from the encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia:

“This varied scenario of celebrations of the Eucharist has given me a powerful experience of its universal and, so to speak cosmic character. Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world. It unites heaven and earth. It embraces and permeates all creation.” ( n.8).
But it is in the Apostolic Letter, Dies Domini, that we see the full sweep of the Pope’s theology on the cosmological nature of the Mass. At the beginning of the letter he indicates that the Sunday Mass is the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ, a unique event “which lies at the very heart of the mystery of time,” and is “the true fulcrum of history to which the mystery of the world’s origin and its final destiny leads”.(n.2) It is the festival of the “new creation”. But it is the Pope’s wish to go further back in time, and to consider the Mass in relation to the first days of creation. To understand the full meaning of Sunday he turns to the beginning of creation and the rest on the seventh day. “In order to grasp fully the meaning of Sunday, therefore, we must re-read the greatstory of creation and deepen our understanding of the theology of the “Sabbath”.”(n.8)

A Plan from theDawn of Creation

One cannot get much clearer evidence of the Christocentric perspective of the Holy Father which embraces all of time and history than when he says:“Already at the dawn of creation, therefore, the plan of God implied Christ’s ‘cosmic mission’.” (n.8). The Pope sees the sweep of the Incarnation embracing all time past, present and future. He quotes from the prayer at the Easter Vigil, when the priest addresses the Easter Candle and refers to Christ as “‘the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega’...... These words clearly attest that “Christ is the Lord of time; he is its beginning and its end:every year, every day and every moment are embraced by his Incarnation and Resurrection, and this become past of the ‘Fullness of time,’”(n 74)and again, he notes thaat when the priest saysthe doxology at the end of every Eucharistic prayer, “the Christian community thus comes to a renewed awareness of the fact that all things were created through Christ” (n.42).

It is clear therefore that through Scripture and all that we know about the Incarnation, far from the full plan of God in Christ being hidden, we can concur with the Pope when he indicates that the mind of God for creation has been fully shown to us in the Incarnation. “The active presence of the Son in the creative work of God is revealed fully in the Paschal which Christ established the new creation.” (Dies Domini n.8) Christ reveals the fullness of God’s plan for creation, with or without sin.

An Old Debate coming to a Head

The Thomist/Scotist debate has serious consequences for theology. It fundamentally affects how we understand the Incarnation, and whether we see it as just a result of sin, or as the fulfilment of a plan from the very beginnings of creation. And it also has serious consequences for present day science if Christ is to be seen as the fundamental answer as to why the universe is here at all.

It is understandable that many of us are accustomed to consider the works of Saint Thomas and Thomism, as the predominant and favourable points of orientation to the Church. This article clearly indicates a view that is contrary to that held by St. Thomas. However there exists the possibility of a number of orthodox ways of expressing the mysteries of our faith, and the Pope himself refers to Bl Duns Scotus as a “pillar of Catholic Theology”.[6] Countless other great minds honoured by the Church, like St. Francis de Sales, held the same position as Scotus.

Exalting the Role of Mary

Recognising that the Incarnation is part of the original plan of God has immense consequences in our understanding of Mary. In November 1998 the Pope referred to Bl. Duns Scotus as the “poet of the Immaculate Conception,” in reference to his contribution of providing a theological explanation to that doctrine. It is apt that we end with a quote from the Holy Father concerning the undamental role Our Lady plays in the history of salvation. In his letter on the occasion for the 12th World Day of the sick in 2004, he informed us that due to Mary, the original plan of creation was restored, with the Immaculate Conception being the keystone of history.

“The Immaculate Conception introduces the harmonious interlacing between the ‘yes’ of God and the ‘yes’ that Mary pronounced without reserve when the angel brought the heavenly announcement (cf. Lk 1:38). Her ‘yes’ in the name of humanity re-opened the doors of Heaven to the world, thanks to the Incarnation of the Word of God in her womb by the work of the Holy Spirit (cf. Lk 1:35). In this way, the original project of creation was restored and strengthened in Christ; the virgin Mother also shares in this project.
The keystone of history lies here: with the Immaculate Conception of Mary began the great work of Redemption that was brought to fulfilment in the precious blood of Christ. In him, every person is called to achieve the perfection of holiness (cf. Col 1:28).”

[1] Summa theol., 3a, qu. 1, art. 3 Reply to objection 3. Quote taken from
[2] St Thomas Aquinas, 3 Sentent., dist. 1, qu. 1, art. 3. Quote taken from Chapter VI, “Dimensions of Redemption,” of the Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. III: Creation and Redemption (Nordland Publishing Company: Belmont, Mass., 1976),
[3] Blessed Duns Scotus, Opus Oxoniense, 3, dist. 19, ed. Wadding, t. 7, p. 415. Quote taken from Chapter VI, “Dimensions of Redemption,” of the Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. III: Creation and Redemption, pp. 165.
[4] Adversus Haereses 5.36.3, to be found at
[5] 60th questio ad Thalassium. Quote taken from Chapter VI, “Dimensions of Redemption,” of the Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. III: Creation and Redemption, pp. 169.
[6] L’Osservatore Romano, 13th March, 2002, p.6.

Faith Magazine