The Primacy of Christ and the Cross: Some Considerations from Ambrose of Milan

John Gavin SJ FAITH Magazine September-October 2010

John Gavin SJ, a faculty member of the Pontifical Biblical Institute and the Pontifical Oriental Institute, brings out the need to harmonise our vision Christ as the ahistorical Lord of the cosmos and as the historically crucified one.

Today, when many speak of the primacy of Christ in creation, they are referring to the Scotist interpretation of the divine motive for the Incarnation: the Incarnation is the primary end of all creation.[1] Thus, if man had not fallen into sin, the Incarnation would have still taken place. This view is not lacking in Scriptural support: "For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him" {Col. 1:16). One can also consider the teachings of such Fathers of the Church as St. Irenaeus of Lyons or St. Maximus the Confessor, and such later thinkers as Henri de Lubac or Hans Urs von Balthasar. In fact, onemay argue that it is the predominant viewpoint in contemporary theology.

This perspective has much to commend it. First, it demonstrates that the Incarnation took place for man's deificatio, the union of man with the divine nature. The primary end of the Word's enfleshment is divine adoption and union: "God became man, in order that man might become God" (St. Athanasius). Second, some believe this understanding of primacy allows for a Christological framework conducive to the contemporary scientific conception of the universe. In a sense, Christ provides the grand unifying theory long sought by physicists, since creation unfolds within the Word's dynamic and personal assumption of human nature, "the microcosmos". All things exist in order to be united and transformed in Christ, and Christ serves as the key for understanding the end of theuniverse.

But this position is not without its dangers. The Scotist position, as one might call it, often leads to an a-historicism that reduces the person of Jesus Christ to alpha and omega points that enclose the divine economy. In fact, this perspective itself is a-historical and counterfactual, as evinced by the very hypothetical nature of the proposition: if man had not fallen, the Incarnation would have still taken place. While a hypothetical stance allows us to perceive important aspects of the divine plan (e.g., the deificatio of man), it unfortunately requires a certain abstraction from the Jesus of history, from our own reality as sinful creatures, and from the salvation won for us upon the Cross.[2] One canget a glimpse of how far this can go in some of the more extreme interpretations of Maximus the Confessor, in which it is suggested that, without the fall, the Incarnation would not have taken place in the person of Jesus, but in a "universal" incarnation in human nature through man's free co-operation with divine grace. The Incarnation, in such an interpretation, becomes purely "final" at the expense of the person of Jesus.

The primacy of Christ in creation requires a stronger historical grounding than this hypothetical perspective alone will allow. Perhaps St. Ambrose offers another manner of understanding this point. In his De Paradiso, the bishop of Milan describes Adam and Eve as living in "the shadow of life", that is, poised for a deeper union with God, as opposed to the "shadow of death", that is, our own lives within sin and suffering. He then asks an important question: "Did God know that Adam would violate His commands? Or was He unaware of it? If He did not know, we are faced with a limitation of His divine power. If He knew, yet gave a command which He was aware would be ignored, it is not God's providence to give an unnecessary order."[4]Moreover, one must ask why God would follow through in creating a creature that would become an abomination to him. Some would say that "a God who is good is bound to prevent the birth of him who shall have to introduce the substance of sin".[5]

Yet, God does will this creation, with all its selfishness and all of its tragedy, because "the Lord Jesus came to save all sinners".[6] The primacy of Christ in creation emerges not simply from his being the beginning and end of the cosmos, but also from his being the saviour and justification of this cosmos of intellectual creatures free to give themselves to the creator. Jesus of Nazareth, the Word incarnate, who was born, grew in strength and wisdom, preached and performed mighty signs, freely gave his life on the cross, was raised and is now seated at the right hand of the Father - this Jesus justified creation in himself, since God created this cosmos "with the means of obtaining remedy for our sins".[7] God made this world despite Adam's disobedience because the Word became flesh and gave his life in obedience to the Father, thereby subjecting all creation to the Father (1 Cor. 15:28). In this created order redeemed by Christ, even suffering becomes a pedagogue that awakens man to his true nature and calls him to respond to God's mercy. One must say, therefore, that God made this universe on the basis of the free and loving sacrifice of Jesus, not solely on the basis of a vision of the "cosmic Christ".

The Church, in her wisdom, favours neither the perspective of Scotus, Maximus and others ("If man had not sinned...) nor the perspective of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and many Fathers of the Church ("The Son became incarnate in order to save man from sin"). Each of these considerations of the mystery of Jesus Christ offers essential meditations upon the centrality of the Incarnation in the economy. Thus, a teaching regarding the primacy of Christ must not limit itself to a hypothetical stance that, despite its importance, runs the risk of reducing Christ to a final cause or to a unifying theory. It must balance such a view with the tradition that highlights the crucified and risen Lord of history, Jesus of Nazareth, who came that we might be saved ("O felix culpa!"). Jesus is not only theone "through whom and for whom" all things were made, but he is the one who has redeemed this cosmos in which we work out our salvation "in fear and trembling". ■

[1] cf. John Duns Scotus, Ord. 3.7.3.

[2] Thomas Aquinas acknowledges that it would be fully within God's power to become incarnate even if man had not sinned. But such a speculation goes beyond what is revealed in the scriptures and abstracts from the reality of our experience. The primary end of the incarnation is the redemption of man. "For such things as spring from God's will, and beyond the creature's due, can be made known to us only through being revealed in the Sacred Scripture, in which the Divine Will is made known to us. Hence, since everywhere in the Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason of the Incarnation, it is more in accordance with this to say that the work of the Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin; so that, had sinnot existed, the Incarnation would not have been." Thomas Aquinas, ST III, q. I, a. 3.

[3] cf. J. M. Garrigues, Le dessein d'adoption du Createur dans son rapport aufils d'apres S. Maxime le Confesseur, in Maximus Confessor: Actes du Sumposium sur Maxime le Confesseur, ed. F. Heinzer and C. Schonborn, Fribourg 1982, p.l 85.

[4] Ambrose of Milan, De Paradiso, 8, 38, trans. J. Savage, Washington, Washington 1961.

[5] ibid, 8, 39.

[6] ibid, 8, 38.

[7] ibid, 8, 38.

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