Why did God become Man? – Missio Dei

Introduction  For those who are unfamiliar, the question of the “motive” of the Incarnation has a long history. Though it has its roots in the writings of the Church Fathers, it did not receive its first systematic treatment until the time of medieval scholasticism. At that juncture, opposing theses were advanced by two of the most authoritative scholastic theologians of the 13th century: St. Thomas Aquinas and Bl. John Duns Scotus. The former, which we may call the Thomistic thesis, argued that if Adam had not sinned, God would not have become man. Thomas wrote the following in his Summa Theologica: “the work of the Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin; so that, had sin not existed, the Incarnation would not have been.”1 Thus, for Thomas, the only reason for the Incarnation is the redemption of fallen man. The Scotistic thesis, on the other hand, argued that the Incarnation was willed by God from all eternity prior to any consideration of sin, and thus it would have come about even had Adam not sinned. For Scotus, God created the world and everyone in it for the sake of Christ, sin or no sin. Christ, then, was not an afterthought of God, but rather the first thought, so to speak.  The debate over which of the two theses was the correct one took center stage in the Christological writings of the early modern period. In fact, according to Trent Pomplun, “it could be argued that [during this period] no controversy was so celebrated as the age-old debate between Thomists and Scotists about the so-called ‘motive’ of the Incarnation.”2 All serious theologians of the major religious orders (i.e. Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, etc.) took part in the debate. The Dominicans, with some notable exceptions, adhered to the Thomistic thesis, while the Franciscans for the most part adopted that of Scotus. But even Dominicans like Capreolus (ca. 1380-1444) and Cajetan (ca. 1468-1534) had to wrestle with some of the principles of Scotus’s thesis, such as the application of the signa rationes to God’s eternal decree, all the while trying to remain faithful to Thomas’s overall position. The Jesuits either sided with one of the two theses or proposed a mitigated form of either thesis. By the eighteenth century, Scotus’s teaching had pretty much won out, though many Dominicans continued to voice their opposition to it. As it stands, the debate continues to this very day, though it is no longer one of the major points of discussion in contemporary Christologies. 

Why did God become Man? – Missio Dei

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