Incarnation, Necessity of the

views updated


Why the incarnation? What was the ultimate purpose of God taking on human nature? All theologians agree that Jesus Christ came primarily to save sinners. This is expressed in the earliest creeds: "Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was made flesh" (Nicene Creed). This creedal statement echoes the words of Christ Himself: " the Son of Man has not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mt 20.28). Paul puts it emphatically: "This saying is true and worthy of entire acceptance, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners" (1 Tm 1.15).

The creedal statement gave rise to another question that theologians have discussed through the course of centuries: Did the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity have to become man or could satisfaction for sin have been made in another way? It is the classic question concerning the necessity of the Incarnation.

Anselm. Historians of dogma generally agree that St. anselm of canterbury was the first great systematic theologian who gave classic expression to the question in his Cur Deus Homo. In Anselm's framework, man was created in a state of justice by God, in order that enjoying God he might be happy. Created by God and remaining a creature of God, destined one day to take the place of the fallen angels of God, man owed all his service to God and was God's debtor for everything he could do or produce. Sin, Anselm went on, is simply nonpayment of this debt.

The effects of man's sin are that, though God's honor remains intact, man himself suffers consequences in the moral order that in turn have consequences in the physical order. Man must either suffer from God's eternal punishment or give God satisfactionand this latter is the giving to God of what service he withheld along with something extra for the contumely. Man could not by himself give God this required satisfaction (1) because even his present service was owed, (2) because sin is an infinitely grave offense, (3) because he would have to conquer the devil, and (4) through one man justify others. "Nothing more just, nothing more impossible," as Boso, Anselm's partner in the Cur Deus Homo dialogue, commented succinctly.

Anselm went on to say that God's constancy to His own purpose required that He restore man by arranging for satisfaction to be given; and, taking the nature of sin and satisfaction to be as he described it, there was only one wayGod had to become man. With the same "austere metaphysic" (J. Rivière's phrase) Anselm also reasoned to the necessity of Christ's death on the cross.

Thomistic and Scotistic Views. Anselm's basic reasoning was accepted by St. thomas aquinas as the ultimate motive for the Incarnation so that, had man not sinned, there would have been no Incarnation. Theologians in the Thomistic tradition hold that given God's decree requiring condign satisfaction from man for sin, it was necessary that one of the Persons of the Trinity become incarnate. For them Incarnation did not have an internal necessity, that is, of itself, or one consequent merely on the creation of the world, or one consequent on the Fall, or, finally, one consequent even on God's decree to restore man. The followers of duns scotus, on the other hand, hold that the Incarnation was decreed by God even before the advent of sin. They proclaim that the Incarnation was from the first an integral part of the scheme of creation. Christ was to be the crown and glory of the Father's creation. Sin did not, then, occasion the Incarnation; it merely determined the manner. Christ, because of man's sin, would now come in a body that would suffer the Passion and death to redeem man. The Scotists argue that all men exist for Christ, not Christ because of them.

Thomists do not deny the primacy of Christ in creation and all the other benefits that have come from the Incarnation. But they insist on the basically remedial purpose of His coming as the only adequate interpretation of the abundant scriptural passages attesting it. The Scotistic position has been that God could give a purely human person such gifts of grace that he would be able to give condign satisfaction for man's sin.

In the 14th century John wyclif, in accordance with a more general principle of necessity that he held, maintained that for the Incarnation there was an absolute necessity. Later philosophers like Leibniz, in accordance with the optimism that they maintained, and along with them some theologians, said that God either was forced by some internal necessity to create the best possible world (a world, therefore, in which the Divine Son would be incarnate) or was constrained by some kind of fittingness, once He had decreed the creation, to decree also the Incarnation.

The whole discussion of the necessity of the Incarnation has, historically, been intimately bound up with the theological notion of satisfaction. In the 20th-century renewal of Scripture studies and of Biblical theology, with keener interest in the nature of man's elevation and relationship to Christ, other elements of man's salvation are receiving more emphasis than previously. The discussion has broadened, with the consequence that theologians do not find the limited framework of satisfaction-necessity as useful as they once did. Nevertheless, as a concept solidly based on Scripture and as a word sanctified by conciliar usage (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum 1529), satisfaction will always be theologically illuminating.

See Also: redemption, articles on.

Bibliography: j. f. bonnefoy, "Il primato di Cristo nella teologia contemporanea," in Problemi e Orientamenti di Teologia Dommatica. (Milano, 1957). l. cerfaux, Christ in the Theology of St. Paul, tr. g. webb and a. walker (New York 1959). l. lercher, Institutiones theologiae dogmaticae, v.3 (5th ed. Barcelona 1951). s. lyonnet, Sin, Redemption and Sacrifice: A Biblical and Patristic Study tr. l. sabourin (Rome 1970) i. solano, Sacrae theologiae summa, ed. fathers of the society of jesus, professors of the theological faculties in spain (Madrid 1962) 3.1. b. m. xiberta y roqueta, Enchiridion de Verbo Incarnato (Madrid 1957).

[e. a. weis/

j. j. walsh/eds.]