Christian TraditionsRoman CatholicSalvationTheology & Spirituality

Above All, the Glory of Christ: John Duns Scotus on the Incarnation

During the Christmas season, this passage from the Nicene Creed regarding our Lord Jesus Christ assumes particular significance:

For us and for our salvation

he came down from heaven:

By the power of the Holy Spirit

he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,

and was made man.

That Jesus was incarnated (cf. John 1:14) and the means by which it happened (cf. Matthew 1:18-25) are universal Christian truths. And at first glance it also seems clear, according to the Creed, why the Incarnation occurred—the Word became flesh for the sake of our salvation. But in what does this salvation consist? Many believe this question has only one possible answer: the redemption of humanity from its sinfulness and thereby the restoration of our relationship with God.

The Dominant View of the Incarnation

This apparent consensus is entirely understandable. The argument that the Incarnation occurred to redeem humanity from sinfulness is very common. Close reading of representative classical sources, in fact, hones it to an even more specific claim: Human sinfulness is not only a sufficient condition for the Incarnation; it is also a necessary condition. If humanity had not fallen into sinfulness, that is, God would never have appeared in human form in the person of Jesus.

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo is “the locus classicus for a theory of Incarnation and Atonement” that sees them as responses to “the infinite dishonor God suffers at the sin of Adam.”[1] But theologians before and after Anselm have expressed similar views (even if without necessarily also being penal substitutionalists). For example, seven centuries before Anselm, Ambrose asks “What was the cause of the Incarnation if not the redemption of the flesh that had sinned?” Similarly: “If man had not sinned,” Augustine flatly declares, “the Son of Man would not have come.” Likewise, Aquinas concludes that “the work of the Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin, so that, if sin had not existed, the Incarnation would not have been.”[2] In sum, no sin, no Incarnation.

John Duns Scotus’ Alternative View

Nevertheless, there is another interpretation of the Incarnation’s purpose I want to present here. While a decidedly minority doctrine in the Church overall, it lies at the heart of Franciscan incarnational theology and is set forth most fully in the writings of John Duns Scotus (1266-1308).[3] Rightly given the accolade Doctor Subtilis for the intricacy and nuance of his reasoning, Scotus argues that fallen humanity was not a necessary condition for the Incarnation. Instead, even if we had not sinned, the Incarnation would have occurred, because God predestined it “prior” to willing to provide a remedy for sinfulness.[4] So, while it is true that the Incarnation overcomes our estrangement from God, redemption is not the single or even primary purpose of the Incarnation. Instead, the Incarnation is, essentially, the means by which God glorifies Christ. This doctrine is now known in Franciscan thought as “the primacy of Christ” or “the predestination of Christ.”

In what follows, I summarize Scotus’ two main arguments for this position.[5] My aim is simply to delineate the logic of his analysis, leaving it to the reader to judge its persuasiveness. I conclude with observations on how Scotus’ doctrine of the Incarnation might affect our understanding of the Christmas event.

The Argument from Orderly Willing

Scotus derives the Incarnation’s purpose most substantially from his understanding of God’s nature. Specifically, he draws out implications from the ontological claim that God, being simple and omniscient, wills in an entirely rational, orderly manner. One aspect of orderly willing is to first will an end, followed by willing the means that most effectively or fully achieve the end. So, for example, a rational agent would first will the end of good health and then will the most suitable means to realize that goal (exercise, sensible diet, etc.). Another aspect of rational willing is to will what is greater before willing what is lesser (however defined). A rational agent would thus first will good health rather than initially willing bad health followed by recuperative actions to restore it to good.  Changing your bad health for the better is a good, of course, but it’s not as good as keeping one’s good health in the first place, and so you couldn’t rationally will it as the best course of action before willing good health.

On the basis of these uncontroversial premises, Scotus generates his main argument for the primacy of Christ. Because God is the greatest good, God first wills Himself ad intra (within Himself, including the Trinitarian emanation). Then God wills ad extra (regarding all things outside God) in order of greatness. Here things get tricky, because Scotus’ reasoning is quite compressed. He argues that “since the predestination to glory of anyone is prior by nature to the prevision of anyone’s sin or damnation, this is all the more so true of the predestination of that soul chosen for the greatest glory.”[6]

In other words, the salvation of those God redeems is a cause of glory obviously greater than the damnation of the reprobate.[7] But it follows that the glorification of Christ, in the hypostatic union achieved by the Incarnation, is indescribably greater than the glory occasioned from the redemption of any or all human beings. In fact, Scotus sees the glorification of Christ in the Incarnation as the greatest of all things ad extra: “After first willing those things intrinsic to Himself, God willed this glory for Christ.”[8]

The implications of this order of willing are crucial. God wills the glorification of Christ before He wills the glory caused by redemption from sin. It also follows that God wills Christ’s glory before the damnation of the reprobate, which is, again, lesser in glory than human redemption. But the reprobate exist only because they have sinned. Therefore, God willed the glory of Christ in the Incarnation before He willed redemption and therefore, also before He foresaw the existence of sin: “Before any merit or demerit, He foresaw that Christ would be united with Him in the oneness of Person.”[9] Therefore, because of this perfect orderly willing, it follows that sin cannot be a necessary condition of the Incarnation. The glorification of Christ was willed, so to speak, prior to God’s prevision of sin and could not therefore be a response to it.[10]

The Argument from Wrongful Rejoicing

Scotus also offers a moral argument, in the form of a reductio ad absurdum, to support his view of the Incarnation. This one also rests on a set of intuitively clear premises. First, we are to respond with rejoicing to the occurrence of the Incarnation (cf. Luke 2:8-20). Next, it is morally wrong to rejoice at occasions of misfortune and sorrow suffered by another. Because sin is an occasion of misfortune or sorrow, it follows that it is morally wrong to rejoice because of sins committed by others. (Scotus’ analysis here parallels the teachings of Francis himself, who admonished his followers to be disturbed by others’ sins, not exultant over them.[11])

Scotus then applies these claims to the question of the Incarnation and generates the reductio as follows. If we assume that the Incarnation was only a response to human sinfulness, then we must both rejoice at the Incarnation (because it is our means of salvation) and not rejoice at the Incarnation (because it is morally wrong to rejoice at misfortune or sorrow suffered by someone else).[12] This contradiction has to be resolved by choosing one option and rejecting the other. Because rejoicing at the Incarnation is an undeniable imperative, Scotus rejects the idea that the Incarnation was caused by the sinfulness of humanity. According to Scotus, then, “no one has been predestined [for salvation] only because somebody else’s sin was foreseen, lest anyone have reason to rejoice over the fall of another.”[13]

The Primacy of Christ and Christmas

Overall, Scotus sees the Incarnation as the highest expression of God’s infinite freedom. God’s greatest ad extra work, the glorification of Christ in the world, is not caused by anything external to God’s nature or purpose. The coming of the Word in human flesh and dwelling among us is the result of God’s intention held prior to, and thus higher than, any divine reaction to human agency. Consequently, the Scotist view also treats with unique seriousness the unconditional nature of God’s love.

The Incarnation is not a Plan B, not God’s response caused, and therefore limited by, human failing, It is instead the ineffably beautiful unfolding of God’s inexorable desire to fully share His glory with humanity (and, indeed, all of creation). In fact, Scotus’ argument leads to the perhaps startling conclusion that because God intended to glorify the Word in human form before intending anything else, God created the world in order for the Incarnation to occur.

Seeing the Incarnation in this way invites us to experience Christmas in a new light. In the Franciscan tradition, Jesus’ birth is the most joyful event in God’s relationship with the world. This is because the presence of God in the world is itself sufficient as a saving event. As theologian Mary Beth Ingham observes: “A single person, uniting both divine and human natures, glorifies human nature from within. . . . The Incarnation itself redeems and glorifies human nature, thereby revealing the divine desire to be with us. That presence, because it is God, heals and saves.”[14] The nature that God glorifies in Christ above all else is also our nature. The Word made flesh thereby draws us in close, sustaining relationship to God. In the divine transformation that results in Jesus’ humble appearing in the world (Philippians 2:5-8), there also begins the process whereby we are transformed more and more into both the Imago Dei and the Imago Christi, which for followers of Francis results ultimately in the absorption of all we are into Christ.[15] Before the Cross, then, and before the Empty Tomb, in Scotus’ understanding of the Incarnation our salvation is already accomplished in the figure of a helpless, shivering infant, the God come to be among us in grace and glory.


Brother Columba SSF is a novice in the Society of Saint Francis, an Episcopal Franciscan order. He lives in San Francisco and serves as a hospice chaplain.

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