Would Christ Have Come If Humanity Had Not Fallen?
Or, On the Value of Speculative Theology
A common criticism of medieval Christianity theology centers on the practice of speculative theology, often defined as the asking of seemingly obscure questions which have little bearing (or none at all) upon the vicissitudes of human life or Christian faith. Perhaps the most common example of this are stories about medieval theologians sitting around and discussing how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.1 What possible value could the answer to such a question have, we wonder? Of course, there exists no evidence suggesting that this particular topic was ever discussed in the medieval world—in fact, the claim seems to be a modern fabrication intended to dismiss the medieval worldview.2 But the basic criticism persists: why were medieval Christians so enraptured with fine details and endless clarifications on seemingly speculative questions?
In today’s reflection, I would like to consider one such speculative question: Would Christ have come if humanity had not fallen? This query is by no means original to the Saint Louis University doctoral seminar in medieval theology where it was posed last week; rather, this issue has a long history of reflection as a contrafactual consideration. In some sense, this question has loomed in the background of theological reflections on the incarnation of the Christ since Christians began thinking about Christology. As just one historical example, Athanasius of Alexandria’s On the Incarnation of the Word (written in the fourth century) outlines a number of reasons for the incarnation of Christ, not the least of which was the fact that “none other could render the mortal immortal, save our Lord Jesus Christ….”3 Thus, Athanasius’ position assumes the necessity of Christ’s incarnation (and redemptive death) because of humanity’s fall into sin. But what if this were not so?
The work of one medieval theologian might allow us to formulate an answer to this question: Bonaventure of Bagnoregio. Before looking at Bonaventure’s position on the necessity of the incarnation, we must first contextualize his theology. Bonaventure (1221-1274 CE) was a theologian and philosopher who belonged to Orders of Friars Minor (the Franciscans). Born in Italy, Bonaventure was known for his extensive theological writings (for which he became known as the “Seraphic Doctor”) and for his leadership of the Friars Minor (whom he served as the seventh Minister General). It was for this context that he wrote the work from which I wish to draw today, the Breviloquium (“short speech”). This short and insightful book was composed between 1254 and 1257 as preaching manual for the Franciscans.4 Key to understanding Bonaventure’s theology is his concept of “Creation as Circle”, where procession of creation is followed by a return to its origins—a process of exitus and reditus.5
This context in hand, let us now reditus to our question: Would Christ have come if humanity had not fallen? To put this another way, how necessary was the Incarnation? In the Breviloquium, Bonaventure clearly inhabits the long-standing Christian tradition that Christ’s incarnation was necessary for the redemption of fallen humanity. On this he writes,
“For it was by the Word’s becoming flesh that the salvation and redemption of humankind was achieved. This was not because God would not have saved and liberated the human race by some other means, but because no other way would have been so fitting or so appropriate to the Redeemer, those redeemed, and the nature of redemption.6
But does Bonaventure give any clues concerning the coming of Christ apart from the fall? Perhaps an indication comes in a later portion of his reflections on the Incarnation, where he writes “Now the Incarnation is the most perfect of all God’s works.”7 The “perfection” of this particular action would seem to suggest that Bonaventure could conceive of the Incarnation in a world where there was no human fall. That is, the Incarnation was such an important, perfect, unsurpassable event that even were the nature of Creation different than it is today, the Second Person of the Trinity still would have put on flesh and dwelt among his people. In this scenario, then, Bonaventure’s exitus/reditus concept could provide an explanation for the Incarnation as God desiring to fellowship with his creation regardless of its status.8 Thus it seems that Bonaventure’s statement concerning the possibility of the Incarnation apart from the fall is answered with a “Yes,” a speculative answer to a speculative question.
If the speculative project ends here, then I am afraid that contemporary critiques of the medieval willingness to consider contrafactuals may indeed have a solid basis for their criticism. For if considering imaginary scenarios occurs simply for the sake of imagination and “what if” reminiscence, then it seems there is no value in the practice apart from an opportunity to engage in intellectual discussion. But this is not the entire story. For even when Bonaventure allows himself to speak to all possible worlds and speculate, he always does so with an eye on the real world and real history. It may be possible that the Incarnation would have happened apart from the fall (and thus, we may speak of it—instead of the cross or empty tomb, for example—as God’s most perfect work), but any insights gleaned from this mental exercise must apply to the real world, where the fall and Incarnation actually did occur.
Thus, while not necessarily valuable for what it reveals concerning contrafactuals qua contrafactuals, speculative theology may indeed be a worthwhile pursuit for shedding light on theologies of actuality. In other words, while reflecting on Christ’s Incarnation apart from a human fall may not be an answerable question, the way in which we understand an a-lapsarian incarnation may reveal otherwise unconsidered aspects of God’s relationship with humanity (perhaps, for example, the internal relationships of the Trinity, the personhood of the Logos, the value which God place on fellowship with his creations). This, I believe, is a fairer representation of the thinking of someone like Bonaventure (who, lest we forget, penned the work we are using as a pastoral manual). Speculative theology—in this case, asking a question about the incarnation apart from the fall—may be beneficial, so long as the understandings crafted through this practice accord with reality of faith and enlighten those understandings. When viewed in this light, speculative thinking becomes another valuable tool for meaningful theological reflection.
1 As a personal example, I have a clear memory of my mother pointing out this particular fault as we were discussing Catholicism when I was eight or nine years old.
2 While there has been some discussion of Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of how many angels may incorporate the same physical space as the origins of this criticism, historian James Franklin has located the apparent source of this criticism in William Chillingworth’s Religion of Protestants, published in 1637.
3 Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation of the Word 20, in Christology of the Later Fathers, cited by Edward R. Hardy (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), 74.
4 Ben Winter, “Breviloquium: Focus on Book II”, Saint Louis University, 16 April 2015. Handout.
5 Ben Winter, “Saint Bonaventure of Bagnoregio: Theological First Principles”, Saint Louis University, 16 April 2015. Handout.
6 Bonaventure, Breviloquium IV.1.1 in Works of St. Bonaventure, Volume IX, edited by Dominic Monti (Saint Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute Publishing, 2005), 131. Another passage confirming this position is “No one is more suitable to lead humankind back to divine conformity than the one who is the image of the Father. No one can more fittingly restore human beings to their status as God’s adopted children than the one who is God’s son by nature. Hence no one is more suitable to become the Son of Man than the Son of God himself.” (IV.2.6, pg. 138)
7 Ibid., IV.4.4 (page 145). This quote continues “Since development ought to proceed from the imperfect to the perfect, and not the other way around, the Incarnation had to take place at the end of the ages” and clearly occurs amidst Bonaventure’s reflections on the timeliness of the Incarnation.
8 This, I note, would seem to accord well with the Genesis 3:8 account of God walking in the Garden of Eden—God’s crowning creatures were created for relationship with the Creator of the cosmos.
Photo courtesy of Lawrence OP.