God redeemed man because He loves us. God became Man because He likes us.

Merry Christmas, friends. God bless you all.

Open in app or online

O Happy Fault?

On the reason for the season.

St. Francis of Assisi, inventor of the Nativity Scene. (Coincidence?)

The guys and I were having scotch and cigars the other night, to celebrate the baptism of one of our daughters.  The conversation lapsed into one of those comfortable silences you only find among old friends.  Then someone chimed in with a question.  “If you weren’t a Christian, what would you be?”  The answers were fascinating.  We had two Hindus, a Muslim, a Jew, a Buddhist, and a Renaissance Neoplatonist (a neo-Neoplatonist, I guess). 

The pressure got the better of me, so I said that if I wasn’t a Christian I would be a catechumen. But I was shouted down and accused of not entering into the spirit of the thing, so I said I would also be a Jew, since it’s the third-closest thing to the truth. 

It was a fun thought-experiment, but a strange question.  Asking a man what religion he’d be if his was false—it’s a bit like asking what you would get by adding 2+2, if not 4.  He may say three, or three hundred and three, or 3.3 million, and some answers would be more true than others.  But “more true” is just another way of saying “less wrong.” 

I don’t mean this as an attack on Jews, or even Judaism.  I don’t hate Jews; I just disagree with them.  We moderns have a hard time seeing the difference, and that includes quite a lot of Christians.  They insist on referring to Jews by condescending nicknames, like “our elder brothers in faith.” 

Thank God, my Jewish friends don’t call me their little brother in faith.  If they did, we wouldn’t be friends much longer.  They just say I’m wrong.  They find the idea of God becoming man absurd.  (On that they agree with the Muslims—and the Platonists.)  And yet, for me, nothing in the universe makes sense otherwise.

Ah!  But even among Christians, that’s a loaded statement.  This is one of the oldest and most polarizing arguments in all of theology:  was the Incarnation contingent on the Fall of Man?

Most Christians (and certainly most Catholics) would say yes.  Their view is summed up in the ancient Exsultet of St. Ambrose, the felix culpa:  “O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer.”  It was championed by Ambrose’s disciple Augustine, among others, but is commonly known as the Dominican Thesis because it was advanced by Thomas Aquinas and his followers, when the debate became more explicit in the late Middle Ages.

The opposing view is known as the Franciscan Thesis, because it was developed in its fullness by John Duns Scotus and has been championed by the Minorites for hundreds of years.  Its (Western) roots are found in the writings of Franciscans like Alexander Hales and Bonaventure, and Anselm of Canterbury before them.  It was the dominant view of the Greek Fathers, including Irenaeus, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril of Alexandria, and Maximus the Confessor. 

Scotus’s thesis is simple:  God knew before all time that the Word would become flesh.  Jesus was therefore predestined from all eternity.  Again, the question is, “Why?”  According to Scotus,

If the fall were the reason for the predestination of Christ, it would follow that the greatest work of God [summum opus Dei] would be totally occasioned. . .  and it would seem highly irrational that God would have omitted so great a work [tantum bonus] for a good action of Adam, i.e., if he had not sinned.

Scotus calls the Incarnation the “Masterpiece of God.”  Would He have simply done without His greatest work had man not needed a redeemer? 

Remember that God didn’t need to create.  The Trinity is perfectly self-sufficient.  Everything He does is gratuitous.  It’s something “extra.”  That includes mankind.  As St. Augustine says, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord.”  So, why would He undertake His greatest work only for our benefit?  It’s not impossible but, coming from a human’s mouth, it may be a little presumptuous.

There are lots of passages in Scripture that seem to contradict the Franciscan Thesis.  Take 1 Timothy 1:15:  “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”  But Scotus’s explanation is just as simple:  nowhere in Scripture does it say that the Redemption is the only (or even the primary) reason for the Incarnation.  As the Subtle Doctor put it, “Christ would not have come as Redeemer if man had not fallen”—but he would have come anyway.

That, according to the Franciscan Thesis, is the true meaning of Ambrose’s felix culpa.  It’s not a good thing that Adam sinned.  Rather, it allowed us to know Jesus in a new way:  as Redeemer—as well as Master, Teacher, etc. 

This is heady stuff, and I don’t know nearly enough theology to come down hard on one side or the other.  But as you can probably tell, I lean heavily towards the Scotist camp, for one reason: the Gospels don’t sound like a business trip. For the most part, Our Lord seemed to enjoy His time on earth.

Think about it. All Christians believe that the Passion was, in some sense, unnecessary.  Even Calvinists, who believe in penal substitution—that Christ had to be punished in our stead, if we ourselves were to be spared punishment—agree that He went above and beyond the call of duty.  One drop of blood…  One bead of sweat…  A single tear…  It would have been more than sufficient to reconcile the whole universe.  Instead, he chose to be tortured to death.  He paid the bill and tipped a hundred billion percent to prove that there was no price on His love.

And yet this was only a day or two in His thirty-tree years of life on earth, most of which He spent hidden from the world.


The only answer I can think of is, “Because He wanted to.”

He wanted to be nursed and cuddled by his mother Mary.  He wanted to be bounced on Joseph’s lap.  He wanted to be tickled by His grandmother Anne. He wanted to be cooed over by his aunt Elizabeth and to study the Torah with His uncle Zachary.  He wanted to wrestle with his cousin John and tell jokes with his cousin James.  He wanted to worship His Father in the Temple of Jerusalem.  He wanted to drink at weddings and make useful things for His neighbors—chairs and tables and whatnot—at His carpenter’s shop in Nazareth.

What cinches it for me is that passage in John’s Gospel.  “Henceforth I call you not servants,” Jesus says, “but I have called you friends.”  God made family and friends, and saw that it was good. Why wouldn’t He want family and friends of His own?

This is why I say that nothing in the universe makes sense without the Incarnation.  Eberhard Arnold said, “Love means having joy in others.”  God chose to suffer for us; why wouldn’t He choose to have joy in us—with us, asus?

After all, that’s what His name means. The angel said to Mary, “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”  The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, because He wanted to. 

God redeemed man because He loves us. God became Man because He likes us.

Merry Christmas, friends. God bless you all.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.