St. Thomas on “The Fitness of the Incarnation”

One part of earning a masters in theology is digesting and summarizing largish chunks of St. Thomas Aquinas. The goal is not to just pluck a few key lines and call it a day, but to absorb each block of the Summa and restate it in your own words, proving (you hope) your understanding of it. And, yes, it will be on the test. And in the essay. And in the oral comps. And in the written comps.

I have absolutely no idea if this kind of thing is interesting to anyone, but I’m a Catechist and my job is to teach the faith. I just completed a bit on Summa Theologica III, Question 1: Of the Fitness of the Incarnation, and thought I’d share it. It distills the core points of each article. Let me know if you find it worthwhile. If enough people are interested, I’ll post them as I go. It’s pretty academic, inside-baseball stuff, but it’s the nuts and bolts of basic Catholic theology, and may be of interest to some. (Oh, and good luck with number 6. As I writer, I choked on using the word “perfect” so much, but anything else would have clouded the issue.) 

One question I’ve already had is about the word “fitness,” which is used so frequently in Thomas that people who read him don’t give it a second thought. “Fit,” “fitness,” and “fitting” are used to express that something is right and proper. Something is fit if it is ordered to its correct end: if it makes sense. In an ordered universe such as that probed by the Scholastics, a thing was fit if it was exactly as it should be.

(1) Was it was fitting for God to become incarnate?

Yes, it makes sense that the invisible God should be known to the material world through visible matter. God is goodness, and communication is essential to goodness. This communication is accomplished by a union of God to creature, or more correctly: the union of creature to God. This was proper because it was necessary for salvation. It is as Paul says in Romans 1:20 “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” God is perceived in created things, but only partly. In the incarnation he is perceived “face to face”.

 (2) Was the incarnation necessary for the restoration of the human race?

Yes, it was necessary because it was the best way to fulfill the desired end, which was salvation. A thing is necessary for two reasons: either (1) because an end cannot be accomplished without that thing, or (2) because an end can be accomplished more efficiently with it. God could have restored humanity without incarnation, which rules out the first reason. But he could not have restore humanity as perfectly without taking on flesh. There are five reasons this is the perfect way of accomplishing the desired end:

  1. Faith: God brought the message of salvation Himself, in the flesh.
  2. Hope: God showed us His solidarity by becoming one with us in human nature.
  3. Charity: God showed us His love by coming in person with a message of love.
  4. Man could be seen, but could not bring himself to God. God could not be seen, but needed to be followed. Therefore, God had to become man: He had to be seen to be followed.
  5. It allows for full participation in God’s divinity. Augustine: “God was made man, that man might be made God.”

 (3) If there had been no sin, would God have become incarnate?

No, God would have not needed to become incarnate in the absence of the fall. Were man not sick with sin, the Divine Physician would have no patient to heal. Scripture is quite clear on this matter (cf,Luke 19:10,1Tim 1:15): the Son of Man has come to seek and save that which was lost with the first sin. Moreover, the divine will may be known to man in other ways, as we see in the theophanies of the Old Testament. These precede the incarnation, but provide an opportunity for God to make his will known to man, as does the revelation of scripture. This same scripture makes clear that incarnation, however, was a remedy for sin.

(4) Did God become incarnate to take away original or actual sin?

The incarnation takes away not only original sin, but also offers the opportunity to blot out actual sin for those who adhere to Christ. Actual sin is greater in the sense of its intensiveness because it is the result of an act of will by the sinner, while original sin is greater in the sense of extensiveness because it is spread among all human beings.

 (5) Was it was fitting for God to become incarnate from the beginning of the human race?

No, it was not fitting for the incarnation to come at any other time than that at which it came, for as the scripture says, “When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” (Gal 4:4) Since the incarnation was medicine for sin, there was no need for it prior the fall, for one does not summon a doctor before a patient is sick.

There are 4 reasons why the incarnation could not have taken place immediately after the fall:

  1. Because man’s sin was pride, he needed to be humbled over time, to more fully understand his need for redemption, and thus seek first God (Abraham), then the Law (Moses), then redemption (Christ).
  2. It is rightly ordered that we move from imperfection to perfection over time.
  3. Because of the greatness of Christ, more time was needed to prepare the way through heralds and prophecy.
  4. Since the passion of faith cools over time, more time needed to pass before the fall, the incarnation, and the end of the world.

 (6) Should His Incarnation have been deferred to the end of the world?

No, incarnation should not have waited for the end of time for two reasons: that of perfection, and that of salvation.

Perfection: In the efficient cause, perfection precedes imperfection, because that which is already perfect is required to bring the imperfect to perfection. In nature, however, imperfection precedes perfection, because the imperfect must be drawn to its fulfillment in the perfect. Christ is the efficient cause of the perfection of human nature, and thus He could not come at either the beginning or end of time, but only in its midst. Humanity is being drawn to perfection in Christ, but that perfection may only come at the end of the world. It must happen in time, and over time.

Salvation: God saved man in movements, like a symphony, through Abraham, Moses, and finally Christ. Were that symphony to have occurred all at once and at the end of time, no man would have had time to enjoy its music, or benefit from its grace.