"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

REALITY—A Synthesis Of Thomistic Thought

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.

Fifth Part: Metaphysical Synthesis Of Thomism


In order to show the appropriateness of the Incarnation, St. Thomas employs this principle: good is self-diffusive, and the higher the order of good, the more abundantly and intimately does it communicate itself. The truth of this principle is seen on every level of being: in the light and heat of the sun, in the fruitfulness of vegetative life, of sense life, of intellective knowledge and love. The higher a thing stands in goodness the more creative it is, both as goal to attract and as agent to effect.

But does a thing that is good necessarily communicate itself? Yes, if it is an agent limited to one kind of activity, as is the sun to radiation. But if the agent is free, then its self-communication is also free. [708] By such free self-communication a perfect agent gives perfection, but does not itself become thereby more perfect. Now God is the supremely good thing, infinitely good. Hence it is appropriate that He communicate Himself in person to a created nature, and this is what comes to pass in the incarnation of the Word.

Does this reason prove the possibility of the Incarnation? No, because reason can simply not prove apodictically even the possibility of a mystery essentially supernatural. But, as profound reason of appropriateness, the argument just given is inexhaustibly fruitful. And on this point we find among theologians no notable controversy. Real controversy begins when we put the questions: Why did God become incarnate?

The answer of St. Thomas [709] runs thus: In the actual plan of providence, [710] if the first man had not sinned, the Word would not have be come incarnate. He became incarnate to offer God adequate satisfaction for that first sin and all its consequences. Let us listen to his argument.

A truth which absolutely surpasses all that is due to human nature, a truth which depends solely on God's will, can be known by divine revelation only. But according to revelation, contained in Scripture and tradition, the reason everywhere assigned for the Incarnation is drawn from the sin of the first man. [711] Hence it is reasonable to conclude that, if the first man had not sinned, the Word would not have become incarnate, and that, after that sin, He became incarnate in order to offer God adequate satisfaction, and thus to give us salvation.

This line of reasoning is in harmony with Scripture. [712] Among the many texts let us quote one: The Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost. [713] It is also the voice of tradition, formulated thus by St. Augustine: [714] Had man not sinned, the Son of man had not come.

Such is the answer of St. Thomas. Scotus, on the contrary, maintains that, even if Adam had not sinned, the Word would still have become incarnate. But, since He would not have come to atone for sin, He would not have a human nature subject to pain and death. [715] Suarez, [716] seeking a middle ground, says that the Word became incarnate equally for the redemption of man and for the manifestation of God's goodness. By the adverb "equally" he understands that these two motives are coordinated, as being two chief purposes, each equal to the other, whereas Thomists hold that the ultimate purpose of the Incarnation was indeed to manifest God's goodness, but that the proximate purpose was man's redemption.

Against the Scotist view Thomists use the following argument. Divine decrees are of two kinds: one efficacious and absolute, the other inefficacious and conditional. The latter is concerned with the thing to be realized taken in itself, abstracting from all actual circumstance. Thus, for example, God wills the salvation of all men. But, in fact, God permits final impenitence in a sinner (e. g.: Judas) as manifestation of infinite justice. Efficacious decrees on the contrary are concerned with the thing to be realized taken with all its concrete circumstances of place and time. Hence these decrees are immutable and infallible. [717] Now the present efficacious decree extends to the concrete circumstance of the passibility of our Savior's humanity. And Scotists themselves concede that the union between divine nature and human nature subject to passibility presupposes Adam's sin.

This reasoning, which Thomists hold to be irrefutable, supposes that the last end of the Incarnation is to manifest the divine goodness by way of redemption, redemption being efficaciously decreed as subordinated to this manifestation. Thus proposed, the argument concludes against both Suarez and Scotus. For us men and for our salvation, says the Council of Nicaea, He came down from heaven. Had man not sinned, the Son of man had not come, says tradition. [718] Scotus and Suarez would reword this sentence. They say: Had man not sinned, the Son of man would still have come, but not in a "passible" humanity. By such restatement the assertion of the Fathers, taken simply as it stands, would be false. To illustrate, it would be false to say that Christ is not really in heaven and in the Eucharist, though He is not in either place in a passible humanity.

Scotus brings another difficulty. A wise man, he says, wills first the end, then the means in proportion to their nearness to that end. [719] Thus he transfers the subordination in question from the order of different acts of the divine will to the order of different objects of those acts. Then he continues: Now Christ, being more perfect, is nearer the last end of the universe than is Adam. Hence God, to reveal His goodness, chose first the incarnation of the Word, before Adam was willed, and hence before his sin had been committed.

In answer to this objection, many Thomists, [720] following Cajetan, [721] distinguish the final cause [722] from the material cause. To illustrate. In the order of final causality God wills, first the soul, secondly the body for the sake of the soul. But in the order of material causality He wills first the body, as being the material cause to be perfected by the soul, and the soul is created only when the embryo is sufficiently disposed to receive the soul.

Applying this distinction to the Incarnation, God wills, under final causality, the redemptive Incarnation before He wills to permit Adam's sin, conceived as possible. But in the order of material causality, [723] He permits first the sin of Adam, as something to be turned into a higher good. Similarly, in the order of beatitude, beatitude itself is the final cause and man is the material cause, the subject, [724] which receives beatitude.

This distinction is not idle, verbal, or fictitious. It is founded on the nature of things. Causes have mutual priority, each in its own order: [725] form before matter, matter before form. If Adam had not sinned, if the human race were not there to be redeemed, the Word would not have become incarnate. That is the order of material causality. But in the order of finality, God permitted original sin in view of some higher good, which good we, after the Incarnation, know to be an incarnation universally redemptive.

On this last point some Thomists hesitate. John of St. Thomas and Billuart say they have no answer to the question: What higher good led God to permit original sin? But others [726] give a satisfactory answer. Before the Annunciation, they say, the question could not be answered. But, after the Annunciation, we see that the higher good in question is the universally redemptive Incarnation, subordinated of course to the revelation of God's infinite goodness.

That this is the thought of St. Thomas himself appears in the following words: "Nothing hinders human nature from being led after sin to a greater good than it had before. God permits evils only to draw forth from them something better." [727] Where sin abounded, says St. Paul, there grace super-abounded. And the deacon, when he blesses the Easter candle, sings: Oh happy guilt, which merited so great and so beautiful a Redeemer!

Thus God's mercy, goodness, and power find in the Incarnation their supreme manifestation. How does God manifest His omnipotence? Chiefly, says the liturgy, [728] by sparing and showing mercy. [729].

Hence, as the Carmelites of Salamanca so well say, we are not to multiply divine decrees, and to suppose, as did John of St. Thomas and Billuart, a whole set of conditional and inefficacious decrees. It suffices to say that among all possible worlds known by what we call God's simple intelligence, there were included these two possible worlds: first, a human race that remains in a state of innocence and is crowned with a non-redemptive Incarnation; secondly, a fallen human race restored by a redemptive Incarnation. Thus, while the fallen race is first [730] as material subject of the Incarnation, the Incarnation itself is first in the order of finality. [731] And thus, too, the ultimate purpose of the universe is the manifestation of God's goodness.

How, then, are we to conceive the succession, not in divine acts of will, but in the order of objects willed by God? Let us take an architect as illustration. What the architect aims at first is not the summit nor the foundation but the building as a whole with all its parts in mutual subordination. Thus God, as architect, wills the whole universe as it now stands with its ascending orders, nature first, then grace (with the permission of sin): then the hypostatic union as redemptive from sin. The Incarnation, though it presupposes a sinful human race, is not "subordinated" to our redemption. Redemptive by its material recipient, it remains in itself the transcendent cause of redemption, and we, as recipients, as bodies are to souls, remain ourselves subordinated to Christ, who is the author of salvation and the exemplar of holiness. All things belong to you, says St. Paul, [732] but you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

Let us conclude with a corollary, thus expressed by St. Thomas: [733]: "God's love for Christ is greater than His love for all creatures combined. By this love He gave Christ a name that is above every name, since Christ is truly God. Nor is Christ's pre-eminent excellence in any way diminished by the death which God imposed on Him as Savior of the human race. On the contrary, by this death Jesus gained the most glorious of victories, a victory which made Him the Prince of peace, whose shoulders bear the government of the world." [734] Having humbled Himself, says St. Paul, [735] having become obedient unto death, even unto death on the cross, He was exalted and given the name that is above every name.

This transcendent excellence of the Savior, thus delineated by St. Thomas, is in fullest accord with Scripture and tradition. The glory of God's Son was not diminished, was rather pre-eminently enhanced, when for our salvation He came down from heaven and was made man.

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