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Felix Culpa: A Thomistic Primacy of Christ

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A distinctive doctrine of the Scotistic school (one shared by many scholastic doctors outside the Scotistic school) is that of the “Absolute Primacy of Christ.” The Absolute Primacy of Christ refers to the idea that the decree of the incarnation was absolute and not relative, i.e., God decreed the incarnation absolutely, without consideration of any preceding conditions. A significant consequence of this idea is that even if man had not fallen, Christ would have become incarnate.

St. Thomas famously rejected the premise that “if man had not sinned, God would have become incarnate.” (ST.III.Q1.A3.T) His argument runs thus, “such things as spring from God’s will, and beyond the creature’s due, can be made known to us only through being revealed in the Sacred Scripture,” “everywhere in the Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason of the Incarnation,” therefore, the conclusion follows. (ibid., C.2) The major premise is evident. St. Thomas confirms the minor premise by appealing to Luke 19:10, For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost, and 1 Timothy 1:15, Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners.

An objection appears from the fact that the absolution of sin is not the only effect of the incarnation but also many others, such as the infusion of sanctifying grace. St. Thomas responds that “if man had not sinned, he would have been endowed with the light of Divine wisdom, and would have been perfected by God with the righteousness of justice in order to know and carry out everything needful.” (ibid., Rep1)

Does this not impugn the central reality that is the incarnation? To understand why it does not, we must consider some of the principles of the Thomistic synthesis which may be applied to this question. In this, we see that the benefits of Bl. Scotus’ insight (and those who preceded him) are retained in St. Thomas’ system.

The first principle that is retained is that of the relationship between material and final causality. The final cause of a certain thing is “that which is intended by the agent.” (DePrinNat.C3.3.2) On the other hand, the material cause is that from which the thing comes. To illustrate, if we have a man who builds a house, the material cause is the wood, concrete, etc., that he builds the house from, while the intention to build is the final cause of the house. From this, we gather the principle that the final cause has metaphysical dignity over all of the other causes. In our above example, the end of the house (final cause) is the reason for the placing of the form of the house on the matter. It is for this reason that St. Thomas writes, “we say that the end is the cause of causes, because it is the cause of the causality in all causes.” (DePrinNat.C4.4.3)

Yet, concerning temporal succession, the material cause always exists first. In our above example, the materials that were used to build the house existed in a state of potency at first before being actualized by the principle of the builder with the form of the house to that final end. It is as the soul and the body. The body exists for the sake of the soul, yet the properly disposed body of the embryo exists as disposed to receive the soul before ensoulment.

(Following Cajetan in Com. in IIIa.I.III) Applying this to the problem at hand, the final cause is the redemptive incarnation, and the material cause is the sin of man. In the mind of God, the manifestation of his own goodness in the redemptive incarnation exists as final cause. Thus, from this end flows the permission of sin, which is that material cause existing temporally prior. Thus, such a question as “whether, if man had not sinned, God would have become incarnate?” is puzzling to the Thomist. For, the phrasing in this question has it backwards. Man sinned so that God would become incarnate, the material cause existing for the final cause of the ultimate glorification of the goodness of God in the incarnation, not some idea of a reactive incarnation.

In this, St. Thomas’ apologetic concerning the problem of evil begins to take a more definite shape. St. Thomas writes, “This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.” (ST.I.Q2.A3.Rep1) In this, we get the distinction between “one who has care of a particular thing, and one whose providence is universal.” (ST.I.Q22.A2.Rep2) In prudence, one who has control over a whole, with many parts, may allow defects for the good of the whole. An example of such is if a teacher removes a student from a classroom in order that the remainder of the class may learn; in this, the teacher is “allow[ing] some little defect to remain, lest the good of the whole should be hindered.” (ibid.) The example that St. Thomas gives is that “A lion would cease to live, if there were no slaying of animals; and there would be no patience of martyrs if there were no tyrannical persecution.” (ibid.)

Concerning the entrance of evil into the world, we are considering the ultimate good. That ultimate good is the manifestation of the goodness of God. The goodness of God is made manifest in the redemptive incarnation of sinful men; therefore, we rightly consider the permission of the fall to be one of those “defects” which are allowed that “out of it [he may] produce good.” Thus, again, applied to this question, the end comes before the means to that end; the goodness of God in the redemptive incarnation of His Son comes before that permission to sin.

This is confirmed strongly in the prayer of the Church, chiefly, the Exsultet. Holy Mother Church sings, “O truly necessary sin of Adam.” How could this sin be truly necessary? We stand muddled and confused before this great mystery. Yet, Holy Mother Church drives the mystery in further, singing “O happy fault.” Happy? How may we say that this sin is “Happy?” The statement strikes us as blasphemous. Yet, Holy Mother Church finally breaks the insufferable tension that she has formed up to this point by explaining that this “happy fault…earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!” How can a “fault” “earn?” This fault “earns” because this “truly necessary sin of Adam” is that appointed means to bring about the final cause of “so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”

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