Thomas Joseph White #23: Aquinas’ response to the main errors concerning the Incarnation
Aquinas’ response to the main errors concerning the Incarnation (III, 2-6; Comp. theol.; Comm. on Creed) When Aquinas begins his treaties on Christology, in the “Summa Theologiae,” the first question he asks is: why did God become human, why did God become man? And he answers that question, by looking at the two classical answers provided by the Christian tradition. You can call these, “the divinisation theory” and “the atonement theory,” in short. The “divinisation theory” is that God became human, so that we might be united with God. Sometimes it is said this way: God became human, so that we might become God. There is a slight difference between the two ideas. In saying that God became human, we mean that God, Himself, took on a human nature, shared in our human lot, made Himself subject to human sufferings, and showed us, in a certain way, as human beings, how to return toward God in our own lives. When we talk about ourselves being divinised, or being united with God, that is in the order of grace. It is not that human beings who are Christians, or Saints even, can become divine, but that, by God’s grace acting in them, with which they cooperate, they can be united with God, in acts of knowledge and love, and participate in the knowledge of the Holy Trinity, in this life, in Faith, and in the life to come, by the beatific vision. God could unite us to Himself without becoming human, but as Aquinas points out, in the “Summa contra Gentiles,” if God is bothered, as it were, to become human and suffer for us, it shows that He can easily unite us to Himself by grace. Because, the mystery of the Incarnation is, in a way, a greater work of God, than the mystery of Beatification of the Saints and of the human race. So, it is a huge encouragement. I mean, God, in a certain way, has manifest His intention to be united to us, and it is shown to us by, as it were, the greater work of the Incarnation, that He can do something that He is now continuing to do, which is to unite us to Himself by grace. So, it is a kind of manifestation of the seriousness of God’s intent to wed the human race, or to unite the human race to Himself. So, that is the classic ‘divinisation theory,’ that you find in Eastern and Western Fathers, said in a brief way. The “atonement theory,” it comes out of, also, the Patristic era, but it is formulated in a particular way by St Anselm of Canterbury, in his book “Cur Deus Homo” – why did God become human – and, that’s the idea that, because of the Fall, because of the collective sin of the human race, and also, because of our own personal sin, none of us can take the sufficient measures to place ourselves back into a rightly ordered relationship with God. We have fallen into a kind of collective, you could call it a disorder, but the technical word would be injustice: we’re no longer in a right order of justice, and of love, in our relationship with God; and none of us can put it right, and make reparation for the offence we’ve given to God. The idea here, is not that God is, as it were, resentful, or all too human, or anthropomorphically angry, or in need to be placated but, there is the reality that, when you harm the common good, there is a kind of objective disorder, and, even a debt, that you’ve incurred towards the common good. But, the human race has harmed the common good of our own relationship with God, and incurred a debt that we have to one another through sin, and to God, through sin. The idea here is that God Himself puts it right; He is the one who restores order. God is eternally happy, He is not resentful, He is eternally joyful, but He is also eternally good and just. So in His eternal justice, and goodness, He takes the initiative to restore us to the right order with the human race, and to atone for our sins. But, of course, God can’t atone for our sins, as God. He needs to be human to atone for our sins. So, Christ is the one who is human, and sinless, and can atone for our sins, as our brother, as a fellow human being, but, He is also God, and so everything He does as human, has a kind of infinite dignity, an infinite power of goodness, and a capacity for the restoration of the right order, due to His infinite holiness. So, because He is man, He can restore, as it were, from within, the right order of the world, and because He is God, there is an infinite dignity that He can convey to us in His grace. And, when we’re joined with Christ by Faith, Aquinas says, we are united to one who is infinite in dignity and holiness, and so, we become justified in the order of grace, that is to say, we enter into a rightly ordered relationship with God. So, God became human to unite us to God, and God became human to, as it were, restore the right order of justice, do reparation of sins, and atonement for sins, and, in both those ways, the Incarnation is a tremendous encouragement to us: that the access to God is open, and that we can return to God, in serenity, and in confidence.