John Duns Scotus was born in Scotland in 1266 and educated at England’s Oxford University. He was ordained a priest in 1291. Scotus also studied at the University of Paris and returned to lecture at Oxford and Cambridge. In turn, Scotus went back to teach at the University of Paris.
Eventually, the Franciscan Minister General assigned Scotus to the Franciscan School in Cologne, Germany. Scotus died there in 1308.He is buried in the Franciscan church near the famous Cologne Cathedral. Known as the “Subtle Doctor,” Scotus was beatified in 1993. His beatification is rightly seen as a belated vote of confidence by the church regarding his holiness and virtue, as well as a vote of confidence in Scotus’ theological contributions.
A key point of the Franciscan/Scotistic view, which catches many people by surprise, is this: The Word of God did not become a creature, a human being, because Adam and Eve sinned. Rather, the Divine Word became flesh because, from all eternity, God wanted Jesus Christ to be creation’s most perfect work. Christ was to be the model and crown of creation and of humanity — the glorious destination toward which all creation is straining. In short, the Word would have been incarnated in Christ even if the first man and woman had never sinned.
Scotus’ viewpoint has gained prominence in recent times. It has been adopted by such notable Catholic thinkers as Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet; Thomas Merton, the Trappist writer; and Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit-priest-anthropologist. “Christ is not an afterthought in the divine place,” writes Chardin. “He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all things.”
According to Scotus, God’s first intention — from all eternity — was that human nature be glorified by being united to the divine Word. And this was to happen regardless of the first humans’ innocence or sinfulness. To say that the Incarnation of Christ was an afterthought of God, dependent on Adam and Eve’s fall, would be to base the rich Christian theology of Incarnation on sin! Theologians could do better than that — and Duns Scotus did.
Given humanity’s sin, the way Christ eventually came was in the form of a savior whose great act of love and self-surrender set us free.
In Scotus’ view, however, the God-man would have entered creation and human history as the perfect model of the human being fully alive under any circumstance. It was not Adam who provided the blueprint or pattern that God used in shaping the humanity of Christ.
It was the other way around, insists Scotus: Christ was the model in God’s mind according to which Adam and Eve, as well as the rest of the human race, were created. We can rightly say, therefore, that the Incarnation was not simply some kind of “Plan B arrangement,” or “last-minute cure,” to offset the sin of Adam and Eve. On the contrary, it was God’s “Plan A” from the beginning.
Franciscans and the ‘Primacy of Christ’
Most Franciscans have, in one way or another, embraced this vision. Whether conscious of it or not, we tend to see all created things as pieces of a beautiful puzzle that only makes sense when fitted into the larger framework, that is, into the image of Christ.
For several years, I’ve kept an audiotape on Saint Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and Colossians by Stephen Doyle, OFM, a well-known Franciscan Scripture scholar and popular preacher. I’ve often listened to these tapes because I find in them an engaging explanation of the Franciscan/Scotist approach to the primacy of Christ. Franciscan spirituality simply exudes naturally from this friar as he talks about Paul’s view of Christ, “the firstborn of all creation.”
According to Father Stephen, “There is nothing in this world that makes sense apart from Jesus Christ” and “whatever exists in this world was made for the sake of Jesus Christ.”
He waxes poetic: “If we looked around and listened to this world about us, and if the singing birds could be formed into a chorus and the rustling breeze and tinkling rain could have a voice and the roar of the ocean could be put into words, they would all have one thing to say: ‘We were made for the sake of Jesus Christ.’”
The friar also offers a good answer to the riddle: How can it be that Christ, who came after Adam and Eve, nonetheless came before them in the mind of God? How can the Incarnate Word be first and last at the same time? Borrowing a popular analogy found in Saint Francis de Sales’ Treatise on the Love of God, Father Stephen explains:
If you wanted to make wine, what would you do? First of all, you would have to plant a vineyard. Then you would have to fertilize the vines. You would have to trim them, pick the grapes and let them ferment. Finally, you would get some wine.
What was the first thing on your mind? The wine. What was the last thing you got? The wine.
In the same way, Jesus’ late arrival on the scene, notes Father Stephen, does not contradict his holding first place in God’s mind at the creation of the universe. Christ is the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega.
I hope my two blogs help explain John Duns Scotus’ awesome view of Christ as the “head over all things” (Ephesians 1:22) and the glorious destination toward which all creation is straining.
Similarly, in the ongoing process of creation, there are many elements: minerals, plants, animals, and human persons. In the Christian view, as Saint Paul expresses so well, all these elements and individuals are coming to a culmination in Jesus Christ. God’s plan, indeed, is “to bring everything together under Christ as head” (see Ephesians 1:10, Jerusalem Bible).
It is as though each one of us plays a part in that one sacred Word, that one mysterious drama of love, present in the mind of God from all eternity.
It’s a beautiful, developing drama, a beauty whose end we cannot see. Starting with the first day of creation, the Word of God—the co-eternal mirror of the Father—has been slowly emerging down the ages. The Word has become visible in the Incarnation and will reach its full revelation when Jesus returns in glory on the last day.