Sunday, March 25, 2012

Aquinas on why the incarnation is fitting

I find it striking and interesting that in the article where Aquinas officially addresses whether the Incarnation is fitting, his argument in favor of the fittingness of the Incarnation makes no mention of salvation. In other words, it's clear that the Incarnation would be fitting whether or not we sinned, though Aquinas is inclined to think that had we not sinned, the Incarnation would not have occurred. The focus on epistemic benefits is particularly interesting:

On the contrary, It would seem most fitting that by visible things the invisible things of God should be made known; for to this end was the whole world made, as is clear from the word of the Apostle (Romans 1:20): "For the invisible things of God . . . are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made." But, as Damascene says (De Fide Orth. iii, 1), by the mystery of Incarnation are made known at once the goodness, the wisdom, the justice, and the power or might of God--"His goodness, for He did not despise the weakness of His own handiwork; His justice, since, on man's defeat, He caused the tyrant to be overcome by none other than man, and yet He did not snatch men forcibly from death; His wisdom, for He found a suitable discharge for a most heavy debt; His power, or infinite might, for there is nothing greater than for God to become incarnate . . ."
I answer that, To each things, that is befitting which belongs to it by reason of its very nature; thus, to reason befits man, since this belongs to him because he is of a rational nature. But the very nature of God is goodness, as is clear from Dionysius (Div. Nom. i). Hence, what belongs to the essence of goodness befits God. But it belongs to the essence of goodness to communicate itself to others, as is plain from Dionysius (Div. Nom. iv). Hence it belongs to the essence of the highest good to communicate itself in the highest manner to the creature, and this is brought about chiefly by "His so joining created nature to Himself that one Person is made up of these three--the Word, a soul and flesh," as Augustine says (De Trin. xiii). Hence it is manifest that it was fitting that God should become incarnate.
Of course, in the next article, Aquinas does talk of the need for the Incarnation for our redemption. It's not an absolute need, but it is necessary for our redemption to be worked in a better and more fitting way (Aquinas compares it to the necessity of a horse for a journey--presumably, one could always walk, but a horse is better). In that article, Aquinas gives ten benefits for the sake of which the Incarnation was fitting in respect of our redemption. It is interesting that penal satisfaction is only one of the ten.

And then Aquinas adds: "And there are very many other advantages which accrued, above man's apprehension." How does he know? Is it just a confidence that God does many, many good things for us? Could one argue that the Incarnation of an infinite being must somehow bring infinitely many benefits, of which only finitely many will be understandable to us?


Heath White said...

This is interesting. I was not familiar with this article.

It gives me the following thought: in the article where he discusses why the Beatific Vision is our highest good, the reason (officially) is that it satisfies the intrinsic desire of our highest part, reason. All men by nature desire to know; to know is to know causes; God is the ultimate cause; therefore our highest good is to know God, the ultimate cause. This has always struck me as something only a philosopher would come up with.

I think Aquinas has many other reasons under his belt, but it is noteworthy that his official conception of man's highest good is epistemic. And similarly for the Incarnation.

Brandon said...

I take Aquinas's point in ST 3.1.3 to be not that the Incarnation would not have occurred had we not sinned, but that we have no way of knowing the truth of that claim unless it is divinely revealed, and, as it happens, it has not been -- all the definite information given by revelation links it with sin. So it's a point about epistemic modesty more than about the counterfactual itself -- it's better just to stick with the more modest claim, which is definitely there.

The notion that the benefits of the Incarnation exceed all human ability to comprehend is also found, I think (I don't at present have time to look up the precise reference), in Athanasius's work On the Incarnation somewhere, and if I recall correctly is based on a reading of John 21:25.