Friday, February 1, 2013

Why did God become man?

One way to put the question of the theory of the atonement might seem be to ask with Anselm: "Why did God become man?"

I do not think that that is the right way, though. For God is omnirational. This means that whenever he acts, he is moved by all the unexcluded good reasons for the action. But almost any good that is achieved by a morally permissible action will provide God with an unexcluded good reason for that action. Very high up among the goods achieved by God through the Incarnation is ensuring that we can be forgiven with justice. But there are many other goods achieved by the Incarnation: Aquinas lists nine other great goods. And besides the great goods, there are far lesser but nonetheless genuine goods, such as cooperating with Joseph in the making of tables. Plausibly, there are many goods in between the really great ones and the far lesser ones, such as providing Israel with a king, bringing the nations to Israel in worship, and healing certain lepers through a face-to-face interaction.

One might try to run some kind of a distinction between the goods wrought in the Incarnation, so as to delineate the goods that are the proper subject of a theory of the atonement or the proper answers to "Why did God become man?" Let's try a few such distinctions.

First, there is a distinction between those goods that could be achieved without God becoming man and those goods that can only be achieved by God becoming man. But this won't draw the distinguishing line in the right place. First, pace Anselm, it is far from clear that we couldn't be forgiven with justice simply by divine fiat. Certainly, Aquinas thought we could. It would be fitting for the penalty to be paid by Christ on our behalf, but it would not be unjust for God simply to release us. Second, some of the goods lower down on the list require the Incarnation. Thus, the good of God's cooperating with Joseph in carpentry (this cooperation makes me think of Enoch walking with God, but in the case of Joseph there is a greater literalness) requires an Incarnation. (God can, by his omnipotent power, create tables ex nihilo, but such creation is not carpentry.) Likewise, there is a value to God healing the lepers through a face-to-face interaction of a sort that can only be had by means of the Incarnation.

Second, perhaps we could distinguish between reasons that are such that if they were present on their own, God would still have decided on the Incarnation, and reasons that were only contributory. Thus, while omnirationality implies that God became man in part in order to work with Joseph, surely if no other goods were realized by the Incarnation than God's engaging in carpentry with Joseph, then there would be no Incarnation. But why think that? God could have done it. Maybe it would be an unlikely scenario, but surely a possible one. Why accept the counterfactual of free will that had God had working with Joseph as the only reason to be Incarnate then he wouldn't have done it? Such a counterfactual seems meaningless (or trivially false) to me, and even Molinists need not extend their view to counterfactuals of divine freedom.

Third, perhaps we can distinguish reasons such that were they absent, the Incarnation would not have occurred. But again we get into dubious counterfactuals about divine decisions. Take one of the "big" reasons for the Incarnation. I see no reason to accept the counterfactual that had that reason been absent, there would have been no Incarnation. God might still have become incarnate for the other reasons.

There is, of course, a distinction as to the weight of the reasons. The "big" reasons are much better reasons. But this distinction is one of degree.

So it seems to me that the answer to the question of why God became man is simply a list. Aquinas gives ten items to put on the list. There are many more. We can prioritize the items on the list, of course. But each of the items on the list will be a reason that God was acting in the light of, since God acts in the light of all the unexcluded good reasons in favor of his action.

This does not imply that there is no such thing as a theory of the atonement, just that the question "Why did God become man?" doesn't delineate the theory precisely enough.


Heath White said...

Maybe we could say this. The Incarnation accomplishes a lot of goods, and so a strict literal answer to "Why did God become man?" would be a long list.

However, a number of these goods cohere--they explain and support one another--in a way we can sum up as "to make salvation possible for human beings [in a particularly fitting way]." (Athanasius: God became man that men might become gods.) This is what Aquinas is trying to do.

Pulling out all the threads of this big coherent package is what one might call "the theory of the Atonement." Goods which are not closely related to this package (e.g. helping Joseph make tables) would not be included in the theory of the Atonement.

Here, by the way, are fifty reasons Jesus died.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I like this. And as it happens, the goods that cohere in this way probably include the greatest of the goods achieved.

And thanks for the link. The table of contents is by itself worth looking through.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Alex, Heath:

For me the Casting Crowns song "My Savior Lives. My Savior Loves" says it all. It is one of my favorite Christian songs. I think it sums it up for all of us:

"I am not skilled to understand
What God has willed, what God has planned
I only know at His right hand
Stands one who is my Savior

I take Him at His word and deed
Christ died to save me; this I read
And in my heart I find a need
Of Him to be my savior

That He would leave His place on high
And come for sinful man to die
You count it strange, so once did I
Before I knew my Savior

Chorus (2x’s)
My Savior loves, My Savior lives
My Savior’s always there for me
My God: He was, my God; He is
My God is always gonna be

Yes, living, dying, let me bring
My strength, my solace from this spring;
That He who lives to be my King
Once died to be my Savior

That He would leave His place on high
And come for sinful man to die
You count it strange, so once did I
Before I knew my Savior

Chorus (2x's)
My Savior loves, My Savior lives
My Savior’s always there for me
My God: He was, my God; He is
My God is always gonna be"

Let's all just admit it. We're not skilled to understand.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

I have my own take on this. when I was in RCIA some ten years ago, the RCIA instructor said to us that it is Jesus who makes the invisible God visible, or the unknown God known. It was words to that effect. I just can't remember them exactly.

I have always taken spiritual direction from my horses Merlin and Storm. I know it sounds odd, but they wwere the best of spiritual directors. In this one case I wore an Icelandic wool jacket out into the field. Storm came up to me. He sniffed the wool and then my slacks. The wool told him that I was an animal more like himself, the slacks that I was a human far above himself. He was trying to determine if I was like a remote human, or more like something closer to himself. The lady that ran the barn explained to me that with that wool jacket Storm was seeing me more as another animal and not as a human. Certainly Storm began acting towards me differently when I was wearing that wool jacket. Somehow the gulf between human and and horse disappeared. He began to act around me more like I was an animal like himself than a human. This is both exhilerating and risky. Risky, because I'm dealing with something that weighs a thousand pounds more than I do and some boundaries have disappeared. Driving home from the barn that day I was thinking on all this. That somehow in that wool jacket I had become one more like Storm. It was then that the understanding of the Incarnation hit me. This remote God on High, now becoming one of us and some of the boundaries between God and us disappearing and with that God knowing full well there was a risk of getting hurt.