Whether Christ Pre-dates Original Sin

Anthony Zimmerman
Posted on Envoy Magazine site
March 11, 2005.
Reproduced with Permission

Thomists argue that the Incarnation was decreed in response to original sin. Scotist say even more: Christ was decreed from Eternity.

Christ, when He comes again in glory, will hand the cosmos over to the Father. Until that dramatic event transpires, it is Christ who holds the reins of the cosmos in His hands. This paper explores whether God made the cosmos for Christ initially, or whether God sent Him into an already existing cosmos to save us from our sins.

The ceremony of the end of the world, when Christ will solemnly present the cosmos to the Father, is commemorated in this sentence, a literary gem, that opens the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum issued on March 25, 2004:

In the Most Holy Eucharist, Mother Church with steadfast faith acknowledges the Sacrament of redemption, joyfully takes it to herself, celebrates it and reveres it in adoration, proclaiming the death of Christ Jesus and confessing his Resurrection until he comes in glory to hand over as unconquered Lord and Ruler, eternal Priest and King of the Universe, a kingdom of truth and life to the immense majesty of the Almighty Father.

The Ceremony with which Christ will shut down the cosmos will begin with His dazzling arrival, bright as lightning that flashes from east to west. Next "He will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other" (Matt 24:27;31). Thereafter comes the Judgment, and then eternity:

Life eternal! O what wonders
Crowd on faith, what joy unknown,
When, amidst earthÕs closing thunders,
Saints shall stand before the throne!
(Sunday Morning Hymn, Week II.)

Christ will ring down the curtain on time as the last of mankind disperses off the face of the globe, the wicked moving into the hell of "eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (cf. Matt 26:46). We ask now whether Christ was also instrumental in the initial launching of the cosmos.

Controversy: Would Christ have come if Adam had not sinned?

Two great schools of theologians are lined up on opposite sides of the question whether Christ became incarnate as a response of God to AdamÕs sin (the Thomist school), or whether God made Christ to be the Alpha and Omega of the cosmos already from its inception, not essentially in response to the commission of sin (the Scotist school).

The Thomists cite formidable theologians for their view: Saint Augustine (d. 430), Pope Saint Leo the Great (d. 461) Saint Thomas (d. 1274) and others. The Scotists can cite Saint Irenaeus (d. 207), Saint Albert the Great (d. 1280), Blessed Duns Scotus (d. 1308), and many modern theologians (Ott, 176). After hearing proponents of both sides, we will consult recent documents of the Church and reflect on the entire question.

Thomists: Christ came in response to the sin of Adam

Saint Augustine (d. 430), asserted categorically that "if man had not sinned, the Son of Man would not have come." Also: "Christ came into this world to save sinners. There was no cause of Christ's coming into the world, except to save sinners. Take away diseases, take away wounds, and there is no need of medicine (De Verb. Apost. VIII.2, cited by Thomas, Summa Theologica, III,1,3).

Pope St. Leo the Great (d. 461) discoursed that if man had not sinned, the Creator would not have become a creature:

For if man, made after the image and likeness of God, had retained the dignity of his own nature, and had not been deceived by the devilÕs wiles into transgressing through lust the law laid down for him, the Creator of the world would not have become a Creature, the Eternal would not have entered the sphere of time, nor God the Son, Who is equal with God the Father, have assumed the form of a slave and the likeness of sinful flesh. But because "by the devilÕs malice death entered into the world," and captive humanity could not otherwise be set free without His undertaking our cause, Who without loss of His majesty should both become true Man, and alone have no taint of sin, the mercy of the Trinity divided for Itself the work of our restoration in such a way that the Father should be propitiated, the Son should propitiate, and the Holy Ghost enkindle.

Saint Thomas (d. 1274), eight centuries after Augustine and Leo, tends to agree with Saint Augustine on this question, but states also that God could have become man even if there had been no sin:

I answer that there are different opinions about this question. For some say that even if man had not sinned, the Son of Man would have become incarnate. Others assert the contrary, and seemingly our assent ought rather to be given to this opinion.

For 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, in which the Divine Will is made known to us. Hence, since everywhere in the Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason of the Incarnation, it is more in accordance with this to say that the work of the Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin; so that, had sin not existed, the Incarnation would not have been. And yet the power of God is not limited to this; -- even had sin not existed, God could have become incarnate.

That Jesus came to save us from our sins is indeed evident from Holy Scripture. The angel told Joseph that Mary "will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Matt 1:21). However, this doctrine does not necessarily deny that He might have come for more expansive reasons.

Closely connected with what we perceive as GodÕs motivation for the Incarnation is another question, namely whether God bestowed the first gift of sanctifying grace upon Adam directly without the mediation of Christ (gratia Dei); or whether God bestowed this first grace on Adam before his fall through the mediation of Christ (gratia Christi). Saint Irenaeus taught that Christ was already associating with Adam before his sin, which unmistakably associates Christ with the first grace of Adam (gratia Christi).

Irenaeus: Christ alone made our divine sonship possible

Saint Irenaeus (d. 207) has the Word of God walking in the Garden of Eden with Adam before the sin, a delightful thought. The saint suggests that the Word kept company with Adam and Eve there, as a kind of preparation for His future sojourn on earth. The passage assumes that the Incarnation is already in operation before AdamÕs sin:

And so fair and goodly was the Garden, the Word of God was constantly walking in it; He would walk around and talk with the man, prefiguring what was to come to pass in the future, how He would become man!s fellow, and talk with him, and come among mankind teaching them justice.

Irenaeus has an even more interesting concept, namely that God prefers to have a go-between in all associations with man. Christ should be that Go-between:

For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are, so that the corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and the mortal by immortality, that might receive the adoption of sons?

Here the passage of Exodus comes to mind, where God warned Moses to come no closer to the burning bush: "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground" (Exodus 3:4-5).

It is apparently dangerous for mortal man to come too close to the Almighty. Irenaeus suggests that Christ is safety insulation between God and mortal man.

In still another passage, Irenaeus proposes that God already had the greater plan of ChristÕs Incarnation in mind before He found room for Adam in that plan:

The Word, the Maker of all things, had formed beforehand for Himself the future dispensation of the human race, connected with the Son of God; God having predestined that the first man should be of an animal nature, with this view, that he might be saved by the spiritual One. For inasmuch as He had a pre-existence as a saving Being, it was necessary that what might be saved should also be called into existence, in order that the Being who saves should not exist in vain (Adv. Haer. III,22,3, trans. Logos CD).

This pioneer theologian, as is obvious, believed that God decreed the Incarnation for a cosmic plan that includes the forgiveness of sins but is vastly beyond that in its scope. Christ came to jubilate the glories of God out of the cosmos, and to draw to Himself Adam and all of us to join Him in the service of praise.

Blessed Duns Scotus: God made the cosmos for Christ

The soaring thoughts of Duns Scotus envision the Blessed Trinity as creating the cosmos to be a platform on which Christ can love Him from outside of the Trinitarian circle. The forgiveness of sin is not at all the deciding factor for the Incarnation in GodÕs mind:

God first loves Himself; secondly, He loves Himself for others, and this is an ordered love; thirdly, He wishes to be loved by the One who can love Him in the highest way - speaking of the love of someone who is extrinsic to Him; and fourthly, He foresees the union of that nature which must love Him with the greatest love even if no one had fallen.

Scotus is decidedly against making ChristÕs Incarnation dependent upon the sin of Adam. He declared it absurd that the Son of God should have to wait for Adam to sin so that He might become Man.

Christ, Axis of Cosmic Operations

Two recent documents of the Magisterium resonate the theme of Irenaeus and Scotus that Christ is the Centerpiece of history:

"It is precisely this uniqueness of Christ which gives him an absolute and universal significance whereby, while belonging to history, he remains history's centre and goal: ÔI am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end' (Rev 22:13)."

Only because Christ became man did God find it appropriate to invite man to intimate communion with Himself, clothing him with resplendent grace and justice: "The Fathers have laid great stress on this soteriological dimension of the mystery of the Incarnation: it is only because the Son of God truly became man that man, in him and through him, can truly become God."

The Incarnation is thus designed by God to be the bridge over which all commerce between God and man passes. The bridge is, so to say, constructed of the supreme love whereby the God-Man freely gave His life for us. God did not wish to throw His gifts at us, so to speak, across the gulf that separates us from Himself. Rather, God passes His gifts first to Christ, who then passes them to us. God rejoices to deliver His gifts to us always neatly wrapped in a precious smile of ChristÕs love.

CCC: Our first parents received divine sonship from Christ

Two paragraphs of the CCC indicate a corporate continuity between the original Adamic revelation and subsequent communications of God with man. This implies that the graces given to Adam and descendants after the fall - graces given by Christ - are a continuation of the original grace given before the fall. There is no indication of a transition from a gratia Dei before the fall, to a gratia Christi after the fall. From this we can conclude that it was Christ who bestowed grace upon Adam before he sinned. Thus the CCC sides with the Scotists, not with the Thomists:

54 "God ... manifested himself to our first parents from the very beginning." He invited them to intimate communion with himself and clothed them with resplendent grace and justice. 55 This revelation was not broken off by our first parent's sin....

Would Christ have suffered if there had been no sin?

We thank Christ that He has atoned for our sins by His sufferings, as Isaiah attests: "But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed" (Isaiah 53:4-5). Thomists might argue that His sufferings for our sins is proof that He came in response to our sins, to save us from them. That view may be too narrow, for Christ also perfected His own being by undergoing His passion and death.

Let us suppose for the sake of discussion that Christ would have become Incarnate in a sinless world. Might He then have been spared all suffering and death? We think of His transformation on Mount Tabor. Such a Christ would seem to us to be "less developed" and less convincing than the Christ who first allowed himself to be crucified, then arose from the dead and ascended into heaven.

Certainly we were not a comfort to Christ when we sinned and occasioned His sufferings, for "upon him was the punishment that made us whole." The marvel is that Christ perfected Himself, and consummated also His love for us, precisely by undergoing His passion, death, and resurrection.

To be the High Priest of the cosmos, it was fitting that Christ indicate by His death and resurrection that God is Creator, and that the cosmos is contingent. Such was the import of the Old Testament holocaust: the animal was slaughtered and changed into flame and smoke ascending to heaven, "an offering by fire, a pleasing odor to the Lord" (Lev. 1:9). To perfect His being as God-Man, as the Pantokrator, as the Primate of the cosmos, Christ should also become a holocaust:

Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchisedek (Heb. 5:10).

The most perfect expression of the relationship of the cosmos to its Creator was precisely ChristÕs obedience unto death, unto the death of the cross. This sacrifice was the total fulfillment of ChristÕs mission on earth, the action most fitting for His High Priesthood, even if this was done without reference to any sin. Theologian Matthias Scheeben expresses this truth eloquently in these paragraphs:

This overflow of suffering was not needed to satisfy for manÕs sins; a single drop of Christ's blood, even a single tear, would have fully sufficed. Only because Christ was to glorify God so perfectly that no higher degree is conceivable, did the measure of His suffering have to be in keeping with the infinite dignity of the offerer, and the infinite value of the sacrificial Lamb.

... But Christ also celebrated His supreme triumph therein; for He is greatest when He most glorifies God. Hence His abasement is not an abasement unworthy of Him. By divesting Himself of the glory that is His as the Son of God, He proves most magnificently that He is God's true Son, who wishes to glorify His Father in every possible way, and in the absolutely highest way. In His suffering and death He appears even greater and nobler than He does in His glorified, impassible body after His resurrection. Even in His glorified body the marks of His voluntary suffering are the most beautiful pearls that adorn Him, and make Him far more attractive than the brilliant light that encompasses Him....

The infinite love which the Son bore for His Father and which in His divinity He could manifest only by the co-possession and co-fruition of the Father's glory, impelled Him to glorify His Father by the perfect surrender and divestment of Himself in a nature subject to pain. This love also impelled Him to associate the members of His mystical body in the same project and for the same end. Are these conclusions an exaggeration? May we not make bold to add that this self- annihilation, so far as it was achieved in the name of creation and for the benefit of creation, was intended to make it possible for creatures to offer God the most sublime homage, and that thus it was destined to acquire and assure the highest favor and grace for them from God's side? Are we out of joint with the sense of Christianity, or do we not rather express its very soul, if we assert that not only was the world's sickness to be cured, but the world itself was to be raised to the summit of honor and glory, by no other means than Christ's suffering?

Indeed Christ enables us to give the highest glory to God by the daily offering of the Sacrifice of the Mass: "From the rising of the sun to the setting thereof, my name is great among the nations" (Malachi 1:11). The Christ who suffered thus, who consumed His total energies in fueling His love for God, was Christ at His best, was our Primate functioning at peak performance. Now He can give us the energy and holiness to go and do likewise, namely to "love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength, and to love thy neighbor as thyself."


With Scotists and with Thomists alike, we thank the Lamb of God for taking away the sins of the world. But departing from Thomists and with Scotists only we thank Him for even more: for the existence of the cosmos, and for resonating the symphony of the cosmos with Him as we offer daily Mass.

Theologian Ott agrees that the Scotist view of Christ is grander than that of the Thomists, but he believes also that the Thomist view is more securely founded in what we know of the Faith:

According to the Scotist view, all grace, not only the grace of fallen mankind, but also the grace of man in Paradise, and the grace of the angels, derives from the merits of the God-Man. Thus Christ assumes a central all-transcending position in the divine world-plan.

The Thomist view is less ambitious than that of the Scotists, but appears to be better supported in the sources of the Faith (Ott 177).

With the Scotist view that Christ taught Adam the Primeval Revelation and endowed him with grace before the fall, we have fair reason to approach members of other religions as our older Christian brothers and sisters in the Faith. The diffuse Faith they partially retain via traditions that recall dimly the Primeval Revelation, conditioned though it be by accretions and imperfections acquired through the ages, is a valid foundation on which to build a fuller Faith in Christ. All peoples on earth perceive to some extent the Ten Commandments once promulgated in the Garden of Eden, because they undergird genuine human cultures that persist though the ages. With this heritage held in common the now globalized village earth can forge world peace. The Villagers can also welcome the proclamation of the Gospel as a family-friendly perfection of their ancient Faith. The Faith they inherited through Adam can continue to shine in them, now with added brilliance and joy and Alleluia's, through the celebration of Christmas and Pentecost.

The great mosaic of Christ in the vault of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, displays Him majestically as the Pantokrator, the power who rules the universe.

And with the priest who blesses the Easter Candle on Holy Saturday, we hail Him as our Alpha and Omega:

Christ, yesterday and today
the beginning and the end
and Omega
all time belongs to him
and all the ages
to him be glory and power
though every age for ever. Amen