If Adam Had Not Sinned: The Reason for the Incarnation from Anselm to Scotus

Justus, H. Hunter, If Adam Had Not Sinned: The Reason for the Incarnation from Anselm to Scotus. Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2020. xvii, 257 pp., $75.00, cloth.

The hypothetical question of whether the Son would have become incarnate had there been no fall, has received sustained attention of late. This surge in interest, however, is usually motivated by particular Christological (or Christo-centric) concerns characteristic of 19th and 20th century theological intuitions, which usually append earlier theology to their projects for reasons quite different from their original context. Justus H. Hunter’s monograph considers the hypothetical question from Anselm to Scotus, and argues that, contrary to some contemporary interpretations, the Scotist and Thomist position on this matter actually comprise a harmonizable answer, or at least two discrete moments in the history of the question. Indeed, Aquinas and Bonaventure represent a third ‘moment’ in the proceedings of the debate, with the first moment involving an affirmation in response to the hypothetical that argue for the necessity of the incarnation, a second that prioritizes the freedom of the divine will and thus denies that necessity. The third ‘moment’ then, is a sort of tertium via, that argues for the fittingness of the incarnation (xiv-xv). Scotus’s proposed arguments initiate a new (fourth) moment, that moves the discussion away from modal issues to ‘the order of divine intentions’ (xv).

The first chapter defines some key terms: to answer the hypothetical question for these medieval theologians, one should determine an answer to a ‘general question’ and a ‘primacy question’. The general question has to do with how one might determine the reasons for which God works in general ad extra, while the primacy question has to do with the primary reason for the incarnation (14). Determining the primary reason does not, then, preclude other reasons for the incarnation, ordered in a particular way. The debates on the hypothetical, then, have less to do with the ordering of the decrees and the supra/infralapsarian binary, and more to do with ‘nesting’ the hypothetical within a general principle for divine action. The second chapter on Anselm expounds on some of the key moves that he makes in Cur Deus Homo, including accounts of the ways in which necessity might be ‘improperly’ predicated of God (for, God is never obligated by some external power), that reasons supplied for the divine economy should be ‘compossible’ with the divine nature, and the ‘fittingness’ (convenientia) of the incarnation.

Robert Grosseteste, a theologian of the first moment, is covered in the third chapter. What marks out the first moment is the deductive ways by which Grosseteste argued for the actuality of the incarnation in possible worlds where no fall obtains. Deductive arguments are supplied from divine attributes or the benefits that the incarnation brings sans the fall: ‘if x is some good, and our W-world is capable of x, then x will be actualized.’ (80) In effect, Grosseteste ‘presses all of Anselm’s convenientia arguments toward necessity’. (109)

The fourth chapter outlines the responses of the Dominicans at Paris, and theologians of the second moment, as represented by Geurric of Saint-Quentin and Albert the Great, before turning to Aquinas. While Geurric and Albert responded in opposing ways, both argued not from the necessity of the divine nature but rather from divine power and freedom (without the fall, an incarnation would not be necessary after all, for, say, the union of wills between God and human creatures suffices to communicate their union, [207]). In other words, while Geurric provides a negation to the hypothetical while Albert an affirmation, neither argue for their respective answers via a deductive or necessitarian mode of reasoning. Hence, while Albert affirms that the perfection of God’s works seem to imply the actuality of the incarnation even without the fall, Albert’s ‘argument does not establish necessity. Why? The only way to know the truth about the hypothetical question is through revelation’ (136).

Thomas inherits this posture of eschewing rational demonstration to determine an answer to the hypothetical question. Rather, an answer can only be supplied if one relies on divine revelation and infers probabilistic reasons for the incarnation’s ‘fittingness’ with certain truths about God, and the fall as a ‘necessity condition’ (143). The incarnation is thus not a necessary entailment from the fact of divine goodness, for that goodness is already manifested in a myriad of ways: ‘In this way, Thomas circumvents the Grossetestean deductions from divine perfections to the necessity of the incarnation’ (144). Indeed, Thomas develops this trajectory of reasoning further in his later writings, and his reasons for the fittingness of the incarnation presuppose its soteriological purpose.

The fifth chapter traces the arguments of the Franciscans, from the Summa Halensis, Odo Rigaldi (representatives of the first and second moment, respectively), and Bonaventure, whose ‘exposition has a subtlety and theological vision on the motive for the incarnation unparalleled in any of the figures we have encountered to this point’ (181). Bonaventure, like Aquinas, prefers the language of congruity to refer to the work of the incarnation: ‘while the incarnation reveals divine attributes, it is not necessitated by those attributes’ (178). A proper response to the hypothetical depends on a prior answer to the primacy question: is the incarnation, say, primarily to manifest some divine attribute, to satisfy some human need, to unify God with humans, or to redeem humanity from sin? If the incarnation’s primary reason is redemption from sin, then all other congruent reasons are annexed to the primary reason. Though it is possible to say that there are possible worlds where an incarnation obtains without a fall, the incarnation itself is not necessitated by some divine attribute, and our reasoning about God’s will should be subordinated to revelation. Thus, Bonaventure prefers a negative response to the hypothetical question, despite acknowledging the compossibility of possible worlds where there might be an incarnation with no fall (181). Affirming that the primary reason for the incarnation is redemption from sin, then, does not mean neglecting other congruous reasons for the incarnation – that it does manifest some divine attribute, or that it satisfies human longing – but it does subordinate these reasons, and they would presuppose the condition of the fall. Hunter sums up Bonaventure’s argument for the negative response by identifying five reasons:

To state them succinctly, the redemption from sin is the primary reason for the incarnation because:

(a) It is the only clear authoritative reason for the incarnation.
(b) It retains divine freedom over creation.
(c) It places Christ beyond all perfections of the universe.
(d) It commends the mystery of God’s incongruous response to sin.
(e) It inflames the love of God in the heart of the faithful. (184)

To reiterate, that Bonaventure prefers the negative answer to the hypothetical does not lead him to deny the fundamental importance of Christ, or that Christ is, in the de facto order decreed, the crown of creation. To say that Christ came principally because of sin is not to suggest that he came solely due to sin.

The last chapter summarizes the arguments of the book and closes by observing the contributions of Scotus, who represents a new ‘moment’ in the argument – a moment that develops the arguments from Aquinas and Bonaventure, rather than necessarily in competition against them. Scotus’s considers the hypothetical by examining the order of the divine intentions. He distinguishes between the order of intention vs the order of execution. While the former has the incarnation as the primary locus, the order of execution might have the incarnation as logically following the decree to permit a fall.

This brief review does not do justice to the carefulness of Hunter’s arguments, or the way in which he showcases the usefulness of possible-world analysis for understanding and elaborating on the 13th century debates. If there is one lacuna in Hunter’s fine work, it seems that he could supply some constructive suggestions for contemporary reflections on the hypothetical questions (per 139n. 90). He did, after all, suggest that the modern debates, influenced as they were by Reformed and Barthian concerns on the ordering of the decrees, the object of election, and the degree to which one’s theology is ‘Christo-centric’, has ‘skewed’ (26) a right perception of 13th century concerns. An analysis of how the medieval and modern could fruitfully dialogue on this point, given Hunter’s corrections and presentation, is still forthcoming and calls for more work to do.

N. Gray Sutanto
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington D.C.