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Friar’s E-Spirations: John Duns Scotus: His View of Christ

Was the sin of Adam and Eve the main reason Christ came to save the world? Not really, says Blessed John Duns Scotus, a Franciscan theologian of the 13th century.

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.

The Scotistic View

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.”

Not an Afterthought of God

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.

Of course 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.

Friar Jack’s discussion of John Duns Scotus will continue in his next

Dear Friar Jim: My Bible group uses Lectio Divina for our Scripture readings. We have frequently marveled at Pope Benedict’s words to “listen with the ear of your heart” because so many times that is exactly what happens! Your commentary about Zacchaeus is much the same in my opinion. He did open his heart to listen and accept Jesus’ invitation, but, more importantly to me, Luke’s account confirmed that Jesus is always by my side — talking, encouraging, guiding. My response is to do just that — respond. We need to truly listen, and, when we do, what love is in store for us! Cathy

Friar Jim: Thanks so much for the words. It has inspired me. Janet

A: Dear Cathy and Janet: Thank you for recounting your moments of conversion experience. Wonderful. And in all those years before, know that you were never out of the Lord’s sight. He was preparing your hearts for just the right moment. And you know the Lord’s timing is always perfect. Others wrote expressing concern for family members, remember Jesus loves them with an infinite love…he will never let them go. Pray and trust. Someday they may be surprised just like Zacchaeus was. People may be “up a tree,” but the Lord can see them and call them. Friar Jim