Franciscan Tradition & Resources

John Duns Scotus: His View of Christ

painting of Blessed John Duns Scotus

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.

To quote Meister Eckhart, a medieval Dominican theologian who died in 1327, there has been only “one word” spoken by the Father, namely, the Son of God, “and in that single word, God uttered all things.” This teaching helps us realize that all Scripture, though composed of many words, characters, and actions, is leading up to and giving expression to the one Word of God, whom we Christians profess as Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.

All Things Culminate in Christ

Similarly, in the ongoing process of creation, there are many elements: minerals, plants, animals, and human persons. In the Christian view, as St. Paul expresses so well, all these elements and individuals are coming to a culmination in Jesus Christ. God’s plan, indeed, is “to bring everything together under Christ as head” (see Ephesians 1:10, Jerusalem Bible).

It is as though each one of us plays a part in that one sacred Word, that one mysterious drama of love, present in the mind of God from all eternity. It’s a beautiful, developing drama, a beauty whose end we cannot see. Starting with the first day of creation, the Word of God—the coeternal mirror of the Father—has been slowly emerging down the ages. The Word has become visible in the Incarnation and will reach its full revelation when Jesus returns in glory on the last day.

St. Francis’ Words Foreshadow Scotus’ View

Francis of Assisi, whose vision always centered on Christ, also provided a foundation for Duns Scotus’ perspective and that of the Franciscan school of thought. Francis wrote in his Admonitions: “Be conscious, O human being, of the wondrous state in which the Lord has placed you, for he created you and formed you to the image of his beloved Son.”

The Franciscan Saints

3 thoughts on “John Duns Scotus: His View of Christ”

  1. I understand Scotus’ point of view, that Jesus the Word of God, would have entered into humanity whether Adam had sinned or not. But if there was no sin then there would’ve been no need for the cross. How does Scotus handle that question?

  2. It appears that scotus believed that the purpose of the cross was not to change the mind of God about man, but to change the mind of man about God. Seeing God in in the flesh pierced and dying for our sinful need to do violence to those whom we disagree with should cause us to repent and set us free from our sinfulness.
    Hope this helps. I would look up Richard Rhor as a good source on Scotus.

  3. Maximos the Confessor (c. 580 – 13 August 662) also held that God, because of His love, would have become incarnate in order that human beings would enter into a deeper communion with Him even if the fall had never occurred.
    I’m not sure if Scotus had read his works but this is a case of two people, centuries apart, one in the East another in the West, talking about, more or less, the same thing.
    Its who I at time find it odd that people think Scotus’ view on this matter is controversial in that he’s not the only one to have held this position.

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