The purpose of this critique will be to address Aquinas’ theology of Incarnation from Summa Theologiae, wherein he justifies by manner of metaphysics the incarnation of Christ. I will quote Aquinas and then follow with my remarks.
In explanation to those unaware of how Aquinas formatted his Summa Theologiae, he begun with the article’s question as below where a question is asked which affirms a philosophic principle or Christian doctrine. He then proposes several objections against the question, and then he follows with a rebuttal against the objections in support of a positive answer to the question in affirmation of Church teachings.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Part III, Q1.
Article 1. Whether it was fitting that God should become incarnate?
Objection 1. It would seem that it was not fitting for God to become incarnate. Since God from all eternity is the very essence of goodness, it was best for Him to be as He had been from all eternity. But from all eternity He had been without flesh. Therefore it was most fitting for Him not to be united to flesh. Therefore it was not fitting for God to become incarnate.
The above argument is in its essence the counter we would often make against the incarnation: the eternity of goodness is unchanging, and so it is not to be given up over to a mode such as incarnation at some point in time as though something new was to be derived from the eternally same.
Unmentioned however is the implicit presupposition that the cosmos exists for the sake of humans, where the Supreme God would elect our species for incarnation and no other. It is easy for us to assume as much, being the premier animal on Earth, but our existence does not necessarily preclude the existence of other rational animals—to the contrary, it makes other rational animals all the more likely—we just currently know of no other rational animals.
Objection 2. Further, it is not fitting to unite things that are infinitely apart, even as it would not be a fitting union if one were “to paint a figure in which the neck of a horse was joined to the head of a man” [Horace, Ars. Poet., line 1]. But God and flesh are infinitely apart; since God is most simple, and flesh is most composite—especially human flesh. Therefore it was not fitting that God should be united to human flesh.
This formulation against the incarnation of “infinite separation” is flawed and should not be included in an argument against the incarnation. Infinite separation would preclude knowing at least one of the infinitely separate things, but in knowing the existence of both things (God and flesh), there must be a certain togetherness. That togetherness is their common goodness, God being The Good within which flesh participates. Consequently there is no true separation, there is only a separation in absolute likeness which makes flesh unalike God in his total.
Objection 3. Further, a body is as distant from the highest spirit as evil is from the highest good. But it was wholly unfitting that God, Who is the highest good, should assume evil. Therefore it was not fitting that the highest uncreated spirit should assume a body.
This is not too different to the prior objection, although it makes bodies essentially evil, which we of course reject.
Objection 4. Further, it is not becoming that He Who surpassed the greatest things should be contained in the least, and He upon Whom rests the care of great things should leave them for lesser things. But God—Who takes care of the whole world—the whole universe of things cannot contain. Therefore it would seem unfitting that “He should be hid under the frail body of a babe in swathing bands, in comparison with Whom the whole universe is accounted as little; and that this Prince should quit His throne for so long, and transfer the government of the whole world to so frail a body,” as Volusianus writes to Augustine (Ep. cxxxv).
The articulation fails before it begins by presuming the exit of God from one place and entry into another. This is not the Christian understanding of incarnation and so should certainly never be used. The premise can be easily dismissed with reference to the John the Baptist episode (Mark 1:11) where God speaks to Jesus from the Heavens after his baptism.
On the contrary, It would seem most fitting that by visible things the invisible things of God should be made known; for to this end was the whole world made, as is clear from the word of the Apostle (Romans 1:20): “For the invisible things of God . . . are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.” But, as Damascene says (De Fide Orth. iii, 1), by the mystery of Incarnation are made known at once the goodness, the wisdom, the justice, and the power or might of God—”His goodness, for He did not despise the weakness of His own handiwork; His justice, since, on man’s defeat, He caused the tyrant to be overcome by none other than man, and yet He did not snatch men forcibly from death; His wisdom, for He found a suitable discharge for a most heavy debt; His power, or infinite might, for there is nothing greater than for God to become incarnate . . .”
I answer that, To each things, that is befitting which belongs to it by reason of its very nature; thus, to reason befits man, since this belongs to him because he is of a rational nature. But the very nature of God is goodness, as is clear from Dionysius (Div. Nom. i). Hence, what belongs to the essence of goodness befits God. But it belongs to the essence of goodness to communicate itself to others, as is plain from Dionysius (Div. Nom. iv). Hence it belongs to the essence of the highest good to communicate itself in the highest manner to the creature, and this is brought about chiefly by “His so joining created nature to Himself that one Person is made up of these three—the Word, a soul and flesh,” as Augustine says (De Trin. xiii). Hence it is manifest that it was fitting that God should become incarnate.
To summarise, the essence of Aquinas’ argument is that in answer to the communicative nature of goodness, it befits God to make the perfect communication of goodness because he is perfect goodness. This communication is the incarnation of Christ, he communicating God’s goodness perfectly. As Aquinas states, “by visible things the invisible things of God should be made known; for to this end was the whole world made”. His case for stating as much is unfortunately sourced from The Bible, so there is no discursion by which he justifies this for us to examine within this article.
Aquinas is nonetheless close to what is true, though he has reversed what is right. Rather than the visible being made so that the invisible might be known, it is rather the visible is made because the invisible is known. It is true that the visible is representative of the invisible, and if we were to assume that the whole cosmic order was manifested for the sake of us then it becomes easy to say that these visible representations do exist solely for the sake of indicating the invisible to us. However, abandoning anthropocentric assumptions makes this explanation no longer feasible.
We find a different relation exists between the invisible and visible, and we might more easily come to understand it by beginning with ourselves. Soul, the invisible, imparts the form of body onto matter, the visible. Soul, knowing the invisible which is itself, manifests the visible by virtue of this, and so consequently the visible (body) becomes a signifier of the invisible, but nonetheless this work is not made for the sake of the invisible revealing itself.
The invisible makes the visible because it wishes to continue the replication of good it knows within itself so that its own good would have no end, just as good has no end in the divine. Although it lacks the full power to achieve a truly endless good like that of God, it nonetheless pursues the achievement of this through reproduction and evolution. Hence all visible is ruled by the invisible, and the invisible drives the visible towards continual replication so that the empire of good may be endlessly expanded, and it is by this eternal march of expanding goodness driven by the invisible towards endless good that the whole visible world is in eternal continual change.
So what of good’s communicative nature? For clarity, what we mean by “the communicative nature of goodness” is that a thing can only be known by its goodness, and it is only known by its goodness because it communicates that goodness. If it did not communicate goodness, then it simply could not be known, so all goodness must be communicative. Derived from this, Aquinas suggests that God created the world to fulfil this end of communicating goodness. It is likely to be argued that to reverse the communication would be incoherent as God must be the primal good and so all subsequent generation must be the product of his own primal communication of goodness.
We must recollect that God’s simplicity necessitates that when we say ‘God is Good’, we do not mean ‘God is goodness’—goodness pertaining to the essence of being good—but rather, ‘God is the source of all goodness’. We must make this point of difference if we are to distinguish what it means to be ‘a good thing’ from what it means to be God. It is necessary to prevent any incidental relating between the nature of goodness and the nature of God, for God is necessarily separate from ‘goodness’ itself by degree of him being the source of goodness but not goodness itself. So, to repeat, when God is said to be ‘The Good’, it is not in that he is the essence of what it is to be Good, but rather that he is the source of that essence; his simplicity necessitates the distinction, for goodness and good things are relative to particular natures, but nothing can be relative within simplicity, for all is unitary.
Establishing this, we know then that when we observe goodness’s communicative nature, we must be careful not carry this same nature onwards to God, for when relating to God as ‘Good’ we do not actually mean the same thing as goodness, nor that God is merely the sum of all good things. Goodness has communication as a property because it is not God: communication is goodness carried into motion towards goodness, motion a product of goodness seeking unity, and unity is God.
As communication is this motion towards unity and not a product of that which possesses unity, we are further required to preclude divine perfection from participating in this manner of communication, for God holds unity in rest. Communication is only found among goods which are not holistic in their unity and so are moved towards superior union. Therefore, these goods communicate what good they have so that they might unify with their counterparts and make superior unions. This is what engenders love and why we can be given up so easily to many goods; our primal desire for unity has us accumulate every particle of good in hope of achieving superior union.
We must admit, however, that our philosophy demands by hierarchy that there be some superior which stands as intermediary between motionless unity and motioned goodness, a being which we could name the ‘perfect communication of goodness’. This being would be the total unity of goodness in motion, the whole sum of all particular goods, and so by virtue of this the ‘perfect communication’ for contained within this being must be every communication of goodness.
Therefore every motion is contained within this being, yet this motion is possessed via restful unity, needless of further unification, and so is seated within God. This being falls short of being God only by its containment of all communicative good—God surpassing any nature of ‘containment’ for within God all things are one, and so free from distinctions of ‘the container’ and ‘the contained’—but in all other manners they are same.
The name this being is given within our philosophy varies, but by Plotinus we name it the ‘All-Soul’, the third of Plotinus’ hypostases. We conclude in a somewhat similar manner to Christian theology that, indeed, despite the above rectifications we have made to how goodness is to be understood in relation to God, there still is needed by the nature of goodness the ‘perfect communication’; however, we do not and cannot conclude as they do with divine incarnation via man as the end of perfect communication.
The perfect communication, or in other words the perfect visible revelation of goodness made wholly manifest within a single, unitary instance, is the Cosmos. The All-Soul, the being who in Plotinus is the all-governing and life-giving power which drives the Cosmos into motion, contains all communication and all motion within itself through the manifestation of the Cosmos. The Cosmos then, were we to use Christian terminology, is the divine incarnation. Therefore, the All-Soul is Heraclitus’ Logos; the invisible that is signified and revealed in the visible. Here we find the revelatory communique delivered to us via the incarnation of cosmos.
Reply to Objection 1. The mystery of Incarnation was not completed through God being changed in any way from the state in which He had been from eternity, but through His having united Himself to the creature in a new way, or rather through having united it to Himself. But it is fitting that a creature which by nature is mutable, should not always be in one way. And therefore, as the creature began to be, although it had not been before, so likewise, not having been previously united to God in Person, it was afterwards united to Him.
We have found then that there has been this union whereby the invisible is unified with the visible and is so in the same manner described by Aquinas, where unity is “through having united [the creature] to Himself”. The All-Soul has brought all the Cosmos into union with itself, drawing as it were from matter and making it integral within itself. Yet our philosophy does not accept that this process was done at some point in time like Christ’s incarnation, but rather the All-Soul is an eternal produced from eternity, and so likewise the union between it and Cosmos has also been eternal. Therefore, this we describe as incarnation has also been eternal, and it is more fitting that an eternal would incarnate eternally, for if it is by the nature of the eternally immutable to be incarnate, then it should eternally be incarnate.
We argue then that it cannot be fitting for the eternally immutable to have in its nature to be incarnate and yet for it to not be incarnate until some certain time. Even if this is achieved via the creature’s mutability as described by Aquinas, would this not implicate the immutable with some alteration of state from first not accommodating this unity of creature with God to then accommodating this unity? It may be argued that God’s nature necessitates the unity of all creatures into his possession and so no novel union is had, but this being so, how are we to make difference between the mutable creature made united with God from the mutable creature not united?
If it is instead argued that all creatures are in some deficient or inferior manner unified with God, but Christ was creature perfectly unified, we must query how it is that God, whose immutable and eternal nature is to perfectly unify creatures to himself, only elected to do so with one creature at one certain time? Perhaps it is answered that it is by Christ that God will unify all creatures to him, and it is by this that he accords with his eternal nature, but this being so, how would we explain eternal damnation? And this does not adequately answer why only at some certain time, in some certain place, via some certain person, seeing that his nature is immutably and eternally to achieve this end. How can a nature be said to be eternal beyond time if it is only completed once within time?
We find that instead, when admitting to the same necessities placed upon us by our philosophy to provide answer to the perfect communication, that there is far greater reason to admit the Plotinian All-Soul, that which stands as eternal master to its incarnation in Cosmos, driving it into being continually and expressing itself fully through this grand and endless communique. There we retain the eternality of nature, the perfection of communication, and the incarnation.
Reply to Objection 2. To be united to God in unity of person was not fitting to human flesh, according to its natural endowments, since it was above its dignity; nevertheless, it was fitting that God, by reason of His infinite goodness, should unite it to Himself for man’s salvation.
Reply to Objection 3. Every mode of being wherein any creature whatsoever differs from the Creator has been established by God’s wisdom, and is ordained to God’s goodness. For God, Who is uncreated, immutable, and incorporeal, produced mutable and corporeal creatures for His own goodness. And so also the evil of punishment was established by God’s justice for God’s glory. But evil of fault is committed by withdrawing from the art of the Divine wisdom and from the order of the Divine goodness. And therefore it could be fitting to God to assume a nature created, mutable, corporeal, and subject to penalty, but it did not become Him to assume the evil of fault.
Reply to Objection 4. As Augustine replies (Ep. ad Volusian. 137): “The Christian doctrine nowhere holds that God was so joined to human flesh as either to desert or lose, or to transfer and as it were, contract within this frail body, the care of governing the universe. This is the thought of men unable to see anything but corporeal things . . . God is great not in mass, but in might. Hence the greatness of His might feels no straits in narrow surroundings. Nor, if the passing word of a man is heard at once by many, and wholly by each, is it incredible that the abiding Word of God should be everywhere at once?” Hence nothing unfitting arises from God becoming incarnate.
Having already addressed these objections earlier as unacceptable, I will not make any argument in defence of them.