"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

— A Commentary on the Third Part of St Thomas' Theological Summa

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.


Let us now turn to speculative theology, which, as stated, has two tasks to perform.

1) It must give a philosophical analysis of the terms used in revealed dogma, so that their meaning may be better known, for, as the Vatican Council says in the text already quoted: "Reason enlightened by faith, when it seeks earnestly, piously, and calmly, attains by a gift from God, some, and that a very fruitful, understanding of the mysteries; partly from the analogy of those things which it naturally knows, partly from the relation which the mysteries bear to one another and the last end of man."[169] Thus the mystery of man must be illustrated from analysis of the notions of divine nature, human nature, person, as well as from the connection of this mystery with the mysteries of Redemption and of eternal life. In this part of speculative theology the discussions are either explicative, or subjectively illative.[170]

2) Speculative theology must deduce from revealed truths by a discursive process that is properly and objectively illative, other truths, namely, conclusions that are only virtually contained in the revealed truths. An example would be the following: Christ already had, when on earth, infused knowledge, which was inferior to the beatific vision.

We must begin by discussing the possibility and fittingness of the Incarnation.

St. Thomas starts abruptly by considering the fittingness of the Incarnation, whereas many theologians of later times first speak of its possibility; and this is what St. Thomas had done in the work preceding his Summa.[171] The reason why the holy Doctor omitted this question of the possibility is probably because he wishes to examine this question afterward, when he discusses the mode of the union (q. 2-15), which is concerned with the principal difficulties against the possibility of this mystery. Moreover, it is not absolutely necessary to begin by treating about the possibility of this mystery, because for the faithful this possibility follows from the fact of the Incarnation, which is of faith. From actuality to possibility, this follows as a logical consequence.

For the general benefit of the doctrine, however, theologians begin by asking whether the possibility of the Incarnation can be proved or known by the natural light of reason. This question has its advantages as regards method.

Incarnation corresponds to the Latin term "inhumanatio," which signifies the act of becoming man, and it is the union or unition of the human nature with the divine in the one person of the Word. This is evident from the traditional explanation of the words of St. John: "The Word was made flesh,"[172] in which "flesh" as frequently in Sacred Scripture is concerned with living and human flesh, which is not living and human unless united with a human soul. And it also says that this Word was made flesh to commend the humility of our Savior, who also willed to become man for our salvation.

But can the Incarnation be proved? In the first question of this treatise it will be shown, indeed, that there is no apparent contradiction in the Incarnation, and that it cannot be proved impossible. But the question now is, as posited above, whether this possibility can be proved by reason alone. There does not seem to be any apparent contradiction in the affirmation of a divine quaternity, and yet there lurks a contradiction in this affirmation. There cannot be four persons in God, nor merely two, but three. Is it therefore possible to prove the Incarnation? This question is commonly answered in the negatives.[173]

Authoritative proof. St. Paul calls the Incarnation, "the mystery which hath been hidden in God."[174] The Eleventh Council of Toledo says: "If the Incarnation could be shown possible by reason, then it would not be an object of admiration; if it were an example, then would not be unique."[175]

Similarly, against the semi-rationalists, who wish to prove the revealed mysteries, especially against Froschammer, Pius IX wrote: "The author teaches that reason, also in the most secret matters pertaining to God's wisdom and goodness, even too in the mysteries that are dependent on His free will, although granted that they have been revealed, can by itself, not relying on the already established principle of divine authority, but on its own natural principles and powers, acquire a certainty of knowledge. Everyone who has a slight knowledge of the rudiments of Christian doctrine immediately sees and likewise fully realizes how altogether false and erroneous is the author's teaching."[176]

It is true, indeed, that Froschammer wished to prove not only the possibility but also the very fact of the Incarnation. If, however, the possibility of the Incarnation could be apodictically and positively proved, as the possibility of any miracle, for instance, of the Resurrection, then the Incarnation would be only a miracle that is supernatural as regards the mode of its production, but it would not be a mystery in the strict sense, that it is essentially supernatural.

In the condemnation of semi-rationalism, it is stated: "And assuredly, since these dogmas are above nature, therefore they are beyond the scope of reason and natural principles."[177]

The Vatican Council also says: "If anyone shall say that in divine revelation there are no mysteries, truly and properly so called, but that all the doctrines of faith can be understood and demonstrated from natural principles by properly cultivated reason, let him be anathema."[178]

Theological proof.[179] What is essentially supernatural is supernatural as regards its knowability, even for the angels.

But the intrinsic possibility of the Incarnation is the intrinsic possibility of something essentially supernatural, which has no necessary and evident connection with things of the natural order.

Therefore this possibility is supernatural as regards its knowability, even for the angel. Hence it cannot be demonstrated, but only persuasive arguments of fitness can be advanced, and it can be defended against those who deny it.

The major is evident, for truth and being are convertible.

Minor. The Incarnation is not only a miracle that is supernatural as regards the mode of its production, such as the resurrection of the dead, but it is also an essentially supernatural mystery, for it is the intimate union of the human nature with the divine nature as it is in itself, in the person of the Word. But the divine nature as it is in itself, and the person of the Word are essentially supernatural; on the contrary, God as the author of nature has a necessary and evident connection with things of the natural order.

Reason, however, can solve the objections against the possibility of this mystery, by showing them to be either false or unnecessary.[180] Moreover, reason can urge the fitness of this mystery by arguments that are not apodictic but congruent. These arguments are truly profound; in fact, they can always be the result of keen penetration by either the human or angelic intellect, but this penetration can never reach the degree required for demonstration.

Objection. To prove that anything is not contradictory is to prove it possible.

But it is proved that the Incarnation is not contradictory.

Therefore the Incarnation is proved possible.

I distinguish the major. To prove that anything is not contradictory, positively and evidently, this I concede; that it is not so negatively and probably, this I deny. So writes Billuart.[181]

In this kind of argument we do not proceed from some a priori or a posterior) reasoning that is positively demonstrative of this possibility, but our reasoning rests on probable and apparent grounds. Thus it is shown that the possibility of the Incarnation is never disproved; the objections are not impossible of solution, for they can be shown to be either false or at least not cogent.

Another objection. But God is in Himself essentially supernatural, and yet reason alone apodictically proves His existence. Therefore, although the mystery of the Incarnation is essentially supernatural, reason alone apodictically proves at least the possibility, if not the fact of the Incarnation.

Reply. I distinguish the antecedent. That God is in Himself as regards His Deity or intimate life essentially supernatural, this I concede. Nevertheless, as the Author of nature, He has a necessary and evident connection with created effects of the natural order, and so in this inferior aspect the truth of this proposition, God exists, is demonstrated cum fundamento in re,[182] although we have not a positive and natural knowledge of God's essence or of His act of essence. On this point St. Thomas says: "To be can mean either of two things. It may mean the act of essence or it may mean the composition of a proposition effected by the mind in joining a predicate to a subject. Taking 'to be' in the first sense, we cannot understand God's existence or His essence; but only in the second sense. We know that this proposition which we form about God when we say 'God is,’ is true; and this we know from His effects."[183] But there is nothing similar to this in the Incarnation of the Word, because this mystery, just as the intimate life of the Trinity, has no necessary and evident connection with natural effects; hence neither the fact nor the possibility of this mystery can be demonstrated from natural principles, for this possibility transcends demonstration. These arguments of congruence may always be made more profound, but they will never reach the degree required for an apodictic argument, just as the sides of a polygon inscribed in a circle may be increased indefinitely, yet they will never be identified with the circumference of the circle, because the sides will never be diminished so as to become a point.

But I insist. It is apodictically proved that there is in God a supernatural order of truth and of life.

Reply. We are not positively but only negatively assured of this order by such a proof, which is the case with any order whose mysteries cannot be known in a natural way.

Still Gregory of Valentia insists that at least the angelic intellect can perhaps prove this possibility, because the angel intuitively sees the human nature as distinct from its subsistence or personality, and therefore as assumable by the divine subsistence.

Reply. The angelic intellect cannot know in a natural way whether the divine subsistence, which is essentially supernatural, can, without implying imperfection, take the place of human subsistence.

Corollary. A fortiori the angelic intellect cannot know by its natural powers the fact of the Incarnation.

Gregory of Valentia remarks that the angel, since He sees intuitively that the human nature of Christ is without its own personality, must immediately conclude that this human nature is personally united to some divine person.

Reply. This conclusion is not established, for the angel could conclude: the human personality of this man is hidden from me, because of motives known to God alone. Thus it is certain that the created intellect by its own natural powers cannot know that the Incarnation is possible, much less that it is a fact.

The objections that can be raised, however, against the possibility of the Incarnation are solved in the course of this treatise.[184] It will suffice here at the beginning to take note of the principal objection, by way of a statement of the question. It is one proposed by St. Thomas,[185] and may be stated as follows:

God cannot be subject to any intrinsic change, or be intrinsically otherwise than He is.

But by the Incarnation God would be intrinsically otherwise than He is. Therefore the Incarnation is impossible.

Reply. I distinguish the minor. That God would undergo a change, if by reason of passive potency He were to receive some distinct perfection, this I concede; that God only terminates the human nature, and undergoes a change, this I deny.

God in the Incarnation neither loses nor acquires anything, but merely makes creatures partakers in His perfection. Therefore, as St. Thomas says: "When it is said, 'God was made man,’ we understand no change on the part of God, but only on the part of the human nature."[186] Similarly, if we see the sun, it undergoes no change, but is only the object of our vision.

As St. Thomas says: "To be man belongs to God by reason of the union, which is a relation.... But whatever is predicated relatively can be newly predicated of anything without its change, as a man may be made to be on the right side without being changed, and merely by the change of him who was on his left side."[187] Likewise, anything at first not seen is seen afterward without any change in itself, but inasmuch as it is actually the termination of our vision. It is the visual faculty that is changed, inasmuch as it passes from potentiality to act.

Similarly, as we shall see in the case of the Incarnation, the change is entirely on the part of the nature that is assumed, which is deprived of its own subsistence and acquires the divine. The Word by no means acquires a new and real relation, but the relation is logical; for the real relation is only on the part of the human nature toward the Word, just as the visual faculty is in real relation to the object seen, and not the reverse of this. Hence St. Thomas says: "God is said to be united not by any change in Himself, but in that which is united to Him; similarly, when it is said that He is unitable, this statement does not mean that the union is effected by reason of any passive potency existing in God, but because there is such a potency existing in the creature so as to make this union possible."[188] So also God is said to be visible and in the next life He is seen by the blessed, not because of any change in Himself, but the change is in the blessed, since He terminates their vision as object seen. Thus a point that already terminates one line, can terminate a second and third line as in the case of the point of a pyramid, and yet the point undergoes no change in itself.

Objection. The Word is the subject of the human nature, and not merely the terminus; for the Word has this human nature, which is truly attributed to Him, as to the subject. Therefore the Word is the recipient of the human nature.

Reply. I distinguish the antecedent. That the Word possesses the human nature in a receptive sense, this I deny; in a terminative sense, this I concede. To possess a form in a receptive sense is to be the subject of this form, just as matter receives its form, or as a substance receives accidental forms; but such is not the case when a subject has some form in a personal or terminative sense. The Word, however, possesses the human nature not in a receptive sense, because He is not in passive potency to receive it; but He possesses it personally and terminatively, in so far as He is its intrinsic terminus, intrinsically completing it and terminating it, just as the point terminates the line, or the object seen terminates the visual faculty. The difficulty raised by this objection makes it apparent that the possibility of the Incarnation cannot be strictly proved.

Again I insist. What is extrinsic to another cannot become intrinsic to it unless it is received by the other. But the human nature in itself is extrinsic to the Word. Therefore the Word can become intrinsic to the human nature only by becoming the recipient of it.

Reply. I deny the major. For something can become intrinsic to another by the sole fact of being joined to that which receives it by way of intrinsic termination, as a point becomes intrinsic to a line, and so what is received is not received by way of informing act, as if the recipient were in some passive potentiality to be perfected by it. Thus it is shown that the objection is either false or at least unnecessary, and hence of no force.

This point will be made clearer in the course of this treatise, in which it will be shown that God cannot take the place of a created subsistence as informing, but as terminating what is received. The informing form is related to the whole to which it is ordered as the less perfect part, just as the soul is less perfect than the complete man. On the contrary, the terminating perfection is not ordered to the more complete whole, but rather draws the other to Himself. Hence, instead of involving any imperfection, God imparts His perfection to what is assumed. Thus, for example God's essence without involving any imperfection terminates the vision of the blessed, and the divine essence is not more perfect in being seen by the blessed than if it were not seen by them. Similarly, a beautiful statue is not made more perfect by the fact that it is the object of my admiration, nor is the doctrine of St. Thomas made more perfect by the fact that it is understood by the disciple, but it is the disciple who is made more perfect by the doctrine. Rome is not made more perfect by the fact that any pilgrim, however distinguished, visits it.

Final objection. One substantial being cannot result from the union of several complete beings. But the human and divine natures are complete beings. Therefore one substantial being, such as Christ would be, cannot result from the union of the two natures.

Reply. I distinguish the major. From several beings complete in their natures there cannot result one substantial unity of nature, this I concede; that there cannot result a substantial unity of suppositum or person, this I deny.

Explanation. From two acts there cannot result something essentially one in nature, and therefore prime matter must be pure potency, so that the human nature is essentially and not accidentally one. But the human nature as such is not complete in the sense that it is a suppositum or person, and thus it is drawn to unity of being with the Word, in the sense that there is one suppositum, which will be more fully explained farther on.[189] Thus in the resurrection the body is united with the soul and constitutes with it one supposital being.

More briefly, these various objections are solved by saying that the Word is not related to Christ's humanity as recipient subject, for in such case the Word would be in passive potency for His humanity; nor is He related to it as informing form that is received, for in this case He would be less perfect than the whole, which is the complete Christ; but He is related to it as terminating perfection, just as the pre-existing point that already terminates one line again terminates another; or just as the object that terminates the vision of one man, may again terminate the vision of another man. Thus the professor teaches his various students not in a receptive but in a terminative sense. Expressed more briefly, we may say that the Pure Act is unreceived and unreceivable. If He were received in any potency, He would be subjected to participation and limitation; if, however, He were to receive, then He would be in potency for a further act.

"To have terminatively" does not mean to be actuated or to be perfected; rather it means to perfect. Thus the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost do not have the Deity receptively, but terminatively. Thus the Son of God has His humanity terminatively, but not receptively. Thus God has His external glory, inasmuch as He is known and praised.

"To have receptively" is to be actuated and perfected. Thus matter receives the form. The created substance receives accidental forms.

"The form terminating" is not a part and involves no imperfection, but perfects and bestows its perfection upon what it terminates. Such is the case with the person of the Word, who unites with Himself and terminates Christ's humanity. So also the doctrine of St. Thomas unites with himself and terminates the intelligence of a number of students.

"The form informing" is less perfect than the whole, as the soul in man.

The difficulty raised by the foregoing objections against the intrinsic possibility of the Incarnation confirms the thesis, namely, that this possibility cannot be apodictically proved from reason alone, but solely that persuasive reasons can be adduced in defense of this possibility, by showing that the objections of those attacking it are either evidently false or at least unnecessary, and of no force.

We must now treat of the fitness of the Incarnation. Fitness means something more than mere possibility, and it will at once be seen that we are persuaded of this fitness by congruent arguments drawn from reason alone; but the revelation of original sin being presupposed, the Incarnation is proved necessary so that adequate reparation be made to God, if He demands such reparation.

Index Top




"Try to turn your heart from the love of things visible and bring yourself to things invisible. For they who follow their own evil passions stain their consciences and lose the grace of God. "

Thomas Kempis

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"A person who rails at God in adversity, suffers without merit; moreover by his lack of resignation he adds to his punishment in the next life and experiences greater disquietude of mind in this life."

St Alphonsus de Liguori

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"God commands not impossibilities, but by commanding he suggests to you to do what you can, to ask for what is beyond your strength; and he helps you, that you may be able."

St Augustine

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