Cur Deus Homo?


As is well known this is the title of Anselm of Canterbury’s famous treatise on why God became man. Anselm sought to demonstrate the truth of the Incarnation on grounds independent from specifically Christian texts. This was probably due to some of his more prominent opponents were educated Jews who did not accept the New Testament as a source of revealed information. (See R.W. Southern, Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape) The upshot is that God became man in response to the fall because humans could never make satisfaction, where satisfaction has a precise theological meaning for Anselm. In other words, Anselm wasn’t advocating a penal model of the atonement.

 But what if the Fall had never occurred? Would Christ still have become incarnate anyway? If so, what purpose could it serve? If Christ were to become incarnate without a fall, doesn’t this leave the incarnation as an explanatory dangler, not to mention the Cross?

Among Western theologians the answers are diverse but they all tend to be rather speculative.  Albert the Great for example states

“On this question it must be said that the solution is uncertain, but insofar as I can express an opinion, I believe that the Son of God would have been made man, even if sin had never been.” (Senteniarum, dist.20, art. 4.)

 John Duns Scotus comes to a similar though more robust conclusion,

“I say, nevertheless, that the Fall is not the cause Christ’s predestination. Indeed, even if one angel had not fallen, or one man, Christ would still have been predestined thus-even if others had not been created, but only Christ.” (Opus Oxoniense, 3, dist 19.) 

Note the way  that Scotus speaks of the predestination of Christ. Scotus seems to endorse then a fully supralapsarian Christology.  This is probably the strongest theoretical form that an answer in the affirmative can take. It is not just that Christ would have become incarnate apart from the Fall, but even apart from Creation. As Florovksy notes

“The whole question for Duns Scotus was precisely that of the order of Divine ‘predestination’ or purpose, i.e. of the order of thoughts in the Divine counsel of Creation. Christ, the incarnate, was the first object of the creative will of God, and it was for Christ’s sake that anything else had been created at all.” (Creation and Redemption, 165)

 Aquinas on the other hand, while sympathetic to the affirmative answer, replies somewhat in the negative. 

“Hence, since everywhere in the Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason of Incarnation, it is more in accordance with this to say that the work of Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin; so that, had sin not existed, Incarnation would not have been.” (ST 3, q. 1, art. 3 )

In the commentary on the Sentences Aquinas appears more cautious claiming that only Christ knows the answer to the question. (3 Senten., dist. 1, q. 1, art.3.) Bonaventure while similarly cautious took the negative as more appropriate or agreeable to piety. In the 17th century there was a flurry of discussion between Catholics and Protestants. The great Jesuit Robert Bellermine wrote,

“For if Adam had remained in that innocence wherein he had been created, doubtless the Son of God would not have suffered: He probably would not even have assumed human flesh, as Calvin himself teaches.” (De Christo, lib 5, cap 10)

To my knowledge Rome has left the question unanswered and undefined in any authoritative way. Without a doubt it is true that God becomes man to redeem humanity from sin, death and the devil. I think a worry that some have had is that if the Incarnation would have occurred anyway that this somehow diminishes divine love for humanity in redemption or makes the work of Christ somehow less important. I don’t think this is the case and I think that worry can be assuaged.

Often though, textbooks make the claim that the Fathers never address this question or teach clearly or definitively on it. Certainly the Fathers don’t appear to address the question in this form but it is misleading to conclude that the matter is left untouched in any definitive way in the patristic corpus. St. Maximus the Confessor is quite clear that God at all times wills the mystery of his Incarnation. God’s eternal purpose has been to unite the cosmos with himself. God has eternally willed to dwell with his people. God eternally wills the eternal existence of his creation. (Ambiguum 7:2) This is how Maximus understands such passages as Matt 25:34, Eph 1:9, and 1 Pet 1:20. )

What then are we to make of the Fall and the Cross? The interesting thing is that Maximus’ teaching reorients us to them in an illuminating way. Instead of the Incarnation being a response to sin and death, the order is turned around. The Fall was an attempt by the devil to prevent the Incarnation. Since God eternally wills his incarnation, to prevent its occurrence would be to frustrate the divine will and demonstrate the devil’s superiority. So the temptation and the Fall are a response to the Incarnation.

Looking at the Incarnation this way puts God back in the driver’s seat. It also accentuates the biblical material on the role of the devil as destroyer, lord of decay or corruption (Beelzebub) and a murderer from the beginning. It explains why the devil hates the human race so much and so desperately tries to find ways to maximize sin throughout human history to annihilate it. It is a blinding rage. The thief comes to steal, kill and destroy, but Christ comes that we might have life! Christ’s generosity of life is so much greater than the sin of man that he even gives immortal life to those who deny him. (2 Pet 2:1) so that he is the savior of all men, but even more so of those who believe. (1 Tim 4:10) Consequently, the vindication or justification of life came to all men by Christ. (Romans 5:18). It broadens the redemptive work of Christ making it truely cosmic in scope in a way more faithful to the Pauline vision. (Rom 8:22, Eph 1:10)

The death of Christ is an undying death. It is not a death where the person suffers death in such a way where the death lays hold of them, but the other way around. Christ goes into death actively taking hold of it. As the paschal liturgy proclaims, he tramples down death by death. He victoriously maintains the hypostatic union between humanity and divinity by his divine power. God is truly pleased in the faithful Son who vindicates or justifies his Father’s name trampling down his enemies. Jesus glorifies his Father’s name. Christ holds the keys of death and Hades so that not even death can frustrate the divine will for the everlasting man.


  1. Great post. I’m curious about something. Even if the Fall is the response to the Incarnation, does not the Fall change the nature of the Incarnation? Christ recapitulates all of human suffering: healing the sick, resurrecting the dead, etc. Even if the Incarnation is predestined, it would seem that the Passion of our Lord depends on the Fall. Could you comment?


  2. I have thought that since the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world [Apoc. 13.8] that He must become incarnate in order to instantiate the ultimate sacrifice. A teleological take would also support Maximus’ view that it was the ultimate will of the Father.
    Thanks for making me think through this again. It is puzzling still.


  3. Nathaniel,

    I wouldn’t say that the Fall changes the nature of the Incarnation. Perhaps it wold be better to think of it in terms of adding to the work in terms of the task.

    So even if we think of the Passion and Crucifixion as a response to the Fall, it would be like the cosmic confrontation between God and the devil than a “response.” It is the showdown or high point, the test case to see if death will disolve the hypostatic union, if the devil can indeed thwart the divine will or not.

    This is in part why the Resurrection is so important bcause it is the victory over death.


  4. I hear John 3:16 a bit differently now. It is often interpreted to mean that God gave his Son to be crucified. But maybe another meaning – and one I personally prefer – is that God gave his Son to live an incarnate life.

    Metropolitan Hierotheos, in is book The Feast of the Lord, says this: “In other words man’s union with God would not have been able to succeed if there had not been a particular person in whom the divine would unite hypostatically with his human nature. Therefore the incarnation is the prior will of God, which means that it had been planned regardless of Adam’s fall. What followed from the fall were the Passion and Cross of Christ. The incarnation of Christ was the end of creation. The whole creation and man came into being for the Godman. This is said from the point of view that man could not have been deified and creation sanctified if there had not been the Godman.


  5. Perry,

    I am not sure your conclusion (or its corollary, that the devil fell because he was upset that God would deign to become incarnate)follow from St. Maximus’ statements.

    The Resurrectional theotokion of the apolytikion of the Fourth tone states,”The mystery hidden from eternity and unknown to the angels is made manifest through thee, O Theotokos, to those on earth. God became incarnate in an unmingled union and for our sake hath submitted willingly to the Cross, whereby He hath raised up the first-fashioned man and saved our souls from death.” This would indicate that the angels did not even know that there was going to be an Incarnation. Also, the Fathers take the same approach when they state that the devil did not know that Christ was the God-man, and that Christ concealed His divinity with His humanity like bait on a hook: the devil wishing to destroy Him unwittingly destroyed himself. If the devil had known about the hypostatic union this analogy would make no sense.


  6. Fr. Maximus,
    What do you make of the fact that all the demons Christ comes into contact with in the Scriptures seem to clearly recognize and confess Him as the Lord of all? Doesn’t it seem that they, in some way, know about the hypostatic union? How could Satan not know if they knew?

    Might it make more sense to think that perhaps Satan knew who Christ was but thought that the weakness of humanity was such that if it was killed, the hypostatic union might be dissolved and that this is what the bait and hook analogy is talking about?


  7. Fr, Maximus,

    I don’t think I implied or stated that the devil fell because of the incarnation. Rather, I believe that the devil knew to some degree or another of God’s will for humanity to exist forever, the epicenter of which is the incarnation.

    In either case whether the devil knew explicitly or not(he’s not stupid) I believe his knowledge grew once the incarnation took place, which is why via his agents he tries to kill Christ, not to mention the temptation,where he tries to kill Christ by getting him to sin.

    Perhaps what the text indicates on the other hand is that the angels knew of the incarnation, but not of the mystery of the Cross, since that also seems to be in the text. The Incarnation can strike one as paradoxical, but even more so and so much the more offence is the Cross-how can God who is Life itself die?

    Perhpas there is more for me to think about here and I appreciate the suggestive manner in which you posed the objection. I think there are a few passages from Maximus that will help to clarify, but I have to go hunting for them since I can’t recall where they are exactly at the moment.


  8. There is a very ambiguous passage in St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.22.3: “He recapitulates in Himself all the nations dispersed since Adam, and all the languages and generation of men, including Adam himself. This is why St. Paul calls Adam the ‘type of the One who was to come’ because the Word, the maker of all things, did a preliminary sketch in Adam of what, in God’s plan was to come to the human race through the Son of God. God arranged it so that the first man was animal in nature and saved by the spiritual Man. Since the Saviour existed already, the one to be saved had to be brought into existence so that the Saviour should not be in vain.”

    Taken in conjunction with the St. Athanasius’s metaphor that the original prototype that sat for the image of God in man had to come again to restore the desecrated image, we can St. Maximus’s insights have a good pedigree.



  9. A side note, aside from the missing verb in the last sentence, St. Irenaeus’s text seems to imply that salvation was assumed to be needed before Adam’s creation. I don’t think this a necessary reading of the text.



  10. Nathaniel, I wholeheartedly agree with Perry’s post here. In the Incarnation Christ assumes ALL of human nature. He is both the cause of and the goal of ALL of creation, and ALL creation is summed up in Him (Ephesians 1:3,10) If we accept this as true, then when the incarnation takes place in the fallen order, as Perry states, Christ assumes what has been added to humanity by the fall: sin and death, but overcomes it by His divinity. Thus the CAUSE of the incarnation is not the Fall, but the fall is assumed by Christ because it is now part of our humanity which He was going to assume with or without the fall.


  11. Perry and Krause,

    I think the demons knew that Christ was the Messiah, and their knowledge did grow as His ministry progressed and He revealed Himself more and more, so that perhaps they did eventually suspect that this was God incarnate. Although I doubt they realized the full import of the fact, and it still creates problems with the idea of Christ’s divinity being “hidden” by his humanity – not to mention the fact that no human associate of Christ had figured it out. But what I am much less sure about is whether the demons knew *before* the creation of the world that there was going to be an incarnation – or even that there was going to be a creation of matter and psychosomatic beings. Admittedly this plan is one of the logoi of God, and the angels contemplate the logoi, but I do not think any Father states that the angels know *all* the logoi. Rather, they are continually growing in knowledge and advancing in deification. So the only issue here is whether the devil tried to trip up Adam in order to prevent the incarnation. One might also ask that even if the devil knew all about the incarnation, how he expected that the Fall would prevent it from happening.

    I think a straight-forward reading of the troparion would imply that the angels did not know about either the incarnation or the cross, since both seem to be in apposition to the *mystery* and are thus its subject.

    I did not mean to imply that you hold that Satan fell because of the incarnation. I only mentioned it because this idea (popularized by C.S. Lewis) also presupposes primordial angelic knowledge of the incarnation; which thesis I question.

    I think the rest of the post is very good.

    Incidentally, many years to Photios on your namesday. God be with you and bless you.


  12. Fr. Maximus,

    Thank you for remembering my name today. I hope everyone remembers the importance of this hero and pray for those who have contempt for the name (even those who call themselves Orthodox:

    To everyone,
    If Christ is the lamb slain before the foundation of the world, then it seems the Cross precedes both the Incarnation and Creation in our order of thinking and as the intent of the divine will to become incarnate and to create. What else could it mean that the lamb was slain from the foundation of the world? Thoughts?



  13. Hi Photios, Ephesians 1:4 says “(God) chose us in Him before the foundation of the world”, and v. 9, “He made known to us the mystery of His will according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Him with a view to the administration suitable to the fullness of times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, thing in the heavenlies and things on earth…” Colossians 1:16, “For in Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth… all things have been created through Him and UNTO Him, and He is before all things and in Him all things subsist.” ISTM that the Incarnation necessarily included the Cross due to the fall because of the divine purpose of the summing up of all things in Christ. If in Him all things are created and in Him subsist, then necessarily death has to be overcome by Him. The Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world because before the foundation of the world God knew it was part of the entire scenario of creating the world. If God creates out of Love, then that same love will redeem the creation He loves. This seems so elegantly true its hard for me to imagine any other way to view it.


  14. I’m just beginning to grasp the Orthodox faith, not unlike like shining through half-open blinds, glimpses of truth here and there. It is quite refreshing.



  15. Whoops, typo. I meant to say: “not unlike light shining through half-open blinds.”



  16. Perry,

    Great post! I think Incarnation in view from the beginning, while not a dogma of the faith, does give a different texture as to how we view the faith. As you pointed out it demonstrates that it was always God’s desire to unite Himself to His creation. It also provides a possibility for the devil’s fall. If Incarnation in view from the beginning was God’s intention is it possible that the evil one, being made aware of it by God, was moved to revolt because humanity, by virtue of the Incarnation, would become partakers of the divine nature in a way that the angels are not (I am thinking of Hebrews, “to which of the angels did God ever say…”) Of course, what I have written I only submit as a opinion but it is interesting.


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