What St. Thomas Aquinas Teaches About the Incarnation

Fra Angelico (c. 1395–1455), “The Annunciation”
Fra Angelico (c. 1395–1455), “The Annunciation” (photo: Public Domain)

What would you say is the most fundamental moment in salvation history?

I would contend that they fall into three possibilities: the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. Over the next three weeks I’m going to draw out a few of the excellent questions St. Thomas Aquinas answers and explains regarding these three events.

Each of these, actually, is just ridiculous to think about. Have you ever really considered the facts behind the Incarnation?

God, becoming man? Wait… what? I was raised with Jesus in my everyday life growing up. I learned the songs, the stories, I read the Bible. But then when I became an adult and someone told me exactly what it was: “God became man”. I shuddered. The whole thing is a complete contradiction. You’re either God, or you’re man, right? Men cannot be God, and gods cannot be men. This is why, when we watch or read of such claims, we laugh it off. I will never forget the time I watched the movie 300, where King Xerxes demands King Leonidas and the Spartan army bow on their knees to “the God-man” (him). Then I almost choked on my popcorn when I realized, “but that’s what I believe about Jesus”.

Perhaps, it’s easier to believe about Jesus because, from the eyes of a young adult who was fed the Gospel daily, it all seemed undoubtable, or in the very least, routine information for me.

This moment in salvation history is beyond words. My mother always repeated the words of the prophet:

“[God’s] thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways [His] ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are [God’s] ways higher than your ways and [His] thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

Why did God go to such lengths to achieve the salvation of souls though? Was God’s plan the most efficient? He Is omnipotent, so he could have reversed the events or the consequences of the Fall, or he could have intervened sooner. St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae considered these questions as well. Let’s discuss the highlights of the three most important events in salvation history:

For the Incarnation – though Thomas discuses numerous points – Thomas asks some specific questions: What is necessary to become man? Was the timing efficient? Would Christ have come at all if man had not sinned?

Was it necessary to become man. Well, it was not absolutely necessary to become man to redeem men. God could have performed the acts of in an instant, as he is omnipotent, but in becoming man, our God shows His heroic virtue in humility, power, wisdom, and justice. I always enjoyed how Father Longenecker uses the term “drama of salvation”, because God orchestrated this amazing, unforgettable, life changing, narrative of the God who was in love with His creation, which rebelled against Him, and rather than destroy it, He joined it. For more, read Part 3, Question 1, Articles 1 and 2.

Was the timing efficient? Some would argue that God could have acted sooner, ensuring that all men from all ages would have the opportunity to enter the city of God and receive the Beatific Vision. Others would purport that God should have waited till the end, when all acts of men were said and done. However, if God had come immediately, man would not have been humbled, realizing the need for a creator. Similarly, if God as waited to the end, there would sure have been many who would have unduly fallen into hopelessness and sorrow. God, as Paul says to the Galatians, came in the “fullness of time” (4:4). For more, read Part 3, Question 1, Article 6.

Would Christ have come if man had not sinned? This is a great question. In fact, it’s one of the few in the Summa Theologiae that Thomas goes not give an authoritative answer to, and further refuses to speculate on.

There are those who believe that Christ’ Incarnation was inevitable because of three reasons: 1) He longed to be with mankind; 2) Becoming Incarnate was the chief purpose of the second person of the Trinity; 3) The plan of God to come was predestined from the beginning.

Thomas, though he dislikes speculation, believes that the Incarnation was for one chief purpose: the removal of sin. Thomas would typically give a decisive conclusion, but he does not. He remains firm that all of Sacred Scripture points to the Incarnation as being the remedy for sin, but God is never limited by sin and can act as he chooses. Contemporaries of Thomas, particularly Paul Glenn and Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, treat Thomas’ argument to support the conclusion that it is “unlikely” that God would come to man without man having sinned first. For more, read Part 3, Question 1, Article 3.

As you can hopefully see, Thomas takes on some really excellent questions. I’m summarizing here, but Thomas goes the distance to satisfy the most inquisitive of minds. In invite you to see the links included here and read a bit more. Next week we’ll discuss the crucifixion.