This post is the third part of a series looking at The Third Peacock. If you have not already read it, I recommend starting with part 1.
The introduction of the Incarnation to theodicy in The Third Peacock is a great answer to the question how will God deal with the evil and badness found in creation as well as telling us how God will “make a good show of creation.” It is a rather odd answer to questions like why does God permit so much evil in the first place. But at this point in the book Capon and his readers have “hit the bottom” as there is no way to get “God off the hook for evil”. Nor, for Capon, was the risk God took with freedom worth all the evil and badness.
In light of the reality of evil, Capon pivots and attempts to pull all of the threads he has been exploring – a theology of delight, freedom, badness and a personal yet hands off God – together.
Throughout the book Capon’s style seems designed to shock the reader and he continues this trend with the Incarnation.
In the Christian scheme of things, the ultimate act by which God runs and rescues creation is the Incarnation. Sent by the Father and conceived by the Spirit, the eternal Word is born of the Virgin Mary and, in the mystery of that indwelling, lives, dies, rises and reigns. Unfortunately, however, we tend to look on the mystery mechanically. We view it as a fairly straight piece of repair work which became necessary because of sin.
Capon isn’t dismissing the fact that Jesus came in the flesh to deal with sin, but he is asking us to consider it as much more. In doing so Capon is drawing on a historical view of the Incarnation that is not widely held or discussed. Prior to reading this book I was not familiar with it. The view has been described as Unconditional Incarnation as well as Supralapsarian Christology.
Those terms deal with the question: Would the Incarnation still have occurred even if man had not sinned. The view that answers yes to this question is most closely associated with John Duns Scotus (1266-1308).
The third view of the Incarnation is that taken by the Scotists, by Suarez, and by many other theologians both ancient and modern. It teaches and so far in accordance with Thomist theology, that Jesus came principally to save sinners, and for that end came in passible flesh; but here its agreement ceases. It asserts that even if Adam had never sinned, Jesus would yet have come, and come by means of Mary, in impassible flesh; that He was predestinated the Firstborn of creatures before the decree which permitted sin; that the Incarnation was from the first an intentional and integral part of the scheme of creation; that it was not merely occasioned by sin, but that sin only determined the manner of it, and its accompaniments of suffering and death.A Digest of the Doctrine of St. Thomas on the Incarnation – William Humphrey
Prior to Duns Scotus, the question, as noted by Humphrey, was raised by Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica Part 3, Question 1, article 3.
There are different opinions about this question. For some say that even if man had not sinned, the Son of Man would have become incarnate. Others assert the contrary, and seemingly our assent ought rather to be given to this opinion.
Aquinas’ examination of the question suggests that there is nothing in Scripture that would prevent answering the question in the affirmative. However, he also suggests that it is speculative going beyond what Scripture says and thus one should affirm the more traditional view.
Aquinas is writing in the mid to late 13th century and is aware of even earlier discussions on this question. My preliminary research suggested some of the earliest linkage to this view could be found in the writings of Maximus the Confessor in the 7th century. The idea that the Incarnation could be required even without sin is rooted in the concept of deification (or theosis). Theosis focuses on our being made sons of God and partakers of the divine nature (John 1:12; John 10:34-36; Psalm 82:6; 1 John 3:2; 2 Peter 1:3-4).
This plan was for [God the Word] to mingle with human nature, without change on His part, through true hypostatic union, to unite human nature with Himself while remaining immutable, in order that He might become man, as He Himself knows, and make man God by union with HimselfResponses to Thalassios – Maximus the Confessor
The idea in a nutshell is that the chief purpose of creation was the union of man and God and that the only possible way to achieve this was through the Incarnation. As Duns Scotus argues – the choice to make people partakers of the divine nature through the Incarnation preceded the foresight of the Fall, sin and the need of a Redeemer. The earliest patristic writers, including Irenaues, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius and Augustine, don’t directly ask or answer the question about the Incarnation occurring even if there wasn’t sin. However, they do discuss theosis as being dependent on the Incarnation.
…following the only true and steadfast Teacher, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.Ad Haer V (PreFace) – Irenaeus
It is on these ideas that Capon is drawing when he writes that “the ultimate act by which God runs and rescues creation is the Incarnation.”
[Those affirming an unconditional incarnation] saw the action of God in Christ, not as an incidental patching of the fabric of creation, but as part of its very texture. For our purposes— in this context of a world run by desire for God— that opens up the possibility that the Word in Jesus was not so much doing bits of busy work to jimmy things into line as he was being his own fetching self right there in the midst of creation.
Pulling it together, Capon sees the Incarnation as more personal than mechanical, aligning with his view on Providence. The Incarnation is God’s response to the badness found in creation but it is not just the way to deal with sin. It is God’s presence with us in the midst of the badness.
When we say that a friend “helped” us, two meanings are possible. In the case where our need was for a Band-Aid, a gallon of gas or a push on a cold morning, we have in mind mechanical help; help for times when help was at least possible. But when nothing can be helped, when the dead are irretrievably dead and the beloved lost for good, what do we mean by telling Harry how much help he was to us in our need? He did nothing; he rescued no one from the pit, he brought no one back from the ends of the earth. Still, we are glad of him; we protest that without him we would never have made it. Yet we know perfectly well we could have gotten through it just by breathing in and out. That means, therefore, that what we thank him for is precisely personal help. It was his presence, not the things that he did, that made the difference.
In a paragraph that pulls no punches, Capon says out loud what many probably think when faced with the results of unanswered prayers or a history filled with tragedy:
Time and again, he fosters the hope of help by the promise of help: “Ask and ye shall receive, knock and it shall be opened to you.” “The Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come.” But he doesn’t come dependably enough to keep the hope going. All the advertisements of his help sit squarely against a constant landscape of situations in which no help ever comes.
But in light of an Unconditional Incarnation, Capon suggests we can see it differently.
The only way it makes any sense is when it is seen as personal: When we are helpless, there he is. He doesn’t start your stalled car for you; he comes and sits with you in the snowbank. You can object that he should have made a world in which cars don’t stall; but you can’t complain he doesn’t stick by his customers.
… It isn’t that he has a principle about not starting cars— or about starting them. What he has a principle about is you. Like Harry, he loves you; his chief concern is to be himself for you.
The universe may be a rough place but, Capon suggests, “the Trinity [created] the world out of sheer fun; the Word [romances] creation into being, and [becomes] incarnate to bring it home.”
As a theologian and philosopher one may not find the overall argument persuasive. Capon, himself, suggests that it isn’t – an argument nor persuasive. Instead he admits he is trying to paint a picture of God, creation and freedom that “fits all of the facts” while doing the “least damage” that he can.
I came to this book because of the topic. But as I put it down, having read through it several times, I walked away with a different perspective on theodicy as well as theosis and the Incarnation. The book might come across as very readable and relatable but it drops major theological ideas on the reader and then moves on. There were more ideas in the book than was covered in this series of posts, so while this would not be the first book I would recommend to someone that is trying to understand theodicy, I would still recommend it. It made me seek out new ideas so I could understand them more fully and it made me think. What more could one want from a theological book?
The Third Peacock was first published in 1971 and can be difficult to track down. It is available at the Internet Archive and can be read for free (link).
Here are some blog posts on the Unconditional Incarnation you may want to check out:
- Above All, the Glory of Christ: John Duns Scotus on the Incarnation.
- Summa Theologica, Part 3, Question 1, Article 3
- For Mind Blowing Thoughts on the Incarnation by BI. John Duns Scotus
- Incarnation Apart From Sin?
- Incarnation Anyway: Arguments For Supralapsarian Christology: A Review
- Deification as the End and Fulfillment of Salvation According to St. Maximus the Confessor
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I loved this series. I think it sums up what I believe based on 40 years of experience as a Christian. It’s not that I have given thought to it at all, but that so much of these three posts just rang true. I do have a story to go with this thought.
Not long before I became a Christian, but during the 2 months that the influence of New Age teachings on my teenage mind produced atheism, I watched the movie “In the Presence of Mine Enemies.” It is a true story about a US pilot who was in a Vietnam prison camp for 7 years. At the end of the movie, when US forces show up to rescue the prisoners, they sing the national anthem (or God Bless America, can’t remember), then get on their knees and give thanks to God.
I was furious. I went to my dorm room raging. Why would they give thanks to God who allowed them to be tortured, the main character for seven years! If it were God delivering them from the camp, why didn’t he deliver them before they were tortured.
As I lay on my bed that night, my mind somehow wandered to a conclusion. God was with them in the concentration camp. He was a friend to them before he rescued them. They had experienced him, knew who he was, and now they gave him thanks because his comforting presence was now full deliverance.
It shook me to the core, and it was one of four events that led me to reading the Gospels, becoming awed by Jesus, confessing him as the Son of God in response to a question, and being transformed from heaven immediately upon that confession.
If you enjoyed this series, I imagine you would really like the book. I found out he has another book entitled “The Supper of the Lamb”. It is part cook book and part theology book. As these are two of my interests, I hope to read this around Easter.
Thanks for sharing some of your testimony. That reaction of where was God is one of the hard hitting things brought out in this book. Reading that God “doesn’t come dependably enough” is something most Christians I think are afraid to voice yet probably could admit have seen in a variety of ways. Resting on His presence and goodness, even in the face of the bad, is really hard.