NOTE: Given the new revelations that the United States government may have been withholding information about extraterrestrial aerial vehicles or objects, I share this paper that was one of my reflections / critical essays for Foundations of Theology during diaconate formation. It was in reaction to an article explaining how Franciscan theology opens the door to the potential for Christ’s Incarnation applying to created species beyond humanity. I’ll link to the referenced journal article at the bottom of this post:
Revisiting the Franciscan Doctrine of Christ by Ilia Delio, O.S.F, presented a fascinating case for reexamining the considerations of the reason for Christ’s Incarnation rooted deep within Franciscan theology. In doing so, she provides an overview of both satisfaction theology and the primacy of Christ tradition, the former being the more widely-known and acknowledged theology of the reason for Christ’s Incarnation (to satisfy and atone for the effects of sin), and the latter being less conventional but describing the predestination of Christ as the primary and perfect creature, incarnate to make creation whole and humankind perfect. After explaining the background for these theologies and outlining contrasts between them, she goes much deeper into a case for revisiting the primacy of Christ tradition of the theology and explains the impact it could have on modern thinking and scientific knowledge. In doing so, she makes a very compelling case for broadening our understanding of “God’s original intent relative to the Incarnation” (7) to include not just satisfaction and atonement for sins, but to perfect creation and specifically humankind.
In making her case, Delio draws upon a formidable list of Church Fathers and various theologians from various contexts – varied both in ages of the church and in places. She draws upon ancient and medieval sources all the way to the present-day. Some of older thinkers (Fathers and earlier tradition) include Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas providing her backdrop overview of satisfaction theory / satisfaction theology along with Bernard of Clairvaux (3). She also draws upon Francis of Assisi himself, for having provided “insight into beauty of Creation as gift from god centered on preeminent gift of Jesus Christ” (5, emphasis mine). From the East, she draws in Greek writers Origen and Maximus the Confessor and references Irenaeus in a footnote (5). And she wraps much of her thinking around the center point of the doctrine, Bonaventure himself (throughout) and his principal mentor, Alexander of Hales (6).
Representing medieval thought through to the modern day, Delio weaves in Boethius of medieval times (4), Rubert of Deutz of the 12th century (3), and many citations of John Duns Scotus representing philosophy and theology of the late 13th century (3). She moves forward to Lawrence of Brindisi of the 17th century (7). And then she brings us into the modern age with heavy reliance upon Karl Rahner’s thinking, including among other key highlights his Christology within an Evolutionary View of the World (3), a lot of content from fellow Franciscan Zachary Hayes (11), John Haught, Daryl Dooming, Patricia A. Williams, and then tying it into contemporary ecumenism with Ewert H. Cousins’ Bonaventure’s Christology and Contemporary Ecumenism (21).
One slight critique I would offer of Delio’s sources of tradition and theology are that, other than to illustrate the contrasting satisfaction theory, many of the sources she draws upon (Bonaventure, Alexander of Hales, Zachary Hayes, and Francis himself) are all in the same Franciscan tradition as her, aligned with the theory she is promoting, and she doesn’t explicitly point this out. However, she does also call upon some very “heavy hitters” in philosophy and theology, like John Duns Scotus and Karl Rahner (notably, a Jesuit), as well as modern thinkers at the intersection of philosophy, evolution, and science like Daryl Dooming and Patricia A. Williams, along with noted modern Jesuit thinker Ewert Cousins.
As deep as Delio goes into multiple sources of both Tradition and theology, they aren’t the only sources she draws upon. She also integrates the notion of “cosmic Christology” from the interpretation of Sacred Scripture. To do so, she references John’s Gospel broadly as well as Colossians 1:15-16 and Ephesians 1:20-23, which “affirm the primacy of Christ and provide a basis for this doctrine” (5, including footnotes). This line of thought broadens the thinking about Christ into the broader perspective of all of creation, with Christ incarnate as the vehicle by which God intended to perfect all of creation.
While not included specifically to apply a critical perspective, Delio does acknowledge and include some citations of the Church’s current official position on the reasons for Christ’s Incarnation, some of which is critical of the idea of the primacy of Christ. One notable section brings in the Church’s viewpoint very openly, where she acknowledges:
“While the Church clearly desires to safeguard ‘the mystery of the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Son of God’ and invites theologians to explore ‘how the positive elements of other religions may fall with the divine plan of salvation’ it is careful to protect the doctrine of Incarnation from theological speculation beyond the notion of sin and the saving work of Christ.” (15, inclusive of citation of CDF Declaration ‘Dominus Iesus’ on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church)
She then wraps this perspective with a citation from John Paul II’s Redemptor hominis which she acknowledges “reflects” the position noted in the CDF citation above, acknowledging that “while [he] alludes to the primacy of Christ, [his] language of satisfaction and justice ultimately reveals his conviction that the Incarnation reflects a sin-centered and thus anthropocentric universe.” She wraps this critical perspective centered on the current view of the Church, though, with a further assertion that this anthropocentric (human-centered) view of the universe is at odds with modern science.
Carrying on that theme of modern science, in the area of human experience, Delio pulls in current thinking from evolutionary biology, cosmology, and “scholars seeking a new understanding of original sin within an evolutionary universe” (16). One of the more fascinating ideas in this area comes from Zachary Hayes, broadening the concept of sin itself to account for an expanding and evolving universe, writing, “Sin is not a mere infringement of a law extrinsic to our nature. It is a failure to realize the potentiality of our nature itself. If our nature is fundamentally the potentiality to expand, sin is a contraction.” In this way, the traditional view of sin as an offense against God or his natural law is expanded into a modern evolutionary mindset by reminding us that evolution and expansion are also encompassed in the natural law. From here, it is not much of a leap to see Christ’s role in atonement for sin as a potentially ever-expanding role, but then also to the broader role of Christ to perfect all of that ever-expanding, ever-evolving nature, inclusive of parts of the universe or things in the created universe of which humankind may still have no knowledge.
I found Delio’s work and case to be very interesting, informative, balanced, and convincing. Prior to reading the paper, I had never heard of theories of the reason for Christ’s Incarnation beyond satisfaction theory. Since reading and further analyzing the paper, I am not only more convinced that there is a good and fair argument for a broader theology of the reason for Christ’s Incarnation, but I am personally very interested in reading and learning more about the primacy of Christ theory and the implications it could have on our faith and our relationship to science and the broader universe of creation over time. It is particularly interesting that she specifically called out John’s Gospel as a source of “cosmic Christology” and at several points since reading the article during Liturgy of the Hours or Lectio Divina prayer on upcoming Sunday or daily readings, I’ve run across passages from John that, upon reflection, seem to reinforce or drive home the idea of Christ coming to make humankind whole, or humankind becoming whole in Christ. If nothing else, Delia’s paper has broadened my starting point for reflection on these texts beyond just the idea that they refer to the atonement of Sin, and toward the idea that they might refer to a broader scope of perfection in God that Christ was Incarnate to bring to completion. Irenaeus, in On Heresies, wrote that “The glory of God is man fully alive.” If Christ came for a broader cause of making man fully alive than just the atonement of sin, then Christ came to usher in a truer and fully “glory of God” than humankind may yet be able to imagine.