Paradiso, Canto VII (On the Passion and Resurrection)

Why did God Become Man?


St. Anselm takes up the problem (and what theologian has not?):


“Would it be proper for God to cancel sins by compassion alone, without any payment of the honor taken from him?


How would one go about putting away sins in this way? Simply by not punishing? But it is not right to cancel sin without compensation or punishment — if it is not punished, then is it passed by and not dealt with.


But it is not fitting for God to pass over anything in his kingdom without dealing with it.


It is therefore not proper for God to pass over sin unpunished.


There is also another thing which follows if sin is passed by unpunished, — that with God there will be no difference between the guilty and the not guilty. That would be inappropriate for God.” (Anselm, Why did God Become Man?)


St. Anselm is usually interpreted as having concluded that the Incarnation, and thus the Passion, death, and resurrection of Christ was the only way for man to be saved; a sort of necessity that differs from that of St. Thomas Aquinas’ understanding. When Aquinas speaks on the necessity of Christ’s Incarnation and passion, he is much more careful to qualify “necessity.”


“As the Philosopher teaches (Metaph. v), there are several acceptations of the word “necessary.” In one way it means anything which of its nature cannot be otherwise; and in this way it is evident that it was not necessary either on the part of God or on the part of man for Christ to suffer. In another sense a thing may be necessary from some cause quite apart from itself; and should this be either an efficient or a moving cause then it brings about the necessity of compulsion; as, for instance, when a man cannot get away owing to the violence of someone else holding him.” (STh III, 46, art. 1)


“”Limited man, by subsequent obedience, could never make amends; he could not go as low in his humility as once, rebellious, he had sought to rise in his pride…For God, in giving Himself that man might be able to raise himself, gave even more than if he had forgiven him in mercy.” (Paradiso, Canto VII)


We see Dante’s understanding of the Incarnation reflects that of St. Anselm, but goes beyond, as does St. Thomas Aquinas, who states that it was not necessary, as St. Anselm says, for God to become man to forgive men (God could indeed forgive by a mere mercy alone) but that it was however the most appropriate means.


“It was not necessary, then, for Christ to suffer from necessity of compulsion, either on God’s part, who ruled that Christ should suffer, or on Christ’s own part, who suffered voluntarily. Yet it was necessary from necessity of the end proposed;…Among means to an end that one is the more suitable whereby the various concurring means employed are themselves helpful to such end. But in this that man was delivered by Christ’s Passion, many other things besides deliverance from sin concurred for man’s salvation.” (STh III, Q. 46, various articles)


St. Thomas then lists many of the particular ways in which the Passion was most suitable as the means for man’s salvation, because:


  1. Man knows how much God loves him, and is thereby stirred to love Him in return


  1. Thereby He set us an example of obedience, humility, constancy, justice, and the other virtues displayed in the Passion, which are requisite for man’s salvation.


  1. Christ by His Passion not only delivered man from sin, but also merited justifying grace for him.


  1. By this man is all the more bound to refrain from sin, “You are bought with a great price: glorify and bear God in your body.”


  1. It redounded to man’s greater dignity, that as man was overcome and deceived by the devil, so also it should be a man that should overthrow the devil;


He concludes, therefore, by stating “It was accordingly more fitting that we should be delivered by Christ’s Passion than simply by God’s good-will.”

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