"The authentic doctrine of Christ’s universal primacy was propounded in a profound and often original manner by the outstanding German theologian, Matthias Scheeben (d. 1888). The characteristic features of his theology are an attentive and controlled meditation on Sacred Scripture and a careful study of the Greek Fathers, especially St. Irenaeus, St. Athanasius, St. Cyril of Alexandria, and St. Gregory of Nyssa. From this point of view, he offers us the most complete treatment of the thesis. For this reason he may be rightly regarded as an important pioneer. His general conclusion is that the doctrine of the universal primacy of Christ, willed by God independently of creatures and especially of sin, is the only one that is fully warranted by Revelation.
According to our author, the very first decree of God, which is rooted in the communication of divine love, has for its object the Word Incarnate-Redeemer. Not a trace here of the distinction between passible and impassible Christ with reference to Adam’s fall. For Scheeben, an Incarnation decreed by God exclusively or even primarily for our redemption, post praevisum lapsum, is a theological enormity which is incompatible with the very concept of God.
The author concentrates his attention particularly on the death of the Savior. He wishes to ‘liberate’ our soteriology from all anthropocentrism and hamartiocentrism. The Incarnation is not per se a ‘humiliation’ on the part of God: ‘God stoops down to man’s level by becoming man, without however quitting His exalted position; this condescension is precisely the truest and most perfect proof of His greatness.’
God lowered Himself freely, not compelled or conditioned by anything outside Himself. But does not St. Paul say that, by becoming man, the Son of God ‘emptied’ Himself (Phil. 2:6-7) and hence underwent a ‘humiliation’? Certainly, Scheeben answers, but not because he became man, but because He assumed a passible, mortal nature when He had a right to a human nature that was glorious inasmuch as assumed by the Word.
And here the famous distinction comes up again. If the Incarnation was willed by God independently of any creature, and if it is not per se a humiliation (since the Son of God would have a right to a glorious human nature), can it then be said that the ‘emptying’ of Himself, or the taking of a passible nature was caused by the need to repair man’s sin in a perfect manner and according to the demands of justice? If so, was not the ‘modality’ of the Incarnation willed ‘after’ the prevision of sin and because of it?
Not at all, Scheeben replies. It cannot be held that the ‘modality’ of the Incarnation was determined by the Fall of man and by the need to repair it de condigno. The very same reasons which forbid us to teach that Christ was willed essentially for man, forbid us to teach that His possibility was essentially willed for the sake of man’s sin.
The current misunderstanding on this point stems from the idea that suffering is humiliating and that dying is a punishment. One can almost perceive a subtle leaning toward Monophysitism in so many theologians:
‘…..suffering and death are not in themselves ignominious; they are such only when they freight the subject with a compelling necessity, in consequence of nature or of sin, and against his will.’
Now, this is certainly not the case with Christ. The reason for His suffering and death are quite different. To begin with, possibility and death were not imposed on Him, but were freely assumed. And, as Scheeben remarks, in this case suffering may well be Christ’s supreme honor and glory. Just what is the meaning, the purpose of suffering? Admittedly, on the purely natural level, one cannot but prefer joy to suffering. However, in relation to higher values, suffering and even death can be preferable to, and more glorious than joy and pleasure.
‘We take suffering upon ourselves only to gain a greater good. But a person suffers for others not only to relieve a need or to acquire a good for them, but also for the sole reason that he shows his love and esteem better by suffering than by all the deeds he performs for their benefit. ….Suffering thus undertaken is obviously an act of the purest self-sacrifice and the most sublime virtue, and hence is more honorable and lovable than impassibility.’
And again Scheeben underlines:
‘….suffering is the more honorable the greater the freedom of the person concerned, and the less he is limited in his love to the bare need of the beloved. Hence we should be disparaging Christ’s honor if we were to hold that He had allowed Himself to be subjected to suffering merely because, in consequence of sin, God had some need of the restitution of His honor, or the sinner had need of redemption.’
Christ appears most majestic in His sufferings precisely when we recall that He suffered ‘to give to God the highest possible glory, and to creatures the proof of a love which is worth incalculably more than the aid He accords them in their wretchedness.’
Scheeben observes daringly that the reason why the Word chose to assume a human nature rather than an angelic one, was precisely because the former made it possible for Him to die and thus show His love for the Father. The greatest glory of God and of Christ is the Cross, but it is not the need of the Cross that justifies the death of Christ. It is rather the other way around. ‘We believe rather that God has connected the restoration of the world with the Cross of His Son in order to glorify the Cross.’ According to Scheeben, the profound reason for Christ’s possibility and death is contained in the idea of sacrifice as the supreme manifestation of worship and love toward the Father. Since Jesus is God’s greatest Lover, He freely assumed a passible body so as to be able to immolate Himself, dying on the Cross. Sacrifice is the most perfect and effective way to glorify God. ‘Therefore, if the God-Man is to promote the infinite glorification of God in the most effective and perfect manner possible, He must offer to God a latreutic sacrifice of infinite value.’
The redemption, then, is implicit in Christ’s sacrifice which is essentially an act of love. The Cross, however, in no way depends on the Fall. Like the Incarnation, the death on the Cross is willed ‘before’ the prevision of the Fall. And in the death on the Cross, as a response of love, is present every virtuality, such as reparation and expiation.
As we can see, in Scheeben’s theology the primacy of Christ appears in its greatest extension and worth; it affects both the natural and the supernatural orders; it gives the keynote to the whole breadth of theology; nature and grace, predestination and salvation, knowledge of God and of the Blessed Trinity, the supernatural world, Mariology--- literally everything is stamped with a Christological character. For our author, the whole of theology is rooted in Christology.
As far as the doctrine of the primacy is concerned, we should underline Scheeben’s unitary and organic perspective, and the altogether original solution in connection with the death on the Cross. No trace here of either anthropocentrism or hamartiocentrism. We may note that the theological progress achieved in this connection especially by St. Bernadine, St. Lawrence and Scheeben is, in the last analysis, an authentic explication of Scotus’ famous text:
‘God first loves Himself; secondly, He loves Himself for others, and this is an ordered love, thirdly, He wishes to be loved by the One who can love Him in the highest way---speaking of the love of someone who is extrinsic to Him; and fourthly, He foresees the union of that nature which must love Him with the greatest love even if no one had fallen.’
Scotus, we may recall, had already brought out the fact that Christ’s Passion and death must be evaluated within the dimension of love and freedom.
Something which Scheeben, like St. Bernardine, does not explain fully is the notion of redemption, although for him also ‘to redeem’ means considerably more than ‘to liberate from sin.’ The idea of ‘divinization’ which he owes to the Greek Fathers and which constitutes the primary effect of Christ’s primacy in relation to angels and men, already denotes an improvement over the views prevalent among Western theologians. In this broader perspective the primary sense of the Incarnation is an elevating function, namely, to introduce the creature into the Trinitarian life. The liberating facet connected with sin is a totally subordinate one."
-Francis Xavier Pancheri in The Universal Primacy of Christ.