In all the fevered debate about the atonement in recent years, it has become increasingly clear that the heart of this issue is the question Anselm raised in his book Cur Deus Homo? (Why God Become Man?). What was God’s motivation in the sending of his Son to become one of us?
The traditional answer in the West has been that Christ came as God’s answer to human sin. Though most would resist the claim that this makes the Incarnation a sort of “Plan B” in God’s purposes and, thus, not his original plan and purpose, it seems difficult to avoid this conclusion.
There is, however, a way around this difficulty. It involves putting on a Dunce Cap. Though the word “dunce” means someone incapable of scholarship, its application in this setting means something very different. The name is a reference to the 13th century Franciscan theologian John Duns Scotus. He received the slang “Dunce,” which came from the name "Dunse" which later theologians who could not quite follow the thought of the “Subtle Doctor” (as he came to be known) gave to his followers. It was they, rather than he, though, who deserved the slang. And all of us who followed them, well, we are the ones who need to put on the Dunce Cap.
What is it that we in the West have missed or not understood from Scotus? Precisely his answer to Anselm’s question! Scotus believed that the Incarnation, the eternal Son coming and taking on human life, was always God’s purpose in creation, his “eternal purpose,” God’s Plan A, his one and only plan!
J. B. Torrance explains this in his helpful booklet John Duns Scotus in a Nutshell.
The “purpose of sharing (God’s) love and his glory is the basis of the Incarnation – the predestination from all eternity of Christ’s human nature, in which we see the perfect example . . . of man as God’s co-lover, and in which we see the ultimate purpose and destiny . . . of our humanity. The Incarnation was God’s purpose for us from all eternity even if sin had never come (author’s emphasis). This is the inner meaning of grace in creation. But because God foresaw Adam’s sin and fall from grace, Christ also came to redeem humanity from sin, suffer on the cross and deliver us from death ‘to bring many sons to glory’ – to bring us into eternal communion. Redemption is the means of fulfilling God’s primary purpose of loving communion in creation; it shows the suffering love of God and his concern to draw us to himself and love.” (9)
In other words, God’s plan to come among himself as one of us is what he always intended to do. When humanity fell and sinned, the Incarnation took on an added and crucial dimension of redemption in order to fulfill God’s sole purpose of living in loving communion with his creatures forever. This, then, is Scotus’ answer to Anselm’s Why God Became Man!
In a fallen world, the cross is the shape God’s love for his creatures and his intention to draw them into communion with himself takes. But the cross itself points to the divine love and intention that always desired the communion with his creatures the cross itself made possible. Jesus did not come because we have sinned. He came to make real the communion between God and his creatures and that required the cross to deal with sin.
Scotus’ view has substantial important implications at numerous points in our theology. His is a Dunce Cap well worth donning!