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Salvation, Redemption, and the Primacy of Christ

Updated: May 29, 2020


The concept of redemption in the Franciscan school, above all in the form given it by Bl. John Duns Scotus, cannot be grasped apart from the Scotistic thesis concerning the absolute primacy of the Word Incarnate and His Virgin Mother, jointly predestined in one and the same decree absolutely: this means prior to any consideration of creation or of redemption, not relative to or consequent on creation or on redemption. It is important to note that the Scotistic form of this thesis is not only opposed to the position of those who hold that the Incarnation was willed by God only consequently on the divine prevision of Adam’s sin, but also to the naturalist or Pelagian school (especially in its evolutionary version as promoted by many calling themselves “transcendental Thomists”), who hold that the Incarnation was willed consequently on creation as its perfection, rather than creation for the glory of Jesus and Mary.{footnote}On this point cf. St. Bonaventure, III Sent., d. 1, a. 2, q. 2.{/footnote}

In this scenario, so neatly outlined by Scotus, the predestination of the Word Incarnate to be Head and Savior of all the elect, angels and men, is pure grace or gift of the Father to his Son, for whom qua predestined the world was created. All the elect are predestined in Him (cf. Eph 1: 3), not as pure gift, but in view of and through the merits of Christ, Head and Savior of His body, the Church. Therefore, His predestination to be Incarnate Word is basis of His role as Mediator. His mediation is primarily a work of salvation of the elect: from absence of blessedness to the sharing in His blessedness as Word made flesh, this via cooperation in the work of salvation.

Scotus’ argumentation is both simple and profound: the lesser good, redemption, is ordered to the higher and absolutely perfect good, the salvation and enjoyment of the supreme Good in Christ qua Incarnate, according to Bonaventure and Thomas a “quasi-infinite,” greater than which nothing is possible in the order of divine works ad extra.{footnote}Summa Th., I, q. 25, a. 4.{/footnote} A perfect Creator is perfectly rational in his choices, and the basis of all rational willing is the principle that the lesser is for the sake of the higher, and higher for the sake of the highest, in Bonaventurian terms “hierarchization” or sacred ordering.{footnote}Scotus, Ordinatio, III Sent., d. 7, q. 3. For a very readable overview of Scotus’ teaching on the absolute primacy of Jesus, see M. Dean, A Primer on the Absolute Primacy of Christ, New Bedford MA 2006. For Bonaventure on supreme hierarchization of Mary as intrinsic part of the order of the hypostatic union see II Sent., d. 9, q. 7. For commentary, see P. Fehlner, St. Maximilian M. Kolbe, Martyr of Charity, Pneumatologist. His Theology of the Holy Spirit, New Bedford MA 2004, pp. 70-74.{/footnote}

This “being saved” of all the elect by the merits of Christ, so as to be included with Christ in His predestination, also includes the Virgin Mary. “Being saved” through the merits of Christ the Head, means both being saved from the absence of perfect felicity unto perfect felicity as members of Christ. This is the root of elevating grace in the actual economy of salvation, both before as well as after original sin, for the angels as well as for mankind.

It is also the root of the possibility of perfect redemption after sin, liberating in the children of Adam because, in one of his children, it is preservative redemption. In the economy of salvation as willed by the Father, without preservative redemption there would be no liberative redemption for the family of Adam. The redemption of Mary is preservative because, within this global inclusion, this daughter of Adam, Mary Immaculate, enjoys a unique relation to the primacy of Christ, to the order of the hypostatic union. Yet, in belonging to the order of the hypostatic union as no other of the elect, She does not cease to be included with the rest of the elect, before any consideration of sin.

She is, thereby, key to that order among all the signs or instances of the divine, salvific will. Mary Immaculate, and She alone, is Christ’s real Mother, uniquely included, therefore, in the same first sign (signum) of the divine, salvific will or decree of Christ’s predestination and, hence, though saved through His merits, Mary is also included with Him in one and the same decree (to quote Bl. Pius IX) by which Christ is predestined to be Head and Mediator before any consideration of creation. Hence, She is at once saved as one of the elect, yet also actively involved as Mediatrix, viz., Virgin Mother of the Head and Savior of His body in its saving, hence Salvatrix. This unique grace, merited for Her by Christ, is essentially what we know as the Immaculate Conception, a justice incomparably greater than the original justice, not only of Adam and Eve, but of the angels. The original justice of the angels and of Adam and Eve only vaguely reflects the holiness of Jesus and of Mary, to which their original holiness was ordered.{footnote}R. Rosini, Mariologia de beato Giovanni Duns Scoto, Castelpetroso 1994, pp. 18 ff. Also A. Equiluz, Presupuestos metafísicos de la teología de la preservación en Juan Duns Escoto, in Juan Duns Escoto en el centenario de su nacimiento, Madrid 1966, pp. 169-214.{/footnote}

Some would argue that to be redeemed one must, in some way, be marked by sin: either committed or obliged to contract. The Scotistic school would distinguish: true in relation to some imperfect form of redemption; false in relation to perfect redemption where liberation is predicated on preservation of one of the saved. In this case, our liberation enjoys a perfection it otherwise would not have had. In this scenario, to be redeemed, it is enough to be saved by the Redeemer so as to be his Coredemptrix, viz., via preservation. In the actual economy of salvation, preservative redemption would not be mentioned, except by reason of the sin of Adam. But what is called preservative redemption is that which, even apart from the sin of Adam, viz., the Immaculate Conception in virtue of the sacrificial merit of Jesus are, historically, de facto redemptive merits. These merits, then, are redemptive, not univocally, but analogically or in a twofold manner in relation to Adam and his offspring: one in terms of preservation from committing sin, and one in terms of liberation from sin committed or contracted. In the first, there is no liberation from a debt to sin, because the nature of preservation is the Immaculate Conception, of belonging to the order of the hypostatic union, basis of the redeeming act. In the second, to be numbered among the redeemed, there must be some actual involvement in sin, either committed, contracted, or with a debt to contract.

Like Christ, then, under and in Him, Mary enjoys a dual relation to Adam. Christ is a descendant of Adam (cf. Lk 3: 38), but He is also Adam’s Head, not only as God, but as Incarnate, in virtue of the hypostatic union. Mary is not only daughter of Adam, but also his Mother, typified in the virgin earth from which Adam was formed directly by the Creator, this in virtue of the grace of the Immaculate Conception. This is not a hypothesis, but a revealed fact which conditions a priori the concept of redemption and which requires that preservative redemption not be viewed as an exception within the category of liberative redemption, but in terms of which liberative redemption is defined and shown to be intelligible against all objections, either from the monophysite or from the Pelagian extreme. Mary is not first a daughter of Adam, then after sin, chosen to be Mother of the Redeemer. Rather She is, first, the Immaculate Mother of God, chosen also to be a daughter of Adam to make possible our redemption to share Her glory. She is truly redeemed because daughter of Adam, but She is redeemed preservatively because, as Immaculate, She is preserved from being under Adam’s moral headship; just as if Adam had not sinned, She would have been saved “preservatively”; whereas Adam and the rest of his offspring would have been saved liberatively, viz., freed from the limitations of a less perfect order of justice.

In fact, Adam and Eve sinned. With the fall of our first parents and in view of our solidarity with them in original sin, salvation of the elect, including the angels, becomes intertwined with redemption from sin. For the angels, this redemption is merely preventive of sinning. For Adam and his children, except for Christ, redemption is liberative. Christ alone is Redeemer (and not redeemed), because He is a divine Person, who is like us in all things but sin, therefore, impeccable as man.

But there is also an exception for His Mother, also a daughter of Adam, precisely because Mary is His Mother, therefore, preserved from any taint of original sin, able also to be actively associated with Her Son in the liberation of the family of Adam from original and personal sin.

Here, we must make note of an important distinction between salvation and redemption. Salvation would have been worked by Christ, Head and Mediator, even if redemption had not been necessary to achieve it. Salvation, in this case, would have been from the nothingness of existence and of well-being or supernatural happiness in existing. Redemption is from sin, but only in view of salvation or elevation to the highest possible order of participation in divine life, foreordained before the fall and independently of it. Hence, redemption is relative to salvation, sin to the good for its own sake. Christ is first Savior who becomes Redeemer. So, too, Mary as saved and saving, also becomes redeemed and redeeming.

This poses a key problem. If redemption is salvation via liberation from sin contracted and/or committed by Adam and his offspring, how can one of his offspring be at once redeemed and redeeming?{footnote}This is sometimes known as the objection of St. Bernard: see in this volume T. Noone, The Singular Participation of Mary Immaculate in the Merits of Christ, Her Son and Redeemer, according to Scotus: Continued Reflections on a Theological Breakthrough.{/footnote} Either one has no relation to sin at all, or one is not redeemed. The Immaculate Conception seems to preclude this. Or if Mary is redeemed, She cannot be Immaculate. This is the major objection to Marian coredemption. It is also, implicitly, a major objection to the divine Maternity understood as active cooperation in effecting the Incarnation on the part of a creature who is in need of liberation from sin. Hence, among some who claim to be Catholic, the increasing denial today of the dogma of the Theotokos. But hence, also, the paradoxical mystery of the Theotokos, who is both daughter of Adam; yet, as “Virgin earth” from whom the first Adam is formed directly by the Creator, She is also, prior to the old Adam, as Mother. She is Mother of the first Adam, because as Mother of the new Adam, the one who preexisted His ancestor, She precedes the old Adam; that is, Adam as head of the moral order depends on Mary Immaculate.{footnote}On the typology of “Virgin earth,” see P. Fehlner, Immaculata Mediatrix- Toward a Dogmatic Definition of the Coredemption, in Mary Coredemptrix, Mediatrix, Advocate. Theological Foundations II, Santa Barbara CA 1997, pp. 259-329, here pp. 291-293; Idem, Redemption, Metaphysics and the Immaculate Conception, in Mary at the Foot of the Cross V, New Bedford MA 2005, pp. 186-262, here 229-239; S. Manelli, All Generations Shall Call Me Blessed. Biblical Mariology, New Bedford MA, 2nd ed. 2005, pp. 85-86.{/footnote}

Goal of our exposition is not an exhaustive exposition of Scotistic soteriology, but an illustration of how some of its characteristic features reflect the resolution of this problem via the concept of perfect redemption in virtue of the absolute primacy of the Incarnation, whose distinctive coefficient is Marian, viz., coredemption on grounds of the Immaculate Conception, or “preservative redemption.” We have divided it into three parts: the notion of perfect redemption and the absolute primacy of Jesus and Mary; the analogical concept of redemption as predicated in relation to Christ, Mary Immaculate, and the Church; some distinctive characteristics of Scotistic soteriology.

Our exposition is not a claim that each of these points can be found expressly formulated by Scotus. It reflects, instead, the elaboration of principles formulated by Scotus about the absolute primacy of Christ, the distinction of salvation and redemption and that between preservative and liberative redemption, basis of the mystery of the Immaculate Conception and coredemption-mediation of the Mother of God.

I. The Absolute Primacy of Jesus and Mary and Salvation

1.1 Everyone is familiar with the notion of “perfect redemption” by a “perfect Redeemer” as this appears in Bl. John Duns Scotus’ classic proof of the Immaculate Conception.{footnote}For additional texts and detailed exposition, cf. in this volume the study of T. Noone, The Singular Participation…, cit.{/footnote} Not many, however, even among the theological elite, remark how this argument for the Immaculate Conception posits in the redemption as a work of the Virgin’s Son, above all, a Marian coefficient at its highest point which, as in the case of the Incarnation itself, both conditions the character of the redemptive sacrifice and is the great sign whereby we are not only able to recognize the mystery, but the means by which we also may begin to actively cooperate in the completion of the Savior’s work in the Church from Pentecost to the Parousia.

Perhaps, among modern writers, only Newman, in his Memorandum on the Immaculate Conception,{footnote}J.H. Newman, Memorandum on the Immaculate Conception, in Meditations and Devotions, London 1903, pp. 79-86. Cf. P. Fehlner, Mary and Theology. Scotus Revisited, Rensselaer NY 1978, pp. 41-45.{/footnote}8 fully caught the importance of Scotus’ insight: neither sin, original and personal, nor redemption or liberation from original sin and its consequences, can be grasped unless we first reflect on the mystery of the Immaculate Conception as prior to original justice and original sin in the saving counsels of the Father; and that it is far easier, along the lines of Scotus, to grasp both the mercy and justice of the Father, and so to appreciate the perfection of our redemption.

This coefficient, of course, is the coredemption, as it has been commonly designated by theologians since the early seventeenth century. Among the major promoters of this doctrine, especially since the tragic errors of the Protestant reform concerning Marian mediation and the Church, the disciples of Scotus were particularly influential in the theological world between the Council of Trent and the French revolution.{footnote}Scoti schola numerosior est omnibus aliis scholiis: A saying commonly attributed to J. Caramuel y Lobkovitz, O. Cist.{/footnote} Curiously, Scotus does not, even once, directly discuss the doctrine of Marian coredemption, although he quite clearly deals with all the primary truths underlying that concept, among them the Immaculate Conception or preservative redemption, as well as the unique manner in which Mary, in virtue of Her office of Coredemptrix, actively cooperated with Her Redeemer Son on Calvary so as to be the major Dispensatrix of all the fruits of the redemptive sacrifice.{footnote}Rosini, Mariologia…, cit., pp. 139 ff.; Idem, Il pensiero del Beato Giovanni Duns Scoto sulla Corredenzione, in Maria Corredentrice. Storia e Teologia, vol. II, Frigento 1999, pp. 93-168; P. Fehlner, Immaculata Mediatrix…, cit., pp. 317-321.{/footnote}

1.2 Above all, in the light of the primary argument to establish the truth of the Immaculate Conception and correctly define it, we can be sure that Scotus was quite aware of the doctrine of perfect redemption with a Marian coefficient, most likely in the form in which it appears in the sixth collation of St. Bonaventure’s Collationes in septem donis Spiritus Sancti.{footnote}Cf. P. Fehlner, Il mistero della Corredenzione secondo il Dottore Serafico San Bonaventura, in Maria Corredentrice. Storia e Teologia, vol. 2, Frigento 1999, pp. 11-91.{/footnote} There, in a conference delivered on the feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 1268-part of a series dealing with key aspects of the life of grace and of the heresies contrary to this mystery-the Seraphic Doctor, as it were, theologically interpreting the mind of St. Francis on Marian mediation, very clearly and precisely outlined the three main phases of Mary’s role as maternal Mediatrix. Doing so, he gave a Marian coloratio [coloring] to the work of redemption and to the person of the Redeemer qua Redeemer. These three phases are: the virginal conception and birth of Christ, the sacrifice of the Cross, and the distribution of all graces in the Church.

According to the Seraphic Doctor, Mary begot at Bethlehem: progenuit, Mary paid on Calvary: persolvit, Mary possesses in the Church (and hence, is dispenser of all the treasures of grace won on Calvary by Christ): possidet, the price of our redemption. Redemption means, according to St. Bonaventure, paying a price for someone’s ransom from enslavement. That price for our ransom from imprisonment or state of sin, at every key juncture, is only available through the active cooperation of the All Holy Virgin Mother, the Panhaghia, precisely because All Holy. Bonaventure clearly posits an “All-Holiness” in Mary at the Incarnation, at the Sacrifice on Calvary, and in the Church, implicitly an Immaculate Conception; otherwise, such holiness enabling Her to actively redeem would be unthinkable and impossible. This is what Scotus understands concretely by perfect redemption, as it is also what St. Thomas means concretely by our salvation as one of the three “quasi-infinites.” It is perfect because it involves Mary and, through Her, involves all the redeemed, even angels, in various degrees and ways (our cooperation, synthesized in one word: merit). Without Her, it would not be the most perfect. The liturgical backdrop for this conference could not have been better chosen: feast of th