Atonement and Evolution

Q: “I first came across your work through your writings on St Bonaventure and have come to know your further writings on Teilhard de Chardin and seeing Christian faith in relation to evolution and conciousness.  But what I find missing in your writings and Teilhard de Chardin is the Catholic emphasis on the need of Atonement and Redemption,the price Christ pays for us to bring us into communion. Can you attempt to rectify this?” 

Ilia DelioIlia: We recently received an email from someone who has read my work on Bonaventure and wants to know how the question of atonement or redemption can be understood in light of evolution and Teilhard’s vision. This is a very good question. First of all, it brings to light that our dogmas or official teachings on God and God’s work in creation are not eternally fixed. If they were fixed, God would have no real relation to creation, that is, anything could take place in creation and it would not make an iota of a difference to God. However, Scripture attests to a deeply relational God who creates the world out of love and redeems us in love: “God so loved the world that God sent his only Son.”  Because God is love, God is deeply concerned about creation and the future of creation. This is a long way of saying that matter matters to God; nature matters to God; creation matters to God.

Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas were well aware of this integral relationship between God and creation. In Thomas’s words, “a mistake about creation is a mistake about God.” Hence, they sought to understand the incarnation within the wider framework of creation. Thomas took Augustinian-Anselmian position, namely, that if Adam had not sinned, Christ would not come.  By his death and resurrection Jesus Christ atoned for the sins of humanity and reconciled us to God.  Bonaventure, however, took another position. His teacher Alexander of Hales sought to understand what kind of God would be incarnate and he concluded that such a God must personal and communicative.  Borrowing from the love tradition of the Victorines, Bonaventure, following Alexander, said that God is love, a fountain fullness of love, and hence incarnation flows from the fecundity of God prior to the sin of humanity. Zachary Hayes describes Bonaventure’s concept of redemption as one of redemption-completion.

The notion of redemption-completion anticipates the Scotistic notion of the primacy of Christ. To understand this idea we must first consider how Bonaventure spoke of a potency that lies in humanity to receive the very personal self-communication of God.  All creation is deeply related to God, he said, and bears a capacity to receive God in it.  Bonaventure saw the order of creation reaching a highpoint in humanity and at that point standing open to a possible incarnation or to other fitting modes of completion. The Word of God and that which is expressed through the Word, the world, are united in one being and one act of divine love. The meaning of the incarnation cannot be adequately expressed in terms of sin and atonement because the incarnation is related not only to sin but to the free loving completion of the world order by God (since the world is created out of the Word of love.)  The incarnation is the most perfect realization, therefore, of the potential of humanity, as well as fulfillment of the universe.  In Christ, the created order finds its highest fulfillment. Christ is the purest actualization of a potential that lies at the heart of the created order. For Bonaventure, a world without an incarnation is an incomplete world.  Sin is not the primary cause of incarnation but the excess love and mercy of God.

So for Bonaventure, the incarnation is willed for its own sake and not for the sake of a lesser good.   The incarnation is a free gift of God (and not something God had to do), a mystery of cosmic completion. In this respect, Bonaventure is close to Duns Scotus and his articulation of the primacy of Christ, namely, God is love and from all eternity God willed to share love with a finite creature willed to grace and glory; hence, Christ is first in God’s intention to love and to create. Whether or not sin existed, Christ would have come because the whole creation is made for Christ, that is the whole creation is made for personal union in love.

While Bonaventure realized the world is incomplete, that is, it has an unrealized capacity for God, he was also aware of sin.  Human sin, in his view, is the desire for equality with God. Since equality belongs to Son who is the perfect expression of the Father’s love, sin is directly against the Son.   Creatures can be like God in so far as they become like the Son, or in the words of Jesus, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  Bonaventure saw the crucified Christ as the center of all theology.  In the cross, the fullness of God’s love is expressed and the path into this love is revealed: “There is no other path,” he wrote, “than through the burning love of the Crucified.”   The love of Christ crucified reconciles us to God and brings about a new creation which continues to emerge out of a deep love willing to undergo suffer and sacrifice unto a higher union.

In short, the reason for Christ is the excess love and mercy of God. Christ is not ordered to us but we are ordained to Christ; creation is made for Christ.That is, Christ does not save us from the world; rather, Christ is the reason for the world.  By reversing the order of sin and incarnation, Bonaventure showed that the purpose of humanity is to shape created reality into the mystery of Christ. In this way, the issue of overcoming sin is a matter of overcoming all obstacles that stand in the way of God’s creative aim which is the fullest possible sharing of life and love between God and creation. What happened between God and the world in Christ points to the future of the cosmos. This world will not be annihilated or destroyed because it has within it the capacity for God; hence, creation will continue to unfold, through suffering, death and new life. The radical transformation of created reality takes place through the unitive power of God’s creative love, an enduring love that will continue to move creation unto the fullness of life; the anticipation of God and creation fully united in the cosmic person of Christ, that is, God all in all. What is salvation?  To be saved is to be healed by grace so as to be empowered to love unto death for the sake of new life, that is, the fullness of love.  Love alone, Teilhard said, can bring us to another universe.  One can see why Teilhard spoke of Franciscan theology as the “theology of the future!”


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  1. Mary Pat Jones on March 31, 2019 at 4:24 pm

    This is so helpful. This clarity calls us, invites us into deeper relationship, so we may continue to open and live into the endless fulness of Christ.


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