The MOST Theological Collection: Our Father's Plan: God's Arrangements and Our Response
"Chapter 3: Restoration Beyond Infinity"
It would be foolish for us to think that everyone must always, in all ages and cultures, have used the same patterns of writing as we 20th century Americans do; for different peoples have different ways of doing things. For example, a modern historical novel about the Civil War is basically factual or historical; and the background descriptions fit the period. But we expect the author to do fill-ins, e.g., to report word for word conversations of Lincoln with high officials. We do not really think the author has a word for word record of such things. But to make it more interesting, he fills in these things. Our modern historical novel is a mixture of history and fiction. But we do not for this reason say the author is ignorant, or trying to deceive us. No, there is an established pattern or genre of writing that we, the author, and his readers all understand, and know how it was meant, and how to take it.
Other cultures and other centuries, of course, need not have had our patterns. So we must try hard to learn how they meant things. Vatican II tells us:
If we ignore this obvious principle, we would fall into fundamentalism, i.e., acting as though Scripture were written by 20th century Americans.
We have gone into these matters because we want to look at the first three chapters of Genesis. Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical Humani generis, recognizes this problem of the pattern or genre of these chapters, and yet, in a carefully balanced statement, warns us not to be too loose in handling these chapters:
So these chapters do tell us facts, things that actually happened, but not in the modern way of speaking. The same Pius XII even told us, two paragraphs earlier,3 that we may consider evolution of the human body as a real possibility. The Pope could not say that if evolution clearly clashed with the true sense of Genesis.
So that sense must be such as to report facts, yet in a way quite a bit different from the 20th century American way.
We needed to say these things because we want now to consider the generosity of our Father's plans for our first parents. We know there was a first pair, though we need not feel confident that their names were Adam and Eve. We know God put them into a happy state, of His special favor, that He imposed some command on them-precisely what we do not know-that they transgressed, and that they lost much of what He had given them. They lost it also for us, for they could not transmit to us what they no longer had. And so we receive from them just the essentials of human nature, without His grace, without other added gifts. To be born without the grace that should have been there, according to God's plan, is what we mean by original sin. We can say original sin is transmitted to us by heredity inasmuch as we should have inherited grace, but do not.
A comparison will help. If someone commits a mortal sin, his soul is without grace. So we say he is in the state of sin. But when we say a newborn child is also in a state of original sin, we mean something that is partly the same-his soul lacks grace-but also partly different: for that lack in the baby is not his own fault, whereas if an adult sins mortally, his lack of grace is his own fault.
The Genesis account brings out in a clever psychological way some other important facts. We know that if one has human nature without any added gifts, he will experience difficulties. For within human nature there are many different drives and desires, each basically legitimate and good in itself. But the problem comes from lack of coordination. Each drive goes after the things it likes and needs without any thought of the other drives and their reasonable needs and wishes. The most disorderly of these drives is that for sex. It can not only start up without any provocation, but can become very imperious and demanding. Now the Genesis account seems to want to tell us something on that score, by way of the writing pattern used. After Adam had sinned, God is pictured as calling to him: "Adam, where are you." Of course God knew, but this is a way of making a point. Adam replied that he had hid himself because he was naked. Now before the sin, Adam was also naked, but did not seem to notice it. Afterwards he did, and felt the need of just anything he could find-Genesis mentions fig leaves-to cover the critical spots that were rebelling, and making him feel shame.
The message is clear. Before the fall, Adam must have had some sort of coordinating gift, that kept the various drives under control of reason. He did have the power of sex, but it was subject to his wishes. If he wanted it to operate, it surely would; but if he did not want it, it could not rebel.4 However, as St. Augustine puts it, "Because man had deserted his higher Master [God] by his own will, he was not able to hold his lower servant [his body] to his own will."5 So the penalty of disobedience was disobedience, disobedience of man's lower nature to man's higher nature, plus disobedience of the animal and plant kingdom to man. For formerly Genesis pictures man as master of all creation. But now the animals run from him, and he must laboriously extract a living from the soil by the sweat of his brow; formerly the earth had brought forth an abundance without the need of tilling.
So our first parents lost this splendid integrating gift, and also the gift of immortality; for death, both spiritual and physical, was threatened against them as a penalty if they sinned. Spiritual death means, of course, the loss of grace, the life of the soul, that makes man like God, as we saw in the last chapter.
What irony! Genesis pictures the tempter as telling Adam and Eve they would be like gods if they disobeyed. But they were already like God, by grace. In seeking to get what they already had, they threw away a share in divinity, which they had really possessed.6
In this narrative we see also a most clever presentation by Genesis of the fact that all sin consists basically in pride. To see it, let us fill in a bit and retell the story in our own words. Eve is in the garden one day, and along comes the tempter: "My, what a fine garden. Does God let you eat from all these trees?" Eve replies: "Yes-O, just a minute-that one over there-He says that if we eat from it we will die." "He said that!" replies the tempter, in a tone of surprise. "Why don't you see what is really true? If you eat from that you will be like gods. God is really selfish; He doesn't want anyone else to be divine. He just wants to keep it all for Himself." So Eve looked at the forbidden fruit. She could just see that it was good. She thought to herself: "God may know what is right in general, but right now I can just see that this is good. So I will eat." She did, and asked her husband to do the same. So both, in seeking what they already had, lost a share in the divine nature, lost all the extra gifts God had lavished on them. For they believed God could be selfish, could hold out on them!
This is, as we said, an image of every sin. The sinner in effect says: God may know in general, but I can just see that this forbidden thing here and now is good. So I will take it. This is, of course, simply pride, to think one knows better than God. His commands, as we saw earlier are really means to make us open to receive what He so generously wants to give. Our obedience does Him no good whatsoever. So St. Thomas Aquinas wrote well: "God is not offended by us except because we act against what is good for us."7 Sin does not touch Him; He is displeased that we, whom He loves, harm ourselves. (And He is also displeased that we act against what is good in itself-as we shall see in the next chapter.)
On that sad day on which our race first began to throw away His precious gifts, and to resist His generosity, our Father had several courses of action open to Him. First of all, He could simply have inflicted the threatened punishment of death at once on the guilty pair. Then our race would have come to an end, for as yet they had no descendants. Again, He could have delayed the punishment of death, but reduced them, with all their descendants, to the merely natural level. Then all hope of the marvelous divine vision would have been cut off, although those descendants who would not sin further might eventually reach a merely natural sort of happiness, such as that which most theologians think is the lot in limbo of unbaptized infants.
But if He willed to keep our race on the supernatural plane-and He did so-there were again several possibilities.
First, our Father could have forgiven sin without any reparation at all. This option was not too great for His generosity, but his loving wisdom preferred a still better way, one richer for mankind. And, as we shall see, He willed also to satisfy His love of what is right in itself, by rebalancing the disrupted moral order.
Another possibility was to provide for an imperfect reparation for sin. To accomplish this, He could have chosen some mere human, and could have sanctified him for the task, and then directed him to perform some specified act of religion, perhaps the offering of an animal in sacrifice.
Thirdly, He could have sent a Divine Person, His Son, to become man, but in a far different way from what actually happened. He could have had that Son born in a palace, equipped with every luxury that the technology of the last age of the world could dream of. He could have had that Son perform any small act of religion-no need for Him to die. For any act of this God-man would by its very nature have had infinite worth, and be more than enough to outweigh the sins of countless worlds. He might have had Him redeem us by saying a three word prayer, "Father forgive them." Then He could have ascended in a blaze of glory, before the eyes of admiring representatives of all the tribes of men.
This third option would have been strictly infinite in worth. Yet, our Father wanted to go beyond infinity. This is no mere rhetorical exaggeration. It is true that in mathematics infinity plus any addition does not increase. But this is not the terrain of mathematics, but the realm of Infinite Generosity. So our Father willed to go beyond the palace to the stable, beyond a three word prayer to the cross.
Why? We can see part of the reason by the help of a pattern in the life of St. Vincent de Paul. He told his associates who dispensed charity to the poor that they must use great care, even tact, in handing out their goods and help, so that the poor would be willing to accept their charity. The reason: people feel inferior when they are ever on the receiving end, never making a return.
Strange as it may seem, our Father knew well He would find a similar lack of openness to His favors in His children. We recall the words of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa that, "God would never want to do other than give, if He found souls to whom He could give."8 For we are so often not open to His gifts. Hence in His determined love, He planned a restoration beyond the wildest dreams of any creature, so that by it He might move as many as possible to refrain from resisting His generosity. So His Son said (Jn 13:32): "I, if I be lifted up, will draw all things to myself."
So He spared not His only begotten Son, but sent Him as an eternal priest, not to perform some easy, even if infinitely valuable, act of religion, but rather to be obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross, so that He might thus soften the resisting hearts of His brothers.
But there is even more. For it seems that our Father can never rest content with anything lesser-even if it be already beyond infinity-if anything can be added to make it still richer in some way. In the fall, in which man had become disobedient even to death, two had been involved. Adam, the Head of our race, had been joined by a helper like to himself, Eve, who should have been the mother of the living, but who instead shared in throwing away the life of the soul for all their children to come.
Hence, so that the restoration might be even more superabundant (cf. Rom 5:15-21), there were to be two, Christ, the New Adam, the eternal priest, together with her whom the Fathers of the Church with unanimous voice call the New Eve, the Virgin Mary, the true Mother of the living. Later we will see more fully how this took place. For now it is enough to say that, as Pius XII put it, "Our salvation flowed from the love and sufferings of Jesus Christ, intimately united with the love and sorrows of His Mother."9 Or, as Vatican II wrote: "In suffering with Him as He died on the cross, she cooperated in the work of the Savior in an altogether singular way, by obedience, faith, hope and burning love, to restore supernatural life to souls."10 Thus she reversed the ruin wrought by the first Eve, who became the mother of those destined for death. But the Virgin Mary instead, as Vatican II continued in the same text: "For this reason [her sharing in the great sacrifice] . . . is our Mother in the order of grace," the true Mother of those who live forever as partakers in the divine nature.
God is our Father. Yet His love has not only the strength of a Father's love, but also the persistence of the love of a Mother, that strives at all costs to avoid, if at all possible, the ruin or punishment of a child. He does not, of course, call Himself Mother, though He does, through the prophet Isaiah tell us (Is 49:15): "Can a woman forget her suckling child, be without feeling for the son of her womb? Even if she did, I will not forget you. Behold, I have carved you on the palms of my hands," by the marks of the nails. And by making Mary the Mother of all the brothers of her Son, He who made her so wonderful reveals the same Motherly persistence of love in Himself.
In Matthew 23:37 Jesus compares Himself to a mother hen: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you that kill the prophets, and stone those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not." St. Augustine comments beautifully on this verse: