When you study theology, there’s a classic distinction made between “necessary” arguments and “fitting” arguments. If I may attempt a very clunky explanation, the former category discusses the things which are “necessary” to say when we talk about God. They flow from Who and What GOD IS. Fittingness arguments, however, have to do with how God interacts with creation. The fact that God created something at all can fall under the category of “fittingness” . The argument goes something like this:
If God is love, (a necessary assertion) then it is fitting for God to create things other than Himself to love and to share in His love.
If God is good (another necessary assertion), then it is fitting for God to create things other than Himself to participate in that Goodness.
God didn’t have to create us at all, but we can see that creation of lesser things is consistent with Who God Is and so we call it fitting. This particular question of whether it is fitting for God to have created us is important because some groups have argued in the past that it is NOT fitting, and therefore we should say that it wasn’t God who created us, but a lesser demi-god. This heresy has been found in Docetism, Manichaeism, and Catharism, just to name a few.
Another example, which is perhaps the worst nail-biter for all theologians (professional and armchair) might be: Is it fitting for God to permit evil?
Yikes. But we do know that it is fitting for God to have made creatures with free will (us) and that it is supremely fitting that God would use even our worst actions for good (“For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.” St. Augustine, Enchiridion: On Faith, Hope and Love), so we can say it might be fitting for God to permit evil, insofar as He allows us to suffer the consequences of our evil deeds. Yet we cannot say that it is fitting for God to be the direct cause of evil (as we humans are), for that would stand contrary to His Goodness.
There is so much more to say on that issue, but these are just examples of how fittingness arguments work and why they are important.
Yet for all their utility, I love them most because they force you to imagine:
Could God have done it differently? If so, how?
The follow-up question is: why might He have chosen to do it this way? It was this that I pondered the other day while I was reading through the Gospel of Matthew. I got to the passage about the Baptism of Jesus, a passage we all have heard many times at mass and may have seen many depictions of in churches. It’s a passage that begs explanation, because even John knows that Jesus doesn’t need to be baptized. If we remember our catechesis, we know that the Sacrament of Baptism cleanses us from original sin, which Jesus didn’t have. It makes us adopted sons and daughters of God, whereas Jesus was already the bona fide Son of God. So why did Jesus choose to do it this way? In the NAB I read:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Jesus said to him in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him. — Mt 3:13-15
Jesus explains his peculiar actions with a FITTINGNESS ARGUMENT! My Thomist heart skipped a beat.
Yet this phrase pulled me into contemplation. Jesus didn’t say “fitting for me.” He said, “fitting for us.” What does that mean???
Could God have done it differently? Yes. There was nothing necessary about Jesus being baptized by John, since Jesus didn’t need any of the effects of the sacrament, nor was John’s baptism sacramental in the first place.
How could He have done it differently? Jesus hints that the purpose of this gesture is “to fulfill all righteousness,” which in this case probably means two things. First, fulfillment in the Gospel of Matthew is all about how the actions and person of Jesus not only fulfills all the writings of the prophets, but also the law. Jesus could have chosen this moment to demonstrate “fulfillment” by refusing John’s baptism. He could have launched into a sermon on spiritual cleanliness and commenced his preaching ministry right then and there. “Fulfillment” in this case also refers to God’s plan of salvation (righteousness). God could have chosen to demonstrate His supreme providence and power by bypassing human agency altogether. Salvation could have been achieved by God alone, as a supreme act of mercy. So there would be no reason, then, to involve John at the commencement of Jesus’ ministry.
So, why might He have done it this way? The choice that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, makes in this moment ratifies God’s plan of salvation as a cooperative act between creatures and the Creator. God has decided that our actions will aid or hinder the fulfillment of all righteousness and through this exchange with John, He makes it clear that each of us will have a moment in which Jesus will ask us to cooperate with that plan. From our point of view, what Jesus asks us to do may seem silly. It may seem totally counterproductive or even unfitting, but the “foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.” (1 Cor 1:25) At a basic level, we know that requiring our participation is totally unnecessary for an omnipotent God, even in His earthly form. We know He doesn’t need our help. But how wonderful that He finds it fitting to invite us in on all His plans!
In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism, we witness not only a foundational event for our faith and for the life of the Church, we we see something that in it simplicity rocks the entire foundation of human existence: I think about what an intimate conversation this little exchange was. Can you imagine your Lord and God whispering in your ear: “I understand your concerns and that you worry that you shouldn’t be involved, but I really want to do this together.”
God has shown that our path to salvation is not merely an “I-Thou” exchange, where I offer you this, if you do this. At His incarnation and in his baptism, in his eating and drinking and teaching and preaching and triumphant entry into Jerusalem and his passion, death and resurrection and His everlasting reign in heaven, God has taken this “I-Thou” of Creator and creature and turned it into a “we.”
I cannot fathom the fittingness of this. I accept that it is fitting, for I understand that God made us with free will and therefore wants us to use that same will to come to Him. He will not twist our arm and force us to accept salvation blindly. But I cannot fathom the supreme patience and love of a God who set up this system in the first place. I can hardly find the patience to let my children help me with chores like unloading the dishwasher, yet the Father asks His children to help Him with fulfilling all righteousness, even if we do break quite a few dishes along the way.