Athanasius, On the Incarnation, trans. John Behr, St. Vladimir’s Press, 2011, 110 pp. Link to purchase here.
“… with death holding greater sway and corruption remaining fast against human beings, the race of humans was perishing, and the human being, made rational and in the image, was disappearing, and the work made by God was being obliterated … it was therefore right not to permit human beings to be carried away by corruption, because this would be improper to and unworthy of the goodness of God.”
For those of you unfamiliar, Athanasius was an early Church father who lived from ca. 299-373, and was bishop of the ancient see of Alexandria (one of the 5 ancient sees of Christianity) beginning in 328 just after the first council of Nicaea (325). He was bishop for a total of 46 years, but was exiled at least 5 times for a total of 17 years. Because he lived during a period of great intensity and debate within the Church, along with its local shifts in loyalty and theological persuasion, Athanasius had to go through a lot of difficulty to establish orthodoxy in Northern Africa. He wrote a few other works which should be read closely (especially Against the Gentiles), but On the Incarnation is perhaps the most influential work of Christian theology in history. Yes, I mean ALL of history. Except the New Testament of course!
Without a doubt, this book is an absolute must read by all Christians everywhere both lay and clergy. This translation is highly accessible even to the untrained layperson, whom Athanasius had in mind when writing (it is also barely 60 pages of text). It is in this way a basic explanation of the Christian faith, which Athanasius understood as centered around the Incarnation. This focus, however, does not keep him from touching upon other topics such as creation, or the Old Testament. Once again, I cannot overstate how important this work of theology is to both you and I because it gives us a firsthand look into the mind of one of the early Church fathers right at a turning point within Christianity.
First, a bit of historical context. Christians proclaim that Christ, literally God, was crucified. Though a common proposition today, in the ancient world this would have been unthinkable. Gods for one do not come down to be with humans (scandal #1), and gods most surely did not die the death of criminals (scandal #2). For the non-Christian world, the crucified Christ was not deserving of worship; on the contrary, one should surely mock such a degradation of the gods’ nature. So, to the common person, Athanasius must give explanation to the Incarnation, the central proposition of the Christian faith. How could he explain to both Jews and Romans that God actually came as a human being? But more importantly for Athanasius, WHY did God become incarnate? Theses are the two chief questions to be answered.
“It is first necessary to speak about the creation of the universe and its maker, God, so that one may thus worthily reflect that its recreation was accomplished by the Word who created it in the beginning. For it will appear not at all contradictory if the Father works its salvation in the same one by whom he created it.”
Athanasius writes that God created in order to give life to humans. Though, according to Athanasius, human beings before the fall naturally tend toward death, God gave them a special grace which allowed them to have sustained life with God as long as they continued to live according to that grace. But, as the story goes, humanity fell away from this grace and chose evil in its place. This transgression, as Athanasius calls it, relegated humans back to decay and death. But God willed that humans have life. Nonetheless, humans continued to devise even greater evils among themselves, furthering their demise. It is at this point when Athanasius evokes God’s love for us. For it would have been better had humans “not come into being rather than to have come into being to be neglected and destroyed.” In short, God would not let his creation destroy itself like this. However, given our state of corruption, mere repentance would not be enough. We may cease from sinning due to repentance, but this would not be powerful enough to reverse our eventual decay into death. We needed God to come and provide life.
“…our own cause was the occasion of his descent and our own transgression evoked the Word’s love for human beings. For we were the purpose of his embodiment, and for our salvation he so loved human beings as to come to be and appear in a human body.”
Thus it was that the Word became incarnate in order to give us the life we had lost (it’s interesting that, for Athanasius, our transgression provoked the LOVE of God, not the WRATH of God… take note). To save us from death, the Word had to die itself, but this time, it wouldn’t be a pointless death but one in which the Word, by its divine nature, could transform all of humanity through the resurrection and return to us a hope for a resurrection.
The second approach that Athanasius uses is an explanation of our situation of ignorance and God’s desire for us to have knowledge. Our sins led us into further ignorance of who God was, and the giving of the law in itself was not sufficient to lead us back along the correct path. For the restoring of our knowledge, we needed a simpler means of divine self-communication, hence the Incarnation and God’s appearance as a human being who could be understood.
Athanasius then devotes the remaining section of his book towards giving explanation to the effects of the death and resurrection of Christ. Because Christ was united to human nature in death and resurrection, our own existence was in a way sanctified by the Word’s assumption of our nature.
“… the Savior raised up his body and he is the true Son of God, who in the last time took a body for the salvation of all, and taught the world about the Father, destroyed death, granted incorruptibility to all through the promise of the resurrection, raising his own body as first-fruits of this and showing it as a trophy over death and its corruption by the sign of the cross.”
Though simple, Athanasius’ work cannot be underestimated. It gave expression to Christian belief at a time it was desperately needed. Today, it is a necessary read to get behind the dogma of our own day to the theology of the early Church. In this way, one can understand that some of what is being preached today is actually not what the Church has historically believed, and can gain a much greater appreciation for the historical roots of Christianity through reading a book that has lasted 1700 years, standing the test of time. The difference between Athanasius’ beliefs and those of your own church do not have to nullify your pastor’s preaching, but can instead form a nice background of Christian theology to appreciate and learn from. I simply cannot recommend enough that every Christian read this work at least once in their life. It is simple, yet profound as it picks apart and explains the deepest mysteries of the Christian faith.
Check out another one of my most recent reviews on Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise and its importance for us today.