Throwback Thursday: On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius

As part of my ongoing attempt to expand my understanding of Christianity I have been reading old books. To find out why I would do such a thing check out my previous post about that very thing.

AthanasiusThe introduction to this month’s book is what started this whole project so I figured I should read it.  Also, being a vocational Christian thinker and not having read On the Incarnation is like being an American Lit professor and having not read Grapes of Wrath. This book is just that big and important (for a 70 page book).

Just like any great classic it is timeless, but is best understood by knowing the time it came from. So, just like always, we start with a little cultural context for St. Athanasius.

Cultural Context

Athanasius was born in the later half of AD 299 and died in AD 373. During this time, in 325, one of the most important Church meetings in history took place (second probably only to the Jerusalem Council). Convened by Constantine, the Council of Nicaea’s primary task was seeking unity in all Christendom on the nature of the person of Jesus and his relation to the Father. While we mostly take it for granted today, most of what is now considered orthodox Christian doctrine were once items up for debate. At the council of Nicaea there were two views on the person of Christ being debated.

The first was that of Arius, who believed that the Son was a created creature, albeit the first created, and not God.  This makes sense if Jesus is “the Son” he must then come after the father. Colossians calls him the “firstborn of all creation.” Arius argued that the Son was created from nothing and then he was the creator of all other things. This made him a finite being as well as a being capable of wrong.

The second view, and the one the council decided on, was that of St. Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria. Alexander argued that the Father’s attributes are eternal, even his fatherhood and so he has always had the Son with him. Technically, he said the son was “begotten” and not created.  Begotten of the same substance as the Father. This meant he was God and equal with the Father.

Alexander had assistants at the council, the most notable of which was a 26 year old deacon by the name of Athanasius. Athanasius would spend the rest of his life fighting the Arian heresy. He did this most notably through his work On the Incarntion.

On the Incarnation is the second half of a two part treatise and in it Athanasius covers creation, the fall, and the incarnation and resurrection as well as some refutations to common objections from Jews and Greeks regarding the Son, or as he calls him, the “God Word.”

What St. Athanasius sees that we don’t

Athanasius’ view of the incarnation is so influential it is now practically commonplace. So Athanasius doesn’t see too many things we don’t see, but perhaps a lot of things we wouldn’t see if he hadn’t explained them so articulately.

It would still do us all some good to read Athanasius for a deepening of what we understand about incarnation. He answers three helpful questions for us. Why Incarnation? Why Death on a Cross? Why resurrection?

Why incarnation?

To Athanasius there are two main reasons that God had to become a man.

The first is to solve a paradox.

God created man and so he is responsible for man. But sin ushers in death, as God himself promised. So which is it? Should the creator of the earth let it perish? Or should the perfect God become a liar and stop sin from causing death?

Neither. Instead that God takes upon a human body, the incarnation, and makes them capable of overcoming death. We see here the seeds of substitutionary atonement. What we don’t see in Athanasius is the idea that death and suffering were punishment from God or that a debt was owed. There is a mystery unexplained in his work. Sin causes death and that is the problem. Later theologians will try to find out why. Some will say the debt is owed to the devil and eventually they’ll settle on that it is owed to a just God. But I prefer Athanasius’ approach: God said it was the case and that is all we need to know about it.

The second reason for the incarnation is to help us to see God.

Romans 1 says that man turned from the creator to the created things and so we no longer comprehend the things of God. So, Athanasius believes, God took on flesh so that man would be able to comprehend with their senses God among them and be pointed to the God that is present in the whole universe. He became man so that he could be revealed on human terms. How kind and unassuming of a God.

Ultimately, though, there is only one reason that the Son became human.

“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.”

Why the incarnation? Because God loved us enough to save us.

That kind of sounds like Julian of Norwich, “Love is what he meant.” The incarnation, like everything God does is is about love.

Why death on a cross?

This, for me, was the most helpful section because I have never given much thought to this question. I have thought, “Man, why a cross?” and concluded, “Because.”

Athanasius helps us to see that nothing Jesus did was an accident. Some of his explanations are a bit of a stretch, like he died lifted up in the air to conquer the prince of the power of the air (although this symbolism is probably actually pretty accurate of what the Gospel writers meant. Athanasius is, after all, closer to their culture and more equipped to interpret it than us). But for the most part they are very profound.

AthanasiusMost helpful for me is an illustration he uses of a championship wrestler who chooses his opponents himself (if he were writing today he would use the illustration of Apollo Creed in Rocky). Before long you would begin to suspect that this wrestler was scared of certain opponents and could really only beat the ones he had chosen. So to illustrate that he was not afraid and really was a victor he would allow other, even his enemies, to pick the opponent they thought best capable of destroying him.

Likewise, Jesus allowed his enemies to choose the death they thought best able to defeat him. Crucifixion would certainly kill him and the shame of it would certainly end the spread his teaching. But, victor of victors, Jesus was able to overcome even the challenge his enemies chose.

I love this. Jesus doesn’t just conquer any death. He doesn’t just get sick and die. He conquers the worst death the world can conjure up. That gives us so much hope in the face of death!

Why resurrection?

Why the resurrection isn’t much of a myster to anyone who has read Paul. It is a conquering of death, a first fruits of the new creation. But Athanasius asks, “Why three days?”

His answer is that this is long enough to ensure that he is dead but short enough that there would be no question that he raised in the same body. Nothing too profound there, but a good exploration of the ideas.

What we see that St. Athanasius doesn’t

Athanasius’ theology is spot on, but his apologetics are dated. I have no doubt that in his time it was helpful and effective, but in the modern world some of his ideas are almost laughable.

Strangest of his arguments is the one he spends the most time on. He argues, and even says it is self-evident, that the Christian’s lack of fear about death is proof that Jesus has conquered it. For those who have are not convinced that Jesus did rise from the grave, just look at how confident Christians are in being martyred.

He writes “That death has been dissolved, and the cross has become victory over it, and it is no longer strong but is itself truly dead, no mean proof but an evident surety is that it is despised by all Christ’s disciples, and everyone tramples on it, and no longer fears it, but with the sign of the cross and faith in Christ tread it under foot as something dead.”

I get what he is trying to do here. I even agree that the behavior of Christians is the best evidence of the resurrection. I believe in the resurrection because I see people coming back to life (spiritually) all around me when they come to know the grace of Jesus. I see it and hope for the day that we overcome not just spiritual but also physical death.

But the idea that because a bunch of people act on their belief that death can not touch them proves the belief doesn’t work in our world. To use the example that comes to mind the first for most people, if you want to know that we will receive virgins in the afterlife, just look at the earnest of the martyrs of September 11th. Acting sincerely on a belief is not proof that the belief is based on truth, but that the believer is sincere.

Why St. Athanasius Matters

The clearest reason he matters is because his work is foundational in our understanding of who Jesus is. Almost all Christians, directly or indirectly, have been influenced by Athanasius on one of the central beliefs of Christianity.

Another reason, and I think a more interesting reason, is because it is good for us to read an old book and think to ourselves, “Duh!” only to realize that at one point this wasn’t a given. Christianity is still being explored and God is still being known. 300 years after Jesus ascended to heaven the Council of Nicaea was still trying to figure out exactly who he is. We should feel free to continue exploring, debating, and trying to understand exactly who God is and how he works.

The fact that On the Incarnation exists at all is a reminder of this.

Did you read with me? What did you think?

Don’t forget to check out what book I’ll be reading here. Subscribe to the blog by e-mail for a chance to win a free copy of the next book we’ll read together.