The Venerable Bede: Ecclesiastical History (Part 2)

bede windowWelcome back to the CHEF and to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People!  In the first post I talked about some background info and about Book I of the work, which gets us up to ca. 600 AD/CE.  In this post I’ll have some things to say about Books II and III, and then in the last one I’ll discuss books IV and V.

First, though, the big picture.

  • Chronology: while Book I consists of several centuries of history, Books II and III are focused on only about 60 years — from ca. 605 to about 665.
  • Geography: Books II and III discuss events that happened all over what we now think of as England, but it also includes stories and personalities connected with places like Wales, Ireland, Scotland, France, and even Rome!  In other words, medieval England included a lot more “coming and going” than we might think of for the early Middle Ages.
  • The big points: 1) slowly, and in fits and starts, the various tribes that make up the “English people” are becoming Christian; and 2) the Christianity in England is becoming more and more influenced by “Roman Catholicism” as the native Celtic traditions are replaced by Continental ones.

Major Elements in Books II and III

  1. As noted above, a primary part of this middle part of Bede’s History is the slow move of the various Anglo-Saxon tribes toward Christianity.  The Danes and the Normans are not yet in view; rather, one reads a great deal about the West Saxons, the East Saxons, the Mercians, the Northumbrian kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira, etc.  These are all Germanic groups and are Bede’s primary focus; the Britons and Irish are mentioned but are the groups he finds to be imperfect in their Christian beliefs (see below).  In fact, if you’re like me, you find it hard to keep straight the different kingdoms and kings — names like Oswin and Oswald, Ethelwald and Ethelbert, and Edwin and Egbert are WAY too similar to make it easy for casual readers.  Happily, the Internet can help us here.  You can find lists of the kings of the various kingdoms at this link (although a comparative chart would be very helpful, and I haven’t found one yet).  Also this link gives you more information about the different kingdoms at this time, and the decent-enough map to the left can hopefully help you visually.
  2. But it’s not just about the places; for Bede, it’s about their conversion.  At the beginning of the 600s, Britain was a largely “pagan” place, but by the end of Book III, most of the English kingdoms have become Christian.  In one sense, this development occurs rather quickly, in that someone born around 600 (and living to 665) would have seen his surroundings change drastically.  On the other hand, it is important to note that Bede doesn’t present a smooth transition.  Sometimes one king converts, only for his son(s) to revert to paganism (see, e.g., King Ethelbert of Kent in II.5); at other times, a preacher comes to convert the king, but it takes him a long time to decide what to do (as with Edwin of Northumbria in II.13).  This picture helps nuance one of the aspects of early medieval Christianity that is sometimes troubling: the conversion of whole people groups upon the conversion of a king.  While these are not forced conversions (as discussed in this link), as modern people, we worry about the thoughts and actions of the individuals involved — whether they REALLY knew what they were doing.  But as we see here, it was an unsurprisingly complex phenomenon.
  3. Speaking of early medieval Christianity, there are a number of aspects of this portion of the text that are very “medieval,” that is, that fit our stereotypes of “the Middle Ages.”  We see things like daily Mass becoming normal (as in II.9), the “sign of the cross” becoming a cipher for Christianity and Christ (as in II.10 and III.2), “the Pope” becoming the standard name of the bishop of Rome (II.11), the use of saints’ relics or their derivatives for the purposes of healing or protection (III.2, 9-13, etc.), and a picture of continually developing church hierarchy (II. 17, where we see archbishops having some amount of authority over “just regular” bishops).  Personally, it had never really occurred to me to question our traditional delineation of the “Middle Ages” as a discrete thing, but Bede’s history shows me that there really is value in our thinking this way — that there were aspects of medieval Christianity that are just plain different from what came before and what would come after.
  4. A central event in Books II and III is the so-called “Synod of Whitby,” of which Bede is a major source (III.25).  MUCH more has been written elsewhere (for example, here and here), and so I’ll just offer a few comments.  First, this conflict gets set up from the very beginning of Book II, with Bede’s panegyric on Gregory I.  The fact that he praises a Roman bishop so highly shows us where his sympathies lie (notwithstanding Gregory’s role in evangelizing the English people).  Second, Bede makes it very clear (in several places, like II.4 and III.4) that the Britons, while they have admirable spiritual leaders, are not “doing Easter” right, specifically in the timing of their observance.  This may seem like a trivial problem, but for Bede, it represents their being out-of-step with the rest of the Christian world, especially with its center in Rome.  Third, we get a sense that there is a top-down urgency to this situation (much like Constantine’s motivations in calling the first Council of Nicaea in 325): King Oswiu of Northumbria followed the Celtic traditions, while his wife Eanfled (from Kent) followed the Roman ones.  As a result, as Bede says, there could be a time when the king was feasting and the queen was fasting!  Fourth, Bede does acknowledge that other issues were a part of the synod, like the so-called “tonsure” — the image below shows a drawing of the Roman practice on the left, with what might have been the Celtic practice on the right (we’re not exactly sure — but he doesn’t make a big deal about these “other matters.”  Finally, it’s interesting to me how the conversation ends.  Both sides have “tradition” on their side, and both claim apostolic origins for their practices.  However, when it becomes clear that the Celtic argument is largely based on the holiness of their saints, but that the Roman one is based on the authority of Peter, the king chooses Peter.  I might disagree with him historically, preferring the preservation of cultural diversity, but it’s hard for me to disagree with him personally.  Notice, by the way, that this is another chapter in the long and convoluted history of Britain and the continent of Europe (see the Anglican Reformation in the 1500s, the “Brexit” referendum of 2016, etc.).

celtic vs roman tonsure

Other Elements of Note in Books II and III

  1. I have read that Bede is the author that really popularized the “AD” dating system (anno Domini = “in the year of the Lord”).  I don’t have independent attestation of that fact, but I’m content to accept it.  We certainly see him using it all over the place, e.g., in II.1 about Pope Gregory.
  2. In his description of Gregory’s life (II.1), we see Bede (a monk) clearly contrast his ideal of monasticism as a pure, unsullied way of existing that seems to be clearly better than a life in the dirty, secular world.  This view makes sense, but it’s also problematic (as later thinkers would help us understand), chiefly in light of Jesus’ incarnation.  Our Lord came into a dirty world — and he took it on himself in the form of a breakable human body!
  3. Bede occasionally uses the word “catholic” in ways that mean “universal.”  He usually does this when talking about heretics or misguided Christians (here, in II.2, regarding the Britons).  However, the translation I’m using usually prints the word as capitalized “Catholic,” which has the presumably unintended connotation of “Roman Catholic,” which is not what Bede means.  He means something like, “Why do you think you’re so special?  EVERYBODY ELSE does it this other way!”
  4. Bede includes interesting and thought-provoking remarks about being a historian.  In III.2 he talks about how all the chroniclers basically decided to wipe a really terrible year (one marauding, invading king, and other apostate ones) off the record, by assigning it to the reign of “their successor King Oswald,” a good and pious ruler!  Then, in III.17, in discussing the death of the great and pious Saint Aidan, Bede says that he can’t “commend or approve his inadequate knowledge of the proper observance of Easter.”  However, he says that “as a truthful historian” he’s told the truth about Aidan’s life, and that he must commend all the virtues of the great saint’s life and actions, concluding by saying, “I greatly admire and love all these things about Aidan.”  A good model for us of how to deal with those with whom we disagree!

That’s it for Books II and III of Bede.  Next time we’ll finish up with Books IV and V.  See you there!  In the meantime, be thinking: What is an issue in Christianity on which you disagree with someone who is a really good follower of Jesus?  How might you focus more on your unity with that person than on your disagreements?

Image credits: (the Bede stained-glass window), (the map of Anglo-Saxon Britain), and a student’s account at (the image of monastic tonsures, apparently captured from a book that I can’t find; if you know what the original source is, please let me know!)

Suggested next click: Ecclesiastical History, Part 3

The Venerable Bede: Ecclesiastical History (Part 1)

Welcome to early medieval England! This is the first of three posts dedicated to the English church historian Bede and his text called Ecclesiastical History of the English People.  The translation that I am reading is the one originally published in 1955 as part of the Penguin Classics series, with a new introduction by D. H. Farmer in 1990.  This version includes more information about Bede’s life in its introduction, in addition to a lot of really interesting notes.  If you want a free, online version of the text (early 20th-century), check out this one at Paul Halsall’s excellent Medieval Sourcebook site.  Also, for more information on the text itself, you may want to get a hold of J. Robert Wright’s A Companion to Bede: A Reader’s Commentary on The Ecclesiastical History of the English People; this book is a helpful companion as you wend your way through a book that is more than 1,000 years old!


Bede was a monk and priest who lived in the 600s and 700s, mainly in the area known as Northumberland (that is, north of the river Humber, with varying northern borders). He seems to have lived most or all of his life in a very small geographical area, but thanks to his historical sources, he had access to information from other places in England (like Kent, to the south of London) and even on the European mainland (as far away as Rome).  If you want to know more about Bede, you can check out this encyclopedia link.

Now, the title of the book may suggest to us that he’s writing about the history of the church in England, but when we hear “English people,” we need to think in terms of the “Anglo-Saxons” who came to the island of Britain over the course of centuries after the Roman period. In other words, he is not talking about the history of the church among the Britons or other Gaelic peoples – that is, not the ones we would think of as living in places we now know as Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. And when he does talk about these people, it is not in complimentary terms. As a point of comparison, one may consult Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which was written 400 years later and from a Welsh perspective, and which uses Bede as a source. Bede celebrates Anglo-Saxon Christianity, centered in Canterbury, as a huge blessing for the English people; however, Geoffrey emphasizes that it was a mission to the apostate Anglo-Saxons, saying that the Britons had retained their traditional Christianity.  Furthermore, he takes great pains to argue that Augustine and his bishops had no spiritual authority over the Welsh!

Back to Bede.  His history is divided into five sections, traditionally called “books.” In this post I will comment upon Book I, and in the next two posts, I’ll talk about Books II and III, and then on Books IV and V. Book I sets the scene by describing British geography, and it gives important background by telling about the Roman influence in Britain, starting with Julius Caesar and other early Roman emperors, and continuing by describing the first British king to be made a Christian (ca. 156 AD/CE). The first book continues all the way until the arrival of Augustine of Canterbury from Rome, and Ethelfrid of Northumbria’s subduing of the Britons and Irish (603 AD/CE).

Before we dig into the meat of the book, we should note that Bede starts with a preface that dedicates the text to Bede’s king (and perhaps patron?), and here we see a point that reminds us of the end of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation: that the point of the text is that people will live more upright lives. Bede isn’t writing history for its own sake; rather, as he says, “if history records good things of good [people], the thoughtful hearer is encouraged to imitate what is good; or if it records evil of wicked [people], the devout, religious listener or reader is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse and to follow what [is known] to be good and pleasing to God.”

Other Notes on Book I

  1. Bede devotes chapter 7 of Book I to the tale of St. Alban‘s martyrdom.  While Bede’s tale is not the first version of this story, it is the most detailed.  The story is a compelling tale of self-sacrifice on the part of a new Christian.  In fact, St. Alban was so new to the faith that he had not yet even been baptized.  However, Bede notes that “although he had not received the purification of baptism, there was no doubt that he was cleansed by the shedding of his own blood, and rendered fit to enter the kingdom of heaven.”  This idea is sometimes called the “baptism of blood” and is associated with the early Christian martyrs.  (See also ch. 18, where the relics of St. Alban are used to help effect a healing.)
  2. Chapter 14 describes fifth-century England like something out of the biblical books of Judges or Kings — when their enemies’ attacks had subsided, the people gave themselves to luxury and crime, malice and dishonesty  (See also ch. 15, where he makes explicit connection with the Chaldeans’ destruction of Jerusalem).  As Bede says, “Giving themselves up to drunkenness, hatred, quarrels, and violence, they threw off the easy yoke of Christ.”  After this apostasy, they suffered a terrible plague and then (even worse!) invited the Saxons to come from Germany to help them.  Bede seems to want to speak like a prophet: that even a people blessed by God can fall away from their faith, and this example should serve as a warning to all.
  3. That said, it is also possible for a people to return to God.  Chapter 17 describes two Gaulish (French) bishops who came to the island, preaching the true faith of Christ (that is, not the Pelagian heresy that had been infecting the nation).  The description of preaching in both churches and outdoors in streets and fields reminds me of the 18th- and 19th-century revivals in Britain, under great preachers like John Wesley and Charles Spurgeon.
  4. When Christianity finally took root among the Anglo-Saxons under Augustine’s leadership, it was partly because their queen (a Frankish woman named Bertha, described in ch. 25) came from a family that had been Christian for three generations.  She was apparently married to King Ethelbert of Kent for political reasons, but she was the great-granddaughter of Clovis, founder of the Frankish Merovingian dynasty.  This story is a good reminder of the importance of transmitting the Christian faith within families; one never knows where one’s descendants will end up!
  5. gregory to augustineFinally, Bede preserves several letters from Pope Gregory I (“the Great”).  Scholars feel confident about the authenticity of most of these, and they contain several interesting features.  For example, in letter 1 to Augustine, Gregory notes that clerical celibacy is an ideal, but he does not place it as a requirement on local clergy; in fact, it took many more centuries for priests’ celibacy to become standard and expected.  In letter 2 we find a famous quote of Gregory’s: that we should help young Christians grow in the faith by using good ideas from lots of different church traditions; as he says, “things should not be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things.”  And finally, in a subsequent letter to the Abbot Mellitus, Gregory gives the sensible and famous advice that “target populations” should be eased into the Christian faith by understanding their own religion and connecting elements of Christianity with it.  Gregory is careful to avoid syncretism; rather, he teaches something quite like what modern missiologists would call the enculturation of the Gospel.

That’s it for Book I of Bede; in the next post, we’ll go on to Books II and III.  In the meantime, be thinking: what can you do to help spread or shore up the Christian faith in your family or location?

Image credits: (the cover of their edition of the book), (the headshot of Bede), and (the mosaic of Gregory and Augustine)

Suggested next click: Ecclesiastical History, Part 2

Athanasius: On the Incarnation (Part 2)

In my prior post about Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, I wrote about the first two sections of the work, according to the outline I provided there.  In today’s post I’ll discuss the last three major sections — a couple of noteworthy items from each section.

Regarding Christ’s Death and Resurrection

a8a76d2521e47fc0b4f7e516f2a525d5In the prior post I noted how Athanasius argues for Christ’s uniqueness as God-become-human.  In chs. 20-32, we see more of the same.  He starts out with what sounds like a preacher’s refrain: “It was not for another” to bring us to incorruptibility, to recreate us in God’s image, to make mortals to be immortal, and to teach us the truth about God.  Then, in ch. 22, he says that Jesus was, in a way, uniquely qualified to conquer death, since he was actually “the Life” (cf. John 14:6) and did not have death in him.  (Again, this does raise questions about how fully Jesus had become human, right?)

A second interesting feature of this section is when Athanasius takes up some questions that folks may have — and these seem to be honest questions from seekers, not necessarily objections from opponents (as he’ll do in the next two sections — although see ch. 25).  So, if someone asks why Jesus couldn’t just have died in a private place rather than in the public, ignominious crucifixion, Athanasius says that people would have said he just died from the “normal” weakness of human flesh (ch. 21).  Should he have fled from the Jews in order to preserve his immortal body?  No — because he had to publicly demonstrate his conquering death so all would know that it had been conquered (ch. 22).  Wasn’t there just any other way than the shameful cross?  No — he had to take a curse upon him to redeem us from the curse that came in the garden (ch. 25).  Why did he wait until the third day to be resurrected?  Because if it had been immediate, people would have said he hadn’t really died, and if it had been a month later, people would have forgotten some of the things that he had said (ch. 26).  Some good questions, right?

In a similar vein, one of the things I really appreciate about this text is that it’s pretty realistic about human nature.  Besides the questions that he asks in this section — legit questions! — we also get more imagined results to some of the “what ifs” of the Gospels?  We especially see this in ch. 23, where he says things like…

  • If Jesus had just hidden his dead body away and then reappeared, saying he’d been raised from the dead, then no one would have believed him, AND they would have trusted him even less when he talked about the resurrection!
  • If the disciples hadn’t actually seen Jesus die, then there’s no way they would have been as bold to say that he had been raised from the dead.
  • If the Jewish leaders hadn’t actually seen Jesus die, then it would have been even easier for them to explain his supposed resurrection away.

Concerning Objections from “the Jews”

Where section 3 has some pretty direct relevance for me in my context — we have a number of people in my part of the world who question the Christian narrative, the stories of Scripture, and especially the centrality of Jesus in life — section 4 is not as much so.  The reason is that this part concerns objections that (real or imagined) Jews of Athanasius’ time made against the Christian claims concerning Jesus.  So, if you (the reader) do live in a place where there are a number of Jews, and if you happen to be involved in conversations about religion, then Athanasius’s text might be helpful.

The most noteworthy part of this section (starting at ch. 33), in my mind, is that we have two different kinds of testimonies that are made.  First, we get some repetition of the texts that are in the New Testament, in places like Matthew’s Gospel or the book of Acts.  Examples of this type especially come from the book of Isaiah, including Isa. 7:14 about a virgin conceiving a child (Matthew 1), the famous “Servant Song” in Isa. 52-53 (Acts 8), and Isa. 65:1-2 about God’s reaching out to a “disobedient and rebellious people” (Romans 10).

However, there are also other passages that don’t appear in the New Testament, like Deuteronomy 28:66, which says, “You will see your life hanging before your eyes, and you will not believe” (reflecting the Septuagint text more than the Hebrew).  In ch. 35 of his text, Athanasius rather naturally connects “life” with Jesus, and the idea of “hanging” with “hanging on the cross, thus making the text a prophecy of Moses against the Jews who would reject Jesus.  In fact, there are a number of these kinds of texts — and the fact that several of them are also quoted in other early Christian writings makes us think that there must have been some common body of texts that writers knew and could draw from for their purposes.  In fact, this is the 100th anniversary of the publishing of Rendel Harris’s Testimonies (also available for free in GoogleBooks), which was dedicated to the question of whether there was even a text that was known, copied, and consulted by the church fathers, but is now lost to history.

Concerning Objections from “the Greeks”

The last portion of the text is concerning with refuting objections that Gentiles (“Greeks”) may make.  For example, Athanasius returns to engagement with Greek philosophers (as he did early on, in ch. 2.  He says in chs. 41-42 that some philosophers teach that the cosmos has a body (see this discussion of Stoic metaphysics) but also that God’s Logos (a generic term for a mediating presence between God and humanity) also pervades the universe.  If the Logos can be in a cosmos with a body, he asks, why can it not be in a human body?  Then, in ch. 43, he refers to Plato’s understanding of the cosmos’s slipping into corruptibility (perhaps from Plutarch’s Moralia) to argue that it is not unreasonable to think that God saw the same in human beings, especially since in both narratives God steps in to fix the problem!

he-the-resurrection-2003Later in this section, starting in ch. 46, he returns to the problem of idolatry that he dealt with in his Against the Heathens.  Here, he argues from common experience: what’s the deal that there are so many different gods, worshiped in so many different places — especially since people tend to say that gods only have authority in local places?  Doesn’t that mean they are weak?  In fact, it means they are weak demons (see the last post) who are deceiving people, and Jesus, the Truth, comes to drive away their deceits.  And as a result, “by means of simple words and by means of humans not wise in speech” (ch. 47), he was able to point folks toward resurrection and immortality!

Toward the end, Athanasius continues his argument from experience and turns it to exhortation for his Christian readers.  First, he notes (to the Greeks) that none of their kings, heroes, or rulers ever did some of the things Jesus did — like making a body for himself from a virgin alone (ch. 49), or converting human beings from all over the world from their idols (ch. 50), or showed and taught that virginity is both good and possible for humans (ch. 51), or united in peace people who legitimately hated each other (ch. 52), or despoiled the worship of the idols and the work of the magicians (ch. 53)?  Implied answer: no one.  And, as he closes, he notes that Christians’ lives can also be exemplary, because it is not enough simply to learn about Jesus — one must live his ways as well.  I will close with Athanasius’s own words from ch. 57:

“…[I]n addition to the study and knowledge of the scriptures, there is needed a good life and a pure soul and the virtue which is according to Christ, so that the mind, guided by it, may be able to attain and comprehend what it desires, as far as it is possible for human nature to learn about the God Word [i.e., Jesus]”

Image credits: because Athanasius’s text comes from and reflects a very different culture, I’ve decided to use art from a different culture — the amazing He Qi from China.  His crucifixion is from; his Nativity painting is from; and his resurrection is from

Suggested next click: Reading Group home page

Athanasius: On the Incarnation (Part 1)

Welcome back to the CHEF!  The second short text for the beginning of summer is also by Athanasius of Alexandria — it’s his famous doctrinal text On the Incarnation.  It was written in the early fourth century, probably before the Council of Nicaea in 325, since it does not refer explicitly to the Arian controversy that led up to and followed that council.  That means that it was written before Athanasius was the bishop of Alexandria.  In fact, a former teacher of mine called it the equivalent of a master’s thesis — doing an excellent job of reviewing the problem and offering some theological suggestions!  The title of the work refers to Jesus’s earthly life — his becoming human as a baby, his bodily death on the cross, and his bodily resurrection.  I’ll explain more and offer some thoughts below, but suffice it to say that this text has been important enough that C. S. Lewis actually wrote the preface for a 1944 translation of the work.  In fact, if you need an online copy of Athanasius’s text, you can find it at this link, while you find the version I’m using on Amazon at this link.

Outline of the Text

One thing that is often helpful when beginning a new text is to have a sense of how it’s organized.  We know this intuitively from movies, and it helps us know what’s going to happen.  Romantic comedies typically have a meet-cute, followed by tension, followed by a happy ending.  Action movies often have a slow build, getting more and more exciting, all the way to a gigantic climax (often followed by a brief romantic encounter).  Here I’m following the outline of On the Incarnation provided by John Behr, who wrote the introduction and translation that I’m using.  He says that we can think of it in five major parts:

  • After the introduction, Athanasius takes up a “divine dilemma”: what should God have done in light of humans’ disobedience in the garden? (Chs. 1-10)
  • Then, he takes up a second problem: since our desires for knowledge have shifted from heavenly things to earthly things, how can God rightly get our attention?  (Chs. 11-19)
  • Part 3 is focused on Jesus’s death on a cross — why on a cross and not some other way — and his resurrection in the body, which is witnessed by Christians’ lack of fear in the face of earthly death.  (Chs. 20-32)
  • Then, he considers objections that Jews might raise to this account of the incarnation, based on their own Bible (what Christians call the “Old Testament”).  (Chs. 33-40)
  • Finally, before a brief closing, he considers objections that Gentiles (that is, “Greeks” not yet in Christ) raise based on what they see in the creation and in the effects of Christ’s death.  (Chs. 41-57)

On the Garden and the Incarnation

Athanasius starts by referring to a past work of his, the one called by its Latin name Contra Gentes or (commonly) in English translation as Against the Heathens or Against the Gentiles.  The present text continues what he began there, by shifting from his discussion of idolatry to focusing on Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection in the flesh.  The most interesting problem in  Brick Testament Adam and Evethis section, in my mind, concerns what Athanasius thinks God could or should have done once the first humans disobeyed his commandment in the garden.  Athanasius scolds the first humans a bit by saying that it was absurd to have thought that God wouldn’t actually carry out what he said about death coming as a consequence of eating the fruit.  In fact, though, he defends God’s actions as being both right and proper.  It was right (or “just”) for God to condemn them to death, since God had given a rule, and rule-breaking brings consequences.  But that said, it was proper for God to offer them a way to avoid destruction, since the workmanship of God is necessarily good and should be seen as such.  In other words, God’s actions were right insofar as God is the lawgiver, and they were proper insofar as God is good.

In fact, it is God’s goodness that strikes me as another important theme in this portion of the text.  From the beginning of this account, Athanasius talks about how good God has been to human beings.  In chs. 3-5 he says that, by our created and animal nature, we are essentially corruptible and irrational; however, by God’s free gift, we were made both incorruptible (at the beginning) and rational, both of which allow us to participate in relationship with God.  Second, in ch. 7, we see the beginning of a theme that appears throughout out the book: that God gives second chances.  Athanasius depicts God as a re-newer, a re-creator, a re-storer — in other words, one who is willing to do things again for our sakes.  As he says there, “It was his once more … to bring the corruptible to incorruptibility.”  This is a theme that Cyril of Alexandria, his successor a century later, would also pick up.  Finally, in ch. 9, we begin to get to the heart of the text: because there was no other way for humans’ corruptibility to be undone, God the Word is willing to become human for our sakes.  In an argument somewhat reminiscent of Anselm of Canterbury, in his 12th-century text Why Did God Become Human?, Athanasius says that a body had to die to fulfill the requirements of death, but that only God could actually take the death of everyone at once.

On the Problem of Humanity’s Knowledge

As I noted above, ch. 11 starts a new section devoted to the problem of human beings’ focus on earthly things rather than heavenly ones.  If you’re thinking that this sounds like Romans 1, then you’re right: Athanasius quotes it and refers to it often in this text.  Here we again see a God who is merciful and gracious, in this case accounting for the weaknesses of human beings.  For example, in ch. 12, he describes all the different ways that God has manifested Godself to humans: in ourselves, creation (again, Rom. 1), in the law, in the prophets, etc.  Then, in ch. 15, he notes the ways that the very things we are tempted to worship and adore can speak to us of God: the elements of creation, human beings (Christ-the-incarnate is the greatest of all humans), other supernatural beings (the demons, whom Athanasius sees as the actual beings lying behind the Greek and Roman gods, actually confess Christ in the Gospels), and dead heroes of the past (since Christ overcame death).  Athanasius seems at pains to say that, in truth, we have no reason not to worship God, since all of creation points us to God in Christ.

Second, and I’ll close here for now, On the Incarnation provides a good example of a theological text that speaks to the issues of its own day without anticipating the problems of the future.  In baby jesus walking on waterch. 17, Athanasius describes the amazing act of incarnation: that God-in-Christ used the human body like a tool, “not bound to the body” but rather “wielding it.”  His point is clearly to magnify God’s power and Christ’s uniqueness, but there is an unintended consequence: that it can seem as though Christ’s human body is merely a tool.  The aforementioned Cyril would be horrified at this notion, since it was important in his time to emphasize the inseparable unity between the humanity and divinity of Christ.  But Athanasius also wants to show that Christ’s divinity “sanctified the body,” and that “by being in the body” he was not defiled — in other words, that humanity itself came back in the direction of perfection because of Christ’s work in becoming incarnate.  He doesn’t mean to sound like Christ may not be fully human — one wonders if this is part of what set the table for the later problem of Apollinarianism — but there we are!

Coming up next: the last three portions of the text!

Image credits: (for the cover of the book), (for the Adam and Eve image, edited by the blogger), and (for the baby Jesus cartoon)

Suggested next click: On the Incarnation, Part 2