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: http://www.svspress.com/ (for the cover of the book), http://www.bricktestament.com (for the Adam and Eve image, edited by the blogger), and weknowmemes.com/2014/07/jesus-at-bath-time-comic/ (for the baby Jesus cartoon)

Suggested next click: On the Incarnation, Part 2

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