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 www.pinterest.com/pastorpathiggin/beautiful-art/; his Nativity painting is from sacraparental.files.wordpress.com; and his resurrection is from puthudoznika.blogspot.com/.

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  1. Pingback: The Venerable Bede: Ecclesiastical History (Part 1) | CHEF

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