St. Athanasius’ second treatise written to Marcarius, On the Incarnation, is an apologetic work in which Athanasius considers “the Word’s becoming Man and His divine Appearing in our midst.” The work is not intended to be a doctrinal explanation of the incarnation but a defense of it against its 4th century critics.
First, Athanasius addresses the creation of man and his fall into sin, which is necessary background for a proper understanding of the incarnation. As Athanasius argues, humankind’s dilemma caused the Word to take human form.Through transgression man had broken fellowship with God and faced corruption and death. However, the same agent through whom the world and mankind was created would become the agent of its deliverance and re-creation. “For this purpose, then,” to maintain God the Father’s consistency in regards to his sentence of death on all due to sin and His ultimate purpose in creating the world and a humanity in His image, “the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world.” The Word took on a body capable of death to face humanity’s corruption in death for the sake of all. “Yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as could not die.” And, therefore, death could not hold Him and He emerged victorious from the grave, defeating death and obtaining incorruption through His resurrection. As Athanasius states,
This [the Word’s incarnation, death, and resurrection] He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection.
None was able to grant mortals immortality through resurrection save the immortal Divine-Word who was unable to remain dead, hence the incarnation.
A second reason for the incarnation, which Athanasius presents, relates to the themes of revelation, relationship, and worship. Athanasius states, “why should God have made them at all, if He had not intended them to know Him?” Man was created to know, love, and worship God, but sin had “dehumanized” humans (temporarily thwarting God’s creation-purpose), causing them to be blind towards their Creator but rather worship creation. Was God to remain silent and inactive? No, “this would be tantamount to His having made them for others and not for Himself.” When mankind had turned to the contemplation of created things, “the Word submitted to appear in a body, in order that He, as Man, might center their senses on Himself.” And more so, God began the renewal of His image in mankind through Jesus Christ, the true image of the Father.
In the remaining portions of his treatise, Athanasius defends the infleshing, crucifixion, and bodily resurrection of Christ, confronting various arguments proposed by both Jews and Gentiles. First he handles criticisms against the crucifixion, i.e., why not another form of death? For example, Athanasius argues that Christ’s death was public so that none might question the validity of His death and therefore the reality of His resurrection. Or again, Christ faced death from enemy action and choice so as not to leave room “for suspicion that His power over death was limited to the particular kind of death which He chose for Himself.” Regarding the resurrection he argues from experience that the boldness of Christian martyrs facing death testifies to Christ’s victory over death. Or again, Athanasius argues, Christ must be alive for He is working in this world expelling evil spirits, despoiling idols, and turning men away from paganism toward faith in Himself. Regarding the Jews, “their unbelief has its refutation in the Scriptures which even [they] themselves read.” Athanasius demonstrates how the Old Testament Scriptures anticipate a Savior that is only fulfilled in the God-man Jesus Christ. Against the Greeks he makes philosophical arguments, i.e., if they recognize God’s presence in the totality of His creation then surely they ought not detest His taking up a part of that whole—a human body; it is not “degrading for the Word, Who pervades all things, to have appeared in a human body.” And he also makes arguments based on experience. For example, he argues for the superiority of Christ based on His universal appeal to all peoples as opposed to the pagan gods’ struggle to even coax loyalty from their very own people.
Various concerns are worth noting. I will provide two as examples. First, at one point Athanasius states, “He [the Word] indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God.” Second, throughout his book Athanasius may reveal some possible leanings toward universalism. Both of these concerns, as well as others, require further investigation.
What I found to be the most encouraging aspect of reading this work was the clear and well-established orthodoxy that Athanasius exemplifies. Athanasius explicitly teaches that Christ was both fully man and fully God. He clearly demonstrates an understanding of the substitutionary nature of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. His argument implicitly assumes Adamic typology (i.e., Christ being the second Adam through whom a new humanity is created and fallen creation is restored). Or again, he not only treats both Old and New Testament texts as authoritative but in his conclusions refers to the “Scriptures” as “inspired by God.” Against the criticism that contemporary theology imports foreign dilemmas, frameworks, and doctrines upon the Biblical text, Athanasius’ argumentation and theological understanding demonstrate that he was in fact reading the very same Bible as orthodox interpreters today.
Theology – For a work written in the 4th century, this book demonstrates fantastic theological understanding regarding the person and natures (human and divine) of Christ and well as His saving work and its cosmic implications. However, due to my various concerns (above) I have rated its theology a “4.”
Readability – Because this book was originally written in the 4th century, some may not find Athanasius’ communication style crystal clear nor his work as riveting as a good novel (at least in popular opinion). Also, note that there are various translations of this work, some of which are more readable and others are more “wooden.”
Worth reading – This book is rather short (the version I read was only 45 pages), quite worth your time, and rather easy to obtain (try googling “On the Incarnation”). However, with that said, in my opinion the first three chapters are far more worthy of your time than the remaining six. If nothing else, I suggest you read those three.
Bonus: My Favorite Quotes
The renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.
By man death has gained its power over men; by the Word made Man death has been destroyed and life raised up anew.
Now, therefore, when we die we no longer do so as men condemned to death, but as those who are even now in process of rising.
Men had turned from the contemplation of God above, and were looking for Him in the opposite direction, down among created things and things of sense. The Savior of us all, the Word of God, in His great love took to Himself a body and moved as Man among men, meeting their senses, so to speak, half way. He became Himself an object for the senses, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things might apprehend the Father through the works which He, the Word of God, did in the body.
Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished.
A marvelous and mighty paradox has thus occurred, for the death which they thought to inflict on Him as dishonor and disgrace has become the glorious monument to death’s defeat.
He put on a body, so that in the body He might find death and blot it out.
Overal – 4
Theology – 4
Readability – 2
Worth reading – 4