Athanasius’ On the Incarnation

I previously wrote a review On the Incarnation by Athanasius (c. 297-373). Well, I read the book again and wrote another review that I thought I’d share with you here. Hopefully this second review, which covers a lot of the same things as the first one, has greater insight and clarity. Enjoy!

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In his work, On the Incarnation, Athanasius seeks to present “a brief statement of the faith of Christ and of the manifestation of His Godhead to us” (IX.56). Acknowledging that “such and so many are the Savior’s achievements that follow from His incarnation” (X.54) such that one is unable to present them satisfactorily, he nonetheless determines to set forth his understanding of “why it is that the Word of the Father . . . has been made manifest in bodily form” (I.1); his answer in short: “for the salvation of us men” (I.1). What follows is less a systematic doctrinal treatise and more an explanation and defense of the incarnation against its 4th century misconceptions and critiques.

Athanasius begins his account with creation and the fall. Of all His creatures, God bestowed upon mankind a special grace, the Image of God. For Athanasius this Image means a sharing in the divine being (“though in a limited degree”; I.3; III.11) and a unique incorruptibility because of this intimate knowledge of and union with the Incorruptible One (I.4-5; II.6-7; III.13). In such a state, man would have continued forever (I.3). But by “turning from eternal things to things corruptible” man embraced corruption—death—by forsaking union with the eternal (I.5; cf. I.4). Such is the setting for “the divine dilemma and its solution in the incarnation” (II).

Athanasius understands the divine dilemma as twofold. First, that God should revoke the punishment of death was unthinkable; but that creatures intended for incorruptibility perish in corruption was equally repulsive (II.6). Each option was unworthy of God (II.6). Neither could the mere repentance of man reverse his condition (II.7). Such a tension birthed the incarnation. By taking on human nature and its corruptibility, death was defeated in the death of Christ and His subsequent resurrection into incorruptibility.

He assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection. (II.8)

For Athanasius, salvation appears less forensic in nature, but more ontological. In other words, the incarnation is primarily concerned with the entrance of corruptibility in human nature rather than humanity’s sin guilt. In this theological context, Athanasius can say, “He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God” (X.54).

Second, although God has created mankind to know and worship Him, “neither God nor His word was known” (III.11). In such a condition, mankind was dehumanized, blatantly contrary to mankind’s creation-intent; and God could not stand for it (III.13). Therefore, God determined to “renew His image in mankind,” a task that could only be accomplished through God’s very Image—the Word (III.13). This Word took on a body, entered creation, and dwelt among men so that mankind, which sought after gods among those things their senses could apprehend, might rather find God Himself (III.14-15).

In the remaining portion of Athanasius’ work, he seeks to defend the reasonableness of Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. (For sake of brevity, only a sampling of his arguments can be provided.) One of Athanasius’ primary forms of argumentation is appeal to experience. For example, he sees Christian martyrs’ courage in the face of death as proof of the resurrection (both the Word’s and theirs; V.28; VIII.48, 52). In refuting the Jews’ critiques, Athanasius appeals to the Old Testament (anachronistic), “which even themselves read” (VI.33). He also seeks to address Greek philosophical qualms. For instance, he responds to the claim that the notion of God manifesting Himself as a human is ridiculous and unfitting by using their own philosophic ideas against them: if the Word is in the universe, than surely it is in the universe’s component parts; likewise, “if the Word of God is in the universe . . . and has entered into it in its every part, what is there surprising or unfitting in our saying that He has entered also into human nature?” (VII.75). With such arguments Athanasius asserts the validity of the incarnation and that “Christ is God” (X.55).

In personal reflection on the work, I find various aspects quite refreshing. As early as the 4th century, and amidst theologically turbulent times, Athanasius articulates a precise, Biblical Christology in which any orthodox Christian rejoices. His emphasis on what Christ has done in accomplishing our resurrection and life is a welcomed voice amidst an evangelical culture that tends to speak of Christ’s death almost exclusively in terms of penal substitution and salvation merely as the forgiveness of sins. For Athanasius, Christ’s resurrection is significant on its own terms (although not divorced from the incarnation or cross); in other words, the resurrection is not simply the validation of a successful substitutionary sacrifice, but the defeat of death and accomplishment of life.

At the same time, some aspects of Athanasius’ work leave me with questions, concerns, and quibbles. For the sake of brevity, I will share two. First, I agree that mankind’s fallen condition and soteriological problem involves corruptibility. However, I am not convinced of Athanasius’ view of the imago dei— that it is essentially concerned with man’s incorruptibility as a result of intimate union with the incorruptible God. Although I agree that Christ’s saving work deals with our deadness (spiritual and physical), I’m not so sure our image-bearing is concerned with our “lifeness.” Second, and correspondingly, Athanasius’ language of man becoming God and sharing the being of the divine Word leaves me wanting further theological explanation of what Athanasius means by this language.