“On the Incarnation” by St. Athanasius

Posted in book review, christian thought, discipleship, theology by Nathan Creitz on December 4, 2008

41qq3xagoqlC. S. Lewis’ introduction to On the Incarnation by Athanasius might be the most important introduction to a book that I’ve ever read. Lewis first makes the case that reading old books are more important than reading new ones. If you can only have time to read an old book or a new one, he encourages the ordinary reader to read the old one. He reasons that, “A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it.” (4) He suggests that, if possible, you should read an old book for every new book that you read.

To better understand the emphasis Lewis places on old books, Lewis wrote, “People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.” (5) A steady diet of old and new books is helpful to keep us from being led astray.

After making the case that we should add old books to the new ones to balance our diet, Lewis goes on to introduce On the Incarnation. He comments on the masterful way in which St. Athanasius uses the classical Greek to communicate his ideas. He calls him a “master mind”. After such an introduction by such an important Christian thinker of the modern era, the reader is inspired to begin reading Athanasius.

In chapter 1, Athanasius finds it important to return to the story of the Creation and the Fall to discuss why the Incarnation was necessary. He writes, “It was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down.” Athanasius reasons that the Word became incarnate in order to bring about a recreation within humans precisely because it was the Word who created humans in the first place. In this first chapter Athanasius also writes about how we bear the Image of God within us, though he spends much more time on this later.

In chapters 2 and 3, Athanasius begins by writing a fascinating paragraph about the goodness of God. He writes about how God couldn’t simply back down from his promise that Adam and Eve would “surely die”, but neither could He just let humanity perish with no hope of redemption. Both options seem “monstrous and unfitting”. He then asks, “What, then, was God to do?” (32) His answer is to discuss how “the incorporeal, incorruptible, and immaterial Word of God entered our world.” This incarnation proves the goodness of God with which Athanasius began these two chapters. However, humanity still rejects the Incarnate Word of God. In fact, “So burdened were they with their wickedness that they seemed rather to be brute beasts than reasonable men, reflecting the very Likeness of the Word.” (40) At this point, Athanasius revisits the Image of God that was impressed on humanity from the beginning and “renew[ed] His Image in mankind.”

Chapter 4 talks about the death of Christ and of the importance of that event. Clearly, humans deserved death as Athanasius pointed out in chapter 1. He writes that it is in the death of Christ that God is proven to be good. He even takes great care in explaining why Jesus must die, why it must be a public death, why it must be a dishonorable death. Athanasius even uses the imagery of the cross that made it necessary for Jesus to stretch out His arms for us. He writes, “it was that He might draw His ancient people with the one and the Gentiles with the other, and join both together in Himself.” (55) This may not have been THE reason for Jesus’ outstretched arms on the cross but it illustrates an orthodox position and it is emblematic of the type of imagery of which Athanasius is capable in this book.

Athanasius begins chapter 5 which deals with the resurrection, by talking about the perfect timing of the resurrection. It wasn’t too short that people doubted whether or not Jesus really died, but it wasn’t too long that people would doubt whether it was in fact the same body. It is the resurrection that truly and fully proves the power of God and His power over death. That was the curse in the garden and that is the hope of our Savior, that death will be defeated in Him. He inspires us not to be afraid of death but even as young children we should train ourselves to die.

But obviously, not all believe in the Incarnation of God and wouldn’t understand the necessity of His death on a shameful cross and would scoff at the idea of a bodily resurrection of our Savior. It is for this reason that Athanasius turns to the unbelief and ridicule of both the Jews and the Gentiles in chapters 6, 7 and 8. Athanasius turns first to the Jews and declares that the evidence against the Jews unbelief lies “in the Scriptures which even themselves read.” (64) He uses 18 direct quotes from the Hebrew Bible and several other allusions to confirm that Jesus was in fact God as a refutation against the Jews unbelief. Then, Athanasius confronts the Gentiles. The Gentiles, to Athanasius are “utterly astonishing” in their disbelief because they seem to laugh at God and “yet fail to see the shame and ridiculousness of their own idols.” (75) Through a series of questions, Athanasius deconstructs the unbelief of the Gentiles: “What is there in our belief that is unfitting or ridiculous?” (76) When did the worship of idols become foolish and “spurned under foot”? Athanasius answers this with, “when the true Wisdom of God revealed Himself on earth.” (83) Truly, God Incarnate accomplished much while on earth and Athanasius enumerates many of the deeds of Jesus. He asks, what king or tyrant ever accomplished as much as Jesus did?

In his conclusion, Athanasius sums up the Incarnation and states his purpose to Macarius: “This will give you a beginning, and you must go on to prove its truth by the study of Scriptures.” (95) This is a good reminder to all the readers of this short work of the importance of the Incarnation of God to our lives.


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