On the Incarnation by Athanasius
What the Book Is About
Obviously, On the Incarnation is about the incarnation of Jesus Christ, whom Athanasius consistently refers to as “the Word of God.” This short book is divided into nine chapters. The first three chapters deal with creation and the fall of humanity into sin, and specifically with the dilemma human sinfulness created for God. What is God supposed to do now that his prize creation, the ones upon whom he placed his image, have disobeyed his single command, thereby inviting sin and death into the world? Athanasius puts the problem this way:
In other words, God is too good to allow the devil, through his deception, to destroy humanity and make them nothing (in the same way that both evil and darkness are nothing, the absence of goodness and light, respectively). His goodness cannot allow evil to win. What, then, is he to do?
By man death has gained its power over men; by the Word made Man death has been destroyed and life raised up anew.
The great consequence of Christ’s death and resurrection is seen in the fearlessness with which Christians approach death, especially death through persecution. For Athanasius, this is the greatest proof of the truth of Christianity, that death could be scoffed at by pious believers.
What I Learned
On the Incarnation is a short, but brilliant, book that has much to teach us today. The most instructive part, for me, was what I summarized above. Athanasius’s apologetics of the incarnation argue that God was compelled by his goodness and love to become human. The only way for the image of God to be restored in us was for the Perfect Image to become like us and do it himself. The Word – the One who created us in the beginning – was the one who came to recreate us by dying and rising again.
Now that the Saviour has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing.
The way that Athanasius understands evil is also quite helpful. He writes, “The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good.” (p. 26) While he doesn’t go into great depth to flesh this thought out, it is something worth pondering. In what way did we lose our existence when we sinned against God? Is this a progressive or immediate loss? If evil is non-being, what is hell? Was Athanasius an annihilationalist?
This was the first of what I hope will be many ancient texts I will read this year. My intention is to only read the church fathers for the rest of 2016. C.S. Lewis, in his introduction to On the Incarnation, recommends reading at least one old book for every new book. Given my reading history, I have a long way to go. But this book, for its brevity and relative accessibility, is a great place to start. I highly recommend On the Incarnation to everyone.