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:

It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits. - On the Incarnation, p. 32

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? 

What else could he possibly do, being God, but renew His Image in mankind, so that through it men might once more come to know Him? And how could this be done save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our Saviour Jesus Christ? Men could not have done it, for they are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, Who could recreate man made after the Image. - On the Incarnation, p. 41

By man death has gained its power over men; by the Word made Man death has been destroyed and life raised up anew.
The only way to rescue humanity from devolving into nothingness was for God to come to earth as Man. Jesus, the perfect image of the Father, came to restore the image of God in men and women. He did this by proving his divinity in the course of his life, through both miracles and teaching, and ultimately by dying on the cross and rising again. In dying, Jesus has has “settled man’s account with death,” essentially freeing humanity from the law of death, which has reigned since the fall.

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.

But 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, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection. - On the Incarnation, p. 57

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?

My Recommendation

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.

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