Selected Book Summaries from the PATRISTIC & MEDIEVAL PERIOD “Athanasius, On The Incarnation”[1]


Ikone_Athanasius_von_Alexandria

The Universe’s Creation

In his letter On The Incarnation, Athanasius first grounds his apologetic of the incarnation on the universe’s creation.  He does this by addressing fallacious views of creation, the first of which is Epicureanism (fortuitous generation).  They contend that everything is its own cause and is independent of any purpose, but Athanasius argues that the diversity of bodies and parts actually supports an intelligent, creating designer.  Then there are the Platonists (pre-existent matter).  They purport that God created the world with the matter that already existed; in other words, God is seen as a mechanic using available material to construct the universe.  Athanasius contends that this view weakens God, for he could not create the material needed to construct the universe.  But He could not in any sense be called Creator unless He is Creator of the material with which all things have been made.  Moreover he accentuates that the world as well as humans were made ex-nihilo and that Scripture attests to this.  But when Adam disobeyed, the promise of death had to be met out.  Yet, in keeping with God’s goodness, He could not allow his creation, especially his image bearers, his rational creatures to continue in a corrupt state.  Thus, he sent the incorporeal immaterial One who has always been, and through the incarnation takes a body of our nature, and reveals Himself, in order to conquer death and restore life back to us.

The Reason for the Incarnation

Second, Athanasius asserts that the reason for the incarnation was to give man the knowledge of Himself.  For, to be destitute of the knowledge of God is equivalent to a purposeless existence.  Hence, in the incarnation man can get a “front row seat” and somewhat understand the Father and their Maker, and as a result have a happy and blessed life.  But man rejected the knowledge of God (which is the equivalent of irrationality for Athanasius) and replaced it with idolatry, witchcraft, and astrology, even though the creation along with the Law and Prophets gave further attestation to the Creator.  Such darkness prevented man from understanding the knowledge of God, and as such, only the Lord Jesus Christ could bring about such knowledge to man.  In His mercy, he condescended to man to save the lost.

God’s Ubiquity Not Affected by the Incarnation

Third, the incarnation affected not his ubiquity, for even though he was in a body, he never ceased being the sustainer of all things.  He maintained the same nature (separate from the creation).  Moreover, his miraculous acts (healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead) his death on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead, testified to his dominion over creation and as such, to his deity.  His public death among other things did not show weakness, but rather it demonstrated strength.  It was the means by which he would destroy death, while simultaneously through the resurrection manifest the monument of victory over death.  His public death was also necessary for the doctrine of the resurrection to be believed as a historical event, rather than a mere fable, both by his disciples and those who would later believe.  Christ’s death on the cross, demonstrated his bearing the curse on our stead, for “Cursed is he that hangs on a tree.”  This death and resurrection secures for the believer the joy of life, rather than the torment of death.  For, just as Christ is the first fruits of life, through the resurrection, believers will follow in like manner.  Hence the fear of death to man is overthrown.  Death is swallowed up in victory!

Proofs for the Resurrection

Fourth, the resurrection has many proofs to its veracity.  First of all, the fact that men from all cultures are turning to faith in Christ points to him being alive, not dead.  Second, being the source of life, it was impossible for him not to bring his body back to life.  Third, even if God is invisible, the fact that his works of casting out demons and overcoming idolatry through his people is manifest are proof of the resurrection.  For, demons would scarcely obey in the name of a dead man, but rather in the name of the One risen.

Responding to the Jews Concerning Christ’s Person from the Old and New Testaments

Fifth, Athanasius answers the unbelieving Jews by using the Scriptures to argue for the incarnation with many references.  He starts with the virgin birth (Mt.1: 23, cf; Is. 7:14), and moves on to Moses’ prediction (Num.14: 5-17; Is. 8:4), his living place (Hos. 9:1), his death (Is. 53:3), his birth and death on the cross (Jer.9: 19; Ps.22: 16; Is.9: 10), his miracles (Is.65: 1-2, Rom.10: 20; Is.35: 3) and more scripture.  He then argues from the withdrawal of prophecy and the destruction of Jerusalem (Mt.11: 13; Lk.16: 16), and points to the fact that it was the Lord himself that would save us (Is.63: 9).

Unbelief of the Greeks Addressed

Sixth, Athanasius addresses the unbelief of the Greeks concerning the absurdity of the incarnation and he points out that it is no problem for Christ to manifest in a body if in fact the Logos Manifests Himself in creation.  Moreover, his manifestation in a body is grounded on his relation to Creation as a whole.  Hence, because he wanted to reveal himself to man, he became man.  Another line of argument concerns the reason for the incarnation.  Since man is the only creature that sinned, he would not see or recognize the Creator through his works, so through the incarnation he manifested his works among them.  He continues with many other proofs to counter their scoffing, but ends his letter with an exhortation for those who love knowledge to find it where it only resides: in Christ, where it’s attained through virtuous living that’s grounded in loving the Logos who is blessed forever more.

[1] Athanasius, “On The Incarnation of The Word,” The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series,

Volume IV, p.36 (T & T Clark Edinburgh, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Reprinted in 1996).

 

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