Athanasius Contra Mundum Part II: The Pitfalls and Profundities of On the Incarnation

December 8, 2022 at 6:26 PM

     As stated last article, “Church history is full of great men and great books. Often, it is the great men who will produce the great books.” We have looked at a great man – Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. Now, we must consider a great book. If one was to make comparisons, he may argue as follows: C. S. Lewis is to The Chronicles of Narnia as Bunyan is to Pilgrim’s Progress as John Calvin is to The Institutes as Augustine is to Confessions as Athanasius is to… On the Incarnation. Perhaps you have heard of this great work. Ironically, as Athanasius was a short “great man,” On the Incarnation is a very small “great book.” As Christmas time approaches, though, it behooves us to take some time and consider what may be the greatest work about Jesus’ incarnation in history.


Athanasius’ Argument

     So, what is Athanasius’ main argument in this book? Well, he begins by discussing the origin of men. All men were created by God, yet they fell and not only died, but also “remain[ed] in the corruption of death.”[1] Because man’s mind had also been affected by sin, such that he could not seek God on his own nor understand God, the only wise God Himself provided the means for man to know Him and be saved. Athanasius then argues that Christ’s death was necessary in order that He might then be raised from the dead and fulfill what was spoken in the Old Testament – Christ was to take our curse by hanging on a tree (Deuteronomy 21:23); He was to draw all to Himself by being raised in crucifixion (John 12:32). After he has laid out his argument, Athanasius proceeds to refute the unbelieving Jews from the Old Testament, and then unbelieving Gentiles from argumentation and reason. The bishop ends with a flourish, reminding his readers that Christ is coming again to judge the world and to grant physical resurrection to His own, thus, we must be watchful and ready for His return!


Spit out the Bones, Chew the Meat

     Early in On the Incarnation, the reader may detect some strange-sounding theology from Athanasius. He argues, “Therefore the body, as it had the common substance of all bodies, was a human body. … Yet by the coming of the Word into it, it was no longer corruptible by its own nature but because of the indwelling Word of God it became immune from corruption.”[2] Perhaps this sounds a bit odd – even a bit heretical. Is Athanasius really arguing that there was a human body and a Divine “Christ-Spirit” inhabited that human body? Thus, only the human body died, and Christ Himself didn’t really die?

     The language Athanasius uses seems to leave this interpretation a possibility. He almost sounds Apollinarian! Apollinaris was also a bishop who came just after Athanasius; basically, he taught that Divinity came upon the fallible man, Jesus. Thus, Jesus was a man with a human nature who was overcome with a Divine nature. Apollinaris used the word “Logos” to refer to this Divine nature that came upon Jesus.[3]

     Remember, “Logos” is translated “Word.” Perhaps now we see the striking similarities to what Athanasius argued! Jesus was a man inhabited by the Word-Spirit! It sure seems like this was his argument.

     Before we jump to conclusions, however, and deem Athanasius a full-bred Apollinarian heretic, we need to consider a few things. First, chronologically and historically, Athanasius did come just before Apollinaris. Ultimately, heresy is not determined by where you are in history (i.e., a Gnostic is just as much a Gnostic today as he would have been 1,800 years ago) – that said, the full-fledged heresy of Apollinarianism that the Church condemned was synthesized and developed after Athanasius. Second, remember what Athanasius was fighting against. Arianism had taken firm hold of much of the known world, and Arianism posited that Jesus was not truly God, but only a mere man. We cannot fault Athanasius too much for using over-corrective language in order to clarify that Arianism was false. Athanasius wanted to stand up for the reality that Jesus was fully God and fully Man. In order to do this, he used the “Word-inhabiting-body” terminology, which clearly distinguishes him from Arianism as it asserts the incarnate yet Divine nature of Christ. Was this the best choice of words? Was it the most theologically accurate or free-from-potential-danger? Not at all. Yet, rather than donning Athanasius a heretic, it is best to understanding his language as a poor choice of words in response to heresy. He was defending the faith, not deconstructing it.

     Thus, we keep this in mind as we read the book. The Alexandrian bishop was not perfect. He could certainly have used clearer, more Biblical language. Heresies ought to be corrected, not over-corrected. Yet, if we have spat out such bones of contention, then we may enjoy the rest of the theological meat that Athanasius offers us. As we wrap up, here are some insights from On the Incarnation that make bearing with his confusing language worth the while:

     Athanasius understood the total depravity of man. As mentioned in the summary of his argument above, Athanasius spends the whole first parts of the book explaining why the incarnation of the Word of God was necessary in the first place. We are sinners, depraved to our very core, such that all parts of us, including our minds, are incapable of doing good or seeking God. We need Someone outside of us, and yet all-powerful and loving, to bring salvation.

     Athanasius understood the absolute supremacy of Christ. The bishop makes a point of saying that though the Word became flesh and lived as a human with a physical body, this did not negate His power to uphold and sustain the universe. Christ remained the only sustaining God even while incarnate!

     Athanasius understood the Old Testament expectation. He spends an entire refutation of the Jews dipping into the Old Testament and showing how the Christ was anticipated even from these ancient saints.

     Athanasius understood the need for the God-Man. Perhaps the greatest contribution to a theology of the incarnation that this book offers is a clear articulate of why Jesus needed to be fully God and fully Man. I quote the bishop himself:

     “Then, [the author of Hebrews] also points out the reason why it was necessary for none other than the God Word to be incarnate, saying, “For it was fitting that he, for whom are all things and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings” (Heb. 2:10). Saying this, he means that it was for none other to bring human beings out from the corruption that had occurred except the God Word who had also created them in the beginning. And that the Word himself also took to himself a body as a sacrifice for similar bodies, this they indicated, saying, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of them, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is the devil, and might deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Heb. 2:24-15). For by the sacrifice of his own body, he both put an end to the law lying against us and renewed for us the source of life, giving hope of the resurrection.”[4]

     How wonderful this truth of the incarnation of the Word of God! And what profound insights can we derive from those saints who have gone before us in history. Let us spend time in reflection and meditation upon this incarnation of our Saviour over the next few weeks – and let us lift up much praise to God for the work of salvation that only He could do!

[1] On the Incarnation, 3. Translated by John Behr.

[2] On the Incarnation, 20. Translated by John Behr. Italics are mine.

[4] On the Incarnation, 10. Translated by John Behr.