“And to sum up, the successes of the Savior, brought about by His Incarnation, are of such a kind and magnitude that, if one wished to go through them all, it would be like those who gaze at the expanse of the sea and try to count its waves.” Chapter 54
Athanasius and His World
Athanasius was born ~293 AD and died on May 2, 373. He was a key leader in the church. The empire would have experienced its “Constantine conversion” during Athanasius’ younger years. He was the chief opponent to the heresy of Arianism. His creed (the Athanasian Creed) was of vital importance to the establishment of Christological orthodoxy during his day (and beyond).
Athanasius wasn’t only a theologian; he was also a pastor. He was the key leader in Alexandria, an influential city in Egypt during this time period. Because of his opposition to Arianism, Athanasius was exiled on numerous occasions. Yet, in spite of frequent opposition, Athanasius is responsible for some of the best thinking on the Incarnation to come from the early church.
On The Incarnation
Why select this book? First, it is of pivotal importance and significance from one of the best thinkers in the Patristic era. Second, it is a marvelous work on the Incarnation itself. Third, it demonstrates the continued growth toward a “rational faith,” namely, the marrying together philosophy, logic, Scripture, and tradition.
Let’s begin with some of the “downside” of the book. It is philosophically heavy. If a person is unfamiliar with philosophical constructs, logical argumentations, etc., this book might seem a bit weighty. An example from Chapter 44 would help to make this point. When answering, “Why didn’t God just command forgiveness instead of sending His Son,” Athanasius answers, “For it was not things which had no existence that stood in need of salvation, so that even a command alone would suffice; but man already made was being corrupted and destroyed. Whence it follows naturally that the Word has rightly used a human instrument, and has unfolded Himself in everything.” These kinds of answers rely heavily on a philosophical perspective. While these things may show themselves to still be true, the Scripture is far superior to philosophical argumentation.
Second, the book has a particular theological orientation, one that would have been common in its day. It has the beginnings of the earliest forms of Catholicism. It would be ultra-heavy on “free will”, “the purity of life,” and the “sign of the cross” (not necessarily the physical sign made on the head and heart). There are certain ways of speaking about theological issues that those of a more “Reformed” tradition would find not very helpful.
No, to the upside. This work is filled with the grandeur of the Incarnation of Jesus. Every page oozes with a declaration of the glory and majesty of wonder that “God became man.” A little over halfway through the work, Athanasius breaks into spontaneous praise: “O wondrous lovingkindness of the Word! for He, for our sakes, was dishonored that we might be brought to honor” (Chapter 34). The worth of this book is found solely and completely in Athanasius’ loving, devotional expression of the Incarnation. Though weighty and difficult at times, though mildly disagreeable in parts, this is a book worth reading – perhaps more than once!
Up next – “Why God Became Man” by Anselm.