Summary of St. Athanasius’ ‘On the Incarnation’
“His treatise on the Incarnation of the Word of God, though written quite early in his life, and before the rise of Arianism, is the best example of his theology, and is of special interest in modern times from its breadth of view and thoroughly philosophical standpoint. It is well worthy of his Alexandrian training and traditions. The Incarnation, he teaches, culminating in the death on the Cross, was not primarily a propitiation or the averting of a penalty. What is known as the “forensic” theory Athanasius avoided. It was rather a restoration from death to life. Human nature through sin was in corruption, and must be healed, restored, recreated. A true theory of Creation is given, in opposition to the views of the Epicureans, the Platonists and the Gnostics. Men were created above all the rest, in God’s image, with even a portion of His own Word, so that having a sort of reflexion of the Word, and being in fact made rational (λογιχοι), they might be able to abide ever in blessedness (c. 3). But if they did not obey His laws, they were to fall into and remain in death and corruption—a negative state; for what is good is, what is evil is not; evil is the negation of good, death of life, etc. Man turning to the evil partook of negative things, evil, corruption, death, and remained in them: he lost the image, and lost the life in correspondence with God (c.5). The handiwork of God was in process of dissolution (6). God could not justly prevent this, seeing that He made the law, nor could He leave man to the current of corruption, and watch His work being spoilt. Even repentance by itself was useless (7), for it did not alter the nature, or stay the corruption. Only He could restore or recreate, Who had created. “For being Word of the Father and above all, he alone of natural fitness was both able to recreate everything and worthy to suffer on behalf of all, and to be ambassador for all with the Father.” The Word therefore took a body, and lived and died, that all might be counted as having lived and died in Him (8), being united in His Body, and therefore sharing His incorruptibility and resurrection. Further (11) man by his corruption had lost the knowledge of God and fallen into idolatry, magic, astrology, although (12) without excuse, for the image was never wholly effaced: they might have seen Him in His works, or in the lives of holy men. There was always “a holy school of the knowledge of God and the conduct of the soul,” but they heeded it not. God (13) had “to restore in us the grace of His Image” by the presence of His very Image, Christ.” A portrait (14) once effaced must be restored from the original. So men’s thoughts (15) were met half-way. If they worshipped men or creation or dæmons, they found He had conquered all these. He conquered even death. He came (16) to attract men’s sense-bound affections to Himself as Man (Son of Man), and so to lead them on to know Him as God: for (17) all the time He was with the Father, and ruling the Universe. There was (18) the evidence of His Divinity in His miracles, especially the Virgin birth and the convulsion of nature at the crucifixion. Christ’s death (20) was necessary; necessary at the hands of others, that there might be a sacrifice: public (23) that it might attest the resurrection: not of His own choice, or they would have said He could conquer that sort of death, but perhaps not some other; on the cross (24) that his Body might not be divided, and because it was the worst death; if He was to bear our curse (25) He must bear the death appointed for the curse, and be hanged on a tree; (26) the Resurrection was not sooner than the third day that His death might be sure, and yet His incorruptibility proved; not later, that He might not disappoint His own or keep them too long in suspense; the certainty (27) of Christians that there is no death is witnessed by the martyrs; and (31) the tremendous living power of Christ in the world since His Resurrection. Then follows a controversy with the Jews about the fulfilments of prophecy, and with the Greeks upon the reasonableness of the alliance with the Word, in which they believed, with human nature, upon the decay of paganism and philosophic systems, and the influence of Christ over society and the individual. He came (43) as man and not in some nobler form, for He came not to make a display, but to heal and teach suffering humanity. Nothing in Nature was out of accord with the Divine Will except Man. All other things in Nature, knowing the Word as their Artificer and Sovereign, remained as they were originally made” (Leigh-Bennett, Ernest. Handbook of the Early Christian Fathers. London: Williams and Norgate, 1920. 155-56. Print).
Outline of ‘On the Incarnation’
(taken from https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf204.vii.i.html)
- 1. — Introduction. The Redemptive work of the Word based on His initial relation to the Creature.
FIRST PART.—The Incarnation of the Word.
- §2, 3. — Doctrine of Creation:
(1) Three erroneous views (2) rejected:
The Epicurean (materialistic) as failing to recognize a differentiating Principle.
The Platonic (matter pre-existent) as not satisfying the idea of God
The Gnostic (dualistic) as contradictory to Scripture
(2) The true doctrine (3) and its application to the Creation of Man
This directly brings us to a
- §4–10. — First Reason for the Incarnation:
– By departing from the Word, men lost the Principle of Life, and were wasting away (4, 5)
God could neither avert nor suffer this (6)
– The latter would argue weakness, the former changeableness (7) on God’s part
-The Word alone could solve this dilemma (7. 4). This done by His becoming man (8) and dying for us all (9). Reasonableness, and results of this (10)
- §11–16. — Second Reason for the Incarnation:
– In departing from the Word, men had also lost the Principle of Reason, by which they knew God. In spite of God’s witness to Himself, they were sunk into superstition and mental degradation (11, 12)
– How none but the Word could remedy this (13, 14)
– How He actually did so (15, 16). The Incarnation, a revelation of the Invisible Godhead
(§§17, 18 explain this in further detail)
- 19. — Transition to Second Part:
– The Incarnation an irresistible revelation of God. This is especially true of the Death of Christ.
SECOND PART.—The Death and Resurrection of Christ.
- 20. 1.—Why necessary
- §21–25. 2.—Why death by Crucifixion—
a.—Why public, and not natural, but at the hands of others (21–23)
b.—Why not of His own choosing (24)
c.—Why the Cross, of all deaths (25)
His rising again:
- 26. 1.—Why on the third day
- 27. 2.—Changed relation of Death to mankind
- §28–32. 3.—Reality of His Resurrection—This:
a.—To be tested by Experience (28)
b.—Implied by its visible effects (29–31. 3)
c.—Involved in the Nature of the Incarnate Word (31. 4)
d.—Confirmed by what we see; as is the case with all truth about the unseen God (32. 1–5)
Summary of what is thus proved to be true (32. 6)
THIRD PART.—Refutation of Contemporary Unbelief.
- §33–40. A.—Refutation of Jews:
- §33–39. 1.—From principles admitted by them—i.e., from prophecies relating to the Messiah
(§39 forms the step to the next section)
- 40. 2.—From facts: cessation of the Jewish dispensation, as foretold by Daniel
- §41–55. B.—Refutation of Gentiles:
- §41–45. 1.—From principles admitted by them–
- §41, 42. a.—The Word, whose existence contemporary philosophy allowed, might reasonably be supposed to unite Himself to some particular nature: consequently, to human nature
- 43. b.—Reasons for His Union with Man in particular
- 44. c.—Reasons why man should not be restored by a mere fiat
- 45. d.—Results of the Scheme actually adopted
- §46–55. 2.—Refutation of Gentiles from facts—
- §46–50. a.—Discredit and decay, since the coming of Christ, of philosophic and popular paganism
- §51, 52. b.—Influence of Christian morals on Society
- 53. c.—Influence of Christ on the individual
- §54, 55. d.—Nature and glory of Christ’s Work: summary of His victory over paganism
- §56, 57. CONCLUSION: the enquirer referred to the Scriptures. Indispensable moral conditions of the investigation of Spiritual Truth.