Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sunday Reading: Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word

Ikone_Athanasius_von_AlexandriaFor my Sunday readings, I am trying to work in some old books among the new ones, so I thought it was time to go back to one of the Church Fathers. Athanasius’ On The Incarnation of the Word of God is one of the most important writings of the church fathers, and in Christian history, and one of the earliest and best defenses of the doctrine of the Trinity and incarnation of Jesus Christ as both fully God and fully human. I am reading the Logos version from Select Works and Letters, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Archibald T. Robertson, vol. 4, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church

For the more He is mocked among the unbelieving, the more witness does He give of His own Godhead; inasmuch as He not only Himself demonstrates as possible what men mistake, thinking impossible, but what men deride as unseemly, this by His own goodness He clothes with seemliness, and what men, in their conceit of wisdom, laugh at as merely human, He by His own power demonstrates to be divine, subduing the pretensions of idols by His supposed humiliation—by the Cross—and those who mock and disbelieve invisibly winning over to recognise His divinity and power. 36

Athanasius begins by defending the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. This is relevant because the incarnation fixes what went wrong (human sin) with the original creation – both the rebellion in the spiritual world and that of Adam and Eve in the Garden. In a way, the incarnation begins a re-creation of the world. If a re-creation was needed, humans were incapable to do it. God had to step in and accomplish it.

God is not weak; but that out of nothing, and without its having any previous existence, God made the universe to exist through His word, 37

For if, out of a former normal state of non-existence, they were called into being by the Presence and loving-kindness of the Word, it followed naturally that when men were bereft of the knowledge of God and were turned back to what was not (for what is evil is not, but what is good is), they should, since they derive their being from God who IS, be everlastingly bereft even of being; in other words, that they should be disintegrated and abide in death and corruption. 38.

The God who spoke life into being is the only one who could fix the problem of death that came into the world through sin. The word that spoke life into creation was the Word who, coming into the world, could bring life back from the dead. Almighty God could not allow his creation to waste away into nothingness. Only by taking on a body and defeating death, could God Himself restore life into creation.

Death having gained upon men, and corruption abiding upon them, the race of man was perishing; the rational man made in God’s image was disappearing, and the handiwork of God was in process of dissolution.  39.

He took pity on our race, and had mercy on our infirmity, and condescended to our corruption, and, unable to bear that death should have the mastery—lest the creature should perish, and His Father’s handiwork in men be spent for nought—He takes unto Himself a body, and that of no different sort from ours.  40

While it was impossible for the Word to suffer death, being immortal, and Son of the Father; to this end He takes to Himself a body capable of death, that it, by partaking of the Word Who is above all, might be worthy to die in the stead of all, and might, because of the Word which was come to dwell in it, remain incorruptible, and that thenceforth corruption might be stayed from all by the Grace of the Resurrection. 40–41

The second reason for the incarnation was so that people could know God and thus, be restored as the image of God. Sin had removed humanity so far from God that they were in danger of losing their reason and reason for existence. Jesus, by taking on human flesh, provided a way that fleshly people could experience God with their senses and learn about him from the ground up. God lowered himself to human level to make connection with the people he created so he could raise them up to what He intended them to be.

For by men’s means it was impossible, since they are but made after an image; nor by angels either, for not even they are (God’s) images. Whence the Word of God came in His own person, that, as He was the Image of the Father, He might be able to create afresh the man after the image…He took, in natural fitness, a mortal body, that while death might in it be once for all done away, men made after His Image might once more be renewed. None other then was sufficient for this need, save the Image of the Father. 43

He sojourns here as man, taking to Himself a body like the others, and from things of earth, that is by the works of His body [He teaches them], so that they who would not know Him from His Providence and rule over all things, may even from the works done by His actual body know the Word of God which is in the body, and through Him the Father. 44

The Word disguised Himself by appearing in a body, that He might, as Man, transfer men to Himself, and centre their senses on Himself, and, men seeing Him thenceforth as Man, persuade them by the works He did that He is not Man only, but also God, and the Word and Wisdom of the true God. 44–45

Thus, the incarnation becames the ultimate revelation of God. The 2nd person of the Trinity completely lowers himself to the level of man without, at any time, ceasing to be God.

But these things are said of Him, because the actual body which ate, was born, and suffered, belonged to none other but to the Lord: and because, having become man, it was proper for these things to be predicated of Him as man, to shew Him to have a body in truth, and not in seeming. But just as from these things He was known to be bodily present, so from the works He did in the body He made Himself known to be Son of God. 46

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