Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Athanasius, On the Incarnation

Athanasius was a stalwart defender of the orthodox doctrine of Christ in the 4th century. His book, On the Incarnation, is a classic of Christian literature (you can read it online here). In it, Athanasius explains why Christ came and what He did and refutes the objections of unbelieving Jews and Gentiles. He describes God's work of creation and man's fall into sin and rebellion. Mankind became liable to the law of death and corruption by its rejection of God the Creator. But the very God who created mankind, the Word who was with God and was God (John 1:1-3), determined to save it.
"He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt. Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which [the law of death] was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection."
A little later in the book, Athanasius uses an analogy to explain this event:
"This great work was, indeed, supremely worthy of the goodness of God. A king who has founded a city, so far from neglecting it when through the carelessness of the inhabitants it is attacked by robbers, avenges it and saves it from destruction, having regard rather to his own honor than to the people’s neglect. Much more, then, the Word of the All-good Father was not unmindful of the human race that He had called to be; but rather, by the offering of His own body He abolished the death which they had incurred, and corrected their neglect by His own teaching. Thus by His own power He restored the whole nature of man."
Throughout the book, Athanasius is confident in the wisdom, goodness, and power of the Savior. Even though he speaks of saving the human race, he does not believe that everyone is saved. This is why he seeks to convince unbelievers. Union with Christ is necessary to receive the benefits of His redemptive work. But Athanasius is optimistic about the advance of the gospel. Mankind is being saved through Christ, even if many individuals reject Him and perish. The world is progressively receiving the benefits of Christ's incarnation as the Creator is gaining back His creation, a process that culminates in the second coming. At the end of the book, as Athanasius concludes his arguments against the objections of the Gentiles, he ends on a note of victory as he exalts in the triumph of Christ, the true King, over all usurpers.
"Since the Savior came to dwell among us, not only does idolatry no longer increase, but it is getting less and gradually ceasing to be. Similarly, not only does the wisdom of the Greeks no longer make any progress, but that which used to be is disappearing. And demons, so far from continuing to impose on people by their deceits and oracle-givings and sorceries, are routed by the sign of the cross if they so much as try. On the other hand, while idolatry and everything else that opposes the faith of Christ is daily dwindling and weakening and falling, see, the Savior’s teaching is increasing everywhere! Worship, then, the Savior 'Who is above all' and mighty, even God the Word, and condemn those who are being defeated and made to disappear by Him. When the sun has come, darkness prevails no longer; any of it that may be left anywhere is driven away. So also, now that the Divine epiphany of the Word of God has taken place, the darkness of idols prevails no more, and all parts of the world in every direction are enlightened by His teaching."

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