Tuesday, September 09, 2008

#198 On the Incarnation

I recently finished reading On the Incarnation by Athanasius and a few things stood out to me.

First, to my modern evangelical ear, he seems to be the most orthodox Patristic writer I have read so far. The letters of Clement are in this league as well while some of the others I've read, all before Athanasius' time, would likely make 21st century American Christians cringe a bit. This leads me to believe that the modern church has been profoundly influenced by him more than most people know.

Second, he is one of the most engaging of the pre-Nicene fathers. He seems to take special care with each sentence. It is evident that he has really thought through the issues. He doesn't come across as speaking only to his 4th century situation but is incredibly relevant and his language is accessible.

Third, and as a counterpoint to my first comment above, though 99% evangelically kosher, he makes two shocking comments that demand explanation by any Patristics scholar. First, in chapter 7 (the chapter's are more like large paragraphs), speaking of the necessity of the incarnation, he says,

"It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil... As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do?"

Since Athansius commonly uses the title Word of God to refer to Jesus, is he implying in the above statement that Jesus was a creation? Surely not, since in Athanasius' scheme, the incarnation of the word was in fact the solution to the problem. Count me confused.

The other shocking comment comes near the end, in chapter 54, and it is the most commonly cited quote of Athanasius. You've all heard it before: "He, indeed, assumed humanity, that we might become God." My first thought would normally be to chalk this up to ancient figure of speech that I'm missing like when I read a Shakespeare play and only really get about half of it. But On the Incarnation, at least this translation, is easily understood elsewhere as I mentioned in my second observation above. The context is a discussion of the humble means by which God chose to reveal himself, but I don't see how it explains away this strange phrasing.

I'm thinking now that I'm done with the independent study class I've been taking I'll have more time to say more about Athanasius, but for now, I'll leave it at that.


Weekend Fisher said...

Hi there

Athanasius' On the Incarnation is one of my all-time favorite theological works; probably my #1 favorite that's not in the canon of Scripture.

Yes, Athanasius was the main defender of orthodoxy in his day and the defeat of the Arian heresy is largely credited to him; "Athanasius contra mundum" is one phrase that was used to capture what he did. That's likely why the Athanasian Creed was named in his honor (though that is a dubious honor, if you've read that creed).

Meanwhile: I think on question #1, your interpretation hadn't crossed my mind. Whenever I read that part "the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word", it seems to me that he's trying to communicate "people were created reasonable, like the Word is reasonable".

And it was standard fare in the early church to find things like "The Son of God became the Son of Man so that the sons of men might become the sons of God."

We spend a lot of time reflecting on Jesus being the Son of God, but in our day we very much shy away from the fact that "having power to become sons of God" was very much part of the original Christian message, part of being born again of the Spirit. He never seems to envision us being, say, rival gods, but this has been explained by orthodoxy over the years to remind us how we do pick up some of the attributes of God: we become holy. There's a ton more where that came from but long story short our imitation of God and the transformation of our beings into sons of God is a major theme in the early church.

Take care & God bless

Alex said...


You're probably exactly right on that interpretation of the "reasonable" comment. That would make a lot more sense, but my brain just wasn't making the connection when I read it.

And I guess the second comment shocked me because he doesn't say "like" God as I would expect. He says "become God." I know he didn't mean that because the rest of what he writes affirms his orthodox belief, but it's just an odd phrasing when language for similes was readily available in his day.

I wasn't aware that was a typical phrase in the early church though, and that further affirms him in his orthodoxy. I've never heard the idea of Christians becoming sons of God fleshed out in Christian preaching as well as it should have been. Then again, maybe I was listening as well as I should have been.

Thanks for stopping by!

Kenny said...

I haven't read On The Incarnation (it's high on my list, though!), but I believe Athanasius elsewhere uses the phrase "we become by grace what He is by nature." Both of these phrases were common among the fathers. Note that Augustine also uses them, and compare Ephesians 2:6-7, and especially 2 Peter 1:4. This doctrine is called 'theosis' or (from the Latin) 'deification', and is probably the central point in the Patristic understanding of what Protestant theologians call 'glorification'.

Anonymous said...

I have understood that the translation is faulty. Instead of "become God" it should read something like "theopoiesis" or "theosis". Correct translation would then be: God became man that man might be deified.

Kenny said...

Well 'theopoiesis' is Greek for 'made God', and 'deified' is from the Latin for 'made God', so I think the translation is probably fine.

Kevin said...

Alex, as Kenny said, what you have highlighted is an expression of Athanasius' doctrine of deification. Athanasius, like many others before him (including Irenaeus), affirms that God truly became man, lived, died, and was raised from the dead, not only to save humanity from sin and death (which have a lot to do with ontology and going out of existence—not merely with what Prostestants might describe as 'justice'), but also to restore human beings to the image and likeness of God. As I'm sure you noticed, Athanasius is very careful to distinguish between the created and the Creator. Athanasius teaches that the final goal of human life is to be deified, but this deification is ultimately about being conformed to the divine image and likeness (which includes knowledge and communion with God, along with holiness, obedience, and love, among other things). For Athanasius, and Irenaeus, we are made 'gods' by the Son and Holy Spirit, but even then we remain creatures—we are never "God" in the same way that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are 'God', for we remain dependent upon God for our existence and have been created by God, whereas the Triune God is eternal and uncreated. One of the central ways that deification is described is by the language of participation. Irenaeus and Athanasius teach that in the incarnation human nature itself was deified 'in Christ'. Yet, this deification remains to be realised in us. We must choose to 'opt in' to it, by following God and allowing His Spirit to sanctify us, as we strive to love and obey Him, and—as the commentators above indicated—become like the Logos, i.e. live according to reason. When we begin to live in this way, we begin to participate in the life of God, and begin moving towards deification.

Kind regards,


Christopher said...

Hi Alex. this is almost a year old, but I didn't see the answer to one of your questions: Does Athanasius believe Jesus (the Word - Logos) as a created being? The answer is no. He is responding (though this was written before the Council of Nicea) to the reason for the incarnation of the Logos and what this meant. What he means is that human beings (creatures whom He had created reasonable) are in the Logos. This appears in St. Paul as well. In Genesis, man is created IN the image of God, whereas in St. Paul, Jesus IS the image of God.

What Athanasius means regarding the image of God stems from this. The "Logos" means "reason" and so he applies the meaning of the word to human nature, showing that humans who are reflections of Christ are rational beings, and that whenever they think rationally or use reason, they somewhat partake of this image or use it. This will later be taken up (though more against Origenism and Phyrrus) by St. Maximus the Confessor before the Sixth Ecumenical Council (Christ having two wills is defended). Maximus says that in human nature, there are logoi (result of being created by the Logos), but the fallen mode of operation of them is called tropoi. He is sometimes very confusing, but also brilliant. He saw a problem with Christology/soteriology when others of his own time did not. I'd recommend picking up either his "Selected Writings" from "The Classics of Western Spirituality" series or "On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ" from Saint Vladimir Seminary Press. It might help to read him a few times...or even a lay summary of him.