Athanausias On the Incarnation of the Word

Athanasius of Alexander was a bishop in the fourth century. During this time a presbyter by the name of Arius taught a heretical doctrine of Christ. Arius thought that there was a time before God the Father begat Jesus and that a time existed when Jesus was not. Athanasius was a participant in the first church council of Nicaea in 325. This council (in part) produced the Nicene Creed and excommunicated Arius and his followers.[1] Athanasius would continue to combat Arianism throughout most of the rest of his life. This resulted in him being put out of a given office five times and then him having regained triumphant appeal later on.[2] It has been suggested that possibly during Athanasius’ first exile at Trier, between 318 and 323 A.D., that On the Incarnation was written.[3] It is within a milieu of Athanasius challenging the Greeks, Jews, and Gentiles on the basis of rationalism that On the Incarnation is written. Finally, he is also known for his 39th Easter festival letter in which he identifies 27 books of the New Testament. This work begins by showing the necessity of Christ as the one who necessitates redemption because he is with the Father at the creation of the world.

It is here in the beginning of the treatise that Athanasius points out those who disbelieve in either Christ’s divinity or his flesh. At the outset, he sets up his thesis in confronting both sides of these heretics. He seems to move toward using uncaused-cause logic to go against Platonic thinking about material and immaterial. He argues against Platonic thought by saying that if God does not create ex nilho but rather uses already existing matter it makes God seem to be weak. He then indicates why God would be called creator in the first place. Athanasius appeals to the idea of God giving man his own image. One notices that a relationship between Father and Son as the Word exists. One of the assumptions we start to see is not exactly a trinity but a beginning distinction between God the Father and God the Son. Athanasius point or thesis for writing is to explain and verify the doctrine of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Athanasius moves to support his thesis with his first point. The purpose of incarnation is to save humanity. He continues with creation and delineates that the incarnation of Christ is the loving-kindness of God and that it happens because humanity abused the privilege it came to have in the created order. Accordingly humanity chooses “corruption” and it seems that humanity could not stop the decaying of our corruption. Evil is apparently seen as non-existence, perhaps this is where Barth gets his idea of “das nichita” (the nothingness). Even while God created humanity ex nilho, humanity still chooses through the envy and work of the devil, to move toward corruption. As a result of humanity’s willful act, death which Athanasius seems to personify, gains even more power over humanity than it had originally. So now Athanasius points out that while the human race is defaced and moving toward corruption, God has no choice but to be true to his goodness. Athanasius will use “goodness” eleven times in either the phrase, “God’s goodness,” his own goodness,” or “his goodness” to indicate that (1) what humanity sees as unseemly (the incarnation) God will make seemly, (2) God was not willing to allow rational humanity to be left corrupted and fall because it would be unworthy, and (3) finally that it is by means of the goodness that God can overcome such evil. He then moves further to discuss that the Word condescended into flesh. He constantly chooses his words carefully and points out the equality between the Father and the Word. Combating Gnosticism, the author remarks that if the Word merely appeared, it was a full appearance. Next Athanasius specifies that God chose a pure virgin as his temple. This indicates a rather low view of sexuality, seeing the act of sexual intercourse as a sin, his theology of sex falls along the lines of Augustine, although he is a contemporary. Athanasius communicates that the Word took a mortal body which was united with him so as to overcome death. In talking of this it seems Athanasius’ view of Christ’s body is a little off, he views it like a shell. Nonetheless, it is indicative of common doctrine and will move to show that he is not so platonic further into the treatise.

Athanasius moves to his second supporting point. The means of saving humanity come by death and resurrection of a human body. He will speak of perfection through the sacrifice of Christ’s own body. Moreover, he employs the classic argument that death which comes from one man will be reversed in its power through the destruction of death and through the resurrection of one man (Christ). Next, Athanasius moves to a more convincing and interesting sub-point: God made humanity in the image of the Word, so that they might know the Word and through the Word they might know the Father. There is a sense in which humanity seems to forget the grace imparted at creation and lose sight of their creation process. Implicit here is this idea of general revelation through nature that Athanasius claims humanity cannot see because of increasing decent toward their desires. One notices how often Athanasius will rephrase and repeat his thoughts on the work of Christ and incarnation throughout this treatise.[4] At points it seems he is reverting back to something he has already said previously. He concludes that Christ had to die death at the hands of others since he was not subject to a natural death and so that witnesses could account for his death. Athanasius communicates that the cross in the death of Christ is necessary because Christ had to bear the curse in our stead.[5] In his idea of the death on a cross is anachronistic symbolism that Athanasius   employs to explain its necessity.[6] In the 32nd paragraph Athanasius summarizes what has been said thus far.

Last Athanasius moves to confronting the Jews and the Greeks on the issue of incarnation. His first move is to debunk the Jews “confusion” regarding what are their own Scriptures. He will make an appeal to Christ’s flight into Egypt as a prophesy accounting for the overcoming of all those who in one way or another persecute Israel.[7] He points out that prophecy has ceased in the prophets, that Jerusalem has been destroyed and that the nations are being moved to accept Christ as Messiah and the God of Israel. Then he poses the question: what else is the Messiah supposed to do? His obvious rhetoric is that nothing else is needed and that this is seen the Scripture.[8] He then turns to the Greeks. It seems he is assuming a neo-Platonic thought implicit in Greek’s thinking.[9] His argumentation will resort to using the Logos text as a springboard for arguing that Christ was completely in bodily form and that he was God. He moves to show that God could not restore humanity simply by humanity’s repentance, thus a fully human sacrifice was needed. Finally Athanasius will contend that Judaism, paganism and philosophy have fallen to the wayside against the movement of Christianity. An argument based on the newness of one religion to be superior to another is interesting given the fact that it was often the religion that was the oldest that received the most merit.

The purpose of this document is to create opportunity for Christianity to be promulgated to those who are skeptical of its claims and to perhaps persuade them to accept it. Both the lack of references to the Trinity and the Holy Spirit in this work indicate the state of the church in the process of adjudicating orthodox doctrine. Although it is previous to the Arian controversy, one can easily see why Athanasius will champion the stance against Arius. His theology of incarnation is extremely robust and it has some interesting twists when it comes to the way it is interpreted in soteriological functions. For example he is constantly moving around the idea that rationality is somehow connected to the idea of revelation. That God reveals himself and humanity irrationally rejects God means that the imagio dei in humanity has been at some level defaced like a painting. The other significant underpinning to his theology of incarnation is the idea of restoration. As with the painting analogy, creation and incarnation are in a lot ways the same, since humanity is made in the image of Christ, humanity (flesh) is in need of being recast not of being discarded as a neo-Platonist might concede. Some of Athanasius theological thoughts (especially on the cross) seem to be based on an allegorical interpretation and then applied in a historically literal sense. Finally Athanasius’ thoughts on the Logos and the union of creation strike me as peculiar.   It seems that Christ’s union with creatures is a distinction that he wants to explicitly avoid. Nonetheless, this work is an excellent theological resource regarding Christ and the nature of his incarnation.

[1] K.S. Latourette, A History of Christianity, vol. 1. 154-156.

[2] K.S. Latourette, A History of Christianity, vol. 1. 158.


[4] On the Incarnation of the Word, 20.3. “And do not be surprised if we frequently repeat the same words on he same subject.

[5] He appeals to Galatians 3:10 and 13 for a proof text.

[6] Here is the symbolic gesture that Christ extended his hands to unity Jews and Gentiles and that the cross was in the air (where Satan rules). Therefore the cross is in Satan’s region.

[7] Athanausias will show that none of the kings or prophets died on the Cross. His vast understanding of the history of Israel is impressive and he uses it to make an appeal based on his former thinking about the necessity of the cross.

[8] Is his argument he perpetuates the idea that no king or prophet is left. Essentially, it seems he is making a statement that the old civic and perhaps politic understanding of the Messiah should be replaced with the understanding that Christ is the Messiah and the church is the new place such things are to be found.

[9] On the Incarnation of the Word, in the 41st portion is a footnote that is extremely helpful for understanding where Athanausias is coming from.