Understanding “On the Incarnation” – Chapter 1

St Athanasius(1)

Over the next two months I intend to post a chapter each day, as far as is possible, from the important work by St Athanasius the Apostolic, the 20th Pope of Alexandria – On The Incarnation. This relatively short, but foundational text, describes with authority the Orthodox understanding of salvation in the incarnation of the Son and Word of God. More than simply posting a chapter each day, I intend, as God wills and gives grace, to provide a commentary on each passage so that its content and meaning can be easily understood by all. I shall edit the text quite a lot to bring it into a more common and modern form of English, since this translation was made in the 19th century and is not always immediately comprehensible.

Text

1. In our previous writing we have produced – choosing just a few points from among many – a sufficiently clear account of the errors of the heathen concerning idols, and the worship of idols, and how they originally came to be invented. That is to say, how, out of wickedness, men invented for themselves the worship of idols. By God’s grace we have also described the divinity of the Word of the Father, and His universal provision and power, and that the good Father arranges all things through Him, and all things are moved by Him, and in Him are made alive. Come now, Macarius (worthy of that name), and a true lover of Christ, let us follow up the faith of our religion, and consider now what relates to the Word’s becoming Man, and to His divine appearing among us, which the Jews misrepresent and Greeks scornfully laugh about, but which we worship; in order that, even more because of what seems such humble circumstances of the Word, your devotion towards Him might be increased and multiplied.

2. For the more that He is mocked by the unbelievers, the more He gives us a witness of His own Godhead. Since He not only Himself demonstrates what men mistakenly think impossible, but also what men ridicule as being unworthy of God. This by His own goodness He clothes with worthiness, and what men, thinking themselves wise, laugh at as merely human, He by His own power demonstrates to be divine. He overcomes the vanity of idols by His supposed humiliation—by the Cross—and invisibly wins over those who mock and disbelieve to the recognition of His divinity and power.

3. But to consider this subject properly it will be necessary to recall what has been previously said. This is so that you may not fail to understand the cause of the Word of the Father, so high and so great, appearing in a body. Nor think it is a necessary consequence of His own nature that the Saviour has worn a body. But being incorporeal by nature, and the Word from the beginning, He has nevertheless, out of the loving-kindness and goodness of His own Father, been made manifest to us in a human body for our salvation.

4. It is, then, useful for us to begin the consideration of this subject by speaking of the creation of the universe, and of God its Maker. So that it may be properly understood that the renewal of Creation has been the work of the same Word that made it in the beginning. In this way it will not appear inconsistent of the Father to have worked the salvation of Creation by Him who He used to make it.

Commentary

St Athanasius has already written a text to refute the basic premises of pagan worship. On the Incarnation is a second part of this explanation and argument. He has shown that God cannot be identified with nature, and that evil is neither part of the Creation, nor forms some duality with God. He has demonstrated that the heathen gods and idols are not gods at all, but that there is one God, the Creator of all, who may be known and makes himself known, in revealing himself in nature, in the quality of the human soul, and especially and most importantly in the Word of God who both Created and holds the Creation in being. He ends this previous text by insisting that immortality and the kingdom of Heaven are found in faith and piety towards Jesus Christ, who is the Saviour of all, and the one through whom the Father orders all things and exercises providence over the whole universe.

It is remarkable that St Athanasius produced this description of the meaning and purpose of the incarnation when he was probably only about 22 years of age.

In the first section he already indicates that the key areas of disagreement are found among the Greeks and the Jews. In a metaphorical sense this is still the case, it seems to me. Those who object to the authentic Orthodox understanding of the incarnation, and of salvation in Christ, are often those who hold a very liberal and incoherent view that all religions are pretty much the same, and that as long as people try to be good then this is all that is required of us. These folk are found even within Christian communities and tend to dismiss doctrine as being the opposite of spiritual life. Others have a very strict and legalistic view of the incarnation and salvation, and tend to make a new Christian Law out of the teachings of the Church, as if obeying commandments and following certain practices was the meaning of salvation. St Athanasius has something to say to both unsatisfactory opinions.

What is the purpose of his writing? It is not to show his skill, and education. It is not to win an argument. It is, even at his youthful age when publishing this work, to produce pastoral and spiritual fruit in those who read his text, so that devotion towards Him might be increased and multiplied. This must surely always be the purpose of all education and discipleship in the Church. Not to simply increase knowledge according to secular standards and measurements, but to bring about an increased love, devotion and commitment to Christ himself.

Though the very person of Jesus Christ remains incomprehensible and confusing to those outside the Church, who consider him either not divine enough in his humility in becoming man, or not human enough in his divine power, nevertheless to those who believe, the knowledge of Christ reveals both his divinity and his humanity. This is indeed the very basis of what St Athanasius will write about. It is not according to the necessity of nature that Jesus Christ has appeared as a man, in the way in which each of us, without choice are men and women. In his case, being divine and without a body, he has revealed himself in human form to manifest the love of God and for our salvation.

At the very beginning then, this is what we are to understand. The incarnation is the outworking of the love of God towards man, and is for his salvation. Indeed, St Athanasius makes this clear when he says that he will be speaking about the renewal of Creation by the same Word of the Father who made it. And this also is an important aspect of salvation according to St Athanasius. We will see that it is a renewal in love of that which God has made in love.

 

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