Understanding “On the Incarnation” – Chapter 3

St Athanasius(1)

On the Incarnation – Chapter 3


1. This is the way they vainly speculate. But the godly teaching and the faith which is according to Christ shows that their foolish language is godlessness. For our teaching knows that the universe did not come about spontaneously, because there is intelligent planning present in it; nor did it come about from existing matter, because God is not weak; but it was created from nothing, and without its having any previous existence. God caused the universe to exist through His Word, as He says in the first place through Moses: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth;” and secondly, in the most instructive book of the Shepherd of Hermas, “First of all believe that God is one, who created and ordered all things, and made them to exist out of nothing.”

2. Paul also refers to this when he says, “By faith we understand that the universe has been created by the Word of God, so that what is seen has not been made out of things which already exist.”

3. For God is good, or rather is essentially the source of all goodness. Now one that is good cannot be mean and miserly about anything. Therefore, begrudging existence to none, He has made all things out of nothing by His own Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. And especially having mercy, above all things on earth, upon the race of men, and having seen its inability, because of the condition of its origin, to continue in a state of stability, He gave them a further gift. He did not merely create man, as He did all the irrational creatures on the earth, but He made them in His own image, even giving them a share of the power of His own Word. So that having as it were a kind of reflection of the Word, and being made rational, they might always be able to remain in blessedness, living the true life which belongs to the saints in paradise.

4. But God knew how the will of man could sway to either side, and in anticipation He established the grace given them by a law and by the place where He put them. For He brought them into His own garden, and He gave them a law, so that, if they carefully kept the grace He had given them, and remained good, they might always have the life in paradise without sorrow or pain or care, as well as having the promise of in-corruption in heaven. But if they broke the law and turned away from God, and became evil, they would know that they were experiencing that corruption in death which was their own by nature. They would no longer be able to live in paradise, but would be cast out of it from that time onwards, to die and to remain in death and in corruption.

5. Now the Holy Scripture warns us about this, saying in the Person of God: “Of every tree that is in the garden, you can eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you must not eat of it, and on the day that you eat from it, dying you will die.” But by “dying you will die,” what else could be meant than not only simply dying, but also remaining forever in the corruption of death?


In the first section St Athanasius reminds us of the Christian teaching about the Creation. It is that God himself brought the universe into existence from nothing, through the Word of God, so that the universe and all in it is entirely dependent upon God for its coming into being. We might also note that he chooses to quote from the ancient writing, The Shepherd of Hermas. This book did not become part of the Holy Scripture of the Church but clearly was considered of some importance even in the time of St Athanasius.

Then he provides a quotation from St Paul, so that we can be clear that this not only a Jewish understanding of the relationship between the Creator and the Creation. Even in St Paul, and as an expression of the Christian Faith, it is necessary to confess that everything we see in the universe has been made by God out of nothing as an act of Creation. Of course St Athanasius does not describe how that Creation might have taken place in this passage, but what is of importance is that out of nothing God has called all things into being according to the working out of his purpose.

Now, in the third section, we begin to consider some very significant ideas, and ones which are foundational for a properly Orthodox understanding of salvation. We see that we are to think of God as good. Not just as a being who does good things, but essentially Good and the source of all that is Good. Having made the whole universe in a generous outpouring of this Goodness, he looked upon man and especially decided to be merciful towards us. All things which have been created will by nature tend to dissolution. Only God is eternal by his own nature. And seeing that man, also part of the creation, must also share in this impermanence, he gave an extra gift beyond that enjoyed by the rest of creation.

Unlike all the other irrational creatures God had created, man was uniquely created after the image of God, given some share of the nature of the Word of God, being a reflection of him, and made rational. Now this being made rational doesn’t simply mean being able to think. We know that other animals can think. It has to do with choosing the life of blessedness, which St Athanasius says that man was created to enjoy. When we say that someone who has jumped off a cliff was irrational we do not mean that he could not think, but that he was not thinking straight. And in such a way man was created and endowed with a divine gift, so that thinking and perceiving in the right way, in a rational way, he might always remain in the paradise in which he was placed.

Yet God knew, even before he created man, that the will of man was free to choose that which was rational, and that which was irrational. To choose that which was the life of paradise, and that which was against such a life. The possibility of man, of Adam, making a wrong choice was no surprise to God, but was always part of his generous provision according to his Goodness. He determined that man needed to be given some opportunity to exercise his will, and is doing so to understand clearly that to choose obedience would lead to life, while to disobey would lead to death.

Many of the ancient Fathers of the Church use this same idea. Adam was given a place and a law or a rule or a test. He was in the most beautiful garden. He had all that he could possibly desire. There was no reason for him to choose anything else. If he broke this one rule then it is clear that God did not promise to punish Adam. That is not what St Athanasius says. What is promised is that if Adam chose to do his own thing then God would allow him to do so. He would lose that gift of God, the life of the Word with which he had been endowed, and he would find himself left in the mortality which was his by the nature of his being a creature, and he would find himself no longer in the company of God in paradise, but would experience the greater death of being without God’s indwelling presence.

St Athanasius is saying nothing new. He quotes from the book of Genesis to remind us that this was exactly what was promised. There was a place in which Adam and Eve were able to live in blessedness. There was one rule which was laid upon them. They must not eat of the fruit of this one tree. And the promise was associated with this rule warning them that if they ate of it they would die, not simply returning to their naturally mortal state, but experiencing the true death of life without God in eternity.

How can we summarise this? It is that human mortality is not a punishment imposed on mankind, but is our natural state without the gift of God which Adam received in the beginning, the portion of the power of the Word which is the Holy Spirit, which he lost when he sinned. It is the loss of the Holy Spirit which is the cause of our true death, an experience beyond simple mortality, but which represents the loss of true life itself, the presence of indwelling gift of the Holy Spirit.

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