Understanding “On the Incarnation” – Chapter 4

St Athanasius(1)

On the Incarnation – Chapter 4


1. You are wondering, perhaps, for what possible reason, having proposed to speak about the Incarnation of the Word, we are presently considering the origin of mankind. But this, too, properly belongs to the aim of our treatise.

2. For when we speak about the appearance of the Saviour among us, we must necessarily also speak about the origin of men, so that we may understand that the reason for His coming down was because of us, and that our transgression called forth the loving-kindness of the Word, so that the Lord should both hurry to help us and appear among men.

3. For we were the reason for His becoming Incarnate, and for our salvation He dealt so lovingly as to appear and even to be born in a human body.

4. So, God has made man, and desired that he should remain in incorruption; but men, having despised and rejected the contemplation of God, and devised and contrived evil for themselves (as was said in the former book), received the condemnation of death with which they had been threatened. From that time they no longer remained as they were made, but were being corrupted according to their own actions. Death had the mastery over them as king. For their breaking of the commandment was turning them back to their natural state, so that just as they had their being out of nothing, so also, as might be expected, they might look for corruption into nothing in the course of time.

5. For out of a former normal state of non-existence, they were called into being by the Presence and loving-kindness of the Word. It followed naturally that when men had lost the knowledge of God and were turned back to what was not (for what is evil is does not have any being, but what is good does have being), they should, since they derive their being from God who IS, be everlastingly without being; in other words, that they should be disintegrated and abide in death and corruption.

6. For man is by nature mortal, because he is made out of what is not. But because of his likeness to Him that is (and if he still preserved this likeness by keeping Him in his knowledge) he would prevent the operation of his natural corruption, and would remain incorrupt. As Wisdom says: “The taking heed to His laws is the assurance of immortality;” and being incorrupt, he would live henceforth as God, to which I suppose the divine Scripture refers, when it says: “I have said you are gods, and you are all sons of the most Highest; but you die like men, and fall as one of the princes.”


St Athanasius has to explain why, in Section 1 and 2, when he said he would speak about the Incarnation, is he spending so much time speaking about the creation of mankind, but as he says, the two are intimately connected. We have to speak about the origin of mankind so that we can understand why God the Word was incarnate. What does he say? It is that when the one commandment given to Adam was broken it brought forth the loving-kindness of God the Word, and he hurried to help us, and so he appeared among us as one of us. The response to Adam’s sin was one of love and an urgent desire to help mankind.

In Section 3 this could not be made more clear. It was for our salvation, and in love, that the incarnation took place and that God the word became human and was born with a human body.

We can break down the argument which St Athanasius now makes. God made man and desired that he should remain without any corruption. He wanted mankind to remain in the happy and blessed state in which he had created them, within the Garden of Paradise where they enjoyed the presence of God. This was God’s purpose in creating man. But man chose to reject the life that God had provided, and chose other than God’s will. What happened? They received the condemnation of death about which God had warned them. But this was not a punishment, it was a consequence of their own actions. God had granted them at their creation the gift of his own life which preserved them as long as they lived in union with God. When they turned from God they lost this gift and became what they always were, creatures subject to corruption and death. This is the natural state of man without the gift of the life of God. Having come from nothing as the creation of God, now, without God, they were destined to return to nothing, to non-being, to darkness and corruption.

In Section 5 this same argument is expanded. Man has come from non-existence, only called into existence by God as an act of the living-kindness of the Word, through whom all things were made. When mankind lost the knowledge of God, which means more than knowledge about God, rather it stands for experience of and participation in the life of God, it was entirely according to nature that mankind should slowly return to that non-existence which was our origin. Only God has being in himself. Only God just is! Everything else, including mankind, depends of the creative activity of God for their being, and without God we slowly submit to death.

We must understand this. Being mortal is not a punishment it is a consequence. Mankind is by nature mortal. We do not have that absolute being which belongs only to God. What was lost by the transgression of Adam was a gift, and the gift was dependent on man’s living according to the likeness of God. St Athanasius quotes from two Scriptures. The first he uses to show that immortality is dependent on taking heed to the commandments of God, and he considers that being incorrupt, being preserved from corruption as the gift of God, is what it means for man to live like God. He uses the second Scripture to illustrate this idea. It is possible for us to be and become like God, and to be in some sense, children of God, but because of our inherent mortality, separated from the gift and knowledge of God, we are subject to death.

This idea of becoming like God will reappear in this text. It is enough to see that in this chapter it refers especially to having the gift of immortality and  incorruption which is found in the knowledge of God. Not knowledge about God, but in sharing an experience of God and expressing his likeness.

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