Understanding “On the Incarnation” – Chapter 5

St Athanasius(1)

On the Incarnation – Chapter  5


1. For God has not only made us out of nothing; but He gave us freely, by the Grace of the Word, a life in correspondence with God. But men, having rejected things eternal, and, by counsel of the devil, turned to the things of corruption, became the cause of their own corruption in death, being, as I said before, by nature corruptible, but destined, by the grace following from partaking of the Word, to have escaped their natural state, had they remained good.

2. For because of the Word dwelling with them, even their natural corruption did not come near them, as Wisdom also says: “God made man for incorruption, and as an image of His own eternity; but by envy of the devil death came into the world.” But when this was come to pass, men began to die, while corruption thence-forward prevailed against them, gaining even more than its natural power over the whole race, inasmuch as it had, owing to the transgression of the commandment, the threat of the Deity as a further advantage against them.

3. For even in their misdeeds men had not stopped short at any set limits; but gradually pressing forward, have passed on beyond all measure: having to begin with been inventors of wickedness and called down upon themselves death and corruption; while later on, having turned aside to wrong and exceeding all lawlessness, and stopping at no one evil but devising all manner of new evils in succession, they have become insatiable in sinning.

4. For there were adulteries everywhere and thefts, and the whole earth was full of murders and plunderings. And as to corruption and wrong, no heed was paid to law, but all crimes were being practiced everywhere, both individually and jointly. Cities were at war with cities, and nations were rising up against nations; and the whole earth was rent with civil commotions and battles; each man vying with his fellows in lawless deeds.

5. Nor were even crimes against nature far from them, but, as the Apostle and witness of Christ says: “For their women changed the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the women, burned in their lust one toward another, men with men working unseemliness, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.”


In this chapter we find that St Athanasius repeats again many of the things he has already said, but he continues to adds a little extra thought each time as he builds up his vision of what the incarnation means. He reminds us that God has made mankind, and the whole universe out of nothing. There was no need for him to create anything at all. And by giving mankind, at the beginning, a unique gift of grace, mankind was able to live with a share of the life of God. This life, the grace of the Word of God, was an experience of eternity already. But we know that mankind, in Adam, and listening to the deceits of the devil, chose a life of corruption. It was this, and not any punishment of God, which led to mankind falling under the power of death. We must remember what St Athanasius has said before and repeats again in the first section here. Mankind was by nature corruptible, but it was the indwelling grace which their partaking of the divine Word granted them, which allowed them to escape their natural state while they remained in that innocent state in which they were created.

The presence of the Word of God dwelling within them, St Athanasius teaches us in section 2, did not allow the force of their corruptibility and mortality to affect them. This is entirely what God had intended for mankind. Adam was made to live forever in union with the grace of the Word of God, preserved in the life of eternity and free from all corruption and the natural power of death. He was to represent, as the image of God, that life of God experienced by grace and through participation in the indwelling Word. But, as the Scriptures teach, through the envy of the devil man was deceived and death came into the world, not as something strange and unnatural, but as the proper state of man as a created being. But it had even greater than simply natural force, since it was the consequence of man’s disobedience and his choice to reject God and his gifts.

What does this mean in practical terms? It is that far from simply becoming mortal and liable to corruption, mankind has, through disobedience, plunged into a life of dissipation and excess, such that there is no limit to the evil and wickedness which mankind has both invented and participated in.

St Athanasius describes just some of these evils, which are the creation on mankind in corruption and which lead to a greater corruption and the slavery of both a physical, spiritual and moral death. There is adultery, theft, murder, robbery and the rejection of law and order so that everywhere men are committing such crimes both individually and together. So we see the same evil on the large scale with cities going to war with other cities, and nations going to war against nations, and the whole world being filled with violence and lawlessness.

And it is not only that men and women, cities and nations, indulge in violence against each other, but, as St Athanasius says, referencing both St Paul and the Lord Jesus Christ, the very nature of man is distorted in sexual sin, women engaging in sexual activity with other women, and men engaging in sexual activity with other men. What is St Athanasius teaching? It is that the falling into death and corruption, which mankind has experienced, is not a punishment of God but the consequence of Adam’s sin. More than that, mankind has not simply lost the indwelling presence by grace of the life of the Word of God in which Adam participated, and become mortal. Rather, beginning with the disobedience of Adam, mankind has thrown itself into a life of corruption, violence and excess, so that even the natural condition of men and women is given over to corruption in sexual sin. God is not the author of our state. He had given the gift of eternity to mankind, desiring our participation in his own divine life by the indwelling power of the Word, the Holy Spirit, and mankind, in rejecting this gift, has been the cause of his own death and destruction in increasing measure.

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