Understanding “On the Incarnation” – Chapter 6

St Athanasius(1)

On the Incarnation – Chapter 6


1. For this cause, then, death having gained upon men, and corruption abiding upon them, the race of man was perishing; the rational man made in God’s image was disappearing, and the handiwork of God was in process of dissolution.

2. For death, as I said above, gained from that time forth a legal hold over us, and it was impossible to evade the law, since it had been laid down by God because of the transgression, and the result was in truth at once monstrous and unseemly.

3. For it were monstrous, firstly, that God, having spoken, should prove false—that, when once He had ordained that man, if he transgressed the commandment, should die the death, after the transgression man should not die, but God’s word should be broken. For God would not be true, if, when He had said we should die, man died not.

4. Again, it were unseemly that creatures once made rational, and having partaken of the Word, should go to ruin, and turn again toward non-existence by the way of corruption.

5. For it were not worthy of God’s goodness that the things He had made should waste away, because of the deceit practised on men by the devil.

6. Especially it was unseemly to the last degree that God’s handicraft among men should be done away, either because of their own carelessness, or because of the deceitfulness of evil spirits.

7. So, as the rational creatures were wasting and such works in course of ruin, what was God in His goodness to do? Suffer corruption to prevail against them and death to hold them fast? And where were the profit of their having been made, to begin with? For better were they not made, than once made, left to neglect and ruin.

8. For neglect reveals weakness, and not goodness on God’s part—if, that is, He allows His own work to be ruined when once He had made it—more so than if He had never made man at all.

9. For if He had not made them, none could impute weakness; but once He had made them, and created them out of nothing, it were most monstrous for the work to be ruined, and that before the eyes of the Maker.

10. It was, then, out of the question to leave men to the current of corruption; because this would be unseemly, and unworthy of God’s goodness.


Now, in these next chapters, St Athanasius begins to explain in some detail why God was moved to act for the salvation of mankind, and why it was that his Only-Begotten Son was to become incarnate. His teaching is not that which is commonly held by those brought up in Christian communities outside Orthodoxy, and it deserves careful consideration.

In section 1 we are reminded that because of Adam’s sin death had gained its natural power over mankind, and the loss of the grace of the Word was leading to the corruption of both individuals and societies so that it seemed that mankind must completely perish in due course. Not because of the punishment of God, but because of the consequence of rejecting the life of God. Man was turning from rationality to irrationality, and the image of God that man had been created to bear was fading. Man, the creation of God for good, was returning to that nothing from which he had been created and which was the destiny of any created being without the sustaining gift of God.

Death had a more than natural hold over man, it was more than the mere experience of mortality. It was the consequence of disobedience and the imposition of that just outcome which God had warned Adam of in advance. Man had not sinned accidentally, and in breaking that one law or commandment which God had instituted for his salvation it was not accidental that death gained dominion. It was as an expression of divine justice and righteousness that the consequence of disobedience gained force.

What we do not find is any mention of God being offended. This was not the cause of the introduction of that death which was natural to mankind, and restrained by grace. Death came as a matter of consequence – it is the experience of all created beings apart from God. The reason that this consequence took hold was because it is not possible for God, having warned Adam of the consequences of sin, to then allow some other outcome. Nor is this due to stubbornness or hardheartedness. Rather it reflects the essential righteousness of God. How can God not speak and be true? To choose disobedience to the will of God is to already have chosen death.

But before we imagine that the righteousness of God is all of the story, St Athanasius insists that in fact just as it was impossible for God to deny his just judgement, so it was inconceivable for him to allow that which he had made to bear his image and to partake in the Word of God, should be allowed to be lost in dissolution.

What does he say? It is that God’s goodness would not allow something which he had made to be lost because of the deceit of the devil. Since it was God himself who had made man according to his own generous loving-kindness, he would not allow anyone or anything to bring this creation of his to ruin, neither mankind’s own carelessness, or the wicked intent of the demonic forces.

So what was God to do? He was not offended. But his righteousness, majesty and mercy had equal force in the divine consideration of what was to be done. St Athanasius states that it was in Goodness that he acted. He could perhaps allow his rational creation to be lost forever and for death to overcome them. Or perhaps even it was better that mankind had never been made, if this is how they were to so soon come to an end.

But if he did nothing then it would not reveal God as Good but as weak. And though it might have been understandable that foreseeing the sin of Adam he had chosen never to create mankind, yet he did create men in love and for love. St Athanasius ends this chapter with the thought that it is the Goodness of God that meant he was unable to just do nothing, when man had fallen into death and corruption, because his Goodness and not his anger or wrath or offence, moved him to act for our salvation.

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