Understanding “On the Incarnation” – Chapter 8

St Athanasius(1)

On the Incarnation – Chapter 8


1. For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God came into our world, even though he was not far from us before. For no part of Creation is left without Him: He has filled all things everywhere, remaining present with His own Father. But He comes in condescension to show his loving-kindness to us, and to visit us.

2. And seeing the race of rational creatures on the way to perishing, and death reigning over them through corruption; seeing, too, that the threat of punishment of transgression gave a firm hold to the corruption which was upon us, and that it was monstrous that before the law was fulfilled it should be cancelled: seeing, once more, the unworthiness of what was happening: that the things of which He Himself was the Maker were passing away: seeing, further, the increasing wickedness of men, and how by little and little they had increased it to an intolerable pitch against themselves: and seeing, lastly, how all men were under the penalty of death: He took pity on our race, and had mercy on our infirmity, and condescended to our corruption, and, unable to bear that death should have the mastery—so that the creature should perish, and His Father’s handiwork in men be all for nothing—He takes unto Himself a body, and one which was not a different sort from ours.

3. For He did not simply will to become embodied, or will merely to appear. For if He merely willed to appear, then He was able to manifest His divine appearance by some other and higher means as well. But He took a body of our kind, and not merely in appearance, but from a spotless and stainless virgin, who had not known a man, a body clean and in very truth pure from intercourse of men. For being Himself mighty, and the Maker of everything, He prepared a body within the Virgin as a temple for Himself, and made it His very own manifesting himself as in an instrument, and dwelling in it.

4. And so, taking from our bodies one of the same nature, because all were under the penalty of the corruption of death, He gave it over to death in the place of all, and offered it to the Father—doing this, moreover, of His loving-kindness, with the intention that, firstly, all being held to have died in Him, the law involving the ruin of men might be undone (inasmuch as its power was fully spent in the Lord’s body, and had no longer any power against men, his brethren), and that, secondly, where men had turned towards corruption, He might turn them again towards incorruption, and raise them from death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of the Resurrection, banishing death from them like straw from the fire.


St Athanasius begins this chapter by referring to the purpose for which all he is about to speak about took place. We can remember from the previous chapter that the purpose was to bring about the recreation of mankind, and his restoration from corruption to incorruption. For this purpose, and not for the punishment of man, the Word, who as God is without any body or material substance came into our world, into his own creation. He already filled all things and was present in all places as God, but now he also became one of us to show us the love of God towards us.

In section 2 St Athanasius gives a list of the things that moved God to action. To a great extent he is reviewing what he has already said in the past chapters. God saw that the creatures he had especially granted rationality and a reflection of the divine life were being lost to death and corruption. He saw that the fear of punishment gave greater force to the corruption of mankind. He saw that it was not possible simply to ignore the consequences of sin. He saw that it was not worthy of God that his creation should be lost by the deceit of the devil. He saw that the wickedness of mankind was increasing, and that there was not one among men who could escape the power of death, both that natural mortality of all created beings, and the spiritual death of corruption.

God saw all of this. But St Athanasius does not say that he was angry. He does not say that he was offended. He says that he took pity and had mercy on our infirmity. He was unable to bear seeing mankind perish. It was for this reason, and not out of any need to punish or be punished, that the Word of God became man, in just the same humanity as our own. It was all of love and pity and mercy.

He took the same sort of humanity as our own is. He could have just appeared as a man, if appearance was all that mattered. Some of the early false teachings about Jesus said exactly that. It seemed incomprehensible to many that God could become a man while remaining God, and so they said that he just appeared to be a man. But St Athanasius insists that it was not just in appearance at all, but in reality, that he united to himself a real humanity which was created of the Virgin Mary so that it might be his own body, his own humanity.

Why did he do this? St Athanasius is clear. It was not at all to bear the punishment and wrath of God towards man. He has already described how God acted only in pity and mercy towards us. He became a man, taking our own human nature, subject to mortality, and he suffered death on our behalf so that death might have no more power over mankind. He did this in love and for love, so that having died in him the consequence of Adam’s sin might be fulfilled in him and therefore lose its hold over man. He also became man, living an entirely holy and obedient life free from all sin, so that as we had not only become subject to death but also to corruption, in him humanity might be restored both to life by the power of resurrection and to incorruption through his perfect life by our union with him. Why did the Word become man? It was so that by his resurrection he might banish death from us. It is all an expression of God’s love.

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