Athanasius and the Incarnation of Christ

ANN MARIE MO|GUEST

When was the last time you read an old book?

C.S. Lewis had an opinion on this: “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”[i]

Lewis urges Christian readers to step outside of their century to read the “old books.” In fact, he penned these words as part of an introduction to the over 1,600-year-old classic, On the Incarnation by Athanasius. As Christmas nears and we reflect on our Lord Jesus coming in the flesh, let us learn first-hand about the Incarnation from Athanasius, a Christian who suffered greatly to protect the biblical truth that Jesus is both fully God and fully man.

Who Was Athanasius?

Athanasius, an early Church Father, was born sometime during 296-300 A.D. in Alexandria, Egypt. The city of Alexandria played a pivotal role in the Eastern Roman Empire. Athanasius grew up during the reign of Diocletian, emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, and his successor Galerius, both of whom violently persecuted Christians. As a young child, Athanasius saw followers of Christ driven from their homes, tortured, and martyred.

Later, as a young adult, Athanasius studied under Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, and engaged in the great Trinitarian strife—the Arian controversy. Arius, a priest in Alexandria, denied the divinity of Jesus and taught the heresy that since Jesus is the Son of God, as a son, Jesus had to have a beginning and thus was a created being. He confused many in the early Church by falsely teaching that God the Father alone was truly God, and that Jesus his Son was not God, but instead, was the first and greatest creature made by the Father to accomplish man’s salvation. Bishop Alexander opposed Arius and fought to maintain the true deity of the eternal Christ.

In God’s providence, during this controversy, the reigning emperor Constantine became the first Roman emperor to profess Christianity. To address the Church’s strife over Arius’s anti-Trinitarian views, in 325 A.D. Constantine called Christian bishops worldwide to attend the Council of Nicaea to decide on who Jesus is—a created being or God.

For many bishops who suffered for their faith in Christ during the reigns of emperors Diocletian and Galerius, it was of utmost importance to reach a precise understanding of who Jesus was. Athanasius attended the Council of Nicaea in a support role and witnessed the seriousness of the debates. The Council of Nicaea summarized their conclusions in the Nicene Creed and on the point in question of Jesus’ divinity stated: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, begotten not made, being of one substance (homoousios) with the Father.”[ii]

Theologian Louis Berkhof highlights the significance: “This was an unequivocal statement. The term homoousios could not be twisted to mean anything else than that the essence of the Son is identical with that of the Father. It placed Him on a level with the Father as an uncreated Being.”[iii]

The accurate description of Jesus in the Nicene Creed has been a great gift to the Church; however, in Athanasius’s time, the controversy of whether Jesus is truly God or merely a created being was not settled by this creed. Many resented emperor Constantine’s meddling in the Church, Arius continued teaching heresy, and the Church remained partly Arian and predominantly semi-Arian—the false teaching that the Son is of similar substance with the Father (homoiousios), instead of the biblical teaching that the Son is of the same substance with the Father (homoousios).

It became Athanasius’s life work to combat Arius’s anti-Trinitarian views and to instruct the Church on a biblical understanding of the Trinity. He endured exile five times for refusing to compromise on the divinity of Christ. Because the Church was predominantly semi-Arian, emperor Constantine sided with the majority to stay in political power and exiled Athanasius on November 11, 335 to Trier.

Rich in Theology and Devotional in Nature

During this first exile, historians estimate Athanasius wrote On the Incarnation. In 61 pages, he masterfully expounds on how the second member of the Trinity, the Word of God, was born as a man, Jesus Christ, to die for sinners and to conquer death. Despite this book’s title though, it contains far more than the subject of the Incarnation. It is a masterpiece because with simplicity and precision Athanasius explains the Incarnation in the context of these biblical themes—creation, salvation, the death and resurrection of Christ, the victory over death, sanctification of believers, and the consummation of all things in the second coming of Christ.

In the opening paragraph of this work, I was struck by the pastoral tone of Athanasius’s address, “Come now, blessed one and true lover of Christ.”[iv] From the outset, he communicates his purpose in writing about the Word becoming flesh is for the Christian reader to grow in “greater and fuller piety towards”[v] Christ. This treatise is not a mere collection of theological facts, but instead, a vehicle for the Christian to grow in understanding of the significance of the Word of God manifesting himself in bodily form to man. In studying this material, Athanasius aims for the lover of Christ to be “struck with exceeding awe”[vi] at the wisdom and mercies of God.

To help us worthily reflect on the Incarnation, Athanasius explores the subject of creation in Hebrews 11:3: “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the Word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which appear.” As we consider the pre-incarnate Word’s role in creation—that by the Word all things were created, that he is before all things, and that in him all things hold together—we behold the incomparable greatness, majesty, and power of the Word.

Furthermore, Athanasius shares that the pre-incarnate Word is incorporeal, incorruptible, and immaterial. Since the eternal Word is incapable of death, he takes on a body capable of death to redeem sinners (1 Corinthians 15:21-22, Hebrews 2:9-10). This is the wonder of the Incarnation—the Word, who begot life to everything, was born as a man and sojourned on earth to reveal the Father to us and to purchase us with the price of his own precious blood.

In Christ’s death on the cross, Athanasius writes the Son of God “destroyed death, granted incorruptibility to all through the promise of the resurrection, raising his own body as first-fruits of this and showing it as a trophy over death.”[vii] As we learn that Christ’s resurrected body is the “trophy over death,” we marvel at the Incarnation and worship our Savior who is the mighty God Word: “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Romans 11:36).

Contra Mundum

Athanasius packed this little book with theology and simultaneously achieved creating a work that is devotional in nature and tone. As fierce defender of the truth that Jesus is of one substance and equal with the Father, he labored to help the Church understand that Jesus is both fully God and fully man. His five exiles, totaling 17 years of expulsion at the command of four different Roman emperors, illustrate that the Latin name he is known by in history “Athanasius Contra Mundum” or “Athanasius Against the World” is a fitting epithet for this servant of God.

As we ponder the Incarnation of Jesus this Christmas, pick up the ancient work, On the Incarnation. In early Church Father Athanasius’s wondrous account, your soul will be struck with exceeding awe at the Word who became flesh to save us from our sins.

[i] Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 10.

[ii] Louis Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1988), 87.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Athanasius, Incarnation, 49.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid., 107.

[vii] Ibid., 83.

About the Author:

Ann Marie Mo

Ann Marie earned her B.A. in English from the University of California, Los Angeles. She has worked as a technical writer in the software industry and currently teaches in public school. With her husband and two children, she attends Grace Presbyterian Church PCA in Yorba Linda, CA. There, she enjoys serving on the Women’s Literature Committee.

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