Athanasius’s weak Incarnation

Posted: May 20, 2013 by J in Book review, Theology
Tags: , ,

Ikone_Athanasius_von_AlexandriaI’ve been reading Athanasius’s classic work On the Incarnation. It has much in it that is interesting and insightful. However, overall I was distressed by its failure to give a Christian account of Jesus’ story. I will try to articulate what I find so troubling about it. It’s a complex work, it won’t be easy. Here goes.

1. Big A’s argument about the incarnation is deeply non-Trinitarian. Though Jesus is sometimes called the Son, he doesn’t function like a son in Big A’s account of him. ‘Son of God’ functions as a title that effectively means ‘God’, but he rarely describes the Son doing anything sonlike. Normally he calls him the Word. A much less personal, relational title is prefered to a familial one.

More troubling by far is the complete absence of any mention of the Holy Spirit in the entire discourse. Stop for a sec, read that sentence again. It’s staggering. Scandalous. Perhaps it’s just the translation I was reading, but it just wasn’t there. The whole incarnation story was something the Word achieved himself. Apparently by his own power. At every point Big A attributes to the Word the efficacy to carry out the incarnation plan, as something which he possesses in himself. Conception, birth, life, miracles, death – even the resurrection! In this story, there’s no need for a Spirit at all. You might say, no room for a Spirit.

Now this is seriously sub-Christian. It’s just too, too bad. Jesus effectively represents the presence of a monadic God who acts alone.

Compare this to the NT way of talking about Jesus:

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. (Luke 1:35)

she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. (Mat. 1:18)

But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. (Matt. 12:28)

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee… (Luke 4:14)

…how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. (Acts 10:38)

the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God (Heb 9:14)

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. (Romans 8:11)

He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit (1 Peter 3:18)

and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 1:4)

I find it distressing because in it I recognise my own Christian upbringing, I hear the ways I was taught to talk about Jesus. Non-trinitarian ways. Telling a story about one person acting solo, rather than three persons acting in concert. And I realise, it goes back to the fourth flippin century. The rot had already set in by then, it’s been with us ever since. I find that a depressing thought. So wrong, for so long.

There’s more. But this is the mother of all failures. I’ll get stuck in farther into Athanasius in a later post.

  1. Hmm. Athanasius as a non-trinitarian theologian. This is going to be an interesting one to defend Jonathan…

    • Jonathan says:

      I’m playing the ball not the man. Read it for yourself, it’s just like I’m saying. He might be the world’s best defender of trinity somewhere else, but his *On the Incarnation* gets judged on its own merits.

      Which are sadly lacking in the Trinitarian department.

  2. Hmm. Athanasius as a non-trinitarian theologian. This is going to be an interesting one to defend Jonathan…
    You may want to look at his orations against the Ariana and his letters to serapion.
    Could be that incarnation is just to serve a narrow purpose.
    Said it before, say it again, the problem isn’t the great thinkers, it is those who absolutise a small part of their work

  3. Jonathan says:

    Don’t you think there are limits, though, to what ‘a narrow purpose’ can excuse? A really distorted construal of the incarnation is not helpful regardless of the aim. I can’t see that anyone should ever talk about it the way Big A does here.

    Sorry, though, to be part of the problem!

  4. Jonathan says:

    And another thing! People’s influence is sadly not based on a balanced reading of all their works. In A’s case, his Incarnation is more famous and widely read (= influential) than most of his other stuff. For many, it would be the only thing of his they’ve read besides the creed. If you’ve going to tell the story of the incarnation over nine chapters without mentioning the Spirit, you’re gonna lead people astray.

  5. Seumas says:

    You can’t (well, you shouldn’t) read De Incarnatione apart from Contra Gentes. They are a 2 volume work. Not that CG will necessarily redeem Ath in your eyes, but I think it’s worth reading him at least in the context of himself.

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