My other main beef about Athanasius’ On the Incarnation has to do with how he sees Jesus’ humanity. Most of the time the Big A talks about it as simply a human body. Occasionally he mentions that it’s human nature the Son has assumed. Apparently this is more-or-less the same thing as human body. What is notably absent is any reference to human mind or personality in Jesus. There is no hint of human involvement in his will or intentionality. All the willing, all the acting, is initiated by the Word in the body.
Is humanity then merely a glove, a kind of shell, an instrument within which the divine mind can operate? Like a fork-lift, with the Word in the drivers’ seat? Athanasius often described it in much this way. Jesus’ body was:
the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt.
His body was for Him not a limitation, but an instrument.
though He used the body as His instrument, He shared nothing of its defect…
He was made man, and used the body as His human instrument. If this were not the fitting way, and He willed to use an instrument at all, how otherwise was the Word to come? And whence could He take His instrument, save from among those already in existence
It was natural and right, therefore, for the Word to use a human instrument
The Word of God thus acted consistently in assuming a body and using a human instrument to vitalize the body.
If the body was his instrument, was it truly him? Was he truly human? Could he, for example, put off the instrument again once the job was done? Could he, having restored humanity, leave it again? Athanasius never says, the matter is left uncertain. Uncertain, too, is the status of the humanity the Son assumed – did it become integral to his identity? We are not told, but the repeated language of instrumentality points pretty strongly the other way.
An human instrument that doesn’t seem to have a mind of its own: this all sounds very much like a famous heresy, called Apollinarianism. Apollinaris taught that the Word was dropped into a human body, so Jesus was a divine mind inside a human ‘shell’. No human mind involved. Interestingly, this heresy was condemned at the council of Alexandria, 361. And guess who the chief prosecutor was? You guessed it: Athanasius.
But it’s hard to see much difference between Apollinarianism and his own writing here in On the Incarnation.
Tomorrow: what’s good about On the Incarnation