Athanasius’s weak incarnation – 2

Posted: May 25, 2013 by J in Book review, Theology
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imagesMy 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

  1. Seumas says:

    I have a lot of respect for your courage to hammer Ath like this. That said, if Athanasius is the one who presides against Apollinaris, and you think DeInc sounds Apollinarianist, perhaps it’s your understanding of Athanasius that’s wrong in this case.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Yes it’s interesting isn’t it. It may be a case of, people change, change their minds etc. The ‘On the Incarnation’ is considered an early work of Ath’s, and the council of Alexandria came later.

    However, the real way to judge whether I’m right is from the text itself. You seem to know these writings, Seumas – what’s your opinion? Have I interpreted this work accurately?

    (Am reading Contra Gentes following your suggestion, btw)

    • Seumas says:

      I know that i have read De Inc, but I haven’t looked at it lately. I went looking for some notes, but it looks like it was not a 4th century text I was taking notes on. So I’ll have to have a fresh look sometime.

      Of course we must judge from the text itself, but I wonder if we haven’t re-contextualised some of his language to mean things that Athanasius wouldn’t mean; I specifically mean his language about ‘body’ and ‘instrument’.

      If I have some spare time I’ll cast my glance over De Inc. These things always interest me.

      • Jonathan says:

        Yes, I’m conscious that I’m reading in translation, so there is the possibility of distortion in word-meaning at that level, if not in other ways also.

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