Athanasius’s strong Incarnation

Posted: May 27, 2013 by J in Book review, Theology
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st.athanasiosWell, I’ve been reflecting more on Big A’s On the Incarnation. Now that I’ve got over my initial horror, I can discern some good things there that are worth talking about. So rather than keep up the critique, I’m changing tack. Here’s some of them:

1. Athanasius understands by ‘incarnation’ the history of Jesus of Nazareth, from birth to resurrection and glory. He doesn’t exclude the element of time, as my dear friend Luke C recently pointed out here. This is not a mere analysis of issues of ‘nature’ or essence. Athanasius has a story to tell us, and it’s (something like) the gospel story. A dynamic, not a static discussion. Thank God!

2. He doesn’t limit his discussion to a part of the Jesus story, either, but deals with the whole thing. So incarnation becomes a large Christological category for him.

3. The story Big A really wants to tell, is of the restoration of humanity. Or of ‘human nature’ or ‘the human body’. (He seems to use the terms more or less interchangeably.) This is a really exciting thing about On the Incarnation. Athanasius has plenty of things to say about the achievement of Christ, including the idea of the payment of our debt at the cross. But the big idea, the overarching and truly integrating idea of his treatment, is this theme of humanity’s restoration in Jesus. Using this he manages to give coherence to his account of every part of Jesus’ life and work, from birth to resurrection. Which is something I haven’t come across often in the modern theologies I grew up with. In fact, the theme itself is hardly at the top of the list of things we evangelicals want to say about Christ’s achievements. So that’s pretty refreshing.

4. In telling the story this way, Athanasius achieves something not many theologians have managed since then: he holds creation and redemption together. Redemption is the renewal of the creation, not a restart, or an escape from it. He’s quite explicit about this:

But once man was in existence, and things that were, not things that were not, demanded to be healed, it followed as a matter of course that the Healer and Saviour should align Himself with those things that existed already, in order to heal the existing evil.

5. The way Jesus is said to rescue fallen and corrupt humanity is quite something. He redeems it by entering it. He takes it over from the inside, and then takes it down to the grave, and then up into life:

You must know, moreover, that the corruption which had set in was not external to the body but established within it. The need, therefore, was that life should cleave to it in corruption’s place, so that, just as death was brought into being in the body, life also might be engendered in it.

If death had been exterior to the body, life might fittingly have been the same. But if death was within the body, woven into its very substance and dominating it as though completely one with it, the need was for Life to be woven into it instead, so that the body by thus enduing itself with life might cast corruption off. Suppose the Word had come outside the body instead of in it, He would, of course, have defeated death, because death is powerless against the Life. But the corruption inherent in the body would have remained in it none the less.

Naturally, therefore, the Savior assumed a body for Himself, in order that the body, being interwoven as it were with life, should no longer remain a mortal thing, in thrall to death, but as endued with immortality and risen from death, should thenceforth remain immortal. For once having put on corruption, it could not rise, unless it put on life instead; and besides this, death of its very nature could not appear otherwise than in a body. Therefore He put on a body, so that in the body He might find death and blot it out. And, indeed, how could the Lord have been proved to be the Life at all, had He not endued with life that which was subject to death?

Good stuff, eh? Worth reading that over a few times. It really summarises his whole thesis about the incarnation.

6. Notice the pivotal significance of the phrase ‘risen from death’ in the quote above? Big A’s story climaxes at the resurrection. It reminds me of the shape of the NT story about Jesus – that’s pretty rare too, compared to our tradition. In Jesus’ resurrection, humanity is renewed and filled with glory and incorruptibility. Like. Have a listen to this:

…through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection. For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all.
You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honoured, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be.

7. It’s important to notice, that foundational to Athanasius’s Christology is the idea that God the Son took to himself fallen human nature with all its weakness and corruption. This was the thing he redeemed. And he redeemed it by entering it fully. If he had taken a pre-sanitised humanity, he would have had nothing to do, for his mission was to take fallen humanity down to the grave, put and and to its corruption, then bring it up to life in resurrection. Big A insists that Christ could not achieve this from the outside, he had to get inside fallen humanity to do his saving work in it.

He clarifies that God the Son is not polluted or tainted in any way by thus filling fallen humanity. He as God does not take on the nature of the thing he fills. Rather he cleanses it so it takes on his glory.

So far as I can make out, this view seems to represent Nicean ‘orthodoxy’. Gregory of Nazienzus, for e.g., said the same thing. And he was the absolute bomb, so far as church- fatherly orthodoxy is concerned.

Athanasius’s On the Incarnation is a dangerously sub-Christian work, shockingly ignorant of the Trinitarian nature of the gospel story. However, by taking seriously Christ’s work as a narrative, and treating it as a whole, he gets a lot further than we normally do in giving a coherent account of the achieving of redemption. There’s plenty here to challenge and stretch our thinking.

What do you think of his thesis, that Jesus’ mission is the restoration of humanity from within?


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