Thursday, June 21, 2012

On the Incarnation by St Athanasius

Sometime in the 290s was born a child whose stature in the annals of history would far outstrip his physical stature. In the politically incorrect language of the day, he was known as The Black Dwarf, and to the heretic Arius, his lifelong nemesis, probably something even less sensitive. St Athanasius of Alexandria is known most famously, of course, for standing contra mundum (against the world)--for standing up for the right thing when the whole world was wrong. He opposed the Arian heresy--which stated that Christ is not truly God, not of the same substance, but rather a creation (since a pure spiritual being like God could not possibly, according to Arius, take on diseased flesh). It was, as CS Lewis points out in his introduction to On the Incarnation, "one of those 'sensible,' synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today." It was a religion that agreed with all the best scientific and philosophical minds of the day.

But it was wrong, and Athanasius dedicated his life to fighting it. Even after the victory at the Council of Nicaea, Arianism died hard and Athanasius continued to be periodically exiled from his home, persecuted, hunted, and assaulted for his unpopular stand. He never gave in. He fought the good fight till his death, sometime in his 70s.

But before all this happened, an earnest, devout, and irrepressibly optimistic teenager wrote a book-length letter to his friend Macarius explaining the Christian faith. That book became a theological classic and one of the great books of Western Civilisation.

Unlike many of the great books of Western Civilisation, On the Incarnation is quite short and pithy, explaining the whys behind many of the doctrines of Christianity, but most importantly, why Christ had to come in the flesh, truly God, truly Man, to die and rise again. It explains exactly why this was the only thing that could have worked: this was the only sacrifice that would both pay for our sins and redeem us from Hell. In addition the book discusses other aspects of redemption, and contains quite a bit of apologetic material.
For it is a fact that the more unbelievers pour scorn on Him, so much the more does He make His Godhead evident. The things which they, as men, rule out as impossible, He plainly shows to be possible; that which they deride as unfitting, His goodness makes most fit; and things which these wiseacres laugh at as "human" He by His inherent might declares divine. Thus by what seems His utter poverty and weakness on the cross He overturns the pomp and parade of idols, and quietly and hiddenly wins over the mockers and unbelievers to recognize Him as God.

On the Incarnation differs from other great books in another important way. The author's youthfulness, high spirits, and vim come off the page at you. Athanasius lived during exciting times, when in just over two brief centuries the Christian faith had swept the Roman world. Just a few years later, the new emperor Constantine himself was to convert to Christianity and decriminalise it for the first time, meaning that you no longer faced death and dismemberment just for being a Christian (Christianity was not made the official religion of the Empire for several more years, by Theodosius of the Eastern Empire).

The young Athanasius's enthusiasm reflects the high spirits of the exciting first two centuries of Christendom.
Not jaded, as so many Christians today seem to be, by the sheer back-breaking difficulty of spreading the good news of the kingdom of heaven, Athanasius happily proclaims the death of idols, the end of the reign of demons, and the death of death itself:
When the sun rises after the night and the whole world is lit up by it, nobody doubts that it is the sun which has thus shed its light everywhere and driven away the dark. Equally clear is it, since this utter scorning and trampling down of death has ensued upon the Savior's manifestation in the body and His death on the cross, that it is He Himself Who brought death to nought and daily raises monuments to His victory in His own disciples. How can you think otherwise, when you see men naturally weak hastening to death, unafraid at the prospect of corruption, fearless of the descent into Hades, even indeed with eager soul provoking it, not shrinking from tortures, but preferring thus to rush on death for Christ's sake, rather than to remain in this present life? If you see with your own eyes men and women and children, even, thus welcoming death for the sake of Christ's religion, how can you be so utterly silly and incredulous and maimed in your mind as not to realize that Christ, to Whom these all bear witness, Himself gives the victory to each, making death completely powerless for those who hold His faith and bear the sign of the cross?


When did people begin to abandon the worship of idols, unless it were since the very Word of God came among men? When have oracles ceased and become void of meaning, among the Greeks and everywhere, except since the Savior has revealed Himself on earth? When did those whom the poets call gods and heroes begin to be adjudged as mere mortals, except when the Lord took the spoils of death and preserved incorruptible the body He had taken, raising it from among the dead? Or when did the deceitfulness and madness of demons fall under contempt, save when the Word, the Power of God, the Master of all these as well, condescended on account of the weakness of mankind and appeared on earth? When did the practice and theory of magic begin to be spurned under foot, if not at the manifestation of the Divine Word to men? In a word, when did the wisdom of the Greeks become foolish, save when the true Wisdom of God revealed Himself on earth? In old times the whole world and every place in it was led astray by the worship of idols, and men thought the idols were the only gods that were. But now all over the world men are forsaking the fear of idols and taking refuge with Christ; and by worshipping Him as God they come through Him to know the Father also, Whom formerly they did not know. The amazing thing, moreover, is this. The objects of worship formerly were varied and countless; each place had its own idol and the so-called god of one place could not pass over to another in order to persuade the people there to worship him, but was barely reverenced even by his own. Indeed no! Nobody worshipped his neighbor's god, but every man had his own idol and thought that it was lord of all. But now Christ alone is worshipped, as One and the Same among all peoples everywhere; and what the feebleness of idols could not do, namely, convince even those dwelling close at hand, He has effected. He has persuaded not only those close at hand, but literally the entire world to worship one and the same Lord and through Him the Father.
These excerpts are lengthy, but I did so want to introduce you to the irrepressible Athanasius!

But wait, you may be saying. Athanasius was writing three centuries after the birth of Christ. Here we are, two millenia later, and Athanasius's optimism seems ill-founded. Look at the world! It's a mess! The Church seems to be doing nothing about what really matters!

But slow down a bit. Athanasius didn't live during a perfect time in world history either! During his lifetime the great Arian controversy nearly shipwrecked the entire Faith. He stood almost alone against heresy. When he wrote On the Incarnation, Christians were still being fed to lions, and no end in sight. By the time he died fifty years later, he'd spent half his life in hiding, away from the Arians who were trying to discredit and silence him.

You see, Athanasius's optimism was not based upon some mistaken idea that everything was just fine. It wasn't, and he knew that it wasn't. But he knew Who he believed in. He knew the power of his King, and he had the eyes of faith to look around the world and see the wonderful things that were happening. For wonderful things were happening! The world has never been as dark and dreadful, even now, as it was in the centuries before Christ. And Athanasius had seen with his own eyes that depraved, corrupt, and deadened world come to life in the power of Christ. He knew that God was perfectly capable of cleaning up the mess that remained.

Read this book. And, just for a while, look at our own world through the eyes of Athanasius. Look at the wonderful things that have happened since his time. The advances in science, learning, and industry. Look at the wonderful things that are happening right now: the missionary efforts in all corners of the world, the new Bible translations, the power of the Gospel at work. Then fight the long victory just like Athanasius did.

Etext of the book
Public domain audiobook


Caleb said...

Wonderful and inspiring review.

Jeanne said...

We've just finished Athanasius Against the World (by Corey, I think). Have you read it?

Suzannah said...

No, I haven't read it, but we've got a copy of it. To be frank, it's not on my to-read stack (...pile...mountain...) but I'm open to persuasion ;).

Joy said...

I must read this now. Thanks for the review link, Suzannah! I am now quite inspired to dig up Athanasius! :D

Suzannah said...

So glad you found this inspiring, Joy! If you're going to start reading Church Fathers, Athanasius is an excellent place to begin.


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