Brief Outline of ‘On the Incarnation’ by Athanasius
Reason for Writing: ‘On the Incarnation’ is addressed to Macarius as an offering that provides a foundation with must be proven ‘its truth by the study of the Scriptures’.
Chapter 1: Creation and the Fall
Chapter 2: The Divine Dilemma and Its Solution in the Incarnation
Chapter 3: The Divine Dilemma and Its Solution in the Incarnation- continued
Chapter 4: The Death of Christ
Chapter 5: The Resurrection
Chapter 6: Refutation of the Jews
Chapter 7: Refutation of the Gentiles
Chapter 8: Refutation of the Gentiles- continued
Chapter 9: Conclusion
Key Points of Interest
“He made all things out of nothing through His own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ and of all these His earthly creatures He reserved especial mercy for the race of men…upon them…impress his own image.”
“Through the transgression they became subject to corruption, so through repentance they might return to incorruption again…For he alone, being Word of the Father…was able to recreate all…suffer on behalf of all…and be an ambassador for all with the father…by the offering of His own body He abolished the death which they had incurred and corrected their neglect by his own teaching.”
“There were thus two things which the savior did for us by becoming man. He banished death from us and made us anew…There is a paradox…As man he was living a human life, and as Word He was sustaining the life of the universe, and as Son He was in constant union with the Father.”
“The supreme object of His coming was to bring about the resurrection of the body…the cross of the Lord is a monument to His victory. But the resurrection of the body to immortality…is more effectively proved by facts.”
In the famous document ‘On the Incarnation’ it seems that Athanasius has provided a feasible defense of the incarnation in the face of ‘Arianism’. Knowing that this document was written in response to the ‘Arian’ controversy (the idea that ‘Christ was less than God’), Athanasius clearly emphasized the truth that Christ was fully divine, this seems to be the documents central purpose, to explain, illustrate, and state the implications of the incarnation.
Athanasius properly began at the creation and the fall of mankind, providing the framework of biblical theology while dealing with the divine nature of Christ. Illustrating Christ as the one who created, yet also recreates men who place faith in Him. He talks of the process of corruption, dominion of death, and the returning to non-existence as the ‘plight of men’. Athanasius then, correctly, turns the readers attention towards God’s redemptive nature. “He [Christ] alone being Word of the Father…was able to recreate all…suffer on behalf of all…be an ambassador for all with the Father”, these roles provide an explicit example of the implications of God incarnate.
The incarnation was the means by which an uncreated God was able to enter the created order. Athanasius rightly emphasizes the incarnation as a means of salvation. Through the incarnation Christ united us with God, replacing death for life. He then argues that without the incarnation, humans “owing to the limitation of their nature, could not of themselves have any knowledge” of God beyond the natural revelation which is insufficient for salvation.
Athanasius evidences a feasible defense for the incarnation also in the mysteries of the faith. Where there is mystery, he acknowledges; for example, the great paradox that “as Man He was living a human life, and as Word He was sustaining life.” While Christ existed in a ‘real human body’ He was God. In fact, Athanasius argues that “the supreme object of His coming was to bring about the resurrection of the body”, and “the cross [and empty grave] of the Lord is a monument to His victory.”
Athanasius provides a great example of contextualization dealing these truths, particularly in the application towards Jews and Greeks. To the Jews he uses the ancient Scriptures, attesting that ‘the scriptures are not silent’ regarding the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Arguing to the Jews, surly you “cannot fight against these plain facts.” In the case of Gentiles Athanasius asks ‘why Christian beliefs seem unfitting or ridiculous’. For man has been the only being in creation that ‘erred from the path God purposed for it’, therefore Christ ‘exposed’ mans mortality, and confounded the wisdom of the Greeks, “assuming humanity that we might become God [become god’s?].” To bring the argument to a close He states the truth that all human things will cease, but that which remains is Christ, the very Son of God.
If Athanasius is accurately, or should we say correctly, representing the misgivings of his opponents, then ‘On the Incarnation’ is a fair defense of the Christian doctrine. With that said, the writer is undoubtedly working under the ‘great mass of common assumptions’, as Lewis put it in the introduction.