Friday, July 6, 2012

A Critical Review on St. Athanasius' "On the Incarnation"

First fodder from my Systematic Theology II class. Enjoy! B-)

What does a Christian believe? This is a simple question, and still there have been thousands of years of debate recorded on the subject. It is to this timeless question that St. Athanasius of Egypt sets out to instruct his student, Macarius and it is his answer that we get the opportunity to listen in on. I myself am not completely unfamiliar with the writings of Athanasius, having read his “Life of Antony”, and once again, I am glad to encounter a passionate teacher of the faith communicating our basic Christian beliefs with eloquence and fervor. I intend in the following space to bring out a few of the most notable points of discussion in this classic work of Christian literature and give my humble impressions.

Athanasius skillfully sets up the story of the God/humanity relationship in a systematic way in order to give Macarius a framework of the circumstances that humanity found itself in from the beginning:

“This, then, was the plight of men. God had not only made them out of nothing, but had also graciously bestowed on them His own life by the grace of the Word. Then, turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by counsel of the devil, they had become the cause of their own corruption in death; for, as I said before, though they were by nature subject to corruption, the grace of their union with the Word made them capable of escaping from the natural law, provided that they retained the beauty of innocence with which they were created.”[1]

We see here Athanasius beginning his letter with an explanation of the great human deficiency to get back to a level of purity that is acceptable to God.

Athanasius goes on to describe exactly what he believes happened during the incarnation; that is, that God was no less God because he was man and no less man because he was God. He doesn’t shy away from this paradox. He continues to illustrate the death of Christ and its significance as the only option for salvation for humanity due to our lacking aptitude to correct our relationship with God. Next, Athanasius goes on to explain why the resurrection was also the only feasible option in truly killing death. On Christ’s death, he elaborates in many ways including his comments on Christ’s physical health[2], why it had to be a public death,[3] and why he had to stay in the grave exactly three days[4].

I am definitely pleased with this little book and indeed agree with C.S. Lewis in his forward to the book that had all Athanasius ever done was write this small book, it would have been enough. His refutations in the last two chapters give some basic apologetic tools for new Christians and his presentation of what happened in the events of the incarnation are simplistic and biblical. While I find areas we disagree with, such as his belief in God’s complete impassibility[5], I find much more common grounds with Athanasius and have every intention of recommending this book to any who might need a starting point in digging deeper in their faith. I find it completely distressing that more churches in western culture avoid using Eastern Church literature such as this in order to disciple new converts. We can stand to learn much from those that lived closer to the events that we stake our faith in. It is our responsibility as modern Christians to continue this tradition with the basics of the faith that St. Athanasius so fluently relates in this book.

Thanks for takikng an interest :)

The Dread

[1] St. Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria. On the incarnation: the treatise De incarnatione Verbi Dei. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1998. Print. Page 30.
[2] Page 51.
[3] Page 53.
[4]  Page 56.
[5] Page 93.