If the knowledge of God was to be restored and the human race saved, it was necessary that the eternal Word and Image of the Father assume a human body. Only the radical solution of the incarnation could have achieved this purpose, St Athanasius avers. No individual prophet could have accomplished the renewal of knowledge, for no individual can travel the entire world to disseminate true teaching; but even if such a prophet could have done so, would it have made any real difference? No one is able “to withstand the deceit and illusion of the demons” (De Incarnatione 14). What of the testimony of the creation itself? “But if creation sufficed,” answers Athanasius, “such evils would not have occurred. For there was creation, and human beings wallowed no less in the same error regarding God” (Inc. 14). Human consciousness is held captive to the world. It cannot raise itself to the divine. It is man himself who must be recreated by the divine Image:
For as when a figure painted on wood has been soiled by dirt from outside, it is necessary for him whose figure it is to come again, so that the image can be renewed on the same material—because of his portrait even the material on which it is painted is not cast aside, but the portrait is reinscribed on it. In the same way the all-holy Son of the Father, being the Image of the Father, came to our place to renew the human being made according to himself, and to find him, as one lost, through the forgiveness of sins, as he himself says in the Gospels, “I came to seek and to save that which was lost” (Lk 19.10). Therefore he said to the Jews, “Unless one be born again” (Jn 3.5), not referring to the birth from women, as they supposed, but indicating the soul being born again and recreated in that which is after the image. … So, rightly wishing to help human beings, he sojourned as a human being, taking to himself a body like theirs and from below—I mean through the works of the body—that those not wishing to know him from his providence and governance of the universe, from the works down through the body might know the Word of God in the body, and through him the Father. (Inc. 14)
In this passage St Athanasius cites two salvific benefits of the Incarnation—the renewal of the soul and the works of God in the body. One might expect the Bishop of Alexandria to focus on the former, given the importance of noetic contemplation, yet in De Incarnatione he focuses on the latter. As we have seen, Athanasius understands sin as the redirection of vision and thought away from the invisible God to self and the sensible objects of the world (see “The Fall of Man into the Body“). Fallen man is now so enmeshed in his sensorium that he is constitutionally incapable of reestablishing contemplative communion with God. Hence God decides to meet him on his own terms. If man is trapped in his perceptual experience of the world, then God will become an object of the world!
For since human beings, having rejected the contemplation of God and as though sunk in an abyss with their eyes held downwards, seeking God in creation and things perceptible, setting up for themselves mortal humans and demons as gods, for this reason the lover of human being and the common Savior of all, takes to himself a body and dwells as human among humans and draws to himself the perceptible senses of all human beings, so that those who think that God is in things corporeal might, from what the Lord wrought through the actions of the body, know the truth and through him might consider the Father. Being human and thinking all things in human terms, on whatever they cast their sense perception there they saw themselves being drawn and taught the truth from all sides: for if they were struck by creation, yet they saw it confessing Christ as Lord; or if their minds were predisposed towards human beings, such that they supposed them gods, yet comparing the works of the Savior with theirs, the Savior alone among human beings appeared the Son of God, for there were no such works among them as done by the God Word; and if they were predisposed towards the demons, yet seeing them put to flight by the Lord, they knew that only he was the Word of God and that the demons were not gods; if their mind was then fixed even on the dead, so as to worship heroes and those said by the poets to be gods, yet seeing the resurrection of the Savior they confessed that the former were false and that only the Word of the Father was the true Lord, the one reigning even over death. For this reason he was both born and appeared as a human being, and died, and rose again, dulling and overshadowing by his own works those of all human beings who ever existed, so that from wherever human beings were predisposed, from there he might raise them and teach them of his own true Father, just as he himself says, “I came to save and to find that which was lost” (Lk 19.10). (Inc. 15)
The dramatist becomes a character in his play in order to teach the other characters about their author and creator. For St Athanasius the hominization of the Word comprehends the entirety of his historical life, beginning with his virginal conception in the womb of the Theotokos, continuing in his teaching and miracles, culminating in his passion, crucifixion, and resurrection on the third day. The invisible God becomes visible; the incorporeal God becomes corporeal; the unknowable God becomes knowable. The Word is body—not an inert thing but a body with a history and life and proper name. And in the sacrificial offering of his body, Christ reveals himself to sinners who are unable to liberate themselves from their blindness and bondage:
Once the mind of human beings descended to perceptible things, the Word himself submitted to appear through a body, so that as a human being he might bring humans to himself and return their sense perception to himself, and then, by their seeing him as a human being, he might persuade them through the works he effected that he is not a man only but God and the Word and Wisdom of the true God. … The the Word unfolded himself everywhere, above and below and in the depths and in the breadth: above, in creation; below, in the incarnation; in the depths, in hell; in breadth, in the world. Everything is filled with the knowledge of God. For this reason, not immediately upon upon coming did he complete the sacrifice on behalf of all, delivering the body to death and resurrecting it, making himself thereby visible, remaining in it and doing such works and giving signs which made him known to be no longer a human being but the God Word. For in both ways the Savior exercised his love for human beings through his incarnation, in that he both banished death from us and renewed us, and also in that, although being unseen and invisible, through his works he appeared and made himself known to be the Word of the Father, the ruler and king of the universe. (Inc. 16)
When Athanasius states that by his signs and works Christ showed himself “to be no longer a human being,” I do not believe that he is in any way suggesting that Christ is not fully human but rather he is not a mere human (a created hypostasis). Christ is the Word made flesh, the dominical man. The Creator makes himself known in human being, as human being, as Jesus of Nazareth:
Properly, therefore, the Word of God took a body and used a human instrument, in order to give life to the body and in order that, just as he is known in creation by his works, so also he might act in a human being, and show himself everywhere, leaving nothing barren of his divinity and knowledge. Again, I repeat, resuming what we said before, that the Savior did this in order that as he fills everything everywhere by his presence, so also he might fill all things with the knowledge of himself, as the divine scriptures say, “The whole earth was filled with the knowledge of God” (Isa 11.9). For if anyone wishes to look up to the heavens, he sees its arrangement, or if he cannot raise his gaze to heaven but only to human beings, he sees through his work his power incomparable to that of human beings and knows that he alone among human beings is the Word of God. (Inc. 45)
Because God is now man, because he personally confronts us within spatio-temporal reality, he is able to renew our knowledge of him and draw us to himself. He looks and acts like a human being like anyone else–and indeed is a human like everyone else–yet if we look closer, if we pay attention to his words and mighty acts (what other human being can forgive sins and raise the dead?), we behold the eternal Son of the heavenly Father.
Byzantine theology has typically emphasized the unknowability of the incomprehensible God; but St Athanasius the Great advances what can only be described as a qualified apophaticism. The ineffable Deity has come as man to make himself known. “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” the incarnate Son declares (Jn 14:9). In the incarnation and resurrection the life of man, the man Jesus Christ, has been drawn into the divine life of the Holy Trinity. God now has a history, a narrative that is declaimed and celebrated by the Church. The knowledge of God flows from the cross. Ultimately, Khaled Anatolios concludes, Athanasius’s understanding of the incarnation “implies the priority of the cataphatic over the apophatic in the Christian vision of God” (Retrieving Nicaea, p. 132).
(Go to “The Body of God“)