“Inasmuch as he is the Word and Son of the Father, he took to himself a body that was capable of death” (Inc. 9). “Therefore, it was fitting that he took a mortal body” (Inc. 13). “The Savior of all and Word of God, who loves humanity, took to himself a body and lived as a human being among humanity” (Inc. 15). “Properly, therefore, the Word of God took a body and used a human instrument, in order to give life to the body” (Inc. 45).
“The Word took a body”—this is a characteristic and striking Athanasian way of speaking of the incarnation. This phrasing dramatically emphasizes the identity of Jesus Christ as the eternal Word. The Word appropriates a human body and makes it his own. The Word becomes body. It is Word who is born, Word who eats and sleeps, Word who suffers, Word who dies, Word who rises from the dead—and he does all this in his body:
Having mercy upon our race, and having pity upon our weakness, and condescending to our corruption, and not enduring the dominion of death, lest what had been created should perish and the work of the Father himself for human beings should be in vain, he takes for himself a body and that not foreign to our own. For he did not wish simply to be in a body, nor did he wish merely to appear, for if he had wished only to appear he could have made his divine manifestation through some other better means. But he takes that which is ours … And thus, taking from ours that which is like, since all were liable to the corruption of death, delivering it over to death on behalf of all, he offered it to the Father, doing this in his love for human beings. (Inc. 8)
Some patristic scholars, though, have asserted that Athanasius did not believe that God assumed a human soul or mind when he enfleshed himself in human nature. The Word assumed human nature only in its corporeal aspect. The body merely serves as a cloak or garment to cover the divine consciousness within. This position has been vigorously argued by Christopher A. Beeley in his recent book The Unity of Christ. Beeley sees Athanasius as anticipating the heresy later taught by Apollinarius. He goes so far as to speak of the Alexandrian Father as elevating “Christ’s humanity to a superhuman level”:
Even before the resurrection, Christ has attained a superhuman status. His humanity (human body) is already incorruptible, from the time of his conception on; he does not become humanly incorruptible only after the resurrection (Inc. 43). Even though he has taken on a body like ours, Christ is not naturally mortal as we are (Inc. 20), and his human body is immune from suffering, unless the Word chooses for him to undergo suffering and death, by surrendering his own body to death (Inc. 8, 21, 31). … In the face of imagined objections, Athanasius imagines Jesus as a kind of superhero who isn’t really vulnerable to the kind of death that the gospels report. (pp. 136-137).
The body is but an instrument of the Word, who remains untouched by the passions, sufferings, and limitations of human existence. Despite the appearance of a unitive christology, Athanasius in fact presents a dualist, quasi-docetic understanding of Christ and his saving work—so argues Beeley.
I believe that Beeley overstates his case; but there are occasions in De Incarnatione when Athanasius appears to go out of his way to protect the Word from his body. For example:
Therefore he himself did not suffer when the Virgin gave birth, nor by being in the body was he defiled, but rather he sanctified the body also. (Inc. 17)
When then the theologians [i.e., the inspired gospel writers] say that he ate and drank and was born, know that the body, as body, was born and was nourished on appropriate food, but that he, the God Word, present in the body yet arranging all things, made known through the works wrought in the body that he was not himself a human being but the God Word. But these things are said of him, since the body, which ate and was born and suffered was no one else’s but the Lord’s, and as he became human, it is proper for these things to be said of him as human, that he might be shown possessing a real and not illusory body. (Inc. 18)
Therefore the body, as it had the common substance of all bodies, was a human body. If it was constituted by a new miracle from a virgin only, yet being mortal it died in conformity with those like it. Yet by the coming of the Word into it, it was no longer corruptible by its own nature but because of the indwelling Word of God it became immune from corruption. (Inc. 20)
For it was neither fitting for the Lord to be ill, he who healed the illnesses of others, nor again for the body to be weakened, in which he strengthened the weaknesses of others. Why, then did he not prevent death, just as he did illness? Because it was for those that he had the body, and it was unfitting to prevent it, lest the resurrection should also be hindered. Moreover, it was again unfitting for illness to precede death, lest it be thought a weakness of him who was in the body. Did he not hunger? Yes, he hungered because of the property of the body, but he did not perish of starvation, because of the Lord wearing it. (Inc. 21)
There is a problem here. Like all of his Greek and Latin contemporaries, Athanasius confessed the impassibility of deity and therefore struggled to find a way to speak of a genuine human embodiment of God in Jesus Christ, while at the same time preserving the divine nature from suffering and change. It’s quite likely he did not always succeed, as the above examples evidence. I particularly find it curious that Athanasius thought it necessary to quarantine the incarnate Lord from illness. Did Jesus never catch the common cold? Why would it have been unfitting if he had? At times Athanasius seems to want to project the invulnerability of the risen body of Christ back into the mortal body that the Word assumed. When he does so, he does distort the story of salvation, just as Beeley claims.
Athanasius’s soteriological logic demands a full and complete incarnation—how else can God truly destroy death and secure immortality for humanity but by taking both death and fallen human nature into himself? The many citations I have provided in earlier articles demonstrate that Athanasius genuinely sought to internalize the humanity of Christ in the Holy Trinity. He just didn’t have available to him the conceptual apparatus of the hypostatic union and communicatio idiomatum that would have allowed him to boldly attribute suffering and death to God. Hence we do not find Athanasius speaking of the divine death quite as directly and paradoxically as, for example, St Gregory Nazianzen would later do: “We needed an incarnate God, a God put to death, so that we might live, and we were put to death with him” (Or 45:28-29). Yet surely Athanasius comes very close to saying something very similar: “For there was need of death, and death on behalf of all had to take place, so that what was required by all might occur. Therefore, as I said earlier, the Word, since he was not able to die—for he was immortal—took to himself a body able to die, that he might offer it as his own on behalf of all and as himself suffering for all, through coming into it ‘he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage’ (Heb 2.14.15)” (Inc. 20 [my emphasis]).
Khaled Anatolios contends that in Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione Athanasius is not concerned with analyzing the internal structure of the God-man nor with solving the problem of divine/human unity, which would later preoccupy fifth century theologians. Apparently that wasn’t a question that he felt it necessary to address. Hence we should be careful not to over-read his language about the instrumentality of God’s body. That God appropriates a human body for himself does not necessarily mean that Christ did not also have a human mind, nor does it necessarily imply that the Logos moved the body directly and mechanically. Anatolios suggests that Athanasius’s language needs to be interpreted within the framework of the Creator-creature distinction. “The ‘instrumentality’ of the body,” he writes, “is concerned precisely with its being a medium for the immanent revelation of the transcendent God. In other words, the focus is not on the relation of the Logos to the body, so much as on the body as mediating between God and world” (Athanasius: The Coherence of his Thought, p. 72). For Athanasius the body of Christ is the “privileged locus” of God’s active self-revelation in history.
Yet I’m not sure if we can acquit Athanasius completely of sometimes veering off into a quasi-docetism. Throughout the history of Christian doctrine, theologians have been tempted to protect the historical Christ from passibility, finitude, and the effects of the fall. We need to see the incarnation as a dynamic process and not a static event fully accomplished at conception and birth. The Word freely assumes the conditions of fallen human existence and redemptively lives them out in time. Only by death and resurrection is the healing and deification of human nature perfectly consummated. As John Meyendorff writes:
The true dimension of the humanity of Jesus can only be understood in the context of soteriology. He assumed human nature in its fallen state and He brought it to the Father in its original, transfigured form. This salvation act was done in time, not only in the sense that Jesus grew as a man, going through the normal process of human maturing, but also in the paschal sense. He was the New Passover leading Israel not from Egypt to Canaan, but from death to life: “Christ, Our Passover, was sacrificed” (Ι Cor 5:7), writes St Paul. “Passover” implies a passage from one situation to another, a radical change, salvation. The Christian Gospel tells us that this change happened precisely in the person of Christ. If He did not assume that fallen humanity which was to be saved, which was to be healed and transformed; if, as some had imagined, He was immune to disease or any death-causing event, and was destined to live indefinitely within fallen time, no true salvation or change would ontologically occur in and through His humanity. That humanity would have to be conceived only as a screen, covering a theophany, which would be seen as operating by itself, in a sort of magic exercise of divine omnipotence, with the human nature ceasing to be what we are as soon as Divinity touched it. (“Christ’s Humanity: The Paschal Mystery,” SVTQ 31 : 27-28)
Athanasius lays out the general outline of authentic incarnation, yet perhaps needing correction at points. It would be the task of later theologians, such as St Cyril of Alexandria and St Maximus the Confessor, to develop a deeper understanding of the hypostatic union and the active role of our Lord’s human nature in the work of salvation.
I have been particularly impressed by the way St Athanasius formulates the continuity, and discontinuity, of God’s self-disclosure in creation and in his hominization in Jesus Christ. As we saw in a previous article, Athanasius understands the world, by its participation in the eternal Word, as a panoply of divine manifestation. “God ordered creation through his Word,” Athanasius writes, “so that, while he is invisible by nature, he might nevertheless be known to people from his works” (Gent. 35). When confronted with the objection that the incarnation violates the divine transcendence, he then argues that the incarnation in fact represents an intensification of God’s immanent activity and presence:
The philosophers of the Greeks say that the cosmos is a great body, and they speak truly. For we see it and its parts as being subject to our senses. If, then, the Word of God is in the cosmos, which is a body, and has come into it all and into each part of it, what is surprising or absurd if we say that he came in a human being? For if it were completely absurd for him to be in a body, it would be absurd for him to come into the whole, and illumine and move all things by his own providence, for the universe is also a body. But if it is fitting for him to come into the cosmos and to be made known in the universe, it would also be fitting for him to appear in a human body and that it should be illumined and moved by him. For the human race is part of the whole; and if the part is unsuitable to be his instrument towards the knowledge of divinity, it would be most absurd that he should be made known even through the whole cosmos. (Inc. 41)
Athanasius here speaks of the Word as present in the dominical body; but we should not think of this as akin to the way the Word is present in a prophet or holy person. The Creator is actively revealing himself in the objects and movements of the universe, and by the Spirit he indwells prophets and holy people in a special way; but his appropriation of humanity represents an even more profound act of self-communication. For as deeply present as God may be in creation, it still remains external to him. But in the incarnation God takes humanity into himself and thus makes it internal to his divine life. He is not just present in the body; he has made the body his own. As Athanasius would later express it in his Contra Arianos: “God, who is good and the Father of our Lord took pity on us and, wishing to be known by all, he made his own Son put on a human body and became a human being called Jesus, so that in this body he may make an offering of himself on behalf of all” (Ar. 2:14). Thomas F. Torrance offers this theological clarification: “In the Incarnation God the Son did not simply come in man, but came as man. This is the decisive point for Athanasius’ Christology, where he clearly and explicitly identifies the ‘become flesh’ with ‘become man,’ meaning by ‘man’ (as indeed by ‘flesh’ and ‘body’), not just a physical entity, but man in his wholeness and integrity as human being” (Theology in Reconciliation, p. 227).
Hence I must disagree with Beeley when he states that “Athanasius is insistent that we cannot see or know God in his nature, even through the works” (p. 136). On the contrary, the Alexandrian theologian seems to saying just the opposite. Uncreated and created being are, of course, radically distinct for Athanasius, as for all patristic writers. The world is created ex nihilo; it is not an emanation of divine being. Yet Athanasius strives to assert both the transcendence of the divine Creator and his active involvement and presence in his creation: “And, as being in all creation, he is in essence outside everything but inside everything by his own power” (Inc. 17). Beeley objects to Athanasius’s formulation of essence and power. He infers that Athanasius is really saying that the creation is incapable of manifesting the divine nature. But this is not the purpose of the formulation. Athanasius is stating, rather, that the divine transcendence is neither mitigated nor compromised by God’s intimate nearness to creation through his Word:
This essence-power distinction in Athanasius seems to be a distinction between the divine realm in se, encompassing both Father and Son (not to mention the Spirit), and ad extra. Its point is simply that God’s active agency within creation does not mitigate against his otherness as an agent; God does not become consubstantial with creation through his activity within it. However, in being outside creation by his essence, God does not cease to be effective within it, and to effect creation’s participation in his own activity. The essence-power distinction is thus parallel with the more pervasive nature-works distinction, whereby it is articulated that God is invisible, incomprehensible, etc., according to his nature, and yet manifests himself in his works. In both cases, it is a matter of speaking in one breath of the otherness and nearness of God. (Anatolios, p. 46)
Orthodox readers will immediately note the similarities between the Athanasian distinction between God’s essence and power and the Palamite distinction between God’s essence and energies. Both bespeak the dialectic of transcendence and immanence. Reading the Palamite distinction back into Athanasius may be stretching things, says Anatolios, “but it can at least be granted that the basis for Palamite doctrine is present here” (pp. 218-219 n. 43).