Slowly Reading St Athanasius: Why is the Incarnation so important? 

by John Stamps

My favorite dish to eat at a Mexican restaurant is Chili con Carne. For barbarians who don’t know what I’m talking about, Chili con Carne means Chili with Meat. If we ponder what the word “incarnation” means in Christian theology, what else can Incarnation mean except “God with Meat?” Which brings us to the startling prologue of St John’s Gospel. 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and pitched a tent among us, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1, 14)   

Words become a lot of things, but they typically don’t become flesh. But St John declares the Word which was with God and was God became flesh (σάρξ). The Nicene Creed retains the startling crudity of John’s Gospel: 

  • Κατελθόντα (He came down),
  • καὶ σαρκωθέντα (and He became flesh),
  • καὶ ἐνανθρωπήσαντα (And He became human),
  • Παθόντα (And He suffered)

When St Athanasius writes about incarnation, he doesn’t talk about the fleshification (yes, I made that word up) of God the Word. Instead he picked up that other term in the Nicene Creed — ἐνανθρωπησις/enanthropesis). Enanthropesis describes the Word’s in-human-ization or His in-man-ification. 

St Athanasius uses many synonyms to describe the incarnation: 

  • Manifestation
  • Appearance
  • Embodiment
  • Descent
  • Embodiment
  • Condescension
  • Sojourned
  • Advent

Here he describe the incarnation as ἐπιφάνεια/epiphaneia. This is a biblical word he picked up from St Paul (2 Timothy 1:10): “Grace has now been revealed through the appearing (ἐπιφάνεια) of our Savior Christ Jesus…”

The question that patristic theology tried to answer was, Just how human is Jesus Christ? We moderns tend to ask instead, Is Jesus truly divine? Is He truly God? 

Not so the first centuries of the church, with rare exception. St Athanasius is a truly important snapshot in how we think about Jesus of Nazareth, the Word became flesh. Christology passed through several waves of controversy before reaching a theological consensus. 

  • Was Jesus truly human? Docetism (or better yet, Seemism, from the Greek word δοκέω/dokeo) had taught Jesus was not truly a human being. He just appeared or seemed to be a human. Orthodoxy insisted, Yes, Jesus Christ was truly human. 
  • Did Jesus have a genuine human body? Orthodoxy insisted, Yes, He was tempted, He hungered, He thirsted, He was wearied, He wept, and He died a cruel death by professional Roman executioners. You don’t get any more human than that. 
  • Did Jesus have a genuinely human soul and mind? In response to the Apollinarians, Orthodoxy insisted, Yes, Jesus possessed a genuine human mind. 
  • Did Jesus possess a genuine human will? Byzantine Orthodoxy, to its considerable shame, wobbled on this crucial point. But Orthodoxy came to its senses, for one important anthropological reason — If God doesn’t heal the fickle human will, how could any human being be genuinely saved? St Maximus the Confessor argued quite cogently, and worldwide Orthodoxy eventually agreed, Yes, Jesus possessed a genuine human will. 

We’re now ready to tackle §1.

In what preceded we have sufficiently treated a few points from many, regarding the error of the Gentiles concerning idols and their superstition, how their invention was from the beginning, and that out of wickedness human beings devised for themselves the worship of idols.

We moderns and postmoderns don’t worship idols. We take great pride that we are a secular, disenchanted people. We are defiantly un-religious. 

The truth is otherwise. We create a myriad of idols. Thus John Calvin: “The human heart is a perpetual idol factory.”  We cannot stop ourselves from erecting false gods. Thus Christian theologians have reminded us throughout the ages. We worship many gods besides the one true God. Our universe is enchanted.  Rest assured we worship many 21st century gods: 

  • We worship Mammon. 
  • We worship Mars. Better known as the god of War.
  • We worship Venus. Better known as the goddess of Pleasure. 
  • We worship the American Way of Life.
  • We worship Nationalism. 

There is no shortage of false gods.

But there is only one true God.

By the grace of God we also noted a few points regarding the divinity of the Word of the Father and his providence and power in all things, that through him the good Father arranges all things, by him all things are moved, and in him are given life (cf. Acts 17.28).

God the Father embraces all things and encompasses all things through His very own personal Word. The true God has not left Himself without witness. 

St Athanasius insists that God is not hamstrung by His transcendence nor trapped by His immanence. God the Creator made all things but He is also in all things, sustaining and preserving them. God constantly is at work in our world in all things. 

The human situation is not that God is transcendent in His heaven and we’re stuck here alone and abandoned on Planet Earth. Which you might think if Epicurus and his creepy philosophy of Atomism, the Void, and the Swerve haunts you and keeps you up at night (Section 2).

Athanasius will frequently remind us that God is transcendent in His immanence and immanent in His transcendence. We can’t say everything now. This is just an introduction. We’ll just stake out a marker here and move on. 

Come now, blessed one and true lover of Christ, let us, with the faith of our religion, relate also the things concerning the Incarnation of the Word and expound his divine manifestation to us, which the Jews slander and the Greeks mock, but we ourselves venerate, so that, all the more from his apparent degradation, you may have an even greater and fuller piety towards him, for the more he is mocked by unbelievers by so much he provides a greater witness of his divinity, because what human beings cannot understand as impossible, these he shows to be possible (cf. Matt 19.26), and what human beings mock as unseemly, these he renders fitting by his own goodness, and what human beings through sophistry laugh at as merely human, these by his power he shows to be divine, overturning the illusion of idols by his own apparent degradation through the cross, invisibly persuading those who mock and disbelieve to recognize his divinity and his power.

St Athanasius sets for himself a high hurdle to jump. To the cultured despisers of religion then and now, the Cross is a big joke, it’s absurd. The crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth deserves nothing but our mockery, ridicule, and scorn. The gods don’t act like that. Well, the false gods don’t act like that. Idols don’t act like that. 

The question St Athanasius will return to again and again and again is, What is fitting and proper and suitable to God?  The question running through everyone’s minds as we ponder the crucifixion of Jesus, Is this any way for God to act? St Athanasius accepts that challenge. 

  • What is unfitting (ἀπρεπής/aprepes) for the false gods is fitting (εὐπρεπής/euprepes) for the true God. 
  • What is impossible for the false gods is possible for the true God. 
  • What appears merely human is how Jesus shows us He is the true God. 

Contrary to appearances, the Incarnation of God the Word is seemly, it is becoming, it is decent. The biblical scheme of redemption is no last ditch Deus ex machina, no Rube Goldberg drawing, where God pulls a miraculous rabbit out of a hat to save us in some random fashion. The crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth to save us from sin fits God’s character to a “T.”

For the account of such things, it is necessary to recall what has previously been said, that you may be able to know the cause of the manifestation in the body of such and so great Paternal Word, and not think that the Savior has worn a body as a consequence of nature, but that, being by nature bodiless and existing as the Word, by the love for humankind and goodness of his own Father he appeared to us in a human body for our salvation. As we give an account of this, it is first necessary to speak about the creation of the universe and its maker, God, so that one may thus worthily reflect that its recreation was accomplished by the Word who created it in the beginning. For it will appear not at all contradictory if the Father works its salvation in the same one by whom he created it.

St Athanasius makes one truly startling claim here. Why did God the Word become incarnate, why did He wear a body? There was only one cause, one motivation — the Word of God’s love for us was the primary cause of His embodiment, His in-human-ization.

Not because of any necessity of His nature. He had no such necessity — by nature He is bodiless, by nature He is free, by nature He is the Word of God.  No, He in-man-ified Himself because He is good and He loves humankind. The story of redemption and re-creation is God’s love for us from start to finish. There was no other reason. 

Because God is good, the incarnation of the Word of God is indeed fitting. Here the incarnation is like a jigsaw puzzle. You can’t make sense of the puzzle of God until you get the right pieces to fit all together. The key missing piece is the incarnation.  

But if we’re going to make sense of human re-creation, first we must start with creation itself. Human beings are the motivating cause why God the Word became incarnate. Thus St Athanasius begins with the biblical story of creation. 

This move is not self-evident, not even among Christians. Many Christians deeply distrust the Old Testament. To them, it is self-evident there are two Gods — the God of Wrath revealed in the Old Testament and the God of Love revealed in the New Testament. St Athanasius assures us, these are not two separate stories but one story. 

But maybe God doesn’t care about human beings at all. This leads us to Lucretius and the Epicureans. 

(Go to “Contra Epicureans”)

* * *

John Stamps is currently Senior Technical Writer at Guidewire Software in San Jose, California. He holds a BA in Greek from Abilene Christian University, an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, and did work towards an STM in philosophy of religion at Yale University. He is married to Shelly Houston Stamps and attends St. Stephen Orthodox Church in Campbell, California.

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8 Responses to Slowly Reading St Athanasius: Why is the Incarnation so important? 

  1. John Grinnell says:

    John, could you please identify the source of each passage as I’m trying to follow you with the Sources Chrétiennes edition by Kannengiesser? Thanks! John G.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ed Hatterly says:

    Thank you for this article.
    You mentioned concerning Jesus that “He was tempted.” Long comments related to previous articles on Fr. Kimel’s blog have claimed that Jesus did not have a gnomic will, but rather only a natural will (this thread of thought is developed by Maximos).
    So, I am wondering, if Jesus had no gnomic will, how he could be “tempted” in any real sense. To be tempted surely means to be confronted with choices, and, without a gnomic will, there are no choices to be deliberated on or to be tempted by. Can you please clarify? Thank you.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Ed, you may find this essay “Willing is not Choosing” of interest. Also: “God’s Assumption of Falen Humanity.”


    • johnstamps2020 says:

      The best treatment of the natural will versus the gnomic will that I know of is Andrew Louth’s introduction in his translation of “Maximus the Confessor.”

      Fr Andrew enlists the famous British Platonic philosopher, Iris Murdoch, to bolster his case. We think being able to choose betwen X, Y, or Z at any given moment is what human freedom truly is. But Murdoch – and by extension – St Maximus beg to differ.

      Deliberation is what we fall back on when we’ve lost sense of what our true good is, “when our vision is clouded or confused.” (page 62) Having to deliberate about choosing A, B, or C when we’re tempted by X, Y, or Z shows in reality our lack of freedom, not the possession of genuine freedom. As Jesus says in St John’s Gospel, “I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but to do the will of Him who sent Me.” (John 6:38) Jesus’ vision was not clouded or confused. He knew exactly Who He was and exactly what His destiny was.

      What would tempt Jesus wouldn’t be what tempts many of us. The Devil doesn’t offer Jesus a high-priced hooker, a vial of crystal meth, and a night of debauchery in Las Vegas. Jesus wouldn’t fall for that. What would tempt Jesus would be some plausible way to fulfill His mission that avoids the horror of the crucifixion. No human wants to die, no matter how noble the cause. Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane is proof positive: “If it be possible, let this cup be taken from me. Yet not what I will, but what You will.” And Jesus repeats this prayer, not once, not twice, but three times. Jesus keeps asking His Father to spare Him from drinking this cup and the Father keeps insisting, No, You must drink this cup. It is necessary. And so Jesus does.

      St Luke even depicts Jesus like a magnificent athlete at the very peak of his powers, pouring out sweat like Rafa Nadal at match point in the 5th set of the US Open against Roger Federer. (Federer never sweats, so he’s not as good of an example.) The decision to die in order to fulfill the Father’s will is no slam dunk for Jesus.

      A truly human person like Jesus (as proclaimed in the Council of Chalcedon) who possesses a natural will (as argued by St Maximus) — but not a defective gnomic will — can still be tempted. It just won’t look like the temptations we suffer, with our defective gnomic will and our defective (not to say corrupted) sense of freedom.

      This is my $.02 on this difficult mystery.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ed Hatterly says:

    Thank you to both Fr. Kimel and Dr. Stamps. I will follow up with both resources mentioned. It seems like this point of willing and choosing is quite important in understanding both salvation history and, indeed, the struggles of our own spiritual lives. So I am grateful for your contributions.

    Liked by 1 person

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