Slowly Reading St Athanasius: You and I are the Cause of the Incarnation of the Word

by John Stamps

Perhaps you are wondering for what reason, having proposed to talk about the Incarnation (JS: in-human-ification) of the Word, we are now expounding the origin of human beings. Yet this too is not distinct from the aim of our exposition (De Inc. §4).

It has taken us patient readers quite a long time to reach the point where St Athanasius starts actually discussing the Incarnation. He first assures us he has not pulled a bait-and-switch scam on us. The long journey to the Goodness of God ex-nihil-ating the entire cosmos — the Epicureans, the Platonists, and the heretics notwithstanding — was no shaggy dog story. We know who we are. God’s very own goodness brought us out of non-existence into existence. Human beings are ridiculously gifted creatures, infinitely more than the heavenly host. Mere mortals are image bearers of God Himself.

But wait, there’s even more we can say. St Athanasius at the very end of De Inc. §4 introdu­ces a theme near and dear to the hearts of Mere Christians everywhere — the promise and destiny of Theosis. We are gods-in-the-making and God intended His life to be our life. “And being incorruptible, he would have lived thereafter like God…” Please excuse yet another slight detour here. Theosis is not hyperbole. Theosis is not some exotic hothouse hybrid religious orchid. It’s stone-cold sober theological truth. For example, when I first read C.S. Lewis (I turned 14 in 1970, the same year as Kent State), I hit one passage after another where he mentioned the venerable doctrine of Theosis. He startled me. I didn’t know what to make of it. Take this stunning passage from Mere Christianity, handed to me the summer of 1970 by my youth minister:

He came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other men the kind of life He has – by what I call ‘good infection.’ Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else…

The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were ‘gods’ and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him – for we can prevent Him, if we choose – He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.1

Theosis is Mere Christianity 101.2 But let’s qualify this with the usual theological weasel language. We don’t become what God is by essence or nature. You and I won’t become Fourth Members of the Trinity. We become what God is, but only by participating in Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour. As long as we remain and abide on the vine, we will bear God’s fruit. But we are not the vine. The Word of God is. We are merely branches. Our destiny stands secure as long as we remain in the vine and don’t cut ourselves off.

Of all the creatures created by God’s goodness, He gave us one extra gift. Last of all, God has gifted us with responsibility for our own existence.

But the last of God’s most excellent gifts we treated as something of a white elephant. White elephants are gifts you didn’t ask for and you don’t know what to do with. Free choice is such a gift. I can’t imagine life without free choice. But why oh why is it so hard to do the right thing? As truly rational creatures, He gifted us with free choice (προαίρεσις). His marvelous gifts of incorruption and genuine life — life that truly is — came with one exceedingly crucial condition: “Do not eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. For the day you do eat of that fruit, you shall die by death” (Genesis 2:16-18).

We all know how well that turned out. Free choice being what free choice is, we chose poorly. God gave us a simple either/or: either remain and participate in God’s goodness or “slide back toward nothingness.”3 Goodness did not create you and me like atoms that bounce around and randomly swerve here, there, and everywhere. Goodness endowed us with that marvelous but double-edged gift of free will.

God did not create Evil. God did not create even one tiny speck of Evil. But Evil now becomes a genuine possibility. Goodness isn’t confronted with the Nihil when Goodness ex-nihil-ates the universe. But sliding back into the Nihil certainly becomes possible when Goodness created us.

St Athanasius now drops two bombshells on us unsuspecting readers. Here’s the first bombshell:

For speaking of the manifestation of the Savior to us, it is necessary also to speak of the origin of human beings, in order that you might know that our own cause was the occasion of his descent and that our own transgression evoked the Word’s love for human beings, so that the Lord both came to us and appeared among human beings. For we were the purpose of His embodiment, and for our salvation He so loved human beings as to come to be and appear in a human body. (De Inc. §4)

Question: Why did the Word of God become human?
Answer: For no other reason than the Word of God loves human beings. You and I are the cause and purpose of His incarnation. As far as St Athanasius is concerned, we don’t need to look any further than God’s love for us.

St Athanasius here transposes his argument into a new key. We already knew God is Goodness Itself.

Now he informs us in no uncertain terms that God is Love Itself. As proof, God had advented (παρουσία/parousia) Himself in creation. But Love being what Love is, it took the next dras­tic step. Human sin might have provoked the Incarnation but Love inflamed it. In a body exactly like our own, God reveals Himself so that we can recognize Him. Here Athanasius starts piling up description after description about what the Incarnation discloses to us about the Word of God has done for us. They are quite revealing, metaphorically and literally.

  • He manifested Himself.
  • He descended to us.
  • In a new move that echoes God calling forth the universe in six days, God now calls forth (ἐκκᾰλέω/ekkaleo) His love for human beings because of our transgression. He loved us when He created us and He still loves us even after we despised His gifts, His grace.
  • He came and appeared to us in a human body. No Gnostic illusion here. His incarnation is the real deal.
  • He en-body-ified (ἐνσωμά̆τωσις/ensomatosis) Himself for us

In the Middle Ages, there was a famous feud between the Franciscans and the Dominicans whether or not God would have become incarnate if humanity had not sinned. Blessed Duns Scotus (1266-1308) argued yes and St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) seems to argue no.4 Another Franciscan, William of Ockham (1287-1347), went so far as to argue that, if God wanted to, He could have become incarnate as a donkey or an ox or even as a donkey-ox. Much water had obviously passed under the theological bridge between the 4th and the 13th centuries.

Just between you and me, it’s hard for me to see St Athanasius showing much sympathy to the Franciscans.5 For him, it was human sin that triggered the incarnation. God did not underestimate the human capacity for self-inflicted wounds one bit. The Word of God became incarnate for us humans and for our salvation.6 That said, Fr John Behr reminds us St Athanasius certainly doesn’t regard this little book as his final word on the subject. There are deep theological mysteries we celebrate inside the church (these are intra-mural) and there are kerygmatic truths we preach outside the church (these are extra-mural) as an apologia to outsiders. St Athanasius reminds us which are which: “These comments are for outsiders, who pile up arguments for themselves” (De Inc. §25). But you and I can profit by them as well.

And as he goes on to say, there are two kinds of lovers in this world – there are those who love contention and there are those who love truth. De Incarnatione hopes to disarm and persuade lovers of contention into becoming lovers of truth.

Here’s the second bombshell: God created human beings. But human beings invented evil.7

Thus, then, God created the human being8 and willed that he should abide in incorruptibility; but when humans despised and overturned the comprehen­sion of God, devising and contriving evil for themselves, as was said in the first work, then they received the previously threatened condemnation of death, and thereafter no longer remained as they had been created, but were corrupted as they had contrived; and, seizing them, death reigned. For the transgression of the commandment returned them to the natural state, so that, just as they, not being, came to be, so also they might rightly endure in time the corruption unto non-being. For if, having a nature that did not once exist, they were called into existence by the Word’s advent [parousia] and love for human beings, it followed that when human beings were bereft of the knowledge of God and had turned to things which exist not. (De Inc. §4)

Let’s stop here and take inventory. In His good pleasure, God willed an entire universe into existence.9 Sun, moon, stars, sea and land creatures both great and small are perfectly happy doing what their Creator told them to do. By contrast, God willed us to be incorruptible. And unlike the rest of the universe, human beings nixed God’s purposes for them.

Actually our response to God’s will was stronger than that. We spurned with utter contempt God’s gift-task for us. We couldn’t stand limitations as a creature. We wanted to be gods and we wanted to be gods right now. Even if God gave us only one prohibition, we hated being told no.

We turned to evils of our own invention.

The conclusion is startling. We invented evil. We despised and overturned comprehension of God. There is no malice in God. None whatsoever. God is Goodness itself and Love itself. But there is plenty of malice and hatred in us.

How far humans had fallen! God created us ex nihilo. But we decide to de-create ourselves ad nihilum. God intended for us to have pure and incorruptible contemplation of Him. Here is how St Athanasius describes us in the Garden before the Fall: “God constituted man the beholder and knower of reality by means of this resemblance to Himself.” (Contra Gentes §4) Plato couldn’t have described gazing at the Forms better himself.10 It’s like God wanted each and every one of us to be Platonic philosophers (E.J. Meijering). God wanted us to see reality as it really is. But we decided that we’d rather lick the earth and stick our swinish noses into our troughs.

The sadness and tragedy of the story is what God intended for us and what we choose for ourselves instead.

Taking the argument one step further, God created all things visible and invisible. But human beings caused evil. St Athanasius doesn’t blame the Devil or any other malignant forces for the presence of evil in the cosmos. The Devil pops up in a few cameo appearances, but not many. He makes his first appearance in §5.11 But this isn’t the Devil’s story. Right now it’s our story. This is the story of the Word of God’s incarnation to save us and rescue us from corruption.

Humans rejected their special gift of incorruptibility and free choice as a white elephant. We didn’t ask for the gift, we don’t know what to do with the gift, and now we’d like to get rid of the gift. God offered us this amazing free ticket of existence, immortality, and incorruption. But like Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, we decided to return our ticket. Left to its own devices, the natural destiny of all created things is dissolution back into the Nihil. The problem is, human existence isn’t like joining a club or watching a Broadway show. We can’t simply turn our ticket back into the box office for a full return.12 We’re up to our eyeballs in existence. As C.S. Lewis summarizes, “Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever? Once a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die?” If we despise God’s gifts — God’s very life — what else can possibly happen except that we die a miserable death? We return back to the Nothing from which we came.

Suffice it to say we foolish humans prefer corruption and death to incorruption and life eter­nal. Evil is a huge mystery. We don’t like being told no.13 The visceral human response to any of God’s commandments is they limit my power. We think they also limit our intellectual understanding. We can’t see any good reason why God should prohibit us from doing any­thing we want to do. Our problem is we don’t recognize evil as evil. We are attracted to evil precisely because, at least initially, it seems good to us. Evil attracts us while the command­ment repulses us, because it seems to thwart our natural desires. God appears to be telling us, “No! No! No!” for no good reason. But appearances are deceiving. Evil appears attractive, but it is in fact hideous. It leads us into death and corruption. It leads us back into the realm of the Nihil, back into the Nothing.

Stay turned now for De Inc. §5. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. There is also something rotten with the human race.

 

Footnotes

[1] When’s the last time you read Mere Christianity? The last major section is quite a treat, especially the chapter, “Counting the Cost.” You get both George MacDonald and Theosis in the last two paragraphs.

[2] This is a sneak preview of De Inc. §54. You can unwrap the Christmas present now or, if you’re patient, you can wait 50 more blogs until we discuss it.

[3] Khaled Anatolios, “Creatio ex nihilo in Athanasius of Alexandria’s Against the Greeks–On the Incarnation” in Creation ex nihilo: Origins, Development, Contemporary Challenges, p. 134.

[4] ST, 3.1.3. Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt has lots and lots of helpful commentary on the section, “The Fittingness of the Incarnation,” in his Holy Teaching: Introducing the Summa Theologiae of St Thomas Aquinas. If you’ve been paying attention, the fittingness of the Incarnation is a key theme in St Athanasius.

[5] As a best practice, we should avoid dragging St Athanasius into later prelapsarian versus postlapsarian Christological arguments. We should also sidestep heated (and possibly pointless) Nature/Grace polemics as best we can. At best, I’m a Peeping Thomist.

[6] Just like it was defined in the Nicene Creed. Meijering (pages 42-43 and 102-103) thinks St Athanasius tweaked his viewpoint later in Four Discourses Against the Arians, II.75. God prepared this special grace even before He created the heavens and the earth: “Yet this grace had been prepared even before we came into being, nay, before the foundation of the world, and the reason why is kindly and wonderful.”

[7] I’m going to expand on humans inventing evil in §5. I’m just putting a stake into the ground here.

[8] Sister Penelope added a paraphrase to her translation — “that is, as an embodied spirit.” A better paraphrase would be, “as a creature uniquely created in the image of God.”

[9] As Fr John Behr says in his introduction to On the Incarnation, “Created from nothing, creation rests upon nothing; it depends totally for its existence upon the will of God alone, by which it was called in to being” (p. 33).

[10] Up until now, I’ve resisted cross-references to St Athanasius’ previous book, Contra Gentes. But now I can’t help myself. I warn you. There will be more.

[11] See also §6, §10, §20, §25, §27, and §52 (where St Athanasius waxes more cosmological about the Forces of Darkness)

[12] Ivan is a closet sadist aroused by creating a “fine” or “nice” collection of vignettes about tortured children. What kind of person does that? From Hubert Dreyfus, “The Roots of Existentialism,” in A Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism, p. 153. More to the point, none of us are innocent bystanders. No one has clean hands. “We are already involved in the suffering of the world, and so we are not in a position to reject it.”

[13] You’d think being warned to wear a facemask in public to avoid spreading Covid-19 is a violation of basic civil liberties. I have a better explanation. Nobody likes to be told what to do and nobody likes to be told no.

(Go to “Something is Rotten”)

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2 Responses to Slowly Reading St Athanasius: You and I are the Cause of the Incarnation of the Word

  1. Sometimes the very best things are not in books but on the screen in blogs! Thank you for this. It has brought me closer to Christ and God.

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