Slowly Reading St Athanasius: What if God was one of us?

by John Stamps

You can’t be too safe or too careful with Safeway Muzak. You never know what songs they’re going to play when you least expect it. I was minding my own business shopping for salsa when “What if God was one of us?” by Joan Osborne began playing over the loudspeaker. I became transfixed. There were no interruptions with clean-ups on Aisle 5 to save me. No announcement that fresh strawberries were on sale in the produce section. No promotions to raise money for some just cause to make Safeway and me feel good about ourselves and our shopping experience. Just 5:21 of Joan and me. It wasn’t Damascus Road but it was close enough.

If God had a name what would it be?
And would you call it to his face?
If you were faced with Him in all His glory
What would you ask if you had just one question?

And yeah, yeah, God is great
Yeah, yeah, God is good
And yeah, yeah, yeah-yeah-yeah

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin’ to make his way home?

I couldn’t shut off my embarrassing tear stream in the Mexican food section. “Look, mommy, why is that poor man crying over by the taco shells?” For any self-respecting theologian wannabe, there is no more haunting question — What if God was one of us? And St Athanasius wrote one of the most magnificent treatises in intellectual history to answer just that question. God did become one of us, full of grace and truth.

To come up to speed, remember that the human race has plunged itself into destruction. We have committed one self-destructive act after another. God has watched the carnage we inflict on each other and on ourselves. He sees that we have plummeted into corruption, death, and the nihil. So what does God do?

The God Word became enfleshed, fully human to the max. God stooped down to humanity. He revealed Himself definitively decisively once and for all as a genuine human being. The Image of God reflected Himself to the image bearers. We can see our own image clearly reflected in His Image, face to face. God the Word en-human-ated (ἐν-ανθρωπ-ήσις) Himself in Jesus of Nazareth. In the fullness of time, He emptied Himself into human time. God became one of us.

In De Incarnatione §8, St Athanasius “frames” his argument with three bookends, brackets, or elements:2

.   [place]
..  [philanthropy]
… [liability]
… [/liability]
..  [/philanthropy]
.   [/place]

I’m going to put the brackets together so that you can see how the two pieces of the frame fit together.

  • The first frame explains why the Logos entered our “place” (χώραν).
  • The second frame show the Logos is good and He loves human beings (φιλανθρωπίᾳ).
  • The third frame explains how the Logos delivered us from our “liability” (ὑπεύθυνον). to the corruption of death. Without too much prejudice, we could say the Logos paid off our mort-gage, literally, our death-pledge.3

Please forgive any repetition. But there’s a method in my madness.

I’m trying to carefully parse St Athanasius’ arguments. It is way too easy to shift your reading brain into autopilot and default into old ways of thinking about crucial matters like God, Jesus, atonement, and so on. What St Athanasius does not say is just as important as what he does say. He does not struggle with what he writes. His thinking is truly elegant. No word is wasted. His argument builds prepositional and participial phrases and dependent clauses upon each other, like a huge wave, and then finally it crashes down on us with amazing force.

But we struggle mightily to understand him because of dubious preconceptions we bring to what we think God is doing in the crucifixion of God the Word. An overused and highly misunderstood word like “debt” or “liability” can send us down a theological rabbit hole. Unlike the pagan goddess Vengeance, the Heavenly Father does not exact a ransom or requital from us. His Son is not judicially murdered to satisfy God’s anger.

We have become used to drinking old wine. But if we read St Athanasius carefully, we can cleanse and expand our palette. We discover the old wine isn’t better. So don’t be churlish. “No one after drinking old wine desires new; for he says, ‘The old is good'” (Luke 5:39). Put the new wine into the new wineskins! And then drink it up!

Frame 1: The Logos is our placeholder

St Athanasius pulls out all the apophatic heavy artillery to make sure we don’t miss the point of the God Word’s incarnation. The Logos is utterly transcendent to us.

  • He is not-bodied (ἀ-σώματός), but we are embodied through and through.
  • He is not-corrupt (ἄ-φθαρτος), but we are sunk down in the fetid stench of decay and corruption.
  • He is not-matter (ἄ-ϋλος), but we are material to the core.

And then God became one of us. Look carefully how he uses the word “place” (χώραν) to “bookend” this entire discussion.

For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God comes into our place (χώραν),4 although he was not formerly distant. For no portion of creation is left void of him; while abiding with his own Father, he has filled all things through all things. But now he comes, condescending towards us in his love for human beings and his manifestation…

The law concerning corruption in human beings was fully expended in the lordly body and no longer has any place (χώραν)5 against similar human beings. And, on the other hand, that as human beings had turned towards corruption he might turn them again to incorruptibility and give them life from death, by making the body his own and by the grace of the resurrection banishing death from them as straw from the fire. (§8)

The Logos did not misuse or abuse His transcendence. He is not trapped inside His own infinity. He is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. The heavens which cannot contain His divinity do not contain Him. The Logos is everywhere present to His creation. The uncreated Logos who created all things visible and invisible — who made all matter — fills the spiritual and material universe.

The Logos manifests Himself to us in a new way. The God Word — who fills all things — enters our place, our space, our grounds. He takes a body like ours and con-descends to us out of sheer love. St Athanasius just finished the top of the frame. He’s now going to work on the middle piece.

Like Knows Like

The deepest epistemic truth that St Athanasius knows is that Like Knows Like.6 He learned it from Pythagorus, Plato, and other ancient philosophers. Like things are apprehended by like things. We knowers know an object when the knowing subject is assimilated to the object known and when the object known is assimilated to the knowing subject.

He has taken from our bodies a like body, since all were liable to the corruption of death, delivering it over to death on behalf of all, he offered it to the Father… seeing that the authority of the law of corruption was fulfilled in His lordly body and it no longer applied against human beings who were like Him.7 (§8)

This philosophical principle Like Knows Like does much of the theological heavy lifting for St Athanasius. It’s also one of the strangest epistemic truths for moderns because we just don’t think like that anymore. These days we’re all ex-Cartesian dualists. The immaterial mind is radically separated from the material body. The marriage between Knower and Known ended in an acrimonious divorce. We suffer from a bitter epistemic hangover we still don’t know how to get rid of. We can’t quite exorcise the ghost from the machine.8

But for ancient philosophers of all stripes, Like Knows Like means we can only know what we are. It takes one to know one, but not in any pejorative sense. It is a deep and profound Pythagorean truth taken over by early Christian thinkers — we can know God because we are like God. But the reverse is true as well. God knows us because He is like us. We are created in His image, after all. When God became flesh, He came unto His own, St John’s Gospel tells us, even if we didn’t recognize Him. But that was our epistemic problem, not His.

We are not so far away from God after all. And God is not so far away from us.

Humans share a deep kinship with God. And God shares a deep kinship with us. The Wholly Other is also Wholly Like Us. We can know God because He is like us and we are akin to Him. We can apprehend God through our intelligence which is made in God’s image. We share the Logos with God. We can know God because we participate in Him. God knows us deeply because, in the incarnation, He is now like us. We are made in the image of God, and now the truest, most perfect image of God has become one of us.

For all Platonists, we can ascend to God because we are like God. But from a Gospel perspective, the more important, deeper truth is that God can con-descend to us because He is like us. He becomes like us so that we can become like Him. This deep assumption is central to St Athanasius.

The crucified and risen Logos has dis-placed the law of corruption

The Logos is utterly transcendent to all created being. He is eternal, incorporeal, incorruptible, and immaterial. What if this God became one of us? This very same God takes on a body exactly like our own. This very God did become one of us. The God Word could not endure death’s mastery over us. So He did something about it. He became one of us. St Athanasius had already constructed the top of the frame. Now he constructs the bottom of the frame.9

The power of the law of corruption was fully expended in the lordly body and no longer has any place (χώραν)10 against similar human beings. On the other hand, that as human beings had turned towards corruption he might turn them again to incorruptibility and give them life from death, by making the body his own and by the grace of the resurrection banishing death from them as straw from the fire. (§8)

Because He condescended into our place, there is literally no place left for the law of corruption to threaten us. Because He took a body like ours and descended into Hades through the cross, there are no grounds against us, legal or otherwise. Transcendence and immanence are not empty philosophical buzzwords to throw around. They do real work here. Because the Logos has filled all things with Himself, the law of human corruption no longer has a spot to condemn us. Jesus Christ now occupies that place, those grounds, and that spot.

Whither shall I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, Thou art there! (Psalm 139:7-8)

There is not one place in the entire universe where Christ Jesus our Lord is not present for us. Not on earth, not in heaven, and not in Hades. Where we are, He is. He has re-placed the law of corruption against us. Or better yet, He has dis-placed it. He has assumed our place. The law of corruption has no place left to stand. God became one of us.

In effect, He has pulled the rug out from under the prosecution’s plea for the death penalty. Then St Athanasius switches metaphors. By His death, death is banished from us like straw is burned up in fire. Sin, death, corruption, the law of corruption — all of them are utterly consumed. Not one of them is left.

The Logos prepared His body to be a temple

So how should the God Word become incarnate? What entrance should the God Word make into the world? What befits His royalty? St Athanasius doesn’t mince words. The virgin birth is a suitable and proper way for the God Word to become one of us. Let’s unpack his argument.

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 that not simply, but from a spotless and stainless virgin, ignorant of man, pure and unmixed from intercourse with men. Although being himself powerful and the creator of the universe, he prepared for himself in the Virgin the body as a temple, and made it his own, as an instrument, making himself known and dwelling in it. (§8)

The virgin birth is yet one more deed in God’s repertoire of creation handiwork. Yet this time the virgin birth is not exactly creatio ex nihilo.11 It’s a new creation even more astounding. He creates a temple for Himself out of a virgin’s womb.

This is a remarkable description of the incarnation of the God Word and His enthronement in the virgin Mary’s body. The God Word assumes the conditions and limitations of space and time and human flesh, with all this implies.

Now please don’t think of St Athanasius here being squeamish about sex and human sexuality because the God Word is conceived in a virgin’s womb apart from a husband. He does not damn marriage with faint praise. This rigorous ascetic previously defended marriage to the highest heavens in De Incarnatione §2, to the discomfort of dualists then and now. Marriage is his solid gold proof that God is the creator of all things and that God is good to human beings.

Athanasius is doing something very different here. Previously he described the horrific avalanche of evils we brought down upon ourselves. God had created us in His very image. He had intended us to be His temple, in soul, spirit, and body. Instead we had become utterly corrupt, in soul, spirit, and body. So now God starts over, re-creating the entire universe in the womb of a Jewish peasant girl. Mary’s royal womb is where the God Word enthroned Himself.

For nine glorious months, the God Word definitively and once-for-all reveals Himself — not in a burning bush and not in a still small voice — but inside of Mary’s womb. The God Word did not pass through Mary like water runs through a tube.12 For nine magnificent months, Mary’s womb contained the Uncontainable. God the Word grew and was incubated inside that holy and faithful woman. His bloodstream commingled with hers.13 By containing the Creator of all things visible and invisible, her body became God’s throne. For nine majestic months, her womb was more spacious than the heavens. Everything Mary ate and drank nourished the incarnate God Word. The God Word truly became flesh and dwelt among us, and the flesh He took was from her. Mary’s DNA became the genetic recipe for the Word who became man. He is truly flesh from her flesh. Her family lineage and the rogue’s gallery of saints and sinners recounted in St Matthew’s Gospel is the family lineage of God the Word.

This body is His own body. He owns it. Rather He makes it His own (ἰδιο-ποιεῖται). Making His own body is His inalienable right as Creator and now as Savior. He takes a body just like ours. It is not extraneous or external to Him. God became one of us.

Frame 2: God is good and He loves mankind

Deep Theology appears where you least expect it. I remember watching the 1994 remake of The Little Rascals with our 8-year old twins, Mark and Katie. We laughed ourselves silly. My favorite scene was when poor Alfalfa escaped from a disastrous ballet recital. In madcap and zany comedy designed explicitly for 8-year olds and their longsuffering parents, Alfalfa ran away, dressed only in his underwear. After he runs past two nuns and turns the corner around the church, he runs smack-dab right into the two bullies, Butch and Woim, he was trying to get away from in the first place. Alfalfa exclaims, “This day couldn’t get any worse. Then the clouds opened up and God said, ‘I hate you, Alfalfa!'” Job couldn’t have said it any better. My 34-year old daughter Katie still reminds me of this scene 26 years later.

We humans can never be told too often that God loves us. Our doubts run too deep. There is too much apparent counter-evidence. So St Athanasius repeatedly reminds us, God is good and He loves mankind.14

But now he comes, condescending towards us in his love for human beings (φιλανθρωπίᾳ) and his manifestation… He takes 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 (φιλανθρώπως). (§8)

The Law clearly specified that if you sin, you will die. But the God Word perfectly fulfilled the conditions of that law. In the God Word, the law was abolished because it was completely filled up, to its very brim. The God Word drank the cup of suffering and death to the bitter end, because He loved us. Not one drop was left over. You don’t get any more universal than the God Word. When the God Word died, all died in Him. Christ’s love for us has gripped us and graces us with new life. As St Paul states:

For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” (2 Cor 5:14-15)15

The authority of the law was fulfilled and brought to an end in His lordly body.16 The law no longer applied to humans who were like Him. In Him the law no longer has a mort-gage — a death pledge — against us. In Him the power and threat of the law against us was voided.

St Athanasius changes here to a new key. He ceases to think in terms of our deadly insolvency, and he ponders God’s unending love for us. Because He is the God Word, the God Word can suffer and die for all humans — there is no remainder, there is no human being left out — and thus we die in Him. His death über-dissolves and über-annuls the law of corruption against us. His crucified love has dis-placed 100% its deadly effects against us. God banished death from us. Death has no legal or financial claim against us. We can once again feast from the Tree of Life.

The judgment of the law was fulfilled and brought to an end in His lordly body.17 In Him the law no longer has a case against us. The power and threat of the law was voided against us in Him.

And why? From what motive? Out of sheer love and goodness. Love bade us welcome. Love saw our shame and welcomed us back to feast in the Kingdom of God. Love girded Himself with a towel and washed our feet. Love bore all the blame. No blame against His creation was left over. Love served us to the very bitter end.

But what’s the second part of the exchange? We become like Him, of course. God plunged into our own life so that we can plunge into His. God became one of us.

Frame 3: The Logos pays off our death-pledge

A strange and wonderful transaction is at work here. As the Creator of all human beings, the incarnate God Word suffered death for all human beings. It is fitting and appropriate and suitable that the God Word should die for all human beings, because it was His own law that He Himself spoke. The death of the God Word preserves His truthfulness. He could suffer, the Righteous for the unrighteous, the Godly for the ungodly, because He was God Himself. God’s emeth, His faithfulness remains intact.

Since the God Word has created humankind in the first place, it was His godly prerogative to suffer and die for all humankind.

The Logos looks out over the human race, the creatures created in His very own image. And what does He see? He discerns how truly desperate our situation is. St Athanasius is not usually this redundant. But he doesn’t want us to miss the point. “He sees … He sees … He sees.” He hammers the point into the frame. He wants us to see what God the Word sees when He looks at our madness and self-made hell. Nothing escapes the eyes of God.

  • He sees the rational race wasting away out of existence and death reigning over us through corruption.
  • He sees corruption holding us closer and close, due to the threat of the transgression.
  • He sees it was absurd for the law to be dissolved before it was fulfilled.
  • He sees it was completely unfitting that His creation was disappearing back into nothingness.
  • He sees how the surpassing wickedness of human beings was mounting up against them.

Finally, He sees how death has bankrupted us. He sees our universal liability to death.

He sees the liability (ὑπεύθυνον)18 of all human beings to death — 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. (§8)

We faced the worst IRS audit you can possibly imagine — death has demanded an audit of us. We have become insolvent … to death. We are mortgaged to the hilt … to death. We are like the dishonest steward in the parable of Jesus (Luke 16:1-9) — and death wants a full accounting of our books. We are answerable … to death. We thought we could eke out one more payment on our life and avoid foreclosure but we could not. We are under the penalty of death. We were in hock up to our eyeballs to death and corruption for our very lives. We cannot pay the mortgage — our mort-gage — the death pledge of our life. So what does the God Word do? He becomes one of us.

And thus, taking from ours that which is like, since all were liable (ὑπευθύνους) 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, so that, on the one hand, with all dying in him the law concerning corruption in human beings might be undone (its power being fully expended in the lordly body and no longer having any place against similar human beings), and, on the other hand, that as human beings had turned towards corruption he might turn them again to incorruptibility and give them life from death, by making the body his own and by the grace of the resurrection banishing death from them as straw from the fire. (§8)

Death is a natural consequence when you disobey God. “The day that you eat, you will die.” The punishment is contained in the crime itself. It is not external to the crime. Death isn’t punishment of vengeance in retribution for a violation. The death that is the consequence of sin is no arbitrary or punitive retribution. It is not God’s revenge. It is the just and true and tragic consequence of the trespass. Death is the horrible nihil that confronts you and me when we swerve away from the only Existing and Living One. Death now owns us. As we said earlier, God isn’t so much concerned about the offense or error per se. He isn’t all that concerned about our repentance either. The real problem is the underlying corruption.

How the God Word now acts in truth is reasonable with His goodness. In this case, the Incarnation cannot simply overrule, nullify, abrogate, annul, or void the law of God willy-nilly. Instead, God’s embodiment must fulfill the law. As St Athanasius had stated earlier, “it was absurd (ἄτοπον) for the law to be dissolved before being fulfilled.” Anything less would be preposterous.

Let us focus on that one key statement — the law had to be fulfilled before it could be dissolved. Anything less would be unthinkable, inconceivable. The law is this ginormous stone jar of purification — much much larger than 20 or 30 gallons — that needs to be filled up to the very brim. “‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them to the brim” (John 2:7). The jar requires, it demands, it desires eagerly and expectantly — with longing — to be filled full by the One to Come. This jug is Word-shaped and Christ-formed, and only He can fill it perfectly. He fills up the jar to the very top. When this vessel cannot hold one more drop without spilling over, the law is annulled. After the jar is filled up to its very brim, when it cannot hold one more drop, it’s done its job. The law no longer needs filling up.

Jesus of Nazareth — the God Word — He is the One to Come (Luke 7:19). We should not look for another. Before He came, we sat in darkness, we sat in the place (χώρᾳ) and the shadow of death (Matthew 4:16). The law stood as a witness to the One who would Come, before Whom we are revealed as sinners. We had become subject to the corruption that disobedience to the commandment — the true word of the Word Himself — entails. Because He is the God Word, He can shift the place of humanity’s corruption to His cross and dis-place it. Sin, law, corruption, and death — all of them are perfectly dis-placed.

Once again, the theological logic of St Athanasius holds true: Like Knows Like. A great and marvelous exchange has taken place in the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of the God-Man. He became perfectly like us when He became the God Word. This is the first part of the exchange. His crucifixion and death numbered among the transgressors is proper and fitting, even reasonable, for the God Word. Without the death of the God Word, the law could not be fulfilled and God would not be truthful with His own nature. The God Word — the One without sin — perfectly fulfilled the conditions of that law.

“The restoration of creation must be consistent with the original terms of that creation.”19 The crucified God Word meets that condition. He restores creation perfectly, consistently, and reasonably.

In this case, the just requirement of God’s law was dissolved because it was fulfilled. The law no longer holds us in its death grip. We died in His death. He exhausted the hold of death over us. We no longer need to fear death’s decay and corruption. We die in Him so that we no longer need to suffer the corruption of death. Death’s power was depleted and fulfilled in Him. It reached its maximum effect because He is God. Corruption and death have nothing left over to terrify us.

Like Knows Like because like resembles like. He can become exactly like us, because He is already like us. We can become like Him, because we are already like Him. God and Man are not so different after all.

The God Word became sin so that in Him — not in ourselves — we can become the righteousness and justice of God. The God-Man who had no sin became sin on our behalf. He became the curse for us. The Lamb of God took upon Himself the sins of the world – because the God-Man is the only one who could do that. The God Word stood in our place and died for us. God became one of us.

Footnotes

[1] No, Jesus of Nazareth was not Homer Simpson or Barney Gumble. I’ll treat this in a later blog when I unpack “Jesus the Lordly Man.”

[2] The technical term for this “framing” device is inclusio. An inclusio is a bracket or frame that places similar information at the beginning and end of a section. The content in the middle of the frame or between the bookends explains what the frame means. I put the argument together like an XML topic.

[3] “Word nerds will notice an eerie root word in ‘mortgage’ — ‘mort,’ or ‘death,'” Chris Weller writes in The Tech Insider. “The term comes from Old French, and Latin before that, to literally mean ‘death pledge.'”

[4] The word χώραν can mean various things, for example: space, place, spot, position, proper place, land, region, or country. St Athanasius book-ends or frames section §8 with this same exact word. The technical term for this literary device is inclusio. I want to translate it here as “place” for reasons that will be clear later. “Placeholder” or “holding-ground” wouldn’t be bad either.

[5] Second use of the word χώραν. I translated it here as “place” as well.

[6] Diogenes Allen, Philosophy for Understanding Theology, page 36. This principle is sometimes also called Like is known by Like. Or in Latin, similia similibus percipiuntur.

[7] St Athanasius continues the Like Knows Like argument in §9: “He destroyed death from all who were like Him by the offering of that which was equivalent to them… He entered into our realm and dwelt in one body like ours.”

[8] The “ghost in the machine” is Gilbert Ryle’s famous reductionist explanation of Descartes’ mind-body dualism. Arthur Koestler and Walker Percy both use this image to great effect. Dr Tom More’s lapsometer is “the first caliper of the soul and the first hope of bridging the dread chasm that has rent the soul of Western man ever since the famous philosopher Descartes ripped body loose from mind and turned the very soul into a ghost that haunts its own house.” Who can ever look at Descartes the same way after reading Walker Percy?

[9] He follows this same top and bottom “framing” pattern in Frame 2 and Frame 3. I won’t belabor the point there.

[10] Second use of the word χώραν. I translated it here as “place” as well.

[11] In Contra Arians II.7, the Virgin Mary is compared to unmodeled earth, to tighten the parallels with God’s original creative act in Genesis 2.

[12] Famously declared in St Irenaeus, Adversus haereses I.7.2 and repeated elsewhere.

[13] Smithsonian Magazine (September 2, 2015) calls this phenomenon “microchimerism.”

[14] “Love for human beings” is the second book-end that frames this section.

[15] St Athanasius quotes this passage in §10. As always, we can’t say everything at the same time. Stay tuned.

[16] The lordly body (ἐν τῷ κυριακῷ σώματι) of Jesus of Nazareth is a favorite expression of St Athanasius to describe the God Word’s incarnation. He uses it in §8, §21, §22, §26, §30, and §31.

[17] We will discuss the lordly body (ἐν τῷ κυριακῷ σώματι) of Jesus of Nazareth in a later post.

[18] “Liability” is the innermost book-end that frames this central section. If this was a chiastic structure, “liability” is the pivot or turning point of the entire argument.

[19] Khaled Anatolios, “Creation and Salvation in St Athanasius of Alexandria,” Kindle location 1286, in Baker, Matthew. On the Tree of the Cross. Holy Trinity Publications.

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3 Responses to Slowly Reading St Athanasius: What if God was one of us?

    • johnstamps2020 says:

      You may! I’ve never heard the Prince cover of this song! Time for an education this morning!

      Like

  1. Beautiful, John – thank you.

    God Bless

    Like

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