Slowly Reading St Athanasius: Four or five pretty good reasons why Jesus isn’t a space alien or astronaut

by John Stamps

C.S. Lewis encouraged us to read old books in his famous introduction to St Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. In the best of all possible worlds, he prescribed that, after you have finished reading a new book, you should never ever never start another new one until you have read an old one in between. But we moderns need to be careful. The problem with reading old books is we misunderstand them so easily. We do not necessarily misread them from any prejudice or ill-will. They just might not say what we expect them to say in the way that we expected them to say it. That’s not a bad thing. We simply have to work hard at understand­ing them on their own terms first.

Here is a case in point. St Athanasius describes how “the Logos takes for Himself a body as an instrument and makes it His own.” In his typical concentric style, he makes this point repeatedly but it doesn’t necessarily become more clear to us the more he repeats it. “The body is the instrument of the Logos” doesn’t just sound odd to us. For many readers, it sounds quasi-docetic and dualist plain and simple. Is the incarnate Logos even a real human being? This is potentially a serious jaw-dropping mistake in a book ostensibly written about the incarnation of God the Word. This notion of body-as-instrument is easily the most difficult image for modern readers to grasp that we’ve hit so far.

So let’s grasp the nettle with both hands and see what tolerable sense we can make of St Athanasius here. It’s worth the investment of time and effort. Let’s try to put him into a theological context and tackle that strange term, “docetic.”

Here is how a good Docetist thinks. By nearly all accounts, Jesus of Nazareth was an extra­ordinary human being. He was so extraordinary that many have seriously questioned whether He was actually a human being at all. Josephus the Jewish-Roman historian famously doubted His humanity — “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man.”1 So extraordinary were His words and deeds that many Christians thought Jesus only seemed or appeared to be human. Could such a divine man — a theios aner (θεῖος ἀνήρ) — really die? And if Jesus of Nazareth really was God incarnate and not just a divine man, God is immortal by definition and cannot possibly die. The crucifixion of God could not possibly be real. He just seemed to have a physical body. Jesus was actually an incorporeal being. He could not possibly die a physical death.2

This stance is called Docetism, from the Greek word δοκέω — to seem or pretend. Doce­tism is one of the first notorious heresies actually condemned in the New Testament. St John the Theologian himself goes to great pains to insist Jesus was no phantom, no illusion. He was a genuine human being just like you and me. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1). His birth was a real birth. His crucifix­ion was a real death. Jesus made no ex machina escape at the last second from His gruesome execution.

And His resurrection from the dead was no conjuring trick with bones. The tomb was empty and the corpse was gone. Now a missing body raises more questions than it answers. But you shall have the body. Habeas corpus indeed. Jesus of Nazareth did not go missing. He appeared to several eyewitnesses. He showed them the nail marks in His hands and His feet. He commanded St Thomas to place His finger into the hole in His side. Extraordinarily, the resurrection didn’t erase the marks of crucifixion. The Jesus who was resurrected was the exact same Jesus who was crucified. The risen Lord still bears the nail wounds of His crucifixion. Whatever else we Mere Christians confess about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, we don’t confuse it with immortality of the soul. The stone was rolled away, the tomb was empty, and the angels proclaimed, “He is not here: for He is risen, just as He said.”

Even so, many still harbor grave doubts whether the biblical Jesus describes a genuine human being at all. To them, a far simpler explanation is that He is an extra-terrestrial, so to speak. This argument is not as oddball as it seems. It starts with a dubious and dislo­cated3 misreading of St John’s Gospel. That’s how some people read the Gospel of John. The Logos enters the cosmos like a space alien. The world “at its core is an alien realm, just as accord­ing to John, Jesus himself had been an alien sojourner in this world below.”4 Jesus — the Man from Heaven — is God striding over the face of the earth. He is not one of us. So says Käsemann and some others. This misreading starts with a fishy view of God’s transcendence. We’ll address that later.

But for some modern readers, even St Athanasius doesn’t quite escape suspicion of subtle Docetism either, this despite writing the premier theological work on the incarnation of the God the Word. The nub of the issue is how St Athanasius describes the incarnation — the Logos takes for Himself a body as an instrument. Consider the following extracts from De Incarnatione §§8-9:

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.

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 (ὄργανον), making himself known and dwelling in it.

The power of corruption was fully expended in the lordly body and no longer having any ground against similar human beings.

… 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. For the Word, realizing that in no other way would the corruption of human beings be undone except, simply, by dying, yet being immortal and the Son of the Father the Word was not able to die, for this reason he takes to himself a body capable of death.

Whence, by offering to death the body he had taken to himself, as an offering holy and free of all spot, he immediately abolished death from all like him, by the offering of a like. For being above all, the Word of God consequently, by offering his own temple and his bodily instrument (τὸ σωματικὸν ὄργανον) as a substitute for all, fulfilled in death that which was required; and, being with all through the like [body], the incorruptible Son of God consequently clothed all with incorruptibility in the promise concerning the resurrection.

When he describes the incarnation, it’s not that hard at first blush to imagine the Logos wearing a human body like a suit. I’ll argue this is a decidedly wrongheaded reading of St Athanasius. But you can certainly see where people could get the wrong impression of the incarnate Christ. The image that St Athanasius offers — the Word made His body His own, like an instrument — is open to gross misunderstanding.

Others lampoon St Athanasius’ treatment of the incarnation and say he holds a “Space-Suit Christology.”

Just as the astronaut, in order to operate in a part of the universe where there is no air and where he has to experience weightlessness, puts on an elaborate space-suit which enables him to live and act in this new, unfamiliar environment, so the Logos put on a body which enabled him to behave as a human being among human beings. But his relation to this body was no closer than that of an astronaut to his space-suit.5

An astronaut needs a space-suit to do his work and the Logos needs a body to do His work. There you have it. It’s a straightforward-but-misguided distortion and deserves some careful thought.

The parody described here is a scene straight out of a science-fiction story. Sci-fi 101 stipulates that aliens always need a human body and a fairly normal suit of clothes to blend in with real human beings. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu comes to earth and passes as a reasonably normal person — or an IBM executive, not exactly the same thing — dressed in a rather natty grey flannel suit. In Starman, the alien (Jeff Bridges) cloned a human body to look like Jenny’s husband, right down to the plaid shirt and Levi’s. In Men in Black, Gentle Rosenburg the Arquilian is a tiny homunculus who loves pierogies and drives a robotic human exosuit. But best of all, Edgar the Bug (memorably played by Vincent D’Onofrio) is a vicious alien cockroach who kills a mean-tempered misogynist farmer and then starts wearing his body as a suit, to great comic effect. Agent K (also memorably played by Tommy Lee Jones) describes him like this: “Imagine a giant cockroach, with unlimited strength, a massive inferiority complex, and a real short temper, is tear-assing around Manhattan Island in a brand-new Edgar suit.” Edgar the Bug needs a plausible Edgar suit in order to steal the Arquillian galaxy. Science-fiction as it turns out offers helpful apophatic resources for pondering what we Christians do not mean by incarnation — that is, God’s en-human-ification.

Let’s explore some pretty good alternative reasons why Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t an extraterrestrial or an astronaut. I offer you five.

First, when St Athanasius says the Logos takes to Himself a body-as-an-instrument, he doesn’t mean this body is an external appendage to Him. Jesus doesn’t wear His body like we might wear a FitBit. His “instrument” isn’t any more alien to Him than an opera singer’s “instrument” is alien to her. Singers famously describe using their bodies as “instruments.” Take some diva who blathers on and on in a late-night talk show about how she takes excellent care of her “instrument.” She sounds a bit odd and pretentious, I’ll grant you that. But a world-class singer can talk about her body as something somehow different from herself — even though it is her body — and she doesn’t sound particularly weird doing so. We understand her point. Her body is indeed her instrument. That voice in that body is a precious gift that she dare not squander. From a christological point of view, it’s entirely fitting that a singer or actor can think of her body as a tool she uses for a particular use.6

Because using His body as an instrument is exactly what the Logos did. We need not regard divas as gross dualists. They might be self-centered, but they are not inherently gnostic. And while we all agree that performers are indubitably strange creatures, we need not regard them as space aliens and extraterrestrials. The body that the God Word takes to Himself is a specific instrument designed for a quite specific task.

Jesus speaks in St John’s Gospel, “I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness” (12:46). He was born into this world for a specific reason, a specific mission. He came into the world to suffer and die on the cross, to banish death, to expend the power of corruption, and to substitute for us, among other things. The God Word uses His body to do His Father’s works in specifically human ways. “The body allows the Son to do things that he could not have done had he not become man.”7 God’s salvation is explicitly hands-on. He spits on the ground and makes clay to anoint the eyes of a blind man. He lays hands on the sick and He heals them. He pokes His fingers into the ears of a deaf-mute and then spits and touches the man’s tongue to heal Him. “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20).8 All of these hands-on actions are quite genuine, none are play-acting. And no, the God Word here is not estranged, distanced, detached, or otherwise alienated from His instrument, His body.

Second, when we speak about the God Word’s incarnation, we don’t mean He puts on a Yeshua suit. The body of the Logos is not extrinsic, external, or extraneous to Him.9 The body that the Logos makes His own is not “off the rack.” He doesn’t take to Himself a size 42R body from the Nordstrom men’s department. Or if we’re disposed to comparative religion, the Logos doesn’t take to Himself a generic salvation body that any generic savior would wear. His body is truly special — born of the virgin Mary, born under the Law, born in the fullness of time. Hebrews 10:5-10 describes this perfectly, where the writer quotes from Psalm 40:6-8 (LXX):

Sacrifices and offerings Thou hast not desired,
but a body hast thou prepared for Me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings Thou hast taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Lo, I have come to do Thy will, O God,’
as it is written of Me in the roll of the book.10

St Athanasius calls the body of the Logos an organon (ὄργανον) or “instrument.” The most important clue to his purpose stares at us straight in the face. The body of the Logos is being used for a specific function. This instrument is His manifestation, His theophany if you will. The Logos used his body as an instrument for the true revelation and knowledge of the Father.

We might say that St Athanasius is concerned here about epistemology, except then we invariably go down Cartesian or Kantian rabbit holes.11 Athanasius doesn’t want to answer Epistemology 101 questions about what we know and how we know it. Instead, he is deeply concerned about how we come to know the living God. If God can manifest Himself in one part of creation, He most certainly can manifest Himself in a different part. We can know God through the cosmos. The beauty and magnificence of the sun, moon, and stars testify to God’s wisdom and goodness to us. It is certainly plausible — indeed it is meet, fitting, and right — for God to reveal Himself in a human body. Khaled Anatolios summa­rizes St Athanasius’ point nicely: “By “instrument” Athanasius means something very much like a manifestation or “epiphany,” ἐπιφάνεια, which is actually a term he uses in parallel fashion to speak of the Word’s coming in a body. And God’s epiphany is not just in any old body. The body of the Logos is sui generis, utterly without comparison. But it’s still a genuine human body.

Third, let’s go back to the “space-suit Christology” crit­icism of St Athanasius. As you’ll recall, it was snidely said that the relationship of the Logos to His body was “no closer than that of an astronaut to His space-suit.” The problem here is that Hanson resorts to the out­landish when a far simpler explanation lies close to hand. It’s because St Athanasius is a much better biblical theo­logian than R.P.C. Hanson. Hanson is biblically tone-deaf. Not once but twice St Athanasius says the Logos made the body His temple.

He prepared for himself in the Virgin the body as a temple, and made it his own, as an instru­ment (ὄργανον), making himself known and dwelling in it…. For being above all, the Word of God consequently, by offering his own temple and his bodily instrument (τὸ σωματικὸν ὄργανον) as a substitute for all.

This is nothing but St Athanasius echoing St John’s Gospel. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up…. But he spoke of the temple of his body.” His clever lampoon to one side, Hanson missed the obvious echo to John 2:13-22. The body of Jesus crucified and risen is the new temple of God. This temple condemned to die has become the temple of life.

It’s a strange mixed metaphor — His temple is His sacrifice. The temple of His body doubles as God’s house and as His holy oblation. He offers His temple to death. This temple dwelling is uniquely His own sacred space and His own sacred sacrifice. The God Word makes Him­self known in this temple, His body (De Incarnatione §8). He offers it as a bodily instrument as a substitute (ἀντίψυχον12) for all. In this transaction, He offers His life in place of our life. St Athanasius pours the entire Old Testament sacrificial system into this one word.

The Shekinah glory has at long last returned, in the temple body of this Jewish rabbi. We have seen the glory — incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, the Logos made flesh — full of grace and truth. The king returns. He leads us into a new Exodus, He makes all things new. And to top it off, He has built a new temple. God has come to dwell bodily in the midst of His people. God’s fullness dwells fully in this temple.

Fourth, let’s clear the decks and try to state clearly what St Athanasius is not doing. We’ll call it apophatic christology. St Athanasius is not slicing-and-dicing the God-Man — this nice bit of Jesus is God, this naughty bit of Jesus is … well … clearly not God. Athanasius is not trying to figure out what pieces and parts the God-Man is composed of. He isn’t scrutinizing and dissecting the anthropology, psychology, or physiology of the incarnate Logos.

This is the very problem that Apollinaris got himself into. But St Athanasius isn’t Apol­linaris. He doesn’t even want to be Apollinaris. He has other issues he is concerned with. Apollinaris argued the Logos replaced the human soul in Jesus of Nazareth. He tried to figure out the composition and structure of the God-Man.13 But St Athanasius is conspicuously silent about such matters.14

The prime reason why St Athanasius doesn’t make such an christological and anthropolog­ical blunder is he’s much too good of a Christian theologian to speak of God as if He was a partial, localized deity, whether of Egypt, Moab, Assyria, Babylon, or the USA. The incor­po­real, immortal, and invisible God doesn’t have parts. God is not composite. God is a simple whole.

For men, composed of parts and made out of nothing, have their discourse composite and divisible. But God possesses true existence and is not composite, wherefore His Word also has true Existence and is not composite, but is the one and only-begotten God, Who proceeds in His goodness from the Father as from a good Fountain, and orders all things and holds them together. (CG §41; see also CG §28)

Now the universe to be sure is composed of parts and pieces located here and there and everywhere. But there are no parts and pieces to God. God is in all and in every part. St Athanasius did not commit a category error. You simply cannot map 1:1 this piece of God to that part of the genuinely human Yeshua bar-Yoseph. The incarnation of God the Word is not some weird and impossible mishmash of natures. The God-Man is not a mytholog­ical composite creature, like a goat-stag or an eagle-lion or Hercules.

Good apophatic christology hearkens back to Jesus and the Gospels. We have to clear the bogus options out of the way in order to make reasonable sense of His identity. Jesus asks His disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” (Mark 8:28) He is not John the Baptist, He is not Elijah, He is not one of the prophets. And He is not a chimera, an astronaut, or a space alien either.

Fifth, we can now more clearly state the aim of St Athanasius when he describes the body of the instrument of the God Word.15 We know God through His works. This particular body is the special way that God manifests Himself. One of the problems that Käsemann, Hanson, and other theologians suffer is they are operating out of a dubious view of God’s transcen­dence that renders His immanence impossible. God is so out there “yonder” that the earth is alien to Him. God is so far removed and so alien to the cosmos that His coming to earth looks like an alien invasion.

Again, St Athanasius is too good of a theologian to fall into such a trap. He suffers from no über-transcendent view of God. God is not distant from us (De Incarnatione §8). The God of Sacred Scripture and Christian theology is never trapped in His own transcendence. He is immanent to us. He is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. Being the good Christian Platonist that he is, St Athanasius knows that the Logos is present and revealed to our minds and intellects, that is, our intelligible Platonic self.

But now God acts in a new unprecedented way — in His in-body-ification (ἐν-σωμά-τωσις).16 Our intellects have grown dull. We have become sluggish, fleshly, and sensible creatures. And because we have become sluggish, fleshly, and sensible creatures, God now condescends to us and manifests Himself in a new way, in a sensible way that our senses can apprehend. He manifested Himself in a body. He was crucified bodily and He was resurrected bodily and He ascended bodily.17

To summarize, when the Logos becomes incarnate in a body, God does not touch down on Planet Earth in His Yeshua suit. The cosmos is His realm after all and He is not remote from it. He is everywhere present in the universe and He fills all things. Incarnation is not a change in who or what God is. God is omnipresent. Incarnation is not a change in God, but is God’s manifestation in a new and particular way. Incarnation is God’s theophany, not in a burning bush, but in a genuine human body. Incarnation is the deepest revelation of the Logos.18

The body of this crucified Jew is where God chooses to reveal Himself most fully.19 “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:36) This particular body is the special way that God manifests Himself. God becomes truly immanent to us than through His embodi­ment. The God Word stands before us, full of grace and truth. “Christ’s body is the privileged medium for the self-disclosure of the invisible God in human form.”20 And “privileged” is exactly the right word here. Incarnation is His inalienable right as God and Word.

We turn to De Incarnatione §§9-10 next.



[1] Of course Josephus could be just using ironic understatement (litotes).

[2] A docetic view of Jesus’ death is embedded in the Koran: “That they said (in boast), “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah”;- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not: Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise.” (Qur’an, surah 4 (An-Nisa) ayat 157–158)

[3] For Ernst Käsemann and others, the prologue to John’s Gospel (1:1-18) is a later addition to smooth out theological difficulties. “He came to his own home but His own people did not recognize Him” (John 1:11) would certainly mitigate whether the incarnate Logos is an alien sojourner in an alien realm.

[4] The Testament of Jesus: A Study of the Gospel of John in the Light of Chapter 17, page 65.

[5] R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381, page 448.

[6] For that matter, John Stuart Mill thought the mind of his wife Harriet Taylor “a perfect instrument, piercing to the very heart and marrow of the matter; always seizing the essential idea or principle.” If R.P.C. Hanson doesn’t like St Athanasius using the word “instrument,” then he probably wouldn’t like John Stuart Mill doing it either. This is more than rhetorical synecdoche — when a part of something is used to refer to the whole. For their own reasons, St Athanasius wants to focus on the body as a revelatory instrument to manifest God to us and John Stuart Mill wants to focus on his wife’s mind as an extraordinary instrument for clear and decisive analysis. I discovered the John Stuart Mill anecdote recently, in Robert D. Richardson’s biography of William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, page 157.

[7] Thomas Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction, page 47.

[8] Jesus here echoes Exodus 8:16-20 and 31:18. But in the exorcisms performed by Jesus of Nazareth, God’s finger is a human flesh-and-blood finger.

[9] Peter Leithart observes that “The terminology used here is similar to that used to describe the Son’s relation to the Father. The Son is the Father’s own, proper (idios) Word and wisdom, not an extrinsic or attached Word or Wisdom.” (Athanasius, page 127)

[10] Oddly, while St Athanasius quotes Hebrews quite numerous times, he doesn’t quote this passage in De Incarnatione.

[11] Khaled Anatolios, “‘The Body as Instrument’: a Reevaluation of Athanasius’s Logos-sarx Christology.” Coptic Church Review (1997), page 82.

[12] ἀντίψυχον is not the word I was expecting. It’s not found in the New Testament. According to LSJ, it means “given for life, to give your life for another’s.” By contrast, Jesus says the Son of Man came to give His soul/life as a λύτρον (ransom, atonement) for many (Mark 10:45). St Paul says the man Christ Jesus gave Himself as an ἀντίλυτρον (ransom, antidote, or remedy) for many.

[13] The consequences of such a christological blunder are devastating for our salvation. If Jesus doesn’t have a human soul, then our own souls don’t get repaired with Jesus’ act of salvation. “What God does not assume is not saved.” God must assume the entire human person — soul, spirit, body, and will. This is of course the devastating argument that St Gregory of Nazianzus makes against Apollinaris. But that’s not our concern here and it’s not St Athanasius’ concern either.

[14] Remember that St Athanasius lived and wrote before St Augustine, before Descartes, before Freud. He’s never read Sources of the Self by Charles Taylor. But even if he had, he still would not have gotten himself sucked into the Apollinarian quagmire.

[15] St Athanasius will circle back to the body-as-instrument of the Logos in §41-45. But I won’t steal St Athanasius’ thunder here. I also don’t want to tax the reader’s patience. Plus, I want to avoid repeating myself. But you are certainly free to jump ahead and piece together St Athanasius’ argument for yourself.

[16] This word ἐνσωμάτωσις is actually unusual in St Athanasius. It’s only found in DI, §4: “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.” He typically prefers ἐνανθρωπήσις to describe the incarnation — the Word’s in-human-ization or His in-man-ification (DI, §1) — “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.”

[17] This of course is a stumbling block and scandal to any self-respecting Platonist ashamed of the body and ashamed to appear in a body (for example, as Porphyry described Plotinus, the most famous of the Neoplatonic philosophers).

[18] As eloquently argued by David Bentley Hart in The Beauty of the Infinite, pages 355-357.

[19] St Athanasius doesn’t state my conclusion quite so bluntly.

[20] Khaled Anatolios, “‘The Body as Instrument’: a Reevaluation of Athanasius’s Logos-sarx Christology,” Coptic Church Review (1997), page 83.


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27 Responses to Slowly Reading St Athanasius: Four or five pretty good reasons why Jesus isn’t a space alien or astronaut

  1. Just a thought: God is such that what He does is so intimately related to who He is, that if something is an instrument of what He does it is also included in who He is.

    I really enjoyed St. Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation of the Word.” It’s probably a good thing you are writing this series, and not me, though, because I don’t see most of the possible misunderstandings to which people of this age might tend, until you point them out and explain them. I’m not sure I could find them if I tried without your help.

    Liked by 1 person

    • johnstamps2020 says:

      Hi Raina,
      First, many of these issues, misunderstandings, and questions arise from numerous conversation partners I’ve had in the past. They raised really good questions that deserved a reasonably thoughtful response.
      It’s been a good theological exercise and yes, even a spiritual exercise, to be forced to think along with St Athanasius.
      Second, how weird and theologically significant it is that the crucified and risen Jesus takes His body with Him in the ascension to sit at the Father’s right hand. The marks of the cross now define Who Jesus Is.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Tom says:

    John, your first and second points:

    “First, when St Athanasius says the Logos takes to Himself a body-as-an-instrument, he doesn’t mean this body is an external appendage to Him…
    “Second, when we speak about the God Word’s incarnation, we don’t mean He puts on a Yeshua suit. The body of the Logos is not extrinsic, external, or extraneous to Him.”

    Can you clarify the difference between these? Looks to me like they make the same point.

    Liked by 1 person

    • johnstamps2020 says:

      Hi Tom,
      As you noticed, they really are the same point – 1a and 1b. But right out of the chute I needed to deal with the “space-suit-christology” objection to St Athanasius. If I didn’t get my first point substantially correct, the rest of the article falls apart IMO.

      And just this weekend at a family reunion, I had opportunity to witness close at hand a group of truly talented musicians, both singers and instrumentalists. Their bodies really are their instruments.

      And now that I’m thinking about it, I am really just repeating the same argument 5 different ways.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. TJF says:

    RPC Hanson also seems to slander Athanasius character in that gigantic book as well. I’m not sure if what he wrote is true or not, but I’m disinclined to believe it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • johnstamps2020 says:

      If you don’t like RPC Hanson, you really wouldn’t like TJ Barnes. He compares St Athanasius to a “mafia gangster.” I do think St Athanasius was a pretty tough customer. For what it’s worth, St Athanasius was actually one of the few Christian leaders that Edward Gibbon in his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” actually admired. “Athanasius displayed a superiority of character and abilities which would have qualified him, far better than the degenerate sons of Constantine, for the government of a great monarchy.”
      My favorite book about St Athanasius is The Holy Fire by Robert Payne. It’s a rollicking good read.


  4. DBH says:

    Actually, I could not disagree mre.

    I think that Athanasius, to the degree that he had a clear Christology, was in fact more or less an Apollinarian. Perhaps, had he lived later, he would have thought the language through in a more Cappadocian way–or maybe not. Whatever the case, I don’t think the defense offered here really succeeds, and neither do I think it necessary.

    For one thing, at that point in Alexandrian theology, I think it’s clear that the actual “immanence” of the Logos was not particularly well worked out–not by Athanasius or anyone else. The Logos was still understood as God in the mediating form of world creator and governor; the non-composite omnipresence of the Logos does not dispel the reality of the Word-Body Christology that Athanasius pretty obviously did advance. But so what? He lived before Christology became the matter of serious debate it would in later decades and centuries, and there is no need to “defend” him by imposing the theological grammar of a later, more developed perspective on his thought.


    • DBH says:

      Another way of saying this is that, while the resources of a fuller Christology are all present in the thought of Athanasius (you’re right about that, John), it would be the work of later generations to effect the actual synthesis.

      And I think the evidence is there in the very absence of evidence, and the amount of work you need to put into connecting dots: had Athanasius not meant something along the lines of an Apollinarian picture, he would have had the presence of mind to make explicit what he did mean.


      • TJF says:

        Somewhat related, but a little off topic– What do you think of the introduction of HTM translation of St. Isaac’s 1st set of homilies. They spend over 100 pages arguing that he is quite Orthodox. Do you think that runs in the same vein of trying to force an earlier thinker of a different part of the world into later and geographically different paradigms after the fact in order to satisfy some hunger for being actually part of the one true faith? Misguided at best?

        Liked by 1 person

    • johnstamps2020 says:

      Hi David,
      I don’t see any passages in Contra Gentes or De Incarnatione that can be construed as Apollinarian. St Athanasius doesn’t discuss Jesus’ soul or His mind.

      Well, there is DI §17. Here he talks about the omnipresence of the Logos, even inside an all-too-human body. Then he describes how the human soul functions in us, but as a dis-analogy of the incarnation. Our soul looks around but can’t act on anything without the body. Our soul is stuck to our body.

      Not so the Logos. The Logos dwelling in His very own body is not bound to the body, like our soul is bound to our body. Like I said – it’s a dis-analogy. “But not such was the Word of God in the human being.” There are many puzzling things in this section. But not Apollinarian issues. The analogy is that there is no analogy. The human body/soul connection is not a good analogy to describe the embodiment of the Logos. St Athanasius comes right out and says it.

      To go further, St Athanasius does not say that the Logos replaces the mind or soul in the body. Did Jesus have a human soul or a human mind or a human will? St Athanasius didn’t say. He does insist quite vociferously that He had a genuine human body.

      “The evidence is there in the very absence of evidence” is the whole problem. Apollinarius jumped to an un-wanted and un-necessary conclusion because St Athanasius didn’t map out where the Logos resided inside His own body. But how could he? The Logos despite His embodiment is still omnipresent and doing all manner of wonderful deeds, on St Athanasius’ reading. The omnipresent Logos doesn’t displace or replace anything.

      I’m not trying to be obtuse here. The conclusions that Apollinarius drew were wrong. They were not based on what St Athanasius said or, almost as important, on what he did not say.

      P.S. I’m trying very hard to connect dots because strong misreadings (e.g. RPC Hanson) are difficult to counter-act, neutralize, and correct without even stronger, more plausible readings.


  5. DBH says:

    You yourself have provided many of the quotations that indicate the basic Logos-Sarx Christology he presumed. Nowhere does he affirm a human mind or soul in Jesus. All the evidence is that he presumed a Christology much like that of his friend Apollinaris. Your argument is an attempt to read a later orthodoxy into a thinker who never once, on any occasion, espouses that orthodoxy. At most, you are exploiting vagaries and silences to argue against the preponderant evidence. Moreover, Apollinaris was no less a believer in the ubiquity of the Logos than was Athanasius. That is a truth everyone in the later Christological disputes presumed also. And no one doubted the complete divinity of Jesus. What makes for a complete Christology in accord with later orthodoxy is an explicit and systematic insistence on his total humanity (that is the issue, after all). That is conspicuously missing in Athanasius’s thought. And what is there suggests quite the opposite. I understand why you want to make this argument, but it just doesn’t wash. And, again, it’s unnecessary.

    Liked by 1 person

    • johnstamps2020 says:

      Hi David,
      Not to put too fine of a point on the discussion, but there is not a Logos-Sarx Christology in De Incarnatione. St Athanasius doesn’t really talk much about the “flesh” of the Logos.

      On the other hand, he does go into great detail about the body of the Logos. I would call this a Logos-Soma Christology, just to keep my terms straight. The Logos takes for Himself a body for His very own.

      So if we then asked St Athanasius, what does this Logos-Soma Christology look like? The first thing he’d say is, I can tell you one thing. It doesn’t look like the relationship between the human soul-body. He begins with an apophatic qualification:

      “It is the function of the soul to see by reasoning even what is outside its own body, without however acting outside its own body or to move things distant from the body by its presence. Never, that is, does a human being by thinking of things at a distance thereby move or displace them. Nor, if one sat in his own home and considered considered the things in heaven, would he thereby move the sun or rotate the heavens. But he sees them moving and existing, whilst not being able to act upon them. But such was not the case for the Word of God in the human being; for he was not bound to the body, but rather was himself wielding it, so that he was both in it and in everything, and was outside everything, and at rest in the Father alone.” (DI §17)

      You cannot map the human Logos-Soma to the human soul-body 1:1. That’s how I read this paragraph.

      But then if we pressed St Athanasius to tell us what the relationship between the Logos and the Soma is, he’d say, OK, I’ll tell you what it’s like.
      – It’s like God dwelling inside His temple. Except the temple is the womb of the Virgin Mary. (DI §8)

      No, I need a better example.
      OK, how about this?
      – It’s like that Tolkien book where Aragorn enters Minis Tirith and takes possession of His rightful city.

      You mean, Return of the King? The Logos is Aragorn, heir of Isildur, King of Gondor?

      Yes, that’s right. The Logos comes into our realm and dwells in a body just like ours. (DI §9-10) The great king has entered a large city and made his dwelling in one of its houses. This city is now worthy of great honor. “This great work supremely befitted the goodness of God.”

      But those analogies don’t tell us the relationship between the Logos and the Soma.

      Sure they do. The body is His instrument to defeat death by death and save all humanity from corruption.

      OK, but those analogies don’t tell us whether the Logos replaces the soul or the mind in His embodiment.

      You’re right. They don’t. I’m not interested in the psychology or the composition of the Logos-Soma. I’m interested in what the body-as-instrument of the Logos accomplishes for our salvation.

      That’s how I understand the actual argument in De Incarnatione. Aloys Grillmeier’s Logos-Sarx narrative makes a hash of St Athanasius’s actual points. He foists an interpretive grid on De Incarnatione that doesn’t yield any actual insight into the text we’re reading.



      • DBH says:

        Yes. I get it. Repeating it doesn’t make it more persuasive to me, however. No one is disputing the richness of Athanasius’s language about Christ or about the Logos. But there’s nothing in that language that would have contradicted Apollinaris’s view. Or the views of any party in the later Christology debates. The question is whether Athanasius believed in the full humanity of Christ in the terms developed in later theology—a human soul, mind, will, etc.

        Athanasius’s Christology was for all intents and purposes Apollinarian. For him the preexistent person of the Logos became human by assuming a human body. And it’s anachronistic to argue otherwise Remember, Origen was said (perhaps inaccurately) to have taught that the Logos united itself to a preexistent human soul before assuming flesh, ultimately to the point of fusion. At the time of Athanasius’s writings, talk of Jesus having a human soul or intellect would have seemed to most persons to serve that sort of picture.

        Admittedly, talk of a space suit Christology is crude. It’s unfair to Apollinaris too (see Bulgakov on Apollinaris). But the denial that Athanasius understood Christ’s humanity as the Logos’s assumption of a human body (and nothing else) is a refusal to recognize the obvious. That was simply the best version available of the status quaestionis.

        Liked by 1 person

        • apoorcatinstasis says:

          David (or anyone else who feels inclined to respond) this is not so much a contribution to the present conversation as a question about Apollinaris (and about Bulgakov’s reading of his Christology). I’m still very much a theological amateur, so I don’t understand the complexity of the issues in the development of Christology. That said, I have never been able to understand what it might mean to say that Christ had a human mind (if by that one means nous, rather than psyche).

          My problem is that I simply cannot see how one can meaningfully think of mind in this sense as separate from an active centre of noetic “consciousness” for want of a better word.

          Admittedly, I am approaching this issue from a familiarity with Aristotle, so perhaps there were resources in later antiquity to deal with the issues in a way that is not evident to me. But if we stick with Aristotle, it seems that we can speak about different levels of psyche, some of which can indeed be separated from a centre of cognitive activity. For instance, the vegetative soul can be conceptualised as a sphere of formative activity that governs the growth of a plant so that it stays within the limits imposed by its species form. Here we have form, indeed potentially intelligible form, but nevertheless a form that, at least at the level of the plant itself (rather than human knowledge of it) presupposes neither sentience, discursive reason, nor something like intellectual intuition.

          Even in the case of animals, some of what Aristotle says (for instance the idea that animals imitate the unity of the species form by means of reproduction, rather then poetically grasping it, as human beings can, and the divine Nous does) seems to suggest what one might tentatively called personhood or subjectivity is not present here, as it is in human beings. Interestingly, unless I have completely misunderstood him, Bulgakov seems to suggest in Jacob’s Ladder that angels may be the subjects of animal (and perhaps plant species), and that in this sense the full personal being of animals is not incarnated (it is not present at the sensible, or psychic level).

          When one gets to nous, however, it seems that it cannot be understood merely as a sphere of anonymous noetic objects, but primarily as the act of understanding those objects. To put it in very loose metaphorical terms: the plant is like a book that incarnates form and is potentially intelligible, the animal is like a book that, depending on the animal’s complexity approaches ever closer to active intelligibility but is still somewhat dream like, while the the human being, as a noetic being, is like the one reading the book, even when that book is their own composite being, which includes life and sentience. At this level, it becomes difficult to understand how there can be numerically distinct noes (if that is the correct plural form of nous). Indeed, I’m inclined to doubt that Aristotle believed each human being has their own nous. For me, the difficulty in understanding Aristotle on this point has always been that, on the one hand, it is not clear how nous itself could be individualised, while on the other hand, it seems that as active it must in some sense be individual, unified and, as it were, primarily noetic rather than noematic.

          I apologise for this long detour, but it provides the context for my question. If, as Bulgakov seems to argue, Apollinaris denied to Christ not a human psyche, but a human nous, and if nous cannot be separated from some notion of cognitive personhood/subjectivity (however much it might differ from modern conceptions), how does later Christology manage to speak of Christ having two minds? Does Christ having a human mind mean that Christ has a human nous, or a human psyche? If the former, how can this avoid implying that in Christ there were two noetic centres, even, in a sense, two persons or subjects?

          Liked by 1 person

          • M. Robbins says:

            Apollinaris was working within a Platonic separation of qualities—sarx, psyche, nous—which presumes a distinction between soul & spirit. “Mind” here is nous or spirit. No one disputed that he had a human body; the question was, to put it crudely, where the divinity comes in. Later tradition established that, indeed, Christ has two natures, neither subordinate to the other, but united. So, in a sense, yes, he possesses both human & divine nous, but they are one, not two. How so? This is one of the mysteries.


        • DBH, quick question: Granting that Universal Salvation is true, would you say that this also entails a fairly hardline Antinomianism and Pluralism? To put it as a yes/no: would you consider it absolutely necessary for a person to be sacramentally and validly baptised before they can enter into salvation? How do you understand extra ecclesiam nulla salus?

          As a point of comparison, I personally go with:

          firstly, a Jenson-esque antinomian sola fide where the election/predestination of every individual soul was unconditionally secured by the perfect qurban of Christ (ie the obedient/sinless life he offered up as an Oblation to the Father, and by which he assumes the entire creation “ex nihilo in Deum”). This promise of unconditional election is proclaimed by believers to the world with word and sacrament.
          Secondly, I understand that the very possibility of endless and infinite damnation for any soul was once-and-for-all abolished by the simultaneous substitutionary, expiatory, propitiatory immolation of Christ Kenotically dying on the Cross and descending to the deepest depths of Gehenna (which is basically an “inverted qurban”: exitus Christi ab Deo in infernum). Paraphrasing something you’ve written: God has already gone infinitely further into Hell than any of us as finite creatures can go, so that we don’t have to.
          Finally, I answer “what must I do to be saved” with a synergistic demand for utter moral perfection (Think Jain-level ahiṃsā), and if you don’t get it right in this iteration of Saṃsāra you can keep trying and improving in subsequent iterations.

          Liked by 1 person

          • M. Robbins says:

            If there is salvation, it is not reserved for Christians alone. I know David feels the same.


          • johnstamps2020 says:

            Hey wait a minute, Iron Knuckle, are you hijacking my St Athanasius post to ask DBH a Universalism question? Give me my own chance to deal with the universal effects of Christ’s salvation in St Athanasius in a few weeks. I’ve titled it (tentatively), “It’ll all pan out in the end.” (based on his use of πᾶς and παν) The title might be too clever by far. But it’s all there in St Athanasius.

            OTOH, it’s a virtual certainty I won’t touch Jain-level ahiṃsā with a 10-foot pole.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Also, I have to do an article review of “Universalism and Predestinarianism: A Critique of the Theological Anthropology that Undergirds Catholic Universalist Eschatology” by Joshua R. Brotherton in “Theological Studies 2016, Vol. 77(3) 603­–626”

            Just stumbled across this footnote which claims to demolish universalism:

            While the form of predestination theory confronted most directly in this essay is the neo-
            Bañezian (or traditional Augustinian-Thomistic), the definition of “predestinarianism” here
            and the criticism of Balthasar’s conceptualization of the finite–infinite freedom relationship
            applies equally to those who would hold the modified Molinist (or Suarezian) view that is
            sometimes called “congruism” as well as the Scotist view sometimes called “moral premo-
            tion.” The notion that, provided the right circumstances, finite freedom inevitably yields to
            the persuasive powers of infinite freedom is demonstrably fallacious. In fact, in order for
            finite freedom’s potential for rejecting grace definitively to be real, it must be actualized,
            given infinite time, unless infinite freedom prevents such actualization. Hence, circum-
            stances and finite graces cannot make it inevitable for finite freedom to accept divine grace
            definitively, but if the grace offered is not (ordinarily) infallible, it must fructify only where
            the potential for definitive resistance to it is not actualized; thus, for finite freedom to be
            taken seriously, it must be afforded only a finite amount of time to resist grace definitively
            or not. It is also most fitting and most in accord with Christian tradition (in opposition to the
            pagan notion of reincarnation) for this finite amount of time to coincide with one’s earthly
            life, culminating in the existential moment of metaphysical death. On the latter point, see
            my forthcoming article, “The Possibility of Universal Conversion in Death: Temporality,
            Annihilation, and Grace,” Modern Theology, forthcoming, doi: 10.1111/moth.12255.

            Unfortunately I can’t make heads or tails of it. I suspect it’s another case of someone twisting logic as far as possible in an attempt scrape the bottom of the “apologetics for Hell” barrel. DBH, are you able to follow what he’s trying to argue? I can’t work it out.


          • oops sorry john, i thought this was another post XD (I get email notifcations for comments and basically just searched for the most recent one by DBH to ask him my question)

            I don’t have any deep analysis to offer on your post except that I’ve really enjoyed reading the series over the past months! Looking forward to the upcoming universalism one 🙂


          • DBH says:

            John is right, you’re invading his comboxes.

            What M Robbins said.

            Liked by 2 people

          • johnstamps2020 says:

            I don’t care, David. Honestly. And I hope to make my own contribution to St Athanasius and universalism in a few weeks, God willing. This particular path is well-trodden. But I was delighted to see it so clearly spelled out in De Incarnatione.


          • DBH says:

            All right, then.

            As for the quote from Brotherton–beside being so extravagantly badly written as to call the entire educational system of the Western world into question–the reasoning is silly. It assumes that the issue is the divine supply of finite and therefore potentially defectible graces to a finite nature not necessarily, in a given limited context, disposed to them. I assume he means created graces at that. Well, sure, if God does no more than toss you a lifeline when you happen to be out of reach of the line, with your eyes turned in some other direction, while an anchor is attached to your ankle, then indeed God’s “freedom” does not guarantee that your “freedom” will yield to his will.

            But the true issue is altogether different, and very simple: it is whether, if God reveals himself in his true nature to a rational will graciously set free from every encumbrance of intellect, will, and knowledge, that rational will could freely elect any other end than the one sole Good that it solely and essentially desires by nature, and that alone can fulfill it as the creature it is. The answer is, of course, no. Thus, to the degree that God does not “drag” the creature to himself by freeing the creature from those encumbrances, to that very degree: a) the creature is enslaved to sin, as the Gospel of John says, and so never really free, and b) God is evil, in both his antecedent and his consequent willing (as per my Meditation One).

            And the rubbish about the necessity of finite time being a necessary condition for a truly finite willing is arbitrary nonsense–and would be even in an ideal world, quite unlike the hellish half-creation we currently inhabit. Even if the real possibility for a real choice for God were vouchsafed to all of us in this life (both physically and morally) we would remain finite agents even across a span of indeterminate ages. The finite will is not “taken seriously” only when it is allowed to operate within the constraints of our terrestrial lifetimes (especially when our lifetimes are lived under the conditions of the death-bound cosmos). Moreover, the premise is false. The rational will is finite only in the sense of being created ex nihilo within the conditions of finite selves; but in its intentionality it is necessarily infinite, as Nicholas of Cusa argued, because no rational operation is possible that does not have the entirety of the divine nature as its sole final causality; its final causality is naturally supernatural, innately infinite, and so no hindrance to union with God to which it might fall subject could be anything other than an unnatural and therefore unjust limitation of what, by nature, is limitless.

            Anyway, Brotherton’s argument isn’t serious reasoning at all. It’s empty blather, whose sole purpose is to justify an infinitely unjustifiable belief. It’s quite literally embarrassing the lengths to which one must go to defend an idea that plainly subverts all moral rationality. In the end, the picture it provides is of some banal game of chance in which the rules are incomprehensible, the dice are fixed, and the stakes are infinite.

            Ignore Brotherton. Even his writings on Lonergan.

            Liked by 3 people

  6. John H says:

    Iron Knuckle;

    Given your interest in Brotherton, I am assuming that you are also a nominal Catholic like myself. So while I agree with what DBH wrote above regarding the incomprehensible nature of both Brotherton’s prose and his notion of human finite freedom, I would just add that he is challenging the views of two of the twentieth centuries greatest Catholic theologians: Karl Rahner and Hans Urs Von Balthasar. So if you wish to critique Brotherton, focus on defending Balthasar and Rahner.

    Firstly, Brotherton is surely incorrect when he alleges that Balthasar was a predestinarian. If that is the case, than why did Balthasar merely hope for the salvation of all? Would not God’s unconditional election of all to eternal life necessarily guarantee universal salvation? But Balthasar goes out of his way to distance himself from the confident universalism of both Origen and his mentor, Karl Barth.

    Secondly and most importantly, Brotherton reduces God’s provident will to the realm of secondary causality when he claims that human beings may definitively reject God’s grace. The two are simply not on the same level, which is why Rahner is surely correct when he maintains that God’s yes is not equivalent to man’s no. For a concise and beautiful statement of that principle, I would refer you to the Edith Stein quote where she maintains that God’s infinite resourcefulness will surely outwit the limited resources of human negation.

    Sorry for the digression from the main topic John. I am enjoying these posts on De Incarnatione and eagerly await your article on Athanasius’ universalism.

    Liked by 2 people

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