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.
 Of course Josephus could be just using ironic understatement (litotes).
 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)
 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.
 The Testament of Jesus: A Study of the Gospel of John in the Light of Chapter 17, page 65.
 R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381, page 448.
 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.
 Thomas Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction, page 47.
 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.
 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)
 Oddly, while St Athanasius quotes Hebrews quite numerous times, he doesn’t quote this passage in De Incarnatione.
 Khaled Anatolios, “‘The Body as Instrument’: a Reevaluation of Athanasius’s Logos-sarx Christology.” Coptic Church Review (1997), page 82.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.”
 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).
 As eloquently argued by David Bentley Hart in The Beauty of the Infinite, pages 355-357.
 St Athanasius doesn’t state my conclusion quite so bluntly.
 Khaled Anatolios, “‘The Body as Instrument’: a Reevaluation of Athanasius’s Logos-sarx Christology,” Coptic Church Review (1997), page 83.