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On the Incarnation

In Athanasius’ work, the first 5 sections discuss creation and the fall of man. In the text, we are reminded of the God’s only prohibition and the result of ignoring such an edict from God.

Section 3

“First of all believe that God is one, which created and framed all things, and made them to exist out of nothing.” 2. To which also Paul refers when he says, “By faith we understand that the worlds have been framed by the Word of God, so that what is seen hath not been made out of things which do appear.” 3. For God is good, or rather is essentially the source of goodness: nor could one that is good be niggardly of anything: whence, grudging existence to none, He has made all things out of nothing by His own Word, Jesus Christ our Lord… and He did not barely create man, as He did all the irrational creatures on the earth, but made them after His own image, giving them a portion even of the power of His own Word; so that having as it were a kind of reflexion of the Word, and being made rational, they might be able to abide ever in blessedness, living the true life which belongs to the saints in paradise. 4. But knowing once more how the will of man could sway to either side, in anticipation He secured the grace given them by a law and by the spot where He placed them. For He brought them into His own garden, and gave them a law: so that, if they kept the grace and remained good, they might still keep the life in paradise without sorrow or pain or care, besides having the promise of incorruption in heaven; but that if they transgressed and turned back, and became evil, they might know that they were incurring that corruption in death which was theirs by nature: no longer to live in paradise, but cast out of it from that time forth to die and to abide in death and in corruption.[1]

 Section 5

 Here, St. Athanasius reminds us, that by committing this sin against God by ignoring his edict, we, in fact, lost existence with God being cast out of the garden by inventing wickedness

as Wisdom also says: “God made man for incorruption, and as an image of His own eternity; but by envy of the devil death came into the world.” But when this was come to pass, men began to die, while corruption thence-forward prevailed against them… having to begin with been inventors of wickedness and called down upon themselves death and corruption; while later on, having turned aside to wrong and exceeding all lawlessness, and stopping at no one evil but devising all manner of new evils in succession, they have become insatiable in sinning[2]

However, in sections six through ten, St. Athanasius explains God’s resolution for the salvation of humanity. He explains, in section six, that he cannot go back on his word in Genesis, in regards to his prohibition, humanity must die; however, if God were to leave his creation as thus it would show God to be limited in his own nature.[3]

It is in section six of On The Incarnation that we come to a theological crossroads between St. Athanasius and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Arguably, the greatest thinker, philosopher, and theologian of the Catholic Church, St. Thomas Aquinas argues for a theological position which is in contradiction with St. Athanasius work in On the Incarnation about the necessity of The Word becoming flesh. In the Summa, St. Thomas remarks that the Incarnation is not necessary, but fitting; however, in On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius, by explaining that God cannot go back on his word in Genesis, there is only one fitting method for deification or theosis of humanity in salvation history. For all practical purposes, as I’ve quoted both sources, they appear contradictory, as I would assume St. Thomas would agree with the Aristotelian law of non-contradiction, only one explanation can be correct.

In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas writes:

“Second Article

Whether it was necessary for the restoration of the human race that the word of god should become incarnate?

We proceed thus to the Second Article:

Objection 1. It seems that it was not necessary for the reparation of the human race that the Word of God should become incarnate. For since the Word of God is perfect God, as has been said (I., Q. IV., AA. 1 and 2), no power was added to Him by the assumption of flesh. Therefore, if the incarnate Word of God restored human nature, He could also have restored it without assuming flesh.

Obj. 2. Further, for the restoration of human nature, which had fallen through sin, nothing more is required than that man should satisfy for sin. Now man can satisfy, as it would seem, for sin; for God cannot require from man more than man can do, and since He is more inclined to be merciful than to punish, as He lays the act of sin to man’s charge, so He ought to credit him with the contrary act. Therefore it was not necessary for the restoration of human nature that the Word of God should become incarnate.

Obj. 3. Further, to revere God pertains especially to man’s salvation; hence it is written (Mal. 1:6): If, then, I be a father, where is my honour? and if I be a master, where is my fear? But men revere God the more by considering Him as elevated above all, and far beyond man’s senses, hence (Ps. 112:4) it is written: The Lord is high above all nations, and His glory above the heavens; and farther on: Who is as the Lord our God? which pertains to reverence. Therefore it would seem unfitting to man’s salvation that God should be made like unto us by assuming flesh.

On the contrary, What frees the human race from perdition is necessary for the salvation of man. But the mystery of the Incarnation is such; according to John 3:16: God so loved the world as to give His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him may not perish, but may have life everlasting. Therefore it was necessary for man’s salvation that God should become incarnate.

I answer that, A thing is said to be necessary for a certain end in two ways. First, when the end cannot be without it; as food is necessary for the preservation of human life. Secondly, when the end is attained better and more conveniently, as a horse is necessary for a journey. In the first way it was not necessary that God should become incarnate for the restoration of human nature. For God of His omnipotent power could have restored human nature in many other ways. But in the second way it was necessary that God should become incarnate for the restoration of human nature. Hence Augustine says (De Trin. xiii.): We shall also show that other ways were not wanting to God, to Whose power all things are equally subject; but that there was not a more fitting way of healing our misery.[4]

St. Thomas is correct that the omnipotent eternal God can choose whatever course for salvation; however, what it appears that St. Thomas fails to realize that it wouldn’t be possible for God though to chose a course that would contradict He that is logic. Athanasius reminds us that necessity of the Incarnation in six section of the Incarnation by stating:

For this cause, then, death having gained upon men, and corruption abiding upon them, the race of man was perishing; the rational man made in God’s image was disappearing, and the handiwork of God was in process of dissolution. 2. For death, as I said above, gained from that time forth a legal hold over us, and it was impossible to evade the law, since it had been laid down by God because3 of the transgression, and the result was in truth at once monstrous and unseemly. 3. For it were monstrous, firstly, that God, having spoken, should prove false—that, when once He had ordained that man, if he transgressed the commandment, should die the death, after the transgression man should not die, but God’s word should be broken. For God would not be true, if, when He had said we should die, man died not. 4. Again, it were unseemly that creatures once made rational, and having partaken of the Word, should go to ruin, and turn again toward non-existence by the way of corruption. 5. For it were not worthy of God’s goodness that the things He had made should waste away, because of the deceit practised on men by the devil. Especially it was unseemly to the last degree that God’s handicraft among men should be done away, either because of their own carelessness, or because of the deceitfulness of evil spirits.”[5]

Now and again, I’ll hear atheist come up with a question in an attempt to stump Christians. Two examples: “Could your all-powerful God create a rock that he could not lift?” or “Could God make a square a triangle?” These ideas by their nature violate the very foundation of reason because God could not possibly make a square a triangle for it would lose its essence of being a square. It’s also an illogical proposition for the idea of God to create an immovable rock for it would violate the essence of an omnipotent God. At the same time, the necessity of the Incarnation becomes apparent because of mankind, by the words of God, as stated by the first Doctor of the Church, St. Athanasius, must be sentenced to the penalty of death. Man must die.

However, in accord to salvation, in section nine, St. Athanasius writes so beautifully the purpose and necessity of Christ’s incarnation in fulfillment of His divine plan explaining that because man must die and the Word cannot die, the Word becomes true flesh:

He takes to Himself a body capable of death, that it, by partaking of the Word Who is above all, might be worthy to die in the stead of all, and might, because of the Word which was come to dwell in it, remain incorruptible, and that thenceforth corruption might be stayed from all by the Grace of the Resurrection. Whence, by offering unto death the body He Himself had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from any stain, straightway He put away death from all His peers by the offering of an equivalent. 2. For being over all, the Word of God naturally by offering His own temple and corporeal instrument for the life of all satisfied the debt by His death. And thus He, the incorruptible Son of God,[6]

 It’s important to remember St. Athanasius’ story in our own current time. When the culture demands that our faith change and “get with the times.” In fact, many of our own bishops, priests, and fellow laymen may side against the orthodoxy of our own faith just as many emperors, bishops, and fellow Christians of Athanasius’ time sided with Arius.

[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, “On the Incarnation of the Word,” in St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Archibald T. Robertson, vol. 4, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1892), 37–38.

[2] Ibid, 39.

[3] On the Incarnation, 6.

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, n.d.).

[5] Athanasius of Alexandria, “On the Incarnation of the Word,” in St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Archibald T. Robertson, vol. 4, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1892), 39.

[6] On The Incarnation, 9