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On The Incarnation

by: St. Athanasius

Athanasius wrote De Incarnatione (On the Incarnation) about 318 before Arianism had begun to make itself felt, but the work shows his genius as well as his faith which shaped the Nicaean Creed. C.S. Lewis has written a famous preface which can be found in the Popular Patristics edition in which he says, “When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered I was reading a masterpiece… For only a master mind could have written so deeply on a subject with such classic simplicity.”

The Divine Dilemma regarding Life and Death

The making of the world and the creation of all things have been taken differently by many, and each has propounded as each has wished. Some say that all things have come into being spontane­ously and as by chance, such as the Epicureans who, according to themselves, fantasize that there is no providence over the universe, speaking in the face of the clear and apparent facts. For if all things came into being spontaneously without providence, as they claim, all things would necessarily have simply come into being and be identical and without difference. Everything would have been as a single body, sun or moon, and regarding human beings, the whole would have been a hand or eye or foot. But, now, this is not the case: we see, here, the sun, there the moon, there the earth; and again regarding human bodies, here a foot, there a hand, and there a head. Such order indicates that they did not come into being spontaneously, but shows that a cause preceded them, from which one can apprehend the God who ordered and created all things.

Others, amongst whom is Plato, that giant among the Greeks, declare that God made the universe from preexistent and uncreated matter, as God is not able to make anything unless matter preexisted, just as a carpenter must already have wood so that it may be used. They do not realize that saying such things is to impute weakness to God: for if he is not himself the cause of matter, but simply makes things from pre-existent matter, then he is weak, not being able with­out matter to fashion any of the things that exist, just as the weakness of the carpenter is certainly his inability to make any required thing without wood. According to the argument, unless there were mat­ter, God would not have made anything. How would he then still be called “Maker” and “Creator:” if he had his ability to make from something else, I mean from the matter? And if this is so, as they thus have it, according to them God is only a craftsman and not the Creator of being, if he fashions underlying matter but is not himself the cause of matter. He could in no way be called “Creator;” if he does not create matter, from which created things come into being.

Others, again, from the heretics fabricate for themselves another creator of all things besides the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, being greatly blinded even in what they say. For the Lord said to the Jews, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and will cleave to his wife, and the two will be one flesh.’” Then, referring to the Creator, he says, “What God has put together, let not man put asunder”(Matt 19:4-6). How then do they introduce a creation alien to the Father? For if, according to John, encompassing all things in saying, “all things were made by him and without him was nothing made”(John 1:3), how could there be another creator besides the Father of Christ?

These things, then, they fantasize. But the inspired teaching and faith according to Christ casts out their vain talk as godlessness. For it knows that neither spontaneously, as it is not without providence, nor from pre-existent matter, as God is not weak, but from nothing and having absolutely no existence God brought the universe into being through the Word, which it says through Moses, “In the beginning God made heaven and earth” (Gen 1:1), and through that most useful book of the Shepherd, “First of all believe that God is one, who created and framed all things, and made them from non-existence into being:”1 as also Paul indicates when he says, “By faith we under­stand that the worlds were framed by the Word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which appear” (Heb 11:3). For God is good, or rather the source of all goodness, and one who is good grudges nothing, so that grudging nothing its existence, he made all things through his own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. Among these things, of all things upon earth he had mercy upon the human race, and seeing that by the principle of its own coming into being it would not be able to endure eternally, he granted them a further gift, creat­ing human beings not simply like all the irrational animals upon the earth but making them according to his own image (cf. Gen 1:27), giving them a share of the power of his own Word, so that having as it were shadows of the Word and being made rational, they might be able to abide in blessedness, living the true life which is really that of the holy ones in paradise. And knowing again that free choice of human beings could turn either way, he secured beforehand, by a law and a set place, the grace given. For bringing them into his own paradise, he gave them a law, so that if they guarded the grace and remained good, they might have the life of paradise—without sorrow, pain, or care—besides having the promise of their incor­ruptibility in heaven; but if they were to transgress and turning away become wicked, they would know themselves enduring the corruption of death according to nature, and no longer live in para­dise, but thereafter dying outside of it, would remain in death and in corruption. This also the Divine Scripture foretells, speaking in the person of God, “You may eat from all the trees in paradise; from the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat. On the day you eat of it, you shall die by death” (Gen 2:16-18). This “you shall die by death;” what else might it be except not merely to die, but to remain in the corruption of death?

“You may eat from all the trees in paradise; from the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat. On the day you eat of it, you shall die by death” (Gen 2:16-18)

Perhaps you are wondering for what reason, having proposed to talk about the Incarnation of the Word, we are now expounding the origin of human beings. Yet this too is not distinct from the aim of our exposition. For speaking of the manifestation of the Savior to us, it is necessary also to speak of the origin of human beings, in order that you might know that our own cause was the occasion of his descent and that our own transgression evoked the Word's love for human beings, so that the Lord both came to us and appeared among human beings. For we were the purpose of his embodiment, and for our salvation he so loved human beings as to come to be and appear in a human body. Thus, then, God created the human being and willed that he should abide in incorruptibility; but when humans despised and overturned the comprehension of God, devising and contriving evil for themselves, as was said in the first work, then they received the previously threatened condemnation of death, and thereafter no longer remained as they had been created, but were corrupted as they had contrived; and, seizing them, death reigned. For the transgression of the commandment returned them to the natural state, so that, just as they, not being, came to be, so also they might rightly endure in time the corruption unto non-being. For if, having a nature that did not once exist, they were called into exis­tence by the Word's advent [parousia] and love for human beings, it followed that when human beings were bereft of the knowledge of God and had turned to things which exist not—evil is non-being, the good is being, since it has come into being from the existing God—then they were bereft also of eternal being. But this, being decomposed, is to remain in death and corruption. For the human being is by nature mortal, having come into being from nothing. But because of his likeness to the One who Is, which, if he had guarded through his comprehension of him, would have blunted his natural corruption, he would have remained incorruptible, just as Wisdom says. “Attention to the laws is the confirmation of incorruptibility” (Wis 6.18). And being incorruptible, he would have lived thereafter like God, as somewhere the Divine Scripture also signals, saying:

I said you are gods, and all sons of the Most High; but you die like human beings and fall like any prince" (Ps 81:6-7).

For God has not only created us from nothing, but also granted us by the grace of the Word to live a life according to God. But human beings, turning away from things eternal and by the counsel of the devil turning us towards things of corruption, were themselves the cause of corruption in death, being, as we already said, corruptible by nature but escaping their natural state by the grace of participa­tion in the Word, had they remained good. Because of the Word present in them, even natural corruption did not come near them, just as Wisdom says, “God created the human being for incorruptibil­ity and an image of his own eternity; but by the envy of the devil, death entered into the world” (Wis 2.23-4). When this happened, human beings died and corruption thenceforth prevailed against them, becoming even stronger than its natural power over the whole race, the more so as it had assumed the threat of the Deity against them through the transgression of the commandment. For even in their transgressions human beings had not stopped short of any defined limits, but gradually pressing forward they had passed beyond all measure: from the beginning they were inventors of evil and called death and corruption down upon themselves; while later, turning to vice and exceeding all lawlessness, not stopping at one evil but con­triving in time every new evil, they became insatiable in sinning. For there were adulteries and thefts everywhere, the whole earth was full of murders and plundering. There was no concern for law regarding corruption and vice; every wickedness, individually and jointly; was being carried out by all. Cities warred against cities, and nations rose up against nations; the whole world was torn apart by factions and battles, everyone competing in lawlessness. Even acts against nature were not far from them, but as the witness of Christ, the Apostle, said, “Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural; and in the same way also the men, leaving aside natural relations with women, were consumed with their desire for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due reward for their error” (Rom 1:26-27).

For these reasons, then, with death holding greater sway and corruption remaining fast against human beings, the race of humans was perishing, and the human being, made rational and in the image, was disappearing, and the work made by God was being obliterated. For as I said earlier, by the law death thereafter prevailed against us, and it was impossible to escape the law, since this had been established by God on account of the transgression. And what happened was truly both absurd and improper. It was absurd, on the one hand, that, having spoken, God should prove to be lying: that is, having legislated that the human being would die by death if he were to transgress the commandment, yet after the transgression he were not to die but rather this sentence dissolved. For God would not be true if, after saying that we would die, the human being did not die. On the other hand, it was improper that what had once been made rational and partakers of his Word should perish, and once again return to non-being through corruption. It was not worthy of the goodness of God that those created by him should be corrupted through the deceit wrought by the devil upon human beings. And it was supremely improper that the workmanship of God in human beings should disappear either through their own negligence or through the deceit of the demons.

Therefore, since the rational creatures were being corrupted and such works were perishing, what should God, being good, do? Per­mit the corruption prevailing against them and death to seize them? What need was there for their coming into being at the beginning? It was proper not to have come into being rather than to have come into being to be neglected and destroyed. The weakness, rather than the goodness, of God is made known by neglect, if, after creating, he abandoned his own work to be corrupted, rather than if he had not created the human being in the beginning. For not making him, there would have been no one considering the weakness, but once he made him and created him out of nothing, it was most absurd that his works should be destroyed, and especially before the sight of the maker. It was therefore right not to permit human beings to be carried away by corruption, because this would be improper to and unworthy of the goodness of God.

But just as this had to be, so also on the other hand the consistency of God lies against it, so that God should appear true in his legislation concerning death. For it was absurd that God, the Father of truth, should appear a liar for our profit and preservation. What then had to happen in this case or what should God do? Demand repentance from human beings for their transgression? One might say that this is worthy of God, claiming that just as they were set towards cor­ruption by the transgression, so by repentance they might again be set towards incorruptibility. But repentance would neither have pre­served the consistency of God, for he again would not have remained true if human beings were not held fast by death, nor does repentance recall human beings from what is natural, but merely halts sins. If then there were only offence and not the consequence of corruption, repentance would have been fine. But if, once the transgression had taken off, human beings were now held fast in natural corruption and were deprived of the grace of being in the image, what else needed to happen? Or who was needed for such grace and recalling except the God Word who in the beginning made the universe from non-being? For his it was once more both to bring the corruptible to incorruptibility and to save the superlative consistency of the Father. Being the Word of the Father and above all, he alone consequently was both able to recreate the universe and was worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to intercede for all before the Father.

For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God comes into our realm, although he was not formerly distant. For no part of creation is left void of him; while abiding with his Own Father, he has filled all things in every place. But now he comes, condescending towards us in his love for human beings and his manifestation. For seeing the rational race perishing, and death reigning over them through corruption, and seeing also the threat of the transgression giving firm hold to the corruption which was upon us, and that it was absurd for the law to be dissolved before being fulfilled, and seeing the impropriety in what had happened, that the very things of which he himself was the Creator were disappearing, and seeing the excessive wickedness of human beings, that they gradually increased it to an intolerable pitch against themselves, and seeing the liability of all human beings to death—having mercy upon our race, and having pity upon our weakness, and condescending to our corruption, and not enduring the dominion of death, lest what had been created should perish and the work of the Father himself for human beings should be in vain, he takes for himself a body and that not foreign to our own. For he did not wish simply to be in a body, nor did he wish merely to appear, for if he had wished only to appear he could have made his divine manifestation through some other better means. But he takes that which is ours, and that not simply, but from a spotless and stain­less virgin, ignorant of man, pure and unmixed from intercourse with men. Although being himself powerful and the creator of the universe, he prepared for himself in the Virgin the body as a temple, and made it his own, as an instrument, making himself known and dwelling in it. And thus, taking from ours that which is like, since all were liable to the corruption of death, delivering it over to death on behalf of all, he offered it to the Father, doing this in his love for human beings, so that, on the one hand, with all dying in him the law concerning corruption in human beings might be undone (its power being fully expended in the lordly body and no longer having any ground against similar human beings), and, on the other hand, that as human beings had turned towards corruption he might turn them again to incorruptibility and give them life from death, by making the body his own and by the grace of the resurrection banishing death from them as straw from the fire.

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, in order that it, participating in the Word who is above all, might be sufficient for death on behalf of all, and through the indwelling Word would remain incorruptible, and so corruption might henceforth cease from all by the grace of the resurrection. 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 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. And now the very corruption of death no longer holds ground against human beings because of the indwelling Word, in them through the one body. As when a great king has entered some large city and made his dwelling in one of the houses in it, such a city is certainly made worthy of high honor, and no longer does any enemy or bandit descend upon it, but it is rather reckoned worthy of all care because of the king's having taken residence in one of its houses; so also does it happen with the King of all. Coming himself into our realm, and dwelling in a body like the others, every design of the enemy against human beings has henceforth ceased, and the corruption of death, which had prevailed formerly against them, perished. For the race of human beings would have been utterly dis­solved had not the Master and Savior of all, the Son of God, come for the completion of death.

Truly this great work supremely befitted the goodness of God. For if a king constructed a house or a city, and it is attacked by bandits because of the carelessness of its inhabitants, he in no way abandons it, but avenges and saves it as his own work, having regard not for the carelessness of the inhabitants but for his own honor. All the more so, the God Word of the all-good Father did not neglect the race of human beings, created by himself, which was going to cor­ruption, but he blotted out the death which had occurred through the offering of his own body, and correcting their carelessness by his own teaching, restoring every aspect of human beings by his own power. One may be convinced of these things by the theologians2 of the Savior himself, taking their writings, which say, “For the love of Christ constrains us, as we judge this, that if one died for all, then all died; and he died for all that that we should no longer live for ourselves but for him who died and rose” from the dead, our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Cor 5:14-15). And again, “We see Jesus who, for a little while, was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the passion of death, that by the grace of God he might taste death on behalf of all" (Heb 2:9). Then, he also points out the reason why it was necessary for none other than the God Word to be incarnate, saying, “For it was fitting that he, for whom are all things and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings" (Heb 2:10). Saying this, he means that it was for none other to bring human beings out from the corruption that had occurred except the God Word who had also created them in the beginning. And that the Word himself also took to himself a body as a sacrifice for similar bodies, this they indi­cated, saying, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of them, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is the devil, and might deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Heb 2:14-15). For by the sacrifice of his own body, he both put an end to the law lying against us and renewed for us the source of life, giving hope of the resurrection. For since through human beings death had seized human beings, for this reason, again, through the incarnation of the God Word there occurred the dissolution of death and the resurrection of life, as the Christ -bearing man says. “For as by a human being came death, by a human being has come also the resurrection of the dead; for as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive” and that which follows (1 Cor 15:21-22). For now we no longer die as those condemned, but as those who will arise do we await the common resurrection of all, which God, who wrought and granted this, “in his own time will reveal” (1 Tim 6.15; Titus 1.3).

This, therefore, is the first cause of the incarnation of the Sav­ior.

  1. St Vladimir's Seminary Press, Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation, "Incarnation of the Word and his Manifestation to us through the Body.” Popular Patristics Series No. 44. © St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2011.
St. Athanasius

Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–298 – 2 May 373) was the twentieth bishop of Alexandria (as Athanasius I. His episcopate lasted 45 years (c. 8 June 328 – 2 May 373); however, he spent 17 of those years in five exiles that were ordered by four different Roman emperors. Athanasius was the chief defender of Trinitarianism against Arianism. In 325, at the age of 27, Athanasius began his leading role against the Arians as a deacon and assistant to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria during the First Council of Nicaea. Roman emperor Constantine the Great had convened the council in May–August 325 to address the Arian position that the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, is of a distinct substance from the Father. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, he is labeled as the "Father of Orthodoxy".

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