Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God, Chapter 1 “Creation and the Fall”

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1. Athanasius writes to a young convert, named Macarius. He says the incarnation is a “mystery” that is mocked by many, but adored by Christians. In it “the things which they, as men, rule out as impossible, He plainly shows to be possible…” Athanasius first asks this question, Why the incarnation? He answers, “He [the Word of the Father] has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men.” Athanasius begins his exposition of this claim with the doctrine of creation because, “the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation…”

2. Athanasius summarizes competing theories of the origins of the universe, and briefly critiques them. Epicureans do not believe a divine Mind created the world; Athanasius argues that this theory is incompatible with the evidence of an intelligently-designed universe. Plato argued that a divine Mind fashioned pre-existent matter into this universe; Athanaius says this implies limitation in God, making him dependent on something outside of himself. “… He would be not the Creator but only a craftsman.” Gnostics argued that the Creator is a different god from God the Father; Athanasius argues that there is no biblical basis for this view.

3. Athanasius then presents the Christian view of creation, which teaches that there is a Divine mind behind the universe Who is infinite and that he made the universe “out of nothing” and “through the Word.” Additionally, God “reserved especial mercy for the race of men… namely, the impress of His own image.” This image-bearing consists primarily in the gift of reason that allows the human race to express and participate finitely in “the very Word Himself.” The goal of this image-bearing is that humanity “might continue for ever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise.” However, since God created humans with a will that “could turn either way,” the “grace” of eternal life was to be secured through a “conditional” arrangement between God and man. This arrangement consists of “a law and a place.” God placed man in the garden with “a single prohibition:” to guard the image impressed on them and maintain the “lovelines of their original innocence.” If they obeyed, humanity would enjoy paradise without sorrow “and after it the assurance of immortality in heaven.” If they disobeyed, “throwing away their birthright of beauty, then they would come under the natural law of death” and die outside of paradise in a state of death and corruption. Athanasius then cites Genesis 2:17 and comments, “‘Ye shall surely die’—not just die only, but remain in the state of death and of corruption.”

4. Athanasius explains why creation is relevant to the incarnation. “[It] was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out His love for us, so that He made haste to help us and to appear among us.” God made humanity for incorruptible life, but it “turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their devising” and came “under the law of death.” So, death holds the human race “completely under its dominion” and, pushes it towards it ‘natural’ and ‘animalistic’ state of “non-existence” [For Athanasius, “sin is non-being” and the antithesis of perfect Being, which is God] and lack of knowledge of God.

5. Athanasius recites the “plight of man.” As long as the human race maintained the image, it was “capable of escaping from the natural law [of death].” Mankind would preserve the image through the contemplation of God. Instead, man followed “the counsel of the devil” and turned from “eternal things to things corruptible.” As the “penalty” for disobedience God gave the law of death greater strength. “Indeed, they had in their sinning surpassed all limits; for, having invented wickedness in the beginning and so involved themselves in death and corruption, they had gone on gradually from bad to worse, not stopping at any one kind of evil, but continually, as with insatiable appetite, devising new kinds of sins.” Athanasius concludes by defining such sins. 

Chapter 2     Chapter 3          Chapter 4          Chapter 5          Chapter 6          Chapter 7          Chapter 8          Chapter 9

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