The bottom line: A powerful and persuasive apologetic exposition on the Incarnation and the divinity of Christ written by a theological genius.
On the Incarnation was written over 1500 years ago by the bishop of the church in Alexandria, Egypt. To fully understand and appreciate this book one has to understand why Athanasius wrote it—in defense of Christ’s full divinity and against Arianism, an emerging theology of the time that suggested Christ was begotten from the Father, therefore not eternal, and thus subordinate to the Father. The issue was ultimately “settled” at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. in favor of Christ’s full divinity, yet the Arians continued to champion their divergent doctrine to all those who would hear. Resultantly, Athanasius uses scriptures to resolve the paradox of how God is still God in human form.
On the Incarnation begins with five chapters that describe creation and the fall of humankind with the resultant need for salvation. Next he illustrates the divine dilemma in seeking to mediate that salvation, with the derived solution being the incarnation. The death and resurrection of Christ are then detailed and the three remaining chapters refute common doubts brought up by two main groups: the Jews and Gentiles. The reservations written about then are easily applicable to modern day.
Throughout On the Incarnation, Athanasius explains that in order to reconcile the fallen creation back to humanity, salvation had to occur through a wholly divine mediator, perfectly embodied in Christ. Had Christ not been wholly divine, Athanasius argues, then Christ would have needed a mediator Himself to bring us into koinonia (fellowship or community) with God, and that imperfect mediator would therein need another mediator creating an endless succession of imperfect mediators without any resultant salvation. In short, in order to re-create creation and turn the corruptible (humans) back into the incorruptible, God needed the same substance, or the Logos incarnate, in order to bring that imperfect back to being perfect. Athanasius beautifully and repeatedly argues that the entire process is motivated by the love of God for His creation, and to suggest that He would impart upon us a less than perfect mediator would in fact demote and diminish that love motivation to less than steadfast, permanent, perpetual and all-encompassing.
Athanasius says, “[I]t 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. It is we who were the cause of His taking human form, and for our salvation that in His great love He was both born and manifested in a human body.” He also says, “The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than though death; yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as could not die. For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death, in order that, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, and, itself, remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put and end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection.”
This beautifully written treatise is philosophically and theologically sophisticated, yet very easy to read and simple to understand. The book is also very short (less than 75 pages). As C. S. Lewis says, contemporary Christians would benefit tremendously from reading this book because it will not only illuminate their understanding of The Creator’s love for humankind, but it will also lead them to the full appreciation of the “Grand Miracle” or God taking human form in order to reveal to us what it means to be divine—an idea that transcends the power of the incarnation event itself.
Read this timeless classic and prepare to advance the way you think.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal