Notes on Athanasius’ Discourse on the Incarnation
by Hadley Robinson
Reading the words of this godly brother takes the breath away. What a soldier for Christ that he defied the bishops of his day and even the Emperor. His courage and devotion to Christ our
Savior should be remembered and taught among the brothers as an example: Hold to the truth regardless.
As Peter and Paul both said, we are called to suffer – but what a glorious suffering it is (Rom. 8:18). Athanasius’ banishment to the desert must have been a blow to him only in that he
was largely separated from his beloved flock and they from him. Only those who have no fear of death (or of man) can stand alone in dark times when all other lights have gone out. But lest we
idolize our dear brother, it must said, he was only doing his duty and, as such, receives the servant’s reward (Luke 17:10). When we take our stand against the ungodly, the immoral, or idols
of our time we, too, are only doing our duty.
Our nation is plunging into darkness. While the nationalistic and heathen excesses of the Third Reich are not yet widely evident, it is
alarming that so many, even in the churches, are relatively unconcerned. Like most in the German churches in the 1930’s, they go right along with the prevailing spirit. Martin Niemöller
(1892-1894) treaded through the darkness of his native Germany. He opposed the wickedness of the Reich Church which wished to use the Bride of our LORD as a mere tool to promote their evil
agendas. Franz Kaufmann (1886-1944), like Niemöller, also opposed the Nazi interference in the Church and its diabolical attacks on people for no other reason than their religious origins or
race – something which a man cannot help. Kaufmann was a Jewish convert to faith in Christ and helped many Jews in Berlin escape the clutches of the Nazis. He knew he would go down – and so he
did, suffering imprisonment and then execution in the concentration camps. In this way, Kaufmann was a sort of Paul: Standing up for the truth can get you humiliated at least and killed at
But those who love the adoration of men will, in the end, swallow a bitter pill. The Prophets of Israel during the time of the divided kingdom faced intractable sin among the
people. We moderns wonder how people could worship little objects of metal. The Germans are smart people. How could they fall for the likes of Nazism? But we shouldn’t wonder at the affliction
of the human soul which can be deceived in the extreme. The Prophets, Kaufmann, and Niemöller were vindicated – and, some day, so shall we: As then, the people worship a vain thing.
But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars–their place will be in the fiery lake of burning
sulfur. This is the second death. – Jesus Christ from Rev. 21:8
So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering
for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life–not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in
Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light
through the gospel. 2Tim 8-10
What follows are quotes from Athanasius’ “Of the incarnation of the Word of God” and some comments of mine. As C. S. Lewis noted, no age is pure and
not blinded to some aspect of the truth. This must include Athanasius and his time. As moderns, we too suffer from blindness of one kind or another. Hopefully, God’s Word can bring to light
what is lacking for both Athanasius and us who live in the 21st century. “Keep your finger on the Text!”
1. “It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should
be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or
through the deceit of evil spirits.”
Athanasius presents a meandering discussion on why the Incarnation? Scripture does not say “why” other than it was His purpose and that He
loved His own. Did God have to save any – even one? His goodness would not be impugned if He had remained aloof from the world, letting it plunge into its self-made ruin. Would His goodness be
any less had He not lavished love on His creatures? Is God required to save? The answer, again, must be “no” lest His glorious character be darkened in some way as He is always free to act,
but not against His character. Is it in His character not to love? Certainly – He did not love the men of Sodom nor most of His own countrymen in the flesh.
If He had loved the men of
Sodom, He would have revealed His miracles to them (Mt. 11:23). If He had loved all of His countrymen He would not have spoken to them in parables (Mt. 13:11). Grace is grace. If it is by
grace that we are saved, it is His grace – not God’s goodness that saves us. Even Moses knew that God’s majesty, glory, holiness, purity, and goodness remain, even in judgment, as here:
Overlook the stubbornness of this people, their wickedness and their sin. Otherwise, the country from which you brought us will say, `Because the LORD was not able to take them into the land
he had promised them, and because he hated them, he brought them out to put them to death in the desert.' Deut. 25:27-28
2. “No, He took our body, and not only so, but He took it
directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father – a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man.”
This is a surprising statement from one who must
know the Scriptures. No woman is tainted by relations with her man. On the contrary, it is a blessed union (John 2) and commanded by God Himself: "So they are no longer two, but
one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." – Matt. 19:6
Why is it that Athanasius and some other churchmen of the time write in a way that is contradicted
by Scripture? Paul never taught that it was more holy to be single and chaste. It was a calling which would allow increased and more singular devotion to Christ. This was because the married
man or woman must (and should be) distracted from religious duty to some degree (1Cor. 7:34). “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her.” - Eph. 5:25. This
includes the aspect of marriage intimacy which both man and woman must give to each other. It is not some “duty” that we must shamefully in engage in, as some in the Church taught and still
teach. The LORD even required men to be exempt from military duty so they could bring happiness and joy to their wives (Dt. 20:7; 24:5). Would that it were taught in the churches that the
first year of marriage for a couple is to be free of anything that would interfere with their new covenant relationship.
Paul could never say that marrying a virgin is “good” (1Cor.
7:38) if it somehow corrupted either the virgin or the man. What corrupts the virgin and the man is the sin and fall of our ancestor Adam. This corruption is universal: From Adam, to Moses, to
Paul, to Mary and Joseph, to Athanasius, and to you and me (unless we believe as the Muslims do). This is the “taint” of which we should speak. But can sexual relations taint a virgin? The
Scriptures declare that adultery – the sharing of a married woman or a married man with others – is what taints. A virgin marrying a supposedly divorced man commits adultery against the man’s
wife and he commits adultery against his first wife (Luke 16:18).
In general, divorce is an invention of hard hearted and wicked men (Mt. 19:8) and of the State, in particular. The
woman in Deut. 24, contrary to the opinions of American evangelicals, was defiled when she, a married woman supposedly put away, was taken into the arms of another man. Only death dissolves a
marriage, as the Spirit taught (Rom. 7:2), not some act of man, including unfaithfulness. The Church Fathers were unanimous on this. But that’s another topic….
3. "Perhaps you will
say, then, that creation was enough to teach men about the Father. But if that had been so, such great evils would never have occurred. Creation was there all the time, but it did not prevent
men from wallowing in error."
However, the Scriptures say:The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress
the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities–his
eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. – Rom. 1:18-20
The Creation is, contrary to what
Athanasius seems to write, enough to teach men of the nature of its Creator. The lack is, therefore, not the creation but the wickedness and poverty in the hearts of men. The Creation could
not prevent men from wallowing in error because they are blind to see who is behind it. The Creation points to the Creator and He, if merciful, can prevent every sort of corruption in the
heart of man.
4. "He neither endured the death of John, who was beheaded, nor was He sawn asunder, like Isaiah: even in death He preserved His body whole and undivided, so that
there should be no excuse hereafter for those who would divide the Church."
As one who knew well a deeply divided Church, Athanasius was inspired by the Spirit here. This is a
profound analogy of the seamless character of Christ’s robe and body with the seamless character of the Church. Athanasius divided the Church but over a greater matter: The truth of the
Incarnation. But for him and the LORD’s care and guidance, the Church would have descended into the Abyss.
5. "But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer
terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not
perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection."
Amen. As the Scripture says:Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you,
the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. – Jesus Rev.
6. "There is proof of this too; for men who, before they believe in Christ, think death horrible and are afraid of it, once they are converted despise it so completely
that they go eagerly to meet it, and themselves become witnesses of the Savior's resurrection from it."
Athanasius here exhibits unfounded and ungodly zeal. The Church fathers did
not all embrace such a reckless attitude where Christians would rush to the executioner. Both Cyprian (A.D. 200- A.D. 253) and Mensurius (A.D. 300’s), both bishops of Carthage, opposed the
reckless abandonment of one’s life for the sake of Christ. As the Spirit said through Paul,I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far
but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. – Php 1:23
The dead cannot love and assist their brothers in Christ. Athanasius should not boast that people may throw
their lives away for Christ. It is shameful, as both Cyprian and Mensurius taught.
7. "The marvel of marvels is that he who is enfolded in the faith of the cross despises this
natural fear [of death] and for the sake of the cross is no longer cowardly in face of it.
Per the Scriptures:When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized
that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. – Acts 4:13
8. "If, then, it is by the sign of the cross
and by faith in Christ that death is trampled underfoot, it is clear that it is Christ Himself and none other Who is the Arch Victor over death and has robbed it of its power."
What is the
"sign of the cross?" It is an aphorism not used in Scripture.
9. "The Savior is working mightily among men, every day He is invisibly persuading numbers of people all over the
world, both within and beyond the Greek-speaking world, to accept His faith and be obedient to His teaching."
If Athanasius had thought this through he would have perhaps have
written "invisibly converting" rather than "invisibly persuading." The latter paradigm is not found in Scripture. 2Co 5:11 is likely within the context of believing men, not the heathen in
general. In any case, it would be an error to build a case that God persuades men to be Christians based on just one verse that is in reference to the work of Paul. On the other hand we have
abundant evidence that God converts men through the agency of the Holy Spirit while using the Gospel preached by His evangelists (Lk 3:10 ff.; Acts 2:37).
10. "He is no longer
active in the world, as He must needs be if He is dead, how is it that He makes the living to cease from their activities, the adulterer from his adultery, the murderer from murdering, the
unjust from avarice, while the profane and godless man becomes religious?"
The converted sinner repents of his sin.Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor
idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what
some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. – 1Cor. 6:9-11But among you
there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or
coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person–such a man is an idolater–has any inheritance in the kingdom of
Christ and of God. – Eph. 5:3-5
11. "For where Christ is named, idolatry is destroyed and the fraud of evil spirits is exposed; indeed, no such spirit can endure that Name, but
takes to flight on sound of it. This is the work of One Who lives, not of one dead; and, more than that, it is the work of God."
Inspired words that nail the root of our beloved
and holy faith: Jesus Christ lives and reigns. Each believer is His glory and proof that He is not among the dead but among the living.
12. "We are agreed that a dead person can do
nothing: yet the Savior works mightily every day, drawing men to religion, persuading them to virtue, teaching them about immortality, quickening their thirst for heavenly things, revealing
the knowledge of the Father, inspiring strength in face of death, manifesting Himself to each, and displacing the irreligion of idols; while the gods and evil spirits of the unbelievers can do
none of these things, but rather become dead at Christ's presence, all their ostentation barren and void."
Amen. He does, indeed, draw men to Himself - even the most unwilling.
13. "He it is Who has destroyed death and freely graced us all with incorruption through the promise of the resurrection, having raised His own body as its first-fruits, and displayed it
by the sign of the cross as the monument to His victory over death and its corruption.
Again, we have the question what is the "sign of the cross?"
14. "Let us now go
further and investigate the unbelief and the ridicule with which Jews and Gentiles respectively regard these same facts.
This section is not as helpful as his remarkable words
about the power of the Cross. The Scriptures do not spend much time discussing the ravings of the heathen except that they are vain and futile. Athanasius’ refutation of the Jews and Gentiles
is not particularly useful. He needs to clarify: Men don’t reject the Gospel because they have failed to reason clearly. They reject the Gospel because it is their nature to do so – they are
blinded to the truth because of the effects of sin in their human nature. It is not uncommon for Christians in our day to think the same: How do the heathen reject the obvious? Athanasius
slips here. He should know that men are evil to the core and, because of it, they cannot reason clearly.
15. "O marvel at the love of the Word for men, for it is on our account
that He is dishonored, so that we may be brought to honor."
Amen. He suffered for us, so great is His love for sinners.
17. "For, indeed, everything about it is
marvelous, and wherever a man turns his gaze he sees the Godhead of the Word and is smitten with awe."
Amen. We are more than smitten with awe - it is our life and blessing.