The Tulip Driven Life Podcast

Monday, September 15, 2014

Why You Should Read On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius

By: Thomas F. Booher         

On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius is a valuable work. It is valuable not because it teaches a new doctrine or provides some new insight, but because it simply teaches the Christian faith as Scripture itself has taught us. This book gave me greater confidence that I am really part of the tradition of sound doctrine which the Apostle Paul so often tells Timothy and Titus to hold fast to. I see that Christians really are of one faith because St. Athanasius wrote On the Incarnation in the early 4th century (around the age of twenty no less); at the time he was not introducing anything new to Christendom (19-20). This was the faith as he himself had received it. In this little book I see the Catholicity of the church traced back near to the time of the Apostles themselves, and I see a man holding fast to the one true faith even in the midst of persecution.

St. Athanasius sweeps across the whole scope of redemptive history, from creation and the fall to the resurrection. From the start he refutes the popular philosophies of his time like Epicureanism and Platonism (26-27) and then goes on to provide an apologetic against those Jews and Gentiles who seek to confute the message and truth of Christianity. So in about seventy brisk pages Athanasius gives a fine example of both articulating and defending the faith to anyone.

Throughout Athanasius makes plain that it is the same Word of God who created the world who also entered creation to renew it (26). While Athanasius may emphasize the need for sinners made in the image of God to be restored to a position of glory and fellowship with the divine (32-34), he does not forget that it was because of man’s own sin and transgression that he had fallen. Athanasius also makes it clear that only the Word who made man would be able to save man. While I understood that only the Son of God was a worthy sacrifice for my sin, I had not put as much thought into the fact that it is the same one who made me that came to die for me, and that that too was fitting and necessary.

There are times where St. Athanasius seems to state things as facts that I found to be a bit more on the speculative side, but he usually referenced Scripture and let it speak on each topic he broached as well. On page 40-41 Athanasius seems to suggest that God had to save man because it wasn’t fitting that the image of God in man be destroyed. While I disagree that God was somehow obligated to save man due to His image being bestowed on them (for if that were true wouldn’t all men need to be saved?), I do like Athanasius reinforcing the notion that it was only the Image of God, the Son, who could restore the image of God in man. Indeed, the Son is our perfect substitute.

I really enjoyed Athanasius regarding Christ’s work overcoming the works of demons and idolatry. I have often suspected as a Christian that the work of Christ had to have a significant impact on worshiping images and the activity of demons. Athanasius confirmed that for me. He also uses this reality as a strong proof of the truthfulness of the gospel. While in times past different pagan gods would be worshiped from one city to the next, with the spread of the gospel many from all over the world were putting away their idols and worshiping the one true God.

On the Incarnation is an invaluable writing not just because it shows the true faith deftly articulated at such an early time in history, but also because it helps us refute heresies of today. If I want help and insight regarding why the bodily resurrection of Christ was essential, I can turn to Athanasius (61-64) and show theological liberals that what I am saying about the bodily resurrection has been said for a very long time. Even in the appendix on the Psalms I can show someone that for centuries believers have understood that the Psalms teach of the coming Messiah and that He would be born of a virgin (100). Simply put, this book has shown me that my faith is an old faith built on a firm foundation, which is both comforting and emboldening