Student: George Huang
Subject coordinator: Geoffrey Broughton
Athanasius’ work, On the Incarnation, is an important piece of Christian literature that defends one of the most central doctrines of the Christian faith. This book is a short but colourful explanation and defence of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In this book, Athanasius explains the person of Jesus Christ and that role in the atonement of the human race.
This essay will seek to assert two points. The first point is that atoning for humanity’s sin was the reason for the incarnation. The second point is that the incarnation was necessary for the full completion of humanity’s atonement. Through these points, the aim is to establish the Athanasius’ relation between the incarnation and atonement.
- Atonement from sin was the reason for the incarnation
Athanasius opens in the first chapter:
“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 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.” (Athanasius)
Straight away, Athanasius states that the reason for the incarnation. It is because humanity was steeped in sin and required the attention of God. In the book’s opening chapters, he goes further to explain how humans turned away from things eternal and turned towards corruption, by the devil. The end result is death, as God had warned Adam and Even in Genesis. Athanasius makes it a point that it was not right for God to simply neglect humanity to the corruption and death.
It is fitting for God to respond to the corruption. The question is often raised: why is repentance not sufficient? It is not fitting to the character of God to simply require repentance from human beings and sparing of death. Athanasius describes this as absurd as it does not preserve the consistency of God and is impotent restoring humanity to the image they were created.
“If then there were only offence and not the consequences 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?”
Repentance is not an adequate response to human sin and therefore, not sufficient in restoring humanity. If a citizen causes property damage to another citizen or any bodily harm, it is not just of fitting or productive if the offender simply repented. The only right and just response is that recompense be made. For even if the offender repents and was fully absolved, the cost of the offence still lies with someone. In this case, the one who was offender would be forced to bear the cost.
On the question why God cannot simply forgive without need for atonement, Gerhard Lohfink writes:
“The answer is: if I simply say ‘God forgives everything on condition that I acknowledge my guilt,’ the reality is too quickly covered up. The consequences of sin are not taken seriously. Sin does not just vanish in the air, even when it is forgiven, because sin does not end with the sinner. It has consequences.” (Lohfink)
Human sin is far more offensive than property damage or bodily harm as it offends the maker of the universe, the author of human life. In Genesis, Adam was warned not to eat from the tree or they certainly die. In God’s interactions with Israel, it is very clear that the consequences for turning away from God was death. It is then clear death is a sufficient consequence for human sin. However, a human sacrifice would only continue to provide more death. Therefore God, who is immortal, becomes mortal.
“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 himself a body capable of death…” (Athanasius)
God becomes incarnate in the person of Jesus in order to be the atonement for all of humanity. There was no sufficient sacrifice that humanity could bring nor sufficient deed than any man or woman could perform to atone for the deadly offence of rejecting what is eternal for what is not. There was no greater sacrifice than for God himself to bear, otherwise humanity remains ruined.
Is it unworthy of God to become incarnate to bring atonement for humanity? Athanasius says:
“Truly this great work supremely befitted the goodness of God” (Athanasius)
It is fitting that the maker of the humanity would not abandon them, even if it would be such a great cost. The wonderful character of God, his righteousness and faithfulness, gives reason why He would bear the cost for humanity. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church, God is praised for this act.
“…to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace…” (Ephesians 1:6-7, ESV)
For there is no greater honour that can be bestowed on anyone that the honour that is due to God almighty to humble himself as a man to bring atonement to a loss race. Some would argue that a God who feels so compelled to interfere with the lives of mortals is a petty God. However, we can see in Scripture and in Athanasius’ writing, it is a supreme act for God to be incarnate because it is an act of love for his humanity.
It was also not right for God to have merely created an acceptable substitute to act as a worthy sacrifice. It would not only be an impotent attempt to absolve the sins of the world, but further relegates humanity’s status rather upholding the status that God made humanity in His image. to As Athanasius says (in relation to Hebrews 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 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. ”
If God simply came into the world as another created thing, it would mean humanity had forfeited its special status as the image of God. Very much like how a discarded and replaced piece of art would lose all value from its maker, so would humanity if discarded and no longer considered worthy. If God would come into the world of another creature, surely that creature then becomes more worthy and honoured than humanity and therefore be exalted above the very image of God.
Therefore, when God takes the body of a man, he displays his love and desire to see humanity redeemed and restored. Jesus was fully man and displayed perfection as God’s image. His relationship with the Father demonstrates the relationship God sought by creating humanity in his image.
Since humanity is made in the image of God, it is fitting that God would share the same body as humanity in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Through this, God responds to the need for humanity’s atonement with the incarnation in Jesus Christ. This is not required in a sense the God was bound without power, but required by choice because of the character, namely his righteousness, of God. In God’s righteousness, he responds to the need for atonement and Jesus, the begotten Son of God, is made incarnate and offered as an atoning sacrifice for humanity.
- The incarnation is necessary to complete atonement
The second point is that the incarnation was necessary to complete humanity’s atonement from sin. The act of atonement does not merely end with forgiveness and finite restored life. Athanasius writes in the third chapter:
“…he now offered the sacrifice on behalf of all, delivering his own temple to death in the stead of all, in order to make all not liable to and free from the ancient transgression, and to show himself superior to death, displaying his own body as incorruptible, the first-fruits of the universal resurrection.” (Athanasius)
“…the death of all was completed in the lordly body, and also death and corruption were destroyed by the Word in it.” (Athanasius)
The ultimate end of the atonement is the destruction of death through the resurrection. God, who created all life and all of creation, achieves the reversal of the fall and completes the atonement through the resurrection of Jesus. In order for this to happen, the incarnation in the person of Jesus is necessary.
After having died the fitting death for the sake of humanity, Jesus rises from the dead and vanquishes death and reversed the effects of the fall. The resurrection then becomes a sign of things to come for all those who believe in Jesus, incarnate of God, just as first fruits of a vine is for the remainder. Those who believe in Jesus also participate and share in his death and resurrection. Con Campbell writes on the topic of union with Christ:
“Believers share in the vindication of Christ’s resurrection by dying and rising with him; they are declared righteous by virtue of their participation in these events.” (Campbell)
In order for all believers to be able participate with Christ and be declared righteous with Christ, Christ needed to have come, died as a man and rise from the dead as a man. The atonement of humanity required God to be incarnate in Jesus, thereby allowing humanity to participate in God’s resurrection and fully see the effects of sin reversed. As Jesus was made in flesh of humanity, it is right for life to begin with his death. Again Paul writes in 1 Corinthians:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:20-22 , English Standard Version))
The confidence and assurance for all, who confess to be believers, lies with the resurrection of Jesus. Without the resurrection, death would seem to remain victorious over the creator incarnate. However the resurrection is a full demonstration of the victory that the atonement achieved for humanity’s restoration. Through the new life that has been opened up because of the Resurrection of Jesus, believers have the chance to follow the risen Jesus, seen by all in human history. Even if someone should die a physical death, they shall be raised as Jesus was raised.
Athanasius concludes with the acts of Jesus at the end of chapter 4:
“…and let no one be shameful against the truth, that the Savior raised up his body, and that he is the true Son of God, being from him as the Father’s own Word and Wisdom and Power, who in the last time took a body for the salvation of all, and taught the world about the Father, destroyed death, granted incorruptibility to all through the promise of the resurrection, raising his own body as first-fruits of this and showing it as a trophy over death and its corruption by the sign of the cross.” (Athanasius)
However heinously corrupt humanity is, Jesus’ victory over death negates all evil done by humanity. The perfect sacrifice as propitiation and the resurrection of the perfect sacrifice completes the atonement for humanity. This is only achieved through the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. In his great righteousness, God demonstrates his love for humanity, his created images. He does not abandon them to death, but takes on the cost in the death of Jesus Christ and vanquishes death through the resurrection Jesus Christ.
It is crucial that the person of Jesus Christ, his death and his resurrection, remains central to any Christian doctrine. It is often disturbing when parties, whether internationally or deliberately, remove the incarnation out of the centre. After reading from Athanasius, one can see how crucial the incarnation was to the ever important doctrine of atonement, the means of our salvation. This pillar of the early church was defended by early champions. As we look to growing the modern church, the church must defend and justify centrality of the incarnation.
Athanasius, On the Incarnation, trans J Behr, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Yonkers New York, 2011.
Lohfink, Jesus of Nazareth, trans. L M. Maloney, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 2012, Digital.
Campbell, Paul and Union with Christ, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2012, Print
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois, 2011, Digital.