300 AD On the Incarnation

by Athanasius of Alexandria c. 300
23 July 2009

First of all, when checking out this book, get the edition with the Introduction by C. S. Lewis.  I would pay what I paid for the book for the introduction alone…I was riveted.  Lewis talks about the importance of reading “the old books” because they have stood the test of time.  He says, “Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books.  But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old.”  About On The Incarnation, he says, “When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered I was reading a masterpiece… for only a master mind could have written so deeply on a subject with such classical simplicity.”

St. Athanasius was an Egyptian who was educated after the manner of the Greeks.  He was born sometime around the year 300.  He was in attendance at the Council of Nicaea in 325, and three years later succeeded his patron as the Patriarch of Alexandria, which he was when he died in 373.  His lifetime was a tumultuous time in Egypt for the early Christians.  He saw many persecutions, knew martyrs, and was exiled himself five times.  He wrote On the Incarnationfor a friend, who also happened to be a recent convert.  A few years after Athanasius’ death, Gregory of Nazianzus wrote, “In praising Athanasius I shall be praising virtue.”

On the Incarnation discusses the reasons for and mission of Christ when He came to earth as a man.  As this book is written from a Catholic point-of-view, I was prepared for some variation of doctrine, but I ended up being astonished at the similarities.  The differences can basically be boiled down to a few definitions.  Catholicism holds the view of the Trinity, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are three separate beings, Christ and the Holy Ghost working under the direction of the Father.  There were a few others, but I’m trying to keep this short.  Well, shorter, anyway.

Something I learned as far as terminology goes was that the Catholics refer to Christ as The Word.  I was at first confused, because in the LDS church, when we refer to the word of God, we are speaking of the scriptures.  But by the context it soon became clear that The Word refers to Christ.  I did verify this with Terry, who was Catholic until he was 12, and even attended a Catholic school as a boy.  Everything else I will mention are beliefs held by both the LDS church and the Catholic church (as according to St. Athanasius, anyway.)

First, St. Athanasius talks about the Creation and the Fall of man.  In the Garden of Eden, man was in such a state (I hesitate to say ‘perfect’ because I am not positive on that) that no intersession was needed for his salvation.  Athanasius first quotes scripture, then adds his clarification: “”Of every tree that is in the garden thou shalt surely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat, but in the day that ye do eat, ye shall surely die” – not just die only, but remain in the state of death and corruption.”  Such was the fate of man without intersession.

He also explains what we in the LDS church commonly call the laws of justice and mercy.  The law of justice refers to the fact that when man sins, that sin must be paid for.  The law of mercy refers to the action of Christ.  He paid for our sins and ransomed our souls, but it is up to us to accept His gift.  We must repent of our sins to accept it.  He also explains why our repentance by itself is not enough.  (I find this all very interesting, but I’ll try not to make this too long by going into detail on every subject.)

He explains why prophets are called, in order to remind men of their Father when they are “bowed down by the pleasures of the moment” and “burdened…with their wickedness”, “for men can learn directly about higher things from other men”.  He makes a point that the Creation itself, the simple fact that we and the earth and the universe are all here, should cause men to stop and reflect on God.  I like this point, but I must admit it seemed a bit far-fetched to me, even as a religous person, being now living in the days of widely-held beliefs of a spontaneous creation.  But as, even in Athanasius’ day, the Creation itself is not enough to inspire goodness in people, then prophets will remind us using an approach more difficult to ignore: telling us straight out.

St. Athanasius also talks about Christ’s other mission in coming to earth: to heal and teach mankind.  He discusses Christ’s death and resurrection.  At the end he sets about to prove, using the scriptures, that Jesus is the Christ, addressing specifically the Jews, and then the Gentiles (those who worship idols or are involved with pagan religions).  He seemed a little harsh, in my opinion, with both groups.  I don’t think his way of disproving them would be extremely effective in converting a person belonging to one of those groups, however, I think, as his intended audience were new converts to Christianity, his point was to try and give these new converts a ’shield’ against the arguments of other faiths to protect their budding testimonies of the truth.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book.  It was very thought-provoking and interesting.  It seemed to me to be the work of a man who put his heart and soul into what he was doing.  Now I’m reading The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis for a book club, but then I’ll be back to my Medieval books with Augustine’s Confessions.