Quotes from the Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Faith: Athanasius

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In this series, I will share significant quotes from pastors and theologians throughout church history in an attempt to present the riches of The Christian tradition for the Church today.

In his famous book, On The Incarnation, St. Athanasius – an important pastor and theologian from the fourth century who defended the full divinity of Jesus Christ –  presents a moving picture of the Triune God’s work of salvation. Specifically, Athanasius shows us the care and love of God the Father and Son for their wayward creation.  Athanasius argues that God created humanity for communion with him, but when he fell into sin, humankind lost their knowledge of God and their life with God. God in his goodness could not allow the corruption of his creatures. So in order to save humans and restore communion Jesus had to overcome death in humanity. This is how St. Athanasius describes this work of Salvation:

“For this purpose then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God comes into our realm, although he was not formerly distant. For no part of creation is left void of him; while abiding with his own Father, he had filled all things in every place. But now he comes condescending towards us in his love for human beings and his manifestation. For seeing the rational race perishing, and death reigning over them through corruption, and seeing also the threat of transgression giving firm hold to the corruption which was upon us, and that it was absurd for the law to be dissolved before being fulfilled, and seeing the impropriety in what had happened, that the very things of which he himself was the Creator were disappearing, and seeing the excessive wickedness of human beings, that they gradually increased it to an intolerable pitch against themselves, and seeing the liability of all human beings to death – having mercy upon our race, and having pity upon our weakness, and condescending to our corruption, and not enduring the dominion of death, lest what had been created should perish and the work of the Father himself for human beings should be in vain, he takes for himself a body and that not foreign to our own… He takes that which is ours… And thus taking from our that which is like, since all were liable to the corruption of death, delivering it over to death on behalf of all, he offered it to the Father, doing this in his love for human beings so that, on the one hand, with all dying in him the law concerning corruption in human beings might be undone (its power being fully expended in the lordly body and no longer have any ground against similar human beings), and, on the other hand that as human beings had turned toward corruption he might turn them again to incorruptibility and give them life from death, by making the body his own and by the grace of the resurrection banishing death from them as straw from fire. (On the Incarnation, sec. 8). 

There is so much in this passage, and it is only the tip of the iceberg of Athanasius’s genius. Let us note a few things:

First, Athanasius is basically telling the story of the Gospel: God created and loved humanity, they fell into death and chaos through sin, and God in his great love sent God the Son to save humanity by becoming human and dying and rising for us so that we can have the life we were created to have.

Second, notice how Athanasius articulates God’s love for humanity. God pities and has mercy on humanity for their plight. He emphasizes that God wants to save humanity, it isn’t like he begrudges them. This reminds me of Psalm 103:13: “For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” Athanasius sees the love of God most vividly expressed when the Son of God became human. Really, this passage is an extended meditation on John 1:1-18 and John 3:16.

Third, notice that in expressing the entirely free and holy love of God, he does not shy away from calling humanity what it is: “Excessively wicked.” The love of God reveals the depths of human depravity, not to condemn us to death, though we condemn ourselves in rejecting him, but to show us our need for the Savior.

Finally, notice the manner of salvation: God the Son becomes who we are, fully human, in order to die for us and destroy the death and alienation that our excessive wickedness brought into the world. At the same time, Jesus must be fully God, God the creator, through whom all things were made, in order to bring such a magnificent salvation to completion. If Jesus is not the Creator God, one with God the Father, then his death has no power to save and recreate humanity and the world. Jesus is God and human, and he unites humanity to God the Father through his death and resurrection. Note that the Father accepts the Son’s death because he loves humanity and wants to see them freed from death and slavery to sin.

In this passage, Athanasius presents a summary of the order and economy of salvation. But what is the end goal of Salvation, according to Athanasius? Towards the end of his book, he gives a short and famous summary of why the Son became incarnate, died, and was rose again for humanity.

“For he was incarnate that we might be made God; and he manifested himself through a body that we might receive an idea of the invisible Father; and he endured the insults of human beings, that we might inherit incorruptibility” (On the Incarnation, sec 54).

God became human that we might be made God; not identical with God, but that we might be united to God in Christ Jesus. The end goal of salvation is Communion with God. The content of this communion is knowing God and receiving eternal life. Or as Jesus said in John 17:3 “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Jesus saved humanity from death and ignorance give them what they were created for: Life with God.

When it comes to sharing and living the gospel in the 21st century, not many people feel the guilt of sin; but we all feel the weight of death and meaninglessness. Athanasius’s emphasis on the infinite love of the triune God, salvation from death in Christ, and the revelation of who God is, who we are, and what we were made for, answers this weight by showing us that we are saved from death for a loving relationship with our creator and savior. We were created for intimate friendship with the God of the universe, and this God made the way for us to have that friendship: Jesus Christ.

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