“God became man that we may become gods” (St. Athanasios).
The Incarnation of God is the foundation of the Christian faith. Christ is the Son and Logos (Word) of God who became man. He is not a man who became god, nor a man who stands in a unique and perfect relation with God. If the latter were the truth, Christianity would not differ from Judaism or any other religion. Orthodox Christianity believes that in Christ, God himself (God’s Son and Word) became man without ceasing to be God, so that we may be restored and clothed with God’s perfections.
The Orthodox Church keeps as crucial and essential treasures these classical convictions of the Gospel. There are, however, many contemporary thinkers who regard them as untenable on the basis of certain critical syllogistic arguments. They argue that God as a supreme and absolute power cannot become man if he is really God; that the eternal and unchangeable cannot become temporal and changeable, etc. Thoughtful philosophers have been raising similar points since the early stages of Christian history, both from within and from without the Church’s context. But the Church has always regarded such objections as alien to the Christian truth. Those who propounded them in the past were characterized as heretics, namely who failed to understand Christ’s truth.
The main problem of the ancient heretics and the contemporary critics, as far as the Incarnation is concerned, stems from their assumption that the Church’s faith in this is the result of thoughtful reflection upon or subjective interpretation of the historic event of Christ. For Orthodox Christians and theologians, however, the Incarnation of the eternal Son and Logos of God is a given truth. Both the apostolic kerygma and the patristic dogma project the Incarnation as an objective datum and divine gift.
When the Fathers of the Church wrote about the Incarnation their aim was not to explain away the event of Christ, but rather to expound its soteriological (saving) significance for all humanity. They did not explain the Incarnation from any abstract theoretical standpoint. They rather attempted to bring out the inner logic of it and to bear witness to its saving effects.
It is this kind of exposition that this article is designed to provide. The intention is to lay open the Church’s understanding of the saving meaning for humanity of the event of the Incarnation of God in Christ, which occupies the essential place in the witness of the Gospel, the Apostles and the Fathers. This will be done on the basis of the most famous work of St. Athanasios “On the Incarnation of the Divine Logos.”
ST. ATHANASIOS’ TREATISE ON THE INCARNATION
St. Athanasios’ treatise on the Incarnation is still regarded today as the first thorough and profound exposition of the event of Christ. It is a continuation of another work, which bears the title “Against Paganism” (Contra Gentes), the subject matter of which is summarized in the beginning of the work on the Incarnation. This work “Against Paganism” deals with the problem of idolatry—man’s worshipful attachment to the world (what we call today “secularism”)—caused by man’s fall from the knowledge of his Creator. The substance of the problem is the loss on the part of man of the self‑consciousness that he is ‘logical’ in the sense that he is “made in the image of God’s Logos” and that the world does not have an independent logic of its own apart from the uncreated powers and energies of the Creator Logos.
The results of this problem pertain to man’s existence and knowledge. Man’s existence is subjected to corruption and death and man’s knowledge is alienated from the truth of the world and the vision of God. St. Athanasios maintains that the Christian reply to this problem and its fatal consequences is man’s rediscovery of the Creator Logos, who is the key to the existence of man himself and of the entire world. This is because through this Logos man will be able once again to find the Image of God and the reflection of that image in himself. But man does not turn to the Logos. Hence the Logos’ intervention or turning to man which is achieved through His Incarnation.
The treatise “On the Incarnation” by St. Athanasios is divided into two main parts, the first one dealing with the meaning of the Incarnation and the second being a reply to objections raised against it by Jews and Greek philosophers. It is to the first part that we shall turn our attention here.
THE EVENT OF THE INCARNATION: GOD BECAME MAN
The Incarnation is the Event whereby the Logos of God, through whom God created all and sustains all, has revealed Himself to human beings by becoming a man among them. Yet, says St. Athanasios, the human shape of this revelation, instead of filling men with gratitude, became the occasion for the rejection of the Creator Logos. Men thought it impossible and even irrational that God could become man! They were so used to life without Him that they found it impossible to believe in Him when He was born as a man among them! For man to become God and to surpass the weaknesses and limitations of His created nature was for men a desirable thought, which could be reasonably maintained. But for God to become man and taste the futility and littleness of the human predicament was either a logical nonsense or a ridiculous scandal.
And yet the logic of the Gospel, says St. Athanasios, demands the reverse. What men thought impossible, this God put forward as possible, and thus the futility and littleness of the human nature is shown to be honorable and powerful and saving. The true God is not an indifferent impersonal or ideal God of some kind of metaphysical transcendence. He is the God who puts on human nature, is nailed on the Cross for the sake of righteousness, and truly defies human nature through means seemingly futile and powerless, yet true, natural and human. The aim of the Incarnation was not just the revelation of God, but also the salvation and deification of fallen man, God’s creature. The Cross of the Incarnate God, then, became the trophy against idolatry and superstition, because by such means God unmasked the futility of man‑made religion and ill‑conceived theology and also justified and renewed human nature as His own creation.
For St. Athanasios, then, the Incarnation laid down the right terms of true theology: the deification of man as God wills it (as His free gift) and not as man aspires to it (as an arbitrary usurpation of the rights of God). True theology is not made by man, but is given by God when He becomes man. This is owed to the fact that the right knowledge of God is tied up with the right knowledge of man. Hence, God’s decision first to reveal the true man in His Incarnation and then to reveal the truth of Himself. To put it in another way, man becomes a theologian when he becomes true man; and he becomes true man when he becomes a man in Christ. Far from opposing humanism, Christian theology (and particularly the doctrine of the Incarnation) is the key to it, except that it is divine humanism, God’s life as man.
How does this actually take place? And what is the reason or reasons which prompted God to follow such a path? What is the deeper meaning of the Incarnation? These are the questions that St. Athanasios will try to answer in his treatise. And I say that he will try, because first of all he will examine certain “presuppositions” to the Incarnation. He will tell us that we must first understand why and how man was initially made man and why and how he fell from the position that God gave him, in order to understand why and how God became man for our salvation. In other words, man’s creation and fall constitute basic presuppositions to the understanding of the event of the Incarnation.
MAN’S CREATION AND FALL
Man was not created by the world, but by God. God created both man and the world. The Epicureans, like many modern thinkers, propounded the view that the world (and therefore man) came to be through an automatic process out of itself. The Platonists believed that there was a certain creator (demiourgos) who made man and the entire universe, but they held that the material from which all things were made actually pre‑existed the act of creation and was itself eternal. The Gnostic heretics, who followed ancient oriental religious traditions, spoke about two cosmic spheres and substances, which belonged to two rival gods (the good god of spiritual substance and the evil god of matter) and saw man as being caught up between these two opposing realms.
Against these theories St. Athanasios expounded the teaching of the Church, which is based on the Bible and on Divine revelation. God created all things out of nothing with His Divine Logos. Therefore every form of cosmological monism or dualism must be rejected as false. The cause of creation was God’s immeasurable goodness, and as a result the world and man are substantially good. God showed His goodness in a special way in creating man. Because He knew that, being a creature that came out of nothing, man could not remain in existence for ever—for every creature that has a beginning also has an end. He made man in such a way that he may exist in the Image and the Likeness of God Himself. In other words, God made man able to communicate with God and to imitate Him. In this way the iconic relation of human existence with the ever‑existing and eternal God would render the former capable of remaining in existence forever.
The commandment, which, according to the Bible, God gave to the protoplasts [first-created] in paradise concerning the knowledge of good and evil, had no other purpose than to safeguard the grace of being in the Image and Likeness of God, that is man’s free communion with and imitation of his Creator. By such means the power of immortality and eternal existence that belongs to God alone would be also secured for man. In the last analysis the most characteristic element of St. Athanasios’ teaching on man’s creation is not so much man’s created existence as it is the free co‑ordination of this existence with the self‑existing Creator, the Divine Logos, through the grace of being in the Image and Likeness.
Man is not a closed circle of existence simply regulated from a center existing in him. He is rather an open or free existence capable of communicating with the transcendent and self‑existing God. Thus St. Athanasios teaches us that the key to our humanity is the Divine Logos and our communion with Him. This is precisely the point where our fall takes place, which incurs the corruption and death of our existence and causes the drama of human history, which in turn calls out the saving intervention of the Logos: the Incarnation.
The fall of man, which is so clearly revealed in his natural corruption and death, is in the last analysis first man’s denial to appropriate the grace of his Creator Logos, and secondly man’s turning to the created and limited world as the ultimate purpose of his life. This means, says St. Athanasios, that in our life we no longer imitate or communicate with the self‑existing (the One Who Is), but with things that are not. We are mastered by a demonic envy (the devil’s deceit) that makes us transgress God’s commandment and leave death and corruption to reign supreme over our life. The result is that our humanity remains unfulfilled—we never reach the purpose of our life, which is immortality and deification.
THE DILEMMA OF THE CREATOR
This miserable condition of man, says St. Athanasios, puts God, as it were, in a certain dilemma! If he allows the transgressor to live, then he runs the risk of being proved a deceiver, because His original warning about man’s death in the case of his rejection of the Logos would appear to be false. On the other hand leaving man to be lost in corruption and death does not measure up with God’s character, especially in view of the fact that man became communicant of the grace of His Image. His truth asks that man should be left to his loss because this will not interfere with God’s consistency to His Logos and will not violate man’s freedom. But God’s goodness wants of Him to save His creature, whilst His power is capable to do so. What then should God do with man who is an arbitrary transgressor?
Perhaps one might consider, St. Athanasios says, that in this case the easiest operation would be for God to demand man’s repentance. But the fact remains that repentance does not satisfy the law of existence, which demands death, neither does it restore the fatal consequences resulting upon the human nature from the transgression. Repentance simply puts an end to sinning, but does not undo the incurred consequences of sin. Had sin not had such repercussions, repentance might have sufficed for man’s salvation. But now, such as sin is, even the grace of the Image and Likeness cannot operate. Repentance just does not lead out of the cul de sac.
After all this the only solution to the problem of man’s salvation can be the intervention of the Creator Logos, who is capable of re‑creating the lost man. Only the Divine Logos, St. Athanasios says, can keep God’s consistency with His Creation, represent all men, suffer on behalf of all, and re‑create all men and all things: because He is the key to the Creation of the world and especially of man.
THE FIRST CAUSE OF THE INCARNATION: THE DESTRUCTION OF DEATH
It is with His Logos that God acts again in order to save His creation. He sends His Word (Logos) to the earth out of infinite love for man, Him who was never far away. And the Logos, who sees our plight and the loss of our generation, enters Himself into our race and is identified with us. He does this by taking a body like our own from a pure and impeccable Virgin and makes it personally His own, Himself becoming a man. With His own human existence the Logos offers as a man a life of perfect obedience to God, which concludes with His self‑sacrifice for the sake of all men. The true self‑sacrifice of Christ is sealed with His death on the Cross and is vindicated with His resurrection whereby death is destroyed forever.
The death of Christ, says St. Athanasios, does not occur for the same reason as our own. We die justly because death has a right over us on account of our sin. But Christ is just and sinless and thus He does not die for Himself but for us. He does not, of course, die as God—for this is quite impossible—but as man, inasmuch as He has a human existence identical with our own. He allows Himself to receive death at the hands of others, because He wants to enter the ultimate darkness of our fall and illuminate it with His presence. He dies as man in order to annul the ultimate strength of death. The death of Christ, of the one who is just and lays down His life for the unjust, has a universal meaning, value and effectiveness. It was the death of all men that Christ accomplished through His death, in the sense that natural death is no longer the ultimate destiny of any man.
Our ultimate destiny is now the resurrection of our creaturely mortal existence to a new condition of immortality caused by the Resurrection of Christ. Christ is the first‑fruit and we shall follow. We no longer die as condemned, but we die in order to rise again and live eternally with God. This universal significance, value and effectiveness of Christ’s death is not based simply on the fact that He was the just and true man who was vindicated by God when He died in the hands of sinners, but above all on the fact that He is in the last analysis the Creator Logos who holds the key to the existence of all men (He is the God-Man). The Lord’s humanity (His body) is identical with our own, but it has acquired universal rights for all of us because it is the humanity of the universal Lord of all (it is the Divine-Body).
Christ is ultimately “the true God who is above all and for all”, who in becoming man has regained our lost rights especially through His Death and Resurrection. The abolition of death and corruption as the ultimate conclusion to our destiny and the establishment of the rights to immortality and incorruptibility for our creaturely human existence is regarded by St. Athanasios as the first cause of the Incarnation. The wonder of the whole gift of Christ to us is not just the return of our humanity from death to life, but the transformation of that humanity into an external incorruptible and immortal existence which is new and demands the renewal of the whole world.
THE SECOND CAUSE OF THE INCARNATION: MAN’S REGAINING THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD
Apart from the death of our creaturely existence, our fall has also been the cause of our ignorance of God. As we saw above, man’s rational existence implies that he does not simply enjoy life but also knowledge, and indeed the knowledge of God. According to St. Athanasios and the other Fathers and Theologians of our Church, the knowledge of man is not restricted to the knowledge of the cosmos or of his own self, but is ultimately connected with the knowledge and consciousness of God. Without the last one all other kinds of knowledge can lose their true meaning and become paradoxically bearers of ignorance.
The knowledge and consciousness of God is ultimately connected with the grace of the Image and the Likeness of the Divine Logos given to man at his creation. In the last analysis man’s knowledge of God is based on his knowledge of the Logos, who is God’s true Image. By perceiving the Logos men perceive God and thus receive eternal life, which rests on His grace. Yet on account of their fall men have neglected this grace, and as a result they have lost the ability of perceiving the divine Word (Logos) and through Him perceiving God. This loss has also meant that they cannot any more understand the truth of the world or the truth of themselves, or even the truth which God has sent to them through the Prophets and the holy men. It was self‑evident then that the Logos and true Image of the Father had to be revealed to men once again and revive in them the grace of the Image that had been darkened.
This is exactly what the Logos did with His Incarnation. Not only did He revive the mortal body and make it incorruptible, but He also renewed the grace of the Image of God in man’s soul and existence. Neither angels nor men, says St. Athanasios, could have achieved this, but only the very Logos of God who is God’s true Image. Just as an image which has been printed on a piece of wood requires the prototype in order to be restored when destroyed, so the grace of the Image of the Logos which had been engrafted upon the soul of man was required in order to be revived after man’s fall. This is exactly what the Incarnation of the Logos of God actually brought about: the revival of man’s rationality, which involves the restoration of the knowledge and consciousness of God in man and constitutes the second and ultimate cause of the Incarnation.
For St. Athanasios then there are two basic consequences of the Incarnation which refer to our salvation and bring out its inner meaning. First of all the Incarnation has opened the way for the return of our mortal and corruptible existence from death to life. Secondly it gives us the possibility for renewal in our inner man through restoring to us the knowledge and consciousness of God, which constitutes the foundation for our true knowledge of the world and of ourselves. Christ saves us completely, because He gives us the immortality of our creaturely nature and makes us communicants of eternal life in the light and glory of His Kingdom. The Church knows these two fundamental gifts of Christ to humanity empirically, and therefore her faith in the God who became man is not the result of a blind obedience to some dogma superimposed from above. The Church does not accept the principle, “believe and do not search,” but the principle, “taste and see that the Lord is good.”
In the last analysis, and as St. Athanasios teaches in other writings, the proof of the faith of the Church in the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ the Savior of the World, is based on the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. Both the resurrection of the human nature and the restoration of the grace of the Image of God in man are the work of the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. The whole salvation of man, which is achieved and revealed in the Incarnation of the Son and Logos of God is the work of the one undivided and consubstantial Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, to whom belongs all the glory, the honor and the worship now and for ever and in the ages of the ages. Amen.
by Rev. Dr. George Dion Dragas