Lent 2015, Day Eight—Athanasius (1)

For this and the next several days, the posts will contain citations from Athanasius (AD 298-373), the important, fourth-century theologian and bishop of Alexandria.  The citations below are from his On the Incarnation of the Word.  For the translation, rather than the one contained in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series, accessible here, I have chosen one that was done in the first half of the twentieth century, and for which C. S. Lewis wrote the introduction.  You may access the entire work here.

Among the issues Athanasius is addressing in this work are: “Why the incarnation?”  And, “Why the Cross?”  Athanasius deals with why it is that God could not just forgive humanity for their sins, if humanity would just repent of them.  Why was the incarnation necessary?  Why such a violent death on the cross?  The first few citations below set up the problem:

When this happened [the fall], men began to die, and corruption ran riot among them and held sway over them to an even more than natural degree, because it was the penalty of which God had forewarned them for transgressing the commandment.  (1.5)

The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape.  (2.6)

As we have already noted, it was unthinkable that God, the Father of Truth, should go back upon His word regarding death in order to ensure our continued existence.  He could not falsify Himself; what, then, was God to do?  Was He to demand repentance from men for their transgression? You might say that that was worthy of God, and argue further that, as through the Transgression they became subject to corruption, so through repentance they might return to incorruption again. But repentance would not guard the Divine consistency, for, if death did not hold dominion over men, God would still remain untrue.  (2.7)

He saw that corruption held us all the closer, because it was the penalty for the Transgression; He saw, too, how unthinkable it would be for the law to be repealed before it was fulfilled.  (2.8)

The rest of the citations beginning with the two below, and for the next several days, show how God dealt with the problem.

Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection.  (2.8)

The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as could not die. For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection. It was by surrendering to death the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from every stain, that He forthwith abolished death for His human brethren by the offering of the equivalent. For naturally, since the Word of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required. (2.9)

Jerry Shepherd
February 26, 2015

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