A few years ago, my colleague Dr. Glenn Sunshine wrote an introduction to one of the greatest works of Christian antiquity, Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word. Athanasius (born in Alexandria in the 290s) is best known for defending the divinity of Christ against the heresy of Arius, who taught that Jesus was not equal with God the Father but a lesser, created being. Arianism had gained significant ground in the Church, but Athanasius fought to preserve the biblical view that Jesus is “in very nature God.” In the process, he became known as Athanasius Contra Mundum: “Athanasius Against the World.”
In his introduction, Dr. Sunshine describes Athanasius’ teaching:
[T]he Image of God made it possible for us to know the Word of God; with sin the Image was defaced, and we lost the knowledge of God. But since the Word is the perfect Image of God (Col. 1:15), He was able to renew that Image in us, and by His life, works, and teaching to renew and restore true knowledge of God. His works of power revealed Him as the Word of God, the Lord of all Creation and thus the one through whom true knowledge of God comes.
That the Word of God came, not just to live, but to die for our sins is another important theme of On the Incarnation:
How could He have called us if He had not been crucified, for it is only on the cross that a man dies with arms outstretched? Here, again, we see the fitness of His death and of those outstretched arms: it was that He might draw His ancient people with the one and the Gentiles with the other and join both together in Himself. Even so, He foretold the manner of His redeeming death, “I, if I am lifted up, will draw all men to Myself.”
By becoming fully human, the incarnate Word of God draws fallen human beings to Himself, forging them into a new humanity:
He manifested Himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the Mind of the unseen Father. He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality. He Himself was unhurt by this, for He is impassable and incorruptible; but by His own impassability He kept and healed the suffering men on whose account He thus endured. In short, such and so many are the Savior’s achievements that follow from His Incarnation, that to try to number them is like gazing at the open sea and trying to count the waves. One cannot see all the waves with one’s eyes, for when one tries to do so those that are following on baffle one’s senses.
On the Incarnation can speak to the heresies of our time, too. For example, Arianism lives on in Mormonism, the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and any teaching that denies the Trinity. It also is reincarnated among those who label Jesus as merely a good teacher who came as an example for us, but not as our Savior.
C.S. Lewis famously encouraged his readers to balance the reading of new books with old ones. As Dr. Sunshine reminds us in his introduction to On the Incarnation, Lewis wrote this in his own introduction to Athanasius’ work:
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. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light.
So, Lewis said, “The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”
On the Incarnation of the Word is an especially helpful read during Advent and Christmastide, when we celebrate again the coming of the Incarnate Word of God, who became flesh and dwelt among us.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Kasey Leander and Dr. Glenn Sunshine. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.
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