Scratchpad: Thoughts on Athanasius’ De Incarnatione Verbi Dei

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The Fourth Century of Christianity is by far my personal favorite. This is part of the assignment this week, so I thought I might share a rough draft or so…

Athanasius’ Christology was, as it should be, focused on Christ, and with all of his effort in De Incarnatione Verbi Dei (c. 328[i]) pointed only to the teleological precept that Christ, the very Image of God, was incarnated for the express purpose to recreate the fallen human race. Further, by necessity, the Word of God must be fully divine, full deity, to accomplish this great feat. It was only through the creative force of God that recreation could occur (7.5). For the ancient writer, who no doubt was still reeling from the single most important event in the life of the Church (after Pentecost, of course), the matter of the Incarnation was no small thing as it is the very ‘faith of our religion’ (1.1). It is, simply, the sine qua non of the Christian Faith, which shows not only God’s love, righteousness and power, but so too presents us with a present hope as a matter of the New Creation. Throughout the treatise (indeed, this one and others), Athanasius appeals to Scripture, and much to the dismay of Protestants, makes use of the book of Wisdom (of Solomon) like other early writers before, and after him. There was simply no greater theologian considered orthodox in the fourth century than Athanasius who defended his bishop at Nicaea and for the rest of his life would defend his view of the Godhead.

Following Athenagoras and Irenaeus before him, Athanasius focuses heavily on Wisdom Christology[ii], and should not be read without the first few chapters of Wisdom and several passages of Proverbs[iii] in the mind of the reader; surely, they were in Athanasius’s mind. For our ancient writer, Christ was the Word, the Wisdom, and the Power of God as he used those terms frequently, mirroring Paul in 1st Corinthians 1.24 as well as those after the Apostle who would see Christ as the Wisdom of God, developing their theology on that attribute. Further, Athanasius would stand against Justin and the Arians in their insistence that the Incarnation was the last of a line of appearances of the Son[iv] (note Justin’s commentary on Genesis 19) in defending that Christ was the Incarnation, designed for a purpose, and that purpose was to finally restore humanity. Athanasius would write that his entire treatise was to make sure his reader, Macarius, would ‘neither fail to know the cause of the bodily appearing of the Word of the Father…’ but know that the Incarnation was for the expressed purpose of being ‘manifested to us in a human body for our salvation.’ (1.3) Robertson notes that this ‘manifestation’ language is Athanasius’ method of describing Christ as Mediator, without seeing Christ as a waiting third party, ready to intervene. Instead, Athanasius sees ‘God manifesting himself immediately through his Word in creation’[v] a radically different view than that of the Semi-Arianism of the Eusebian Party.

One interesting note, and while not clearly expressed it is alluded to, is that the present Christological debates had a meaning to Athanasius that went beyond the normal exercises of battling heresies. Following John’s purpose of the Apocalypse, Athanasius sees that the present Christological debates involve eschatological purposes of revealing more of who Christ is. In 1.2, Athanasius comments that ‘the more He (Christ) is mocked among the unbelieving, the more witness does He give of His own Godhead.’ With the persecutions stopped by order of the Roman Emperor, and the Church gaining a foothold into the Imperial Roman Government, for many, the Kingdom had come. Yet, not all of the eschatological promises, especially those of mature knowledge[vi] of Christ, were fulfilled. It is possible that Athanasius and his audience believed that the current climate was purposed in order that Christ might finally be revealed and a mature knowledge of Him held by all believers.

Other insights into Athanasius’s Christology are found in such instances as 3.4 when he notes that ‘Holy Writ also gives warning, saying in the Person of God’ and goes on to quote the Edenic warning. While Nicaea had passed, certain theological words might not have been succinctly defined, and yet, it is still interesting that Holy Writ, something later given to the Spirit although still the purview of Christ here(10.2 – in which Athanasius notes that it is Christ who inspires the writers), speaks in the Person of God. It is also noteworthy that Athanasius rarely referred to the Christ as the Son before the Incarnation, but generally maintained the distinction of Word/Pre-Incarnate and Son/Incarnate that his ally Marcellus of Ancyra would be chastised over. It is not until 15.4 that Athanasius would write that Christ ‘alone among men appeared Son of God.’ In the same chapter, Christ is still called the Word of God, but only before he takes a body. Upon the Incarnation, Christ then becomes the Son of God, although later in 47.3, Athanasius would write that ‘Christ alone has been recognized among men as the true God, the Word of God. Rarely does Athanasius use Son, and then, only in connection to the act of Incarnation. As Word, and then as Son, Christ would be the ‘very Image of God, our Lord Jesus Christ’ (13.4) which would allow humanity to be recreated ‘after the image of God’, which for Athanasius seems to be a distinction worth noting, although the ancient writer certainly believed in θείας[vii]. Finally, Athanasius, although not nearly as easily done as Ignatius of Antioch, calls Christ God, unqualifibly (19.3). For Athanasius, Christ is the Image of God, the Son and Wisdom and Power of God (19.2), following in a long tradition of other ancient, and orthodox, writers.

While removed by 30 years, Athanasius’ Christology, and his Trinity, is summed up easily in his letter to Serapion,

God is above all things as Father, for he is principle and source; he is through all things through the Word; and he is in all things in the Holy Spirit. –  Athanasius’ first letter to Serapion (Ep. 1 ad Serapionem 28-30: PG 26, 594-95. 599) (c.360)

For Athanasius, then, had the Incarnated Word been anything less than God manifested in the flesh which the Arians decried, was to destroy all hope of Salvation.


[i] Although most scholars date it to this time, it may be that Athanasius was writing at a much later date than 326-328, perhaps as late at 337, the year in which a presbyter named Macarius (1.1) and several deacons traveled as deputies from the Eusebian Party to Rome to present the East’s case against Athanasius and Marcellus. (See Apol c. Arianos 22-24). It is possible that this letter was the response to Macarius which Athanasius sent, ultimately leading Macarius to feign illness and excuse himself from the case against Athanasius.

[ii] There is not the focus on the Logos Christology that we have in Justin and the other Alexandrines, although Athanasius sees the Word as Rational and thus imparting to the rational race, Reason. Athanasius, instead, focuses on Christ not as the organizing principle of the Logos but the divine creating attribute of Wisdom.

[iii] I would agree with several scholars who believe that the disputed passage which first caused Arius’ disruption was most likely Proverbs 8.

[iv] See the discussion on the Dyohypostatic Theology in Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J., Contra Marcellum Catholic University of America Press, Washington 1999,  p38-42 as well as p63 in which Lienhard notes that for Athanasius, the decisive moment in human history was the Incarnation.

[v] Robertson, Jon M., Christ as Mediator, A Study of the Theologies of Eusebius of Caesarea, Marcellus of Ancyra, and Athanasius of Alexandra, 194-214, 2007.

[vi] Ephesians 4.13

[vii] See 54.3, De Incarnatione Verbi Dei; cf 2nd Peter 1.4

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Post By Joel Watts (10,056 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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