If there is any Christian doctrine, belief, or dogma, that has a more substantial effect on all other categorically necessary and definitional doctrines, beliefs, or dogmas within any denominational framework, it cannot be argued as any more central than that of the doctrine of the incarnation. The very fact that any religion that would presume to call itself “Christian” cannot do so apart from a certain, dare it be emphasized, necessary assumption and assertion of two very key beliefs: that the person of Christ was a true, historic reality and that he was the God of Israel made present in human flesh. That is to say, if Christ was not a historically real person, Christianity is false and also, if Christ was not truly the God of Israel made flesh then Christianity is false because these are two key claims that Christianity makes in regard to all other doctrines it professes. One might even go so far as to make the claim that if there is any denial of the incarnation as either historical or necessary then they begin making denials about certain attributes of God. Such a conclusion may seem presumptive, but it is something that one Christian bishop in the middle of the first half of the fourth century after Christ’s advent seemed to have grasped, a man by the name of Athanasius, who distilled his arguments into a singular, definitional work that is known, in English, as On the Incarnation of the Word of God.
There is, of course, a measure of modernistic bigotry among many today who would ask, why something written some seventeen hundred years ago has anything meaningful to contribute to the conversation within the Christian world today? Such a question makes certain assumptions about the thoughts, opinions, and arguments of the ancestors in the faith that they simply cannot prove. C.S. Lewis argues, in an introduction to one translation of Athanasius’ work, that such springs from a false sense of humility.(1) He even goes so far as to call such attitudes as “mistaken”, arguing that there is an inherent danger in consuming what amounts to, “[…]an exclusive contemporary diet.”(2) Believers, he adds, need to have an intellectual diet of that which is, “[…]plain, simple Christianity…,” such that can only be found in the ancient materials.(3) It could be argued then that Athanasius’ work is not tainted by seventeen hundred years of sacramentalism, schism, and denominational distinctions. It is, for all intents and purposes, raw, undiluted Christian doctrine. But like all works of antiquity, it must be considered in its historical context.
Historically, Athanasius work (hereafter referred to as simply, The Incarnation) emerges during a period of Christian history, sometime between AD318-328, known for the emergence and eventually ascendency of Arianism, which has been one of the most divisive and still present heresies of the church.(4) Proposed by the presbyter Arius early in the forth century, Arianism denied key aspects of what had become seen as a key element of Christ’s claims and works, namely his absolute divinity, and lowering him to the status of a created being.(5) Athanasius, who seems to be very historically minded and deeply familiar with the biblical texts, seems to grasp why such a conclusion poses a problem not merely in the face of claims made by Christ in the gospels, which are dependent upon his absolute divinity, but also as a matter of soteriology. That is, if Christ was not truly God, then Christ could not save, because only the maker of all things could possibly reclaim and even remake all things.(6) While The Incarnation does not directly reference anything related to Arius or his teaching one cannot help but have a lingering aftertaste of it given that it is responding to certain popular Greek philosophical presuppositions and demonstrating the problems inherent in them, some of the same philosophical presuppositions inherent in Arianism.(7) This, of course, raises the question of why any modern reader, or any modern believer, should concern themselves with what happened so long ago, since they have been fought over and, believed to be, put to bed? Is it simply enough to rest on the dogmatic assertions, or must the modern be reflecting on the past so as to project what is true into the present and the future? Any meaningful answer to those questions seem to circle back to the dichotomy between a mere asserted belief and a confident proclamation. It was not merely enough for Athanasius to merely assert his beliefs but to demonstrate the reason for his confidence and bold proclamation, thus establishing the purpose of his treatise.
(Introduction and bibliography are here)
1. Athanasius (Lewis)
4. New World
6. Athanasius (1903) pp. 53-4