De Incarnatione Verbi Dei

2 01 2011

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.  (John 1:1-3)

The time between New Year’s Day and Epiphany (Jan. 6th) is when most are feeling the “let down” of the post-Holiday season.  It’s a time when everyone is looking forward to getting back to a normal schedule.  I, too, feel the “let down” of this time, but I also enjoy the relative quit these few days afford me.  I am referring mostly to the quiet in the culture.  Since the day after Halloween our culture has been focused on the Holidays, especially Christmas.  Christmas music is played wall-to-wall from Thanksgiving Day on.  Now, in these early days of the new year everyone is eagerly leaving all of that behind until next year.  This leaves people like me a little room to contemplate and worship the Incarnate One we supposedly celebrate (or at least remember) in the “Holiday Season.”

And make no mistake, Christmas IS about the Incarnation– the Eternal Son, the Eternal Word of the Father taking on human flesh and human nature in the most daring rescue mission ever undertaken in heaven or earth.  Please don’t let the cute little baby in the hay fool you!  Even many well meaning Christians who proclaim that “Jesus in the Reason for the Season” allow themselves to get so caught up in the cultural celebration of the holiday season (which, of course, is not all bad for one’s soul) that they fail to see and to proclaim the Incarnation (despite singing carols about Immanuel, “God with us”).  Therefore, it is my honor and pleasure to present a bit of the most penetrating and worship-filled words ever written about the Incarnation.  They were written by a holy and courageous man early in the Fourth century.  His name is Athanasius, and I invite you to do some research on him and find your spirit greatly encouraged by what you find.  In the words that follow we are allowed a glimpse, beyond the nativity scene, into the great and astounding story of humanity’s rescue from Satan, sin, death, and… non-existence (which is depicted most powerfully in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce).

Caution:  In what follows, read slowly, meditate often.

St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation

Paragraph 1

“The renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning.  There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation; for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.”

[from the end of Par. 7]  “For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father.”

Paragraph 8

“For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world.  In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are.  But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us.  He saw the reasonable race, the race of men that, like Himself, expressed the Father’s Mind, wasting out of existence, and death reigning over all in corruption.  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 [the penalty of death given at the Fall] to be repealed before it was fulfilled.  He saw how unseemly it was that the very things of which He Himself was the Artificer should be disappearing.  He saw how the surpassing wickedness of men was mounting up against them; He saw also their universal liability to death.  All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own.  Nor did He will merely to become embodied or merely to appear; had that been so, He could have revealed His divine majesty in some other and better way.  No, He took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father– a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man.  He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt.  Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death in place 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, when He had 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.  Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.”  [Emphasis mine]

A few scattered thoughts:

  • Not all contemporary Christians miss these crucial elements of the Incarnation written about by Athanasius.  Singer and Songwriter, Andrew Peterson, produced an album several years ago by the title of:  Behold the Lamb of God:  The True Tall Tale of the Coming of Christ.  The album is a great tool for worship and contemplation during Advent.  Also, Peterson and his crew have taken the songs of this album on tour every Advent for the last seven years or so.  I highly recommend attending one of these sessions if you get a chance– it is a great anti-dote to the hype of the commercialized Christmas that surrounds us and attempts to drown out true worship with its noise and pull.  At any rate, compare Peterson’s words with Athanasius’ teaching:

“Gather ’round ye children come, and hear the old, old story;

Of the power of death undone, by an infant born of glory

Son of God, Son of Man

Gather round remember now, how creation held its breath,

How it let out a sigh, and filled up the sky with the angels

Son of God , Son of Man

So sing out with joy for the brave little boy

Who was God, but he made himself nothing

Well he gave up his pride and he came here to die, like a man

Therefore God exalted him, to the place of highest praises,

And He gave him the name above every name

That at the very name of Jesus…

Son of God, Son of Man

We would sing out with joy for the brave little boy

Who was God, but he made himself nothing

And he gave up his pride and he came here to die, like a man

So in heaven and earth and below,

Every knee would bow in worship

Every tongue would proclaim Jesus he reigns with the angels”

  • One thing that really struck me is what Athanasius does NOT say in this section of his treatise.  He does not talk about how Jesus was punished, on our behalf, by God.  He does not describe how God’s just wrath had to be unleashed and how Christ took it so we wouldn’t have to.  Yes, Athanasius does say that Christ offered himself up to the Father, and how the penalty of death promised in the Garden of Eden had to be carried out if the Father was to remain true to His word.  In the speech of theologians, Athanasius offers no support for “penal substitutionary atonement” that is often discussed today.

John Piper, whose books I have read and for whom I have sincere respect and agreement with on many things (despite the fact that he is a staunch five-point Calvinist, while I am a bull-headed Wesleyan-Arminian) saddened me greatly in his book, The Passion of Jesus Christ (2004, by Crossway Books).  In this short book he provides “Fifty Reasons Why He Came to Die.”  I opened the book anticipating Piper’s usual incisive and convicting prose only to be dismayed by what he chose to devote the very first “reason” to:  that Jesus came to die in order “to absorb the wrath of God.”  Of all the things to begin the book with!!!  Why not how Jesus has undone the power of death by his death?!  Why not how the dominion of Satan and sin has been toppled?! Why not how Christ restores God’s own image in us by his death and resurrection?!  Why not how Christ has opened the way to God’s eternal Kingdom for all sinners who believe?!  Why not how Jesus of Nazareth restores to us what it really means to be human– to be as God meant us to be in the beginning?!  Instead, Piper takes a page to explain the word “propitiation.”  A significant biblical word, no doubt, but not a good place to start.  I think this book was especially targeted for unbelievers and immature Christians who became more interested in Jesus after seeing Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.  If I’m right, I wish Piper would have began the book with at least a glimpse of the depth and grandeur of what Christ has restored by His death and resurrection.  Instead, the reader begins by having his focus turned towards a wrath-filled God who makes His eternal Son “absorb” the whole punishment intended for a deserving humanity.  The reader may have been more captivated by the tale of a people who had come under the thumb of Satan, Sin and Death, by their own fault, but who were rescued by the very Sovereign they had committed treason against– made possible by the eternal Son who freely offered his body unto death in order to pay our ransom and set us free.

What Athanasius has to say about how the Father and the Son relate to one another makes much more sense to me than the image of a righteously angry God unleashing His full wrath on His innocent, holy and eternal Son.  Rather, we can see here the Eternal Word, who, out of sheer love for the Father and for us (whom He had help create), “gave himself up to death, even death on cross.”  And by his unspeakably self-less and brave act we are rescued and the Father’s original plans and integrity are upheld, to the glory of the whole Trinity.

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