For He became manthat we might become divine;
and He revealed Himself through a body
that we might receive an idea of the invisible Father;
and He endured insults from men
that we might inherit incorruption [54].[2]

Two names stand out in the history of the early Christian church: Augustine and Athanasius, the former for the church in the West, the latter for that in the East. Both are our brothers in the Lord, although we often call them church fathers; and both are beloved brothers because they fought against the secularization of Christ's congregation. Augustine battled in Latin for the doctrine of grace over against Roman moralism, and Athanasius wrote his fierce Greek treatises on the doctrine of Christ in order to ward off Eastern speculation. His name is attached to our third ecumenical symbol, the so-called Athanasian Creed, and our Book of Praise mentions not only his years, A.D. 293-373, but calls him "the champion of orthodoxy over against Arian attacks upon the doctrine of the Trinity."[3] Did he, the young secretary of the bishop of Alexandria, not attend the Council of Nicea (325), and did he, soon bishop himself, not spend seventeen years in exile for the sake of God's truth?

In our worship services on Christmas we often hear the catholic confession about the only-begotten Son of God, very God of very God, Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man. It is good to hear these words as an echo from Holy Writ: in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father (Jn. 1). It is also good to hear in these words a summary of Athanasius' teaching.

Let us together glance over one of his books. It is the second volume of an apologetic work. Our brother defended the Christian faith and tried to convince Jews and Greeks that Jesus is the Christ. This second volume is entitled On the Incarnation of the Word and His Manifestation to Us through the Body. It is one of the classics of the Christian church and is typical of the Eastern Orthodox understanding of our Christian faith. Will it not be good to listen to our brother Athanasius? Let me relate some of the features that struck me when I reread this book in these weeks before Christmas.

First of all, it is characteristic of Athanasius that he stresses the harmony between God's act of creation and His work of redemption. Our Creator is our Redeemer and our Redeemer is our Creator. Right in the beginning, Athanasius states:

We must first speak about the creation of the universe and its creator, God, so that in this way one may consider as fitting that its renewal was effected by the Word who created it in the beginning. For it will appear in no way contradictory if the Father worked its salvation through the same by whom he created it [1].

Time and again the author comes back to the same point: God the Word created and God the Word redeems. Who was needed, he asks, except the Word of God, who also in the beginning had created the universe from nothing (7)? He was needed not oily to restore God's grace but also to make us know the Father:

So again, who was needed but God the Word, who sees both soul and mind, and who moves all things in creation and by them makes known the Father? For it was the task of him who by his providence and regulation of the universe teaches about the Father, also to renew the same teaching [14].

In creation and in providence God the Father operates through His Son, the Logos. Would redemption be possible, except through the same Word of God? Only God can restore us to the communion with God. In the Lord Jesus Christ we are redeemed by God Himself. Athanasius does not mention Arius once, and therefore some scholars think that he wrote this book before the struggle against the Arians began in 318. I follow the opinion of those who date the book later (around 335). Be that as it may, it is clear how important this struggle was. We possess the text of a letter which Arius wrote to his friend and fellow student Eusebius. He complains bitterly

that the bishop greatly injures and persecutes us and does all he can against us, trying to drive us out of the city as godless men, since we do not agree with him when he says publicly, 'Always Father, always Son'. . . . We are persecuted because we say, 'The Son has a beginning, but God is without beginning'. [4]

Arius spoke of the Son as a mere creature "constituted by God's will and counsel." But how could a creature bring us back to God? Athanasius was right: God Himself had to come and redeem us.

A second characteristic of Athanasius' book is his stress on the motive for the incarnation. Why did the Son of God become man? Answer: for our salvation. The Word of God came to our realm; he is incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial but "in his benevolence towards us he condescended to come and be made manifest" (2). In his Greek the bishop of Alexandria uses for "benevolence" the word "philanthropy." The Word stoops down and shows his lovingkindness. Does it not remind us of the words of Scripture? When the goodness and lovingkindness of God our Savior appeared He saved us in virtue of His own mercy (Tit. 3:4,5). In an illustrative passage Athanasius writes about a figure which has been painted on wood. He may have had in mind the portraits on wood, such as Egyptians attached to their mummies of the dead, as we may see in our museums today. The theologian from the land of King Tut uses this illustration:

For as when a figure which has been painted on wood is spoilt by dirt, it is necessary for him whose portrait it is to come again so that the picture can be renewed in the same material -for because of his portrait the material on which it is painted is not thrown away, but the portrait is redone on it--even so the all-holy Son of the Father, who is the image of the Father, came to our realms to renew man who had been made in his likeness, and, as one lost, to find him through the forgiveness of sins; just as he said in the gospels: 'I have come to save and find that which was lost' [14].

Does this quotation from Luke 19:10 not indicate the motive for the incarnation of the Son of God? He did not come to Bethlehem to honor mankind, but to save it. We should know the reason for the manifestation in the body of the Word of such and so great a Father. We should not think that the Savior put on a body as a consequence of His nature. "Although he is incorporeal by nature and Word, yet through the mercy and goodness of his Father he appeared to us in a human body for our salvation" (1).

When I read these passages I visualize those Greek unbelievers in Athanasius' days. They saw a great contrast between spirit and matter. Was it not folly to Greeks to speak of the incarnation of the Logos? How could the Word become flesh? Could He not reveal Himself through other parts of creation? Why did He not use a better instrument, such as the sun or moon or stars or fire or air, rather than merely a man? Athanasius has the answer: "The Lord came not to show himself, but to heal and to teach those who were suffering" (43). It is the task of a healer and teacher to be of service to those in need and to appear in a way that they can bear. Man had to be saved, and the Word, therefore, used a human body as an instrument for the true revelation of the Father. Who would not think of the text quoted somewhere by Athanasius, about the children who share in flesh and blood, and about the Son Who Himself likewise partook of the same nature (Heb. 2:14)?

This brings us to a third aspect of Athanasius' doctrine of redemption. He puts a strong emphasis on the contrast between death and life, corruption and incorruption. The Eastern Christian does not think primarily in relations of guilt and forgiveness, but in categories of death and immortality. Man in paradise, Athanasius says, had received the promise of immortality in heaven. But if he transgressed, he "would suffer the natural corruption consequent on death and would no longer live in paradise but in future dying outside it would remain in death and corruption" (3). If man had kept his likeness to God Who exists, he would have remained incorruptible:

Being incorruptible he would thenceforth have lived as God, as also somewhere the Divine Scripture declares, saying: 'I said that you are gods and all sons of the Highest: but you die like men and fall as one of the princes' [(4); Ps. 82:6-7].

But death entered the world and corruption took a strong hold on men. What should God have done? Allow corruption to hold sway over men and allow death to capture them? It would have been improper that what had once been created rational and had partaken of the Word should perish. Should what had been created "logical" by the Logos, return to non-existence through corruption? Here Athanasius pictures the work of salvation by the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us:

He had pity on our race, and was merciful to our infirmity, and submitted to our corruption, and did not endure the dominion of death. And lest what had been created should perish and the work of the Father among men should be in vain, he took to himself a body, and that not foreign to our own [8].

He surrendered this body to death on behalf of all and offered it to the Father. But because of the Word Who was dwelling in it, the body remained incorruptible, and so corruption ceased from all men by the grace of the resurrection. Christmas and Easter are directly related in Athanasius' thought. Life and immortality have been brought to light. The bishop of Alexandria becomes lyrical when he meditates on the incarnation of the Word. The incorruptible Son of God became united to all men by His body similar to theirs. Corruption has been overcome.

As when a great king has entered some great city and dwelt in one of the houses in it, such a city is then greatly honoured, and no longer does any enemy or bandit come against it, but it is rather treated with regard because of the king who has taken up residence in one of its houses; so also is the case with the King of all. For since he has come to our realm and has dwelt in a body similar to ours, now every machination of the enemy against men has ceased and the corruption of death, which formerly had power over them, has been destroyed [9].

What shall we say? I hope that our readers have listened attentively to our brother from Egypt who lived more than sixteen centuries ago. I do not know of any Christian writing in which the coming of our Savior is proclaimed so clearly as the way to victory over death. In this light I explain the famous expression that the Son of God became man that we might become divine. In the "Library of Christian Classics" you even read the translation, "For he was made man that we might be made God".[5] Athanasius literally wrote, "He was humanized that we might be deified" (54). To be sure, I think that the bishop of Alexandria misunderstood the words of Psalm 82 in which those to whom the word of God came are called gods (cf. Jn. 10:35). We should prevent all misunderstanding and never use ambiguous words. Therefore, I would not advocate that our ministers should preach that the Word became man that we might become divine. It is dangerous to speak of a deification of man. But it is evident that Athanasius never meant to eradicate the boundary between Creator and creature. Man does not sink into God, and he does not lose his created nature. Athanasius tried to express for the Greek readers of his days what Paul had proclaimed as our wonderful expectation: creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8). By "deification" Athanasius means "sanctification and glorification."

We may be thankful for Anselm and Luther and Calvin and all those other brothers who in the light of the Scriptures tried to answer the question Cur Deus homo? Why did God become man? We may be thankful for our Heidelberg Catechism and its pointed question: "What benefit do you receive from the holy conception and birth of Christ?" Answer: "He is our Mediator, and with His innocence and perfect holiness covers, in the sight of God, my sin, in which I was conceived and born" (Lord's Day 14).[6] "The sight of God" indicates God as our Judge. Our Catechism knows about sin and guilt and the need for a Mediator between God and us. There was the need for reconciliation, and the Man Christ Jesus gave Himself as a ransom for all (1 Tim. 2:5,6). Christmas is connected with Easter, but first of all it is a preparation for Good Friday. The letters of the Apostle Paul are deeper and broader than the writings of Athanasius. Nevertheless, also our brother in Alexandria helped us to understand something more of the mystery of our religion: God was manifested in the flesh. Hallelujah.


[1] <RETURN> This article was first published in Clarion 28 (Christmas Issue, 1979), 538- 39.

[2] <RETURN> The quotations are taken from Robert W. Thomson, ed. and trans., Athanasius: Contra Genies and De Incarnatione (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971). The numbers between brackets refer to the paragraphs in De Incarnatione.

[3] <RETURN> Book of Praise: Anglo-Genevan Psalter, 2nd ed. (Winnipeg: Premier, 1984), 438.

[4] <RETURN> Edward Rochie Hardy, ed., Christology of the Later Fathers (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), 329-330.

[5] <RETURN> Ibid., 107.

[6] <RETURN> Book of Praise, 488.