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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol. IV:
The Incarnation of the Word.: Introduction.

Early Church Fathers  Index     

p. 31 Introduction to the Treatise

on the

Incarnation of the Word.


The tract ‘against the Gentiles’ leaves the reader face to face with the necessity of restoration by the Divine Word as the remedy for corrupt human nature. How this necessity is met in the Incarnation is shewn in the pages which follow. The general design of the second tract is to illustrate and confirm the doctrine of the Incarnation by shewing (1) its necessity and end, (2) the congruity of its details, (3) its truth, as against the objections of Jews and Gentiles, (4) its result. He begins by a review (recapitulating c. Gent. 2–7) of the doctrine of creation and of man’s place therein. The abuse by man of his special Privilege had resulted in its loss. By foregoing the Divine Life, man had entered upon a course of endless undoing, of progressive decay, from which none could rescue him but the original bestower of his life (2–7). Then follows a description in glowing words of the Incarnation of the Divine Word and of its efficacy against the plague of corruption (8–10). With the Divine Life, man had also received, in the knowledge of God, the conscious reflex of the Divine Likeness, the faculty of reason in its highest exercise. This knowledge their moral fall dimmed and perverted. Heeding not even the means by which God sought to remind them of Himself, they fell deeper and deeper into materialism and superstition. To restore the effaced likeness the presence of the Original was requisite. Accordingly, condescending to man’s sense-bound intelligence—lest men should have been created in vain in the Image of God—the Word took Flesh and became an object of Sense, that through the Seen He might reveal the Invisible (11–16).

Having dwelt (17–19) upon the meaning and purpose of the Incarnation, he proceeds to speak of the Death and Resurrection of the Incarnate Word. He, Who alone could renew the handiwork and restore the likeness and give afresh the knowledge of God, must needs, in order to pay the debt which all had incurred (τὸ παρὰ πάντων ὀφειλόμενον), die in our stead, offering the sacrifice on behalf of all, so as to rise again, as our first-fruits, from the grave (20–32, note especially §20). After speaking of the especial fitness of the Cross, once the instrument of shame, now the trophy of victory, and after meeting some difficulties connected with the manner of the Lord’s Death, he passes to the Resurrection. He shews how Christ by His triumph over the grave changed (27) the relative ascendancy of Death and Life: and how the Resurrection with its momentous train of consequences, follows of necessity (31) from the Incarnation of Him in Whom was Life.

The two main divisions of contemporary unbelief are next combated. In either case the root of the difficulty is moral; with the Greeks it is a frivolous cynicism, with the Jews, inveterate obstinacy. The latter (33–40) are confuted, firstly, by their own Scriptures, which predict both in general and in detail the coming of Jesus Christ. Also, the old Jewish polity, both civil and religious, has passed away, giving place to the Church of Christ.

Turning to the Greeks (41–45), and assuming that they allow the existence of a perp. 32 vading Spirit, whose presence is the sustaining principle of all things, he challenges them to reject, without inconsistency, the Union of that Spirit, the Logos (compare St. Augustine Conf. VII. ix.), with one in particular of the many constituents of that Universe wherein he already dwells. And since man alone (43. 3) of the creatures had departed from the order of his creation, it was man’s nature that the Word united to Himself, thus repairing the breach between the creature and the Creator at the very point where it had occurred.

God did not restore man by a mere fiat (44) because, just as repentance on man’s part (7) could not eradicate his disease, so such a fiat on God’s part would have amounted to the annihilation of human nature as it was, and the creation of a fresh race. Man’s definite disorder God met with a specific remedy, overcoming death with life. Thus man has been enabled once more to shew forth, in common with the rest of Creation, the handiwork and glory of his Maker.

Athanasius then confronts the Greeks, as he had the Jews, with facts. Since the coming of Christ, paganism, popular and philosophic, had been falling into discredit and decay. The impotence and rivalries of the philosophic teachers, the local and heterogeneous character, the low moral ideals of the old worships, are contrasted with the oneness and inspiring power of the religion of the Crucified. Such are the two, the dying and the living systems; it remains for him who will to taste and see what that life is which is the gift of Christ to them that follow Him (46–end).

The purpose of the tract, in common with the contra Gentes, being to commend the religion of Christ to acceptance, the argument is concerned more with the Incarnation as a living fact, and with its place in the scheme of God’s dealing with man, than with its analysis as a theological doctrine. He does not enter upon the question, fruitful of controversy in the previous century at Alexandria, but soon to burst forth into furious debate, of the Sonship of the Word and of His relation to God the Father. Still less does he touch the Christological questions which arose with the decline of the Arian tempest, questions associated with the names of Apollinarius, Theodore, Cyril, Nestorius, Eutyches, Theodoret, and Dioscorus. But we feel already that firm grasp of soteriological principles which mark him out as the destined conqueror of Arianism, and which enabled him by a sure instinct to anticipate unconsciously the theological difficulties which troubled the Church for the century after his death. It is the broad comprehensive treatment of the subject in its relation to God, human nature, and sin, that gives the work its interest to readers of the present day. In strong reaction from modern or medieval theories of Redemption, which to the thoughtful Christian of to-day seem arbitrary, or worse, it is with relief that men find that from the beginning it was not so; that the theology of the early Church interpreted the great Mystery of godliness in terms which, if short of the fulness of the Pauline conception, are yet so free from arbitrary assumptions, so true to human nature as the wisest of men know it, so true to the worthiest and grandest ideas of God (see below, p. 33 ad fin.). The de Incarnatione, then, is perhaps more appreciated in our day than at any date since the days of its writer.

It may therefore be worth while to devote a word or two to some peculiarities incidental to its aim and method. We observe first of all how completely the power of the writer is absorbed in the subject under discussion. It is therefore highly precarious to infer anything from his silence even on points which might seem to require explanation in the course of his argument. Not a word is said of the doctrine of the Trinity, nor of the Holy Spirit; this directly follows from the purpose of the work, in accordance with the general truth that while the Church preaches Christ to the World, the Office and Personality of the Spirit belongs to her inner life. The teaching of the tract with regard to the constitution of man is another case in point. It might appear (§3, cf. 11. 2, 13. 2) that Athanasius ascribed the reasonable soul of man, and his immortality after death, not to the constitution of human nature as such, but to the grace superadded to it by the Creator ( τοῦ κατ᾽ εἰκόνα χάρις), p. 33 a grace which constituted men λογικοί (3. 4) by virtue of the power of the Logos, and which, if not forfeited by sin, involved the privilege of immortality. We have, then, to carefully consider whether Athanasius held, or meant to suggest, that man is by nature, and apart from union with God, (1) rational, or (2) immortal. If we confine our view to the treatise before us, there would be some show of reason in answering both questions in the negative; and with regard to immortality this has been recently done by an able correspondent of The Times (April 9, 1890).

But that Athanasius held the essential rationality and immortality of the soul is absolutely clear, if only from c. Gent. 32 and 33. We have, then, to find an explanation of his language in the present treatise. With regard to immortality, it should be observed (1) that the language employed (in 4. 5, where κενωθῆναι τοῦ εἶναι ἀεί is explained by τὸ διαλυθέντας μένειν ἐν τῷ θανάτῳ καὶ τῇ φθόρᾳ) suggests a continued condition, and therefore something short of annihilation, although not worthy of the name of existence or life,—(2) that even in the worst of men the image of God is defaced, but not effaced (14. 1, &c.), and that even when grace is lost (7. 4), man cannot be as though the contact with the divine had never taken place;—(3) that in this work, as by St. Paul in 1 Cor. xv., the final destiny of the wicked is passed over (but for the general reference 56. 3) in silence. It may be added (4) that Athanasius puts together all that separates man from irrational creatures without clearly drawing the line between what belongs to the natural man and what to the κατ᾽ εἰκόνα χάρις. The subject of eschatology is nowhere dealt with in full by Athanasius; while it is quite certain (c. Gent. 33) that he did not share the inclination of some earlier writers (see D.C.B. ii. p. 192) toward the idea of conditional immortality, there is also no reason to think that he held with the Universalism of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and others (see Migne, Patr. Gr. xxvii. p. 1404 A, also 1384 C, where ‘the unfortunate Origen’s’ opinions seem to be rejected, but with an implied deprecation of harsh judgment). As to his view of the essential rationality of man (see c. Gent. 32) the consideration (4) urged above once more applies (compare the discussion in Harnack, Dg. ii. 146 sqq.). Yet he says that man left to himself can have no idea of God at all (11. 1), and that this would deprive him of any claim to be considered a rational being (ib. 2). The apparent inconsistency is removed if we understand that man may be rational potentially (as all men are) and yet not rational in the sense of exercising reason (which is the case with very many). In other words, grace gives not the faculty itself, but its integrity, the latter being the result not of the mere psychological existence of the faculty, but of the reaction upon it of its highest and adequate object. (The same is true to a great extent of the doctrine of πνεῦμα in the New Testament.)

A somewhat similar caution is necessary with regard to the analogy drawn out (41, &c.) between the Incarnation and the Union of the Word with the Universe. The treatise itself (17. 1, κτὸς κατ᾽ οὐσίαν, and see notes on 41) supplies the necessary corrective in this case. It may be pointed out here that the real difference between Athanasius and the neo-Platonists was not so much upon the Union of the Word with any created Substance, which they were prepared to allow, as upon the exclusive Union of the Word with Man, in Contrast to His essential distinctness from the Universe. This difference goes back to the doctrine of Creation, which was fixed as a great gulf between the Christian and the Platonist view of the Universe. The relation of the latter to the Word is fully discussed in the third part of the contra Gentes, the teaching of which must be borne in mind while reading the forty-first and following chapters of the present treatise.

Lastly, the close relation between the doctrine of Creation and that of Redemption marks off the Soteriology of this treatise from that of the middle ages and of the Reformation. Athanasius does not leave out of sight the idea of satisfaction for a debt. To him also the Cross was the central purpose (20. 2, cf. 9. 1, 2, &c.) of His Coming. But the idea of Restoration is most prominent in his determination of the necessity of the Incarnation. p. 34 God could have wiped out our guilt, had He so pleased, by a word (44): but human nature required to be healed, restored, recreated. This (νακτίσαι) is the foremost of the three ideas (7. 5) which sum up his account of the ‘dignus tanto Vindice nodus 191 .

The translation which follows is that printed in 1885 (D. Nutt, second edition, 1891) by the editor of this volume, with a very few changes (chiefly 2. 2, 8. 4, 34. 2, 44. 7, 8): it was originally made for the purpose of lectures at Oxford (1879–1882), and the analytical headings now prefixed to each chapter are extracted verbatim from notes made for the same course of lectures. The notes have mostly appeared either in the former edition of the translation, or appended to the Greek text published (D. Null, 1882) by the translator. A few, however, have now been added, including some references to the Sermo Major, which borrows wholesale from the present treatise (Prolegg. ch. III. §1. 37). Two other English translations have appeared, the one (Parker, 1880) previous, the other (Religious Tract Society, n.d.) subsequent to that of the present translator. The text followed is that of the Benedictine editors, with a few exceptions. Of those that at all affect the sense, 43.6 (καὶ τὸ σῶμα) and 51. 2 (κατὰ τῆς εἰδ·) are due to Mr. Marriott (Analecta Christiana, Oxf. 1844). For the others (13. 2, omission of μή, 28. 3, κατὰ τοῦ πύρος rejecting conjectures of Montf. and Marriott, 42. 6, omission of πεποιηκέναι 57. 3, καὶ τὰ for τὰ καί) the present editor is alone responsible.

Synopsis of the Treatise.




Introduction. The Redemptive work of the Word based on His initial relation to the Creature.


FIRST PART.—The Incarnation of the Word.

§§2, 3.

Doctrine of Creation:

(1) Three erroneous views (2) rejected:

The Epicurean (materialistic) as failing to recognize a differentiating Principle.


The Platonic (matter pre-existent) as not satisfying the idea of God


The Gnostic (dualistic) as contradictory to Scripture


(2) The true doctrine (3) and its application to the Creation of Man


This directly brings us to a


First Reason for the Incarnation:

By departing from the Word, men lost the Principle of Life, and were wasting away (4, 5)


God could neither avert nor suffer this (6)


The latter would argue weakness, the former changeableness (7) on God’s part


The Word alone could solve this dilemma (7. 4). This done by His becoming man (8) and dying for us all (9). Reasonableness, and results of this (10)



Second Reason for the Incarnation:

In departing from the Word, men had also lost the Principle of Reason, by which they knew God. In spite of God’s witness to Himself, they were sunk into superstition and mental degradation (11, 12)


How none but the Word could remedy this (13, 14)


How He actually did so (15, 16). The Incarnation, a revelation of the Invisible Godhead


(§§17, 18 explain this in further detail)


p. 35 §19.

Transition to Second Part:

The Incarnation an irresistible revelation of God. This is especially true of the Death of Christ.


SECOND PART.—The Death and Resurrection of Christ.

His Death:


1.—Why necessary



2.—Why death by Crucifixion—

a.—Why public, and not natural, but at the hands of others (21–23)


b.—Why not of His own choosing (24)


c.—Why the Cross, of all deaths (25)


His rising again:


1.—Why on the third day



2.—Changed relation of Death to mankind



3.—Reality of His Resurrection—This:

a.—To be tested by Experience (28)


b.—Implied by its visible effects (29–31. 3)


c.—Involved in the Nature of the Incarnate Word (31. 4)


d.—Confirmed by what we see; as is the case with all truth about the unseen God (32. 1–5)


Summary of what is thus proved to be true (32. 6)


THIRD PART.—Refutation of Contemporary Unbelief.


A.—Refutation of Jews:


1.—From principles admitted by them—i.e., from prophecies relating to the Messiah


(§39 forms the step to the next section)



2.—From facts: cessation of the Jewish dispensation, as foretold by Daniel



B.—Refutation of Gentiles:


1.—From principles admitted by them

§§41, 42.

a.—The Word, whose existence contemporary philosophy allowed, might reasonably be supposed to unite Himself to some particular nature: consequently, to human nature



b.—Reasons for His Union with Man in particular



c.—Reasons why man should not be restored by a mere fiat



d.—Results of the Scheme actually adopted



2.—Refutation of Gentiles from facts


a.—Discredit and decay, since the coming of Christ, of philosophic and popular paganism


§§51, 52.

b.—Influence of Christian morals on Society



c.—Influence of Christ on the individual


§§54, 55.

d.—Nature and glory of Christ’s Work: summary of His victory over paganism


§§56, 57.

CONCLUSION: the enquirer referred to the Scriptures. Indispensable moral conditions of the investigation of Spiritual Truth




The corrections were made before he could obtain the essay carefully and gratefully used, but his text is defective, especially and text of Sievers (Zeitsch. Hist. Theol. 1868), where he now from the accidental omission of one of the key-clauses of the finds them nearly all anticipated. Sievers’ discussion has been whole (§17).

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