Getting the gospel right is near and dear to the heart of every conservative Christian. The integrity of the gospel is a non-negotiable. In this conviction, we find a true brother in our forefather in the faith, Athanasius.
Hailing from Alexandria, the formative years of his youth were spent amidst the horrible persecution of Christians instigated by Diocletian. Athanasius wrote the book under consideration here in 318, was present as a deacon at the Council of Nicaea, and became the bishop of Alexandria three years later. He would hold this post, though exiled a few times, until his death in 373. Small in stature, he was great in soul, with an unwearied commitment to defend the true Christian faith.
On the Incarnation was not written in the heat of battle against false teaching. Rather, it was written for a new convert named Macarius to instruct him in the fundamentals of the faith. It is, according to Athansius, “a brief statement of the faith of Christ and of the manifestation of his Godhead to us. This will give you a beginning, and you must go on to prove its truth by the study of the Scriptures.”1All quotations taken from the Popular Patristics Series edition of On the Incarnation (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977). Athanasius wrote the book to teach that “the renewal of creation has been made by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning.”
So I recommend this book to you as a worthwhile doctrinal and practical help to your Christian faith. What is more precious to us as believers than Jesus Christ our Lord? Who among us could not benefit from deeper meditation upon his person and work?
But not only do I recommend On the Incarnation for doctrinal reasons, I recommend it as well as a basic Christian worldview book. The theological disputants of the fourth century were well aware that what they believed about the person of Christ and what they believed about the Trinity were roots from which grew their entire worldview, to use a modern term. As Khaled Anatolios states, “The question that gets closer to the heart of the fourth-century debates is how Christ’s primacy informs the Christian faith as a whole, and, in particular, the Christian understanding of absolute divine transcendence.”2Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 156.
At the heart of every society is the question, “How does man relate to God (or, if you like, the divine)?” Every structured manner of human relation contains an implicit corollary to that question. What is reality like? How do we know it? How do we participate in it?
One of the deep assumptions of a conservative Christian mindset is that reality is not merely a matter of will. In contrast, a liberal mindset tends to conceive that social reality is constructed by will, whether it is a social contract theory or a pro-choice position on abortion. Throughout his life, Athanasius contended that the Word was not merely a product of the Father’s will but was begotten of the Father. There is a unity of being in the Trinity and not merely a unity of willing. This single fact is momentous in its consequences.
The more the biblical doctrine of God and Christ, hammered out and tested in manifold ways over the course of church history, crashes upon us like a tidal wave, the better prepared we will be to worship him rightly, reverently, and gloriously, in keeping with his character.
You will not find Athanasius a perfect guide on all doctrinal matters, but this is to be expected. Many doctrinal issues had not yet come under intense scrutiny generated by controversy, so we do not see Athanasius speaking with the refinement that we would expect of someone writing today. Yet Athanasius is very important precisely because he does not speak as one writing today would. C. S. Lewis says it this way in his justly famous introduction to this work:
Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. . . . Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.
So take up and read On the Incarnation. You will be drawn to Christ, and you will be fortified to live faithfully in this present age.
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