Athanasius of Alexandria is an early Church Father, considered one of the great “Doctors of the Church.” He is the first person to identify the 27 books we now consider the New Testament. He contributed to the theological integrity of the church by struggling against Arians, who maintained that Jesus of Nazareth was of a “distinct substance” to the father (which would violate the doctrine of the Trinity), as well several Emperors. This penchant for conflict for the truth earned him the title Athanasius Contra Mundum (or Athanasius Against the World). This week, we are going to pray through one of his works, On the Incarnation of the Word (or De Incarnatione Verbi Dei). The text itself is a companion to another one of his works, Against the Heathen (or Contra Gentes). In his first work, he is offering written arguments against pagan beliefs and practices. But in the work we’ll focus on this week, On the Incarnation, Athanasius beautifully writes of the basis of Christian faith and salvation: the incarnation of Jesus. I will offer an excerpt of the text (you can find the whole thing here), and try to bring to our immediate relevance to us today.
Today’s Bible reading
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.—Genesis 1:1
All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.—John 1:3
By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.—Hebrews 11:3
More thoughts for meditation
Athanasius begins his treatise on the incarnation by focusing on creation, first by refuting three competing viewpoints of creation, and then by retelling the biblical narrative of Creation (using Genesis, but also passages in the New Testament in order to incorporate Jesus into the narrative).
He argues against the Epicureans that because they believed “everything has had its beginning… independent of purpose” all of creation would be alike and not distinct. And that isn’t adequate to explain the diverse universe as he experiences it.
To the Platonists, he argues that their belief that “God has made the world out of matter previously existing and without beginning” makes God weak because God does not precede the material here, God simply organizes it. “He works at existing material, but is not Himself the cause of the material.”
Finally, to the Gnostics, he argues that their belief that the creator, the “artificer,” is distinct from the Father of Christ is manifestly disproven in the Bible (Matthew 16:4, John 1:3). After he deconstructs these arguments he moves toward his telling of the creation account.
“The true doctrine. Creation out of nothing, of God’s lavish bounty of being. Humans created above the rest, but incapable of independent perseverance. Hence the exceptional and supra-natural gift of being in God’s Image, with the promise of bliss conditionally upon his perseverance in grace.”
Athanasius retells the biblical creation narrative, naming God as the source of goodness, and crediting Jesus Christ as the creator (using John 1:3 and Hebrews 11:3). He writes that God has taken a “special pity” on the human race, one that he did not “barely create” us, but in a special way, in God’s image and “of the power of His own Word.” He says we now reflect the Word of God. But it wasn’t enough that God created us, God secured us by grace through the law, and gave them a place in paradise, in God’s own garden. If they kept the grace, the law, they stayed in paradise without “sorrow or pain or care.”
Suggestions for action
Looking back at Athanasius’ arguments against the contemporary theories of creation is interesting. Many of those philosophies are long-gone at this point, and some of his critiques don’t stand the test of time as they were corrected later on when we learned more about our physical environment. But what strikes me is that his retelling of the biblical narrative does remain sound. Though we know that eventually humans corrupt the creation by their own sin, there is a deep comfort to be found in being especially created by God, with attention, in God’s image, with the power of Christ. We know that Jesus fulfills the very law given to us by grace, and so now we can live in the paradise that begins now without “sorrow or pain or care” (but also with those things, in this strange in-between time that we live).
What stands between you and believing that God takes a “special pity” on you? Pray for the courage to believe that God did not merely create you, but made you with a unique care and gaze that names you as the beloved.