“But just as this consequence must needs hold, so, too, on the other side the just claims of God lie against it: that God should appear true to the law He had laid down concerning death. For it were monstrous for God, the Father of truth, to appear a liar for our profit and preservation. So here, once more, what possible course was God to take? To demand repentance of men for their transgression? For this one might pronounce worthy of God; as though, just as from transgression men have become set towards corruption, so from repentance they may once more be set in the way of incorruption. But repentance would, firstly, fail to guard the just claim of God. For He would still be none the more true, if men did not remain in the grasp of death; nor, secondly, does repentance call men back from what is their nature—it merely stays them from acts of sin. 4. Now, if there were merely a misdemeanour in question, and not a consequent corruption, repentance were well enough. But if, when transgression had once gained a start, men became involved in that corruption which was their nature, and were deprived of the grace which they had, being in the image of God, what further step was needed? or what was required for such grace and such recall, but the Word of God, which had also at the beginning made everything out of nought?
5. For His it was once more both to bring the corruptible to incorruption, and to maintain intact the just claim of the Father upon all. For being Word of the Father, and above all, He alone of natural fitness was both able to recreate everything, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be ambassador for all with the Father.”– Athanasius of Alexandria. (1892). On the Incarnation of the Word. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), & A. T. Robertson (Trans.), St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters (Vol. 4, p. 40). Christian Literature Company.
“For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God comes to our realm, howbeit he was not far from us before. For no part of creation is left void of Him: He has filled all things everywhere, remaining present with His own Father. But He comes in condescension to shew loving-kindness upon us, and to visit us. 2. And seeing the race of rational creatures in the way to perish, and death reigning over them by corruption; seeing, too, that the threat against transgression gave a firm hold to the corruption which was upon us, and that it was monstrous that before the law was fulfilled it should fall through: seeing, once more, the unseemliness of what was come to pass: that the things whereof He Himself was Artificer were passing away: seeing, further, the exceeding wickedness of men, and how by little and little they had increased it to an intolerable pitch against themselves: and seeing, lastly, how all men were under penalty of death: He took pity on our race, and had mercy on our infirmity, and condescended to our corruption, and, unable to bear that death should have the mastery—lest the creature should perish, and His Father’s handiwork in men be spent for nought—He takes unto Himself a body, and that of no different sort from ours. 3. For He did not simply will to become embodied, or will merely to appear. For if He willed merely to appear, He was able to effect His divine appearance by some other and higher means as well. But He takes a body of our kind, and not merely so, but from a spotless and stainless virgin, knowing not a man, a body clean and in very truth pure from intercourse of men. For being Himself mighty, and Artificer of everything, He prepares the body in the Virgin as a temple unto Himself, and makes it His very own as an instrument, in it manifested, and in it dwelling. 4. And thus taking from our bodies one of like nature, because all were under penalty of the corruption of death He gave it over to death in the stead of all, and offered it to the Father—doing this, moreover, of His loving-kindness, to the end that, firstly, all being held to have died in Him, the law involving the ruin of men might be undone (inasmuch as its power was fully spent in the Lord’s body, and had no longer holding-ground against men, his peers), and that, secondly, whereas men had turned toward corruption, He might turn them again toward incorruption, and quicken them from death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of the Resurrection, banishing death from them like straw from the fire.”– Athanasius of Alexandria. (1892). On the Incarnation of the Word. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), & A. T. Robertson (Trans.), St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters (Vol. 4, pp. 40–41). Christian Literature Company.
Who is Athanasius?
Athanasius was called “Black Dwarf” by his heretical enemies (1). This African deacon who eventually became Bishop of Alexandria was one of the greatest theologians to ever live. His unflinching devotion to the Triune God revealed in holy scripture is legendary. When the entire world seemingly fell prey to the heresy of Arianism, that single African pastor stood against that world and nearly singlehandedly restored the world, by the grace of God, to orthodoxy. He was slandered by his theological opponents, but his friends and followers eventually called him “the noble champion of Christ.” (2)
“I’M SORRY” Isn’t Enough
Is repentance not enough? Athanasius recognized that the justice of God demanded more than an “I’m sorry” to forgive guilty sinners. Many modern American Christians often do not think deeply enough about God’s justice. We imagine God merely saves people as long as they feel sorry for their “mistakes.” Still, God’s character is not the only theological category we moderns often get wrong. We often misunderstand the depth of our depravity. The average Christian here in the states usually has an optimistic view of the human condition that suggests people are generally good with the capacity to do evil. Is that your general impression of humanity? If it is, then sit down and keep reading the scriptures. Holy writ’s description of human nature is brutal to our ego. Humanity is not pictured optimistically but, in fact, very pessimistically.
To summarize our culture’s current theological problem, we are a group of people that tend to have a small, deflated view of God but a hugely overinflated view of ourselves. We are a culture that seems religious but uses our natural worshipful instincts to bolster our egos, learn how to maintain a better self-image, and generally feel better about ourselves. Famous social scientist and author Christian Smith coined the phrase “Moral Therapeutic Deism” (3) to capture our American culture’s new spin on Christianity.
What’s the solution? Answering that question is a bit “outside of my pay grade,” but I have at least one suggestion for us to move in the right direction. We need to rediscover old Christian theologians. We should learn about ancient theologians from the past to maintain our family connection. Many voices of the ancient church, like Athanasius, were brilliant thinkers from whom we have so much to learn.
Athanasius knew repentance is not to clear our guilt. Our sin is far too grave a crime for the Almighty Judge of the Universe to forgive us for merely saying, “I’m sorry.” God’s character is far too good to clear the guilty. The law reflects God’s justice, and transgressors have merited punishment that can not be cleared with mere words. Repentance is the correct response of a sinner before God, but the Lord’s forgiveness of sins is based upon Christ’s work.
All Things Were Made And Remade By Him
As Athanasius discusses God’s justice and our fallen state, he leads us to think of Jesus Christ as “the Word of God,” who had made everything out of nothing at the beginning of all things. Therefore, in his logic, Jesus is along perfectly fitted to also “recreate everything, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all” in order to be the mediator between God and man. This theological symmetry is not only beautiful, but it is wholistic in its Biblical vision. Athanasius teaches us that Jesus the creator willingly took upon Himself a human body “because all were under penalty of … death.” He gave Himself over to death in our stead as an offering to the Father. Athanasius’ vision of the gospel isn’t complete with forgiveness of our guilt, but it is a recreative act that will unite Heaven and Earth in the work of the Son.
The Creator Entered Into Creation
Athanasius says The body that the Son takes to Himself is “of no different sort from ours.” Jesus is truly man, but also He is truly God. According to Athanasius, he entered into the world that He had made to ensure that His creative work was not “spent for naught,” according to Athanasius. God will not lose His beautiful creation to the corruption and death caused by the original fall. Scripture described our world in Genesis 1 as “very good,” and Romans 8 describes its current condition as “groaning” like a woman in childbirth. Creation will fully realize God’s grand design of glorification in the end. The fall, though tragic, was not an unforeseen problem to solve but a necessary movement in the plan of God. All of history is moving toward its telos. At the center of this grand story is God incarnate, redeeming creation and banishing death once and for all. This is good news.
(1) Galli, M., & Olsen, T. (2000). Introduction. In 131 Christians everyone should know (p. 17). Broadman & Holman Publishers.
(3) Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers Christian Smith, Melinda Lundquist Denton OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS / 2009 / TRADE PAPERBACK