A few friends suggested I create cliff notes of Church Fathers different writings, and of course, there is no better writing than to start with On the Incarnation! I am using the translation by Fr. John Behr, published in the Popular Patristics Series at St. Vladimir’s Press. I’ll be organizing the notes according to the numbering in the book.
(1) Essentially St. Athanasius is introducing the writing. In this translation, Fr. John translates it as if St. Athanasius is addressing it generally. Still, in other translations, it’s as if to a specific person named Macarius. St. Athanasius also refers to previous writings and the importance of this writing; that is, why the Son took flesh. And he specifically mentions, “by the love for humankind and goodness of his own Father, he appeared to us in a human body for our salvation.” In general, the Church Fathers were stubborn with the faith because they knew that if something is changed, you change salvation. However, keep in mind, being absolute in our faith is one thing. Still, God calls us to have ekonomia in contrast to legalism.
(2) The next few sections Fr. John titles as “The Divine Dilemma regarding Life and Death.” In my honest opinion, it is very moving to understanding why personally the Son took flesh. In (2), St. Athanasius is creating a setting in the reader’s mind. He starts by talking about the creation of the world and mentions how some believe the universe came from nothing. While stating other people believe that the Father created the world with another God.
(3) He then moves into the creation of Adam & Eve in which he mentions in this part how God created mortal but would continue in immortality if they were to obey Christ. “If they guarded the grace and remained good, they might have the life of paradise—without sorrow, pain, or care—besides having the promise of their incorruptibility in heaven; but if they were to transgress and turning away become wicked, they would know themselves enduring the corruption of death according to nature, and no longer live in paradise, but thereafter dying outside of it, would remain in death and in corruption.”
(4) St. Athanasius ties talking about the origin of humanity to the reason of the Incarnation. He continues to comment about how if humanity continued, we would not have gone to corruption. He nicely says how disobeying God’s command turned us back to our natural state. Immortality was given as a grace from God. We are not naturally in and of ourselves immortal.
(5) In this section St. Athanasius says how our union with God was the reason for us to continue in this immortality. “Because of the Word present in them, even natural corruption did not come near them.” He goes onto speak about how, after the Fall, humanity continued to grow more and more in wickedness.
(6) This is where St. Athanasius starts going in! He talks about how it wouldn’t right to let God create waste as what was happening. He actually boldly states, “What need was there for their coming into being at the beginning? It was proper not to have come into being rather than to have come into being to be neglected and destroyed.” Essentially, he says it does not fit the goodness of God to allow His most beloved creation to perish.
(7) Now he states the dilemma. How was God out of His goodness to save His beloved creation while at the same time He, being God, is faithful to His word in being just, right? God can’t say one thing and then do another? Then by definition, He isn’t God. St. Athanasius speaks about repentance and that it would have been okay if it was just an offense; however, the Fall included something more, which is corruption. In the end, he concludes that it is only Christ Who could save us. “Being the Word of the Father and above all, he alone consequently was both able to recreate the universe and was worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to intercede for all before the Father.”
(8) He now speaks about how Christ takes flesh that is not some unnatural version of humanity but human nature that can die. I want to take a moment and introduce this concept of “double consubstantiality.” That simply means that Christ shared the same nature with the Father in His divinity and shared the same nature with us in His humanity.
(9) This section is mind-blowing! For real! He talks about how simply by Christ taking flesh, Him rising from the dead was a guarantee. Which aligns with St. Paul speaking about our faith is in vain if Christ did not rise. “And now the very corruption of death no longer holds ground against human beings because of the indwelling Word, in them through the one body.”
(10) He finishes this section by summing up how Christ taking flesh was to save us from death. “For since through human beings death had seized human beings, for this reason, again, through the incarnation of the God Word there occurred the dissolution of death and the resurrection of life, as the Christ-bearing man says, “For as by a human being came death, by a human being has come also the resurrection of the dead; for as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive” and that which follows (1 Cor 15.21–22).”