An editorial board from Renovare - led in particular by Richard Foster and Dallas Willard - came up with a list of "25 Books Every Christian Should Read." So I downloaded the list and decided since I would like to be considered part of the "every Christian" group, I should read the 25 books. You can find the list here:
Thankfully, I have read several of the books on the list. (One would hope a seminary education would be good for something). But I decided to revisit some that I have read in the past with hopefully fresh eyes and a maturing perspective.
So I started with the first one on the list - On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius. I have the edition done by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press which is a wonderful little volume that includes a preface by CS Lewis and a brief history of the life of Athanasius (both well worth reading).
On the Incarnation has both historic as well as theological significance. Athanasius was born around 298 in Egypt. He was raised primarily in Alexandria in a wealthy and educated family. The last - and in some ways the worst - persecution of Christians was by the emperor Diocletian beginning in 303. The persecution in Alexandria was especially severe. Among those martyred were many people that Athanasius knew and from whom he had been taught the faith. The persecution ended in 313 with the Edict of Milan.
But this period of fear had led many believers to flee to the desert for safety and refuge. It was in the desert that the spirituality that formed monasticism was born. During that time the person many consider the first of the great monastics came into prominence - St. Anthony. Anthony is usually depicted in art with demons tugging and pulling at him in many directions. He lived a solitary life in a ruined fort on the banks of the Nile. Athanasius wrote a biography of Anthony and it is believed that the parents of Athanasius may have sent him to live in the desert for safety during the persecutions in Alexandria. Although Athanasius always admired and envied the life of the hermit, he always felt drawn back into the battles that leadership brought to him. (I identify with him and deeply admire him on that point).
Six years after peace was finally established (319) an Alexandrian presbyter named Arius began to teach about the person of Jesus that "once He was not." In other words, he taught that because Jesus Christ is described as the begotten of the Father, and the first of his creations, there was a time when he did not exist as part of the Godhead. It was this controversial teaching that led to the first ecumenical council in Nicea in 325. Although Athanasius was present at the Council of Nicea, he was at the time only a voteless deacon. Three years later he became the Bishop or Patriarch of Alexandria - a role he fulfilled until his death in 373.
Although what we would think of as traditional Trinitarian theology won the day at Nicea, the conflict with Arianism continued for several decades. The history is quite convoluted, but it is fair to say that the years of leadership for Athanasius were turbulent to say the least. For example, he was exiled and then brought back from exile five times during his time as Bishop of Alexandria. (Can you imagine being voted out of and then back into the same church five times)?
Through the turbulent theological upheaval of the early fourth century Athanasius was committed to what became the orthodox understanding of the incarnation of Jesus. He believed - and perhaps rightly - that the very existence of the Church was at stake. Although he did not write it, later one of the primary articulations of Trinitarian doctrine - the Athanasian Creed - was named in his honor.
CS Lewis writes about him, "His epitaph is Athanasius contra mundum, 'Athanasius against the world.' We are proud that our own country has more than once stood against the world. Athanasius did the same. He stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, 'whole and undefiled,' when it looked as if all the civilized world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius - into one of those 'sensible' synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen. It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away."
The work On the Incarnation is powerful and well worth wresting with. My copy was already marked up in many places. What struck me as I read it again was Athanasius' commitment to the goodness of creation and God's covenantal determination to restore the creation to what it was intended to be. God, in other words, would not and will not allow humankind's corruption to be the end of the story.
Athanasius proceeds to not just give reasons for the incarnation but also, as best he can given the limitations of language to express the inexpressible, to talk through its theological and philosophical intricacies. But what I always take away from Athanasius is the dual purpose of the incarnation. In the incarnation of Jesus we see two things: we see what the character of God (the character of love) looks like as it walks among us, and we see what - by his grace - humankind was intended to be and can become again. In other words, God became man so he could reveal himself to us and so we could also see what he wants to recreate us to become. "He became like us, so that we could become like him."
One of my favorite illustrations from Athanasius pictures God as a painter:
You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself, and seek out His lost sheep, even as He says in the Gospel: "I came to seek and to save that which was lost." This also explains His saying to the Jews: "Except a man be born anew..." He was not referring to a man's natural birth from his mother, as they thought, but to the re-birth and re-creation of the soul in the Image of God.
There are a few things I'd like to wrestle with Athanasius about. There are issues surrounding the fall of humankind that are extremely challenging for contemporary theologians and I'm not sure Athanasius helps us get through some of the complexities. Also, I think Athanasius overlooks important political aspects of the death of Jesus in the section where he addresses why Jesus died on a cross. His answers are so cosmic and spiritualistic in nature that I'm not sure they help us make sense of what it means for disciples to take up their own cross and follow Jesus. But those critiques are shaped more by my questions in the twenty-first century than by his concerns in the fourth.
Nevertheless, I find that he is enormously relevant for today. I kept wishing that some of the college students I hang out with could grasp from Athanasius the importance of what they do with their bodies. Jesus became like us, so that we could become like him. He did not come to show us how to escape our bodies (which you think a Greek like Athanasius would emphasize) or to make what we do with our bodies irrelevant. Because he became a body, Athanasius believes, Jesus sanctified our bodies. And therefore, we must now glorify God with our bodies, because by entering into the creation, God has redeemed it from its corruption.
This is the good news. The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood. Thanks, Athanasius. And praise be to God.