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The Legacy of St.

Athanasius
John Kunnathu http://johnkunnathu.blogspot.com St. Athanasius (296-373) of Alexandria had a key role in the history of Christianity, which would not have been the same without him. His most well-known work is On the Incarnation of the Logos. In the form of a long letter addressed to Macarius, it answers the question why God became a human being. What follows is a short summary of the main ideas in this booklet followed by an appreciation. The Context of Incarnation The booklet begins with an explanation of how the world is related to God. His view is placed in relation to the existing views such as: The world is self-originated; so it does not need a God. (Epicurians) The raw-material of the world is uncreated; God merely made things out of it. (Plato) The world was not created by God, but by someone else. The world is too evil to be created by a good God (Gnostics) Correcting these views, St. Athanasius explains the Christian view as follows: God, who is infinite, eternal, and self-existent, created our world out of nothing through His Logos. Athanasius implies that being the creation of God, who is good, the world is basically good as it is affirmed in the first chapter of Genesis. This affirmation is contrary to what the Gnostics believed, according to whom, the world is basically evil. The world is evil because it is made of matter, which is evil. Only spirit is good according to them. However, according to the Christian view, existence (being) is good, and nonexistence (nonbeing) is evil. Evil is like darkness, which is merely the nonexistence of light. Unlike other creatures, that are impermanent, human beings were created special. God impressed His image upon them. As the Logos is God's image, human beings were given the image of Logos, so that they could reflect God and express the mind of God. Thus, "they might continue forever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise". But it was not an unconditional gift. Man could retain this gift only if "they retained the loveliness of their original innocence". Then "the life of paradise should be theirs, without sorrow, pain or care, and after it the assurance of immortality in heaven". But if they carelessly "throw away their birthright of beauty", then "they would come under the natural law of death and live no longer in paradise, but, dying outside of it, continue in death and in corruption". Thus although God had willed man to remain in incorruption, man came under the natural law of death. The process of returning to nonexistence started in them. "When they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good". God gave them not only His image but also His own life. But by turning from eternal things to things corruptible, following the advice of the devil, they caused their own

corruption. Their union with the Logos made them capable of escaping from the natural law of death if they retained the beauty of innocence with which they were created. Athanasius quotes the Book of Wisdom: "God created man for incorruption and as an image of His own eternity; but by envy of the devil death entered into the world." Wisdom 2: 23-24. As a consequence, man became mortal just like other creatures. In the process of turning to nonexistence, they progressed in evil. The Purpose of Incarnation At this point, God intervened because "it was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil". If it had been only a case of disobedience, a repentance would have easily solved the problem. However, the consequence of disobedience, which is a corruption of their original nature, needed God's intervention. The Logos of God, who originally created everything, took upon His shoulders the task of mending the broken relationship and fixing the corruption in human nature. For this purpose, the Logos of God, who is incorporeal, incorruptible, and immaterial, entered our world. He took a human body, and surrendered it to death on behalf of all human beings, and offered it to the Father. "It was by surrendering to death the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from every stain, that He forthwith abolished death for His human brethren by the offering of the equivalent". Through this union of the immortal Logos with the mortal human nature, "all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection". Because of the solidarity of humankind, just by the indwelling of the Logos in a single human body, death has lost its power over all. It is like when a king enters a city and dwells in one of its houses, the whole city is honored. The human race would have perished utterly if the Logos had not come among us to put an end to death. By the sacrifice of His own body the Logos did two things for us: put an end to the law of death, and made a new beginning of life for us by giving us the hope of resurrection. The Logos incarnated to our world not just to become a sacrifice for us. The Logos also wanted to impart the true knowledge of God to us. When humankind fell from their original state, they defiled their soul so completely that they not only lost their understanding of true God, but also invented for themselves numerous gods of various kinds. They fashioned idols for themselves in place of the true God. Turning away from the contemplation of the true God, men started looking for Him in the opposite direction, down among created things. The Logos of God took a body and moved as Man among men as an object for the senses, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things might see the Father through the works which He, the Logos of God, did in the body. There were thus two things which the Logos did for us by becoming Man. One, He banished death from us and made us anew, and two, He became visible through His works and revealed Himself as the Logos of the Father. To the question of what is salvation for man, Gnostics might say that it is a deliverance of

human soul from the body, for it is made of matter, which is evil. St. Athanasius would say that salvation for man is regaining the lost image of God, reconciling with God, and gaining the true knowledge of God-- theosis. St. Athanasius' primary purpose in writing this essay was to counter the argument of Arius that the one who incarnated was not really God. Arius argued that the incarnated one was the Son of God, who as the name indicates is lower than God the father. Athanasius argues in strong and clear language that the Logos who incarnated is not a creature, but the creator. He says: Only the Image of the Father could re-create the likeness of the Image in men, that none save our Lord Jesus Christ could give to mortals immortality, and that only the Logos Who orders all things and is alone the Father's true and sole-begotten Son could teach men about Him and abolish the worship of idols. But beyond all this, there was a debt owing which must needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die. Here, then, is the second reason why the Logos dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man's account with death and free him from the primal transgression. In the same act also He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrection. Another purpose behind this essay was to counter Docetism, according to which, Christ's was really not a human body. It was a mere appearance of a human body; not a real one. Athanasius has very strong language against this belief: The body of the Logos, then, being a real human body, in spite of its having been uniquely formed from a virgin, was of itself mortal and, like other bodies, liable to death. But the indwelling of the Logos loosed it from this natural liability, so that corruption could not touch it. Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord's body; yet, because the Logos was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished. He concludes his essay with a note of hope: of resurrection and of Christ's second coming. He affirms that "we who believe in Christ" no longer die, as men used to die. "By the grace of the resurrection, corruption has been banished and done away". From the scriptures we learn about His second manifestation to us in His glory to bestow on us the fruit of His crossthe resurrection and incorruptibility. Then he will judge each and everyone according to their deeds done in the body, whether good or ill. The ones who do good are given the heavenly kingdom, but the ones who do evil are given eternal fire. The Legacy of St. Athanasius We can understand St. Athanasius if we place him in his historical context. He was a bishop trying to help his sheep face the challenges of their time and place. People need a strong view of life as a foundation to build their lives up. We formulate our view of life asking the basic questions about our life such as what, why, and how. That is when we realize that we may not agree on our opinions and views about the phenomenon of life. If a community needs to build up a life together, its members need to agree on their view of

life. They engage in a conversation to find out how they can agree on their views. Fourth century was a very active age for the Christian community. They tried to build up their life on a view of life they could agree on, and for this purpose they engaged in a very active conversation. This essay by St. Athanasius on the incarnation of the Logos is a great contribution to this conversation. It considers the major questions that the Christians of his time faced. That was the time when Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire. After being an illegal minority religious movement struggling for a bare survival, it suddenly became legal in A.D 313, and later it became the imperial religion. This change called for a fresh look at the basics of this religious community. People from both the Latin west and the Greek east began to rethink the basic tenets of Christianity. As this conversation continued, contradictory opinions arose on various key issues. When the diversity of opinions became a challenge to the unity of the empire, the emperor intervened and called a council of bishops in Nicaea in 325 A.D. Most of the bishops agreed with the position of Athanasius, and the emperor excommunicated and exiled the dissenters. In spite of the emperor forcing unity from outside, soon Arianism came back and St. Athanasius was exiled. The conversation continued, and eventually the position of Athanasius finally won. It seems that unity cannot be forced upon a community by political pressure; it has to evolve from within with mutual understanding by means of ongoing conversation. About sixteen centuries have passed since then, and we do not understand the full significance of the challenges they faced or the questions they asked. Nor do we fully understand the answers given by St. Athanasius. Our world is very different, and the existential challenges we face today and the questions we ask about our life are also different. Our science has expanded our view of the world, so no more is our worldview Geocentric as in the time of Athanasius. Some of the questions we ask may be similar, and we can look for some guidance in the conversation of the fourth century. However, it would be a mistake for us to blindly adopt the conclusions of the conversation in a past age. St. Athanasius makes use of the thought of St. Paul, who lived about three centuries before him, in his essay on incarnation. It is not a slavish adoption but a creative adaptation. This approach of Athanasius should give us some guidance today in our conversations. Let us follow the example of Athanasius rather than blindly adopt his conclusions literally as a foundation to our life today. Imagine that we get an opportunity to meet St. Athanasius in heaven. We approach him and tell him: We are so happy to meet you here. We have followed the same beliefs you taught us and have recited the same Nicene creed you created for the last sixteen centuries. Aren't you proud to hear this? Thank you very much for such a wonderful set of beliefs and and a great creed. St. Athanasius replies: No, I don't feel proud to hear this. Sixteen centuries have passed since then. I don't expect you to slavishly follow what I said in my time. I expect you to follow my example though. You may adapt my thought for your situation just as I adapted St. Paul's thought. But do not adopt it blindly and repeat them like parrots. For Further Reading:

http://www.ccel.org/ccel/athanasius/incarnation.toc.html On the Incarnation of the Logos http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athanasius_of_Alexandria http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/27707/pg27707.html Saint Athanasius, by F.A. [Frances Alice] Forbes http://www.fourthcentury.com/index.php/athanasius-chart The work of St. Athanasius http://atgsociety.com/2010/02/against-the-world-the-legacy-of-saint-athanasius/ http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf204.toc.html http://www.scribd.com/doc/110593531/Reflections-on-St-Andrew-s-2012-PatristicSymposium-on-St-Athanasius-the-Great