One of the truly great classic works of the patristic era is: The Incarnation of the Word of God, by St. Athanasius. I have a 1946 edition that includes a wonderful introduction written by C. S. Lewis. I have been reading this classic again in the New Year. You can find a number of editions of the book as used copies and you can even read the entire book online for free.
Lewis begins by suggesting the idea that ancient books are only for professionals is a huge mistake. He adds, “This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are not studying St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself. Now this seems to be topsy-turvy.”
Lewis is not arguing that readers only read old books but that they read both old and new. He says, “A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it.” What is needed, he argued, is “a standard of plain, central Christianity (‘mere Christianity’ as Baxter called it) which puts controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.” This is a major tenet of my entire mission. We need to recover the ancient-future Christianity that Lewis wrote about here. His practical counsel is to “read one old [book] to every three new ones.” I think that is about right.
Athanasius’ central argument was that the incarnation was necessary because death and corruption were gaining greater and greater hold on the human race thus the race was in danger of total destruction. Man, created by God with reason, was disappearing and the work of God was being undone in the process. The law of death, which followed the transgression, prevailed.
He then argues that man having transgressed God’s law should die but “it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption.” Read that again very slowly.
Here is how he describes it:
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; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits. As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? Was He to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning? Surely it would have been better to have never been created at all than, having been created, to be neglected and perish; and besides that, such indifference to the ruin of His own work before His very eyes would argue not goodness in God but limitation, and that far more than if He had never created men at all. It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself.
This is one of the more amazing pieces of reasoned and biblical thought in all of Christian history. God sent his own Son into the world because it was not possible that he could leave the world to complete destruction. Jesus came to “save” the world, not to destroy it. Listening to some moderns you would never hear that type of classical Christian message.
But Athanasius was not done. He says that though this is all true “it is not the whole matter.” God could not go back on on His word regarding death in order to assure our continued existence without falsifying Himself. If he demanded only repentance then we could fall back into corruption again. “Repentance would not guard the Divine consistency, for, if death did not hold dominion over men, God would still remain untrue. Nor does repentance recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning.” What, or Who, was needed? Athanasius reasoned, rightly the church has always believed, that no one could save the world but God Himself, thus the necessity of the incarnation. “For he alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father.” Notice that the emphasis here is on the incarnation not on the cross alone. For Athanasius the cross was important but he did not start there.
Thus it was for this purpose God became man. The incorporeal, incorruptible and immaterial Word entered our world and became flesh. He entered the world in an entirely new way, stooping to our level by revealing God’s love to us in human flesh. The incarnation was necessary because “God so loved the world.” The key word in the famous text is thus the word “gave” for if it said God loved and he did not give what kind of love would that be? This is the heart of Christian faith and thus the very heart of “mere Christianity.” Here we can begin to approach the mystery of true faith in unity. “O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”