St Athanasius: "What was God to Do?"

Archimandrite Irenei Steenberg

We focus today on the need for the Incarnation, the reasons why the Word became flesh, and our reflections are drawn from the writings of St. Athanasius the Great, perhaps one of the most notable amongst all the Fathers.

St. Athanasius of Alexandria attended the First Ecumenical Council, called in the city of Nicaea in the year AD 325 by the Emperor Constantine. A deacon at the time, and a young deacon at that, Athanasius would go on, in due course, to succeed his bishop, the famous Alexander of Alexandria, noted for confronting the followers of Arius. St. Athanasius would gain fame for his promotion of the council of Nicaea, and whilst himself a controversial figure in some respects, St. Athanasius would become one of the most beloved figures in the entire history of the Church.

His writings are many, and are oftentimes complex and dense, bearing the marks of the intricate controversies with which he was involved. And yet, in the midst of such density are moments of remarkable beauty, and some of his texts dwell, in a unique way, on the person of Christ, incarnate in the world, the savior of humanity.

St. Athanasius reflects, not just on what it meant and means for the Son to have become man, but on the reasons why this took place. What motivated God to act in so marvelous a way? The answer comes in the very fact of creation. For St. Athanasius, God acts because the creature He has fashioned in His own image is suffering.

From his famous short text, which in its own way, is a great vision of the whole patristic enterprise, St. Athanasius writes the following, posed in a series of interrogative questions:

What was God to do? Could he acquiesce in man’s being deceived by the devil, and losing the knowledge of God, but if so, what was the use of his having been made after the image of God? Better to have been made an irrational creature, than to be created rational, and then live the life of the irrational creatures. Or what profit to God if men, His creatures, did not worship Him? What then, was God to do? Surely, to renew the state of being in the image, and how could this happen except by the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ, the very image of God.

That passage is drawn from Chapter 13 of St. Athanasius’ De Incarnatione, or in English, On the Incarnation of the Word.

What was God to do? “He, who fashioned humanity in His own image, saw humanity perishing.” As Athanasius writes elsewhere in De Incarnatione, “He witnessed the dehumanizing of His human creatures.”

We find St. Athanasius saying in the passage just quoted, that it would have been better for humanity never to have been created in the image, than to be in that image and to live outside of it, apart from it.

Again, and again, in this small treatise, St. Athanasius asks, “What was God to do?” Could He simply stand by and watch? Could He witness the destruction of that which His own hands had fashioned? And of course, every time such a question is asked, its rhetorical nature resonates clearly. Of course, God could not act in this way. It is clear that God would act, not because He was bound by necessity that He had to act.

This is not the point of St. Athanasius’ rhetorical questions. Rather, that there is no way for divine love to abide such a destruction of what love had produced, no way for the loving, creative God to simply abandon the object of His creative love.

And so, God does act. The question then is, how? How is he to act in the face of such a dehumanization of man? Could He not simply act from above, as a fiat, a single motion, forgiving humanity, and thus restoring it? Here, the answer comes by asking whether this is, in fact, a valid question. Is simply forgiving humanity all that is needed in the restoration of this particular brokenness?

In his text Against the Arians in the second volume, St. Athanasius asks precisely this question, and notes how much more reasonable and fitting it was that God should act differently. The reasonableness of what actually happened, says St. Athanasius, can be seen in this way:

If God had merely spoken and the curse had been annulled, there would have been a display of the power of Him who uttered the command, but man would only have been restored to the condition of Adam before his sin, receiving grace from outside, and not having it united with the body. For that was man’s state when he was set in Paradise.

He might, perhaps, have been in a worse state because he had learned to sin. Then, being in such a condition, he might have been seduced by the serpent, and then there would have been, again, need for God to command and annul the curse, and this would have gone on endlessly. (This drawn from Contra Arianos, Book 2, Chapter 68).

Simply forgiving humanity was not the full scope of God’s work. Should He just have forgiven, and restored man to a state of obedience? Humanity might well have been blessed for a time, but the same loss might again have occurred. Receiving grace from without, humanity would once again falter, would once again fall, and endlessly the cycle would repeat, whereby the human creature is restored, yet falls away.

An external grace, and external redemption, however loving in kind, does not make secure the thing which is sought. And so, God acts uniquely. Humanity is restored, not from without, but from within. God enters into His very creature, and by that entering in, restores and builds up, offering grace from within the person, rather than without.

This is the very notion of what is so often called deification, or theosis. God binds humanity to Himself. The restored creature is not one on whom God shines, but in whom God transfigures and transforms. In perhaps one of St. Athanasius’ most famous passages, he notes:

The Word was made man, in order that man might be made divine. He displayed Himself through a body, that we might receive knowledge of the invisible Father. He endured insult at the hands of men, that we might inherit immortality. In Himself He suffered no injury, being impassable and immortal, and very Word of God. But in His impassability, He was guarding and saving the suffering man, for whose sake He endured this treatment (That drawn from St. Athanasius’ famous 54th chapter of De Incarnatione.)

God becomes man that man might become God. The response to the dehumanization of His creature is the theanthropization of the Son, Himself. God becomes that which is ailing. For God, in His grace, in His eternity, cannot be defeated. So by taking up the weak creature into His own life, man inherits God’s immortality. That which is the Son’s, becomes the creature’s. God becomes man, that man might become God.

At times there is concern expressed by various readers over the language used by St. Athanasius, and by so many others speaking of deification in the Patristic corpus. Is it not wrong to speak of humanity becoming God? Is there not something blasphemous in this?

And yet, what is quite clear, when one reads De Incarnatione, as a whole, is that Athanasius, like the other Fathers of the Church, is not speaking of becoming a second God, becoming equal to God, but he is speaking of humanity bound up into God’s life.

It is not enough for God simply to bestow some blessings on the human creature. Gracious this may be, but as Athanasius has said, if such an external grace is what heals humanity, then that healing can never be complete, never be eternal. Eventually, it will be lost, shaken off, and the fall will go on endlessly.

But if humanity is drawn up into God, so that God’s own life is known, experienced, and lived through the flesh and bones of the creature, then the strength of the incarnate Christ becomes the strength of the human person. Jesus Christ’s defeat of death becomes my defeat of death. His rising, the impossibility of death to hold Him bound in the grave, becomes the promise of my own redemption, my own overcoming of the bonds of my sin. Not because I have the power so to do, but because in the incarnation, God has drawn my weakened members into His own. God becomes man, that man might become God.

This, the insight of St. Athanasius, one of the great voices from the early Church, the Father of Nicaea. May we have his blessing, now, and in every age.

From Father Irenei’s podcast, "A Word from the Fathers."