Athanasius and the Incarnation

As we approach Christmas, it’s appropriate to reflect on Christ’s incarnation. This is what Athanasius, fourth-century bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, did in his treatise On the Incarnation of the Word. Expanding his explanation from Christ’s role in creation to His final glory in the second coming, he described quite clearly, from Scripture, why only God could reconcile mankind to himself and why He had to become man to do it.

            Athanasius answered the first question by saying, basically, that since the problem is not just an individual sin but an actual corruption of man’s nature, the only possible remedy was a divine intervention by “the Word of God, which had also at the beginning made everything out of nought.”[1] As for the second question, he focused on 1 Corinthians 15:21, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.”

            C. S. Lewis was right in saying, in his introduction to a new translation of this work by Athanasius, that ancient authors are usually much clearer than their modern commentators. Reading Athanasius’s On the Incarnation this advent season will both confirm Lewis’s statement and enrich our appreciation of Christ’s first coming.

Changes and Controversies

            Born around the year 295, Athanasius grew up in challenging and rapidly changing times. In the early years of his life, he witnessed first the violent persecution of Christians under Emperor Diocletian and then the stunning conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity. By the time he was a teenager, Christianity had become an accepted religion in the empire. In fact, since Constantine professed to be a Christian, many embraced, at least formally, the same religion.

            Athanasius was still young when Bishop Alexander, impressed by his intelligence, made him his assistant. In this capacity, Athanasius became increasingly aware of the danger the teachings of a priest named Arius were causing in the Alexandrian church. Finally exiled from Alexandria, Arius complained to his friend Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia, of being “unjustly persecuted by Alexander the Pope, on account of that all-conquering truth of which you also are a champion.”[2]

            What was this “all-conquering truth”? Unlike Alexander, who preached “God always, the Son always; as the Father so the Son,”[3] Arius taught that before the Son “was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, He was not.”

            Logically speaking, Arius’s teaching made sense. If Jesus was begotten of the Father, it is rational to say that he came after the Father. In Alexander’s position, Arius saw a danger of blending the Father and the Son into one, neglecting their distinctions. To emphasize his views, he created a catchy jingle, “There was when he was not.”

            This local controversy soon spread outside the small boundaries of Alexandria, so quickly that Emperor Constantine became seriously concerned. People were actually fighting in the streets over this issue. Taking charge, in 325 he did what no previous emperor had ever done – he convened an empire-wide religious council of bishops and other delegates to resolve this matter. There were, of course, other items on the agenda (twenty in all), but this controversy took central stage.

            After a heated debate (this is when Bishop Nicholas of Myra – of Santa Claus fame – allegedly slapped Arius), the council overwhelmingly condemned Arius’s teachings. It was only 56 years later, however, in the Council of Constantinople, that the doctrine of Christ as “begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of the same essence as the Father” was formulated in the terms we profess today. 

            The Council of Nicea didn’t put an end to the controversy. Even Arius’s excommunication was short lived, as he quickly regained Constantine’s favor. In fact, he died in Constantinople the night before being officially readmitted into communion with the churches. To Athanasius (who described Arius’s death as a result of a fall while going to the toilet), this timely end was a sign of God’s judgment against the priest’s doctrine.

Athanasius Contra Mundum

            Athanasius’s life was anything but comfortable. Elected bishop of Alexandria in 328, he was immediately opposed by a large number of people who claimed he was too young and that the election had been performed incorrectly. Some resorted to serious but easily disprovable accusations (including murder charges). In the end, he decided to see the emperor in person. Failing to match his courage with equal diplomacy, he eventually offended Constantine who exiled him to Trier, in today’s Germany.

            After Constantine’s death, Athanasius’s situation was directly influenced by the squabbles between the emperor’s sons, who had been given different portions of the empire. In 337, Constantine II, who was in charge of the area including Trier, allowed the bishop to return to Alexandria. Two years later, his brother Constantius, who oversaw the area including Egypt, put enough pressure on Athanasius to convince him to leave. In 346, the third brother, Constans, threatened Constantius with war if he didn’t let Athanasius back in Egypt.

            Eventually, in 350, Constantius became sole emperor and determined to rid himself of this Alexandrian troublemaker. Using his political authority, he organized two meetings to persuade the bishops in the Western Empire to sign a paper denouncing both Athanasius and the decision made in Nicea on the nature of Jesus (most of the bishops in the Eastern Empire had already moved in that direction). Once he had enough signatures, he sent an army of five thousand men to capture Athanasius during an evening service in Alexandria.

            In a cinematic turn of events, Athanasius’s friends shielded him on all sides and smuggled him out of the church amid the general confusion. From then on, the bishop spent many years in the Egyptian desert, where the local monks helped him to move around freely, often narrowly escaping the royal troops.

            It was only in 366, when Emperor Valens decided he had bigger problems to address, that Athanasius was able to live in Alexandria for the rest of his life, until his death on May 2, 373.

            Athanasius’s stalwart defense of the full divinity of Christ in a world that was rapidly moving into a more rational direction earned him the epitaph Athanasius contra mundum (Athanasius against the world). This doesn’t mean he was the only dissenting voice. He had many named and unnamed supporters: his Egyptian flock, the monks who publicly backed and protected him, and many bishops in the Western Empire, such as Julius and Liberius of Rome, Ossius of Cordoba, Eusebius of Vercelli, Lucifer of Cagliari, and Hilary of Poitiers. His troubled life, punctuated by five exiles, is however markedly emblematic of this resistance.    

            His merit lies in his relentless, lucid, and unwavering defense of the decisions of the council of Nicea against what Lewis defined “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.”

            Saying that Jesus was a “second-rate” god, or a hybrid of god and man, may sound sensible, logical, and less offensive. It avoids the scandal of the cross and makes biblical revelation a lot simpler and understandable. The problem is, whenever we try to simplify and clarify biblical revelation according to our standards, we end up perverting it, because we miss the fullness of the inexplicable mystery that God has deigned to reveal, even though our minds will never completely comprehend it in this life. In this case, it also perverts God’s perfect plan of salvation, which requires the intervention of a Christ who is fully God and fully man.

[1] Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, 7,

[2] Arius, The Letter of Arius to Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia, Bible Hub,

[3] Ibid.


Simonetta Carr