Wednesday, February 25, 2009

St. Athanasius

Over the last few months I've posted two introductions--if you can call them that--in what I hope will be a larger series of introductions to great Christians of the past. So far I've presented St. John of the Cross and Boethius... these posts open with an extended quotation from the saints, followed by some reflections and biographical info. You'd be best served if you just closed your internet browser right now and went and read these guys. But, since you're still here, go see these posts. They're weak introductions, but the quotations phenomenal. 

That said, let's move on to the third member of the 'cloud of witnesses' on wardrobe:
St. Athanasius. 

Athanasius was the Bishop of Alexandria in the 4th Century, a time when the heresy known as Arianism--essentially a belief that the Son is not eternally God, there was a time when the Son was not--was ravaging the Church. Amidst this, Athanasius stood out as the most important of the few defenders of orthodox, Nicene doctrine, that Christ is "very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father."
Of course--thanks be to God--orthodoxy was victorious and today the Church holds firm to the Biblical person of Jesus.

I recently listened to a sermon on St. Athanasius by John Piper that is quite good. It's over an hour long, but well worth the time. There's definitely a biographical emphasis, but Piper also takes time to develop-well 7 points for believers today to take away from even a brief look at the life of the Saint. You can download the sermon, so I'd definitely encourage you to take the time to listen in.

C. S. Lewis wrote an introduction to a translation of Athansius's classic De Incarnatione, which opens with a simple, yet profound observation: "There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books." Lewis tries to fight this idea in that introduction, and I'm with him. If you can make the time, read this book. We need to read these foundational texts. Read the Bible first. Read it all. Finish it if you haven't. But then read this book.

Well, without further ado, here's an excerpt from St. Athanasius's phenomenal On the Incarnation.

Yet, true though this is, it is not the whole matter. As we have already noted, it was unthinkable that God, the Father of Truth, should go back upon His word regarding death in order to ensure our continued existence. He could not falsify Himself; what, then, was God to do? Was he to demand repentance from men for the transgression? You might say that that was worthy of God, and argue further that, as through the Transgression they became subject to corruption, so through repentance they might return to incorruption again. But 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. Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God. No, repentance could not meet the case. What—or rather Who was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required? Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning has made all things out of nothing? His part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruption to incorruption and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character with all. 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.

For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us. He saw the reasonable race, the race of men that, like Himself, expressed the Father’s Mind, wasting out of existence, and death reigning over all in corruption. He saw that corruption held us all the closer, because it was the penalty for the Transgression; He saw, too, how unthinkable it would be for the law to be repealed before it was fulfilled. He saw how unseemly it was that the very things of which He Himself was the Artificer should be disappearing. He saw how the surpassing wickedness of men was mounting up against them; He saw also their universal liability to death. All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. Nor did He will merely to become embodied or merely to appear; had that been so, He could have revealed His divine majesty in some other and better way. No, He took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father—a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man. He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt. Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did our of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, when He had fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.

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