Athanasius was an early Christian theologian and Bishop. He is best remembered for his critique of Arianism and defense of orthodox Christianity. Athanasius was present at the first council of Nicaea with his teacher Alexander Bishop of Alexandria when Alexander refuted the doctrine of Arius. Arius believed that Jesus, the son was a created being, and not equally God with the father.Shortly after Bishop Alexander died and Athanasius was made bishop of Alexandria. Despite the fact that Arianism was refuted at Nicaea, the doctrine continued to plague the church and Athanasius spent much of his life in exile for his rejection of Arius’ heresy. Athanasius, contrary to Arius, believed that Christ was fully God and fully man. Athanasius believed that God had become human in order to rescue humanity from sin and death. He is representative of the Christus victor, or recapitulation, theory of the atonement. The following quotes are from Athanasius' On the Incarnation.
According to Athanasius, God created man in his image. His intention was always that they should be made a partaker of the divine nature. Human beings sinned and brought corruption and death into the world. Because of this they became subject to death and began to loose the likeness of the divine image and the knowledge of God.
“because death and corruption were gaining ever firmer hold on them, the human race was in process of destruction. Man, who was created in God’s image and in possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting."
Athanasius believed that God became human in order to restore in us the divine image that had become wrecked by the fall. Jesus becomes a new Adam and in him humanity is recreated.
“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that he might renew mankind made after himself, and seek out his lost sheep.
Jesus became incarnate in our own human nature and became subject to death and decay. He takes upon himself the curse of the death that was ours due to the fall. Just as the old Adam as the representative of humanity brought us all into ruin, Jesus as the new Adam dies in our place and cancels the curse of death.
“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 out of sheer love for us, so that in his death all might die, and the law of death thereby 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."
Through his death on the cross and rising from the dead, Jesus defeats death. Jesus takes the sting out of death and gives us life and victory through his resurrection. We come to share this victory by faith.
“If, then, it is by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ that death is trampled underfoot, it is clear that it is Christ himself and none other who is the Arch-victor over death and has robbed it of its power. Death used to be strong and terrible, but now, since the sojourn of the Savior and the death and resurrection of his body, it is despised; and obviously it is by the very Christ who mounted on the cross that it has been destroyed and vanquished finally.”
Athanasius emphasized Jesus’ victory over death and his recreation of the lost image of God in man. For Athanasius, humanity’s greatest need is to be rescued from the curse of death brought about by sin. Jesus came to give us immortality and knowledge of God.
Discussion and Reflection
1. What does it mean to be made in the image of God? How might that have been damaged by the fall?
2. What do you think about the idea that Jesus’ incarnation was a recreation or recapitulation of humanity?
3. Athanasius focuses a lot on death as the penalty for human sin, and Jesus’ crucifixion as a conquering of death. This appears to present problems for those who understand the creation accounts in Genesis as non-literal. Is Athanasius’ theory reconcilable with modern science that teaches us that death existed long before the appearance of human beings?
4. Athanasius says that Christ makes us alive through “the appropriation of his body.” What do you think he means by this?