Incarnation anyway

artwork1-300In light of our preceding post I decided to revisit Athanasius. I started by browsing Frances Young’s From Nicaea to Chalcedon and this caught my eye from her summary of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation (OTI). She writes:

“God had given humanity a share in the Logos, and had also given human beings free will. So God tried to safeguard this gift by making it conditional upon obedience to a particular law. If that law were broken, humankind would be turned out of paradise and left to inevitable submergence under the forces of death and corruption; returning to the nothingness from which it came. Humanity disobeyed, and forfeited the principle of life, the Logos. For Athanasius, this left God in an intolerable position. It was unthinkable that God should go back on his word; humanity having transgressed must die; God could not falsify the divine self. But it was not worthy of God’s goodness that the divine work should perish, especially in the case of beings which had been endowed with the nature of the Logos himself; it would have been better never to have created them. This has been described as the ‘divine dilemma’; somehow God’s integrity had to be salvaged while the demands of divine love were met. The answer was the incarnation.”

We might say Athanasius was infralapsarian in his Christology. The relevant passages in OTI are clear enough:

“…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 his 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. It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon his word and that man, having transgressed, should not 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. 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?…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?

Indeed, what was God to do? The divine dilemma as it’s been named. It’s precisely this dilemma which I want to question, for it assumes the incarnation is God’s answer or response to human sinfulness. Athanasius elsewhere contemplates the possibility of humankind’s not falling and thus (presumably) not needing the incarnation. It is human sinfulness, Athanasius argues, which occasions the need and motivation for divine incarnation. Athanasius explains:

“You may be wondering why we are discussing the origin of men when we set out to talk about the Word’s becoming man. The former subject is relevant to the latter for this reason: it was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out his love for us, so that he made haste to help us and to appear among us. It is we who were the cause of his taking human form…”

This order seems to us incorrect in terms of later patristic thought (ala Maximus, but more on that later). We previously suggested that incarnation is not in fact caused by humanity’s failure and sinfulness, but rather, quite the opposite; God creates for the sake of incarnation, the latter occasioning the former. Had everything gone fine (if we may speculate counter-factually for a moment) and humanity progressed without sinful departure, incarnation would have remained God’s intent and humanity’s perfection would have required it nonetheless.

It is not our fallen sinfulness that makes us need God or require the grace of incarnation. It is our finitude per se which stands in such need. We are incomplete ‘as such’, not made so by any fall.

We suggest an ‘incarnation-anyway’ point of departure, a supralapsarian Christology in which the rationale for incarnation is taken out of the sphere of human salvation from sin. God does not incarnate in response to human sinfulness even if incarnation is in fact the means of our salvation. Thus incarnation is not reducible to our sinful state as its occasion. On the contrary, creation as such is reducible to incarnation as its occasion. As such, sin opposes but does not occasion or call incarnation to be. Rather, incarnation (the intent) calls for creation of a certain kind. Our departure into sin is but a detour teleologically speaking. It makes no positive contribution to the fulfillment of God’s intentions per se, however seamlessly divine grace incorporates our fallen state into the final form of our perfected existence in him. Sin is in the end little more than a speed bump.

4 comments on “Incarnation anyway

  1. […] An Open Orthodoxy writes about Athanasius on the Incarnation. […]


  2. Interesting article. I would rather agree with Athanasius here I think. 🙂


Leave a Reply to Tom Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s