Thursday, September 30, 2010

Book Review: On The Incarnation

As I wrote in this post, C.S. Lewis advised us that the ancient books are not only for professionals. They can be understood by the modern reader, and "first-hand knowledge [from the ancient books] is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but it is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire."

So Lewis wrote in the Introduction to On The Incarnation: The Treatise De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, by Saint Athanasius [St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, my copy is from 2002, ISBN 0-913836-40-0]. This Christian classic was written around 318 AD, when Athanasius was only 21 to 23 years old. I found it while foraging in a thrift store; it cost me either 25 or 50 cents. I bought it because I had reviewed a seminary paper my son-in-law wrote about De Incarnatione Verbi Dei [DIVD], and decided, years after reading the paper, that maybe I should read the source material. Little did I know that C.S. Lewis was about to tell me I was doing exactly the right thing.

DIVD was Athanasius' second major work, after Against the Heathens [Contra Gentes]. At that time Christianity was in search of orthodoxy. Constantine had recently converted to Christianity and brought the whole empire with him. The persecutions were over, but a greater calamity was about to befall the Church Universal: the influx of government influence, including huge numbers of new "converts" by virtue of the emperor's conversion, who had no background and no grounding in the faith. The Council of Nicaea would take place in 325 AD, and orthodoxy would be defined. How much of a role would this book play? Was it written...well, why was it written, and what does it tell us?

In the prefatory "Life of Athanasius, a scant eight pages long, the editors says DIVD "sets forth the positive content of the Christian faith, as [Athanasius] has himself receive it. ...It is not speculative, it is not original; is not even is a statement of traditional faith..., there is...nothing of Athanasius in it...." This may be true, but I cannot say so after one reading of DIVD and without reading many of it's antecedents.

What I can say is that the book is worth reading, though it is not an easy read, even in this modern translation. During the first three chapters I often found myself glossing over the text, reaching a stopping point and having little or no retention of what I had read. The fault is mine, not the book's. I believe I could re-read these pages now and grasp the meaning. The gist of Athanasius' argument: God had a dilemma in that mankind failed to relate to God, his creator, as God intended; God addressed (or solved) the problem by coming to man in the form of a man, Jesus Christ. Jesus was God, separate from the Father yet part of the Father—a mystery.

The later chapters were more understandable, especially those on Christ's death and resurrection. Athanasius' discussion on how this changes man's relation to death was excellent. I found many parallels to John Wesley's sermons on death. Might DIVD have been a direct source for Wesley? Or was the notion of death having been conquered by Christ and as a consequence man's facing down death so common that the language and concepts couldn't be anything but similar, even in works fourteen centuries apart? I'm not sure.

The later chapters, in which Athanasius refutes objections to the Incarnation, and the entire Christian faith, was less beneficial for doctrine but perhaps was so for history. It gives us a window into what opposing groups of the 4th Century were saying about Christianity. Appended to the book is a long letter Athanasius wrote to Marcellinus, about the Psalms. This too gives us insight into the era, and how Christians viewed and used the Psalms at that time.

I will re-read this book. Perhaps not right away, but soon. I'll like go through one other book on my reading pile than come back to this. I think full understanding is not beyond my grasp. I may have understood it better than I think. It is foundational to the Christian faith by one of its giants. Many others have written on the same subject, including modern works of incredible scholarship, but I'm with C.S. Lewis on this one. Read the original if you find it.

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