After his exposition of the incarnate God, Athanasius refutes “the unbelief of the Jews” from their own scriptures (33-40) and “the mockery of the Greeks” (or Gentiles) from the evident facts of creation and the effects of Christ’s work (41-55).
Refutation of the Gentiles
If the Greeks were “friends of the truth,” Athanasius says, they would see the reasonableness of divine embodiment, but they remain willingly blind. I chose this passage because it contains the most renowned statement in the theological treatise, “For he was incarnate that we might be made god,” which is sometimes translated, “God became man so that man might become god.”
Therefore, just as if someone wishes to see God, who is invisible by nature and not seen at all, understands and knows him from his works, so let one who does not see Christ with his mind learn of him from the works of his body, and test whether they be human or of God. And if they be human, let him mock; but if they are known to be not human, but of God, let him not laugh at things that should not be mocked, but let him rather marvel that through such a paltry thing things divine have been manifested to us, and that through death incorruptibility has come to call, and through the incarnation of the Word the universal providence, and its giver and creator, the very Word of God, have been made known. For he was incarnate that we might be made god; and he manifested himself through a body that we might receive an idea of the invisible Father; and he endured the insults of human beings, that we might inherit incorruptibility. He himself was harmed in no way, being impassible and incorruptible and the very Word and God; but he held and preserved in his own impassibility the suffering human beings, on whose account he endured these things. And, in short, the achievements of the Savior, effected by his incarnation, are of such a kind and number that if anyone should wish to expound them all he would be like those who gaze at the expanse of the sea and wish to count its waves. For as one cannot take in all the waves with one’s eyes, since those coming on elude the perception of one who tries, so also one who would comprehend all the achievements of Christ in the body is unable to take in the whole, even by reckoning them up, for those that elude his thought are more than he thinks he has grasped. Therefore it is better not to seek to speak of the whole, of which one cannot even speak of a part, but rather to recall one thing, and leave the whole for you to marvel at. For all are equally marvelous, and wherever one looks, seeing there the divinity of the Word, one is struck with exceeding awe (p. 107).
Particular Question: What does Athanasius mean when he says, “For he was incarnate that we might be made god”? Following this idea, the Eastern church uses the term deification (or theosis) to describe the transformative process of becoming a little Christ. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis puts it this way: “It is a living Man, still as much a man as you, and still as much God as He was when He created the world, really coming and interfering with your very self; killing the old natural self in you and replacing it with the kind of self He has. At first, only for moments. Then for longer periods. Finally, if all goes well, turning you permanently into a different sort of thing; into a little Christ, a being which, in its own small way, has the same kind of life as God; which shares in His power, joy, knowledge, and eternity.” By contrast, the Western church uses the term sanctification to describe this same process. Since word choices matter, is deification a preferable term to sanctification?
Universal Question: According to Athanasius, man will either mock the incarnation of the Word or marvel at it. We live in an age of mockery, and Christians are not immune from this posture. How does Athanasius’ analogy (highlighted above) instruct us to develop “exceeding awe”?