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Angela Tilby: Athanasius’s theological daring

24 August 2018


IT WAS when I was in my twenties that I came across an English translation of Athanasius’s De Incarnatione Verbi by Sister Penelope CSMV, with an introduction by C. S. Lewis. This is one of great texts of the early Christian era. Athanasius presents the incarnation as an act of pure love for fallen humanity by the Creator of the universe. Earlier this month, I introduced it to students at the annual Theology Summer School of the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education, at Christ Church.

There is a passionate quality to Athanasius’s work which continues to move me. He describes the infinite chasm between God and humanity, the tragedy of the fall, the subsequent dominance of death, and the miracle of our re-creation through the incarnate Word. His work is the background to every Christmas carol; to every affirmation of the primacy of grace; to every Christian cry of confidence in the face of death. Athanasius was writing at much the same time as the canon of scripture was being finalised. The Early Church produced our Christian Bible; our faith has never really been in sola scriptura, but in scripture interpreted through the Fathers.

Athanasius is often associated with the Council of Nicaea and the defeat of Arianism. But, though he was probably present at Nicaea, he never mentioned Arius in the De Incarnatione. He never even used the controversial Nicene word homoousios to describe the relationship between Christ and the Father. All that would come later.

This was a work of his young adulthood, when what was most obvious to him was the defeat of idolatry. Through the upheavals of his age, he dimly recognised that what had happened in the coming of Christ was decisive for all humanity. The incarnation marked the end of all human attempts to manipulate God for our own ends, including those synthetic and often agreeable versions of faith generated from partial readings of scripture.

You have to look hard to see echoes of Athanasius’s theological daring in contemporary worship and preaching. We are so concerned to be accessible that we miss the drama and challenge of orthodoxy. Yet, parts of the Christian story still speak to those outside the Church. I would go for Advent and Christmas, candles in darkness, the struggle of good and evil, compassion for the helpless and vulnerable, the power of humility, C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories — even Harry Potter.

The point about all these is that their appeal is universal. They reflect what Athanasius argued for: that God loves the human race in its totality, and that his salvation is not just for the enthusiastic few, but for all, whether they recognise it or not.

I still get excited about this. This is the gospel of the Lord, thanks be to God.

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