Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Quotable Book Review (Book Review by the Book): On the Incarnation, by St. Athanasius

The initial appeal I had to read On the Incarnation, by St. Athanasius, was the fact that another favorite author, CS Lewis, wrote an introduction to it. To kick off our "Quotable Book Review," a book review that intends to work "by the book," summarizing and commenting on books by quoting the quotables in them, I start with a lengthy excerpt of this phenomenal introduction:

"Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook--even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united--united with each other and against earlier and alter ages--by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century--the blindness about which posterity will ask, 'But how /could/ they have thought about that?'--lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative [hey, he's using doctor terminology!] is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the /same/mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable [whew, anatomy!], will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them." (pp. 4-5)


I make no claim to have kept to Lewis' recommendation to alternate modern books with ancient. But sometimes I wish I had, especially after reading a book such as this one by Athanasius. I have not even completed the book, but I offer some quotes and thoughts as to why I haven't yet put it down.

What attracts me to the book is that it makes few assumptions. It addresses with freshness and frankness questions whose answers have today become unquestionable. And to answer these questions, it takes Scripture in all its earthiness and apparent simplicity and plants it firmly in front of us, so that we cannot help but confront its many implications on the very complexity of our lives. Allow me to illustrate:

"So much for the objections of those outside the Church. But if any honest Christian wants to know why he suffered death on the cross and not in some other way, we answer thus: in no other way was it expedient for us, indeed the Lord offered for our sakes the one death that was supremely good. He had come to bear the curse that lay on us; and how could He 'become a curse' otherwise than by accepting the accursed death? ... How could He have called us if He had not been crucified, for it is only on the cross that a man dies with arms outstretched? Here, again, we see the fitness of His death and of those outstretched arms: it was that He might draw His ancient people with the one and the Gentiles with the other, and join both together in Himself. Even so, He foretold the manner of His redeeming death, 'I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto Myself.' Again, the air is the sphere of the devil, the enemy of our race who, having fallen from heaven, endeavours with the other evil spirits who shared in his disobedience both to keep souls from the truth and to hinder the progress of those who are trying to follow it. The apostle refers to this when he says, 'According to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that now worketh in the sons of disobedience.' But the Lord came to overthrow the devil and to purify the air.... This had to be done through death, and by what other kind of death could it be done, save by a death in the air, that is, on the cross?" (pp. 54-5)


The questions that Athanasius address are why the Christ must die, and particularly why he must die by crucifixion? Today we might respond immediately, "Why, he must die to take away the sins of the world," which merely begs the question, "How in the world does the death of one man take away the sins of the world?" We might again respond, "Because he bears our sins in his own body," which begs yet another question, "What makes his death so special that he gets to bear other people's sins?" Athanasius makes no assumptions about why Jesus' death works, but carefully shows us why Jesus must die and exactly how his death carries away our sin. Jesus must die because he must become accursed, and the death he chooses is one of a sinner, of one accursed. God chooses crucifixion as the method of death because it allows Jesus to reach with his arms outstretched to the world, to extend his death as efficacious for all and to draw all into unity through himself. Crucifixion also allows Jesus to rise up into the air, the sphere and bastion of the devil, and conquer it once and for all.

St. Athanasius makes few assumptions. He gets to the heart of the matter; he speaks frankly. I personally have no desire to offend if it can be helped, but sometimes I admire those with the boldness to speak their minds frankly, without looking back. I admire Athanasius:

"In a word, then, those who disbelieve in the resurrection have no support in facts, if their gods and evil spirits do not drive away the supposedly dead Christ. Rather, it is He Who convicts them of being dead. We are agreed that a dead person can do nothing: yet the Savior works mightily every day, drawing men to religion, persuading them to virtue, teaching them about immortality, quickening their thirst for heavenly things, revealing the knowledge of the Father, inspiring strength in face of death, manifesting Himself to each, and displacing the irreligion of idols; while the gods and evil spirits of the unbelievers can do none of these things, but rather become dead at Christ's presence, all their ostentation barren and void." (pp. 61-2)


Is he arrogant? Is he presumptuous? Perhaps we should not speak as such these days, but the heart of his message still rings true, and perhaps by reading his ancient work, that which is dead in us can awaken to his cry for new life through the death and resurrection of our Christ.

All quotations from the work, On the Incarnation, humbly "translated and edited by A Religious of C. S. M. V." St Vladimir's Seinary Press, New York, 1944.
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