The Divine Dilemma
Athanasiun Thought on the Incarnation of the Word of God
Why is it that the word of God, so great and high, has become manifest in bodily form? He did not assume a body that was proper to his own nature, because as the word, very God of very God, he is wholly apart from the need of a physical body. As the word of God he is the creator, celestial and divine, eternal and everlasting, infinite in being and perfection, a most holy and pure spirit, and clearly distinct from his own creation; being without body, parts, or human passions. Surely he has chosen to have been manifested in a human body for one marvelous reason alone; that being his love, goodness, and desire for the salvation of man.
This being the reason, we must begin with the creation of man and his world and of God his maker. And in view of man’s creation and salvation we shall begin to understand that: The renewal of creation has come about by the exact same Word who made it in the beginning. There is no inconsistency between creation and salvation, for the one Father has used the same person for both works, saving man (renewing creation) by the very one who made man.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. . . . Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let him have dominion” . . . So God created man in his own image. Genesis 1:1, 26-27
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:1-4, 14
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. . . For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. Colossians 1:15-17, 19
God created all things (i.e., heaven and earth) “ex nihilo,” out of nothing, as the book of Genesis records it, “God said, let there be light, and there was light” and “God said, let the land produce living creatures and it was so.” God spoke and it was so. All things were created through the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, who was with God, the son of God in the beginning. And in his creation God reserved special grace and glory for one creature. Upon the human race God bestowed a grace which all other creatures lacked, namely, the impress of God’s own image. The race of Man was privileged in sharing in the reasonable being of God himself, not only reflecting him, but also becoming capable of expressing the mind of God.(1)(
Being man was created with a reasonable and immortal soul, endued with knowledge, righteousness, and freedom of will (which was subject to change); God secured this grace in man with two things, a place and a law. He set man in his own paradise (or sanctuary) and gave him kingship over the world, and he gave a law and prohibition to go with it. If man would guard the grace within this sanctuary, exercise his dominion over the world as king, and retain the beauty of his original innocence, then the life of incorruptible virtue in covenantal union with the glorious God would remain and be manifested throughout the whole world, without sorrow, pain, or spoil. But if man went astray and became depraved, disregarding his birthright, then he would by consequence come under a law of death and corruption, unable to dwell in the sanctuary of paradise, instead dying outside of it, stripped of his glory and kingdom.
The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Genesis 2:15-17
The woman saw that the [forbidden] tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. . . And [then] they heard the sound of the Lord God . . . and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God(2). Genesis 3:6, 8
And to Adam God said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the earth because of you . . . you [shall] return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:17, 19
Understanding the nature of man, his created graces and his subsequent fall, is beneficial towards grasping the reason (and mystery) for the incarnation. It is man’s miserable state that moved the Word to come down to us. It was man’s transgression that revealed what great love God has for us, so that he was pleased to hurry to our help. It is because of man that the Word would take human form, for man’s salvation the Word was both born and manifested in a human body. For God had made man in incorruption and had desired that he should remain that way. But Adam (representing mankind), having turned from the reflection of God to sin, had come indefinitely under the law and condemnation of death. Having willingly submitted himself to a new master, by heeding his voice,(3) man was completely under the dominion of death. Under this new slave master, this then was the predicament of man:
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Romans 3:10-17
God originally made man upright, perfect, and righteous, then man, turning from noble things to corruptible things, by the counsel of the Devil, had corrupted himself. Ultimately, Adam had failed to live under God’s grace, in faith, and willfully subjected himself under the law of sin and death. For “the righteous man shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17), and “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin,” (Rom. 14:23) and so it was with Adam. He willfully failed to live by faith and trust in the Word of God, he no longer desired that wonderful union and blessedness that God’s word obeyed brings. Adam, in transgressing God’s law, failed to believe and trust in God; rather, Adam believed and trusted in another, that is the Devil. Adam set aside his faith in the word of God and submitted himself to a new master.(4)
[The serpent] said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3:1-5
The Word of God was to be sufficient for man (for how could it not be being all things are created by him), but man departed from that which is sufficient and beheld as desirable that which is by nature corruptible and wanton. When this happened, men began to die physically,(5) and corruption was rampant among them, having power over them because it was the penalty of which God had fore-warned them about. In fact, men in their sinning had surpassed all limits of what could ever have even been imagined at the beginning; having transgressed a single command at the start, they went from bad to worse. Men, not stopping at just one kind of evil, continually sinned, as with an insatiable appetite, devising new kinds of sin and evil. Adultery and theft everywhere, murder and rape filling the earth, law disregarded in place of corruption and injustice, nations warring with nations, the earth being filled with factions, while men attempt to outdo one another in wickedness. An even unimaginable crime contrary to nature, as Paul says:
“For their women even exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.” Romans 1:26-27
This then, God’s desire for man’s incorruption, glory, and kingship over the world, and man’s failure to do so because of his fall into gross sin (which corruption God had justly prescribed by law), is what constitutes a DIVINE DILLEMA.
From the last section one can see that, because death and corruption was gaining an increasingly violent hold on man, the whole human race was indefinitely in the process of complete destruction. Man, who was created in God’s image for the purpose of reflecting that image, became utterly depraved and the glorious image of God was disappearing as the work of God was seemingly becoming undone. The law of death, which followed from the transgression as just penalty, prevailed upon man and from it there was no escape. This thing that was happening (had happened) to man was both atrocious and unfitting, in view of God’s intended glory and image that was set upon him. But, despite God’s initial desire, it would have been unthinkable that he would go back against his law/word, and that man having transgressed it should not die. Equally unthinkable is that God’s desire (or will) should not be obtained, and that man, bearing God’s image, should ultimately corrupt himself and all of creation in spite of God’s intended purpose.
It would seem to be unworthy of the glory of God if the creature he made, in his own image, should be brought to ultimate corruption and the dominion given to it be taken through the deceit of the Devil. As the creature that God created, both reasonable and likened unto him, was in fact perishing, and such glorious work that God had originally done and intended, was fading, what then was God to do? Was he to let his desires be thwarted, and let corruption and death have their way with his special creature? If so, then what would have been the point in making man in the first place? Surely it would have been better to never of created man in God’s image in the first place than to have created him for corruption; and besides that, God, if so indifferent to the ruin of his own works taking place before his very presence, would seem to be weak and limited in glory and power (which would never be presumed, even by the heavenly host, had God simply not made man at all). It seems then that it would be ultimately impossible that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because, that would be unworthy of the glory God.(6)
As true as things may seem, these things are not sufficient to disclose the whole matter. Knowing that it is impossible for God to go against his own law/word regarding death, even in order to preserve his special creature, it still must be asked “what was God to do?” Perhaps; was he just to demand repentance from men for their transgression? Would man’s repentance be worthy of God? One might even argue that transgression brought corruption, in accordance with God’s law, therefore repentance may bring about incorruption (presumably through law as well). But repentance would not guarantee Divine consistency, because if death did not, in fact, ultimately corrupt man, then God’s word in the beginning would not have been true. If it had been that a trespass took place, a trespass that had no subsequent penalty of death and corruption, then repentance would be all that was needed. But Adam’s trespass contained the penalty of death and corruption, and once the trespass was committed so begun the power of corruption, stripping him of his original graces. Repentance could not satisfy justice in this case.(7)
What then was needed? Rather, who was it then that was needed to perform such a thing, making the divine dilemma seem as if it was nothing, restoring grace to man? Who, but the Word of God himself, who made all things in the beginning? It was his task then, his alone apart from the help of the creature; to not only bring corruption again to incorruption, but also to maintain the consistency of the glory and character of God the Father. It was the word of God alone, being the creator; he was able to recreate all things, enabling God to be both “just and the justifier.”
For this reason then the incorruptible, incorporeal, immaterial, Word of God entered the world. Actually, in one sense, he was not far from it before, because no part of creation had ever really been without him. But, in the incarnation, he entered the world in a new way, stooping to the creatures level in his self revelation to man. He saw the race of man, originally expressing the mind of God like himself, wasting away under corruption with death reigning over him. He saw too how unthinkable it would be that the law of God should be repealed, even the very law which sentenced man to this death and corruption. He saw how horrible it was that the very things of which he himself was the originator should be coming to corruption. He saw how the tyranny of Satan was reigning over them, and how liable man was to the evil one in death. All this he saw, and pitying man, moved with compassion towards him, knowing his limitations and bondage, the Word of God was not content that death should have mastery over his creatures. Nor was he content that his creatures should simply perish and the work of God should come to nothing.
So, the Word of God took to himself a body, a human body just like man’s body. He did not become embodied nor merely appear in human shape among men, for if that had been so, then surely he would have had an opportunity to appear in some better and nobler way. No, rather, he took man’s physical body as his own, and not only this, but he was born of a woman and even that in the lowest of conditions. Thus, taking the body of a man, because man was liable to corruption and death, he was able to surrender himself to death for man. This he did out of his love for us so that the justice of the law would be fulfilled in his body and we would be set free from the law of death. Also, turning man again from corruption to incorruption; making him alive, without setting aside the law/word or divine justice, through death, yet conquering death.
Destroying the law of death through death
The word of God perceived that the law of death could not be destroyed except through death, yet, he being of immortal substance could not die. For this reason then he assumed a body capable of death, in order that it might become in death a sufficient exchange for man in satisfaction of divine justice. Because the body assumed was incapable of corruption(8), via its union with the father and its indwelling deity, it was capable of triumphing over death and corruption. It was by willingly surrendering to death that the body which the word of God had taken was able to abolish death. For naturally, since the word of God was above all, when he offered his own incorruptible body as a substitute for his people he fulfilled all that was required; both satisfaction for divine justice (in his death) and perfect obedience to the law/word of God(10) (in his life).
Now man, in union with the word of God, is clothed with incorruption and is freed from the dominion of death and the tyranny of Satan.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! Romans 11:33
Parts 3-4 forthcoming…
This is not to assume that the creature partook of the divine nature in any way, no more than a mirror may partake of man’s nature when reflecting the image of a man’s face.
2 Adam’s hearing the sound of the Lord was a terrifying experience that caused him to hide from the judgment of God. A romantic “stroll” of God in the garden in the evening, as many presume, is not an interpretation that is consistent with the rest of the “sound of the Lord” verses in scripture.
3 Romans 6:16 “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”
4 It can be said that Satan stole, by way of deception, Adam’s birthright and all that was given to Adam (i.e., the earth) being Satan became his master, and Adam his slave. A slave does not own anything, but all things belong to his master.
5 Though physical death was delayed, at the moment of Adam’s sin he died spiritually, having broken God’s covenant, the source of true life.
6 As Christians we can only speak this way because of hindsight, already knowing what God has done.
7 Some may argue, perhaps rightly, that repentance can never satisfy justice in the case of a trespass, for by nature a trespass demands (or comes with) a penalty, and a penalty must be paid in full, aside from repentance. Repentance is a ceasing or turning away from sin only and is not the payment of debt or satisfaction of justice.
8 For you [God] will not . . . let your Holy One see corruption. Psalm 16:10
9 A corruptible body is given over to death already by nature. Only an incorruptible body could have an advantage over corruption. It is nothing extraordinary or special that a corruptible body should die.
10 The author at this point believes that it was not just a dry obedience to the law of God that is to be in view, but a perfect relationship, union, faithfulness, and walking with God (as Adam was to originally of done) that should be emphasized.