John Frame has written, “Our first allegiance is not to a set of eternal truths, as in Buddhism or Platonism, but to a person who lived in history to save us and who lives eternally as our heavenly High Priest (Heb. 2:17–18; 5:1–10)” (Frame, Systematic Theology, [Kindle]). Frame balances this idea a paragraph later when he says, “the personhood of our Lord does not mean that we can be indifferent to doctrines about him or to the content of his teaching.” (Frame, Systematic Theology [Kindle]). In other words, thinking theologically about Jesus does not mean we forget the real person with whom we must do business. And yet, in remembering his person we do not neglect thinking theologically about him and his teachings.

Christianity rightly centers on the person and work of Jesus. It is Jesus who has lived and died on our behalf. Through faith in him we are justified before a holy God (Romans 5:1). Therefore it is certainly correct to say Christianity centers on the “person and work” of Jesus. And this is a stunningly significant theological statement. That is, from an historic orthodox understanding of Jesus, we believe things about the identity of Jesus (i.e. his person) that much of the world rejects and yet are nonnegotiable for God’s people.

One of the nonnegotiable tenets of the Christian faith is the idea that Jesus is both God and man. Paul writes, “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily … ” (Colossians 2:9). And earlier in our NT, we read that Jesus “was God” (John 1:1). Furthermore, Jesus was fully man. He was “born of woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4), experiencing thirst (John 19:28), hunger (Mark 11:12), and even limitations in knowledge (Luke 2:52). This raises a host of theological questions that Christians have wrestled with for over a thousand years. Athanasius (298–373 A.D.), one of the earliest theologians and an early bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, helps us think about God becoming a man and dwelling among us.

In the beginning of his work, On the Incarnation, Athanasius simply assumes the incarnation to be true and offers the reason that the incarnation was necessary. He doesn’t start with discussions of theological complexities that accompany the doctrine. In short, Athanasius wants us to think about why this doctrine is important before we start to probe into speculative theological issues. This is why he begins with thoughts on creation and the Fall. To understand the incarnation rightly, we must understand it as the manifestation of God in bodily form “ … for the salvation of us men” (2).[1] Yet, salvation only makes sense if there is something (or someone) to be saved from. So in order to help the reader understand the importance of the doctrine, he sets up the problem before he delivers the answer.

Athanasius acknowledges the question that may arise from his early discussion of creation. He writes, “You may be wondering why we are discussing the origin of men when we set out to talk about the Word’s becoming Man” (4). He then answers, “it was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down” (4). Because of the fall of mankind into sin, “He made haste to help us and to appear among us” (4). Athanasius begins with the account of creation and fall of Adam so that we have the needed background information to make sense of the miracle of the incarnation.

Once the problem is sufficiently set forth, Athanasius offers the solution to the divine dilemma. It is worth noting that there is a divine dilemma because, according to Athanasius, it would not have been proper for God to allow his creation to devolve into non-being (his description of what happens when we fall from our original state). Instead, it is good and proper for God to restore his creatures. Athanasius writes, “Surely it would have been better never to have been created at all than, having been created, to be neglected and perish” (6). Yet, God is completely just and so he is unable (and unwilling!) to “go back upon His word regarding death … ” (6). He must be just and the justifier (Romans 3:26). The divine dilemma, then, is that it would be unthinkable for God to abandon his creatures, and yet he could not sweep the consequences of sin under the proverbial rub. What is the answer to this dilemma? The incarnation.

It was in the incarnation that Jesus is born of a woman, sharing in the flesh and blood of humanity. This “stooping to our level” would pave the way towards and ultimately achieve restoration. The Son of God, being God in himself, was a “sufficient exchange for all … It was by surrendering to death the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from stain, that He forthwith abolished death for His human brethren by the offering of the equivalent” (8). The answer to the divine dilemma is found in Jesus, who was “made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17).

Later in his work Athanasius takes time to talk about why Jesus had to die on a cross (instead of dying in private), to answer objections from both Jewish and Gentile thinkers, as well as to answer a few theological complexities. His answers may leave a bit to be desired, and sometimes don’t prove what he hopes to prove (cf. 23), but he does show the excellency of Christ in both his person and work. The Jews have missed the culmination of their own religious history in the person of Jesus. The Greeks laugh at that which they don’t understand. And in the end, Athanasius encourages his reader to test what he writes “by the study of the Scriptures” (45). If the reader takes up the Scriptures, he will find that Jesus is God incarnate. A truth that Jews and Gentiles alike have missed.

The importance of this doctrine in the life of the church is massive. Without a Christ who is both God and man, there is no salvation. Only a man can represent mankind at the grand tribunal. And only God himself is worthy enough to bear the penalty for sins. Therefore the only answer to the divine dilemma is a God-man. Thankfully, we know of such a man, namely the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5).

Jesus, the God-man, comes and dwells among us (John 1:14). He comes to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). This salvation is accomplished as the the man Christ Jesus dies in our place, is raised on the third day, and takes his place at the right hand of God the Father.

 

[1] All page numbers come from the PDF version of On the Incarnation available at ccel.org.