St. Athanasius On the Incarnation | Book Review


There are three good reasons to read this edition of Athanasius’On the Incarnation.

First, the Introduction by C. S. Lewis is worth the price of the book. “There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by professionals,” he writes, “and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books.” He goes on to give reasons why that “strange idea” is a mistake, as well as to make the case for the importance of reading old books. “The only palliative [to modern prejudices] is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.” And, of course, he praises the translation itself: “I do not think the reader will find here any of that sawdusty quality which is so common in modern renderings from the ancient languages.”

The second reason to read this edition of On the Incarnationis the argument Athanasius makes. Athanasius is the bishop of Alexandria who led the fight for Nicene Christianity against the Arian heresy throughout the middle of the fourth century. It is from that fight he earned the moniker Athanasius contra mundum, “Athanasius against the world.” But On the Incarnationwas written prior to Nicea. It summarizes orthodox Christian teaching regarding the person and work of Christ. It breaks no ground theologically, which is why it is so valuable. It lays out clearly and compellingly what Christians continue to believe about the nature and purpose of Christ’s Incarnation. The only false notes I detected in the overall argument were when Athanasius offered a “refutation” of the Jews (Chapter VI) and Gentile polytheists (Chapters VII and VIII). Especially with regard to Jews, Athanasius’ refutation seemed directed at a Christian caricature of Jews rather than at fourth-century Jews themselves. And his refutation of Gentile polytheism in Chapter VIII, wherein he cited the decline of paganism and the rise of orthodoxy as proof of the latter, was too triumphalistic. Today, Alexandria is a majority-Muslim city. That doesn’t prove the truth of Islam.

The third reason to read this edition is its inclusion of the Appendix, “The Letter of St. Athanasius to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms.” I read the Psalms daily, and I resonated with nearly every word Athanasius offered in praise of routine Psalm-reading. He wrote: “Son, all the books of Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New, are inspired by God and useful for instruction, as the Apostle says; but to those who really study it the Psalter yields especial treasure.” Yes, it does.

So, five stars for this edition of On the Incarnation.

Book Reviewed
St. Athanasius On the Incarnation: The Treatise De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, trans. and ed. by a Religious of C.S.M.V, with an Introduction by C. S. Lewis(Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. The edition I reviewed is no longer in print. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press newer editionof On the Incarnationincludes Lewis’ Introduction with a new translation of the work by John Behr. It does not include Athanasius’ letter to Marcellinus. It is also available with the original Greek textand new translation on facing pages.

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Boy Jesus | Luke 2:41-52


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 2:41–52

What did Jesus do when He was a boy?

The Gospels provide little information about Jesus’ early years. Mark and John begin their Gospels with an adult Jesus. Matthew and Luke provide brief descriptions of His parentage and birth. Only Luke tells us a story about Boy Jesus.

Some Christians in the early years of the church made up stories about Jesus’ childhood in order to fill in the gaps of the Gospels. One shows Boy Jesus making clay birds on the Sabbath. When a religious neighbor protests, Jesus brings the clay birds to life. Another story speaks of Jesus striking a playmate dead, only to resurrect him when the kid’s parents protest to Joseph and Mary.

None of the apocryphal stories has a basis in fact. The one story of Jesus’ childhood with any historical credibility is found in Luke 2:41–52. Jesus is 12 years old. His family goes to Jerusalem for the annual Passover Feast. When they leave to return home to Nazareth, they realize Jesus is not with them. (It’s easy to lose a kid in a caravan!) Joseph and Mary quickly return to Jerusalem to find Jesus.

Two things stand out to me in this passage: (1) Jesus is a smart kid. He knows how to interpret the Bible well enough to amaze everyone who listened to Him. (2) Jesus has an intensely personal relationship with God. He’s not just smart, in other words, He’s truly spiritual. In verse 49, He asks, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” For Jesus, information about God is good. But a relationship with Him is better.

We shouldn’t read this passage as if Jesus were fully spiritually formed at age 12, however. As Luke puts it, “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.”

Jesus got smarter, bigger, more spiritual and friendlier as he aged. Even for the Son of God, spiritual formation was a process, just like it is for us.

So, what did Jesus do as a boy? Whatever it took to become the man God made Him to be. We would do well to follow Boy Jesus’ example.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

The Hardest Part | Luke 2:21-40


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 2:21–40

Several years ago, I was working at a church in Costa Mesa, California. For Pastor Appreciation Day, the church gave each staff member a generous gift card to a nearby restaurant. Two or three weeks later, most of the staff still had their cards. Not me. I used it the day I got it. In fact, immediately after the chairman of the board of elders handed me the card in the service, as I was walking down the aisle, I looked at a friend and signaled that we were having lunch together that day. I have a problem with delayed gratification, it seems. The lyrics to a Tom Petty song could be my motto: “The waiting is the hardest part.”

Luke 2:21–40 tells the story of a man who waited to see “the consolation of Israel” (verse 25). His name was Simeon. Let’s take a quick look at his story.

According to Luke, Simeon was “righteous and devout” (verse 25). Moreover, “the Holy Spirit was on him.” Luke goes on to say, “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (verse 26). From this statement, most interpreters reasonably infer that Simeon was old or near death when Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple for ritual consecration. Taking Jesus in his arms, Simeon prophesied about the boy’s future.

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and the glory of your people Israel (verses 29–32).

This Christmas song goes by the Latin title, “Nunc Dimittis,” meaning “you now dismiss.” In it, Simeon praises God for bringing salvation not only to “your people Israel,” but also to “the Gentiles.” For Simeon, salvation was an accomplished fact, even though Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection lay 30-odd years in the future. He was certain that God would accomplish His purposes through Jesus Christ.

Simeon was not as certain about how individuals would respond to Jesus. “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (verses 34–35). In other words, God’s grace is certain, but our faith is an open question. Will we follow Jesus or not?

Simeon also says something to Mary: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” I think this statement refers to the maternal anguish Mary felt as she watched her firstborn son being crucified. Following Jesus isn’t easy. It always takes us to the cross.

Simeon’s message is an important one for instant gratificationists such as me to hear. Our culture wants microwave-dinner spirituality: quick and easy. But salvation requires “a long obedience in the same direction,” to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche — just like Simeon’s patience. And when we receive God’s grace, we find that the waiting wasn’t so hard after all.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

Value, Worship, and Evangelism | Luke 2:1-20


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 2:1–20

 

The Christmas story in Luke 2:1–20 teaches us five lessons. We looked at the lessons of sovereignty and humility yesterday. God rules over all creation, directing the course of history toward the fulfillment of His purposes. And one of His purposes is to draw all people to himself, which He does by sending His Son in the humble form of a baby in a manger. Today, we’ll look at three other lessons the Christmas story teaches about value, worship and evangelism.

What is most valuable to you? All right-minded people will say they care most about their relationships. The value of a loving family and good friends far outweighs that of material possessions. God values relationships too, to a degree that we will never fully understand. Most of our significant relationships are mutually beneficial; we supply what our friends lack, and they supply what we lack. But we have nothing God needs or wants. He loves us, not because of any benefits we provide Him, but simply because He loves us and because we need Him.

We see God’s values at work in the angel’s announcement of Christ’s birth to the shepherds. In Jesus’ day, shepherds rated low on the hierarchy of valuable relationships. They were considered dishonest and disreputable. And that, it seems to me, is precisely why God sent an army of angels to shepherds to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It was His way of reversing worldly values and saying, “I value these men. I love them. I want to save them.”

At Christmas, we ought to pay special attention to people whom the world doesn’t value, precisely because that is what God does.

Worship is a way that we express God’s value to us. Notice the song of the angels: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (verse 14).

This song makes two statements: (1) that glory belongs to God and (2) that the byproduct of grace (divine favor) is peace among people. Unfortunately, we too often focus only on the second statement. We want peace on earth. But peace comes as the result of right values. Jesus said, “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6.33). The only way to have “all these things,” including peace, is to seek first God’s kingdom. God values you. Do you value God?

If you do, the next obvious question is this: Do you share God with others? The angel said to the shepherds, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (verse 10). And the shepherds shared the good news of Christ’s birth with everyone they talked to. “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child” (verse 17). The Christmas story is the gospel, and all who tell it become evangelists.

God values you. Do you value Him? And are you helping others to value Him? Those are good questions to ask yourself at this time of year.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

Strength and Humility | Luke 2:1-20


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 2:1–20.

 

In Luke’s Gospel, the Christmas story begins on a throne and ends in a manger. As we read the unfolding of its plot, we learn valuable lessons about sovereignty, humility, value, worship and evangelism. Today, let’s look at the first two items on that list.

The Christmas story begins on the throne of Gaius Octavius, the nephew and heir to Julius Caesar. In 27 B.C., the Roman Senate proclaimed him Caesar Augustus (“the exalted one”), making him the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Under his reign, Rome expanded its boundaries and established peaceful conditions throughout the lands under its control — the so-called pax Romana (“peace of Rome”). These lands included Palestine.

Empires are costly things, and at some point, Caesar Augustus decreed a census of his empire for the purposes of taxation. Such was the power of his sovereignty that thousands of miles from Rome, an affianced couple packed their belongings to make their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem so they could be enrolled for the census.

At one level, of course, the Christmas story is about the sovereignty of the Roman emperor. It is about his ability to make unknown people far away from him jump through hoops to bring him more money. And yet, a greater sovereignty is at work in the Christmas story, for biblical prophecy foretells the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), not Nazareth, which is where Joseph and Mary resided. Caesar Augustus may issue the decree, but it is ultimately God calling the shots. He makes Caesar jump through hoops to bring us a Savior. Now that’s sovereignty!

But to what end does God exercise His sovereignty? Does He pull strings so that the Savior is born in a palace? No. The home of a wealthy person? No. A nice hotel? No. A cheap motel? No. There is no room for Israel’s Messiah in any of these places. Instead, a cave where animals are penned is Mary’s hospital room, and a manger where animals feed is Baby Jesus’ incubator. If God has the power to make Caesar Augustus do His bidding, why doesn’t He provide better circumstances for Jesus’ birth?

The answer comes in one word: humility. The humble circumstances of Christ’s birth allow everyone to draw near to Him. Rulers have bodyguards to protect them from the crowds. The wealthy live in gated communities that keep away uninvited guests. Hotels and motels have front desks that limit entry to all but paying customers. By contrast, anyone can walk into a barn. Jesus is humble; all are welcomed to draw near to Him.

Even those who wish to kill Him. In Philippians 2.8, Paul links Jesus’ humility with His death on the cross for our salvation. Jesus does not bother to surround himself with layers of protection to keep the people away. Instead, from birth to death, He draws all people to himself. And in His humble sovereignty lies our salvation.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

Magnificat! | Luke 1:46-56


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:46–56.

 

As I wrote at the outset of this series, Christmas is a singing season. With today’s Scripture reading (Luke 1:46–56), we get to the first of the four songs Luke records. It has come to be known as the Magnificat because that is the first word in its Latin translation, meaning “My soul glorifies!” And it is sung by Mary, who is “the Lord’s servant” (Luke 1:38) and a profound theologian.

Mary begins by praising God for His goodness to her personally:

My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me —
holy is his name (verses 46–49).

All true worship begins with personal testimony. It is rooted in the story of the encounter between “the Mighty One” and “me.” Although none of us can claim Mary’s particular story as our own, we have stories of “great things” God has done for us. What is the story of your encounter with God? Do you praise God daily for it?

Of course, true worship never ends with personal testimony. It is rooted in personal encounter, but it sees that God’s purposes lie beyond our small selves. While He is “my Savior,” He also desires to save others:

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation (verse 50).

The favor (literally, “grace”) God gave Mary (Luke 1:28, 30) is available to us as well — and to all others. But grace must be received with faith, that is, trust. Unfortunately, too many people trust in idols, not God. So, in order to save us, God becomes a great iconoclast:

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty (verses 51–53).

When I mentioned idols, perhaps you thought of gods of stone and metal and wood. But the idols God opposes most are idols of faithless hearts. And so, here, Mary teaches us that God opposes pride, power and possessions. Why? They keep us from seeing our need for God. Instead, we should be humble in God’s presence and hungry for His grace. God can do nothing for those who think they already have everything, but He can do everything for those who know they have nothing to offer Him but themselves.

Mary concludes her song with these words:

He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised to our ancestors” (verses 54–55).

Is God worthy of our praise? Is He good to us today, but not tomorrow? Will He oppose pride, power and possessions today, but change His mind tomorrow? No. His character is consistent. But so is His history. Mary cites the history of Israel’s relationship with God to remind us of this important point: God has been merciful. He is merciful. He will be merciful.

Magnificat!

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

The Blessings of Believing | Luke 1:39-45


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:39–45

In Luke 1:39–56, the stories of Elizabeth’s and Mary’s miraculous conceptions intertwine when the two women meet. They are relatives, it turns out, and what could be more natural than family members sharing good news? It also helps that Elizabeth lives in the Judean hills, a far piece from little Nazareth; and young Mary no doubt needs a respite from the gossip about her pregnancy.

At their first encounter, Elizabeth says four things worth pondering:

First, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear” — literally, “the fruit of your womb.”

This line of Scripture makes an appearance in the Catholic rosary as the second line of the “Hail, Mary” prayer. But if Catholics pay too much attention to Mary, Protestants pay too little. Mary was uniquely blessed among women because she gave birth to the Son of God. We do a disservice to God’s Word when we fail to remember Mary with honor for her obedience to God, which played an important role in our own salvation. Had Jesus never been born, after all, He could not have possibly died on the cross for our sins or risen from the dead for our eternal life.

Second, “But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

This is an astonishing question at two levels: (a) in traditional cultures, the young pay homage to the old, not the reverse, as is the case here; and (b) Elizabeth calls Mary “the mother of my Lord.” This is the first time — but certainly not the last — in which Jesus Christ’s coming into the world reverses traditional cultural patterns of relationships.

Third, “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.”

That baby is John the Baptist, of course. This is the first time — but certainly not the last — that John will witness to the messiahship of his kinsman, Jesus.

And fourth, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

In my opinion, this is the key statement. None of us will ever be become the mother of the Son of God, like Mary. Elizabeth will never announce her favor at meeting us. John the Baptist will not leap for joy at our arrival. But the Lord will bless us if we believe His promises to us, just as He blessed Mary and Elizabeth.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

The Songs of Christmas, Part 1

The Songs of Christmas, Part 2

The Songs of Christmas, Part 3

The Songs of Christmas, Part 4

The Songs of Christmas, Part 5