On the Incarnation of the Word 11 – The Descent of Man

Why are we created in the image of God? Athanasius begins with that question today.

God, Who has the power over all things, when He was making the race of men through His own Word, seeing the weakness of their nature, that it was not sufficient of itself to know its Maker, nor to get any idea at all of God; because while He was uncreate, the creatures had been made of nought, and while He was incorporeal, men had been fashioned in a lower way in the body, and because in every way the things made fell far short of being able to comprehend and know their Maker—taking pity, I say, on the race of men, inasmuch as He is good, He did not leave them destitute of the knowledge of Himself, lest they should find no profit in existing at all.

One problem with the free online translations is that, given what copyright has become in the US, they all employ a somewhat dated English. Usually that’s not too much of a problem, but it doesn’t make what Athanasius is saying here any easier to understand. Basically, he is saying that the uncreated and incorporeal God is so far beyond our nature and understanding that we had no possible way in ourselves of knowing him at all. But God didn’t want that, for without knowledge of him, there is no meaning to our existence.

For what profit to the creatures if they knew not their Maker? or how could they be rational without knowing the Word (and Reason) of the Father, in Whom they received their very being? For there would be nothing to distinguish them even from brute creatures if they had knowledge of nothing but earthly things. Nay, why did God make them at all, as He did not wish to be known by them?

In other words, God wanted us to know him. He did not want us to be simply another animal in creation. He made us rational, but our rationality comes from our connection to the Word.

Whence, lest this should be so, being good, He gives them a share in His own Image, our Lord Jesus Christ, and makes them after His own Image and after His likeness: so that by such grace perceiving the Image, that is, the Word of the Father, they may be able through Him to get an idea of the Father, and knowing their Maker, live the happy and truly blessed life.

So from the beginning, he gave us the gift of his own image and likeness. From the beginning, God was working to be with us. The presence of God with us is grace and in that grace, perceiving the image of it within ourselves, we have some idea of God intended to bring us to know him and live in the fullness of life.

But we did not grow in knowledge of God through the image of the Word. Instead, seeking our maker, we created idols instead. We manufactured gods to worship. We set ourselves on the path of destruction. Athanasius understood Romans 1:18-32 better than most modern voices I hear.

But men once more in their perversity having set at nought, in spite of all this, the grace given them, so wholly rejected God, and so darkened their soul, as not merely to forget their idea of God, but also to fashion for themselves one invention after another. For not only did they grave idols for themselves, instead of the truth, and honour things that were not before the living God, “and serve the creature rather than the Creator,” but, worst of all, they transferred the honour of God even to stocks and stones and to every material object and to men, and went even further than this, as we have said in the former treatise. So far indeed did their impiety go, that they proceeded to worship devils, and proclaimed them as gods, fulfilling their own lusts. For they performed, as was said above, offerings of brute animals, and sacrifices of men, as was meet for them, binding themselves down all the faster under their maddening inspirations. For this reason it was also that magic arts were taught among them, and oracles in divers places led men astray, and all men ascribed the influences of their birth and existence to the stars and to all the heavenly bodies, having no thought of anything beyond what was visible.

I’ve often heard Romans 1 described as God being pissed off at the unrighteous things man does. (No, they don’t use those words exactly, but that’s pretty much what a very common modern interpretation of the passage actually means.) And that shallow interpretation completely misses the point, a point which the Christians living in ancient Roman would never have missed. (Study ancient Rome sometime.) Rather, the point is that we reject God, the one whose image we bear, and we worship gods we make instead. As we do so, we seek nonexistence and we inevitably darken our minds, since the light of our reason flows from the Word. The specific acts Paul describes in the second part of the passage? Those merely illustrate our descent as we worship other gods.

That passage is one of the saddest in scripture. Can you not hear the ache in your Father’s voice as three times the passage repeats that “God gave us up” (or gave us over) to the ever-darkening pursuit of other gods. If you have ever had children who pursued harmful things, you perhaps begin to understand.

And, in a word, everything was full of irreligion and lawlessness, and God alone, and His Word, was unknown, albeit He had not hidden Himself out of men’s sight, nor given the knowledge of Himself in one way only; but had, on the contrary, unfolded it to them in many forms and by many ways.

God had done many things to make himself known, but we didn’t know the Word.

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