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Sola Scriptura in Athanasius: "On the Incarnation of the Word"

October 19, 2016

The sequel to “Contra Gentes,” Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation of the Word” picks up where the prior work left off (link to detailed discussion of Sola Scriptura in Contra Gentes). He already has proven the divinity of the Word, but now he’s going to discuss how the Word became flesh. There are 57 sections to this work.

By the second section (link), Athanasius is already quoting Scripture. He continues doing the same in third section (link) where he also quotes from the Shepherd of Hermas (as “the most edifying book of the Shepherd”). He likewise continues to quote from scripture in the next two sections (4th5th) including a quote from the deuterocanonical book of Wisdom in each section.

Athanasius continues his argument and explanation, relying on Biblical principles and doctrines, while not necessarily always quoting from Scripture.

In some places, Athanasius places particular emphasis on quoting Scripture, such as when proving his point from Scripture in section 10 (link). For example, he states: “And of this one may be assured at the hands of the Saviour’s own inspired writers, if one happen upon their writings … .”

In section 12 (link), Athanasius explains the purpose of Scripture:

But since men’s carelessness, by little and little, descends to lower things, God made provision, once more, even for this weakness of theirs, by sending a law, and prophets, men such as they knew, so that even if they were not ready to look up to heaven and know their Creator, they might have their instruction from those near at hand … For neither was the law for the Jews alone, nor were the Prophets sent for them only, but, though sent to the Jews and persecuted by the Jews, they were for all the world a holy school of the knowledge of God and the conduct of the soul.

In section 13 (link) Athanasius makes a telling comparison to human kings:

5. Once again, a merely human king does not let the lands he has colonized pass to others to serve them, nor go over to other men; but he warns them by letters, and often sends to them by friends, or, if need be, he comes in person, to put them to rebuke in the last resort by his presence, only that they may not serve others and his own work be spent for naught.

His point, of course, is that Christ’s coming is that last resort.

Athanasius does not necessarily always cite or quote from Scripture, though he does occasionally do so at length (for example, at section 18). Moreover, while Athanasius frequently appeals to what is “fitting” to persuade his reader, when it comes to actually proving the point, he goes to Scripture. For example, the following is from section 33 (link):

For Jews in their incredulity may be refuted from the Scriptures, which even themselves read; for this text and that, and, in a word, the whole inspired Scripture, cries aloud concerning these things, as even its express words abundantly shew. For prophets proclaimed beforehand concerning the wonder of the Virgin and the birth from her, saying: “Lo, the Virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a Son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which is, being interpreted, God with us.” [Isaiah 7:14 – also quoted in Matthew 1:23]
But Moses, the truly great, and whom they believe to speak truth, with reference to the Saviour’s becoming man, having estimated what was said as important, and assured of its truth, set it down in these words: “There shall rise a star out of Jacob, and a man out of Israel, and he shall break in pieces the captains of Moab.” [Numbers 24:17] And again: “How lovely are thy habitations O Jacob, thy tabernacles O Israel, as shadowing gardens, and as parks by the rivers, and as tabernacles which the Lord hath fixed, as cedars by the waters. A man shall come forth out of his seed, and shall be Lord over many peoples.” [LXX Numbers 24:5-7] And again, Esaias: “Before the Child know how to call father or mother, he shall take the power of Damascus and the spoils of Samaria before the king of Assyria.” [Isaiah 8:4]
That a man, then, shall appear is foretold in those words. But that He that is to come is Lord of all, they predict once more as follows: “Behold the Lord sitteth upon a light cloud, and shall come into Egypt, and the graven images of Egypt shall be shaken.” [Isaiah 19:1] For from thence also it is that the Father calls Him back, saying: “I called My Son out of Egypt.” [Hosea 11:1]

Notice that for Athanasius these doctrines are expressly and clearly taught in Scripture: “even its express words abundantly shew.”

The next section (section 34) continues in the same vein:

Nor is even His death passed over in silence: on the contrary, it is referred to in the divine Scriptures, even exceeding clearly. For to the end that none should err for want of instruction in the actual events, they feared not to mention even the cause of His death,—that He suffers it not for His own sake, but for the immortality and salvation of all, and the counsels of the Jews against Him and the indignities offered Him at their hands.
They say then: “A man in stripes, and knowing how to bear weakness, for his face is turned away: he was dishonoured and held in no account. He beareth our sins, and is in pain on our account; and we reckoned him to be in labour, and in stripes, and in ill-usage; but he was wounded for our sins, and made weak for our wickedness. The chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we were healed.” [Isaiah 53:3-5 – there seem to be some slight variants from both the Masoretic and LXX texts here] O marvel at the loving-kindness of the Word, that for our sakes He is dishonoured, that we may be brought to honour. “For all we,” it says, “like sheep were gone astray; man had erred in his way; and the Lord delivered him for our sins; and he openeth not his mouth, because he hath been evilly entreated. As a sheep was he brought to the slaughter, and as a lamb dumb before his shearer, so openeth he not his mouth: in his abasement his judgment was taken away.” [Isaiah 53:6-8]
Then lest any should from His suffering conceive Him to be a common man, Holy Writ anticipates the surmises of man, and declares the power (which worked) for Him, and the difference of His nature compared with ourselves, saying: “But who shall declare his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth. From the wickedness of the people was he brought to death. And I will give the wicked instead of his burial, and the rich instead of his death; for he did no wickedness, neither was guile found in his mouth. And the Lord will cleanse him from his stripes.” [Isaiah 53:8-10 – the text here seems close to the LXX]

Once again note that for Athanasius “it is referred to in the divine Scriptures, even exceeding clearly ….”

The following section (section 35) continues with more Scriptural proof:

But, perhaps, having heard the prophecy of His death, you ask to learn also what is set forth concerning the Cross. For not even this is passed over: it is displayed by the holy men with great plainness.
For first Moses predicts it, and that with a loud voice, when he says: “Ye shall see your Life hanging before your eyes, and shall not believe.” [Deuteronomy 28:66]
And next, the prophets after him witness of this, saying: “But I as an innocent lamb brought to be slain, knew it not; they counselled an evil counsel against me, saying, Hither and let us cast a tree upon his bread, and efface him from the land of the living.” [Jeremiah 11:19 – slightly different from both the LXX and Masoretic texts here]
And again: “They pierced my hands and my feet, they numbered all my bones, they parted my garments among them, and for my vesture they cast lots.” [Psalm 22:16-18]
Now a death raised aloft and that takes place on a tree, could be none other than the Cross: and again, in no other death are the hands and feet pierced, save on the Cross only.
But since by the sojourn of the Saviour among men all nations also on every side began to know God; they did not leave this point, either, without a reference: but mention is made of this matter as well in the Holy Scriptures. For “there shall be,” he saith, “the root of Jesse, and he that riseth to rule the nations, on him shall the nations hope.” [Isaiah 11:10] This then is a little in proof of what has happened.
But all Scripture teems with refutations of the disbelief of the Jews. For which of the righteous men and holy prophets, and patriarchs, recorded in the divine Scriptures, ever had his corporal birth of a virgin only? Or what woman has sufficed without man for the conception of human kind? Was not Abel born of Adam, Enoch of Jared, Noe of Lamech, and Abraham of Tharra, Isaac of Abraham, Jacob of Isaac? Was not Judas born of Jacob, and Moses and Aaron of Ameram? Was not Samuel born of Elkana, was not David of Jesse, was not Solomon of David, was not Ezechias of Achaz, was not Josias of Amos, was not Esaias of Amos, was not Jeremy of Chelchias, was not Ezechiel of Buzi? Had not each a father as author of his existence? Who then is he that is born of a virgin only? For the prophet made exceeding much of this sign.
Or whose birth did a star in the skies forerun, to announce to the world him that was born? For when Moses was born, he was hid by his parents: David was not heard of, even by those of his neighbourhood, inasmuch as even the great Samuel knew him not, but asked, had Jesse yet another son? Abraham again became known to his neighbours as a great man only subsequently to his birth. But of Christ’s birth the witness was not man, but a star in that heaven whence He was descending.

Once again, note the affirmation that Scripture clearly teaches these important central truths:

  • “it is displayed by the holy men with great plainness”
  • “This then is a little in proof of what has happened”
  • “all Scripture teems with refutations of the disbelief of the Jews”

One of the most powerful indirect confirmations of the Sola Scriptura approach of Athanasius comes in section 37 (link), where Athanasius argues in this way: “Who then is he of whom the Divine Scriptures say this? Or who is so great that even the prophets predict of him such great things? None else, now, is found in the Scriptures but the common Saviour of all, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ.” Similarly, in section 38 (link) “Since then nothing is said in the Scriptures, it is evident that these things had never taken place before.” Notice that Athanasius has a presupposition that the answer to the question is to be found in Scripture and if Scripture is silent, it didn’t happen. If Athanasius thought that Scripture were an incomplete record, this would not work – for simply exhausting Scripture would not be enough.

Similarly, in a number of sections Athanasius appeals to Scripture as proof:

  • “For if they do not think these proofs sufficient, let them be persuaded at any rate by other reasons, drawn from the oracles they themselves possess.” (Section 38)
  • “Or if not even this is sufficient for them, let them at least be silenced by another proof, seeing how clear its demonstrative force is. For the Scripture says …” (Section 38)
  • “But perhaps, being unable, even they, to fight continually against plain facts, they will, without denying what is written, maintain that they are looking for these things, and that the Word of God is not yet come. For this it is on which they are for ever harping, not blushing to brazen it out in the face of plain facts.” (Section 39)
  • “… then it must be plain, even to those who are exceedingly obstinate, that the Christ is come, and that He has illumined absolutely all with His light, and given them the true and divine teaching concerning His Father. So one can fairly refute the Jews by these and by other arguments from the Divine Scriptures.” (section 40)

My non-cessationist friends will be wise to note Athanasius’ confirmation of the cessation of prophecy: “To make prophecy, and king, and vision to cease? This too has already come to pass.” (section 40)

In arguing against the Greeks, Athanasius uses an excellent argument that demonstrates his view of Scripture (section 47 and section 50):

But as to Gentile wisdom, and the sounding pretensions of the philosophers, I think none can need our argument, since the wonder is before the eyes of all, that while the wise among the Greeks had written so much, and were unable to persuade even a few from their own neighbourhood, concerning immortality and a virtuous life, Christ alone, by ordinary language, and by men not clever with the tongue, has throughout all the world persuaded whole churches full of men to despise death, and to mind the things of immortality; to overlook what is temporal and to turn their eyes to what is eternal; to think nothing of earthly glory and to strive only for the heavenly.

But the Word of God, most strange fact, teaching in meaner language, has cast into the shade the choice sophists; and while He has, by drawing all to Himself, brought their schools to nought, He has filled His own churches; and the marvellous thing is, that by going down as man to death, He has brought to nought the sounding utterances of the wise concerning idols.

Interestingly, this is the first time churches are mentioned – but they are not mentioned as an authority, but rather as an evidence (section 24 included a brief mention of “those who would divide the Church”).

As he wraps up his book (section 56), Athanasius makes sure to point his reader back to Scripture:

Let this, then, Christ-loving man, be our offering to you, just for a rudimentary sketch and outline, in a short compass, of the faith of Christ and of His Divine appearing to usward. But you, taking occasion by this, if you light upon the text of the Scriptures, by genuinely applying your mind to them, will learn from them more completely and clearly the exact detail of what we have said. For they were spoken and written by God, through men who spoke of God.

Notice how Athanasius views Scripture as being an even better teacher than he is, and that simply by “genuinely applying your mind” you can learn the truths “more completely and clearly” with “the exact detail.” He gives the reason why: namely that they were “spoken and written by God.”

The most tradition-friendly line of the book then follows: “But we impart of what we have learned from inspired teachers who have been conversant with them, who have also become martyrs for the deity of Christ, to your zeal for learning, in turn.” But note that Athanasius does not hint or suggest that there is an epistemological need for these teachers. While Athanasius does use their martyrdom as a testimony to the truth of their position, to some extent, he never quotes from any of them throughout the work: only quoting from the Scripture or deuterocanonical works, such as Wisdom or the Shepherd.

In the final section (section 57), Athanasius continues his promotion of searching the Scriptures:

But for the searching of the Scriptures and true knowledge of them, an honourable life is needed, and a pure soul, and that virtue which is according to Christ; so that the intellect guiding its path by it, may be able to attain what it desires, and to comprehend it, in so far as it is accessible to human nature to learn concerning the Word of God.

So, Athanasius’ exhortation is not to accept the authority of those intermediate teachers, but rather to imitate their example of a godly life. Thus, even in pointing to those who went before us, Athanasius’ point is that “For without a pure mind and a modelling of the life after the saints, a man could not possibly comprehend the words of the saints.” His point is not that we need additional instructors alongside Scripture, but that we need to remove sin from our life in order to understand Scripture correctly.


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