Friday, June 18, 2010

Athanasius on Trespass and Corruption

In re-reading St. Athanasius' great classic, On the Incarnation, last night, I noticed how clearly he puts the matter of original sin and redemption. Our plight is not merely one of "trespass" but of "corruption." In section 7, he writes:
Was He to demand repentance from men for their transgression? You might say that this was worthy of God, and argue further that, as through the Transgression they became subject to corruption, so through repentance they might return to incorruption again. But repentance would not guard the Divine consistency, for, if death did not hold dominion over men, God would still remain untrue. Nor does repentance recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God. No, repentance could not meet the case. What - or rather Who was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required? Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing? He part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character with all. For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father. [my bolding]
The words in bold are chilling because they utterly destroy all human hope of salvation apart from the sacrificial death of Christ for us. Just as much as Calvin or Owens or Packer, Athanasius teaches what the NT teaches, namely, that we are doomed and helpless apart from the work of Christ on the cross. Our plight is not merely one of trespass, but one of corruption. We need more than an example or an inspiration; we need a Savior.

Sometimes we forget that the reason the early Church Fathers so strongly emphasized the doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation was not because those doctrines were some sort of end in themselves. Rather, they did so because they form the basis upon which the doctrine of redemption from sin through the cross rests. They are thus as Evangelical as any Evangelical could ever hope to be.

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