To Athanasius the Incarnation of the Son of God, and especially his Death on the Cross, is the centre of faith and theology (Incar.19, kephalaion tes pisteos, cf.9.1 and 2, 20.2, &c.). For our salvation' (Incar.1) the Word became Man and died. But how did Athanasius conceive of salvation'? from what are we saved, to what destiny does salvation bring us, and what idea does he form of the efficacy of the Saviour's death? Now it is not too much to say that no one age of the Church's existence has done full justice to the profundity and manysidedness of the Christian idea of Redemption as effected in Christ and as unfolded by S. Paul. The kingdom of God and His Righteousness; the forgiveness of sins and the adoption of sons as a present gift; the consummation of all at the great judgment; -- Christian men of different ages, countries, characters and mental antecedents, while united in personal devotion to the Saviour and in the sanctifying Power of His Grace, have interpreted these central ideas of the Gospel in terms of their own respective categories, and have succeeded in bringing out now one, now another aspect of the mystery of Redemption rather than in preserving the balance of the whole. Who will claim that the last word has yet been said on S. Paul's deep conception of God's (not mercy but) Righteousness as the new and peculiar element (Rom. i.17, iii.22, 26) of the Gospel Revelation? to search out the unsearchable riches of Christ is the prerogative of Christian faith, but is denied, save to the most limited extent, to Christian knowledge (1 Cor. xiii.9). The onesidedness of any given age in apprehending the work of Christ is to be recognised by us not in a censorious spirit of self-complacency, but with reverent sympathy, and with the necessity in view of correcting our own: panta dokimazete, to kalon katechete.
Different ages and classes have necessarily thought under different categories. The categories of the post-apostolic age were mainly ethical; the Gospel is the new law, and the promise of eternal life, founded on true knowledge of God, and accepted by faith. Those of the Asiatic fathers from Ignatius downwards were largely physical or realistic. Mankind is brought in Christ (the physician) from death to life, from phthora to aphtharsia (Ign. passim); to
euangelion...apartisma aphtharsias (Ign., Melit.); human nature is changed by the Incarnation, man made God. Tertullian introduced into Western theology forensic categories. He applied them to the Person, not yet to the Work, of Christ: but the latter application, pushed to a repellent length in the middle ages, and still more so since the Reformation, may without fancifulness be traced back to the fact that the first Latin Father was a lawyer. Again, Redemption was viewed by Origen and others under cosmological categories, as the turning point in the great conflict of good with evil, of demons with God, as the inauguration of the deliverance of the creation and its reunion with God. The many-sidedness of Origen combined, indeed, almost every representation of Redemption then current, from the propitiatory and mediatorial, which most nearly approached the thought of S. Paul, to the grotesque but widely-spread view of a ransom due to the devil which he was induced to accept by a stratagem. It may be said that with the exception of the last-named every one of the above conceptions finds some point of contact in the New Testament; even the forensic idea, thoroughly unbiblical in its extremer forms, would not have influenced Christian thought as it has done had it not corresponded to something in the language of S. Paul.
Now Athanasius does not totally ignore any one of these conceptions, unless it be that of a transaction with the devil, which he scarcely touches even in Orat. ii.52 (see note there). Of the forensic view he is indeed almost clear. His reference to the debt' (to opheilomenon, Incar.20, Orat. ii.66) which had to be paid is connected not so much with the Anselmic idea of a satisfaction due, as with the fact that death was by the divine word (Gen. iii.), attached to sin as its penalty.
The aspect of the death of Christ as a vicarious sacrifice (anti panton, de Incar.9; prosphora and thusia, 10) is not passed over. But on the whole another aspect predominates. The categories under which Athanasius again and again states the soteriological problem are those of zoe and thanatos, and aphtharsia. So far as he works the problem out in detail it is under physical categories, without doing full justice to the ideas of guilt and reconciliation, of the reunion of will between man and God. The numberless passages which bear this out cannot be quoted in full, but the point is of sufficient importance to demand the production of a few details.
(a) The original state of man was not one of nature,' for man's nature is phthora; (ten en thanato kata phusin phthoran, Incar.3, cf.8, 10, 44) the Word was imparted to them in that they were made kata ten tou theou eikona (ib). Hence what later theology marks off as an exclusively supernatural gift is according to Athanasius inalienable from human nature, i.e. it can be impaired but not absolutely lost (Incar.14, and apparently Orat. iii.10 fin.; the question of the teaching of Athan. upon the natural endowments of man belongs specially to the Introd. to de Incarnatione, where it will be briefly discussed). Accordingly their infraction of the divine command (by turning their minds, c. Gent.3, to lower things instead of to the theoria ton theion), logically involved them in non-existence (de Incar.4), but actually, inasmuch as the likeness of God was only gradually lost, in phthora, regarded as a process toward non-existence. This again involved men in increasing ignorance of God, by the gradual obliteration of the eikon, the indwelling Logos, by virtue of which alone men could read the open book (c. Gent.34 fin.) of God's manifestation of Himself in the Universe. It is evident that the pathological point of view here prevails over the purely ethical: the perversion of man's will merges in the general idea of phthora, the first need of man is a change in his nature; or rather the renewed infusion of that higher and divine nature which he has gradually lost. (Cf. de Incar.44, chrezonton tes autou theotetos dia tou homoiou).
(b) Accordingly the mere presence of the Word in a human body, the mere fact of the Incarnation, is the essential factor in our restoration (simile of the city and the king, ib.9.3, &c., cf. Orat. ii.67, 70). But if so, what was the special need of the Cross? Athanasius felt, as we have already mentioned, the supremacy of the Cross as the purpose of the Saviour's coming, but he does not in fact give to it the central place in his system of thought which it occupies in his instincts. Man had involved himself in the sentence of death; death must therefore take place to satisfy this sentence (Orat. ii.69; de Incar.20.2, 5); the Saviour's death, then, put an end to death regarded as penal and as symptomatic of man's phthora (cf. ib.21.1, &c.). It must be confessed that Athanasius does not penetrate to the full meaning of S. Paul. The latter also ascribed a central import to the mere fact of the Incarnation (Rom. viii.3, pempsas), but primarily in relation to sin (yet see Athan. c. Apoll. ii.6); and the destruction of the practical power of sin stands indissolubly correlated (Rom. viii.1) with the removal of guilt and so with the Righteousness of God realising itself in the propitiation of the blood of Christ (ib. iii.21 -- 26).
To Athanasius nature is the central, will a secondary or implied factor in the problem. The aspect of the death of Christ most repeatedly dwelt upon is that in it death spent its force (plerotheises tes exousias en to kuriako souati, ib.8) against human nature, that the corruption' of mankind might run its full course and be spent in the Lord's body, and so cease for the future. Of this Victory over death and the demons the Resurrection is the trophy. His death is therefore to us (ib.10) the arche zoes, we are henceforth aphthartoi dia tes anastaseos (27.2, 32.6, cf.34.1, &c.), and have a portion in the divine nature, are in fact deified (cf. de Incarn.54, and note there). This last thought, which became (Harnack, vol. ii. p.46) the common property of Eastern theology, goes back through Origen and Hippolytus to Irenæus. On the whole, its presentation in Athanasius is more akin to the Asiatic than to the Origenist form of the conception. To Origen, man's highest destiny could only be the return to his original source and condition: to Irenæus and the Asiatics, man had been created for a destiny which he had never realised; the interruption in the history of our race introduced by sin was repaired by the Incarnation, which carried back the race to a new head, and so carried it forward to a destiny of which under its original head it was incapable. To Origen the Incarnation was a restoration to, to Irenæus and to Athanasius (Or. ii.67), an advance upon, the original state of man. (Pell, pp.167-177, labours to prove the contrary, but he does not convince.)
(c) This leads us to the important observation that momentous as are to Athanasius the consequences of the introduction of sin into the world, he yet makes no such vast difference between the condition of fallen and unfallen men as has commonly been assumed to exist. The latter state was inferior to that of the members of Christ (Orat. ii.67, 68), while the immense (c. Gent.8, de Incar.5) consequences of its forfeiture came about only by a gradual course of deterioration (de Incar.6.1, ephanizeto; observe the tense), and in different degrees in different cases. The only difference of kind between the two conditions is in the universal reign of Death since the (partial) forfeiture of the tou kat' eikona charis: and even this difference is a subtle one; for man's existence in Paradise was not one of aphtharsia except prospectively (de Incar.3.4). He enjoyed present happiness, alupos anodunos amerimnos zoe, with promise of aphtharsia in heaven. That is, death would have taken place, but not death as unredeemed mankind know it (cf. de Incar.21.1). In other words, man was created not so much in a state of perfection (teleios ktistheis, p.384) as with a capacity for perfection (and for even more than perfection, p.385 sq.) and with a destiny to correspond with such capacity. This destination remains in force even after man has failed to correspond to it, and is in fact assigned by Athanasius as the reason why the Incarnation was a necessity on God's part (de Incar.6.4-7, 10.3, 13.2-4, Orat. ii.66, &c., &c.). Accordingly, while man was created (Orat. ii.59) through the Word, the Word became Flesh that man might receive the yet higher dignity of Sonship ; and while even before the Incarnation some men were de facto pure from sin (Orat. iii.33) by virtue of the charis tes kleseos involved in to kat' eikona' (see ib.10, fin.; Orat. i.39 is even stronger, cf. iv.22), they were yet thnetoi and phthartoi; whereas those in Christ die, no longer kata ten proteran genesin en to 'Adam, but to live again logotheises tes sarkos (Orat. iii.33, fin., cf. de Incar.21.1).
(d) The above slight sketch of the Athanasian doctrine of man's need of redemption and of the satisfaction of that need brings to light a system free from much that causes many modern thinkers to stumble at the current doctrine of the original state and the religious history of mankind. That mankind did not start upon their development with a perfect nature, but have fought their way up from an undeveloped stage through many lower phases of development; that this development has been infinitely varied and complex, and that sin and its attendant consequences have a pathological aspect which practically is as important as the forensic aspect, are commonplaces of modern thought, resting upon the wider knowledge of our age, and hard to reconcile with the (to us) traditional theological account of these things. The Athanasian account of them leaves room for the results of modern knowledge, or at least does not rudely clash with the instincts of the modern anthropologist. The recovery of the Athanasian point of view is prima facie again. At what cost is it obtained? Does its recognition involve us in mere naturalism veiled under religious forms of speech? That was certainly not the mind of Athanasius, nor does his system really lend itself to such a result. To begin with, the divine destiny of man from the first is an essential principle with our writer. Man was made and is still exclusively destined for knowledge of and fellowship with his Creator. Secondly the means, and the only means, to this end is Christ the Incarnate Son of God. In Him the religious history of mankind has its centre, and from Him it proceeds upon its new course, or rather is enabled once more to run the course designed for it from the first. How far Athanasius exhausted the significance of this fact may be a question; that he placed the fact itself in the centre is his lasting service to Christian thought.
(e) The categories of Athanasius in dealing with the question before us are primarily physical, i.e., on the one hand cosmological, on the other pathological. But it is well before leaving the subject to insist that this was not exclusively the case. The purpose of the Incarnation was at once to renew us, and to make known the Father (de Incarn.16); or as he elsewhere puts it (ib.7 fin.), anaktisai ta hola, huper panton, pathein, and peri panton presbeusui pros ton Patera. The idea of aphtharsia which so often stands with him for the summum bonum imparted to us in Christ, involves a moral and spiritual restoration of our nature, not merely the physical supersession of phthora by athanasia (de Incarn.47, 51, 52, &c., &c.).