Incarnation​ and The Biblical Canon: A Closer look At Athanasius on The Incarnation & His Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter



The brilliant and indefatigable St. Athanasius presents the Patristic and Nicene theology on the incarnation in order to expound on its central mystery that embraces all aspects of Christ’s work from creation to recreation. His first treatise on the Incarnation lays out a number of structural elements which focuses on the Gentile nation and their prevalence of idolatry. The resolution to this problem is demonstrated through the incarnate Word of God who came into our region voluntarily and was moved by our corruption.[1]Christ becomes what he created, without ceasing to be creator in order to reconcile us to the Father and bridge the relational gap.

The participation of Christ in human nature and existence allows us to partake in that very life and love by taking on our corruption. This homoousion between the Father and Christ is now in us as is the substance found in all humankind. The Word of God takes on the human body, as an instrument, in order to conquer death and pay the price we aren’t able to afford.[2]He does what the law couldn’t accomplish in salvation by condemning sin to death (Rom.8:3). His deity and humanity are portrayed in a hypostatic union both divine and human and is essential for our revelation and reconciliation. This allows for a knowledge of God in human terms to analogically understand the very likeness of God through the person of Christ. It’s because of the visibility of the incarnate Son that our redemption is achieved.[3]The entry of God himself in the human situation and into the destructive power of evil was the goal of reconstituting our humanity through his life, death, resurrection and ascension. The effects of the fall and original sin by way of the pre-movement of the incarnation in the covenant between God and man has manifested its truth in Christ.

He does what the law couldn’t accomplish in salvation by condemning sin to death.


Athanasius’ main focus is the body itself in incarnational theology and through the incorruptibility of his divine person in becoming our likeness in corruptible form. He presents the incarnation in such a way as a model or dimension for Christian living and how we may obtain this promise of a futuristic glory. One of the purposes Athanasius presents for the reasoning behind why Christ came was because love is the primary motive. This eliminates any merit-based way of achieving the salvific message of the Gospel and retains the grace of the one who bestows it. The language he uses when describing the body in similarity to ours reiterates the humanity of Christ in full measure to us. If the humanity of Christ is imperfect than our reconciliation is imperfect, and we would still be dead in our sins. The preexistence of Christ is stressed in his remarks, following the pattern of the apostle Paul in Rom.1:20 that signifies the sense perception that the world could know the first cause (mover) through his effects.[7]Laying aside his majesty and glory as the only-begotten Son of the Father, a self-sacrificial God-man was necessary to end death. The payment of his mortal body was sufficient, and Athanasius is clear throughout that the necessity of his death would eliminate its sting for all eternity. The providential work of God can only be seen in the Son and this affirmation was presented during the council of Nicaea that Christ is true God of true God and the proofs of his divinity shown by his works.

Biblical Canon

The thirty-ninth Festal Letter from Athanasius not only announces the date of Easter in AD 367 but is considered to be one of the most significant documents in Christendom as the first authentic statement on the canon of the New Testament. The complete list of twenty-seven books comprising of the NT first appears here as arguments over the canonization ensued between the second and third centuries because of the introduction of some heretical works.[4]Athanasius critiques these heretical writings as a breeding ground for certain influential groups within Christian circles that affect the context and purpose of the canon as a whole. It was necessary to establish certain criteria in determining what books were canonical and Athanasius comprises a list within the letter that certain Apocrypha writings didn’t meet that demand. Their usefulness was for the instruction of catechumens but are not canonized and have no place in the church.[5]The authority of scripture is divinely inspired according to the doctrine of godliness that bears witness to the person of Christ.[6]The differentiating between truth and error was crucial in determining the canonicity of each book as the foundations of salvation which became the rule or standard to live by.

A self-sacrificial God-man was necessary to end death.

The word, canon, is first used by Athanasius and its purpose during the council of Nicaea (AD 325) to guard against false heretical books as becoming the authority of scripture. The list is an exact replica of our current New Testament that gives us a historical premise of how tradition has handled the formation and role of the canon in support of one form of Christian piety. The requirements set the theological bar for the newly joined and those desiring corrective instruction in Godliness.[8]But even Athanasius quotes from noncanonical books because they brought an edifying element and was seen as not improper to bind such works together with the canonical books.[9]The inclusion of these books as scripture helps the reader in understanding the Lordship of Christ, the way of salvation and who God is. The canonical exegesis of each book draws the entirety of the New Testament as one complete book and Athanasius is persuaded that any mix up of such would result in the degradation of scripture.[10]The books of the church or Apocrypha didn’t possess divine authorship and the search for its authenticity is mandated (John 5:39) and always testifies back to the Son. Any deviation from it would result in a false witness and lead some astray from the truth. The importance of keeping these books in close proximity to one another as life (Deut. 32:47) becomes an integral part in comprehending the historical narrative of redemption through its preservation for the entire church today.




            [1]Weaver, C. Douglas, and Rady Roldán-Figueroa. Exploring Christian Heritage: A Reader in History and Theology. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017, 36.

[2]Athanasius of Alexandria. Athanasius: On the Incarnation of the Word of God. Translated by T. Herbert Bindley. Second Edition Revised. London: The Religious Tract Society, 1903.

[3]Allen, Diogenes, and Eric O. Springsted. Philosophy for Understanding Theology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007. 71.

            [4]Meister, C. V., & Stump, J. B. Christian thought: A historical introduction. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group 2017, 174.

[5]Brakke, David. “A new fragment of Athanasius’s thirty-ninth Festal Letter: heresy, apocrypha, and the canon.” Harvard Theological Review 103, no. 1 (January 2010): 47-66. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed July 14, 2018).

            [6]Weaver, C. Douglas, and Rady Roldán-Figueroa. Exploring Christian Heritage: A Reader in History and Theology. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017, 38.

            [7]Allen, Diogenes, and Eric O. Springsted. Philosophy for Understanding Theology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007,104.

[8]Weaver, C. Douglas, and Rady Roldán-Figueroa. Exploring Christian Heritage: A Reader in History and Theology. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017, 38.

            [9]Bruce, F.F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988, 210.

[10]Athanasius of Alexandria. “Festal Letters.” In St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, translated by Henry Burgess and Jessie Smith Payne, Vol. 4. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, 1892.


One Comment Add yours

  1. John Blondo says:

    Strong insights and hard work

    Sent from my iPhone


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