I thought I would take my Advent meditations this year from one of my favorite books -- On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius. This little book is a classic work that dates back to the time of the ancient church. But the introduction to this book, written by C.S. Lewis (though "new") is even more of a classic piece of literary apologetics, for it is here that Lewis famously encourages us to "read old books" and to see within them "God with us."
On the Incarnation is indeed a very old book. It was written when St. Athanasius (c296-8 -- 373) was still a young man, probably before 319. At the age of 27 he not only attended but had an influential role at the First Council of Nicea (c325). In fact, as a mere assistant to the bishop of Alexandria, he was the one to suggest the use of the now-famous word homoousion (consubstantial) to describe the relationship of God the Son to God the Father. This keystone of Trinitarian theology is forever enshrined in the words of the Nicene creed: "We believe...in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father."
Of course, St Athanasius greatly expands on this theme of God becoming man and yet remaining fully God in his book. It is an old book of deep, yet accessible theological literature, and Lewis tells us that it is especially important to read such old books; it is far more important, he says, to study them than to study the works of modern theologians such as Niebuhr, Berdyaev or even (how can this be?!) himself! In retrospect, which viewpoint we now enjoy, the works of C.S.Lewis have become "old" -- perhaps because his soul was made old and pure and his writing given extraordinary clarity through his faithful study of not only the Word but the ancient church Fathers as well. All of us who attain to write about the "queen of sciences" should strive for nothing less than this comfortable familiarity with the classics of Christian thought.
Lewis gives us two reasons for reading old theology books: 1.) they teach us the principles of "mere Christianity," and 2.) they refresh our vision of a fundamental Christian worldview. Modern books, he feels, deal far too often with modern controversies or trends and less with the discussion of Christianity itself. Exclusive study of them causes misinterpretations and disagreements to arise. He writes, "The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity...Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books." On the Incarnation enlightens our souls with instruction on fundamentals of the faith such as creation, the trinity, salvation and Christology. We also see more clearly how Christianity fits in with our vision of the world; how it makes sense of the happenings and philosophies that swirl around us.
For Lewis, reading the old books caused him to consider the shape of Christianity long before he discovered the reality of faith. He read the poet Herbert, the allegorist, Bunyan, theologians St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, the epic poet Dante and the not-so-old father of fantasy, George Macdonald. (I mention these because I have read and loved these, too.) He says that as he read, even though he tried to ignore it or explain it away as "English studies," the power of Christian thought and ideas kept breaking through to his searching soul. "[The books were] of course, varied; and yet -- after all -- so unmistakably the same; recognisable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life..."
I am reminded of how the Apostle Paul used literature in a similar way when addressing the pagan sceptics on Mars Hill. He said, "even as some of you own poets have said" in order to communicate the idea that our life comes from God and the living God surrounds us. The Apostle Peter told the first Gentile believers that "all the prophets testify about Him;" in those old, old books they would learn the story of the hope for all the world. But Paul, who would go on to write so much of the New Testament, said of his own sermons and letters: "I did not come with brilliance of speech or wisdom. For I didn't think it was a good idea to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." And so this fundamental idea -- the centrality of Christ -- which permeates Scripture and runs through the old (and new) classics of Christian literature, draws us deeper into the heart and mind of Christ.
Lewis also contends that the old books are devotional as well as didactical. By working hard at extracting an author's meaning and vision, we come to learn truths that delight our hearts. He vividly describes this experience as "...working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand." I, myself, scribble away in the margins of the old books, but with an accompanying cup of tea instead of a pipe! I fear my children do not know what to make of the notes I scribble in the books we trade back and forth, but perhaps one day they grow to appreciate my momentary flashes of insight. I will say, "Never fear, C.S. Lewis used to scribble in his books, too, only he became a great writer!"
But back to St. Athanasius. In the Christendom of his day, the Arian Controversy held center stage. The bishop he had assisted at the Council of Nicea, Alexander of Alexandria, had crossed swords with the presbyter Arias, also of Alexandria, who theorized that the Son was not the same as the Father; that he was made, not begotten, and therefore not God in the flesh. From the time of the Council on, through his long term as bishop of Alexandria (during which he endured five periods of exile), to the end of his rather long life, Athanasius would oppose, fight against and counteract this false doctrine. But Arianism was insidious and wide-spread in this long-ago world -- supported by clergy and royalty, its tentacles spread north into Europe, south into Africa, east into Byzantium. In 359, St Jerome lamented "...the whole world groaned in astonishment to find itself Arian."
And so, Athanasius was destined to live out his epitaph -- "Athanasius contra mundum"-- Athanasius against the world. At the center of his fight was a burning desire to keep the faith, to embrace a Christianity that is genuine and old, as old as the prophets, evangelists and apostles, old, yet ever new. His fight was not so much with unbelievers, Lewis reminds us, as it was with those who having once believed fell away into "sub-Christian modes of thought." Jesus referred to this mentality as the seed that falls on thorny ground. It sprouts but is subdued by the "worries of this age," Arianism among them.
Those who persist in this type of thought, inventing "'sensible' synthetic religions" are still with us. They belittle Christ and reconstruct the truth. They interpret the Scriptures to their own satisfaction and vainly look for good in the darkness of their human hearts, all the while claiming to follow true spirituality. Today, as followers of Christ, we stand in Athanasius' footprints, against the world. On the first page of On the Incarnation, St.Athanasius addresses these types as "these wiseacres," a clue to his "wit and talent" which he maintained so faithfully during his lifelong struggle against apostasy. By reading his little old book during this season of Advent, may we also take a stand against the world and with and for Emmanuel, God with us, the babe of Bethlehem.
information on St. Athanasius, and Arianism from Wikipedia
Scripture references (HCSB): Acts 17:28, 10:43, 1Cor.2:2, Matt. 13:22
C.S.Lewis' introduction is in the 1946 edition of The Incarnation of the Word of God, published by Macmillian