Athanasius on Islam

My favorite patristic author is St. Athanasius. His work On the Incarnation is one of the best books I have ever read, and I highly recommend it to anyone. The fact that it was written in the 4th century makes it all the more worthy of our attention. Athanasius lived roughly two centuries before Muhammad, thus making the title of this article anachronistic. Yet possibly one of the most astounding pieces of his work is how he dispels a common Muslim misperception. As he deals with the paradox of how Jesus could be both all man and all God, he turns the upside-down Islamic view of Jesus completely right-side up.

Muslims are constantly referring to aspects of Jesus’ humanity in an attempt to disprove His deity. The Muslim theory goes that if Jesus engaged in human behavior, He could not be God. Of course, since Jesus was both all man and all God, proving He was human does not in any way invalidate the fact that He was also God. If you read various Christian and Muslim web sites, what you will find is article after article quoting the Qur’an and the Bible in attempts to refute and counter-refute each other’s arguments. Is there a simple yet overarching theological truth buried here that can unravel this debate?

Consider one particular aspect of the Muslims’ assault on Jesus’ incarnation. The argument goes that Jesus, as a man, was required to do a variety of humiliating bodily functions that normal humans do. As such, He could not be God in the flesh, as God would not defile Himself by the baser aspects of human existence. Here is a typical example of a Muslim’s perspective:

“The Quran says that Jesus and his mother, they both used to eat earthly food, like all other human beings; they were both servants who used to eat food (i.e. they used to defecate like any human being), and one who is such cannot be a god because of his compound being and fallible nature, and because of the [impurities such as] urine and excrement that he produces.” [i]

In other words, Jesus could not be God because being human means being impure, while God is pure and cannot be defiled.

So what did Athanasius have to say on the subject? While writing about God becoming human, he considers this exact question. The two possibilities are as follows. The first option is that an incorruptible God could be corrupted by humanity. The second is that a corruptible humanity would be purified by God. Muslims believe the former, while Christians believe the latter. Consider what St. Athanasius said:

“Not even His birth from a virgin, therefore, changed Him in any way, nor was He defiled by being in the body. Rather, He sanctified the body by being in it.” [ii]

A few sentences later, Athanasius says the same thing in another way,

“Just as the sun is not defiled by the contact of its rays with earthly objects, but rather enlightens and purifies them, so He Who made the sun is not defiled by being made known in a body, but rather the body is cleansed and quickened by His indwelling.” [iii}

Here we are faced with a simple choice. Which force is stronger, the impure nature of humanity, or the incorruptible nature of God? The answer seems straightforward to me. How could being all man and all God degrade or contaminate God? Rather, wouldn’t we expect the human nature of Jesus to be elevated and purified by His deity? Physical acts notwithstanding, the conclusion is that God was not made impure by living life as a human, but rather that God the Son was the perfect sacrifice because of His unique make-up.

Again, we see a diametrically opposite view of the God of the Bible and Allah of the Qur’an. Christians recognize that a pure and holy God can overcome anything, including the potentially unclean aspects of being human. Muslims believe these unclean aspects of the human existence would forever taint an all powerful creator.

Once again, Islam has a completely antithetical approach to who God is.

[ii] Athanasius, St. On the Incarnation. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladamir’s Seminary Press, 1993, p45-46.
[iii] ibid, p46

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