The Joy of Repetition
“His mercy is more!” I have heard this line bellowing from the vocal cords of my oldest son at least a few thousand times in 2020. Ok that might be a slight exaggeration, but nonetheless Malachi tends to get stuck on repeat. Last year “Holy, holy, holy” was never far from his lips. The only thing requested more than his current favorite song is another piggyback ride. As I contemplate my child’s obsession with repetition, a line from G.K. Chesterton comes to mind, “Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown up person does it again until he is nearly dead.” Children do not find something they have heard a thousand times boring. They rejoice in repetition.
If you grew up around Christianity, you have heard the doctrine of Jesus’ incarnation repeated as a cornerstone of orthodox theology. Maybe you have heard it so much that you do not really listen anymore. If this is true then Athanasius would be quite disappointed with you. Athanasius was a bishop in Alexandria during the fourth century who knew how important the correct view of the incarnation was and therefore fought vigorously to ensure that it would be repeated in future generations.
Why Does the Incarnation Matter?
The biblical narrative tells us that human beings were created in the image of God, the highest honor possible, but they fell into sin and devolved into idolatrous worship. That’s the problem and this is the solution Athanasius proposes, “So the Word of God came himself, in order that he being the image of the Father (cf. Col 1.15), the human being ‘in the image’ might be recreated.” The recreation of God’s fallen creation, by the Word of God, is the heartbeat of the incarnation.
In his classic work, On the Incarnation, Athanasius proposes two divine dilemmas. The first is the problem of life and death. God brought all things into being, out of nothing. Since humans were created out of nothing their existence depended entirely on God. However, humanity despised God’s law. As Athanasius argues, “For the transgression of the commandment returned them to the natural state, so that, just as they, not being, came to be, so also they might rightly endure in time the corruption into non-being.” Herein lies the dilemma: if God doesn’t punish the transgression with death, He is a liar. Yet, neither is it right for God’s good creation to be destroyed because of human failure or demonic deception. The only solution to this problem is the Word of God—who brought creation into being—taking on a human body, offering it as a substitute, fulfilling the requirements of death, and through His resurrection offering incorruptibility to humanity.
The second dilemma revolves around idolatry. Human beings were created to know and be known by God. However, “human beings, being again foolish, despising the grace thus given to them, so turned away from God and so darkened their own soul, that they not only forgot the concept of God but also fashioned for themselves others instead.” In other words, worshipping idols is the supreme example of rejecting the knowledge of God. In Athanasius’ mind, since humanity’s eyesight fell downward, Jesus came down to the earth to bring the knowledge of the Father to mankind. Human beings could ignore God’s works in the governance of the universe, but they could not ignore the testimony of Jesus’ works in the body. Through Jesus’ incarnation and subsequent life, the knowledge of God infiltrated every part of the fallen creation. This was the solution to idolatry.
In the early fourth century, Arius, a deacon in Alexandria, was teaching that there was a time when Jesus did not exist. In his own words, “We are persecuted, because we say that the Son has a beginning, but that God is without beginning.” Arius’ teaching gained widespread recognition even after it was declared heretical at the council of Nicaea in 325.
Athanasius also lived and ministered in the ancient knowledge center of Alexandria, which was especially taken by the Arian heresy. The city was heavily influenced by Plato’s emphasis on the superiority of the rational over the material. Therefore, the idea that someone who was equal with the almighty Father would stoop so low as to take on a human body was repugnant. However, Athanasius rightly saw two huge problems if Arius’ view was correct. First, it would be impossible for someone who was not fully God to redeem humanity, because “no creature could redeem another creature.” Second, if Jesus was created then the Christian church was participating in blatant idolatry. Athanasius believed Jesus came to destroy idolatry, not promote it.
The Power of Repetition
Arius understood that repetition was vital in shaping people. William Placher helpfully points out that, “Having a genius for propaganda, Arius set his favorite slogan to a popular tune, and soon half of Alexandria was singing, ‘There was a time when the Son was not.’” Perhaps heretics still understand the importance of repetition better than many Christians. Far too many Christians are infatuated with innovation and deconstructing the orthodox faith. The most important truths of Christianity do not change and they are worth repeating (Jude 3-4, 17-19). They never change but should never cease to strike wonder in our hearts. Maybe Malachi does have something to teach me. Maybe a child’s love for repetition exposes something broken in our wandering hearts. Maybe you should take a few hours and read Athanaius’ book, On the Incarnation, and learn something new about a doctrine you have heard repeated a thousand times.
Timothy Miller currently lives near Sarasota, Florida with his wife Sarah and son Malachi. He enjoys spending time with his family, hunting, woodworking, reading, sports, and traveling. Timothy is passionate about the Bible, truth, and understanding history. His greatest desire is to more intimately know Christ.
- G.K Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London: The Big Nest, 2014), 23.
- Saint Athanasius, On The Incarnation, trans. John Behr (Yonkers: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), Heading 13, Kindle.
- Athanasius, On The Incarnation, Heading 4.
- Athanasius, On The Incarnation, Heading 11.
- Arius, “Letter to Eusebius Nicomedia,” in Readings in the History of Christian Theology, Volume 1, Revised Edition, ed. William C. Placher and Derek R. Nelson (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 41.
- Alister McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 25.
- William C. Placher and Derek R. Nelson, A History of Christian Theology, Second Edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 60.