In keeping with previous years, I am writing a book review for Christmas. This time, however, the book is not a children’s story, picture book, or short story. Nor does the book’s connection to Christmas come from festive illustrations or folk tales. Instead, this book’s examination of the basics of Christology and the incarnation is what makes it fitting for Christmas.
When I think of the works of early theologians from Thomas Aquinas to John Calvin, I imagine dry old tomes that will put me to sleep. To my surprise, though, when I sat down to read On the Incarnation by the 4th century theologian Athanasius of Alexandria, I found a book that is both short and straightforward.
On the Incarnation explores the fundamentals of creation, the fall, Christ’s incarnation, and the redemption he accomplished. Athanasius reminds his readers of the simple truths that have become muddled in the centuries since he wrote. This book contains many lessons for the modern world. In addition to overviewing important doctrines, the book also inadvertently shows how easily people forget lessons and repeat mistakes. For example, some disputes which Athanasius discusses and which the church resolved in its early ecumenical councils have reappeared in recent decades under new names.
Reading On the Incarnation gives one perspective on Athanasius’ times and on the present day. As C. S. Lewis writes in his introduction to On the Incarnation, “Every age has its outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books” (2-3).
On the Incarnation is an excellent book for any season, but it is especially appropriate as we ponder Immanuel’s birth during Christmas. In addition to recommending the book itself, I recommend reading an edition that includes the introduction by C. S. Lewis, for Lewis provides helpful comments about On the Incarnation and thoughtful insights about the importance of reading old books.
C. S. Lewis. Introduction. On the Incarnation, by Athanasius of Alexandria. Fig, 2012, pp. 1-7.