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On the Incarnation: A Socratic Dialogue

A Socratic dialogue between St. Athanasius and a Socrates stand-in (Matthew), to discern whether it is possible for God to condescend and incarnate himself on behalf of humans.

St. Athanasius: From where have you come, Matthew?

Matthew: I was at home, reading Plato’s Republic. It’s one of my favorite books, and I am hoping to teach it again soon.

St. Athanasius: Plato’s Republic? That is a good one. What do you like about it?

Matthew: I think Socrates really wrestles through some important questions and has some very revealing insights about human nature.

St. Athanasius: What do you dislike about it? Or, perhaps I should ask, what problems do you find with it?

Matthew: Well, many of the things that initially confound people I have been able to understand by understanding it—as I think he meant us to—as an analogy or an allegory for the human soul. So what he forbids in the city, like the guardians not being allowed to have wives or children of their own, I understand analogically as for the soul. The guardians are the counterparts to the honor seeking part of the soul. Wives and children to the city are ideas and truths to the soul. The soul should not keep ideas and truths to itself, but it should share them freely within the soul and with others.

St. Athanasius: Ah, that’s a good insight. I agree that this is how he meant it to be read, but my question is what problems do you find with it, rather than what problems do others find with it.

Matthew: Well, he seems to put forth a doctrine—here and in other dialogues—of the transmigration of the soul, or what we would call reincarnation today. I don’t believe in reincarnation, so I think he missed the mark on that one.

St. Athanasius: Yes, that is problematic for me too. Although, St. Gregory of Nyssa makes an interesting observation about that. He credits Plato’s hypothesis of the transmigration of souls with Plato’s grasping at the doctrine of the resurrection. Plato couldn’t understand the resurrection or grasp the details of it, but he knew something like it must be true. So he presented the closest thing to it that he could grasp: the transmigration of the soul.

Matthew: That’s interesting. So it isn’t that he disagreed with the doctrine of the resurrection and offered an alternative to it as the true belief, but that he didn’t understand the doctrine of the resurrection and offered something that was as close as he could, in his human wisdom, get to it?

St. Athanasius: Yes, something like that.

Matthew: What do you think is problematic with Plato’s Republic, if not the transmigration of souls?

St. Athanasius: For me, Socrates rejecting the incarnation is most problematic.

Matthew: Yes, of course. You did, after all, write the book On the Incarnation.

St. Athanasius: I did, and I’ve long wondered what Socrates would think of it.

Matthew: Well, I’m no Socrates, but I do love a good Socratic discussion. I’m no expert on Socrates either, but I’m at least relatively well-versed in his dialogues and in the Republic particularly. Maybe you could help me think through the two views of the incarnation through a discussion? Until now, I’ve basically rejected Socrates’ argument against the incarnation and accepted yours in favor of it because I am a Christian, not because I understand them. I have, I guess you could say, what Socrates would call “true belief” about the resurrection but not knowledge or understanding of it.

St. Athanasius: Well…what is God?

Matthew: God is a spirit, infinite, eternal…

St. Athanasius: Answer as Socrates, what is God?

Matthew: God is the cause of all things.

St. Athanasius: Of all things? Is God the cause of evil? Did He create evil?

Matthew: No, that’s right, God is the cause of all good things.1

St. Athanasius: God is the cause of all good things, agreed. And is God one or many?

Matthew: God is one, and He is simple and unchanging.2

St. Athanasius: That’s good. This gets us right to the point, doesn’t it? It is on the grounds that God is simple and unchanging that Socrates is going to reject the incarnation, isn’t it?

Matthew: Yes, I believe so.

St. Athanasius: Why is God’s being simple and unchanging a problem for the incarnation?

Matthew: Because God is simple and unchanging, He is unable to be disturbed or altered in a way that makes him go from best to worse. That which is most good, the best, is least capable of a change that makes him worse. The best made houses, for example, are the least affected by time or anything else that might alter them. The worst made houses, though, are most susceptible to change.

St. Athanasius: And God is like the best made house, but even more so because he is not just better than others, He is the Best. So He is not only less susceptible to change, but is incapable of change, is that the point?

Matthew: Indeed it is.

St. Athanasius: If He were to change, then, what would that change be?

Matthew: Well, being the best, He would have to change into something less than what He is. He can’t become something better because He is already the best.

St. Athanasius: Is God in the universe? Is He in the cosmos?

Matthew: Yes.

St. Athanasius: The whole of it?

Matthew: Yes.

St. Athanasius: And therefore in every part of it?

Matthew: Yes.

St. Athanasius: Is it possible to be in all of something without being in the parts of it?

Matthew: No, indeed it is not.

St. Athanasius: Then, to be in a part of it is necessary and not an absurdity?

Matthew: Right.

St. Athanasius: Is a human being a part of the universe?

Matthew: Yes, he is.

St. Athanasius: Is it absurd then for God to be incarnate in a human being?

Matthew: No, not for that reason but for another.

St. Athanasius: What is that?

Matthew: It is absurd because it would be a false representation of God. God is a spirit, incorporeal, so it would be false to represent Himself as a corporeal being. It would be a kind of sorcery or deception.3

St. Athanasius: Is deception always wrong?

Matthew: No.

St. Athanasius: There are times when deception, or falsehoods, are useful?

Matthew: According to Socrates, yes.

St. Athanasius: When is falsehood useful?

Matthew: When we are trying to understand ancient events but are ignorant of them, such as in mythmaking.4

St. Athanasius: Is God ignorant of ancient events?

Matthew: No.

St. Athanasius: So God wouldn’t use a falsehood to understand ancient events?

Matthew: Absolutely not.

St. Athanasius: When else is a falsehood useful?

Matthew: When we are fearful of our enemies.

St. Athanasius: How is a falsehood useful then?

Matthew: If we are at war with an enemy state, we would use deceptive tactics to defeat the enemy and save lives.

St. Athanasius: That would be useful, as when Joshua fought the second battle with Ai.

Matthew: Yes.

St. Athanasius: Is God fearful of His enemies?

Matthew: No.

St. Athanasius: So does God need to use falsehood in that way?

Matthew: No, He does not.

St. Athanasius: Are there any other times when falsehoods are useful?

Matthew: Yes, one more. When a friend or family member is ignorant or mad.5

St. Athanasius: How is a falsehood useful then?

Matthew: Well, if a friend gave you his weapon and asked you to hold it for him, then later, when he is in a fit of madness, he asks you to return it. Using a falsehood then to prevent him from getting the weapon back and harming himself or others with it, that would be a useful falsehood.

St. Athanasius: Does God have friends or family?

Matthew: Yes. Abraham is called the “friend of God”6 and Adam is called the “son of God.”7 There are others of course.

St. Athanasius: And Abraham, Adam, and these others, are they humans or some other kind of thing?

Matthew: Humans, of course.

St. Athanasius: Are humans in any way ignorant or mad?

Matthew: Yes. No person willingly does evil except out of ignorance of what is the Good.8

St. Athanasius: And all are ignorant in some way and to some extent?

Matthew: Certainly.

St. Athanasius: So all commit evils or fall short in some way?

Matthew: Yes.

St. Athanasius: Is this third usefulness of falsehood useful to God?

Matthew: I’m not sure.

St. Athanasius: What is the third usefulness of falsehood again?

Matthew: To protect a friend or family member who is ignorant or mad from harm.

St. Athanasius: Are humans the friends or family of God?

Matthew: Yes.

St. Athanasius: Are humans ignorant or mad?

Matthew: Yes, very much so.

St. Athanasius: Does their ignorance or madness lead them to harm?

Matthew: Yes, absolutely.

St. Athanasius: Would God, then, be willing to be “false” in this way to protect His people from harm?

Matthew: I’m not sure if he would.

St. Athanasius: Does He have a reason to be?

Matthew: “To be” what?

St. Athanasius: To be what Socrates calls “false?”

Matthew: Yes, He has a reason to be.

St. Athanasius: So it would not be speaking falsely of God to think He could incarnate Himself to save His ignorant and mad family and friends from harm?

Matthew: No, it would not!

St. Athanasius: Would God incarnate Himself as a human?

Matthew: I suppose since He did.

St. Athanasius: Yes, but why as a human and not something else?

Matthew: He became a man that we might be like God, I think is what you wrote.

St. Athanasius: Yes, something like that. But why?

Matthew: He saved what He assumed: our bodies, our souls, our wills, all of us. He took on those things to save those things, to save us.

St. Athanasius: Yes, but think of it from Socrates’ perspective again. Why did He not come as some nobler part of creation?

Matthew: I do not know.

St. Athanasius: What is the noblest part of creation?

Matthew: The heavens and the heavenly bodies.

St. Athanasius: Yes, and why did He not come as a star?

Matthew: I don’t know.

St. Athanasius: Think of it this way. As a lion makes himself look large and imposing and ferocious, and as he roars loudly to put on a show and strike fear into the other animals, including his prey and other predators, he does so not to save them but to make them fear and submit. If God had come as some nobler part of the creation, it would have been to put on a display, but that is not why God “participated” in this thing Socrates calls a deception. Why did He incarnate himself?

Matthew: To save us from the harm caused by our ignorance and madness.

St. Athanasius: To have come as something nobler would have been showmanship on His part.9 To come as us allows for something else, doesn’t it? What is that?

Matthew: To come as us allows Him to save us, to heal us.

St. Athanasius: Yes, and it allows Him to do so in a way that we can bear it.10

Matthew: So not only was it possible for God to “be deceptive”—as Socrates would put it—and incarnate Himself as man, but He had to do it as man for the same reason: to save His family and friends from the ignorance and madness that lead to harm?

St. Athanasius: Yes. Do you see it? Do you think Socrates would?

Matthew: Well, it makes sense to me, even in light of Socrates’ own arguments and questions. The only thing I am really unsure of, from Socrates’ perspective, is whether he would agree that humans are the friends and family of God. When you asked, “Does God have friends or family,” I answered that from a Christian perspective and not from Socrates’ perspective. I don’t know how Socrates would answer that question. I suppose I’ll have to keep reading the dialogues to find out.

St. Athanasius: Yes, and they are worthy reads. As for Socrates, may his memory be eternal.

1 Republic, 380c.
2 Republic, 380d.
3 Republic, 381e.
4 Republic, 382d.
5 Republic, 382c.
6 James 2:23.
7 Luke 3:38.
8 Protagoras, 345b, 345e, 352c.
9 Incarnation, 43.
10 Ibid.

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