Much, but I’ll offer three things here. You can read Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word online here. If you don’t read the whole thing, at least read the first half–the chapters from the beginning through the one on the Resurrection of Christ.
1. First, the fact that Athanasius is personalizing this work (to “Macarius” early on and in the concluding section) is a helpful reminder that the best theological work is done not to remain in the ivory tower to fuel academic debates, but rather with both feet firmly planted in the life of the Church and with a concern for faithful teaching of the faith. This need not discourage from doing serious theological thinking, rather it ought to encourage us to do rigorous and well-grounded theological thinking, and to do the work of serious theological reflection in the midst of a meaningful engagement with the realities of the world in which the Church finds itself, and on an individual level, within the realities encountered by persons day to day. This point is reinforced in some of the (more bizarre, even goofy) explanations of the necessity of the cross. I think in particular of the curious and presumably time- and culture-bound reference: “the air is the sphere of the devil” (par. 25. Athanasius quotes Ephesians 2:2, “According to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that now works in the sons of disobedience.” He continues: “But the Lord came to overthrow the devil and to purify the air and to make ‘a way’ for us up to heaven, as the apostle says, ‘through the veil, that is to say, His flesh,'” quoting Hebrews 10:20. Athanasius concludes, then, “This had to be done through death, and by what other kind of death could it be done, save by a death in the air, that is, on the cross?”).
Assuming this is a reference to a commonly-held belief, his explanation of the mandatoriness of the cross is creative and engages this understanding head-on. Even though we would critique his application of Scripture to his thinking in this example, I think it is nevertheless a good reminder that all theological work is untaken within a context of concerns that need to be addressed for the sake of establishing and nurturing persons in the faith. What it gives rise to on a critical level is the need for both criteria and creativity: Criteria to shape our proclamation about the cross in ways that are true to the New Testament’s interpretation/s of the event, and Creativity to engage our own context in vivid and compelling ways.
2. Second, the rich variety of images for atonement is helpful. Most helpful for theological thinking about atonement is not a particular image for atonement, but Athanasius’ understanding of the “Divine Dilemma.” His ability to differentiate between sins as actions of rebellion against God and the corruption of humanity’s nature from the propensity to sin. Humanity’s sins (our “transgressions”) are our action; corruption of our nature is our consequence or penalty: “He saw that corruption held us all the closer, because it was the penalty for the Transgression” (par. 8). So, with corruption as our penalty–or consequence, Jesus takes our corruption on himself on the cross and it is crucified with him. This is wholly different from the use of penalty language in legal images for the atonement. This understanding takes sin seriously as a force unto itself–something that the individualized penal substitutionary theory does not do–without relegating the whole of our understanding of sin away from morally responsible personal agency. It seems to me that Athanasius’ understanding of sin is not unlike the dynamic of addiction. There are moves that the individual person makes that they are responsible, but once the addictive/corruptive power has been let loose, it takes on a life of its own and requires a different power to engage and defeat it. This understanding of atonement also moves away from ideas of justice that are retributive to those that are restorative. Individual sin is not counterbalanced with retributive punishment. Rather, the corruptive force of sin that has invaded the nature of humanity, and of each individual, is counteracted with restorative action–the self-giving sacrifice of Jesus the Christ on a Roman cross. Dealing with sin via restorative action provides a way for different living because the nature of persons is restored to share the image of God. Only dealing with sin via retributive punishment leaves the scales of right and wrong “doing” recalibrated, but does not address the deeper issue of the inner nature, or “being”–the wellspring of right or wrong actions according to Jesus.
A sample of the imagery used in reference to the cross/atonement includes: recreation/creative activity of God, suffering/sacrificial system for Jewish religious ritual cleansing and purity, ambassador of the Father language, honor and shame categories (a cultural convention in 1st century Greco-Roman culture, and many cultures today), reconciliation/relational categories, debt/accounting economic categories, and rescue/liberation from slavery language.
In this vein, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, by Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker is an excellent work engaging historical theories of atonement, assessing their faithfulness to the New Testament, and exploring how to proclaim the scandal of the cross today (Baker edited the follow-up, Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross, a collection of sermons creatively engaging the atonement in proclamation). One of their central conclusions is that the solution to the debate over theories of atonement is not to pick one theory, though many of us seem to gravitate toward one primarily, but rather to follow the lead of the NT and embrace a multiplicity of images for the atonement, acknowledging that it is an event too profound to be captured by one or even a few images. Athanasius is an excellent example of this, at one point in his section “On the Death of Christ,” speaking in terms of 4 or 5 images for Christ’s atoning work within 3 or 4 sentences, seamlessly weaving them together into a broader picture.
3. Third, I found Athanasius’ drawing on a Christocentric theology of creation as an orientation point for dealing with the problem of corruption of humanity’s nature, which is counter to the created nature, the imago dei, very helpful.