Saturday, January 19, 2019

Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought [Review]

by Hiram R. Diaz III



Church history is a subject that, sadly, many Protestants fail to study. This is not only problematic given the propensity of heretics to distort that history,1 but it also can be a hindrance to our present day theological systematizing. The situation isn’t helped by the many pressing time constraints placed upon us by our other, admittedly, more important duties. Not many have the time to read through the entirety of ancient church fathers in a way that can inform our defense of the truth against heretics, as well as provide us with a robust and thought-provoking theological starting point for our study of systematics.

If the job has been done, moreover, why try to reinvent the wheel? Patristic scholars have produced many works in this field, secondary sources that have undergone the scrutiny of other patristic scholars and have held their own as trustworthy guides to understanding the fathers. Khaled Anatolios, a leading Athanasian scholar, has produced not only a clear and concise biography of Athanasius, but an equally concise and clear explanation of his theological system in his work Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought. In it, Anatolios expertly demonstrates the consistency, coherence, and brilliance of Athanasius’ system of theology, deriving his conclusions not from a single text, nor from a simplistic word study limited to a select few texts written by Athanasius, but from the entirety of Athanasius’ corpus.

Anatolios begins this work with an examination of the theme of the relation between God and creation prior to Athanasius. This historical contextualization is divided into two parts, dealing respectively with the theme’s Hellenistic and Judeo-Christian backgrounds. Of importance here is, firstly, Plato’s metaphysical doctrine of participation in the being of the Good. Anatolios –
There is first of all the theme of participation, by which is indicated Plato’s conviction that the material and changeable world of Becoming is not utterly devoid of Being, but shares to various degrees in the intelligible Ideas. Secondly, there is the notion that the human soul has for its native habitat not the material world of flux, but the divine realm of the Ideas, with which it enjoys a radical kinship, syngeneia. Through dialectic and moral purification, therefore, the soul can pass over from the realm of Becoming to that of Being.2
This distinction between the becoming-ness of materiality and the being of ideality/the eternal forms, Anatolios explains, is best “understood as an attempt to affirm a positive connection between the divine and the phenomenal, while safeguarding the proper transcendence of the former.”3

Following Plato, Anatolios focuses in on what Aristotle’s metaphysics retained from his mentor’s, namely the transcendence of the “prime mover, whose being is described in terms of absolute actuality and ‘thinking thought.’”4 For Plato, the forms are extrinsic to materiality, creating a relation of immanence between ideality and materiality in which materiality receives its being from ideality. However, in Aristotle “the intelligibility of phenomenal realities is explained not in terms of their relation to transcendent Forms, but rather in terms of the immanent dynamic of nature, physis.”5 Thus, he further notes,
...in Aristotle, the transcendence of the first principle is strongly secured, although it is not quite spelled out precisely how the ‘desire’ of all things, which is ultimately directed toward the prime mover, is related to the immanent teleological dynamism of physis.6
Anatolios then considers the metaphysical “pendulum swing” of the Stoics who altogether denied transcendence. Although they denied transcendence altogether, however, they retained elements of Plato and Aristotle’s doctrines. Anatolios explains that
...in the Stoics we have a kind of collapse into identity of the Aristotelian duality of a transcendent moving principle (nous) and an immanent teleological principle (physis). While abandoning the duality of transcendent and immanent realms, however, the Stoics constructed a strictly immanent duality which was in some way continuous with the Platonic framework of participation, and which was to be influential in later characterizations of the relation between God and world.7
In his consideration of the theme of the relation of God to creation, Anatolios then goes on to relay how these philosophers provided the foundation for later Middle Platonism, specifically the Platonism of Plotinus, whose work would be influential among early Greek Christians such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, perhaps Athanasius’ greatest theological influence.8 He ends by considering some points of agreement and disagreement between Origen’s doctrine and that of Irenaeus and Athanasius. Ultimately, though within the same lineage, Origen does not stand in agreement with these two fathers as regards God’s relation to the world. As Anatolios puts it –
While stressing divine providence and re-echoing Irenaeus’s insistence that there is no God beyond the Creator, Origen is just not as emphatic about the immediacy of the relation between God and creation as Irenaeus was or as Athanasius would be. The convergence between divine transcendence and immanence—or, to put it another way, the conception of divine transcendence in terms of immanence and immediate presence—is simply not as much of a consciously employed theological topos in Origen. Athanasius’s logic, however, following Irenaeus, is uniformly focused on the immediate relation between God and creation, to the point of consistently de-emphasizing created mediations.9
This naturally leads Anatolios to his first in-depth consideration of the theme of God’s relation to his creation in the work of Athanasius. The first section deals with the theme’s appearance in Athanasius’ Contra Gentes – De Incarnatione. Anatolios carefully distinguishes between Athanasius’ presentation of the relation of God to his creation (i.)before the fall and (ii.)throughout the course of history. Athanasius’ theology proper is expounded upon immediately after this, and followed by a discussion of the father’s cosmology, and his understanding of theological-anthropology.

He follows this with an exposition of Christology and redemption as it appears in Contra Gentes – De Incarnatione, in which Athanasius “presents the incarnation as a renewal and re-establishment of God’s beneficent and powerful involvement in the world.”10 Earlier discussions of the theme of God’s relation to his creation are brought back to mind as Anatolios draws the reader’s attention to Athanasius’ characterization of
...the rationale of the incarnation in terms of divine providence...which term is used by him to refer to God’s immanent activity in general, extending also to the radical sustenance by which creation is preserved in being. In this context, the incarnation is viewed as a further instance of this immanent enlivening and sustaining activity of God.11
Whereas the Platonists identified materiality as a corrupt copy of the transcendent eternal Forms, Aristotle sharply divided the activity of the Prime Mover from that of the activity of hylomorphic materiality, and the Stoics denied transcendence altogether, Athanasius’ “Christology [is] determined by the dialectical framework of the relation between God and the world.”12

Anatolios’ account of the historical relationship between Athanasius’ philosophical and theological predecessors is helpful in two key ways. Firstly, it allows us to better understand Athanasius’ language, as it is embedded within a very specific historical context and, therefore, derives its signification from that time period. We can, thus, read him and better comprehend his arguments, which shine all the more brightly when set against the dark backdrop of the blind speculations of the philosophers, and the errors of Origen. Secondly, we can dispel recurrent accusations of restorationists and unbelievers who claim that the doctrines of the Trinity, the immortality of the soul, hell as eternal conscious torment, and so on are derived from Greek philosophy. Following Irenaeus, Athanasius maintains a strict Creator/creature distinction, all the while stressing that God and his creation are now, and will always be, dialectically interacting.

This is central to understanding how the entire structure of Athanasius’ theology forms a systematic unity. Anatolios –
...Athanasius’s interpretation of the radical structure of reality (that is, the relation between God and creation) and of human history...constitute[s] the center to which all other data are made to converge. This attempt to put forward an ontology and a view of human history that is coherent with the incarnation and cross contains an inherent drive toward consistency.13
It is this consistency that Anatolios proceeds to demonstrate in the following chapters which respectively deal with the relation between God and creation in the anti-Arian writings and the relation of God and creation in the context of grace.

Anatolios briefly reviews the historical background and dating of the anti-Arian writings, and contrasts the Creator/creature relation in Arianism with the Creator/creature relation in the theology of Anathasius. The Arians thought they were maintaining the distinction between God and creation by denying the Son is equal to the Father, but they were actually violating that distinction. As Anatolios explains it –
Athanasius’s most fundamental response to [the Arian] conceptions of the Son’s mediatorial prerogatives is that they amount to a nonsensical confusion of the fundamental and mutually exclusive categories of Creator and created. If the Son is created, then he cannot be conceived, in any sense, as Creator; if he is conceded to be Creator, then he is not created. That is the basic standard of argument against which Athanasius finds the Arians to be both illogical and duplicitous.14
Athanasius further argues against the Arians by demonstrating their doctrine leads to an infinite regress as regards the relation between God and his creation. The Arians sought to identify Christ as mediator between God and the world, but their denial of Christ’s equality to the Father made this impossible.

Similarly, Athanasius argues against the Arians’ Christology by proving that only God can redeem. As Anatolios states,
Athanasius insists that only the real Image could renew the image of God within us, which is to say that our participation in God (which constitutes our being “in the image”) can only be renewed from the divine side and not reconstructed from the creaturely side.15
As humanity was created in the image of the Image of God, so will it be redeemed by him to bear his image. What is more, for Athanasius
...the redemption worked through the incarnation is conceived in terms of the greatest possible unity or “joining” of God and humanity. Later on, in the Orationes contra Arianos, Athanasius’s characterization remains substantially unchanged. Any mode of redemption that falls short of that most intimate and internal unity of the incarnation would be too “external.”16
Adam received grace externally from the Logos, but this is surpassed in the incarnation by our internal reception of grace from the Son of God’s union with humanity.

Anatolios’ discussion of the concept of grace in Athanasius is one that will be particularly helpful to contemporary readers of Athanasius who have been influenced by either the substance/ontological-grace of Romanism or the soteriologically-limited-grace of Protestant theology. Grace is divine ontological and soteriological assistance. Grace is received by all bearers of the image of God, as Anatolios goes on to explain
Athanasius uses the notion of [grace] to articulate God’s gracious intervention in terms of qualifying the difference and separateness that necessarily obtains between created nature and the Creator. Thus while it is intrinsic to the definition of created nature to relapse into the nothingness whence it came, God acts to qualify this ontological poverty of creation by granting it a participation in the Word. Such participation stabilizes and orders creation in a way reflective of the divine power and goodness rather than of creation’s intrinsic definition. The natural difference between God and creation is thus de facto modified by this participation. This kind of modification achieves a much more intensified expression in the case of humanity. In this context also, Athanasius speaks in terms of God acting to mitigate the intrinsic definition of creaturely being by means of “grace” 
[...] 
The “added grace” granted to humanity consists in a distinct level of participation in the Word which renders human beings. As a result, the natural difference by which human beings would have been prevented from knowledge of God, “since he was uncreated, while they had been made from nothing,” is overcome such that humanity can come to know God and “live a divine life.”17
The grace received by man, moreover, remains even after the Fall. For, as Anatolios notes,
...even after the sin of Adam, the soul has not irretrievably lost this inherent dynamism which leads to the knowledge of God. The path to God is therefore still accessible through the soul 
[…] 
Athanasius’s emphasis on the soul as its own path to God, however much it may raise red flags in post-scholastic Catholic—Protestant polemic, is not meant to imply that the soul is autonomous and independent of grace.18
Unredeemed and redeemed men alike are the recipients of grace, distinguished from one another by virtue of where that grace is operative, the former receiving grace externally, and the latter receiving grace externally and internally. As Anatolios notes in his conclusion, for Athanasius
God is the primary and all-encompassing agent of this union, and that this agency is not effected by way of “external aids” but by a union whereby the self-communication of divine life becomes “internal” to us.19
The coherence of Athanasius’ thought is illuminated by Anatolios’ concluding chapter. The theme of the relation of God to his creation functions as the foundation of Athanasius’ theology, in which the Creator and his creation are absolutely distinct from one another, yet dialectically and dialogically engaged. Anatolios writes –
While God is active and creation passive, humanity encounters God as more than a mere inference of, or datum within, its own passivity: “God contains, but is not contained.” Ultimately, the structure of the human being is ecstatic, and this self-transcending structure encounters the God of loving condescension in a relation of conversation. Moreover, this dialogue between God and humanity is enfolded within the intra-divine relations: through Son and Spirit, we encounter the Father. The difference between God and the world is not nullified in Christ but becomes an intercourse of the giving and receiving of the gift of the Holy Spirit.20
Thus, God, creation, man, the body, the soul, righteousness, sin, salvation, incarnation, redemption, sanctification, and glorification are all inextricably tied together in the system of Athanasius’ theology. “Ultimately,” concludes Anatolios, “what is at stake is not some abstract ‘Hellenistic’ doctrine of divine ontology, but the good news of the intimate ‘nearness’ of God to the world in Jesus Christ.”21

Anatolios' work is an important contribution to the study of the fathers, especially given our present time. If you are looking for a definitive text on the theology of Athanasius, Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought is it.


1 In the case of Athanasius, whom the annihilationists falsely claim as their own, see Diaz, Hiram R. Athanasius, Ontology, and the Work of Christ (Lewiston: Scripturalist Publications, 2018).
2 Athanasius, 8.
3 ibid., 10.
4 ibid.
5 ibid.
6 ibid.
7 ibid., 11.
8 ibid. 11-25.
9 ibid., 26.
10 ibid., 69.
11 ibid., 70.
12 ibid., 75.
13 ibid., 85.
14 ibid., 113.
15 ibid., 127.
16 ibid., 133-134.
17 ibid., 167.
18 ibid., 192.
19 ibid., 207.
20 ibid., 210.
21 ibid., 213.

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