St. Athanasius on Grace because God is Creator

St. Athanasius’s tome, On the Incarnation, was required reading in my seminary. I have to wonder if we wouldn’t better require it as a catechismal reading, and to require it every so often from older Christians as well. In this, we find remnants of

Icon of St. Athanasius of Alexandria
Icon of St. Athanasius of Alexandria (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wisdom Christology and a solid notion of theosis.

My personal theology of God as Creator — and everything that comes from that, i.e., grace and judgement — is formed from this short book and this section in particular. Herein is no substitutional atonement, but still harkens back to the recapitulation (the re-creation) of St. Irenaeus — but there is more.

God is Creator. That’s why He secures us. God is Creator. That’s why He loves us.

Moreover, an emperor, although only a man, does not permit regions settled by himself to come under the sway and service of others, nor to desert to them; but he reminds them by letters, and frequently also sends to them through friends, and even, if there is need, he himself comes, making them further ashamed by his presence, merely that they may not serve others, and his work be useless. And shall not God much more spare His own creatures, that they be not made to wander away from Him and serve things that are not?—all the more that such wandering is the cause of their ruin and destruction; and because it was not right for those creatures to perish who once had been partakers of the Image of God.

What, then, must God do? or what else was it right to do, but to renew again the grace by which they had been made after His Image, so that through it men might be able once more to know Him? But how could this have been done except by the coming of the very Image Himself of God, our Saviour Jesus Christ?

For it could not be through men, seeing that they are only made after the Image: nor through angels, for not even they are (God’s) images. Therefore the Word of God came in His own Person, in order that, as He was the Image of the Father, He might be able to re-create the man made after the Image. But this re-creation could not otherwise have taken place unless death and corruption had been entirely abolished. Whence He naturally took a mortal body, in order that in it death might be finally abolished, and that men might be again renewed after the Image. To satisfy this need was the part of no other than the Image of the Father.1

I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.

  1.  Athanasius of Alexandria, Athanasius: On the Incarnation of the Word of God (trans. T. Herbert Bindley; Second Edition Revised.; London: The Religious Tract Society, 1903), 65–66.

Athanasius on the Fitness of the Cross

But if any honest Christian wants to know why the Lord suffered death on the cross and not in some other way, we answer thus: in no other way was it expedient for us, indeed the Lord offered for our sakes the one death that was supremely good. He had come to bear the curse that lay on us; and who could He “become a curse” otherwise than by accepting the accursed death. And that death is the cross, for it is written, “cursed is everyone that hangs on a tree.” – Athanasius, Treasury, p. 176

Did St. Athanasius use Gadarene Demonic as a basis of St. Antony’s life?

English: Ivrea, church of St. Antony abbott, t...
English: Ivrea, church of St. Antony abbott, the altar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First, the pertinent part of St. Antony’s life:

Thus tightening his hold upon himself, Antony departed to the tombs, which happened to be at a distance from the village; and having bid one of his acquaintances to bring him bread at intervals of many days, he entered one of the tombs, and the other having shut the door on him, he remained within alone. And when the enemy could not endure it, but was even fearful that in a short time Antony would fill the desert with the discipline, coming one night with a multitude of demons, he so cut him with stripes that he lay on the ground speechless from the excessive pain. For he affirmed that the torture had been so excessive that no blows inflicted by man could ever have caused him such torment. But by the Providence of God—for the Lord never overlooks them that hope in Him—the next day his acquaintance came bringing him the loaves. And having opened the door and seeing him lying on the ground as though dead, he lifted him up and carried him to the church in the village, and laid him upon the ground. And many of his kinsfolk and the villagers sat around Antony as round a corpse. But about midnight he came to himself and arose, and when he saw them all asleep and his comrade alone watching, he motioned with his head for him to approach, and asked him to carry him again to the tombs without waking anybody.

In another part, Athanasius has St. Antony quote Mark 5 (let them depart into the swine).

I think there is a connection between Jesus’s journey into the wilderness and the visions of St. Antony as well, but that is for another time.

Anyway, notice the tombs, the cutting, the dead body. Very similar in literary imagery, don’t you think?

When did the split between East and West really happen?

Christogram (labarum) with Jesus Prayer in Rom...
Christogram (labarum) with Jesus Prayer in Romanian. Jesus Prayer in Romanian Doamne Iisuse Hristoase, Fiul lui Dumnezeu, miluieste-ma pe mine pacatosul. English translation Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner. This image appears on the cover of all editions of Romanian translation of Philokalia Français : Christogramme entouré de la Prière de Jésus en roumain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Allan “I’ll be a Duke fan regardless of how awful they are until the day I die” Bevere points out another blogger’s post regarding the theological showdown in the Fourth Century. I’m just going to meme this and say it happened not just in the Fourth Century, but in 343 in the city of Sophia, Bulgaria, formerly known as Serdica. This council was called to remedy the continued war between those who were supporting a more reconciling station with Arius (the East) and those who sought to maintain the Apostolic tradition as handed down by the only begotten, but not made Son of God (the West).

Athanasius and Marcellus of Ancyra stood there, accused of blasphemy, murder, and treason. The Bishop of Rome, Julius I, defended them through his representatives. After all, he had shield them for some time now. But the Eastern bishops, being the sniveling little sots and sons of Arius that they were, refused to allow these two mighty men of God to take their place rightfully as Bishops, even though they were recognized and sponsored by the Pope. The Eastern bishops soon abandoned the council as they would abandon God the Father and the God the Son, to separate them as if one was lesser than the other. The Western Bishops attended to their duty and established a most forthright and beautiful creed, it was, to unite the one true Church. It reads:

We declare those men excommunicate from the Catholic Church who say that Christ is God, but not the true God; that He is the Son, but not the true Son; and that He is both begotten and made; for such persons acknowledge that they understand by the term ‘begotten,’ that which has been made; and because, although the Son of God existed before all ages, they attribute to Him, who exists not in time but before all time, a beginning and an end. Valens and Ursacius have, like two vipers brought forth by an asp, proceeded from the Arian heresy. For they boastingly declare themselves to be undoubted Christians, and yet affirm that the Word and the Holy Ghost were both crucified and slain, and that they died and rose again; and they pertinaciously maintain, like the heretics, that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are of diverse and distinct essences. We have been taught, and we hold the catholic and apostolic tradition and faith and confession which teach, that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost have one essence, which is termed substance by the heretics. If it is asked, ‘What is the essence of the Son?’ we confess, that it is that which is acknowledged to be that of the Father alone; for the Father has never been, nor could ever be, without the Son, nor the Son without the Father. It is most absurd to affirm that the Father ever existed without the Son, for that this could never be so has been testified by the Son Himself, who said, ‘I am in the Father, and the Father in Me;’ and ‘I and My Father are one.’ None of us denies that He was begotten; but we say that He was begotten before all things, whether visible or invisible; and that He is the Creator of archangels and angels, and of the world, and of the human race. It is written, ‘Wisdom which is the worker of all things taught me,’ and again, ‘All things were made by Him.’ He could not have existed always if He had had a beginning, for the everlasting Word has no beginning, and God will never have an end. We do not say that the Father is Son, nor that the Son is Father; but that the Father is Father, and the Son of the Father Son. We confess that the Son is Power of the Father. We confess that the Word is Word of God the Father, and that beside Him there is no other. We believe the Word to be the true God, and Wisdom and Power. We affirm that He is truly the Son, yet not in the way in which others are said to be sons: for they are either gods by reason of their regeneration, or are called sons of God on account of their merit, and not on account of their being of one essence, as is the case with the Father and the Son. We confess an Only-begotten and a Firstborn; but that the Word is only-begotten, who ever was and is in the Father. We use the word firstborn with respect to His human nature. But He is superior (to man) in the new creation (of the Resurrection), inasmuch as He is the Firstborn from the dead. We confess that God is; we confess the divinity of the Father and of the Son to be one. No one denies that the Father is greater than the Son: not on account of another essence, nor yet on account of their difference, but simply from the very name of the Father being greater than that of the Son. The words uttered by our Lord, ‘I and My Father are one,’ are by those men explained as referring to the concord and harmony which prevail between the Father and the Son; but this is a blasphemous and perverse interpretation. We, as Catholics, unanimously condemned this foolish and lamentable opinion: for just as mortal men on a difference having arisen between them quarrel and afterwards are reconciled, so do such interpreters say that disputes and dissension are liable to arise between God the Father Almighty and His Son; a supposition which is altogether absurd and untenable. But we believe and maintain that those holy words, ‘I and My Father are one,’ point out the oneness of essence which is one and the same in the Father and in the Son. We also believe that the Son reigns with the Father, that His reign has neither beginning nor end, and that it is not bounded by time, nor can ever cease: for that which always exists never begins to be, and can never cease. We believe in and we receive the Holy Ghost the Comforter, whom the Lord both promised and sent. We believe in It as sent. It was not the Holy Ghost who suffered, but the manhood with which He clothed Himself; which He took from the Virgin Mary, which being man was capable of suffering; for man is mortal, whereas God is immortal. We believe that on the third day He rose, the man in God, not God in the man; and that He brought as a gift to His Father the manhood which He had delivered from sin and corruption. We believe that, at a meet and fixed time, He Himself will judge all men and all their deeds. So great is the ignorance and mental darkness of those whom we have mentioned, that they are unable to see the light of truth. They cannot comprehend the meaning of the words: ‘that they may be one in us.’ It is obvious why the word ‘one’ was used; it was because the apostles received the Holy Spirit of God, and yet there were none amongst them who were the Spirit, neither was there any one of them who was Word, Wisdom, Power, or Only-begotten. ‘As Thou,’ He said, ‘and I are one, that they, may be one in us.’ These holy words, ‘that they may be one in us,’ are strictly accurate: for the Lord did not say, ‘one in the same way that I and the Father are one,’ but He said, ‘that the disciples, being knit together and united, may be one in faith and in confession, and so in the grace and piety of God the Father, and by the indulgence and love of our Lord Jesus Christ, may be able to become one.’

No doubt, Marcellus himself, the sainted man of God and loyal soldier of Christ, drafted most of this himself. Blessed be he.

If only we could replace Basil with Marcellus.

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Scratchpad: Thoughts on Athanasius’ De Incarnatione Verbi Dei

Chart explaining the various Christological po...
Image via Wikipedia

The Fourth Century of Christianity is by far my personal favorite. This is part of the assignment this week, so I thought I might share a rough draft or so…

Athanasius’ Christology was, as it should be, focused on Christ, and with all of his effort in De Incarnatione Verbi Dei (c. 328[i]) pointed only to the teleological precept that Christ, the very Image of God, was incarnated for the express purpose to recreate the fallen human race. Further, by necessity, the Word of God must be fully divine, full deity, to accomplish this great feat. It was only through the creative force of God that recreation could occur (7.5). For the ancient writer, who no doubt was still reeling from the single most important event in the life of the Church (after Pentecost, of course), the matter of the Incarnation was no small thing as it is the very ‘faith of our religion’ (1.1). It is, simply, the sine qua non of the Christian Faith, which shows not only God’s love, righteousness and power, but so too presents us with a present hope as a matter of the New Creation. Throughout the treatise (indeed, this one and others), Athanasius appeals to Scripture, and much to the dismay of Protestants, makes use of the book of Wisdom (of Solomon) like other early writers before, and after him. There was simply no greater theologian considered orthodox in the fourth century than Athanasius who defended his bishop at Nicaea and for the rest of his life would defend his view of the Godhead.

Following Athenagoras and Irenaeus before him, Athanasius focuses heavily on Wisdom Christology[ii], and should not be read without the first few chapters of Wisdom and several passages of Proverbs[iii] in the mind of the reader; surely, they were in Athanasius’s mind. For our ancient writer, Christ was the Word, the Wisdom, and the Power of God as he used those terms frequently, mirroring Paul in 1st Corinthians 1.24 as well as those after the Apostle who would see Christ as the Wisdom of God, developing their theology on that attribute. Further, Athanasius would stand against Justin and the Arians in their insistence that the Incarnation was the last of a line of appearances of the Son[iv] (note Justin’s commentary on Genesis 19) in defending that Christ was the Incarnation, designed for a purpose, and that purpose was to finally restore humanity. Athanasius would write that his entire treatise was to make sure his reader, Macarius, would ‘neither fail to know the cause of the bodily appearing of the Word of the Father…’ but know that the Incarnation was for the expressed purpose of being ‘manifested to us in a human body for our salvation.’ (1.3) Robertson notes that this ‘manifestation’ language is Athanasius’ method of describing Christ as Mediator, without seeing Christ as a waiting third party, ready to intervene. Instead, Athanasius sees ‘God manifesting himself immediately through his Word in creation’[v] a radically different view than that of the Semi-Arianism of the Eusebian Party.

One interesting note, and while not clearly expressed it is alluded to, is that the present Christological debates had a meaning to Athanasius that went beyond the normal exercises of battling heresies. Following John’s purpose of the Apocalypse, Athanasius sees that the present Christological debates involve eschatological purposes of revealing more of who Christ is. In 1.2, Athanasius comments that ‘the more He (Christ) is mocked among the unbelieving, the more witness does He give of His own Godhead.’ With the persecutions stopped by order of the Roman Emperor, and the Church gaining a foothold into the Imperial Roman Government, for many, the Kingdom had come. Yet, not all of the eschatological promises, especially those of mature knowledge[vi] of Christ, were fulfilled. It is possible that Athanasius and his audience believed that the current climate was purposed in order that Christ might finally be revealed and a mature knowledge of Him held by all believers.

Other insights into Athanasius’s Christology are found in such instances as 3.4 when he notes that ‘Holy Writ also gives warning, saying in the Person of God’ and goes on to quote the Edenic warning. While Nicaea had passed, certain theological words might not have been succinctly defined, and yet, it is still interesting that Holy Writ, something later given to the Spirit although still the purview of Christ here(10.2 – in which Athanasius notes that it is Christ who inspires the writers), speaks in the Person of God. It is also noteworthy that Athanasius rarely referred to the Christ as the Son before the Incarnation, but generally maintained the distinction of Word/Pre-Incarnate and Son/Incarnate that his ally Marcellus of Ancyra would be chastised over. It is not until 15.4 that Athanasius would write that Christ ‘alone among men appeared Son of God.’ In the same chapter, Christ is still called the Word of God, but only before he takes a body. Upon the Incarnation, Christ then becomes the Son of God, although later in 47.3, Athanasius would write that ‘Christ alone has been recognized among men as the true God, the Word of God. Rarely does Athanasius use Son, and then, only in connection to the act of Incarnation. As Word, and then as Son, Christ would be the ‘very Image of God, our Lord Jesus Christ’ (13.4) which would allow humanity to be recreated ‘after the image of God’, which for Athanasius seems to be a distinction worth noting, although the ancient writer certainly believed in θείας[vii]. Finally, Athanasius, although not nearly as easily done as Ignatius of Antioch, calls Christ God, unqualifibly (19.3). For Athanasius, Christ is the Image of God, the Son and Wisdom and Power of God (19.2), following in a long tradition of other ancient, and orthodox, writers.

While removed by 30 years, Athanasius’ Christology, and his Trinity, is summed up easily in his letter to Serapion,

God is above all things as Father, for he is principle and source; he is through all things through the Word; and he is in all things in the Holy Spirit. –  Athanasius’ first letter to Serapion (Ep. 1 ad Serapionem 28-30: PG 26, 594-95. 599) (c.360)

For Athanasius, then, had the Incarnated Word been anything less than God manifested in the flesh which the Arians decried, was to destroy all hope of Salvation.

[i] Although most scholars date it to this time, it may be that Athanasius was writing at a much later date than 326-328, perhaps as late at 337, the year in which a presbyter named Macarius (1.1) and several deacons traveled as deputies from the Eusebian Party to Rome to present the East’s case against Athanasius and Marcellus. (See Apol c. Arianos 22-24). It is possible that this letter was the response to Macarius which Athanasius sent, ultimately leading Macarius to feign illness and excuse himself from the case against Athanasius.

[ii] There is not the focus on the Logos Christology that we have in Justin and the other Alexandrines, although Athanasius sees the Word as Rational and thus imparting to the rational race, Reason. Athanasius, instead, focuses on Christ not as the organizing principle of the Logos but the divine creating attribute of Wisdom.

[iii] I would agree with several scholars who believe that the disputed passage which first caused Arius’ disruption was most likely Proverbs 8.

[iv] See the discussion on the Dyohypostatic Theology in Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J., Contra Marcellum Catholic University of America Press, Washington 1999,  p38-42 as well as p63 in which Lienhard notes that for Athanasius, the decisive moment in human history was the Incarnation.

[v] Robertson, Jon M., Christ as Mediator, A Study of the Theologies of Eusebius of Caesarea, Marcellus of Ancyra, and Athanasius of Alexandra, 194-214, 2007.

[vi] Ephesians 4.13

[vii] See 54.3, De Incarnatione Verbi Dei; cf 2nd Peter 1.4

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