Athanasius and the Divine Dilemma

Athanasius clearly affirms a legal atonement.  He mentions that after the fall, men are under the “law of death.”  It is indeed ontological, life vs. death, but it is also legal, as Adam is being punished for his sin.  This is only one half of the dilemma, however.  Athanasius believes that God’s glory would be impugned if He failed to keep His word in punishing sin, but he also believes that God’s glory would be impugned if He failed to set creation back to right.  God’s nature requires both justice and glorified creation.  He explains:

For it were monstrous, firstly, that God, having spoken, should prove false—that, when once He had ordained that man, if he transgressed the commandment, should die the death, after the transgression man should not die, but God’s word should be broken. For God would not be true, if, when He had said we should die, man died not. Again, it were unseemly that creatures once made rational, and having partaken of the Word, should go to ruin, and turn again toward non-existence by the way of corruption. For it were not worthy of God’s goodness that the things He had made should waste away, because of the deceit practised on men by the devil.

~ On the Incarnation 6.3-5

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About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

3 thoughts on “Athanasius and the Divine Dilemma

  1. Wedge,

    (1) Is God the cause of the death to which Adam and creation are subject? You assume this but it is not the case. God only tells Adam that death will be the effect of his action and it follows that God’s word would be proven untrue if this did not occur. God knew that voluntary separation from Himself would result in death, so He spoke the truth.

    “…turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by counsel of the devil, **they had become the cause of their own corruption in death;** for, as I said before, though they were by nature subject to corruption, the grace of their union with the Word made them capable of escaping from the natural law, provided that they ‘retained the beauty of innocence with which they were created.” (IOW, Ch. 1, 5)

    (2) The law of death *is* Adam’s punishment for sin, but what is it? We experience the law of death as subjection to physical death, the fear of death, lust and alienation from God.

    “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:19-24)

    (3) In the Incarnation, humanity is provided with the means to purify their hearts and be reconciled to God; humanity is also saved from the devil’s plan to annihilate humanity through lust and the power of death.

    “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death **he might destroy him who holds the power of death-that is, the devil-**and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” [Heb. 2:14-15]

    “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, **according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.**Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath ,even as the rest.” [Eph. 2:1-3]

  2. 1) I said nothing about causation, however, there is more than one type of cause (see Aristotle), thus Adam and Eve could be their own cause, and God could also be a cause of enforcing his Word.

    2) Agreed

    3) It is more than just the incarnation. The purification comes after the Incarnate Word dies and is resurrected, thus creating the true new creation.

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