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


Athanasius and Barth

In his influential Arius: Heresy and Tradition, Rowan Williams compares the theology of Athanasius with that of Karl Barth.  Wiliams writes:

Both insist that there is no gap conceivable between God as he acts towards us—as the Father of Jesus Christ—and that activity in and by which God is eternally what he is. Athanasius’ refusal to separate the divine will from the divine nature in considering the generation of the Son is an implicit denial that God’s nature can be an object of thought in itself, passive to the human mind. God is knowable solely because he is active; what can be said of him can be said because he “utters” himself as Word or Son. So too for Barth: theology has no power over that of which it speaks, because it is essentially response to the free address of God. Yet that address is not an arbitrary or momentary act, but expresses God’s eternal “self-determination” as trinity. To encounter God at all is to encounter him in his freedom; and when we grasp what that freedom means—that no created circumstance affects or determines God—we understand that what he freely does he everlastingly does. He is never without his saving Word, never a merely potential Father, Redeemer and Reconciler. If he acts, he acts eternally and he acts consistently; and since nothing beyond him can determine this action, what he does cannot be other than “enactment” of what he is. On the foundation of God’s “faithfulness to himself,” the life of human faith is built. Its dependence on God alone gives it an identity and a locus standi in principle free from any political and intellectual totalitarianism in its environment.

~pg. 238

This theology of the cross also gives a Lutheran or perhaps an Evangelical reading of the Greek father.

Augustinian Metaphors in Athanasius’s Theology

As then the light from the Sun which illumines the world could never be supposed, by men of sound mind, to do so without the Sun, since the Sun’s light is united to the Sun by nature; and as, if the Light were to say: I have received from the Sun the power of illumining all things, and of giving growth and strength to them by the heat that is in me, no one will be mad enough to think that the mention of the Sun is meant to separate him from what is his nature, namely the light; so piety would have us perceive that the Divine Essence of the Word is united by nature to His own Father.

~ Illud Omnia, &c. 4

This is but one more counterexample to the “Western” and “essence” hypothesis that supposes all direct talk about the divine essence uniting the persons to be an Augustinian development.  Athanasius is using the same solar metaphor that will also appear in Gregory of Nyssa.

The Folly of Image Worship

Athanasius writes, in his Contra Gentes, that the worship of created things is forbidden by the Scriptures and dishonorable to the created thing.  He explains:

Again, in worshipping things of wood and stone, they do not see that, while they tread under foot and burn what is in no way different, they call portions of these materials gods. And what they made use of a little while ago, they carve and worship in their folly, not seeing, nor at all considering that they are worshipping, not gods, but the carver’s art.  For so long as the stone is uncut and the wood unworked, they walk upon the one and make frequent use of the other for their own purposes, even for those which are less honourable. But when the artist has invested them with the proportions of his own skill, and impressed upon the material the form of man or woman, then, thanking the artist, they proceed to worship them as gods, having bought them from the carver at a price. Often, moreover, the image-maker, as though forgetting the work he has done himself, prays to his own productions, and calls gods what just before he was paring and chipping.  But it were better, if need to admire these things, to ascribe it to the art of the skilled workman, and not to honour productions in preference to their producer. For it is not the material that has adorned the art, but the art that has adorned and deified the material. Much juster were it, then, for them to worship the artist than his productions, both because his existence was prior to that of the gods produced by art, and because they have come into being in the form he pleased to give them. But as it is, setting justice aside, and dishonouring skill and art, they worship the products of skill and art, and when the man is dead that made them, they honour his works as immortal, whereas if they did not receive daily attention they would certainly in time come to a natural end.  Or how could one fail to pity them in this also, in that seeing, they worship them that cannot see, and hearing, pray to them that cannot hear, and born with life and reason, men as they are, call gods things which do not move at all, but have not even life, and, strangest of all, in that they serve as their masters beings whom they themselves keep under their own power? Nor imagine that this is a mere statement of mine, nor that I am maligning them; for the verification of all this meets the eyes, and whoever wishes to do so may see the like. Continue reading