Collapsing God Into Creation: On Athanasius and Evangelical Calvinism

Khaled Anatolios, in his most masterful book Retrieving Nicaea, offers something on the Trinitarian theology of Athanasius that is simply splendid! He is getting at something, relative to the neglect of a central aspect of Athanasius’s theology that indeed is key to something that I have written in my chapter for our Evangelical Calvinist book; here is what I have written:

Athanasius_Fresco

The conditio sine qua non of an Evangelical Calvinist understanding of God begins where God begins, with his Son. As Thomas Torrance makes clear, starting with God as revealed by the Son allows God’s triune nature to determine the way that we, as Christians, come to know him. That is, this is the proper way to think about the Christian God, trinitarianly; and we believe that this must lead to and from the conviction that God, as Athanasius held, has always already been Father and Son by the Holy Spirit before he ever becomes Creator.1 This becomes important, as Colin Gunton has explained in regards to the Nicene Council’s thinking; because “… By insisting … that God is eternally Son as well as Father, the Nicene theologians introduced a note of relationality into the being of God: God’s being is defined as being in relation. Such is the impact of the doctrine of the incarnation on conceptions of what it is to be.”2 The problem that arises if we fail to engage God on his (these) terms, if we start with God as creator before Father; is that the Son can come to be thought of as part of God’s creation, instead of the creator himself3 resulting in a project that simply looks at Jesus as another one of “God’s” works whereby we come to know God (as demiurge). Torrance makes this point vividly clear:

[I]n such an approach we can do no more than attempt to speak of God from his works which have come into being at his will through his Word, that is, from what is externally related to God, and which as such do not really tell us anything about who God is or what he is like in his own nature. That line of approach, as both Athanasius and Hilary insisted, is entirely lacking in accuracy or precision… . They differentiated themselves here sharply from the thesis of Basileides, the Gnostic of Alexandria, who taught, with reference to Plato’s statement that God is beyond all being, that we cannot say anything about what God is, but can only say something about what he is not. It was pointed out by Gregory Nazianzen, however, that if we cannot say anything positive about what God is, we really cannot say anything accurate about what he is not.4 [Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism, citing Chapter 4 by Bobby Grow, 95]

And here is what Anatolios has written in the same vein (and with more explanation on the theology of Athanasius, and a helpful elaboration of what I was thinking when I wrote what I did for my personal chapter in our book [quoted above]):

[T]he insistence that the creation of  the world is grounded in the generation of the Son is an aspect of Athanasius’s Trinitarian theology that has received remarkably little attention. But it is not an incidental detail for Athanasius. What is at stake is not only a certain vision of fecundity of the divine nature, as a merely abstract divine attribute. But it is also structural to Athanasius’s vision that both in the original creation and in the renewed and redeemed creation, God’s relation to the world is enfolded by the Father’s relation to the Son. Using the felicitous biblical image of God’s delight in Wisdom, Athanasius speaks of God’s delight in the world as derivative of and embraced within the intra-divine delight of the relation of Father and Son [Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea, 118]:

Therefore all the earth is filled with his knowledge. For one is the knowledge of the Father, through the Son, and of the Son, from the Father, and the Father rejoices in the Son and in this same joy, the Son delights in the Father, saying, “I was beside him, his delight. Day by day, I rejoiced in his presence” (Prov 8:30), except by seeing himself in his own image, which is his Word? Even though, as it is written in these same Proverbs, he also “delighted in the sons of people, having consummated the world” (Prov 8:31), yet this also has the same meaning. For he did not delight in this way by acquiring delight as an addition to himself, but it was upon seeing the works that were made according to his own image, so that the basis of this delight also is God’s own Image. And how does Son too rejoice, except by seeing himself in the Father? For to say this is the same as to say: “The one who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9), and “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:10) [Athanasius,Contra Arianos, 2.82, cited by Anatolios, 118]

Athanasius’s Trinitarian theology developed, as does so much of theology, in a polemical context. He is countering the thought of both Arius, and one of Arius’ tribe members Asterius; both of these “arch-heretics” held, in their respective and nuanced ways, that Jesus was ultimately a creation of the unbegotten, ingenerate Father (who functioned as a demiurge between the Father and his creation). Both of these heretics were what can be called (as Anatolios labels it) ‘unity-of-will’ theologians V. ‘unity-of-being’; meaning that they made a distinction between God’s inner life (‘ad intra’) and his outer life (‘ad extra’), such that the latter was simply an expression of the Unbegotten God’s desire (to create for example). And neither one of these heretics saw any necessary relation between God’s ‘will’ (his outer workings) and his inner life, or his divine ‘being’. The consequence of this was that these heretics placed Jesus into the ‘will’ category of God, such that there was no necessary relation of being between the Father and the Son; and so then, the Son becomes a part of God’s generation and creation–even if, for Arius and Asterius, they believed that the Son was a creation of God who was pre-existent to the creation of the world.

It is this setting into which Athanasius is speaking. Instead of making a disjunction between the ‘essence’ or ‘being’ of God with his ‘will’, Athanasius sees these two realities of God’s life as coordinate and necessary corollaries. As such, the will of the Father to create flows from an intrinsic reality of his being; which is to say, that the Father’s being cannot be such without his relation to the Son (which is what makes him ‘Father’). It is in this prior relation that God’s will to create takes form and is coordinate, and it is this reality that Athanasius believes (with the Gospel of John, no less) must be affirmed in order to faithfully understand a God-world relation that keeps the ‘being’ and person of God in-tact, relative to the triune relation that inheres between the Father, Son, and later the Holy Spirit (and I mean later relative to the way that the Patristics dealt with the articulating the divine life and the homoousion).

The bottom line is that the Father has always been the Father of the Son before he became a creator, as Thomas Torrance so often liked to iterate. Hopefully now you can see a little more clearly, at least, where Torrance got his line of thinking from. My concern is that classic Calvinists, by their adoption of classical theism, and the integration of Aristotelian categories into their theological methodology (prolegomena), is that they have provided a doctrine of God that is more akin to the errors of Arius and Asterius by collapsing God in Christ into the creation rather than providing a proper order of things relative to a properly construed Trinitarian theology.

The classic Calvinist ordering of creation, covenant, redemption is an example of how the problem I am referring to inheres in their theological method. By placing creation prior to covenant (or God’s life), they have set up a situation wherein the creation can predicate the life of God as God enters into creation in Christ. Creation takes priority over Christ in this instance, such that the only way to safeguard God as untouched by creation (the Unbegotten God) is to posit a distinction between God’s ‘will’ and God’s ‘being’. In the incarnation Jesus would be functioning at the level of God’s will, which must be separate from God’s being in order to maintain that the creation does not ‘touch’ God’s inner being. The problem with this, obviously, is that now there is ‘a God behind the back of Jesus’ and Jesus simply becomes an instrument in the Unbegotten God’s hand in order to accomplish his desired will in the world.

I will have to get into this more later. Suffice it to say, that the depth of what I was only really sketching in my personal chapter in our book gets into the issues that I am discussing in this post.

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4 comments

  1. DG,

    I have read Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. I don’t agree with your interpretation, at all! I think this is a better constructive reading of Athanasius and his point on the irreversible nature of the incarnation:

    “God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.” ~T. F. Torrance, “The Mediation of Christ”, 94.

    I am also not a Pelagian, so I trust that God will bring the increase in spite, often times, of His church.

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  2. DG,

    Your point is question begging; so it is hard to really appreciate. You presume that Paul does not conceptually write of hell, and then use this presumption as your conclusion to make your point; this represents petitio principii and circular reasoning … which makes your assertions non-starters.

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  3. “[I]n such an approach we can do no more than attempt to speak of God from his works which have come into being at his will through his Word, that is, from what is externally related to God, and which as such do not really tell us anything about who God is or what he is like in his own nature”

    I missed this the 1st time I read this (on break at work). A most excellent point, and one that has probably been made over and over in EC, and I missed it! :O)

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