The Self-Communicating God of Athanasius Against the Mute God of Arius: God’s Being As Love Rather Than An Absolute Self

The doctrines of old never really get old. The heresies of old never really get old, they just re-emerge in new language games per the periods those language games are played within. Aspects of what is known as Arianism continue to rear its ugly head into the 21st century. If you don’t know Arianism, at base, is the idea that ‘there was a time when the Son was not’; in other words, there was a time when the Son of God, who we now know as Jesus Christ, was non-existent, that he is a creature. This was the heresy that flowered early in the church through the teachings of Arius, and his followers, and which Athanasius argued against starting early at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Ironically there are many, even today, who want to argue that the development of what became Nicene theology is really the result of overly imposing Hellenic categories upon God thus making God into a three-headed monster; or making God into a pantheon of persons seated above in the heavenlies. I say this is ironic because we do have a case of an over imposition of Greek categories upon the Christian God, but it isn’t from the Trinitarians (the Nicenes); it is from the Arian impulse to mold God into the monadic conception of godness that we can derive from the classical philosophers (e.g. the god of the philosophers). In fact it is the Trinitarians who refused to give into the seduction provided for by the intellectuals, and instead flipped the grammar they developed on its head by allowing the pressure of God’s Self-revelation and Self-communication in Jesus Christ to reify such categories in such a way that the Revelation of God forged the categories Christians think God from. There is indeed a Greek impulse available in the Christian tradition, but it is resident with those who would identify with Arius and his followers rather than with Athanasius and his.

Arthur McGill, in a distilled and precise fashion, offers a fruitful line in regard to what Athanasius accomplished contra [mundum] Arius and the dead fruit he produced.


Let us conclude this chapter by setting the Trinitarian God and the Arian God in the sharpest possible contrast so that all the issues may be clearly seen.

At one level, we are concerned with the question of God’s essential being, of the quality that gives him his identity as God. According to Arius, the indispensable mark of divinity is unbegottenness, or what we might call absolute independence. God is divine because he exists wholly from within himself, wholly on his own. He needs nothing, he depends on nothing, he is in essence related to nothing. And this, according to the Trinitarian theologians, is precisely what the powerfulness disclosed in Jesus Christ discredits. For as these theologians read certain passages in the Gospel of John, the powerfulness in Jesus is characterized as fully and perfectly divine, and yet at the same time, as totally and continually derived.

In other words, as present in Jesus, God’s powerfulness has a form—the form of dependence—which Arius can only reject as quite unworthy of God. In place of self-contained and self-sufficient autonomy, what the Trinitarian theologians see as the defining mark of divinity is that totality of self-giving which proceeds between the Father and the Son. The Father gives all that he is to the Son; the Son obeys the Father and offers all that he is back to the Father. The Father and the Son are not divine, therefore, in terms of the richness of reality that they possess within themselves. They do not exist closed up within their own being. Rather, they are divine in terms of the richness of the reality that they communicate to the other. Against Arius’ reverential awe of the absolute, Gregory of Nazianzus puts the alternative:

Thus much we for our part will be bold to say, that if it is a great thing for the Father to be unoriginate, it is no less a thing for the Son to have been begotten of such a Father. For not only would he share the glory of the unoriginate, since is of the unoriginate, but he has the added glory of his generation, a thing so great and august in the eyes of all those who are not altogether groveling and material in mind. (Theological Orations III. ii; Christology of the Later Fathers, p. 168.)

If Arius identifies God’s divinity with his absolute independence, Gregory identifies it with his inner life of self-giving.

At a second level, we are faced with the question of how God exercises his divinity in relation to the world and to men. For Arius, God’s complete self-sufficiency means that with the world he appears in the form of absolute domination. As God depends on nothing, everything else depends on him. As he is completely rich, everything else is completely poor. As he is completely powerful, everything else is completely weak, and is called to revere his power. And as he can affect other things without himself being affected, i.e., through an intermediary agent, everything else is its activity affects itself and other things, but not him.

According to the Trinitarian theologians, nothing could be more contrary to the power of God that men encounter in Jesus Christ than this Arian picture. Far from being a vessel of dominating mastery, Jesus is just the opposite. He does not come on clouds of glory. He does not stand over his followers, ordering them hither and yon to his bidding and vindicating his authority by unopposable acts of self-assertion. In the Epistle to Diognetus, and early Christian writing, the question is asked, Why did God send his Son?

To rule as a tyrant, to inspire terror and astonishment? No, he did not. No, he sent him in gentleness and mildness. To be sure, as a king sending his royal son, he sent him as God. But he sent him as to men, as saving and persuading them, and not as exercising force. For force is no attribute of God.

“Force is no attribute of God”—that is the basic principle for the Trinitarian theologians. God’s divinity does not consist in his ability to push things around, to make and break, to impose his will from the security of some heavenly remoteness, and to sit in grandeur while all the world does his bidding. Far from staying above the world, he sends his own glory into it. Far from imposing, he invites and persuades. Far from demanding service from me in order to enhance himself, he gives his life in service to men for their enhancement. But God acts toward the world in this way because within himself he is a life of self-giving.[1]

Which conception of God are you being exposed to today in the Christian church? There is a major recovery movement taking place in and among evangelical Protestant theologians; they are attempting to recover the classical theistic conception of God that they believe is the church catholic conception of God. But we might want to ask ourselves if the God being recovered, the version of the classical theistic conception of God that is being recovered resembles the Athanasian or the Arian understanding more or less? Is the God being recovered for the church the relational and self-communicating God that Athanasius articulates, or are the impulses being recovered more in line with the Arian monadic conception of God wherein God’s absolute independence, apart from relational emphases, is being emphasized? While a fully fledged Arianism may well not be being recovered, this does not mean the untextualized impulses of the Greek godness principles that Arius thought from can’t be attendant in some modulated form in the God being recovered for the evangelical churches.

More materially, as McGill distills Athanasius, what stands out is indeed the reality that God, at core, in se, is a God of onto-relation; a God who finds his being in subject-in-being relation such that the oneness of God (ousia) is shaped by the threeness of God (hypostaseis), and vice versa. That God’s being is necessarily one of love, and that love is defined by his very activity of self-giveness as he is resplendently Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is within this anterior coinhering relations of God that we can begin to understand why God created to begin with; that the who of God’s life precedes the what as that is revealed for us in the God for us in Jesus Christ. It is within this antecedent reality of God’s life that our lives make sense, and that suffering itself takes upon new hues of bright and vibrant color; as we come to recognize the deep relationality of God, and the Self-relating dependence of God within himself, that we recognize how significant relationship is for us. God is able to reverse what the enemy intended for evil by using suffering and tragedy to recognize our deep need for him; that we can come to recognize that the ground and bases of our lives is an ecstatic one given to us as gift ever afresh and anew by the guarantee of the Holy Spirit sealed upon our hearts with the kiss of Jesus Christ.

I am sorely concerned for the churches. I’m concerned that they are getting a more Arian-like conception of God that does not provide them with an adequate understanding of God which can only result in a deleterious spirituality that has nothing to do with who God really is in himself as revealed as the Son of the Father. Yes, the God of the schoolmen has certain qualities to him, but are they the actual realities that Athanasius could see? Yes, Athanasius used a similar grammar to the Greeks, and a similar grammar to the God of the classical theists, but he may well have used that grammar in equivocal ways from the way that say medieval classical theists used that grammar. These are big ideas, and big concerns; but they have real life and concrete iterations and implications in and for the people of the church of Jesus Christ.

[1] Arthur C. McGill, Suffering: A Test of Theological Method (Eugene, OR: Wipf&Stock Publishers, 1982), 80-2.

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