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.


Arius, ‘the good Greek’: And Miscellanies on the Greekification of God

This is not going to be an extensive engagement with nor introduction to Arius’s theology, in fact I will presume that those reading this will already have some sort of understanding of who, Arius was in the history of the church and what his heresy entails. But I wanted to highlight something I just read with reference to Arius; I thought the way the authors stated this was well put, and so would be beneficial for you all to read too. After we work through the quote from said authors (who you will meet in a moment) I will apply the ‘Greek’ link to a problem that has currently been being addressed online in regard to the John Frame and James Dolezal debate; albeit indirectly (since I will not address the actual debate in detail, but will only touch upon currents that are indeed related to the debate).

As we know Arius argued that Jesus, the Son of God, was a creation of God; that he shared a unity of will with his Creator God, but not a unity of being. Yes, for Arius the Son was indeed elevated to a level of degree over the rest of the created order, even functioning as a cipher through whom God created, but indeed the Son remained subordinate and a creature of God. Arius was driven to this conclusion because he was driven by his conviction that there could only be one actual infinite, one pure being; any division in that being, by definition, would render God to be no-God based upon the a priori definitional conviction that these were the requirements for God to be God. We can better appreciate, then, Arius’s dilemma when confronted with Christian reality; he was attempting, based upon his servile conviction that God must be a monad in order to actually be God, to negotiate his way out of this dilemma—an artificial dilemma of his own making.

The following quote, just like my last post, is taken from Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink’s Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction. The way they characterize Arius is rather brilliant. They don’t antagonistically get after Arius, instead they simply and almost sympathetically contextualize Arius as the Greek thinker that he genuinely was:

10.5.1 Arius and Athanasius

Put most simply, Arius asked about the order to which Jesus, as the incarnate Word, belonged: to the order of God, or to that of created reality? Arius opted for the second and had some good arguments on his side. He read the Old Testament texts that speak of the unity of God: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God is one Lord” (Deut 6:4). If God, as the Father, is the first, then he must also be the only one, and besides him there can be only that which is created; thus Jesus belongs in that category. Nor can God exist in a double, a twofold (or threefold), manner, so Jesus is not a second God. The highest essence is not plural; God, as the only one, is by definition indivisible. This view does not so much make Arius a good Jew (as we mentioned earlier, Judaism in this era did not totally reject any plurality in God), but rather a good Greek. To the Greek mind, which is always in search of the unchanging primordial beginning (the arche), divisibility implies mutability.[1]

Arius was just being a good Pure Being theologian. He couldn’t figure out how to think the Son into the being of the eternal immutable God, on how the Greek mind thought that, and, as such he had to, of necessity, make the Son a creature and say: ‘there was a time when the Son was not.’

Miscellanies on the Hellenization of God

In some ways this is should explain to you why I am so leery of ‘pure being’ theology; of the sort that relies heavily say upon Aristotelian categories in order to provide a grammar for the Christian and Triune God. There is a basic incompatibility between the Greek conception of God, or pure being, and the God Self-revealed in Jesus Christ. This is why I am so leery of so called classical theism, because it relies so heavily upon a Greek mindset for thinking God. And yet, there is a revitalization of classical theism currently happening among Reformed and evangelical theologians in particular. My ‘fear’, in regard to classical theism and the overly Greek mind ostensibly behind it, was captured much more famously by Adolph von Harnack’s ‘hellenization thesis.’ Michael Allen explains, in a nutshell, what that entails, and then goes on to illustrate how it is that people like Allen et al. are moving beyond the Harnackian thesis in order to retrieve what the past classical theists produced in regard to a grammar for thinking and speaking the Christian God:

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? For several decades in the twentieth century, the answer seemed to be overwhelmingly: “Too much!” The influence of Greek philosophy upon Christian faith and practice was viewed as excessive and uncritical. A century ago Adolf von Harnack proposed the “Hellenization thesis,” the argument that the early church swallowed a bunch of Hellenistic fat that makes their theological approach difficult to digest today.  Harnack proposed a radical revision to the faith whereby we seek to cut the fat out and get back to the message of Jesus himself, a proclamation unencumbered by the metaphysics of Greece and the dogmas of the later fathers. The influence of this model of history has been and continues to be remarkably widespread, accepted not only in more revisionist circles (e.g., Jürgen Moltmann) but also by those who wish to affirm orthodox theology (e.g., the late Colin Gunton). Its most deleterious application regards the character of God, that is, the doctrine of divine attributes. Numerous attributes were viewed as Greek accretions that ran not only away from, but directly against the grain of biblical teaching and Christ-centered theology.[2]

I am not necessarily endorsing, tout court, the Harnackian thesis, but I do think his is a good cautionary tale in regard to thinking about the influence that Greek categories had upon how Christians have thought God. I actually do think it is possible to ‘evangelize’ certain types of metaphysics in the service of the Gospel and its articulation—not just Hellenism, but even Hegelianism, etc.—but only in such a way that the categories present within such philosophical systems become so recontextualized by the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Christ that the corollary between the former philosophical context and the new Christian revelational context has been rent asunder to the point of no real contact. Note what Myk Habets writes in regard to the way that Patristic theologians, when hammering out a Doctrine of God and Christology, were able to achieve in their usage of Greek metaphysics:

I grant that patristic theology was tempted constantly by the thrust of Greek thought to change the concepts of impassibility and immutability in this direction, but it remained entrenched within the orbit of the Judeo-Christian doctrine of the living God who moves himself, who through his free love created the universe, imparting to its dynamic order, and who through the outgoing of his love moves outside of himself in the incarnation.[3]

This is something of what I am referring to in regard to the way it is possible to engage with Greek metaphysics, but then convert them in such a way that they are resurrected with Christ which reorients their inability to actually get at the wonder of who the genuine Christian God is which is purely reliant upon God’s own Self-exegesis in Christ.

There is always this dance, though. We must decide, at some point, how well a particular system of theology achieves the proper movements in this dance between its referral to something like pure being theology (of the sort that Arius was slavishly committed to), and how that may or may not be allowed to implicate the way Christians attempt to speak God. I personally think that something like the classical theist synthesis has failed at providing a conception of God that actually emphasizes the relationality of God, and instead offers a God who is too stilted by a kind of mechanical identity that is devoid of real passion, emotions, and that type of dynamism. Habets comments further on this reality (and with this we’ll close) as he reflects on the impact that pure being theology has had upon the development of Christian theology:

This freedom is also found in the very Being of God. When medieval theology adopted Aristotelian philosophy the Greek notion of God as impassible and immutable was also adopted. In this way Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover became associated with the God of the Scriptures. However, in Patristic theology immutability and impassibility, as applied to God, were not associated with these philosophical ideas but were actually a challenge to it. It is true that God is not moved by, and is not changed by, anything outside himself, and that he is not affected by anything or does not suffer from anything beyond himself. But this simply affirms the biblical fact that God is transcendent and the one who created ex nihilo. What the Fathers did not mean is that God does not move himself and is incapable of imparting motion to what he has made. It does not mean that God is devoid of passion, of love, mercy and wrath, and that he is impassibly and immutably related to our world of space and time in such a way that it is thrown back upon itself as a closed continuum of cause and effect.[4]

If we must speak of God in ways that diminish his revealed reality as relational, dynamic, and Triune love then we might be suffering from an Arian hangover. It would be best to repent of such drunkenness and think new ways, just as the patristic theologians did, to evangelize the metaphysics we use to think and speak God.

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 404. [emphasis mine]

[2] Michael Allen, The Promise and Prospects of Retrieval: Recent Developments in the Divine Attributes, accessed 11-08-17.

[3] Myk Habets, Part I, A Realist Approach to Science and Theology, accessed 11-08-17.

[4] Ibid.