The Father, First; The Son, Second; The Holy Spirit, Third: Against Subordinationisms

The Father is understood to be the first person in the Divine Monarxia (Godhead); the Son, second, and the Holy Spirit, third. This isn’t indicative of a latent subordinationism, but simply notes how an origin of relation works within the eternal relating (and procressions) of the Triune God. This is what Athanasius was pressing when he wrote Contra Arians 

  1. Therefore it is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call HimUnoriginate. For the latter title, as I have said, does nothing more than signify all the works, individually and collectively, which have come to be at the will of God through the Word; but the title Father has its significance and its bearing only from the Son. And, whereas the Word surpasses things originated, by so much and more does calling God Father surpass the calling Him Unoriginate. For the latter is unscriptural and suspicious, because it has various senses; so that, when a man is asked concerning it, his mind is carried about to many ideas; but the word Father is simple and scriptural, and more accurate, and only implies the Son. And ‘Unoriginate’ is a word of the Greeks, who know not the Son; but ‘Father’ has been acknowledged and vouchsafed by our Lord. For He, knowing Himself whose Son He was, said, ‘I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me;’ and, ‘He that has seen Me, has seen the Father,’ and ‘I and the Father are One ;’ but nowhere is He found to call the Father Unoriginate. Moreover, when He teaches us to pray, He says not, ‘When you pray, say, O God Unoriginate,’ but rather, ‘When you pray, say, Our Father, which art in heaven Luke 11:2.’ And it was His will that the Summary of our faith should have the same bearing, in bidding us be baptized, not into the name of Unoriginate and originate, nor into the name of Creator and creature, but into the Name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. For with such an initiation we too, being numbered among works, are made sons, and using the name of the Father, acknowledge from that name the Word also in the Father Himself. A vain thing then is their argument about the term ‘Unoriginate,’ as is now proved, and nothing more than a fantasy.1 

When Athanasius refers to ‘Unoriginate’ he is working against the explicit subordinationism of someone like Arius, and his followers; and even against a softer form of that as seen in the homoiousios thinking of someone like Euseubius of Caeserea. In line with Athanasius, David Kelsey has recently penned the following: 

Most fundamentally, the one referred to in John as “Son” and “Word,” understood to have “become flesh” in the life-trajectory of Jesus of Nazareth, is understood to be the definitive self-expression of God in the economy. So, although placing the “Father” in the lead position in the formula for the Trinity’s relating in creative blessing underscores God the “Father’s” priority in the order of reality, adding that creative blessing comes through the “Son,” who, “taking on flesh,” is the Triune God’s definitive self-expression, underscores Jesus Christ’s priority in the order of human coming to understand and speak of God — to the extent that they can. Indeed, as variously narrated in the four canonical Gospels, it is the very structure of Jesus’ life-trajectory that warrants framing an account of what and who God is in Trinitarian terms. Thus, the Triune God’s relating in creative blessing involves God relating, not only ontologically transcendentally to all that is not God, but also relating self-expressively as one who can be one among many that are not God.2 

We see Kelsey going a step further, at least in this instance, and in step with TF Torrance’s appropriation of Athanasius, and the Nicene theology in general, by identifying the Christ as both the ontological and epistemic ground upon whom God-knowledge is obtained. It just so happens that when God-knowledge is grounded thusly we come to the realization that God is the Father of the Son, and the Son of the Father; and that this whole mysterion reality comes by the hovering over by the Holy Spirit. Not the reality of the Godhead, per se, but our knowledge of the Godhead as that is first given conception by the seed of the woman. Soli Deo Gloria 

 

1 Athanasius, Contra Arianos 1.9.34. 

2 David H. Kelsey, Human Anguish and God’s Power (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 90.  

This is the Way: The Nicene Way:: The Nicene Creed V The Westminster Confession of Faith

Scholastic Reformed theologians claim to be in line with Nicene theology proper. But when you read scholastic Reformed theology, particularly their confessions, what becomes immediately apparent is that scholastic Reformed theology operates out of the apophatic ‘negative’ and/or speculative tradition for thinking a doctrine of God (and Christ); whereas Nicene theology thinks from cataphatic ‘positive’ and/or revealed theology for thinking God. By way of prolegomena or theological methodology this places Niceno-Constantinopolitano theology at loggerheads with something like we see in the scholastically Reformed Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). Note the way the WCF articulates its doctrine of God: 

Chapter 2 Of God, and of the Holy Trinity  

    1. There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal, most just, and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty. 2. God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory in, by, unto, and upon them. He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things; and hath most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever himselfpleaseth. In his sight all things are open and manifest, his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to him contingent, or uncertain. He is most holy in all his counsels, in all his works, and in all his commands. To him is due from angels and men, and every other creature, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience he is pleased to require of them. 3. In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost:the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son. 

Notice the WCF’s entrée: it starts with ‘negative’ and or philosophical attributes of Godness, only to “get-to” the triune life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in its last chapter, chapter 3. This is illustrative of the spirit and mode by which the scholastic Reformeds attempt to think God. Somehow, they maintain that this way is in keeping with the catholic theology we find articulated in Nicene theology. But you do see what they are doing, right? They start with a logico-deductive schematized notion of God’s singularity or oneness (actus purus) prior to ever getting to the revealed categories for God, and this only in the last paragraph of chapter 2.  

With the aforementioned in mind, let’s now review the Nicene Creed. What the reader will see is that my original claim, in regard to the discontinuity between Nicene theology and scholastic Reformed theology, vis-à-vis a doctrine of God, bears out.  

We believe in one God,
      the Father almighty,
      maker of heaven and earth,
      of all things visible and invisible. 

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
      the only Son of God,
      begotten from the Father before all ages,
           God from God,
           Light from Light,
           true God from true God,
      begotten, not made;
      of the same essence as the Father.
      Through him all things were made.
      For us and for our salvation
           he came down from heaven;
           he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,
           and was made human.
           He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;
           he suffered and was buried.
           The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.
           He ascended to heaven
           and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
           He will come again with glory
           to judge the living and the dead.
           His kingdom will never end. 

And we believe in the Holy Spirit,
      the Lord, the giver of life.
      He proceeds from the Father and the Son,
      and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.
      He spoke through the prophets.
      We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
      We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
      We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
      and to life in the world to come. Amen. 

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit condition and define the terms of the Nicene Creed itself. There is nothing speculative or discursive about Nicene theology, in regard to its doctrine of God. Nicene theology affirms the doctrine of Divine simplicity (the idea that God is non-composite), but it thinks simplicity from within the co-inhering relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; rather than thinking this doctrine from negations about what Godness must entail based on the sort of logico-deductive schematizing that we see funding the scholastic Reformed theology that is communicated in the Westminster Confession of Faith.  

Athanasius was clear about the sort of Nicene theology he was a central proponent of when he wrote in his famed document Contra Arianos:  

    1. Therefore it is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call HimUnoriginate. For the latter title, as I have said, does nothing more than signify all the works, individually and collectively, which have come to be at the will of God through the Word; but the title Father has its significance and its bearing only from the Son. And, whereas the Word surpasses things originated, by so much and more does calling God Father surpass the calling Him Unoriginate. For the latter is unscriptural and suspicious, because it has various senses; so that, when a man is asked concerning it, his mind is carried about to many ideas; but the word Father is simple and scriptural, and more accurate, and only implies the Son. And ‘Unoriginate’ is a word of the Greeks, who know not the Son; but ‘Father’ has been acknowledged and vouchsafed by our Lord. For He, knowing Himself whose Son He was, said, ‘I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me;’ and, ‘He that has seen Me, has seen the Father,’ and ‘I and the Father are One ;’ but nowhere is He found to call the Father Unoriginate. Moreover, when He teaches us to pray, He says not, ‘When you pray, say, O God Unoriginate,’ but rather, ‘When you pray, say, Our Father, which art in heaven Luke 11:2.’ And it was His will that the Summary of our faith should have the same bearing, in bidding us be baptized, not into the name of Unoriginate and originate, nor into the name of Creator and creature, but into the Name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. For with such an initiation we too, being numbered among works, are made sons, and using the name of the Father, acknowledge from that name the Word also in the Father Himself. A vain thing then is their argument about the term ‘Unoriginate,’ as is now proved, and nothing more than a fantasy.1 

In context, of course, Athanasius is working against the Arians, and even aspects of the homoiousion sect (think Eusebius of Caesarea et al.) wherein what was meant with reference to ‘Unoriginate’ was that the Father alone owned this status, whereas the Son (and Holy Spirit) were originate (or ‘begotten’) lending to the idea that the Son was a creature and thus subordinate to God. But this is to our point: to think God from speculative philosophical notions, as the Arians and Homoiousions did, only leads to unbiblical conclusions, and thus grammar about who God is; indeed, it thinks of God in terms of whatness rather than whoness as a first-step. Athanasius, and the Nicene theology he helped develop, repudiated thinking God from Hellenic frames of reference, and instead allowed God’s Self-revelation in the Son, Jesus Christ, to shape the way he, and the other Nicenes, thought God. Indeed, Arius, and his homeboys would also assert that they were equally being faithful to Scripture; but in fact, what they were doing, instead, was allowing their a priori commitment to strict Hellenic thought-forms to shape the way they arrived at their biblical exegetical conclusions vis-à-vis God.  

Are the scholastic Reformeds Arian with reference to God; or homoiousion with reference to Christology? No. But this isn’t because of their theological method; instead, it is because of their piety. If they were consistent with their respective commitment to their speculative (Aristotelian) theological methodology, as Arius et alia were, they would necessarily need to arrive at the conclusion that the Son and Holy Spirit were somehow subordinate to the Unoriginate Father (which would serve as a cipher for their concept of ‘oneness’). 

I am Athanasian Reformed because I am slavishly committed to the Nicene theological way. This way only thinks God from within the concrete and revealed terms of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; it allows God’s triune life to serve as the ‘ground and grammar’ of all subsequent theologizing. The scholastic Reformeds, as much as they like to assert to the contrary, do not have these sorts of continuous connections to Nicene theology in the way they suppose. This discontinuity between scholastic Reformed theology and Nicene theology serves as the basis by which I as an Athanasian Reformed (or Evangelical Calvinist) negatively critique the scholastic Reformed. But you will note: the critique is made from a positive orientation insofar as my theology is grounded in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; this is the way, the Nicene way.    

1 St. Athanasius, Contra Arianos 1.9.34, accessed 06-18-2021.

Craig Carter’s Arian God Versus Karl Barth’s Athanasian God

Yesterday Craig Carter tweeted the following: “The days of revising & despising CT w/o challenge are over. I’ll be arguing that the proofs are missing from much recent theology b/c of “the Barthian gambit,” i.e. the attempt to do theology w/o metaphysics & ground it in Xology alone. My conclusion: the Barthian gambit failed.”1 I have had a couple exchanges in the past with Carter on Twitter, with reference to Barth’s theology. What stood out in those exchanges was that he is rather clueless about Barth’s theology; the newest tweet above continues to illustrate this. But Carter isn’t alone in his disregard, and even animus toward the Trinitarian theological revolution that Barth was a huge part of in the 20th century; Katherine Sonderegger in her Systematic Theology V1, also takes aim at Barth’s supposedly errant ‘Christomonism’ when it comes to doing Christian theology. The assumption, particularly as evinced in Carter’s mis-characterization of Barth, is that Barth’s mode is purely a modern aberration with no historical or paleo antecedents; as if nobody in the history of the Church operated with the sort of Christ concentration that Barth does in his theologizing. Carter et alia want to engage in a sort of subtraction process by claiming that Barth is simply representative of a modern method of erasing the classical way of doing theology by way of imposing Kantian postmetaphysics on the whole antique gambit of theological reflection. 

But does Carter’s misunderstanding withstand critical scrutiny; that is when he isn’t able to simply appeal to his people? What Carter doesn’t understand is that Barth’s whole program, particularly his Church Dogmatics, only ever took off when he got hold of the Patristic mechanism of an/ -enhypostasis. This gave Barth a way to engage in the sort of Christ concentration that would have made Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria quite proud. Indeed, and I will use this to prove my point about Barth’s classical chops, one of Barth’s best Anglophone students, TF Torrance, developed what might be called an Athanasian stratified knowledge of God that is in lockstep with Barth’s own theory of revelation. Here’s a taste: 

The economic Trinity might well be spoken of as the evangelical Trinity and the ontological Trinity as the theological Trinity. ‘Evangelical’ in this sense refers to the truth content of the Gospel as it is revealed to us through the incarnate or human economy (ἡ ανθρώπινη οικονομία) which Christ undertook toward us, in the midst of us, and for our sakes. . . ; and’theological in this sense refers to the truth of the eternal Being and Activity of God as he is in himself, the essential Deity . . . or ‘Theology’ (Θεολογία, which Athanasius equated with divine worship). While for Athanasius economy and theology (οικονομία and Θεολογία) must be clearly distinguished, they are not to be separated from each other. If the economic or evangelical Trinity and the ontological or theological Trinity were disparate, this would bring into question whether God himself was really in Jesus Christ reconciling the world to himself. That is the evangelical and epistemological significance of the homoousion (‘consubstantial’, of one substance, or of one and the same being with the Father) formulated by the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. If there is no real bond in God between the economic Trinity and the ontological Trinity, the saving events proclaimed in the economy of the Gospel are without any divine validity and the doctrine of the Trinity is lacking in any ultimate divine truth. The trinitarian message of the Gospel tells us that the very contrary is the case, for in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit we really have to do with the Lord God himself as our Saviour. Thus, as we shall see, the designation of Jesus as ‘Lord’, ie Κύριος = YHWH, is found more than a hundred times in the New Testament Scriptures.2 

This is the sort of “Barthian gambit” that Carter bombastically claims he will be defeating in the near term. Barth is part of the Athanasian tradition of Christ concentration, just as much as is his student: TF Torrance. When Carter refers to CT (classical theism) he clearly has something nearer in focus; oh yeah: Thomas [Aquinas], and the Christian Aristotelianism that he thinks serves as a capstone for the classical theistic, so-called, tradition. But I’m afraid that what he doesn’t seem to grasp, Carter that is, is that Athansius would have been on Barth’s and Torrance’s side, and not his. You see, Athanasius understood what a rank Hellenic approach to God does to God. He understood that it didn’t actually get you to the God who is Father of the Son, but instead that it gets you to a notion of godness that is constrained by the rationalist projections of the philosophers and theologizers supposedly thinking this God. Here is how Athanasius would respond to the sort of unbridled and unevangelized Hellenic god that Carter believes classically reflects the true God: 

Therefore it is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate. For the latter title, as I have said, does nothing more than signify all the works, individually and collectively, which have come to be at the will of God through the Word; but the title Father has its significance and its bearing only from the Son. And, whereas the Word surpasses things originated, by so much and more does calling God Father surpass the calling Him Unoriginate. For the latter is unscriptural and suspicious, because it has various senses; so that, when a man is asked concerning it, his mind is carried about to many ideas; but the word Father is simple and scriptural, and more accurate, and only implies the Son. And ‘Unoriginate’ is a word of the Greeks, who know not the Son; but ‘Father’ has been acknowledged and vouchsafed by our Lord. For He, knowing Himself whose Son He was, said, ‘I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me;’ and, ‘He that has seen Me, has seen the Father,’ and ‘I and the Father are One ;’ but nowhere is He found to call the Father Unoriginate. Moreover, when He teaches us to pray, He says not, ‘When you pray, say, O God Unoriginate,’ but rather, ‘When you pray, say, Our Father, which art in heaven Luke 11:2.’ And it was His will that the Summary of our faith should have the same bearing, in bidding us be baptized, not into the name of Unoriginate and originate, nor into the name of Creator and creature, but into the Name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. For with such an initiation we too, being numbered among works, are made sons, and using the name of the Father, acknowledge from that name the Word also in the Father Himself. A vain thing then is their argument about the term ‘Unoriginate,’ as is now proved, and nothing more than a fantasy.3 

Is Carter’s God the Arian god? No. But not because of methodology, only because of Piety. By way of methodology Carter’s God only gives us a god who is in turn a monad; a singular essence from whence the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit accidently subsist. It is Barth’s and Torrance’s and Athanasius’s God, the One known through the Son (grounded in “Xtology alone”) whom allows us to have actual ‘inner’ knowledge about Who God is. The Athanasian tradition Barth thinks from doesn’t yield a monadic god, as Carter’s necessarily does; instead, it yields a knowledge of God wherein God is God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  

Can’t wait to see how Carter defeats the Athanasian conception of God with his Arian methodology. 

 

1 Craig Carter, Twitter.

2 Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 7-8. 

3 St. Athanasius, Contra Arianos 1.9.34. 

The Relational Imago Dei in Imago Christi

Helmut Thielicke offers an excellent argument for thinking the imago Dei from the ad extra of human interrelations. He extrapolates from this, from the biblical witness, that if this is so, then speculative thinking about Godself ought to likewise be abandoned. In other words, as Thielicke intones, if this is how the biblical witness depicts the imago, then this, as a prius, ought to be the way that we develop a theology proper itself; that is as we think God from God in Christ. Let me share his argument, and then offer my own constructive adaptation of what Thielicke is after.

The divine likeness is thus a relational entity because it is manifested in man’s ruling position vis-à-vis the rest of creation, or better, because it consists in this manifestation, in this exercise of dominion and lordship. The attempt to differentiate the essence of the image from its manifestation, and therefore to understand man’s ruling position of lordship only as a result of the true properties of the image (reason, will, freedom, etc.), has no foundation in the Bible and betrays a Platonic mode of thinking. The image of God consists in the manifestation, for it is of the very essence of a picture—that is its point!—to “effect” something, for example, in the person who looks at it; it “consists” in this effect, not in the variety of colors. The imago Dei does not consist apart from its specific operation. Luther’s repeated insistence that God is always actuosus, in action, holds true also of God’s image. The same approach is to be seen in Melanchthon’s view that the nature of Christ is to be seen in hi benefits, in his operation in salvation history, rather than in his metaphysical attributes. It is an approach which opposes differentiation between capacity or ability on the one hand, i.e., an attribute which enables us to do something, and activity on the other, i.e., this attribute in operation. We have to see the nature of God, not in his attributes [Eigenschaften], but in his outward relations [Aussenschaften], in what he does with us, in his relation to us, in his being “Emmanuel” [God with us]. The image of God in man is to be similarly defined. It is not a constituent capacity inherent in man but a relational entity, namely, man’s ruling function vis-à-vis the other creatures.[1]

I think Thielicke offers a nice development on the entailments of a biblical conception of what the imago Dei is. But I don’t think this goes far enough. As someone who thinks After Barth and Thomas Torrance, who both thought After Athanasius, it is important to point out that in fact Scripture itself, beyond Thielicke’s helpful development, refers to Jesus Christ, who is both consubstantial God and humanity in His singular person, as the imago Dei (cf. Col. 1.15). Khaled Anatolios provides a really instructive treatment of this development as it occurs in an Athanasian frame, he writes:

A helpful way to synthesize the argument of Against the Greeks—On the Incarnationand to integrate it with Athanasius’s later and more explicitly polemical work is to focus on the trintarian-christological-anthropological nexus that forms the guiding motif of the work: only the One who is true Image can renew humanity’s being according to the image (kat’ eikona). The trinitarian ground of this nexus is the immediate relation (though we do not find the later technical vocabulary of “relation” in this treatise) whereby the Son is the Image of the Father. The soteriological consequence of this immediacy is that the Son is uniquely able to grant direct and immediate access to the Father. The statement that humanity was created according to the Image is simultaneously anthropological and christological: to be created according to the Image is to be granted a participation in the one who is the true and full Image of the Father. When humanity lost its stability, which depended on remaining in the state of being according to the Image, the incarnate Word repaired the image of God in humanity by reuniting it with his own divine imaging of the Father. Jesus Christ is therefore both eternal divine Image and restored human image. The saving union of divine and human image in Christ is characterized by immediacy. One foundational principle of Athanasius’s theological vision is this stress on the continuity of immediate connections between God and humanity and a corresponding abhorrence of obstacles and opaque mediations. As perfect Image, the Son is immediately united to the Father and transparently reflects knowledge of the Father; anything short of this immediate and transparent relation would deconstruct our immediate connection with the Father through the Son from the divine side. Through his incarnation, the Son repairs our human participation in his imaging of the Father from within the human constitution; anything short of a full incarnation would leave humans disconnected from both Father and Son. Thus, incarnation and the full divinity of the Son are both integral to the immediacy of our contact with the Father. Far from indicating inferior divinity, the human life and death of Jesus Christ extend the efficacy of is divine imaging of the Father in the face of humanity’s loss of the state of being according to the image. It is a wonderful display of the loving-kindness that belongs to the divine nature as such, the philanthrōpia that is equally shared by Father and Son.[2] 

I think this is the needed expansion that Thielicke’s treatment needs. In order to have a properly construed theological-anthropology, in my view it must be grounded in and from the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. If He is God’s image for us, then it only makes sense to think imago Dei as imago Christi; or that we are ‘images of the Image.’ In this Thielicke’s good insight can flourish in properly theological ways as those are constrained by the conciliar grammar provided for us in the Chalcedeno-Niceno-Constantinopolitan faith. But this is the point: we ought to think ourselves from God’s thinking and reality for us in Jesus Christ. If we do we will end up, necessarily so, with a relational understanding, first of God, and then of ourselves. We won’t think of ourselves as static quantities, but dynamic personalities as we are ‘personed’ in and from the life of God pro nobis in Jesus Christ.


[1] Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics: Foundations (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 157.

[2] Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine,(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011), 107-8.

The Security of God’s Word: Athanasius on the Created Order

In the context of a discussion on creatio ex nihilo, Athanasius makes the following point about the power of God’s Word to sustain the whole created order from falling into utter dissolution. He writes:

“seeing that all created nature, as far as its own inner principles were concerned, to be fleeting and subject to dissolution, . . . did not leave it to be tossed in a tempest in the course of its own nature, lest it should run the risk of once more dropping out of existence; but, because He is good He guides and settles the whole Creation by His own Word, Who is Himself also God, that by the governance and providence and ordering action of the Word, Creation may have light, and be enabled to abide always securely.” [Athanasius, Against the Heathen, 41 (PG 25:84A), 26 cited by Ian McFarland]

What I find aesthetically pleasing about this, is that Athanasius, even at his early stage in Church history, had the perception to peer deeply into the inner-ground of creation and see the smiling face of Jesus Christ peering back at him. In other words, Athanasius had the theological fortitude to grasp that it wasn’t simply a naked brute power of God holding all of reality together, but instead it was His triune sustenance of it all as that found and finds concrete telos in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.

This is a heavy theme that both Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth appropriate from Athanasius, and constructively develop in ways that are consonant with Athanasius’ early perception about the inner-ground of all that is. It is this rather unique Christ concentration that ends up characterizing two moderns’ theology, and for this we ought to be grateful for the prayerful meditation of Athanasius.

Jesus is the Image of God For Us: How This Centraldogma Changes Everything

I’ve written, more than once, on the theological anthropological theme of humanity being images of the Image of God or imago Dei. This theme, and its importance cannot be overemphasized, since it is directly related to how humanity is related to God. The primary point of the theme is that when the Christian refers to the imago Dei, what or who we are really referring to, according to the Apostle Paul, is Jesus Christ; he writes:

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence.[1]

Notice, for Paul, to be created in the imago Dei is really to be created and recreated in the imago Christi (‘image of Christ’). Our humanity is a gift, it is extra nos (outside of us), it is continuously mediated to us through the intercessory life of Jesus Christ for us (cf. Heb. 7:25). This, what we might call, centraldogma, of the ‘image of Christ,’ is interconnected to a swarm of other theological themes; in particular a doctrine of God, doctrine of Creation (inclusive of protology and eschatology), doctrine of Sin, doctrine of soteriology/anthropology (inclusive of a doctrine of Scripture) so on and so forth. This makes sense, since as Jesus says: “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me” (Jn 5:39). In other words, if all of Scripture, if all of creation, if the whole cosmological sweep is centered upon Jesus Christ as its telos (or purpose), then it would only make sense to see Jesus Christ as the centraldogma of all theological reality. Our humanity, or our image of Godness, is contingent upon Jesus’s image of God for us. All of reality is contingent upon His choice to be this for us. It is a reality that presses into the very essence or esse of what it means to exist before and with God at all.

As my earlier posts have made clear, this theme of the imago Christi, among the Patristics, was of significant importance to Athanasius (later we would be right to think of Maximus the Confessor as well). But even before Athanasius, someone else noticed this theme, mostly in the Pauline corpus; Irenaeus, the theologian who can be closely linked to the Apostle John (through Polycarp), thought in these imago Christi terms as well. He writes:

The Word has saved His creation, humanity, which had perished. Seeking its salvation, He established through Himself that fellowship which should exist between humanity and God. Now, perishing humanity had flesh and blood. . . He Himself, therefore, took flesh and blood, summing up in Himself the Father’s original creation, seeking the race that had perished. That’s why Paul in the Epistle to the Colossians says, “Though you were formerly alienated, and enemies to His knowledge by evil works, yet now you have been reconciled in the body of His flesh, through His death, to present yourselves holy and chaste, and without fault in His sight” (Col. 1:21-22). He says, “You have been reconciled in the body of His flesh,” because the Lord’s righteous flesh has reconciled the flesh that was enslaved in sin, bringing it back into comradeship with God.

If, then, anyone says the Lord’s flesh was different from ours in that it didn’t sin, neither was falsehood found in His soul, while we, conversely, are sinners, this would be true. Yet if anyone claims the Lord had some other substance of flesh than ours, he overthrows the biblical teaching on reconciliation. What is reconciled is what had previously been hostile. But if the Lord had taken flesh from some entity other than humankind, He wouldn’t have reconciled to God the flesh that had become hostile through disobedience. Now, however, through human nature’s union with Himself, the Lord has reconciled humanity to God the Father, by reconciling us to Himself in the body of His own flesh, and redeeming us with His own blood. As Paul says to the Ephesians “In whom we have redemption through His blood, the remission of sins” (Eph. 1:7) . . . Indeed in every Epistle, Paul clearly testifies that we have been saved through the Lord’s flesh and blood.[2]

Reading, Irenaeus words, we might for a moment think we are reading John Calvin on unio cum Christo (union with Christ), or Martin Luther on mirifica commutatio (the wonderful exchange), or Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, respectively, on a doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. There is this silver thread woven throughout the whole of historical theology; it is a thread that finds its brilliance and splendor in the fabric of God’s flesh and blood in Jesus Christ.

I am afraid that what has been thwarted upon the Western evangelical churches of the 21st century has kept it from ever delving into the depth dimension of what we are considering here. This focus on Christ, even a so called ‘conciliar Christ,’ is the focus of the New Testament, in particular, and the whole of Holy Scripture, in general! Without this focus the Christian will slide off into abstract scholastic philosophical or turn-to-the-subject discussions that have little to do with these riches. I commend this theme and Christ concentrated focus to you. Start trying to think all things theological from this christological reality. Start thinking the duplex consubstantiality of the singular person of Jesus Christ, who is both fully God and fully human, into all of your theological machinations; you won’t be sorry. You’ll only be sorry if you don’t.

[1] Colossians 1:15-18, NKJV.

[2] Irenaeus cited by Nick Needham in, “Daily Readings, The Early Church Fathers: February 17th ‘Our Flesh and Blood’,” (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications Christian Heritage Imprint, 2017).

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.

ATHANASIUS AND ARIUS: A STUDY IN CONTRASTS

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.

The Athanasian God of Love: He Hasn’t Always Been the Creator; But He Has Always Been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

I think an important reality to grasp when thinking about God’s relationship to us is that there is nothing in that relationship that is contingent upon us; it is all contingent upon who God is in himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This kicks against our natural inclinations, inclinations that remain present even after we are made alive by the Spirit in union with Christ’s humanity; we are still sinners, as a result we will continue to attempt to introduce ourselves into the ground of the relationship that inheres between ourselves and God. Indeed, this attempt will work its way into our theologies, and into the praxis that follows. Paul Molnar has been working against what he discerns as an attempt to ground God’s inner life in his outer life in the economy; this attempt, according to Molnar, has been made by folks like Bruce McCormack, Ben Myers, Kevin Hector, Paul Nimmo, and Paul Dafyyd Jones as each of these theologians have attempted to read the implications of Barth’s theology in rather creative, or constructive ways. The verities of this particular discussion get rather technical, and so for this blog post we will avoid such weeds; but I wanted to note some background in order to make sense of what I will be sharing from Molnar with reference to who God is for us in Christ and what that means in regard to creation and recreation. Most importantly, I simply want to highlight how God is love, and how that love is inimical to whom God is.

Paul Molnar writes the following in regard to who God is, and what that looks like in an Athanasian–Torrancean frame. Maybe after you read the quote some of what I shared above will make a little more sense. After the quote I will reflect more personally on how knowing that God is love makes a difference for me; and hopefully this reality will make a difference for you too.

At this point it would helpful to point out that much of the difficulty surrounding the issues discussed in the last chapter centers on how to relate God’s external and internal activities and on the proper understanding of the relationship between time and eternity. Following Thomas F. Torrance and Karl Barth, I have argued that there is and must be a priority of the Father/Son relation over the creator/creature relation because what God is toward us he is eternally in himself; and in his sovereign actions of love for us in his Word and Spirit, the eternal generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit cannot be confused with God’s actions as creator, reconciler, and redeemer. The ultimate indications of such a confusion would be any idea that the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit might be seen as the result of an act of will on God’s part. God freely willed to relate with us by creating us, reconciling us and redeeming us. But these actions are an overflow of his eternal love and glory, not in any emanationist sense, but as acts of will expressing God’s superabundance rather than any lack; thus they are not in any sense necessary to God. They are, as Torrance often said, acts of amazing grace.

Importantly, then, any idea that what God is toward us is in any sense constitutive of God’s eternal being as Father, Son and Holy Spirit would be a clear indication of the Origenist confusion of God’s internal and external relations. This is why, following Torrance especially, I have stressed that while God was eternally the Father he was not always creator, and that while God was always the Son he was not always incarnate. Hence, creation and incarnation must be seen as new actions, new even for God. There is a delicate balance that is required here because once the incarnation has taken place, it is impossible to disjoin Christ’s divinity and humanity; from then on he lives as the incarnate Word, and now he lives as the risen ascended Lord of history and interacts with us as the eternal high priest and as the Mediator in both his human and divine natures in virtue of the hypostatic union. It is just at this point in Christology where it is imperative, however, that one distinguish between God’s internal and external relations. Without this distinction in the eternal being of the Son will be thought to be changed or constituted in some sense by his human history. Yet, his human history is the history of God acting for us in the world as the reconciler without ceasing to be the Word through who God created the world and through whom God continues to uphold it in the power of his eternal Spirit. We have already seen that Athanasius insisted on the importance of this point by rejecting any idea that the Word came to exist by an act of will on the part of the Father.[1]

There is a lot going on here, but for our purposes what I want us to notice is that who God is, particularly as he is for us, is something that graciously flows from who he is first in his inner and eternal life. If we can grasp this we will find great stability, not in ourselves, but in who he is. Once we can accept this reality about God we can rest in his eternal life of triune love.

I think that we need to understand all of the above (and more!) so that we are not easily swayed by the winds of doctrine currently blowing around the church. We want to recognize as John does that ‘God is love,’ but we don’t want to work our ‘worldly’ conceptions of what that entails into God’s life; we want to allow God’s life to determine what his love looks like. It isn’t a sentimentalism or a God who is my teddy-bear that we after; instead we should want to submit ourselves to whatever and whomever God is. We can only accept this about who God is if we allow our thoughts to be shaped and reshaped by encounter with him in and through the humanity of Christ by the Holy Spirit; it is here where the type of ‘repentant thinking’ that Torrance was so concerned with will and can take place.

My broader concern is that God is not being presented to the evangelical churches this way; that God instead is being presented in a way where he comes with edges and performance based expectations that in fact he does not have. My concern is that a nomist (law) God, a Wyatt Earp God is who people are being introduced to, such that their understanding of him isn’t really based upon his Self-revelation itself, but instead upon a philosophical conception of God who operates in impersonal and decretive ways towards his creation, toward people.

So, on the one hand, we have the Progressive God, and on the other hand the Puritan God being given to the people. I want to suggest that this introduces conceptions of God into the mix that are not actually contingent upon who he actually is, but instead contingent upon who we have posited him to be; and this positing might be very organic and sophisticated in the way it attempts to imagine its way into how we think God, but in the end I do not believe these approaches, usually, are based upon God’s Self-determination of who he actually is for us from who he eternally and antecedently is in himself.

Once I realized this; once I realized that there was a way to think God from the way God has revealed himself to be in the Incarnation a real peace began to minister to my soul. I am well aware of the piety that many folks, both on the Progressive and Puritan sides have in regard to the way that they attempt to think God, but I don’t think piety is able to cover a multitude of sins; only God’s love can do that.

[1] Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015), 187-88.

The Patristic Calvinists versus the Medieval Calvinists: Engaging with Athanasius’s Theology of Theosis in Conversation with Barth’s and Torrance’s Themes

I write about the same themes over and over again; someone even griped about that about me on FaceBook (I don’t think he thought I could see his gripe). But there’s a reason; I’ve been taken aback by the theology I have been confronted with in the writings of Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Augustine, et al. I’ve been surprised by the depth and richness available in the history of ecclesial ideas; surprised in the sense that what so often is presented to evangelicals at the popular and mainstream levels barely scratches the surfaces. I’ve been surprised by finding out that the Christian theological world is not comprised of nor defined by the usual binaries (i.e. Calvinism versus Arminianism etc.) that are so often presented to the evangelical Christian world in North America and the West as if these are the absolute parameters wherein Christians can think and still be considered orthodox. So yes, I do write a lot about the same themes because I don’t think the themes I write about have been emphasized enough; at least not for the evangelicals.

With the above noted, this post will be in reference to Athanasius’s theology of deification or theosis; a doctrine us Evangelical Calvinists are very interested in and informed by. I am just finishing up Thomas Weinandy’s fine work on Athanasius’s theology, and so we will hear from his treatment of Athanasius’s theology in regard to this particular locus. What is striking about Weinandy’s account here is, if you didn’t know he was describing Athanasius’s theology you would think he was referring to either Barth or Torrance’s understanding of election and salvation in general. So when Torrance says he’s not a Barthian, but instead an Athanasian, when you read the following from Weinandy you might understand why. It’s not that Torrance was not a joyful student of Barth, it’s just that Torrance understood that much of what he found in Barth was first presented by Athanasius. Here is how Weinandy details Athanasius’ understanding of deification (at some considerable length):

Thus, the Son became man precisely that humankind might be ‘perfected in him and restored, as it was made at the beginning – with yet greater grace. For, on rising from the dead we shall no longer fear death, but in Christ shall reign forever in the heavens.’ As Jesus took on incorruptibility in his resurrection, so ‘it is clear that the resurrection of all of us will take place; and since his body remained without corruption, there can be no doubt regarding our incorruption’.

Athanasius equally understands Jesus’ resurrection, again following Philippians, as his perfecting ‘exaltation’. The Son is exalted not as God, ‘but the exaltation is of the manhood’, for he humbled himself in assuming humankind’s humanity even unto death on the cross. The Son’s humanity was raised up and exalted because it was not external to him, but his own. For Athanasius, the exaltation of the Son’s humanity was none other than that it was fully deified and so made perfect. Moreover, since all Christians die in him, so now the share in his exaltation. ‘He himself should be exalted, for he is the highest, but that he may become righteousness for us, and we may be exalted in him.’ As the second Adam then, the exalted and so deified incarnate Son becomes the paradigm in whom all human beings can come to share in his perfected risen humanity. Where the ‘first man’ brought death to humankind’s humanity, the Son ‘quickened it with the blood of his own body’.

In a similar fashion, Athanasius perceives that, in being exalted and so perfectly hallowed, the incarnate Son becomes ‘Lord’, ‘in order to hallow all by the Spirit’. In being made fully holy in the Spirit, Athanasius argues that we can rightly be called ‘gods’, not in the sense that we are equal to the Son by nature, but because we have become beneficiaries of his grace. Human beings are, therefore, ‘sons and gods’ because they ‘were adopted and deified through the Word’. Since the Son is himself God who became man, humankind can be deified by being united to his glorious humanity, ‘for because of our relationship to his body, we too have become God’s temple, and in consequence are made God’s sons’.

For Athanasius, the perfecting and so hallowing of Jesus through his glorious exaltation as a risen man is summed up in his notion of deification. Moreover, as Jesus is deified so those who are united to him are perfected and so hallowed by being united to him and so deified as well. Deification is not then the changing of our human nature into something other than it is, that is, into another kind of being. Rather, deification for Athanasius is the making of humankind into what it was meant to be from the very beginning, that is, the perfect image of the Word who is the perfect image of the Father. Moreover, this deification is only effected by being taken into the very divine life of the Trinity. Thus, as the Son is the Son of the Father because he is begotten of the Father and so is ontologically one with the Father, so Christians imitate this divine oneness by being taken up into it. Commenting on Jesus’ prayer, that Christians would be one with him as he is with the Father (see Jn. 17:21), Athanasius perceives that it is through being united to Jesus’ ‘body’ that we become one body with him and so are united to the Father himself. This ‘uniting’ is the work of the Holy Spirit. ‘The Son is in the Father, as his proper Word and Radiance; but we, apart from the Spirit, are strange and distant from God, yet by the participation of the Spirit we are knit into the Godhead.’ Thus the goal of creation is now achieved, that is, human beings have communion with the Father through his eternal Word.

For since the Word is in the Father, and the Spirit is given from the Word, he wills that we should receive the Spirit, that when we receive it, thus having the Spirit of the Word which is in the Father, we too may be found, on account of the Spirit, to become one in the Word, and through him in the Father. [Contra Arianos, 3.25]

Divinization then, for Athanasius, is the sharing fully in the life of the Trinity and it is this sharing in the divine life that thoroughly transforms the believer into the adopted likeness of the Son.[1]  

If you have read here regularly for any amount of time the themes of deification/theosis note in Athanasius’ theology will be or should be recognizable to you. As we have looked into the idea of Jesus being the image of God, and humanity being first created and recreated in the resurrection as the images of the image in Christ, again, what we just covered should be familiar to you. Or maybe as we think back to Barth’s or Torrance’s understanding of election, Athanasius’s theology, as told by Weinandy, should be familiar to you.

What this reinforces for me, other than that rich theological material that we can find in Athanasius’s thought, is that Evangelical Calvinism represents a distinct mode of Reformed theology. Surely it is not foreign to the aims nor many of the trajectories set forth in the Protestant Reformation (particularly as we think about Calvin, Luther, Knox and some other magisterial reformers, and some Scottish ones), indeed, what Evangelical Calvinism is seeking to do is to operate in the ‘spirit’ of Calvinist/Reformed theology by working in a type of ad fontes (back to the sources) mood. What this means though, is that just like the original Protestant Reformers, ensconced in their own time and circumstance, we will be looking back through the centuries from a modern, even postmodern vista. With that noted, I think Evangelical Calvinism in many ways could be said to be a Patristic Calvinism, as far as the Athanasian and Irenean type of categories we want to use; whereas classical Calvinists, I would like to suggest should probably be called Medieval Calvinists, given their proclivity to appeal to Aristotelian theories of causation and metaphysics. In this sense Evangelical Calvinists are more prone to thinking of salvation in terms of ontology and personalist Trinitarian understandings in regard to a God-world relation; whereas classical Calvinists are more prone to thinking in terms of declarational/forensic and decretral categories in a God-world relation.

We have covered a lot; we have looked at Athanasius’s theology of deification, and then used that as an occasion to draw further points of departure between Evangelical Calvinists and so called classical Calvinists. Hopefully you can see that; and hopefully you have benefited from the sharing of Weinandy’ treatment of Athanasius’s theology as I have.

[1] Thomas G. Weindandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007), 98-100.

‘The Eternally Fruitful Father’: How Creation and Salvation only Make Sense if God is Father of the Son in Athanasius’s Theology by Weinandy

Thomas Torrance picks up on the Athanasian idea that God has always already been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but that becoming Creator was something new for God. As we dig further into Athanasius’s theology itself, as told by Thomas Weinandy, what we see behind this is how this notion took place within Athanasius’s defense of the homoousion language Contra Arionos relative to both a doctrine of creation and how soteriology is understood within that frame; a Christologically induced frame grounded in the intra-Trinitarian life of God. Honestly the way Weinandy unfolds all of this is one of the most profound things I have ever come across in regard to answering the question of why God would create in the first place; in other words, how does creation itself flow organically from the who God is in his inner and eternal life (in se)?

As Weinandy details it is precisely because God is Father of the Son, and Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit (that:  by the Holy Spirit is my addition) that creation makes sense; i.e. there is place for the other in God by nature (or ‘being’ ousia). In other words the fact that God is, by nature, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit allows for the type of space to conceive of a God who could create ‘others’ if he wanted to; i.e. he’s a God, eternally so as revealed in Christ (the Son), who is relational—i.e. his oneness (De Deo uno) is given shape by his threeness (De Deo trino), and vice versa. A God who is Pure Being, or monadic, like the God of Islam or the Modalists, or of Arius, would never create, not for any theo-logical reasons anyway.[1]

Let’s get to it, here’s how Weinandy unfolds all of this in Athanasius’s theology (the quote is lengthy):

The central soteriological issue in Athanasius’ Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione was creation. Athanasius continues to stress within his anti-Arian and pro-Nicene writing that is only because the Son is truly divine  that the Father creates through his so that creation always possesses an intimate and immediate relationship with the Father through the Son. Employing Irenaeus’ famous analogy, Athanasius states that the Son is ‘the hand’ though [sic] which the Father brings into being all that is. This is again the theological basis upon which Athanasius founds the Father’s love for humankind and the Son’s innate responsibility, in the light of sin, for humankind’s subsequent redemption. ‘It is fitting that redemption should take place through none other than him who is Lord by nature, lest, though created by the Son, we should name another Lord.’ Thus, unlike Arianism, there is no need for an intermediate cosmological third party that bridges the ontological gap between the Father and creation, for the Son, through whom the Father creates, unites in an unmediated manner, in that he too, is God, the whole creation to the Father.

Moreover, in response to the Arian claim that the Son is a creature, Athanasius innovatively asks a veryinsightful and new question. How can God be ‘Creator’ if he is not first ‘Father’? ‘If the divine essence is not fruitful in itself but barren, as they hold, as a light that does not lighten or a dry fountain’, how is it that it can give being and life to others? For Athanasius, only if God is eternally the fruitful Father who, by the very nature of who he is, eternally begets his Son, is it possible for the Father, by his will, to create through his Son. ‘If then that which comes first, which is according to nature, did not exist, as they would have it in their folly, how could that which is second come to be, which is according to will? For the Word is first, and then the creation.’ However, since the Father has created, this manifests that he is inherently fruitful by nature and so he is first of all Father of the Son. ‘If he, by willing them to be, frames things that are external to him and before were not, and thus becomes their maker, much more will he first be Father of an offspring from his proper essence.’ If creation is the foundation of all soteriology, then, for Athanasius, its requisite is found only within the fruitful creativity of the Father begetting the Son.

This is a marvelous insight. If God was simply a singular existing being – a monad, something after the manner of Aristotle’s ‘self-thinking thought’, then God could never conceive of anything other than himself. Being simply One, it would be metaphysically impossible for him to conceive of two, or of three, or of an infinite multitude, for One is all there is. Actually, God would not even conceive of himself as One because ‘One’ itself implies a further numerical sequence of others. We only know what ‘one’ means because we equally know what ‘two’ means, without ‘two’, ‘one’ not only has no meaning, it is also, literally, inconceivable. God would just be and nothing more could be conceived, imagined, or said. As Athanasius rightly perceives, only if God is, by his very nature, the Father begetting the Son, could that God conceive of bringing into existence other beings that are not God.[2]

Much richness to consider.

One way to reflect on this, at least one way that I’d like to, is to note the theological taxis or ‘order’ present in all of this. It all starts with the Triune God as the ground and grammar of everything else; which is given shape by a Christological conditioning in regard to who we know God to be as Father of the Son, and as such we only have the capacity to know God as the Creator in this way first; i.e. as Father of the Son and Son of the Father. It is this basis upon which creation can be conceived of theo-logically, as the Father is understood to be, coinherently, as eternally fruitful; since that’s what Fatherhood entails, i.e. in having a Son. From this creation gains its telos or ‘purpose’, it is a Christologically oriented trajectory. And from within this frame we can finally have a discussion about everything else—like salvation, a doctrine of Scripture, so on and so forth—since everything else as far as we’re concerned requires created reality given the fact that we’re creatures coram Deo (‘before God’).

Let’s leave off there. But it is quite astounding, really, to see how thinking things from a Trinitarian ground, and one that is Christological conditioned, as Athanasius originally did, provides such rich and fertile soil to think about everything else that is subsequent; i.e. meaning all else that we might want to call “theology.”

 

[1] This insight comes directly from Thomas G. Weinandy.

[2] Thomas G. Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (Hampshire/Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007), 79-80.