In the 21st century context, I have found that the most relevant presentation of the Gospel to American society, which is mostly agnostic or subjectivist in matters of religion; as well as materialistic and individualistic, is precisely the unchanging Tradition of the Church. It is through the Church of the Apostles that Christ comes to meet the world in the Sacraments and unites heaven and earth in the Divine Liturgy.
For the purposes of this essay, however, I will explore aspects of St. Athanasius’ trinitarian theology and how it provides answers to questions raised in philosophy and theology in the last 100 years in the West.
Modern Questions Concerning Unity and Plurality in Relation to God and Man
We cannot avoid using human models, since we do not have an insight into the essence of God. How do we avoid the problems inherent in any human models, like anthropomorphism and ideologies? It seems as though contemporary theologians are often unaware or unconcerned with these two essential problems. Human beings historically have used ideas to oppress other people, which is the development of ideologies (e.g., communism). Are we projecting our own ideologies in our conception of the Trinity?
Jurgen Moltmann, for example, begins with a contemporary critique of oppression, and argues that monotheistic conceptions of God need to be discarded because of their inherent oppressive character. For this needs to be replaced with social trinitarianism, which is the only way to preserve equality. Thus, he projects his own ideas into the reconstruction of Trinitarian theology, where equality and plurality come first. Then, he derives from that theology a reconstruction of social relations and structures. This amounts to Feuerbach’s idea of theology as anthropology.
Today, under the influence of Derrida, Heidegger, and others, there are some important questions referring to metaphysical categories of being, relation, etc.
- How do explain the unity and plurality of God using such categories?
- How do speak of one God as three irreducible distinct realities?
- How do we speak about their relations?
- What are the pitfalls to avoid (modalism, subordinationism, etc.)?
- How do we speak of the relation of the Triune God in relation to the world?
For St Athanasius, in our understanding of God the Father it is less important that he is the creator of all things; more central is the fact that he is the unoriginate Father who begets the Son. The relation of unbegotten and begotten (and the spiration of the Holy Spirit) comes to the fore.
Essence and Persons
I and my son are two distinct beings, and yet I am as human as my son and vice versa. Generation means communication of the same nature; as Aquinas says, Peter does not beget Peter, but a human being. In this way, generation presupposes both identity of nature and distinction of persons. This is an important conceptual tool. The difference of course is that created beings share part of their respective natures, while the Persons of the Trinity each share the totality of the divine essence.
Hypostasis means something that underlies accidents. The word, its origin, it is not different than substantia. Hypostasis, however, was meant to be a personal subsistent being, whereas in the Latin tradition the word substance has two different meanings. Aristotle himself speaks of substance α – the concrete individualized existence of a being. If this is applied to the Trinity, it lands in tritheism. But the Fathers themselves spoke of homoousias. Substance β refers to the essence of things, the ousia of things. Therefore, when we speak of one nature or substance and three Persons, the word substance refers to substance β, the essence of things.
Therefore substance in its primary meaning means the individual reality which is an independent existence underlying accidents. God does not exist not three substances in that sense. Substance in the secondary sense means the nature, the essence of a thing – and in this sense the Son is consubstantial with the Father, sharing the same essence with him.
Subsistence always means existing in one’s own right, underlying the accidents. The thing is the substance in which the accidents inhere. When this subsisting reality has the character of rationality, then there is a person. A person is a subsisting being with a rational nature. Aquinas argues that the Greeks used the word hypostasis in this sense of persons.
St Athanasius and Theological Models
In his Discourses Against the Arians, St Athanasius is still dealing with the aftermath of the council of Nicea, and therefore Christology is at the fore. But as one admits the divinity of the Son, one has to ask about the role of the Holy Spirit, and how to preserve the unity and diversity of God. Here begin the Trinitarian controversies in preparation for the later Cappadocian settlement.
St Athanasius’ paradigm was of salvation through deification – salvation not only from our present conditions, but also in the eschatological sense, salvation from ultimate death, which is a dimension neglected today in contemporary theology. Modern theology rightly stresses that it is important to include our temporal welfare in salvation (e.g., salvation from oppression, sexism, racism, poverty, hatred, etc.), but salvation cannot be merely reduced to that level to the exclusion or neglect of the eschatological dimension.
The peculiarity of human mode of generation involves the idea that generation requires temporality and matter. One is begotten and comes into being after the one who begets. The fathers wanted to avoid anthropomorphic thinking about God, and so they opposed the direct application of human analogies to the being of God. Medieval theologians were also acutely aware of this; human language is inescapable, but its most appropriate realm is to describe things in this world. How can it describe things about God? This is something that Aquinas addressed extensively.
One of the most important things in Trinitarian theology is the question of what model is being used. We use human, material models. St Athanasius uses the model of generation, begetting, as opposed to the model of making or creating. How far can the model take us, and what are the necessary “negations” (or apophatic theology) so one does not fall into anthropomorphism and materialism?
Discourses Against the Arians
Arius’ claims as far as they can be gathered from St Athanasius:
- There is one unoriginate being, God the Father
- There are creatures which have been made
- Creatures could not have been made by the Father, so a mediator was needed
- The mediator was the Word, the Son
- There was a time when he was not, he came to be
- Therefore, there also was a time when God was not the Father
Common to Arian and the Fathers was the idea of Wisdom. Human making is mediated by an idea, a blueprint of the thing to be made. As this is applied to the Word, all things were already there in the Wisdom, the mind of God before things were created. The mind of God is the antecedent exemplar of all things created. God creates the word according to his wisdom, his intellect. What then is the status of this wisdom, this mind? According to Arius, this wisdom and word was prior to the creation of all things but was itself brought into being.
Who is this creature through whom all creatures came into being? The best metaphysics of the time affirmed that there were basically two kinds of beings: divine and created (out of nothing). There was a basic division between creator and creature. The question then becomes in which side the Son should be placed. For St Athanasius, it is through union with the Son that we are deified and saved, and so he has to be divine. As he says,
For as Christ died and was exalted as man, so, as man, he is said to receive what, as God, he always had, in order that this great gift might extend to us. For the Word was not degraded by receiving a body, so that he should seek to ‘receive’ God’s gift. Rather he deified what he put on; and, more than that, be bestowed his gift upon the race of men.
The question then becomes how to allow for the existence of two divine beings, while avoiding polytheism. St Athanasius argued that the wisdom and the power of God are as eternal as God himself. How then could God be distinguished from his wisdom? How can two things be distinguished that are so internally related to one another? Jesus always refers to God as his Father, and so the Father/Son language was standard. What is unique about generation is that parents generate their children and therefore the children are not the same individuals as their parents (like extensions), but different individuals; at the same time, there is a communication of the human nature, and therefore they have identical human natures. The nature a parent communicates to his child is something internal to the parent, and it is communicated in its totality. This was a perfect model of identity of nature and distinction of Persons.
Can this be applied to God? This is when the moment of negation comes in. Just as it is the whole of human nature that is communicated to the children, so in the case of divine generation the Father communicates his own entire divine nature to the Son, and they are distinct Persons. The whole divine nature is communicated, and so there is an identity of nature between the Father and the Son. The Son shares the same essence of the Father, and so he is a natural Son, not something created out of nothing. Everything else has the power to become sons of the Father only by participation, not by essence.
Making is an external act, and requires parts and temporality, as well as the will of the maker. In the case of the communication of the nature of the Father, this is an eternal act of divine generation apart from the will of the Father. The language of participation and of adoption is Scriptural and used by the Fathers. We are children by grace, but not by nature.
One of the distinctions between human generation and divine generation is that the former involves materiality, even though it is the whole of the human nature that is communicated. It also involves time; and it is a communication of a generically identical nature, not a numerically identical nature. Peter begets a man, not Peter. Human nature exists in numerically distinct individuals. No human individual can exhaust human nature, because it exists always divided and multiplied, concretized in different individuals.
Divine nature, on the other hand, is indivisible. There is only one nature, one essence, and that is the nature of the Father that is communicated to the Son and the Holy Spirit. They inhere in each other, one God fully sharing the same numerical identical nature.
What then guarantees the distinction between the Persons? The model of generation has the virtue of preserving both the identity of natures and the distinction of persons. The sharing of the numerically identical nature guarantees the unity of God, and generation requires that the Son is not the same as the Father. The distinction is also maintained by the relations between the Persons.
The power and monarchy of the Father lies precisely in the fact that he shares the totality of his essence and power with the Son and the Holy Spirit. I am not capable of sharing the totality of my power with another human being. The paradox is the almighty power of the Father is exercised in sharing the totality of his power and superiority with the Son and the Holy Spirit, eternally generating and spirating them equal to himself.
This paradoxical monarchy that sublates itself refutes modern criticisms that argue that monarchy and equality of persons are mutually exclusive. This is an important aspect of Trinitarian theology that needs to be expounded in contemporary discussions.
The divine begetting is not temporally successive. The word or wisdom through which the Father makes the world cannot be a third entity, other than the Father. St Athanasius insists that the Son is the natural, proper offspring of the Father. Creatures are contingent beings who need to participate in the being of God, the One who is (ο ων).
There are two ways something can be an image of another: in a complete, perfect way, or in an imperfect way. As Plato says in the Timaeus, time is the moving image of eternity. We are created in the image of God in an incomplete way, but the Son is the perfect image of the Father, because he receives the totality of the Father’s nature. God cannot find himself completely in a creature. To say that Christ is the image of the Father is to say that he is also divine and a perfect reflection and expression of the Father. We are created in the image of the Son, and only through the Son we share the image of the Father.
St Athanasius also uses the term “work;” a creature is a thing made, produced. The Son is not a work because there is a difference between what is begotten and what is made. This is the opposite of what Arius argued, when he equated the two (begotten and made). Things made are contingent upon the will, but not things generated. The Father’s generation of the Son is eternal and necessary, but God’s creation of the world is not necessary, and it is temporal.
Four different meanings of “unoriginate” (First Discourse, chap. IX)
In this discourse St Athanasius says,
Therefore the Son is among things originated,’ and well have we said, ‘He was not before His generation.’ Thus they make any kind of disturbance and confusion, provided they can but separate the Son from the Father, and reckon the Framer of all among His works. . . . They ought then, when they ask the question, to add in what sense they take the word ‘unoriginate,’ and then the parties questioned would be able to answer to the point.
Theologians have always learned from philosophy. Yet, Trinitarian theology is a distinctively Christian contribution that cannot be reduced to Hellenistic philosophy. St Athanasius explicitly contrasts Hellenistic philosophy to how concepts are appropriated in Christian theology:
For, in calling God unoriginate, they are, as I said before, calling Him from His works, and as Maker only and Framer, supposing that hence they may signify that the Word is a work after their own pleasure. But that he who calls God Father, signifies Him from the Son being well aware that if there be a Son, of necessity through that Son all things originate were created. And they, when they call Him Unoriginate, name Him only from His works, and know not the Son any more than the Greeks; but he who calls God Father, names Him from the Word; and knowing the Word, he acknowledges Him to be Framer of all, and understands that through Him all things have been made.
For St Athanasius, the grammar of Trinitarian predication and the grammar of Christological hermeneutics are reconciled in the Scriptural passages about Christ in two ways
- All the references to the non-divine aspect refer to the economy for the sake of salvation. God who eternally is divine becomes human so he will save human beings. The soteriological motif is central.
- References to the human nature of Christ are an expression of God’s concern for us in soteriology (e.g., “he became Lord and Messiah”)
As theology requires the moment of negation in the apophatic aspect necessary in any speaking of God and his essence, St Athanasius says,
Nor must we ask why the Word of God is not such as our word, considering God is not such as we, as has been before said; nor again is it right to seek how the word is from God, or how He is God’s radiance, or how God begets, and what is the manner of His begetting. For a man must be beside himself to venture on such points; since a thing ineffable and proper to God’s nature, and known to Him alone and to the Son, this he demands to be explained in words. It is all one as if they sought where God is, and how God is, and of what nature the Father is. But as to ask such questions is irreligious, and argues an ignorance of God, so it is not holy to venture such questions concerning the generation of the Son of God, nor to measure God and His Wisdom by our own nature and infirmity.
In this way, St Athanasius connects these moments in the work of Christ in his Incarnation and in our deification:
But this would not have come to pass, had the Word been a creature; for with a creature, the devil, himself a creature, would have ever continued the battle, and man, being between the two, had been ever in peril of death, having none in whom and through whom he might be joined to God and delivered from all fear. Whence the truth shows us that the Word is not of things originate, but rather Himself their Framer.
For therefore did He assume the body originate and human, that having renewed it as its Framer, He might deify it in Himself, and thus might introduce us all into the kingdom of heaven after His likeness. For man had not been deified if joined to a creature, or unless the Son were very God; nor had man been brought into the Father’s presence, unless He had been His natural and true Word who had put on the body.
And as we had not been delivered from sin and the curse, unless it had been by nature human flesh, which the Word put on (for we should have had nothing common with what was foreign), so also the man had not been deified, unless the Word who became flesh had been by nature from the Father and true and proper to Him. . . .
Therefore let those who deny that the Son is from the Father by nature and proper to His Essence, deny also that He took true human flesh of Mary Ever-Virgin; for in neither case had it been of profit to us men, whether the Word were not true and naturally Son of God, or the flesh not true which He assumed. But surely He took true flesh, though Valentinus rave; yea the Word was by nature Very God, though Ario-maniacs rave; and in that flesh has come to pass the beginning of our new creation, He being created man for our sake, and having made for us that new way, as has been said.
The Word was made man in order that we might be made divine [also translated, “that we might become God.” Or, “he was humanized that we might be deified.”]. He displayed himself through a body, that we might receive knowledge of the invisible Father. He endured insult at the hands of men, that we might inherit immortality.
St. Athanasius’ Summary of the Work of the Son
In his book On the Incarnation of the Word St Athanasius writes that God created the universe out of nothing, and created man in His own image, with intellect, but the fall brought about a gradual damaging of the image of God, and men could no longer lift up their heads to contemplate and relate to the Truth, despite all of God’s warnings; it would be unseemly that God would let man ultimately perish and not fulfill his original purpose, and so He sends the God-man to meet men half way, to show them the Father, to offer Himself as a pure sacrifice in men’s place, and to impart immortality to men.
God created man in His own image, meaning that He gave him a portion even of the power of the Word, i.e., rational. God made man for the purpose of incorruption, but death gained upon man, and, besides the legal hold it established on us, in the gradual perishing of the rational man, the image of God was weakening. It is, however, unseemly that creatures made rational, and with a purpose, should go to ruin, and turn again toward non-existence because of corruption. It would have been better if man was never created, than once made, left to neglect and ruin. What was God to do?
For this purpose the incorruptible and immaterial Word of God took a body of our own kind, albeit pure; and the Person of the Son, taking human nature without losing his divine nature, destroys death by death; the Word now redeems man. This is the first reason for the incarnation. Secondly, the Word becomes incarnate to restore unto man union with the Father. Christ takes a body, walks among men and thus meets us half-way. Creation confesses Christ as Lord, demons are cast out by Him, and not even death can hold Him. Thus, no matter where men look, Christ shows Himself as God, the Redeemer.
St Athanasius often casts his theological constructs in the framework of what is fitting. It was not fitting for Christ to die of sickness, for men would think him weak who had healed others. It was not fitting for him to just give up the body in death to atone, for since he came to accomplish not his own death, but the death of men, it was necessary for him to receive death that came from men. It was not fitting for him to die in secret, for there would be no witnesses to prove he really died and thus had really resurrected. He died on the cross so as to take upon himself the curse of the Law, to die with open arms embracing Jew and Gentile, and so as to die lifted up, dethroning the prince of the power of the air from his own realm. He rose on the third day, not sooner or later, so that no one could say he had not really died (if sooner), or rather that he had taken another body (if later).
From these things, then, St Athanasius draws out the evidence of the Son’s work. It is evident that he is still alive from the fact that he still daily does many works: drawing men to him, changing lives, displacing idolatry, and expelling demons. It is evident to the Jews that he is the Messiah from the confirmation of Scripture, especially in the fulfillment of so many prophecies concerning his suffering (Isaiah), his crucifixion (Ps. 22), flight into Egypt, etc. He performed works never done before, such as healing the lame, the deaf and the blind from birth. He has performed all that would be expected of the Messiah.
It is evident to the Greeks that he is the Logos because, although he had a body, he was the rational principle present everywhere. Plato states that the author of life rescues and corrects the cosmos from chaos, which can be seen in the works of Christ. His incarnation and suffering were necessary because men had already been made and needed to be rescued. This could not be accomplished by mere fiat, as when man was created.
The Physician and Savior had to cure. He put on a body, to find death in the body and to put it out. Every part of creation submits to him: he expels demons, changes the substance of water, walks on water, and resurrects. He alone is worshipped as one and the same among all peoples. He has convinced more people than the ancient philosophers. Lives are changed, and as a result, there is an expectation of his return. The Christ-loving man is to apply his mind to the Scriptures and through the grace of God live an honorable life with a pure soul, so as to be a clean vessel apt to understand the mind of God.
St Athanasius is a paramount example of how the theology of the Fathers answers questions that modernity continually raises. He also brings to the front some different approaches between East and West. As some modern theologians have argued, (e.g., Sarah Coakley)
- There is a major difference between East and West
- In the West, Trinitarian theology was divorced from Christology and soteriology
- In the West, Trinitarian theology was divorced from Biblical exegesis
Christian theology does not exist for the sake of the theologian. Theology is for the sake of the Church; it is for the sake of the challenges of the community. If it is not received by the Christian community, it has failed, for it must echo the responses of that community. Christian theology has to be historical and cannot be separated from contemporary issues. Christianity is an incarnational religion, which lives also within time and circumstances..
Trinitarian theology is central and foundational to Christian theology, which has to do with the logos of theos. This was at the core of St Athanasius’ writings. There has been a struggle for the Christian understanding of God and the result has been the conception of the Trinity. Christians believe in God, but God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Ontologically, Trinitarian theology is at the foundation of all things, for God is the creator, sustainer and redeemer of all reality. All our social, human, historical, problems are rooted in Trinitarian theology. This is why Karl Barth deals with Trinitarian methodology in his first volume. Epistemologically, on the other hand, we do not know God first and foremost. Our order of knowing does not include the Trinity at the very beginning; the Fathers’ formulations were the result of a long process of reflection and development.
One thing that is common from the earliest fathers (Justin, Irenaeus, Origin) is the very important distinction between God in his own essence and God in relation to the created world, as known through creation and special revelation. We do not know God in himself, but only as he has revealed himself to us, through his effects. Christianity affirms both the essential incomprehensibility of God and God’s condescension to reveal himself to us. We do not have an insight into the essence of the Trinitarian God.
As a reaction against essentialism, and under the impact of postmodern critiques, theologians have been moving more to a pluralistic tradition of the East, beginning with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Trinitarian theology, as seen in St Athanasius, arose because of Christology, since, without the question of the divinity of Christ, simple Jewish monotheism would have remained. If, however, Christ is divine, are there two gods, is he a lesser god, or are there other options? Many today are looking for alternatives to the traditional conceptualities.
Scripture does not contain the doctrine of the Trinity spelled out explicitly. Trinitarian and Christological doctrines are the result of historical development, even while having roots in Scripture. Historical theology is part of any history of human ideas; the more important they are, the more blood is likely to be spilled. This has been true of revolutions such as the American, French, Russian, etc. Some enlightenment rationalists put blame in religion without realizing that ideologies of freedom, etc, have always been abused by the State. State persecutions have killed millions of people.
Historically, Nicean Orthodoxy has become the Tradition of the Church by the guidance of the Holy Spirit; and yet, as experienced by St Athanasius (and the hero he was) many times it seemed as though it had failed. It is always an important question, to consider whether orthodoxy can be measured by the status quo; the place of God’s providence also has to be assessed. By what criteria can we build Trinitarian theologies today, and how are they binding? St Athanasius is a beacon of God’s light that has shown for 1,700 years on these issues.
 Against the Arians, i. 24-25
 “When the father creator saw the creature which he had made moving and living, the created image of the eternal gods, he rejoiced, and in his joy determined to make the copy still more like the original; and as this was eternal, he sought to make the universe eternal, so far as might be. Now the nature of the ideal being was everlasting, but to bestow this attribute in its fullness upon a creature was impossible. Wherefore he resolved to have a moving image of eternity, and when he set in order the heaven, he made this image eternal but moving according to number, while eternity itself rests in unity; and this image we call time. For there were no days and nights and months and years before the heaven was created, but when he constructed the heaven he created them also.”
 First discourse, chap. 9, 33.
 Second discourse, chap. 18, 36
 Second discourse, chap. 21, 70
 On the Incarnation, 54