Friday, May 2, 2014

In honor of St Athanasius



I learned from Brandon that today is the Feast of St Athanasius. In celebration of his theological insight I will cite my favorite passage from On the Incarnation:

Man, who was created in God's image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting. It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption. It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits. As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? Was He to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning? Surely it would have been better never to have been created at all than, having been created, to be neglected and perish; and, besides that, such indifference to the ruin of His own work before His very eyes would argue not goodness in God but limitation, and that far more than if He had never created men at all. It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself (On the Incarnation, 6).

This is a critically important insight that has proven to be theological fruitful in the utmost for me: that God is a good creator, and consequently is concerned with the existence and health of all of his creation as such. In contradistinction to so many Augustinians who evidently don't suppose that God has any obligations or ultimate concerns for his creatures as such, since after all some of them are not elected to be saved but instead are damned forever, Athanasius insists it is beneath God's goodness and worthiness as Creator of all to allow that what he creates go to waste. Importantly for Athanasius, this holds true regardless of whether the creatures themselves set themselves on the path to destruction voluntarily, or whether they are deceived by another. They are creatures all the same, and God as good creator does not allow them to be undone.

Obviously this theological insight is greatly important to the universalist, who would insist on the same line of reasoning even as it concerns hell. Whether Athanasius was a universalist certainly isn't explicit. At the end of On the Incarnation he notes that "for those that practice evil [there will be] outer darkness and the eternal fire," but here is merely following the biblical language without making explicit any further, more sophisticated interpretation of what that may mean. On the other hand, he regularly refers to God and Christ as the "common savior of all," and his line of reasoning here quoted certainly lends itself to universalist conclusions as well.