Monday, June 9, 2014

Theological insights from Athanasius, De Incarnatione

One of my favorite theological works, if not my very favorite, is Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God. It has influenced my own theology in very significant ways, and gave me a renewed appreciation for the doctrine of penal substitution (though suitably understood, of course). What surprises me as I read it and reread it is this: there are so many theological insights and affirmations which run so contrary to a great deal of Western Christian thinking.

In many ways Athanasius does not present the kind of theology and Christian vision that would issue in something resembling Augustinian Thomism or Calvinism or anything of the sort. It is interesting to me to think how Western theology would have developed, had Anathasius occupied the pride of place and had the kind of unquestioned authority that Augustine had.

Consider when he argues that God's goodness as a creator precludes his allowing his work to be destroyed, either of its own fault (!) or through the fault of others:

For it were not worthy of God's goodness that the things he had made should waste away, because o the deceit practiced on men by the devil. Especially it was unseemly to the last degree that God's handicraft among men should be done away, either because of their own carelessness, or because of the deceitfulness of evil spirits. . . . It was, then, out of the question to leave men to the current of corruption; because this would be unseemly, and unworthy of God's character (De Incarnatione, 6).

Athanasius hardly mentions God's wrath at all, if at all, but he does say

our transgression called forth the loving-kindness of the Word, that the Lord should make haste to help us and appear among men (DI 4).

And when he writes that mankind was impeded from knowing God its creator, he says that

taking pity, I say, on the race of men, inasmuch as he is good, he did no leave them destitute of the knowledge of himself, lest they should find no profit in existing at all (DI 10).

But when people reject the knowledge of God and worship idols,

what was God to do? To keep still silence at so great a thing, and suffer men to be led astray by demons and not to know God? And what was the use of man having been originally made in God's image? For it had been better for him to have been made simply like a brute animal, than, once made rational, for hi to live the lie of the brutes. Or where was any necessity at all for his receive the idea of God to begin with? For if he be not fit to receive it now, it were better it had not been given him at first. Or what profit to God who has made them, or what glory to him could it be, if men, made by him, do not worship him, but think that others are their makers? For God thus proves to have made these for others instead of for himself. Once again, a merely human king does not let the lands he has colonized pass to others to serve them, nor go over to other men; but he warns them by letters, and often sends to them by friends, or, if need be, he comes in person, to put them to rebuke in the last resort by his presence, only that they may not serve others and his own work be spent for nought. Shall not God much more spare his own creatures, that they be not led astray from him and serve things of nought? especially since such going astray proves the cause of their ruin and undoing, and since it was unfitting that they should perish which had once been partakers of God's image (DI 13).

In Athanasius, we find a constant emphasis on God's good and benevolent response to the increasing wickedness and corruption of the human race. Here we find principles for theologizing that lead far, far away from the kind of predestinarianism that would become so prevalent in Western theology. God's goodness as a creator speaks against his allowing that any of his creation be undone; his saving intent and benevolence is directed at all because all are his creatures. He calls Christ the loving and common Savior of All (DI 15). Neither, contra Calvin, does he shy away from reasoning about what God may or may not do, what is or isn't compatible with his goodness, by appeal to human analogy. A good king doesn't allows territories to be undone; so also in the case of God who is king over all, etc.

As I say, if Athanasius had become a theological authority in the West rather than Augustine, the church may have taken a very different turn. The average Christian's conception of what counts as "orthodoxy", and his general theological method, may have been radically different.