This work is a step up from Athanasius’s smaller treaty on the Incarnation. Here we begin to see a fully worked-out theological ontology. This review, however, will not deal with the controversies concerning Proverbs 8 in the Nicene world. That would take up too much space.
One needs to see Arius’s thought in context before one can appreciate how Athanasius fundamentally destroyed the Hellenistic mindset. It’s not simply that Arius thought Jesus was created. He did, but Arius also thought he was being faithful to the conservative philosophical tradition in Alexandria. That tradition is best seen as the shadow of Neo-Platonism. It’s not a pure Neo-Platonism (if such a monster even exists), but it’s close enough on issues like simplicity.
Disclosure: I relied heavily on Joseph Farrell’s (D.Phil Oxford, Patristic Theology) analysis of the Athanasian crisis, as well as conversations with several of his students. Any faults are entirely my own.
Establishing the Dialectic
Short answer: Arius defined the deity in terms of a specific property of the Father (unbegottenness), but behind this definition was embedded a philosophical dialectic, which, if left unchecked, would control orthodox categoreis. The Arians saw divine simplicity unicity of a nontransferable monadic state, to use John McGuckin’s fine phrase. If the Father is simple essence, and the Son is not the Father, then the Son is of a different essence. The problem is that the Hellenistic/Arian mind identified God’s essence with a particular property (unbegottenness). It was Athanasius’s genius to break the back of this system by noting that essence isn’t the same as person or property.
Arius shows what Origenism looks like if taken to its Neo-Platonic conclusion. The One is utterly simple and beyond. It is beyond subject and object, yet if the One “thinks” (or makes any kind of distinction, be it the idea to create the world or the decision to beget the Son), and given that person-will-essence are identical, and that ideas/operations are now simply effluences of the essence, Arius is forced to one of several conclusions:
- a) The ideas produced by the one are also identical to the one
- b) It is completely separate from the one by means of duplication and distance.
- c) If the Son is eternal, then Creation, being an object of willing, is also eternal, since the act of will is equal to the eternal essence per Arian simplicity. Simply put, for this tradition, there can’t be distinctions between operation and essence, because the essence itself does not allow for any distinctions!
Why does (c) follow? If God has the property of being-Creator as well as the property of being-Father, and the essence is eternal, and the essence is identical to the act of will/property, then he must be eternally creator, which draws out another inference
cc) Creation is eternal
Smashing the Dialectic
d) The generation of the Son is according to the essence, since the being is from the Father, while the creation of the world is according to the divine will.
As James Kelley notes, for “Arius the category of what God is (nature) is the same as what God does (operation).”
Now for the actual text….
* The Father and Son were not generated from some pre-existing origin….but the Father is the Origin of the Son and begat him (I.5).
*The Difference between Work and Begetting: “The work is external to the nature, but a son is the proper offspring of the essence” (I.8.29).
* The Word must be the living Will of the Father, and an essential energy (enousion energia), and a real Word” (II.14.2). Athanasius’s point is that the Word can’t be a product of the Father’s will since he is the Father’s will.
That blunts Arius on one point but it raises another problem: isn’t making the Word the Father’s will confusing person with nature, which is what Arius did? One could say that Athanasius isn’t defining the Deity of the Son in terms of a specific divine property.
Elsewhere Athanasius notes that the Son is in the Father and the Son’s being is proper to the Father. And given that Athanasius follows the Patristic ordo in reasoning from Person to Operation to Essence, then the Son’s being the living will points to a unity of operation. Hence, we now see that the Son reveals the common operation and energy, and so reveals the common essence.
* The Son doesn’t “participate” in God. This is a break with Platonism (III.23.1).
* The Son is in the Father….because the whole Being of the Son is proper to the Father’s essence….For whereas the Form and Godhead of the Father is the Being of the Son, it follows that the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son” (III.23.4).
Christ’s being in the flesh deifies the flesh, and only God can properly deify (III.27.38).
Athanasius has a robust angelology
- Angels are not the same as the Thrones, nor the Thrones the same as the Authorities (II.16.19).
4 thoughts on “Athanasius, Orations Against the Arians”
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In further thought, I find Athanasius one of the greatest theologians because he does not seem to get hung up over the equivocacy of persons one sees elsewhere. He is able to say the Son is consubstantial with the Father, and yet appreciate older claims that the Son is the Will and Wisdom of God, and that all OT theophanies were appearances of Christ. Augustine, and even Gregory Nazianzus at a few points, seem too eager to defend the equality of persons, that they seem to collapse distinctions into strange, non-biblical, metaphysical categories. I go back and forth on whether Nazianzus and Basil failed to grasp Athanasius.
I agree. I think Gregory was much closer to Athanasius than to Basil. Basil’s genius was his clarity of thought, but I think his clarify often meant moving away from Athanasius’s profundity.
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