Welcome to the 4thweek of the Discussion group series on the Church Fathers. In our last session, we discussed St. Justin Martyr’s beautiful illumination on the Logos; being Christ, it relationship to Creation, and its philosophical connection to divine truth. St. Justin Martyr’s narrative brough forth some thoughts on the proofs of God, namely St. Thomas Aquinas’ 3rdway—“Why is there something rather than nothing.” It also caused us to engage pagan philosopher’s ideas about God and their understanding of God.
When attending University of Illinois, I remember taking a class on Plato, and, of course, we had to read Plato’s Phaedrus. However, to be honest, I don’t remember much of the text, Plato’s development of his ‘theory of forms’ is developed over many texts starting with the Phaedo, Phaedrus, and the Republic. In Plato’s Phaedrus, I came across a particular text that Plato puts coming from the mouth of Socrates, “Madness from a god is finer than self-control of human origin.” In the TV miniseries, The Man Who Became Pope, Karol Wojtyla—the future John Paul II—is quotes the phrase in a more Christian context saying to KGB agent saying, “Madness that comes from God is so much better than wisdom of human origin.” Bishop Wojtyla, in the film, brings to the attention of the Soviet atheist that Plato was the Father of Reason echoing our past conversation on Justin Martyr’s incorporation of pagan philosophy with the Logos.
Our past discussions show us that really the primary outcome of learning the history of the Church Fathers is to gain a better understanding of the revelation of God. Our next discussion further develops this revelation as St. Athanasius is the next person of interest for our group. In many ways, St. Athanasius carries the tradition of St. Justin Martyr by developing further the idea of the Divine Word and the Word’s eschatological role in salvation history.
Who and why was St. Athanasius important?
Pope Benedict XVI writes, “Athanasius was undoubtedly one of the most important and revered early Church Fathers. But this great Saint was above all the impassioned theologian of the Incarnation of the Logos, the Word of God who – as the Prologue of the fourth Gospel says – “became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1: 14).”
St. Athanasius was born around 300 A.D, his exact date of birth is debated among scholars, and died on May 2, 373 A.D. Fr. Christopher Rengers writes in his book, The 35 Doctors of the Church, “nothing is known of his family. From the thoroughness of his education, it is presumed that he came from well-to-do parents who could afford a good education. But he could have received much of this through the influence of Alexander (Patriarch of Alexandria)”Pope Benedict believes that this education occurred before any contact with Bishop Alexander of Alexandria.Prior to the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., in 318 A.D, Athanasius wrote his most famous work called On the Incarnationin which Marcellino D’Ambrosio articulates as “one of the great theological classics of all time.”However, it must be expressed that there is some debate when the classic text was written; D’ambrosio dates it to an earlier period due to addressing the topics brought forth by Arius and the Arian heresy, but not ever naming Arius distinctly.
The issues brought forth by St. Athanasius and settled during the Council of Nicaea would appear to us modern Catholics as non-controversial, but Catholics of the modern age have to realize that much of our creedal traditions were forged during these pivotal years. Fr. Rengers explains, “A GREAT controversy that involved emperors, popes and bishops, that stirred up intrigue and bloodshed, that shook Christianity to its depths, centered on one simple, sure answer in the Catechism. The answer goes very simply: ‘The chief teaching of the Catholic Church about Jesus Christ is that He is God made man.”Fr. Renger goes on, “Because of his championship of this fundamental truth he is called ‘The Father of Orthodoxy’…St. Athanasius defended the divine Sonship at the cost of immense personal discomfort, suffering and danger. His whole live was shaped around his defense of the divinity of Christ.”
St. Athanaius’ orthodoxy exhibited in his work On the Incarnation and others that defended the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ caused him a lot of turmoil in his live. D’Ambrosio reminds us that “during the forty-five years he was bishop, he was banished five times for a total of seventeen years in exile. By the time he died in A.D. 373, he had outlasted most of his enemies. He fought tirelessly, sometimes almost singlehandedly, for the truth of the Catholic faith taught at Nicaea.”During one of his many exiles, St. Athanasius “was pursued up the Nile, When the imperial officers were gaining on him, he ordered his boat turned around. At the time it was still hidden from the pursuers by a bend in the river. When the two boats crossed paths, the Roman officers, not personally knowing Athanasius shouted out, asking if anyone had seen Athanasius. St. Athanasius himself answered them: “He is not very far off.” It’s important to ponder this story, for it reveals that in our future struggles, we must use our intelligence to not only defend ourselves from our enemies, but also to defend the faith.
Arius was a priest in Alexandria who “threatened authentic faith in Christ, declaring the Logos was not a true God but a created God, a creature “halfway” between God and man who hence remained for ever inaccessible to us.”Jimmy Akin explains Arianism very well in his book, The Fathers Know Best, writing that the heresy was “Founded by Arius, a priest of Alexandria, Egypt, in the early 300s. Arius held that originally the Son of God did not exist. There was a time in which there was a single divine Person who became the Father when he created the Son out of nothing. The Son was the first of all created beings and thus separate from the Father in being. The heresy was condemned at the first ecumenical council—Nicaea I in 325—but the controversy intensified and lasted much longer.
What would be the result if Arius’ assertion were true?
D’Ambrosio explains “If Christ is simply a demigod, an intermediary who is something less than God, he is not really Emmanuel, God with us, Rather, he is an emissary sent by God…the emissary conveys the orders of the Sovereign but does not himself know the Sovereign intimately, he cannot reveal God to us as he really is. We are condemned to obey God but to never really know him.”
The idea of the Incarnation and Divinity of Jesus is important to Christianity that D”Ambrosio explains it as “the linchpin of our salvation. If Christ were only a creature, the Gospel would truly be such a good news after all.”In many ways, it has always been sin that is easily visbible in the world. The good news of the Gospels gives us hope that the hole that has been caused by our sin against God will be healed by God with our cooperation, as St. Athanasius explains so beautifully in his work On the Incarnation.
I am reminded of the consequence of Christ being a creation of God and also of an essay written by G.K. Chesterton on Original Sin.
“ONCE upon a time when Mr. H. G. Wells was setting forth on his varied and splendid voyage from Utopia to Utopia, he announced as a sort of watchword or war-cry that the new world would have nothing to do with the idea of Original Sin. He did not specially speak, and, indeed, there was no reason for him to speak, about his other beliefs or unbeliefs. He had not then compared the Trinity to a dance; but neither had he called adoring multitudes to the shrine of the Invisible King. But, standing at the end of the great scientific nineteenth century, he thought it time to announce that the one doctrine he did not believe in was Original Sin. Standing at the beginning of the still more scientific twentieth century, Mr. Aldous Huxley calmly announces that the one doctrine he does believe in is Original Sin. He may be a sceptic or a heretic about many things, but on that point he is quite orthodox. He may not hold many theological dogmas, but about this dogma he is quite dogmatic. There is one fragment of the ancient creed which he not only clings to, but declares to be necessary to all clear minds of the new generation. And that is the very fragment which Mr. Wells threw away thirty years ago, as something that would never be needed any more. The stone that the builder of Utopia rejected . . .”
It is St. Athansius work, On the Incarnation,were he lays down both the importance of the divinity of Christ and his necessary sacrifice to make the world anew as a result of humanities sin against God.
On the Incarnation
In Athanasius’ work, the first 5 sections discuss creation and the fall of man. In the text, we are reminded of the God’s only prohibition and the result of ignoring such an edict from God.
“First of all believe that God is one, which created and framed all things, and made them to exist out of nothing.” 2. To which also Paul refers when he says, “By faith we understand that the worlds have been framed by the Word of God, so that what is seen hath not been made out of things which do appear.” 3. For God is good, or rather is essentially the source of goodness: nor could one that is good be niggardly of anything: whence, grudging existence to none, He has made all things out of nothing by His own Word, Jesus Christ our Lord…and He did not barely create man, as He did all the irrational creatures on the earth, but made them after His own image, giving them a portion even of the power of His own Word; so that having as it were a kind of reflexion of the Word, and being made rational, they might be able to abide ever in blessedness, living the true life which belongs to the saints in paradise. 4. But knowing once more how the will of man could sway to either side, in anticipation He secured the grace given them by a law and by the spot where He placed them. For He brought them into His own garden, and gave them a law: so that, if they kept the grace and remained good, they might still keep the life in paradise without sorrow or pain or care, besides having the promise of incorruption in heaven; but that if they transgressed and turned back, and became evil, they might know that they were incurring that corruption in death which was theirs by nature: no longer to live in paradise, but cast out of it from that time forth to die and to abide in death and in corruption.
Here, St. Athanasius reminds us, that by committing this sin against God by ignoring his edict, we, in fact, lost existence with God being cast out of the garden by inventing wickedness
“as Wisdom also says: “God made man for incorruption, and as an image of His own eternity; but by envy of the devil death came into the world.” But when this was come to pass, men began to die, while corruption thence-forward prevailed against them…having to begin with been inventors of wickedness and called down upon themselves death and corruption; while later on, having turned aside to wrong and exceeding all lawlessness, and stopping at no one evil but devising all manner of new evils in succession, they have become insatiable in sinning”
However, in sections six through ten, St. Athansius explains God’s resolution for the salvation of humanity. He explains, in section six, that he cannot go back on his word in Genesis, in regards to his prohibition, humanity must die; however, if God were to leave his creation as thus it would show God to be limited in his own nature.
It is in the section six of On The Incarnationthat we come to a theological crossroadsbetween St. Athanasius and St. Thomas Aquinas.
Arguably, the greatest thinker, philosopher, and theologian of the Catholic Church, St. Thomas Aquinas argues for a theological position which appears to challenge St. Athanasius’ work in On the Incarnationabout the necessity of The Word becoming flesh. In the Summa, St. Thomas remarks that the Incarnation is not necessary, but fitting; however, in On the Incarantion, St. Athanasius, by explaining that God cannot go back on his word in Genesis, there is only one fitting method for deification, or theosis of humanity in salvation history. For all practical purposes, as I’ve quoted both sources, they appear contradictory, but they are not under the proper understanding of what each saints means by necessary.
The scope of St. Thomas’ understanding is in understanding of cosmology. As God created the universe from nothing and is also all knowing. St. Thomas is correct that the omnipotent eternal God would be aware of humanities sin prior to it’s act and could choose whatever course for salvation as he acts in a state of pure actuality—never in a state of potentiality. Therefore, if it was fitting and proper for God after our sin to send his only begotten Son into the world to ransom us from our sins, then it follows under the lines of St. Athanasius argument. St. Athanasius argument merely doesn’t equate for the idea that God didn’t even have to create humanity, the world, declare his commandment not to eat from the tree, etc. Therefore, it is only necessary to the degree that God desired in His plan. In some manner, there becomes a mystery that Christ has always been the plan, it becomes both necessary and fitting that Christ shall ransom us from our sins, as God is ever knowing. In this framework, St. Athanasius’ necessary means so in the second sense
Development of the Doctrine of the Trinity
St. Athanasius writings were also responsible for much of the development and understanding of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. In the Liturgy of Hours, the reading for Trinity Sunday is taken from St. Athanasius’ First Letter to Serapionin which he writes:
It will not be out of place to consider the ancient tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church, which was revealed by the Lord, proclaimed by the Apostles and guarded by the Fathers. For upon this faith the Church is built, and if anyone were to lapse from it, he would no longer be a Christian, either in fact or in name…We acknowledge the Trinity, holy and perfect, to consist of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In this Trinity there is no intrusion of any alien element or of anything from outside, nor is the Trinity a blend of creative and created being (note: Christ’s Divinity here). It is a wholly creative and energizing reality, self-consistent and undivided in its active power, for the Father makes all things through the Word and in the Holy Spirit, and in this way the unity of the Holy Trinity is preserved…”
How would any of you describe the Holy Trinity?
One time I was having a discussion with an atheist who had popped in the comment section of my blog who presented a challenge to all Christians. The challenge stated, “Name one unique idea created by Christianity.” After some other bloggers had offered ideas that were dismissed, and after I had presented Transubstantiation— only to be dismissed (even though it is unique)— I also presented the most glaring central doctrine of the Church, The Holy Trinity. However, the atheist rejected this as not being an original idea as he gave what he referred to as the Hindu trinity known as Trimurti. After I had looked into the Trimurti, I concluded that the Christian Trinity is truly unique, and this comparison to the Trimurti was a false equivalent.
Now to claim this is a false equivalent, one must have a better understanding of the most Holy Trinity. In the case of the Trimurti, the three gods are exactly that, three distinct gods that are reincarnated into an avatar known Datta, but regardless, Brahma still takes center stage in that religion. I explained their difference ultimately using the Athanasian Creed, Fr. Rengers reminds us of the Athanasius Creed, “consisting of 40 rhythmic statements, had been used in the Sunday Office for over a thousand years.”—which I wish we would use more often— “So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not Three Gods, but One God…So there is One Father, not Three Fathers; one Son, not Three Sons; One Holy Ghost, not Three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is afore or after Other, None is greater or less than Another.”
During the conversation, I wish that I had the modern example given by Michael Pennock in This is Our Faithof a woman who is three different persons, although she is one woman. She is a Mother, a wife, and friend. I also wish I was more familiar with St. John’s of Damascus example, “The Father is the sun with the Son as ray and the Holy Spirit as heat.” All very distinct concepts, but from one source, and with one will. It is entirely different, a central doctrine and great mystery that is truly original to Christianity.
Finally, a great foundation for understanding the Holy Trinity rests in focusing on the Incarnation, The Word of God, Christ Jesus, Our Lord and Savior. Of course, as I’ve mentioned previously, unless we are fluent in ancient languages, we must read St. Athanasius in translation. However, one of the greatest teachers of our faith, and perhaps one day will be honored as a Doctor of the Faith, Bl. John Henry Newman writes on the Incarnation:
“This was the new and perfect tabernacle into which He entered (the body); entered, but not confined, not to be circumscribed by it. The Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; though His own hands ‘made it and fashioned it,’ still he did not cease to be what He was, because He became man, but was still the Infinite God, manifested in, not altered by the flesh. He took upon Him our nature, as an instrument of His purposes, not as an agent in the work. (The Incarnation is not a creature) What is one thing cannot become another; His manhood remained human, and His Godhead remained divine.”
Athanasius of Alexandria, “On the Incarnation of the Word,” in St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Archibald T. Robertson, vol. 4, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1892), 37–38.