Athanasius, Atonement and the Image of God

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At the beginning of his supreme work, On the Incarnation, Athanasius explains that mankind was made according to the image of God. This theme of image, for Athanasius, is the starting and ending point for a proper theology of the incarnation and atonement. The inner logic of the incarnation and the death of Christ is, for Athanasius, connected to God’s creation of man in his own image. I want to survey Athanasius’ logic in this article.

First, Athanasius explains what is means to be made in God’s image: for Athanasius, to be created in God’s image means simply to share in God’s own life which allows man to become “like God”. Athanasius explains:

Upon them, …upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, [God] bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked — namely the impress of His own image (p 3)

Athanasius calls the image of God “a grace” or gift above natural creaturely life, for mankind is “essentially impermanent”. Athanasius, along with all the early Fathers, understood that because mankind was created out of nothing (ex nihilo), they did not in and of themselves contain eternal life. Thus, God breathed into mankind a share in his own life, giving them a supernatural grace to share in his own eternal life and to be conformed to His image.

Athanasius continues by explaining just what sharing in God’s image entails, namely,

a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself, so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even as He does, though in limited degree they might continue forever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise (p 3)

This is an incredible insight: Athanasius explains that because the Son is the express image of God — the very Word and revelation of the Father — the supernatural grace given to man upon creation was union and a share in the life of God the Son. This share int he Son allows man to have the mind of God (1 Cor 2, Phil 2), and to “continue forever” in God’s life. Put another way, Athanasius understands the supernatural gift of “the image” to be union with the Image of God, thus being formed into His image. The end goal of mankind then was to be conformed into Christlikeness!

But man sinned, and fell. And what were the effects of that fall? Athanasius understands sin not simply as a breaking of God’s law, but as a falling away or separation from union with the Son into corruption and “non-being”. Athanasius explains:

The transgression of the [first] commandment made them turn back again according to their own nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence. the presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good… (p 4)

This then, was the plight of men. God had not only made them out of nothing, but had graciously bestowed on them his own life by the grace of the Word. Then, turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by counsel of the devil, they had become the cause of their own corruption and death (p 5)

Sin for Athanasius is turning toward one’s own nature into corruption and eventually non-existence. Thus, man is born dying and decaying, and eventually “disappearing, and the work of God [is]… undone” (p 6).

But, as Athanasius explains, God did not want his work to simply “disappear”. What could He do? Athanasius concedes that God could simply offer repentance, but this would not be enough. And why? Because simple sorrow does not

recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough (p 8).

In other words, if the problem were just about an outward transgression, repentance and sorrow for sin would have been enough. But the transgression preceded a separation of man from participation in the Son, and thus toward corruption and decay. Put more simply, the problem wasn’t merely external, but internal. Something became fundamentally wrong with man’s own nature after Adam had sinned. God therefore had to renew mankind from the inside out, and conform him once again to His own Image. 

But how would God do that? How would he renew man to the image of the Son? Here we come to Athanasius’ supreme insight concerning the incarnation:

What else could [God] possibly do, being God, but renew His Image in mankind, so that through it men might once more come to know him? And how could this be done save by the very Image Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ? Men could not have done it, for they are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of the God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father Who could recreate man made after the Image. (p 15)

Athanasius says that it is only the One true Image of God that could renew mankind after His own likeness. This is the impetus in Athanasius’ mind for incarnation: the Son comes into the broken down and corrupted image of man to renew it after his own likeness and sanctify it so that mankind can participate in God once again. 

Athanasius continues his line of logic:

In order to effect this re-creation, however, [Christ] had first to do away with death and corruption. Therefore He assumed a body, in order that in it death might once for all be destroyed, and that men might be renewed according to the Image. The Image of the Father only was sufficient for this need (p 16)

In order for death itself to be undone, the Image assumed a human body (nature) and took into himself death and disease and defeated it from the inside out. Christ took the broken image and recrafted it according to Himself. Here we come to the genius of Athanasius’ atonement theology: The Image took our broken image and re-imaged it according to His own Image! The cross was principally an assumption of the deepest brokenness of mankind. The resurrection then is a defeat of death and a re-creation of mankind. What joy!

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The Christological Heresies: Arianism

Continuing in my examination of the early church heresies concerning Christ, in this post I want to consider the Arian heresy.

That Christ was human was, to the earliest church father, fairly self-evident. But, was Christ just human? Was he also divine? And if he was divine, how divine was he? And how did this square with the Jewish concept of monotheism? This was the question of the earliest theologians of the church.

During the first century, the church dealt with different heresies concerning this question: on the one side, an early Jewish sect of Christianity, Ebionitism, posited that Jesus was not divine at all; He was simply an Old Testament prophet. On the other side, Docetism (akin to Gnosticism) taught that Christ was only divine, and that his human nature was only apparent, but not real.

The earliest fathers knew to reject these extreme positions. But their Christology was still being developed. We can see this by looking at Justin Martyr. An early church apologist, Justin was the first to write on Christ’s divine nature. He taught that Jesus Christ was the incarnation, or revelation, of the eternal Logos (knowledge) known from Platonism.  

Alister McGrath explains:

Justin developed… the idea of the “Logos”, current in both Stoicism and Middle Platonism of the period. The Logos (logos is a Greek term usually translated as “word” — eg, as it is found at John 1:14) is to be thought of as the ultimate source of all human knowledge. The one and same Logos is known by both Christian believers and pagan philosophers; the latter, however only have partial access to it, whereas Christians have full access to it, on account of the manifestation in Christ. Justin allows that pre-Christian secular philosophers, such as Heraclitus and Socrates, thus had partial access to the truth, on account of the manner in which the Logos is present in the world.

An idea of especial importance in this context is that of the logos spermatikos (seeds of the Word), which appears to derive from Middle Platonism. The divine Logos sowed seeds throughout human history; it is therefore to be expected that this “seed-bearing Logos” will be known, even if only in part, by non-Christians. Justin is therefore able to argue that Christianity builds upon and fulfills the hints and anticipations of God’s revelation which is to be had through pagan philosophers. The Logos was known temporarily through the theophonies (appearances of God) in the Old Testament; Christ brings the Logos to its fullest revelation… (Historical Theology, 42)

After this, another church father, Origen, borrowed and completed Justin’s thoughts:

It is in the writings of Origen that the Logos-Christianity appears to find its fullest development. In the Incarnation, the human soul of Christ is united to the Logos. On account of the closeness of this union, Christ’s human soul comes to share in the properties of the Logos. Nevertheless, Origen insists that, although both the Logos and the Father are coeternal, the Logos is subordinate to the Father. (ibid, 42)

The Logos-Christology is insufficient: it fails to answer questions concerning the unity of God, and the nature of how the Logos relates to God the Father. However, this helps give context to the Arian controversy. We can observe that the church fathers were wrestling with how exactly to call Christ divine. Justin and Origen opted to use Platonistic categories, explaining Christ as this eternal “Logos” which was only partially known until his full revelation in Christ.

During this time of wrestling, Arius emerged with a view of his own that would proved very controversial. It must be noted that historians know very little about Arius and his life. Even more, we have access to his views only through his opponents.

Generally, however, we know that Arius regarded Christ as being a created being. He is known for saying “there was when he was not” of Christ. God is the only uncreated being. Christ, the Son, is a created being who, while being pre-existent and higher than other beings, is still below the Father.

Alister McGrath explains:

The Father is regarded as existing before the Son…This decisive affirmation places the Father and Son on different levels, and is consistent with Arius’ rigorous insistence that the Son is a creature… There is a distinction of rank between the Son and other creatures, including human beings. [However], Arius has some difficulty in identifying the precise nature of this distinction. The Son, he argues, is “a perfect creature, yet not as one among other creatures; a begotten being, yet not as one among other begotten beings”… (ibid, 44)

So while the Son does pre-exist other creatures, and is perfect above them, he is still created and thus below the Father. For Arius, this explained the balance of scripture: Christ was above all other creation, but distinct from the Father.

How did the early church respond to this position? And what was wrong with Arius’ position?

Saint Athanasius wrote a critique of the Arian position called Against the Arians. McGrath explains Athanasius’ critique:

For Athanasius, the affirmation of the creaturehood of the Son had two decisive consequences, each of which had uniformly negative implications for Arianism. First, Athanasius makes the point that it is only God who can save. God, and God alone, can break the power of sin, and bring us to eternal life. An essential feature of being a creature is that one requires to be redeemed. No creature can save another creature. Only the creator can redeem the creation. Having emphasized that it is God who can save, Athanasius then makes the logical move which the Arians found difficult to counter. The New Testament and the Christian liturgical tradition alike regard Jesus Christ as Savior. Yet, as Athanasius emphasized, only God can save…

The second point that Athanasius makes is that Christians worship and pray to Jesus Christ. This represents an excellent case study of the importance of Christian practices of worship and prayer for Christian theology. By the fourth century, prayer to and adoration of Christ were standard features of the way in which public worship took place. Athanasius argues that if Jesus Christ is a creature, then Christians are guilty of worshipping a creature instead of God (ibid, 44-45)

God is the only Savior — if Christ is Savior, then he is God. Only God deserves worship — if Christians are called to worship Christ, then he is God!

The debate over the Arian controversy came to a close with the formulation of the Nicene Creed, which declared that Christ was “homoousios” of the Father. This is a Greek term which means that Christ is “of the same substance” of the Father. Or, put another way, Christ is the same nature, equal to the Father. This of course logically leads to an affirmation of one divine being with distinct persons — the Trinity!