What is theology? – St Athanasius

athanasius on the incarnation
A picture of the great Egyptian theologian and author of ‘On the Incarnation’ Athanasius.

Theology vs Theology Proper in St Athanasius

As we move into a discussion of ‘what is theology?’ for someone like St Athanasius who comes from an early period in Christian history it is all the more important that we define our concepts. Not until the medieval period do we get the concept of theology thoroughly worked out and defined more or less as a certain science, a field of understanding a way of understanding Christian doctrine.


Instead at the time of Athanasius in the fourth century the word ‘theology’ was often used in contrast to the word ‘economy’. This of course is not the economy as we use the word today but refers to God’s activity within his creation. The word economy originally had a connection in Greek to the head of the household who would order, arrange, manage the resources in their domain. And so it was a fitting word to describe God’s providential managing of history and creation.

Theology, on the other hand, today known as theology proper’, was limited to speaking about God and his eternal essence. So Jesus dying on the cross, his atonement, as much as that is central to theology today, would have fallen under economy insofar as it was talking about God’s action to reconcile humanity. This is not to say that the two were not related, if you have ever heard of Karl Rahner’s famous dictum that the economic trinity is the immanent (theological) trinity then you will know that these two are often difficult to hold entirely apart.

With that distinction and definition made I would still like to touch on Athanasius and theology perhaps in the way in which Luther spoke of it. That is, in the subjective aspect of how we as humans understand God and how we have a relationship with him. A helpful place to look in Athanasius for this is the opening of Athanasius’ famous On the Incarnation. In this work he opens by addressing Macarius and talks about him growing in the “faith of our holy religion” and the mysteries that it contains. Here it is evident that Athanasius believes he is leading Macarius deeper into the mysteries of faith by sketching out the implications of the incarnation of the logos. And so there is a certain didactic element for athanasius in doing theology, a certain rational component essential to progress in the Christian religion. 

If I may be allowed this anachronism we might say that Athanasius is similar to Luther and the other Protestant reformers in the sense that the experience of being a Christian is a movement in faith towards God in Christ. It has a deeply existential element. And yet, he also shared some similarities with the medieval theology where a precision of terms, and a metaphysical system is emphasized. The image of doing theology corum deo doesn’t seem to fit as well, in the sense of finding yourself and your concepts continually judged and redeemed by God. Rather, the journey into the mystery of God’s activity in Jesus Christ and the mystery of the trinity is the environment, the subjective frame of mind that Athanasius does his theology.

In Athanasius’ Christian metaphysic the image of God plays a central role. It was after all the image of God, connected with the rationality of humans that allowed them to commune and connect with the Logos. Because humans were made in the image of God they shared in that image and could perceive God through his Logos. This of course does not mean that Athanasius was optimistic about humans saving themselves or knowing God naturally in the present time. Athanasius narrates also the fall and shows how this knowledge was erased, humans no longer looked up to God but downward to things of the earth

Because of this, it was necessary for the Image of God to return to earth and by grace restore the image that was besmirched in humans. In doing so they may come to know God again by the renewal of their minds as they enter deeper into his mysteries.

This emphasis on the restoration of the mind, of the rational component is important because, as Thomas Weinandy states, one of Athanasius’ key pillars of thought is that the Christian religion is rational. He claims contrariwise that it is the idolators that are the irrational ones. This means that Christianity can be defended and suggests that apologetics or at least a version of ‘faith seeking understanding’ is implied in the theological endeavour.

Theology and  Economy together

If we move away from the existential component, the method, the how to, and move on to theology proper as Athanasius conceived of it, we are confronted with the relationship between theology and economy. For Athanasius the relationship between theology and economy is essential. His argument in some way hinged on this fact. The Arians wanted to say that it was a demiurgic word that created the world. They accepted that creation was ‘through the word’ but this was different from God’s inner being. And so ultimately the works of the demiurge are not the works of God. Thus as Khalid Anatolios concludes for Athanasius the Arians have invented for themselves a God without any “works,” a God who has done nothing. This is clearly distinct from the biblical God who is active in the world.

And so Anatolios can summarize the argument as follows: if the creative Word is not divine then God is not truly the creator, something the Arians did not wish to say, and yet their logic required direction

There is an opposite extreme position to that of the Arians. Origen taught that creation was more or less essential to God and so God and creation exist in a way together eternally. This is why for Origen we have talk of a creation before creation. And in fact he reads the two separate Genesis accounts as evidence for the two types of creation, one spiritual, and the other material.

If we believe that Origen’s eternal creation made God and creation too close together, whereas the Arians made it completely unrelated. Athanasius succeeds in making the two analogically related, maintaining God’s priority and refusing his dependence upon the world and yet making it truly his creation with the works of the creator visible to the creation.

The distinction between a voluntarist and a substantialist logic is here at play. The Arians thought that God related to creation by means of his will, he willed that creation come to be. And so he doesn’t have to have ‘direct contact’ with what is created and yet still be responsible for creation. But Athanasius thought that creation was somehow intrinsic to whom God is, it was a reflection of his essence.

By claiming this does Athanasius become Origenist? In reaction to this accusation from the Arians who say that his theology requires an eternal creation, Athanasius makes use of the difference between Father and Maker. A Father can only be so by virtue of there being a son, one who is of his own essence, whereas a Maker need not have already made something, rather according to Athanasius, it is a latent potentiality. It is this distinction that Athanasius thinks helps explain his point.

By holding to this, he gives priority to theology over economy. And yet the two are not entirely unrelated. There is a correlation between the Father-Word relationship and the God-World relationship in that the relationship between Son and Father is the ‘ground’ of creation. The perfect relationship between father and son creates a fruitful extra, a creation that mirrors that perfect relationship

Just so we don’t forget to round out our Trinitarian concept, it should be added that for Athanasius, the Spirit is argued to be that which connects the world to God. And as Athanasius argues: anything created cannot act as the linchpin for the relationship between God and creation. Therefore the Spirit must be divine. Moreover the Spirit is that of Jesus and if it cannot be connected to the Word by any other created principle it must be divine.

If I might add one final point made by Peter Leithart, it can be claimed that Athanasius’ theology is more Trinitarian than that of Augustine. For Augustine can speak of a wisdom of the father that is ‘before’ the Son. This is because Augustine cannot see how one can beget wisdom unless one already has wisdom to beget. For Athanasius though this would be an instance of double wisdom, that God has his own wisdom and begets his Son in this wisdom, and yet the Son ‘later’ becomes God’s wisdom. Two wisdoms. But Athanasius unites the Father and Son with a dual dependency. The Son surely depends on the father for filiation but the Father also depends on the Son for paternity

So economy and theology must be kept together otherwise the link between them is lost and the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is not really of God. And thus we are still left on our own without any connection to God and the Good News becomes that God made something happen that may not have anything to do with him other than that he willed it.

Creation and Salvation United

Beginning with creation the scriptures tell of God’s entire economy for Athanasius, they reach their culmination in the redemption wrought by the Son in the historical person Jesus and particularly in the cross.

As we just saw creation is a spilling over of the abundance that we see in the generation of the Son. It is made by the Word and through his wisdom and stands analogically to him. Humans were intended to continue in this knowledge of creation and communion with God by virtue of the the Word of God who makes him known, and the image of God gifted to them, related to that of the Word.

And yet human free will altered this course and made redemption necessary. In redemption for Athanasius it was necessary for the God of creation to be the same as redemption. In creation God was made known to humans, and therefore anything less would be insufficient to renew their knowledge of God.

The plan in terms of its economic outcome ‘responds’ to humankind’s use of free will to move away from God, and yet it it never deviated from its intended telos, which was to fill humans and creation with the knowledge of God and to commune with them eternally. And so Athanasius seems to straddle the line between an overly reactionary response by God and a predetermined one. 

In the redemption the Word took on flesh the very nature of humankind, for as Athanasius asks: who else was better qualified to restore their place? And since they had turned away from knowledge of God, had turned their heads from heaven and looked down, it was by becoming flesh, becoming sensory that the Logos could appeal to them. In his death he died on behalf of all humans, defeating death and sin and corruption in the body that had become corrupt. This is important because it has often been misunderstood that Athanasius is concerned more about incarnation than the sacrificial death, but he does say in the Orationes contra Arianos thathe came for this reason: that in the flesh he might suffer and the flesh be made impassible and immortal.” Afterwards he then rose again to show his defeat of death. In doing so he reconciled humans with God.

Athanasius’ theology is a refreshing one that I encourage everyone to read. C.S. Lewis has a remarkable little introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation that echoes this sentiment. For another profitable read, that I did not include in this summary, read John Behr’s The Nicene Faith Part 1.

2 thoughts on “What is theology? – St Athanasius”

  1. I appreciate the thoroughness of your essay. I assume, based upon the terminology used, that you are citing an Orthodox writer and perspective on the underpinnings of Arius’ theology and Athanasius’ response to them. This is an interesting analysis and captures the background into which Athanasius was writing in order to defend the Nicene orthodoxy.

    1. Thanks Jason for the comment. Yes I believe the writer is Orthodox and of course writes from that perspective. What I really appreciate about it is that it seems to answer some of the questions of logic we might have like ‘why was the world created?’ The Trinity is the only answer that makes sense if you want to believe some very basic things about God (he is creator, he is active in the world, he reveals himself to us and saves us). Without the Trinity, it becomes hard for a ‘god’ to engage with out world in any meaningful and intimate way.

      I think some of these logical aspects can make up for what my tradition (Protestantism) lacks in ‘uses’ for the Trinity. For many the trinity is simply a mystery and a dogma that is scriptural, but if that is all it is and it doesn’t have a ready-to-hand use then it is easy for it to get forgotten and neglected (not to say that all or even most Protestants do this).

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