This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Athanasius and Divine Participation
By Dimmitri Christou
Athanasius. (1996). ‘On the incarnation: The treatise De incarnatione Verbi Dei’. Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.
On the Incarnation is a pivotal piece of literature that any modern Christian willing to come to terms with ancient Christianity ought to read. St Athanasius (C.E., 296-298–373), the Bishop of Alexandria and the author of On the Incarnation, addresses the Incarnation of the Word by discussing two divine dilemmas. The first dilemma discussed by St Athanasius in On the Incarnation (Inc. 2-10) focuses on the issue of death while the second dilemma (Inc. 11-19) focuses on the same issue but from an epistemic perspective. The former dilemma described is pertinent to this summary, specifically the relationship between knowledge of God and existence as understood by St Athanasius in lieu of participation. Thus a select few passages taken from On the Incarnation will be summarized in order to draw upon St Athanasius’ understanding of knowledge and existence and the function participation has therein.
Throughout On the Incarnation St Athanasius argues that through the fall a loss of knowledge of God took place and that mankind through this loss of knowledge was made subject to corruption and therefore non-existence. The most relevant passage regarding St Athanasius’s understanding of existence and knowledge is found in chapter 4 of On the Incarnation, where St Athanasius says, ‚Inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it.‛ (Chapter 1, p.30) This passage and a number of other passages will be analyzed in contrast with one another. However, before approaching the aforementioned quotation, in order to understand and summarize what St Athanasius has said regarding ‚knowledge‛ and ‚existence‛, we must first ask: what is the relationship between ‚knowledge‛ and ‚existence‛?
Immediately by drawing upon the passage already quoted the term ‚knowledge of God‛ should not be understood as an understanding of a particular aspect of God, whether it be His relationship with the world or how He acts therein. For if we were to reduce St Athanasius’s understanding of knowledge to the intellect of the person and his understanding of God alone, we would then fail to encapsulate the great Saints soteriological framework and the role knowledge plays therein. Certainly, St Athanasius understood there to be an ontological gap between Creator and Creation such that God could not be described by what He is by nature but rather by what He is not. By commenting on relatable categories that are dissimilar to God by nature, St Athanasius makes clear that positive statements can be made about God but only as a
consequence of what God is not. St Athanasius was clearly an apophatic theologian, as Khaled Anatolios explains, ‚Athanasius’s apophaticism is consciously based on the distance between God and creation. But it is an apophaticism that not only accommodates but necessitates positive statements about God. The unlikeness of God to creatures itself leads to positive statements about God’s being, and about the relationships of Father, Son, and Spirit within God‛ (‘Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought’, Routledge, p. 101). Therefore understanding ‚knowledge‛ in light of how St Athanasius’ uses the term should not merely be rendered singularly to how one understands God epistemologically by what He is not. This much seems clear as St Athanasius does not begin to speak of ‚knowledge‛ in lieu of various ontological categories related to God’s being but rather in terms of concrete distinctions that are in effect pertinent to human personhood. As such, we should instead approach the word knowledge and its role in existence in lieu of participation in the Word. As it is this interpretation of knowledge as participation which best fits the context of St Athanasius’s literature. In support of this elucidation, St Athanasius explains, ‚*…+ but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back into non-existence and corruption.‛ (Chapter 2, p.32) According to St Athanasius, through participating in the Word there was life. This interpretation of St Athanasius is elsewhere affirmed by Anatolios, who has stated: ‚In this way, the relation between God and creation is conceived by Athanasius according to a radical
model of participation. God "gives" by being participated in, so that all things subsist in him and through him, by partaking God‛ (‘The Soteriological Signifiance of Christ’s Humanity in St. Athanasius’, St Vladimir’s Theological Review., p. 271). Simply put, by participating in God we in effect find ontological subsistence. Following this proposed interpretation of what St Athanasius’ has said, the great Saints soteriological framework can thus be properly understood as one that is grounded in deification proper. That through participating in the Word knowledge is had and existence is therefore attained. Understanding knowledge and existence in relational terms, such as in participation, therefore becomes foundational in approaching St Athanasius’s soteriological underpinnings. Conversely, one aspect of this interpretation of St. Athanasius’ work is missing, namely an explanation of the internal process of participation in the Word. Pertinent to St Athanasius’ cosmology and anthropology there is an ontological gap between humankind and God. Anatolios commenting on this issue has said, ‚In the logic of Athanasius, there is always some kind of ontological but objectively unidentifiable ‚remainder point‛ that represents a gap between creaturely essence and its participation in God.‛ Though, following this dilemma, how does one therefore participate in the Word and find subsistence therein if there is an ontological gap between Creator and creation? In answering this question St Athanasius explains ‚Therefore he assumed a human body, in order that in it death might once for all be
destroyed, and that men might be renewed according to the Image.‛ (Chapter 3, p.41) Christ the Living Word is therefore the only true ontological mediator as He is the only One capable of reversing the effect of sin, such that it is through the Word becoming flesh that the Image of God was renewed in mankind, making knowledge of God directly possible by way of participation, and thus restoring mankind to true existence by recapitulating all of Creation within Himself. Anatolios confirms this idea by stating, ‛It was therefore most fitting that God should reconstruct our broken access to the gift, by repairing the divine image in humanity‛ (‘The Soteriological Signifiance of Christ’s Humanity in St. Athanasius’, St. Vladimir’s Theological Review., p. 278). The Incarnation therefore plays a pivotal role in St. Athanasius’s understanding of knowledge and existence as it is the Incarnation which intrinsically grants human personhood existence by way of participation. Existence through participation should thus be understood as an intrinsic process understood and existentially expressed, not merely as a categorical term applied as a label that is ungrounded in the state of human nature, the subject of being participating in the Word applies to and directly effects, but rather grounded within, effecting and recapitulating all of humankind by restoring the Imago Dei.
In this summary of St. Athanasius’s work, two specific concepts have been scrutinized (‚knowledge‛ and ‚existence‛) in lieu of participation as used in On the Incarnation. This summary has endeavoured to analyze the relationship between
‚knowledge‛ and ‚existence‛ according to St Athanasius by illustrating the intrinsic link between the two. It is precisely through the Word becoming flesh that mankind participates in God, finding subsistence thus restoring the Imago Dei. Furthermore, this summary of the great Alexandrian Saints work has also endeavoured to analyze the relationship between ‚knowledge‛ and ‚existence‛ within its respective soteriological framework. ‚Knowledge‛ and ‚existence‛ are key predicates of St Athanasius’s soteriological framework that are intrinsically related to the Incarnation of the Word and the recapitulation and restoration of humankind through the entire life of the Person of Jesus Christ.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.