The doctrine that man's ultimate destiny and fulfillment is to become like God forms the heart of Christianity for Athanasius. Deification is the focus of both his anthropology and theology, which he sums up in the famous catch-phrase αυτος γαρ ενηνθρωπησεν, ινα ημεις θεοποιηθωμεν: He (God) became man in order that we might be made God.1 Although his development of this idea was sharpened by the Arian conflict, even his (presumably early) apologetic works center on this concept, as the foregoing citation from De Incarnatione indicates.2 In no other church father is the concept of deification so crucial to an understanding of the overall doctrinal system. As Gross notes, for Athanasius, "the divinization of the Christian is not, as for the majority of the earlier Fathers, a more or less secondary and casual element, but the central idea of his theology."3 Even among those who emphasized the idea that salvation consists primarily of assimilation to God, effected by the incarnation of the Logos, Athanasius must be reckoned the "spokesman" for this largely "Eastern tradition,"4 which became "the highest concentration of the value of Christianity."5 V lker points out that Athanasius showed none of the reserve of Origen in using the explicit languages of deification.6 Although Athanasius is not generally considered an original or innovative theologian, his emphasis on this concept and its organic necessity to his system is unique, and presents a challenge to the modern reader of his works. Because Athanasius' writings tend to deal with issues on a theoretical level,7 an analysis of the place of deification in his system must begin with his anthropology.
Athanasius' anthropology has been analyzed carefully by R. Bernard in his monograph L'image de Dieu d'après St. Athanase, and, more recently, by J. Roldanus, in his admirable study of the interrelationship of anthropology with Christology, Le Christ et l'homme dans la theologie d'Athanase d'Alexandrie. Despite what Bernard sees as the "imprecision" of Athanasius on this subject,8 the general outlines of his anthropology are clear. Man is composed of a mortal body and an immortal soul, both of which are created by God ex nihilo.9 The soul is immortal, not because, as in the Platonic tradition, it is by nature eternal, but simply because God has added that grace to it at creation.10 Along with this dependent immortality, the characterization of the soul as λογικος defines its essential nature. It is by this faculty that the mortal body aspires to virtue and immortality.11 Furthermore, it is this rationality which assures free will to humanity, the liberty to choose that virtue.12 Despite the obscuring of these powers through the Fall and individual sin, the spiritual and immortal soul may still be said to possess reason and liberty, which are virtually inseparable from human nature.13
Human beings are capable, on the basis of this spiritual affinity with God in the soul, of aspiring to the realm of truth and deity itself:
For the knowledge and unerring understanding of this road we have need of nothing save ourselves. For the road to God is not as far from us or as extraneous to us as God himself is high above all, but it is within us and we ourselves can find its beginning, as Moses taught: "The word of faith is within your heart." This the Saviour also indicated and confirmed, saying: "The kingdom of heaven is within you."14
Virtue, Athanasius insists in the mouth of the model monk Antony, has need only of willingness on our part, since the soul was originally created "good and upright" (καλη και ευθης), with an "intellectual capacity" (το νοερον κατα θυσιν) for virtue.15 In its natural state the soul reflects, as a mirror, the character of its divine creator.16 Athanasius' portrayal of the original, ideal man is important because of his emphasis on redemption as the restoration of humanity to its primal state of blessedness. Evil does not exist among the saints today, just as it did not from the beginning.17 Adam, the first man, is thus "the prototype of our divinization."18 His life in "Paradise" is characterized as "idyllic and truly blessed and immortal,"19 and in his purity he enjoys direct knowledge of the divine through contemplation, unhampered by sensual distractions.20 Citing Ps. 81:6 (LXX), he asserts that Adam, in this corruptible state, had lived as God.21 "For God did not only create us from nothing, but he also granted us by the grace of the Word to live κατα θεον."22
The basis of this evaluation of man's original divine state is the biblical account of man's creation in Gen. 1:26–27: the idea of the imago Dei. As we have seen, this passage carried major significance for the earlier Fathers, and its exegesis received much attention in modern studies of the Patristic period.23 It is especially important for Athanasius, as indicated by the title of Bernard's study of his anthropology, L'image de Dieu d'après St. Athanase. But whereas Irenaeus, Clement and Origen had interpreted the difference in verse 27 from verse 26 as denoting an actual creation of man in the image only, and not the likeness of God, and thereby distinguished between εικων and ομοιωσις,24 Athanasius recognized no such distinction.25 Instead of the similitude being the fulfillment or perfection of the image by a restoration or moral progression, ομοιωσις with God is itself the content of that image.26 Irenaeus had specified that the "image" denotes the corporeal element in man,27 and referred proleptically to the Incarnation, but Athanasius follows Clement and Origen in interpreting it spiritually.28 Despite this similarity to the Alexandrian exegetical tradition, he does not subscribe to the idea of spiritual advancement from κατ' εικονα to likeness, since this would imply a defective creation.29
This brings us to an even more important reason that Athanasius does not maintain the distinction between image and similitude. For Athanasius, man only secondarily participates in God through the Logos. He is not himself the image, a distinction reserved for the Logos, but was created "according to" or "in" that image.30 In this he was not merely insisting on a literal reading of κατ' εικονα from the LXX, but follows the lead of Paul in Col. 1:15, II Cor. 4:4 and I Cor. 15:45–49. In the latter passage Paul cites Gen. 2:7 to show that Adam is of the earth, in contrast to the heavenly Christ. "Thus," concludes Ladner, "it is clear that the image-likeness of Gen. 1:26 cannot be on the same plane as Christ's image relation to the Father."31 Athanasius is also following a well-established Patristic exegetical tradition which included Tatian, Irenaeus, Clement and Origen.32 But he is not strictly limited to this tradition, since, as Ladner points out,33 the earlier Fathers were still influenced by "the Platonic conception of an image as something inferior or second best if compared to its archetype." This insight may cast light on the persistent subordinationist tendency to which the Arians appealed. Against their extremism on this point, Athanasius fought for a decisive break with the tradition in support of the Nicene definition, insisting on the uniqueness of the Logos-Image as "necessarily" equal to its archetype in every respect.34 There is a fundamental difference between the Son and ourselves.
. . . if, as we have said before, the Son is not such by participation (εκ μετουσιας), but while all things originated have by participation the grace of God, He is the Father's Wisdom and Word of which all things partake. . . . For by partaking of Him, we partake of the Father, because the Word is the Father's own (ιδιον). Whence, if He was Himself too from participation, and not from the Father His essential Godhead and Image, He would not deify (εθεοποιησε), being deified Himself.35
What Athanasius stresses here, against the Arians, is the significance of κατ' εικονα as a participation term.36 Man was formed as the image of the image of God, which is the Logos, and by this means partakes of God. But this is a two-edged sword. On the one hand κατ' εικονα indicates the contingent nature of man, but on the other it is not a simple resemblance or reproduction of form, but an ontological participation. It is the divine life itself which is communicated: το κατα θεον ζην.37 This realization points to the way Athanasius constructs his anthropology with the soteriological goal of deification. How is this divine capacity manifest?
To be the image of the very Λογος means that man is by nature λογικος.38 The image is not centered on the physical body, as with Irenaeus,39 but the mind or soul. The purpose of this relationship to the Logos of God, according to De Incarnatione, is to give human creatures the ability to understand the nature of their creator. "The grace of being in the image was sufficient for one to know God the Logos and through him the Father."40 Man was created in order to contemplate his Maker. The ideal picture of the archetypal Adam is that of one who
continuously contemplates by his purity the image of the Father, God the Word, in whose image he was made, and is filled with admiration when he grasps his providence towards the universe. He is superior to sensual things and all bodily impressions, and by the power of his mind clings to the divine and intelligible realities in heaven.41
Originally the mind transcends the needs of the body, since Adam's mind was concentrated on God and intelligible reality.42 This condition was characterized not only by knowledge and happiness, but incorruptibility. Although man is created from nothing and thus is mortal and corruptible by nature, "through contemplating God" he could have retained his likeness to the existent one, so that "he would have blunted his natural corruption and would have remained incorruptible," and thus have lived as God (ως θεος), as Ps. 81:6 says.43 At least in his earliest works, which set forth his anthropology, it is not the fact of humanity's creatureliness which looms as of primary importance, but that he was enabled to live a divine life.44
This exalted estimate of man before the fall as fully participating in the divine image and thus already all but deified, constitutes the unique viewpoint of Athanasius in the Patristic tradition. The fact that he did not see ομοιωσις as a goal to be attained gradually through the fulfillment of εικων, as both Irenaeus before him and Gregory of Nyssa afterwards stressed,45 thus takes on special significance. In an important sense, virtue and divine knowledge and blessedness are the natural state of man, because of his creation κατ' εικονα θεου. "Athanasius sees man as a responsible creature, destined to communion with the Word."46 Harnack has already commented on the soteriological implications of this type of anthropology. Despite the natural tendency to think of redemption as an unmerited gift of God,
the conviction of the lofty and, at bottom, inalienable dignity of man roused the idea that man receives through redemption that which corresponds to his nature. If adoption to the sonship of God and participation in the divine nature appeared on the one hand as a gift above all reason and expectation, yet it looked on the other as corresponding to the nature of man already fixed in his creation. For man is God's image, and exalted as he is above the lower animals by his constitution, rises as a spiritual being into the heavenly sphere.47
This seemingly logical and straightforward analysis, however, is obscured by that great complicating factor of Christian dogmatics, the Fall. As we would expect, humanity's loss of original grace and beatitude is of crucial significance for Athanasius as well. The fact of the Fall indicates the unstable nature of man's original relationship to his Maker. Although he was granted grace from without, it was easily lost due to the fact that it was not united to his body; i.e., inherent in his nature.48
Adam's disobedience lost for mankind the divine knowledge and incorruptibility which were his in Paradise.49 The nature of his sin was in turning away from the understanding of God to the sensual enticements of his own body. "By considering themselves and cleaving to the body and the other senses . . . they fell into selfish desires and preferred their own good to the contemplation of the divine."50 As a consequence, the grace which protected them from corruption was forfeited. Man had not just sinned; he had turned from grace to nature; i.e., his mortality. It is revealing to see how he develops this:
God, then, had so created man and willed that he should remain in incorruptibility. But when men had disregarded and turned away from the understanding of God, and had thought of and invented for themselves wickedness . . . then they received the condemnation of death which had been previously threatened, and no longer remained as they had been created. . . . And death overcame them and reigned over them. For the transgression of the commandment turned them to what was natural, so that, as they had come into being from non-existence, so also they might accordingly suffer in time the corruption consequent to their non-being.51
In continuing this theme, Athanasius ties his Plotinian presuppositions on the nature of evil as non-being to the fall of man, which was an estrangement from true being; i.e., God.
For if, having such a nature as not ever to exist, they were summoned to existence by the advent and mercy of the Word, it followed that because men were deprived of the understanding of God and had turned to things which do not exist—for what does not exist is evil, but what does exist is good since it had been created by the existent God–then they were also deprived of eternal existence. But this means that when they perished they would remain in death and corruption. For man is by nature mortal in that he was created from nothing.52
This did not mean, however, that the content of the imago Dei was entirely or absolutely abolished in man. Although from the standpoint of grace, which had preserved man from his natural corruptibility and tendency to nothingness, the εικων was indeed lost, when considered as the inherent "rational" makeup of the soul, it was merely obscured.53 Roldanus notes that man under sin is represented by Athanasius as "on the one hand having turned away and abandoned himself to his physical condition, by which any form of communion with God had become impossible; on the other hand maintaining the essence of his humanity and the necessary means for that communion hidden under the irresponsible abuse which man effects."54 The retention of his essential imago Dei in the Logos constitutes an ability to know God and the liberty to use that ability to return to God.55 Nevertheless, the process of degeneration did not end with Adam's transgression; mankind has further turned away from God by individually sinning, so that even that "rationality" which is the distinguishing mark of human nature is impaired, and man appears no longer λογικος but αλογος. Although God in his goodness bestowed the means to regain knowledge of Himself and the proper conduct of one's soul,
nevertheless men, being overcome by their present desires and the illusions and deceits of demons, did not look towards the truth, but sated themselves with many vices and sins, so that they no longer appeared rational beings (λογικους), but from their behaviour were considered to be irrational (αλογους).56
In this way man forgot the image, having turned outside himself (εξω εαυτης), from the soul to the body, and thus to the illusory world of the senses.57 From this point men have descended into all manner of idolatry, which becomes a major focus of his apologetic oration Contra Gentes (chapters 9–29).
This then, the anthropology of Athanasius, sets up the problem of his soteriology: a chasm of sin and death has been formed between God and humanity, "a chasm which in the course of time and history ever more broadened."58 Man's state of mortality and corruption is that of a separation from God, which is the real meaning of death.59
Athanasius met the anthropological dilemma head-on with his soteriology, which forms the heart of his doctrinal system. Like Irenaeus, he centered his redemption theology on the Incarnation, which becomes the key to deification.60 This is evident from his earliest works on, as even a casual reading of Contra Gentes—De Incarnatione shows. Despite their intensified concern with the natural divinity of the Son, the later, explicitly anti-Arian works still manifest this concern, which has to do, above all, "with the Christian's spiritual growth."61 The point of the Incarnation is salvation, θεοποιησις, and only a saviour who is divine by nature can effect it. His writings are so imbued with this religious spirit and a biblical faith in the immediacy and efficacy of God's saving act, that Harnack has lauded him as the one who had freed Christianity from the shackles of Greek philosophy, due to his concern with redemption over cosmology.62
In the history of the development of Trinitarian dogma, Athanasius is usually remembered primarily for his "defense of the Nicene definition"—that the Son was ομοουσιος with the Father. While it is true that he was a life-long champion of the absolute divinity of the Son, his advocacy of the catchword "ομοουσιος" as an expression of the divine unity is not evident until after 347.63 His near-fanatical concern with the Son's full deity was, at bottom, a concern over man's redemption.
For if the Lord had not become man, we had not been redeemed from sins nor raised from the dead, but we would have remained dead under the earth. Neither would we have been exalted to heaven, but we would have lain in Hades.64
As has been noted, such an exaltation was described by Athanasius as deification, and it was precisely this understanding of soteriology which required the very Logos of God as a Saviour, since only Deity can truly deify us.65 It was for the sake of mankind that the Logos humbled himself to take upon him human nature, and thus overcome the gulf of sin and death which separated man from God. Thus Athanasius becomes a major spokesman for the mystery of the Incarnation: the doctrine that God became man was the only sure guarantee of our redemption.
This theme of Incarnation-Deification recurs throughout the writings of Athanasius. The reason that "the Word was made flesh" was in order "that we . . . might be enabled to be deified (θεοποιηθηναι δυνηθωμεν)," which could only be gained "by his clothing himself in our created body."66 The aphorism "He became man in order that we might become God" succinctly sums up the doctrinal focus of Athanasius. The Incarnation, as the basis of the (re)divinization of mankind, "is the fundamental thought of the soteriology of our saint."67 If the original state of man was on a divine level, from which he has fallen so as to be subject to death and corruption, then the Incarnation serves a double role. As both God and man, Christ pays the ransom due on man's part for sin by his own death, and reforms the image of God within humanity, restoring him back to the level of deity.68 "For in two ways our Saviour had compassion through the incarnation: he both rid us of death and renewed us."69
This double aspect of redemption has often been overlooked, especially when Athanasius' doctrine has been classed as simply a "mystical" or "physical theory of redemption."70 According to this interpretation of the Athanasian corpus, redemption is concerned primarily if not exclusively with the abolition of physical death and corruptibility; in other words, the Greek ideal of immortality as constituting divinity. In De Incarnatione 7, Athanasius explains that repentance alone, which would pay the penalty for sin, would be insufficient to redeem us. "Repentance gives no exemption from the consequences of nature, but merely looses sins."71 Because of transgression, we are in a state of "natural corruption," and thus subject to physical death or mortality. This, according to Tixeront,72 is the significance of the Incarnation for Athanasius: it overcomes mortality in the sense of physical corruption. But such an analysis is only partially correct, since it ignores the other major consequence of transgression: man has been "deprived of the grace of being in the image."73 The content of that image is not fully or even primarily exhausted by the category of mortality; the whole range of divine attributes is included, as we shall see in chapter IV.
It is precisely because of the richness of its content that the restoration of the image requires the Incarnation, amounting to a virtual re-creation of humanity by the Logos-Image himself, the original creator. In order that "man might be able once more to know him," he must "renew again that which was in his image," and this required "the very image of God." Such a renewal was not possible by men on their own, since they themselves were created only "in the image" (κατ' εικονα). So "the Logos of God came in his own person, in order that, as he is the image of his Father, he might be able to restore man who is in the image."74 In no other way could this have been accomplished, for "who was needed for such grace and recalling except the Logos of God, who also in the beginning had created the universe from nothing."75 Only the creator can renew the image in fallen man, and bring him back to incorruption.
No one else could bring what was corrupted to incorruptibility, except the Saviour himself, who also created the universe in the beginning from nothing; nor could any other recreate men in the image, save the image of the Father; nor could another raise up what was mortal as immortal save our Lord Jesus Christ, who is life itself.76
Since this is a new creation, it is not done from without, as the first Adam was formed from the dust of the earth, but from within mankind itself, i.e., through the Incarnation. Again and again, Athanasius reminds us, this is how deification is effected. "Just as the Lord, putting on the body, became man, so also we men are both deified as being helped through his flesh, and henceforward inherit life everlasting."77 By "taking on him what is ours" he transforms us into what He is, "that we, as incorporated and compacted and bound together (συσσυμοι συναρμολογουμενοι και συνδεθεντες) in him through the likeness of the flesh may attain to a perfect man, and abide immortal and incorruptible."78 This pregnant passage brings up two important aspects of Athanasius' doctrine of the Incarnation: the uniting of God to humanity and the apparent universal aspect of this version of redemption.
The crucial fact of the Incarnation, for Athanasius, is that the Logos united to Himself the flesh of mankind, thereby raising it up to his level, that of godhood.79 The eternal framer of our bodies himself assumed that same flesh, renewing and deifying it for us.80 This joined us, as individual members of mankind, to the Logos. His union with flesh abolished sin and death, "and these being destroyed from the flesh, we all were thus liberated by the kinship of the flesh (παντες ουτω κατα την συγγενειαν της σαρκος ηλευθερωθημεν), and for the future were joined, even we, to the Logos."81 He who is by nature God took upon Himself a body, in order to unite to himself human nature, that salvation and deification might be assured.82
It is apparent in these passages that Athanasius is speaking of Christ taking upon himself and uniting with, not just "some" flesh, or "a" particular body, but human nature itself.83 When he is described as advancing or being exalted in the Scriptures, it is the manhood or human nature which is thus promoted.84 As the Lord of all, Christ re-exalts mankind to God. To some extent, Athanasius may be following Paul in seeing a "kind of universal character" in the humanity of Christ,85 but the influence of Platonic realism seems much more evident here. To modern ears, such a notion sounds strained, but this universalism was a commonly shared presupposition of the age, and in fact is vital to the formulation of Trinitarian and Christological dogma.86 As Gross points out,87 Athanasius' philosophical concept of mankind is that of a generic concrete reality along Platonic lines. "We men, indeed, because we are alike and share the same identity, are one in essence with each other."88
As is well known, in Platonic thinking the ultimate realities are spiritual or intellectual (i.e., non-material) Ideas or Forms, which transcend the world of material being. These Ideas are universal archetypes or models, which objects imitate or participate in for their identity. But such particular "concrete" objects actually exist on a lower plane of reality—they have less "being"—than the archetypal Ideas; thus the spirit-matter dualism may be described as one of being-becoming.89 Material objects are a temporary, almost illusory, manifestation of the eternal, unchanging Ideas which are imperceptible to our gross sensory organs. Whereas for Plato these Ideal Forms seem to have a separate, independent existence as deities,90 already with Philo and the Middle Platonists they had been described as mental constructs (with a "real" existence) in the "mind" of the Logos.91 This view was inherited by the Fathers, notably Origen,92 whence we may surmise that Athanasius was familiar with it.93 To take the idea one step further, individual human beings would be seen as imperfect copies of the ideal Form of manhood, through which each person takes existence by participation.
For Athanasius, this archetypal humanity is embodied in Christ who became flesh; by virtue of his incarnation he is the new Adam, the head of humanity. He is superior to the old Adam, the man of the earth, since he is the heavenly man, perfect, the principle of rationality itself.94 In explicating the prayer for unity in John 17, he combines it with the idea of the perfect man from Ephesians 4:13. Thus he paraphrases:
Here at length the Lord asks something greater and more perfect for us; for it is plain that the Logos has come to be in us, for he has put on our body. "And thou Father in me;" "for I am thy Logos, and since thou art in me, because I am thy Logos, and I in them because of the body, and because of thee the salvation of men is perfected in me; therefore I ask that they also may become one, according to the body that is in me and according to its perfection; that they too may become perfect, having oneness with it, and having become one in it; that, as if all were carried by me, all may be one body and one spirit, and may grow up into a perfect man. For we all, partaking of the same, become one body, having the one Lord in ourselves.95
Just how explicitly (or consciously) Athanasius had Platonic notions in mind in this regard is uncertain:96 certainly his blend of biblical and Platonic concepts is nothing less than virtuosic. But the important point is that Christ, the Logos of God, by taking flesh to himself, in effect unites with the archetypal human nature, so that human nature itself is, to coin a word equivalent to Athanasius' term, "logosized."97
This enhances our understanding of the soteriological couplet, expressed again in a letter to Adelphius: "he has become man, that he might deify us in himself."98 Schoemann concludes that, "According to this teaching, the Incarnation is not merely the beginning of redemption . . . [but] through the Incarnation already the whole race is deified in its head, ο επι παντων Λογος."99 Can it be true that each individual, merely by virtue of participation in humanity, thereby becomes perfectly λογικος and deified?
Continuing his letter to Adelphius, Athanasius seems to imply this. The purpose of the Incarnation is "that we may become henceforth a holy race, and 'partakers of the Divine Nature,' as the blessed Peter wrote."100 But it is unlikely that Athanasius means here the entire human race; rather the allusion seems to be to the "chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people," of I Peter 2:9 (cf. Exodus 19:6). This is the new Israel, which fulfills the moral exhortation to "be holy, for I [the Lord] am holy."101 Even more significant is the connection with II Peter 1:4, which refers to becoming "partakers of the divine nature." Both the New Testament and Athanasius use the present middle subjunctive of the verb γιγνομαι in a purpose clause following ινα, connoting a possibility of fulfillment, but not a certainty. In II Peter the pericope continues (vss. 5ff.): "For this very reason make every effort (σπουδην πασαν)" to add godly virtues and knowledge to your faith. It is clear that the realization of the "precious and great promise," which includes participation (κοινωνια) in the divine nature, is on an individual basis. Likewise Athanasius, in the midst of an exhortation to purity of deed and thought, holds out the desired goal that "we may be able to partake of the Logos."102
A more explicit reference to II Peter 1:4 is in the Life of Antony: "The Logos of God . . . took a human body for the salvation and well-being of man, so that having shared in human birth he might make man partake in the divine and spiritual nature."103 Clearly it is a possibility that is held out to us, a reward to strive for, that "we may be exalted (υψωθωμεν) in him, and that we may enter (εισηλθεν) the gates of heaven."104 The Logos "put on a created body . . . in order that in him we might be capable (δυνηθωμεν) of being renewed and deified."105
Thus it is apparent that, although "through the Incarnation of the Logos the participation (Lebensgemeinschaft) of mankind with God has begun again,"106 it does not follow that every single individual is thereby automatically redeemed. As Gross observes,107 "he always speaks of individual deification as a result of the combined action of the subject, Christ, and the Holy Spirit." We shall see in the following chapter how the work of the Godhead is combined with the action of human freedom in order to restore the individual to the original created state of God-likeness. For Athanasius "the reception of mankind back into grace through Christ and his work has taken place in principle and potential, but not yet in fact."108 The Incarnation, then, is the union of God and man, which takes place on an archetypal level. The actualization of this cosmic soteriological event for the individual depends on the extent of one's effort at participation in the divine nature, which includes imitation and cooperation with the Holy Spirit, whose task of sanctification "knits us into the Godhead." It is to the path of deification prescribed for the individual Christian that we now turn.