In comparison to the competing pagan religions and philosophies of the late Hellenistic world, the uniqueness of Christian redemption is characterized by its emphasis on sin. Paul's proclamation of universal sin and guilt in mankind (Romans 3:9ff.; 5:12) is consistent with his Jewish background, and a conspicuous example of his independence from Hellenistic assumptions.1 Mankind is under bondage to sin, not merely death or fate, and this gives Christian soteriology a unique focus which even Reitzenstein recognized:
That this Redemption is not merely an expulsion of evil misfortunes or burdens, a liberation from and assurance of eternal life with God, but basically a forgiveness of sins, seems to me something new. The frightening earnestness of the preaching about guilt and atonement is lacking, as far as I can see, in Hellenism.2
As we have noted in Chapter I, the biblical emphasis on the holiness of God is contrasted with human sinfulness and estrangement from Him. To be reconciled to God requires moral holiness: to be like Him. No unclean thing can enter His presence.
Likewise, Athanasius recognized the seriousness of sin as an objective barrier to God-likeness. We have already, in the previous chapter, considered the Fall of mankind from its original divine state of existence through the disobedience of Adam, compounded and multiplied by each individual's acts of unrighteousness. Although man was created perfect in his sphere of existence he has become "defective (ελλιπης) through transgression and dead by sin."3 Since it is not fitting that the work of God should remain imperfect, the Logos of God clothes himself with a human body and "pays the debt for us" (ανθ' ημων την οφειλην αποδιδους), obliterating sin and corruption, and thus perfects what was lacking to mankind (τα λειποντα τω ανθρωπω δι' εαυτου τελειωση).4 An important aspect of Athanasius' view of the work of the Incarnation is his theology of the cross. Although only in De Inc. 20–30 does he treat the purpose and manner of the Saviour's death in any extended or systematic way, the constant allusion to it in his writings indicates that its importance is assumed rather than intentionally downplayed.5 For the sake of us, the "works" of God, the Word humbled himself to take upon him our body, which he then offered as a propitiation for sin. This he did in behalf of all;6 it was an infinite atonement, universal in scope, effecting a deification of human nature. Nevertheless, in spite of the competing Arian ascent soteriology, which viewed redemption as an exercise of will in moral progress following the example of Christ,7 Athanasius maintained the necessity of the individual's ethical striving to take part in deification.8 The incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ were, albeit necessary and even primary, insufficient in and of themselves as historical events to actualize election to grace in the Augustinian sense. The general salvation must be appropriated by each individual through faith, baptism, and the works of love in order to be effective.9 To actualize participation in the divine nature, the believer must imitate him who was divine by nature: the Logos of God.
"Perfect goodness" was both a prerequisite and characteristic of deification for both pagan philosophy and Christianity. Plato's ideal of ομοιωσις θεω is defined as becoming "righteous and holy and wise" through μιμησις of the Good.10 Plutarch lists virtue, along with immortality and power, as the distinguishing marks of deity.11 Clement urges us to "practice being a god.12 But the Fathers did not consider themselves dependent on Greek μιμησις for their doctrine of imitatio Christi, since it was clearly a part of their biblical heritage. Clement associated ομοιωσις with "walking after the Lord" in Deuteronomy 13:4, and speculated that Plato may have gotten the idea from there.13 Paul expressly exhorts the believers to be μιμηται of Christ,14 who told his disciples that they must "take up [their] cross, and follow me (ακολουθειτω μοι)."15 Christ set us the example in suffering tribulation without sin, and to this we are called, ινα επακολουθησητε τοις ιχνεσιν αυτου.16
Athanasius wholeheartedly advocated this imitation or following in the steps of Christ, both ethically and in his suffering, as a necessary step to complete the process of deification. "We by imitation become virtuous and sons."17 When he considered the adversities and tribulations which his flock was undergoing, he encouraged them by comparing their sufferings to those of Christ.
Thus even our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ comes before us, when he would show men how to suffer: who when he was smitten bore it patiently, being reviled he reviled not again, when he suffered he threatened not, but he gave his back to the smiters . . . and at last, was willingly led to death, that we might behold in him the image of all that is virtuous and immortal, and that we [might] conduct ourselves after these examples. . . .18
Likewise, Athanasius continues, Paul, who conducted himself according to the example of the Word, exhorted us to "Be followers of me, as I am also of Christ," quoting I Corinthians 11:1.19 This advice, which means that we should "never loiter in the path of virtue," was given not just to the Corinthians, but to all disciples of Christ.20 By this means the children of men are empowered and restored, and eventually freed from suffering and raised to incorruption and the joy of the saints in heaven.21 Those who have rejected this path "do not bear the likeness of the manner of life of the saints, nor of that right understanding by which man at the beginning was rational, and in the image of God."22 Thus Athanasius connects the imitation of Christ with the restoration of the image of God in which we were created. Extolling the benefits and loving-kindness of the Saviour, he exults:
. . . not only should we bear His image, but should receive from Him an example of the heavenly way of life; that as he has begun, we should affirm (praeivit). . . . For those who are thus disposed, and conform themselves to the Gospel, will be partakers of Christ and imitators of the apostolic examples.23
The association of participation and imitation, μετουσια and μιμησις, is not new to Christian apologetics; Meijering points out that Justin, Aristides and Irenaeus thought along similar (neo-platonic) lines.24 An emphasis on the ethical aspect of this participation characterizes Athanasius' doctrine of sonship. In commenting on the Saviour's injunction to be perfect and merciful as God is (Matthew 5:48; Luke 6:36), he is careful to caution that this appropriation of divine patterns does not mean that we become such as the Father is in essence, but in "beneficent acts" (ευεργεσιας).25 There is only one Son by nature, but we become sons and are called gods "in order that what has accrued to us from God himself by grace, these things we may impart to others." We become imitators "when we minister to others what comes from him . . .".26 This path of imitation is one of moral progress which assimilates us to God, but it does not give us cause to boast in our own strength. The commandment to achieve perfection is, in fact, the grace which assures us of the ability to attain it. For although
we cannot become like God in essence, yet by progress in virtue we can imitate God (εξ αρετης βελτιουμενοι, μιμουμεθα τον θεον), the Lord granting to us this grace, in the words "be ye merciful as your Father is merciful," "be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect."27
Although he considered the Arians to be blasphemers for their devaluation of grace, Athanasius attempted to balance the action of human will and the grace of God. Compulsion is not a divine characteristic; the Lord tries rather to persuade our free will to godliness.28 Nevertheless his condescension and long-suffering are manifested in his creation of us in his image, in his incarnation into our humanity, in his teachings and commandments, and finally in his suffering and death for our sake. While it would be anachronistic to expect Athanasius to conform to the Augustinian or Lutheran concept of grace, he does illustrate what Lot-Borodine calls "the Patristic adage on grace/free will": "To whomsoever does what he is able, God does not refuse grace."29
This is not mere self-reliance or υβρις; Athanasius, along with Christian writers in general, did take grace seriously. Kantorowicz has pointed out the profound difference between pagan philosophic mimesis and Christian gratia:
According to the Hellenistic philosophies it was an act of man's own virtue to become god-like and be the god's perfect imitator; it was an act of purely human effort and human industry. . . . According to Christian teaching, however, man could not by his proper human power alone, despite his free will, hope to be restored to his divine being and immortality; this was possible by the intervention of grace alone.30
It is obvious from Athanasius' emphasis on the Incarnation as the primary means of grace and the restoration of original grace that he recognized the dynamic of grace and human effort; both were necessary for salvation. God's rational creatures, whether corrupted "through their own neglect, or through the deceit of demons," were not left to themselves to "perish and return again to non-existence through corruption."31 This would have been "neither proper nor fitting for the goodness of God."32 As they were "deprived of the grace of being in the image," the Logos, in benevolence and grace, came "to suffer for all and be an advocate on behalf of all."33 By "taking a body like ours" and "surrendering it to death" as an offering to the Father, he "abolished corruption in man since its power was concluded (πληρωθεισης) in the Lord's body and it would never again have influence over men who are like him."34 In this context the likeness referred to has a physical connotation—men are like the incarnate Christ in that they have a body and share in human nature. Consequently, physical death and corruption will be abolished for all men who die in Adam, through the general resurrection.35 But it cannot be emphasized too strongly that for Athanasius, deification is more than physical immortality (see chapter IV), and it is for this reason that moral effort and advancement are required; it is not automatic.36 Thus Athanasius urges:
Let us cleanse our hands, let us purify the body. Let us keep our whole mind from guile . . . occupying ourselves entirely with our Lord, and with divine doctrines, so that, being altogether pure, we may be able to partake of the Logos.37
From the point of view of human responsibility and free will, the grace of God imparted through the Logos is a given: it may be participated in by all who will respond to the summons of righteousness.38 Both moral and intellectual effort are needed however. At the conclusion of his discourse on the Incarnation, Athanasius envisions the day of judgement, and the necessity of our preparation for it on this double level:
But in addition to the study and true knowledge of the Scripture are needed a good life and pure soul and virtue in Christ.
This path will bring knowledge of God in the company of the saints and exemption from the consuming fire which threatens sinners,
that he may receive what has been reserved for the saints in the kingdom of heaven, "which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have they ascended into the heart of man," all things which have been prepared for those who live in virtue and love God.39
This is the divine life of the deified, which only comes to those who are truly converted and practice virtue.
This emphasis on moral striving amounts to a virtual ascesis, and it is developed in terms of the purity of soul which allows one to contemplate God by introspection. By repentance a person can eliminate what has adulterated and obscured the soul, which was made in the image and likeness of God in the beginning.
So when the soul has put off every stain of sin with which it is tinged, and keeps pure only what is in the image, then when this shines forth, it can truly contemplate, as in a mirror, the Logos, the image of the Father.40
The ascesis envisioned here, which combines ethical striving, moral purity and contemplation of the divine, forms the essence of the Life of Antony, Athanasius' enormously influential hagiographical treatise. It has been noted41 that the close connection between his redemption theology and ethics runs throughout his writings, but it is most obvious in the biography of this model saint. The constant theme of the Life is the imitatio Christi, and its purpose is to inspire emulation in its readers.42
After giving up his worldly possessions in an effort to achieve the perfection enjoined in Matthew 19:21,43 Antony "imitated" (εξηλωσεν) the ascesis of a nearby pious monk, following his examples in work, alms, prayer, and memorizing scripture, despite his illiteracy.44 He observed and emulated the virtues of all, in such a way that they rejoiced in his successes.45 To overcome the snares of the devil, he "more and more repressed the body and subjected it,"46 which his zeal and eagerness of soul made easy for him. His desire and disciplined choice (προαιρησις) were focused on advancement (προκοπην) in the way of virtue (την της αρητης οδον).47 Visions and greater power resulted, enabling him to resist the most awesome demonic onslaughts. After nearly twenty years in solitude, he emerged initiated in the mysteries and filled with the Spirit of God (μεμυσταγωγημενος και θεοφορουμενος), without showing any signs of physical deterioration.48 He manifested the philosopher's αταραξια and απαθεια, undisturbed by normal human emotions, "but was entirely equanimous, as guided by reason."49 Thus restored to his "natural state" of god-likeness,50 Antony went about healing diseases, casting out devils, preaching, consoling and reconciling, and converting his admirers to the monastic life.
Although pagan cultural influences in the literary forms and philosophical ideals are evident,51 the parallel with Jesus remains primary in the Life of Antony.52 After an extended period of temptation and meditation in the wilderness, he embarks on a career of wonder-working and preaching, always remembering to glorify God.53 In him the devil's power is vanquished.54 He approaches death with joy, assured of receiving back his body incorruptible in the resurrection.55 Having imitated the Logos who "took a human body for the salvation and well-being of man," Antony thus "partakes in the divine and spiritual nature;" he is the ascetic whose virtue is so exemplary that he is all but deified in this life.56 Thus, as Sträter has pointed out, it is Athanasius' welding of religion and ethics which becomes the theoretical and practical inspiration for monasticism.57 Following this Athanasian model, the monastic way of spiritual asceticism, in seeking impassibility, incorruptibility and independence of bodily needs, envisions a theosis in the imitation of Christ.58
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Athanasius' depiction of Antony is somehow at odds with his view of grace. The interruption of the narrative protesting that Antony does not take credit for his virtuous deeds shows how important the concept of empowering grace was for Athanasius, however hard this may be to attribute to the historical Antony.59 In fact, "the Vita Antonii is constructed with a view to counteracting the Arian concept of adopted sonship as a progress in virtue."60 Antony is the instrument of Christ as well as the imitator par excellence of him.61 But despite Athanasius' editorial stress on grace as the operative power in the life of the ideal monk, "these motifs do not displace testimony from or reference to Antony about the value and necessity of striving after holiness."62 The point Athanasius was trying to make was that the faithful were helpless without divine assistance to achieve the imitatio, but free will is never at issue. "The Vita Antonii is laced with remarks about the importance of the spiritual aspirant's willingness (του θελειν), desire (ποθος) and fixed purpose (προαιρεσις)."63 Athanasius himself was reputed as an "ascetic" among his people, and he considered moral effort indispensable to the Christian life aimed at fulfillment in deification.64
Reading the Life of Antony underscores a striking problem endemic to early monasticism: the relationship of the monk/ascetic to the Church, and especially to the sacraments. The emphasis in Athanasius' biography implies that the extraordinary virtue achieved would suffice for perfection even apart from the sacraments, but such an argument from silence needs further corroboration. We must turn to his other writings to find the positive role of baptism and the Eucharist in deification.
Because of the connection between baptism and the forgiveness of sins in the New Testament, we would expect to see Athanasius use this sacramental rite in his moral theology.65 But while it is true that there is a logical connection between conversion, repentance, baptism and the practice of virtue, the important focus of baptism for Athanasius is that it unites us to the Godhead.66 This is true of the Saviour's baptism as well as that of our own. Because Christ was "bearing our body," when he was washed in the Jordan, "it was we who were washed in him and by him," and the Spirit's descent upon him was a descent upon us.67 That is, it was not the Eternal Logos who was advanced and consecrated, but the flesh or manhood assumed by him, "that the sanctification coming to the Lord as man, may come to all men from him."68 The works of deification had to take place through the body, and only the Logos could initiate this.69 As the archetypal Ideal of perfect manhood, he effected the reversal of the Fall through the sanctification of the water and the Spirit:
. . . for as we are all from earth and die in Adam, so being regenerated from above of water and Spirit, in Christ we are all quickened, the flesh being no longer earthly, but being henceforth "logosized" (λογωθεισης), by reason of God's Logos who for our sake became flesh.70
In this striking way of describing how we participate in the Logos, Athanasius expands on the universal significance of the Incarnation. The emphasis in his baptismal passages is on the unequivocal divinity of the Son and the significance of that fact for our own adoption into sonship. Thus it is of vital importance to understand correctly the triple formula for baptism, for it is only "with such an initiation that we, too, . . . are made sons."71 Otherwise the grace, consecration and illumination of baptism are lacking.72 Such a rite, administered by Arians and other heretics, is "altogether empty and unprofitable," and "in reality . . . no help towards religion."73 The Arians, by their erroneous belief, baptize into a creature, not into the Son of God; such heretical sprinkling pollutes rather than redeems.74 Not just the Name, but right faith, is necessary for the "consecration" of baptism.75 Combining the idea of Christ's archetypal baptism and that of the individual, the meaning of this consecration may be said to consist of a participation of the believer in the sanctification inherent in the Saviour's baptism. While in one sense humanity is baptized with Christ, it is our individual baptism which actualizes the benefits of it for us.76
Although Athanasius did not develop extensively his doctrine of baptism, his thoughts on the Eucharist are even less in evidence, so that Harnack asserted that it is impossible to extract a definite doctrine of the Eucharist from his "confused statements."77 Just when he seems to approach it in commenting on Christ's discourse in John 6 about the eating of his body, he uses it rather to reinforce the distinction between his human and divine nature.78
Nevertheless Athanasius is not lacking entirely in pronouncements of the Eucharist; in fact the Festal Letters, as might be expected, are replete with allusions to it. Sträter finds here79 the implication that the sacramental meal prefigures the enjoyment of Christ in heavenly fellowship. God has commanded us to keep the Passover, and we should do so joyfully, so that "we may also receive an earnest of that heavenly feast."80 This is not the Jewish eating of a lamb, since now the Saviour, "changing the typical for the spiritual," has substituted his own flesh, saying, "Take, eat and drink; this is my body and my blood."81
As with baptism, the eucharistic rite is linked to participation in Christ. He urges his flock to "pray that we may not eat the Passover unworthily," and to "persevere in virtuous conduct, repenting as is our duty."
For to those who keep the feast in purity, the Passover is heavenly food, but to those who observe it profanely and contemptuously, it is a danger and reproach. For it is written, "Whosoever shall eat and drink unworthily is guilty of the death of the Lord." Wherefore, let us not merely proceed to perform the festal rites, but let us be prepared to draw near to the divine Lamb, and to touch heavenly food. . . . so that, being altogether pure, we may be able to partake of the Logos.82
Such language of participation seems to point in the direction of a realistic interpretation of the Eucharist83 along the lines of Irenaeus,84 but nowhere does Athanasius explicate it as such. His emphasis is on the prefigurement of the divine life to come in the Eucharistic meal, provided it is taken worthily. "For if we diligently celebrate the feast here, we shall doubtless receive the perfect joy which is in heaven."85 The Eucharist is one further means of effecting our participation and divinization in the divine Logos. In surprising contrast to baptism, the connection with moral purity and the practice of virtue is stressed in partaking of this sacrament. Although the primary focus of this study is on the eschatological content of deification, Athanasius' sacramental theology points to a temporal aspect as well. The sacraments afford a foretaste, here and now, of full participation in God through incorporation into the body of Christ, which is the Church.86
Christian theology usually associates the primary sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist with the Spirit, and Athanasius is no exception. We have already considered this relationship in his ideal of being "logosized," which refers to participation in the Incarnation through being "regenerated from above of water and Spirit."87 Earlier in the same passage Athanasius speaks of this as the Saviour's "transferring our origin into Himself, [that] we may no longer, as mere earth, return to earth, but as being joined to the Logos from heaven (ωστω εξ ουρανου Λογου συναφθεντης), we may be carried to heaven by him."88 Similarly, the thought of I Corinthians 3:10–17 is invoked when Christ is compared to a foundation and we to the stones which are suitably constructed together (συναρμολογεισθαι) upon it.
Therefore according to his manhood (ανθρωπινον) he is founded, that we, as precious stones, may admit of building upon him, and may become a temple of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. And as he is a foundation, and we stones built upon him, so again he is a vine and we joined together (συνημμενα) with him as branches . . . according to his manhood, for the branches must be like the vine, since we are like him according to the flesh.89
In distinguishing between our own deification and oneness with God and that of the Son who is God in essence, Athanasius stresses that we are made to participate in the Godhead by the Holy Spirit, while "the Son does not merely partake the Spirit . . . nor does he receive the Spirit" in order to be joined (συναπτει) to the Father, but he supplies the Spirit to others; the Spirit indeed receives (λαμβανει) from him.
And the Son is in the Father, as his own Logos and radiance: but we, apart from the Spirit, are strange and distant from God, and by the participation of the Spirit we are joined to the Godhead (τη δε του πνευματος μετοχη συναπτομεθα τη θεοτητι), so that our being in the Father is not ours, but is the Spirit's which is in us.90
It is clear that Athanasius considered the work of the Holy Spirit vital in joining us to the Godhead even before the conflict with the Macedonians over the divinity of the third person of the Trinity.91 By "partaking of his Spirit, we might be deified," he flatly states in his earlier "Defense of the Nicene Definition."92 Thus we may say, with Sträter, that the principle of deification for Athanasius—that which actualizes and fulfills our participation in the Logos, is the Holy Spirit: "Whoever participates in him, takes part with the Son equally and is . . . assimilated to the Logos."93
Just as Athanasius defended the natural divinity of the Son as necessary to the deification of human nature, his argument vis-à-vis the Holy Spirit is based on the same soteriological principle. The Holy Spirit cannot be a creature, originated, but "In him the Logos makes glorious the creation, and by him divinizing (θεοποιων) and adopting into sonship, draws it to the Father." The essence of the Spirit necessarily "pertains to the Godhead of the Father, and in him the Logos makes things originated divine (θεοποιει)."94 If the Spirit were a creature, we would be strangers to the divine nature, not partakers: "we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit" (I John 4:13).95 It is by participation in the Spirit that we are made "sharers in the divine nature" promised in II Peter 1:4.96
The process of deification through participation in the Holy Spirit, which requires that he be above creaturehood, illustrates the richness of the concept. The Spirit's work is renewal, and by this we become heirs of eternal life (Titus 3:4–7).97 It is the Spirit which sanctifies us, and also quickens us in this life and in the resurrection. The Spirit is our unction and seal, and teaches us concerning all things.98
In a number of important respects, then, the work of the exaltation of man undertaken by the Logos may be said to be made effective by the Holy Spirit. The unity of ενεργειγ in the Godhead is insisted upon; "For the Spirit is indivisible from the Word."99 Our only hope of reconciliation and fellowship with God is in the Holy Spirit, through the Logos; otherwise there is no possible communion (κοινωνια) or unity (ενοτης) between creatures and the Creator:
As the grace is given from the Father through the Son, so we can have no communion in the gift except in the Holy Spirit. For it is when we partake of him that we have the love of the Father and the grace of the Son and the communion of the Spirit himself.100
Being thus joined to the Godhead is the goal of every Christian, according to Athanasius. While such a deification is not "earned by merit" in the Arian sense, it is the joint work of God, whose grace makes it possible, and the individual believer, who follows in the path that the Saviour has opened up.
The end of that path is deification, but it is fully attained only in the eschaton, when death and corruption are finally destroyed in the resurrection. And while Athanasius recognizes that "eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart of man," the glorious inheritance which "God has prepared for them that love him,"101 the content of deification is not left entirely to the imagination. We will next consider just what blessings Athanasius includes in the concept of θεωσις.