It does not require deep and protracted study in the Athanasian corpus to notice the paradoxical nature of his soteriology of θεοποιησις. Modern theological biases and habits have disposed Christians to be uneasy with, if not shocked by, such language, and the context of the emphasis which Athanasius placed on deification makes it all the more striking; it is this concept of salvation which requires that the Son be fully divine: in the Nicene phrase, "very God." For Athanasius, deification was the raison d' tre of Nicaea. We have learned to accept the "sublime paradox" of the Incarnation, that "God became man," but Athanasius coupled the converse with it as its justification: "that man may become God (ενηνθρωπησεν, ινα ημεις θεοποιηθωμεν)."1 This formula of Greek Patristic theology, of which the Bishop of Alexandria became the leading proponent, subsequently lapsed into desuetude in Western Christianity, which finally rejected it outright as heretical.2
As an outgrowth of Nicaea, but especially since Augustine, Christian orthodoxy has firmly held to a theology which stressed the transcendental nature of God. Subsequent theology has always tended to take refuge in the safety of the apophatic. Ultimately, it is impossible for human nature to have any direct knowledge of God, or even of his attributes, for man is entirely different from his Maker and exists on a completely different plane of being. Existence in the full sense belongs to God alone, who has "necessary being," while man has only "contingent being;" his existence is totally dependent upon the will of Deity. Thus God is totaliter aliter, since a firm ontological gulf forever separates the Divine from the human, the Creator from the created.3
This theme, which was so central to Augustine, has been reiterated throughout Christian history, from Aquinas to Calvin, from the Westminster Confession to Vatican I,4 and is expressed in extreme but logically consistent form by the neoorthodox theologian Emil Brunner:
There is no greater sense of distance than that which lies in the words Creator-Creation. Now this is the first and the fundamental thing which can be said about man: He is a creature, and as such he is separated by an abyss from the Divine manner of being. The greatest dissimilarity between two things which we can express at all—more dissimilar than light and darkness, death and life, good and evil—is that between the Creator and that which is created.5
This theology, of course, did not spring into full maturity from the pen of Augustine, but was the culmination of a long doctrinal development, to which Athanasius was a contributor. We have examined his anthropology in some detail in Chapter II, but have reserved until now a specific discussion of his doctrine of God.
For Athanasius it was "an admitted truth about God" that he is self-sufficient and complete in himself.6 Furthermore, God is immaterial as well as incorporeal, invisible and untouchable, and has power over all the universe, being transcendent to it.7 This transcendence is especially emphasized in his doctrine of creation. In contrast to the divine Word, "Men are composed of parts and created from nothing;" their word is composite and perishable.
For the nature of created things, having come into being from nothing, is unstable, and is weak and mortal when considered by itself; but the God of all is good and excellent by nature.8
But because this beneficent God "is by nature invisible and incomprehensible, being above all created being," the human race could not attain to a knowledge of God unaided.9
Athanasius is careful to avoid applying human terminology to God as much as possible, and reproaches the Arians for speaking σωματικως about him.10 In turn, he was charged by his opponents with a dependence on Platonic terminology instead of sticking to the Scriptures. His defense was to note that he, unlike the Arians, had rejected the Platonic doctrine of a divine hierarchy in favor of a co-equality of Father and Son, in accordance with Nicaea.11 By distinguishing clearly between the Divine and the human,12 Athanasius can accuse the Arians of Greek idolatry, since they speak of a divine being who is not equal to the Father.13 For Athanasius, "there is nothing between God and creature which can be called divine."14
Nevertheless, Athanasius cannot be absolved so easily from the charge of being overly influenced by Greek philosophy. The personal, nonspeculative theology of the Bible had long since been left behind by cultured Christians, especially at Alexandria, and Meijering points out several important aspects of Athanasius' theology which have their roots in pagan thought. Although the Alexandrian Bishop follows Irenaeus in asserting that God cannot have a beginning, middle or limit,15 the basis of this ontology is Plato.16 The tenet that God is necessarily unchangeable17 is common to Albinus, Plotinus and Proclus.18 God's essence, being unchangeable, does not act from free will, but in the inevitable manner of divine being.19 This latter is in sharp contrast to Irenaeus, who based man's free will on his likeness to God. The reason Athanasius rejected the Irenaean doctrine of divine free will is that "ontology played a much more important part in his theology than in that of Irenaeus."20
Although it was not originally an ontological definition of God, Athanasius interpreted the Septuagint's εγω ειμι ο ων (Exodus 3:14) according to sound Platonic/Philonic principles: it indicates God's ακαταλεπτος ουσια.21 His objection to any parts or composition in God (shared by the Arians) has been traced back to Xenophanes.22 The interpretation of omnipotence to exclude any space outside God follows Plotinus.23 In his theology, Meijering concludes, "Athanasius clearly partly speaks about God as the Platonists speak about the divine realm of ideas."24 Bernard analyzes this as a Platonic spirit-matter dualism.25 In spite of this Meijering plays down the antithesis between Platonic and biblical thought in view of Athanasius' skill at harmoniously blending his Christian faith "largely in Platonic language and presuppositions," but he concedes that it is his ontology which is most conspicuously non-biblical.26
This philosophical ontology in his doctrine of God is more significant than Meijering acknowledges, since, largely owing to this, Athanasius never attained a harmonious synthesis of the relationship of God to the world, and especially to man.27 As Lot-Borodine points out, the Nicene definition of the Son as ομοουσιος with the Father would logically preclude the Logos as a mediator between God and man.28 Athanasius' stress on the absolute divinity of the Logos means that "between the one who divinizes (θεοποιει) and those who are divinized, there is . . . the transcendence which separates the Creator and creatures."29 Athanasius thus became the spokesman for fourth-century Christianity's perception that
no doctrine of mediation between the spiritual and material (or agenetic and genetic) poles of the Platonic dualism could suffice if God were really infinite and incomprehensible and Christ were really God.30
The irony of Athanasius' doctrine is that the more he emphasized the absolute divinity of the Saviour, the more difficult it became to explain his concept of salvation in terms of an essentially foreign creature participating in that divinity. Yet it was this very soteriology which fired his zeal for the essential Godhood of the Son.31 This seems to become more of a problem in the later writings, as Athanasius was pushed to a more exact formulation of his position by the Arian challenge. Although we can imitate godly virtues, "we cannot become like God in essence," he insists, and he stresses the ontological disparity between man and God even when citing the standard proof-texts for deification:
But a mutable thing cannot be like God who is truly unchangeable, any more than what is created can be like its Creator. This is why, with regard to us, the holy man said, "Lord, who shall be likened unto thee" (Psalm 83:1, LXX), and "who among the gods is like unto thee, Lord" (Psalm 86:8); meaning by gods those who, while created, had yet become partakers of the Logos, as he himself said, "If he called them gods to whom the word of God came" (John 10:35). But things which partake cannot be identical or similar to that whereof they partake.32
Likewise in his defense of the Spirit's divinity, Athanasius emphasized the ontological disparity between Creator and creature. Creatures came from nothing, while the Holy Spirit is of God. "What kinship could there be . . . between the Spirit and creatures? For the creatures were not, but God has being (ων εστιν), and the Spirit is from him."33 But, as in the case of the Son, the motive for stressing the Spirit's divinity is a soteriological one. It is precisely because the Spirit is divine by nature that men are "made divine" (θεοποιει), becoming "sharers in the divine nature."34
The paradox of Athanasian soteriology is that, despite his creaturehood and essential alienation from God, which seems to make communion with Him impossible, man is called to a supernatural destiny.35 Along with Greek Christian theology in general, that of Athanasius has been criticized by moderns as being implicitly less than monotheistic, since theos denoted, for the Greek mind, not Almighty God, but a class of immortal beings; this was, in fact, "the source and strength of Arianism."36 Athanasius' attempt to refute their conclusions had the inherent weakness of sharing identical presuppositions: the infinite, transcendent nature of God, and salvation as θεοποιησις. The remainder of this chapter will examine and evaluate Athanasius' attempt to reconcile these seemingly contradictory articles of his faith.
Long before Athanasius' time, the view that every creature, even matter itself, came into being ex nihilo by the fiat of God, was adopted almost universally by ecclesiastical Christianity. Against both the Gnostic denigration of the Demiurge and the Greek philosophical view of the world's eternity, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo superceded the older assumptions of a creation from pre-existent matter.
God alone, it was affirmed, was without beginning or end as the Ultimate Principle, existing in his own right as Creator. Therefore, the cosmos was created by him "out of nothing."37
At least by the time of Origen, this view "had become the prevailing theory in the Christian Church. God had created matter. He was not merely the Architect of the universe, but its Source."38
This principle was assumed by both sides of the Arian conflict, and is especially important for Athanasius. Plato's doctrine of pre-existent and uncreated matter, he argues, imputes weakness to God, since then his ability as creator would depend on the existence of matter.
God would be merely a craftsman and not the creator of their existence, if he fashions underlying matter but is not himself the cause of the matter. For he could in no way be called Creator (κτιστης) if he does not create the matter from which created things come into being.39
It is a "gentile thought" that God is an artificer who compounds out of materials.40 But the teaching of Christ is that "through the Logos God brought the universe, which previously in no way subsisted at all, into being from non-existence," because of God's goodness and lack of envy.41
Athanasius' rejection of any ontological hierarchy extending downward from God is manifest in his repudiation of the Arian description of the Son as "a creature, but not as one of the creatures." His ontology recognizes two classes of being: God and creation. Creatures and works do not exist "before their origination," but "subsist out of nothing," even though the differences in creatures allow for a hierarchy of glory within their own ranks.42 Thus humans, despite their creation κατ' εικονα θεου, have been "created of matter, and that passible, but God is immaterial and incorporeal." Enlarging on this disparity, he continues:
And again men, being incapable of self-existence, are enclosed in place, and consist in the Logos of God, but God is self-existent, enclosing all things, and enclosed by none; within all according to his own goodness and power, yet without all in his proper nature.43
As regards nature, or ουσια, the principle of Athanasian ontology is that "we are creatures and other than God."44 So while it is fair to say that Athanasius, in the mainstream of Patristic theologians, appropriated the God of neo-Platonism, he rejected the corresponding anthropology which regarded man as immortal spiritual substance in the ontological stream of emanation from the One. As a corollary of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, man cannot be divine by essence, but is something "wholly other."45 Rutenber, in fact, sees the Christian concept of God as being even further absolutized through the doctrine of creation, since he believes that ultimately the Platonic God must be subordinate to forms. "It remained for Christian philosophy to . . . make mind absolutely central, through the doctrine of a personal God who creates ex nihilo."46 But this theology throws into question the terminology of Athanasian soteriology, since "the concept of a transcendental, absolutely omnipotent god, implying the utterly subordinate and creaturely character of the world created by him out of nothing" precluded any achievement of self-deification or mystical "possession of god," which might make room for pantheism.47 In fact, it is just such willfulness, which aimed to become "equal to God" (on the basis of the unity invoked in John 17) which draws forth from Athanasius a curse upon the Arians as children of the devil for their "unreasoning audacity" and reckless self-deceit.48
It is obvious that Athanasius faced a dilemma. How could he reconcile his condemnation of a υβρις which aspires "to ascend to heaven, to be like the Most High" (cf. Isaiah 14:14), with his own oft-repeated promise of deification to the faithful, which was so fundamental to his doctrinal system?
The first point to be noted is that the doctrine of a creation out of nothing was not left in all its radical implications without qualification. In fact, creation is a manifestation of grace, and this is especially true in the case of man. The importance of humanity's creation "in the image and likeness of God" is seen to be relevant at this point. God is almighty, and although he made the race of man from nothing so that their nature was weak, "he did not leave them destitute."
Therefore . . . since he is good he bestowed on them his own image, our Lord Jesus Christ, and made them according to his own image and likeness.49
This theme has been treated extensively in chapter II, but here it takes on new significance. In addition to sustaining our existence,50 our participation in the Logos from creation implies that we were created καλως, so that we are not αλογος.51
Actually, from the standpoint of the anti-Gnostic tradition, which Athanasius fully endorsed,52 creation ex nihilo is an affirmation of the value and goodness of the cosmos. Whereas the Gnostics described all material creation as unrelated to God and thus estranged or alien to him, the Fathers stressed the creation by God himself in accordance with the Bible. The development of the idea that this divine creation was not out of the previously existing, resistant matter of the Timaeus was to underline our relationship to him. Whereas modern theology tends to describe the created order as "wholly other" than God, based on the ex nihilo principle, the early Church, especially in an anti-Gnostic context, affirmed that God pronounced it good.53 From this aspect, our creation ex nihilo means "from no other than God himself we have our being." It is this implication which Athanasius builds upon in stressing the creation of man "in the image and likeness of God."54 Teilhard de Chardin, recognizing this connection, stated, "It is in the doctrine of divinization we may say that the key is found to creation."55
On the other hand, although creation ex nihilo rejects any notion of a defective creation through the resistance of pre-existent matter, it likewise precludes our creation out of the substance of God, so that deification can be called "unnatural."56 Man's nature, being created from nothing, is weak,57 so that God had to take "special pity" on humanity, "seeing that by the definition of its own existence it would be unable to persist forever."58 Sträter perhaps overstates the case when he argues that it is not the Fall which threatens man so much as his creaturely status per se.59 At any rate, our status as special creatures "in the image and likeness of God" is an endowment of grace, not nature. Man only participates in godly life and being.60 It is apparent that the so-called "imprecision" in Athanasius' anthropology is, to a large degree, the basis of his soteriological dilemma. Just as he is both created "out of nothing" and yet in the image of God, and so both subject to corruption and the recipient of divine favor, so in redemption he must remain by nature a "creature" while exalted to the divine status of his Creator, i.e., deified. If, as Roldanus insists, communion with Christ remains a relationship of grace and never becomes "natural," then the superiority claimed by Athanasius of redemption over creation is jeopardized. Man is still changeable by nature; it is still possible for him to be separated from participation in the Godhead.61
The grace of participation bestowed in creation is emphasized most strongly in the early apologetic works, but the corresponding participation involved in deification, which fulfills the intent of that creation in the divine image, is increasingly stressed in the later works against the Arians. The Incarnation restores our participation in "the divine and spiritual nature,"62 but it does not make us equal to God. Despite the injunction to be perfect as our Father in heaven,
He said this not that we might become such as the Father; for to become as the Father is impossible to us creatures, who have been brought to be out of nothing. . . . and though we are men from the earth, are yet called gods, [but] not as the true God or his Logos. . . .63
Here the stress is on the fact that, in the deification proof-text Psalm 81:6 (=John 10:34), "god" is only a title, and does not pertain to one's nature.
But if some have been called gods, they are not so by nature, but by participation. Thus he [Christ] himself said, "If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came. . ."64
Of course the point of this qualification of the doctrine of deification is our contrast, as creatures, with the Son, who is God by nature, and not by participation, as the Arians would have it.
On the same principle, we differ from the Son in our participation of the Spirit:
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 into the Godhead, so that our being in the Father is not ours, but is the Spirit's which is in us and abides in us.65
Christ is the source of our deification, the vine into which we are grafted, but "not according to the ουσιαν of the Godhead, for this is indeed impossible." Rather, it is by virtue of his uniting his Godhead to our humanity that we are enabled to participate in it.66 A careful reading of John's gospel, Athanasius maintains,
will teach how we become in God and God in us; and how again we become one in him, and how the Son differs in nature from us, and will stop the Arians from any longer thinking that they shall be as the Son. . . .67
From the standpoint of Athanasius' ontology, the inescapable conclusion from the foregoing is that θεοποιησις is a contradiction in terms. Only the Son is God by nature, and if he deifies his followers by virtue of that Godhood, they cannot be essentially divine; they remain beings created "out of nothing" and thus always subject, at least in principle, to change and corruption. It is in this context that Athanasius stressed our deification by "adoption" into sonship.
The Arians claim that believers were fully equal to Christ as sons of God68 led Athanasius to stress the adoptive nature of their sonship, as opposed to the natural or essential sonship of the Saviour. He described their deceptive circumventions at Nicaea to avoid being pinned down by scriptural phrases exclusive to the Son:
. . . they were caught whispering to each other and winking their eyes, that "like" and "always" and "power" and "in him," were common to us and the Son, so that there was no difficulty in agreeing to these. As to "like," they said that it is written of us, "Man is the image and glory of God" (I Corinthians 11:7); "always," that it was written, "For we which live are always" (II Corinthians 4:11); "in him," "In him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28); "unalterable," that it is written, "Nothing shall separate us from the love of Christ" (Romans 8:35); as to "power," that the caterpillar and the locust are called "power" and "great power" (Joel 2:25), and that it is often said of the people, for instance, "All the power came out of the land of Egypt" (Exodus 12:41).69
It was offensive enough to classify Christ with humanity, but the inclusion of caterpillars and locusts left no doubt about his creaturely status for the Arians. While this report strikes us as amusing, the incident illustrates how infuriating the Arians could be for Athanasius. Nevertheless, this passage clearly indicates that their appeal to the masses relied on the marshalling of scriptural texts. "Frustrated by this hermeneutic . . . Athanasius labors to draw a sharp line of demarcation between Christ's sonship and ours."70
He is very God existing one in essence (ομοουσιος) with the very Father; while other beings, to whom He said, "I said ye are gods" had this grace from the Father only by participation of the Logos, through the Spirit.71
The adoption which enables us to participate in the Son and his divine nature is effected by the Holy Spirit. This is the basic theme of the Epistles to Serapion arguing for the essential Godhead of the Spirit. Participation in the Holy Ghost, he explains, allows us to be assimilated to the Son and participate in his characteristics, "of which the one most stressed as the most important and meaningful is sonship to God; whoever receives the Holy Ghost is adopted as God's Son."72 But Athanasius never loses sight of the difference between the Logos and redeemed man: Christ is θεος σαρκοφορος, while men, through the redemption, can become ανθρωπα πνευματοφοροι, so that in Christ the human nature is contingent, while in us it is the Holy Spirit, or divine nature, which is "supernatural."73 This point recalls again the connection of Athanasius' soteriology with his anthropology. The difference between Christ as the Son of God and believers as sons by adoption corresponds to the differentiation between Christ as the Image of God and man as being "in" that image.74
The importance of this concept of sonship by adoption is succinctly summarized by Gross:
More clearly than the earlier Fathers, S. Athanasius identifies divinization and divine filiation. He employs the terms θεοποιειν and υιοποιειν as synonyms, which express the assimilation and the intimate union of the Christian in him. Assimilation, not identification, the Bishop of Alexandria specifies, because deified man is the son of God by adoption, by grace alone; he could never become a son by nature as the incarnate Logos.75
This analysis indicates the most obvious and probably the most significant effect of the Arian conflict on Athanasius' theology—the emphasis on the unique status of the Son as divine "by nature," in contrast to our potential deification by participation:
And again, if, as we have said before, the Son is not such by participation, but while all things originated have the grace of God, he is the Father's Wisdom and Logos of which all things partake, it follows that he, being the deifying and enlightening power of the Father, in which all things are deified and quickened, is not alien in essence from the Father, but coessential. For by partaking of him, we partake of the Father, because the Logos is the Father's own. Whence, if he himself was also from participation, and not from the essential Godhead and image of the Father himself (μη εξ αυτου ουσιωδης θεοτης και εικων του πατρος) he would not deify, being himself deified.76
One who possesses this deification by participation cannot impart it to others, Athanasius continues, since it is not his own, but belongs to the giver; the deified person possesses only sufficient grace for himself.77 The great error and blasphemy of the Arians is to ascribe the divinity of the son to his advancement and election by the will of the Father as a reward for his moral virtue. This adoptionist Christology was based on the Arian insistence of the Διο of Philippians 2:9 as a result indicator: Paul writes that he was obedient unto death, therefore God highly exalted him. Likewise they cited Psalm 44:7 (LXX): "Thou hast loved righteousness and hated iniquity, therefore (Δια τουτο) God, even thy God, has anointed thee (εχρισε σε) with the oil of gladness above thy fellows."78 Athanasius objects to making the Son thus changeable:
But if they say this of the Saviour, he is exposed to be neither true, nor God, nor Son, nor like the Father, nor does he have God for his Father at all according to essence, but only from the grace given to him, and having God as the creator of his being according to essence, just like everything else.79
This would mean that Christ could not have promoted (βελτιωσας) our flesh at all, since he himself was promoted through it.
Rather, Athanasius insists, Paul speaks of Christ as humbling and emptying himself (in Philippians 2:6–8), in order to become flesh, so that "he had not promotion from his descent, but rather promoted [us] . . . and made us sons of the Father, and deified man by becoming himself man."80
Therefore he was not man, and then became God, but he was God, and then became man, and that to deify us . . . for adoption could not be apart from the real Son. . . . And if all that are called sons and gods, whether in earth or in heaven, were adopted and deified through the Logos, and the Son himself is the Logos, it is plain that through him are they all, and he himself before all, or rather he himself only is true God, not receiving these prerogatives as a reward for his virtue, nor being another beside them, but being all these by nature and according to essence.81
Besides clearly demonstrating Athanasius' equation of divinization with adoption, this anti-Arian passage epitomizes the soteriological necessity of the Saviour's absolute divinity for the Bishop of Alexandria. As the Logos and Wisdom of the Father, he is "absolute holiness and absolute life" (αυτοαγισμος και αυτοζωη), who necessarily "coexists eternally with the Father."82 Athanasius even goes so far as to stress the transcendence of the Logos.83
The danger of this insistence on the absolute essential deity of the Son is a docetic tendency, which always seems to haunt Athanasius' Christology. The long-standing controversy over his similarity to Apollinaris is one manifestation of this,84 but more to the point is his repeated sharp distinction between the human and divine actions in the life of Jesus, to counter the Arian use of passages from the gospels which indicated limitations or subordination in Christ. Harnack paraphrases this exegetical principle of Athanasius:
The language used of Christ in Scripture to express what is human and belongs to the creature, has, always and only, reference to the human nature which he took upon Him in order to redeem men. . . . He who is by nature God took upon Him a body in order to unite with Himself what is by nature man in order that the salvation and deification of man might surely be accomplished.85
This seeming paradox is expressed even more forcefully by Athanasius himself. In the Epistle to Epictetus, Athanasius is compelled to recognize that Christ's human body is not joined to the Trinity as a heterogeneous fourth part, which would enable Deity to suffer:
For what the human body of the Logos suffered, this the Logos, dwelling in the body, ascribed to himself, in order that we might be enabled to be partakers of the Godhead of the Logos.86 And verily it is strange that he it was who suffered and yet suffered not. Suffered, because his own body suffered, and he was in it, which thus suffered; suffered not, because the Logos, being by nature God, is impassible.87
Athanasius felt the need for a powerful Saviour; one who was not, in his essential being, susceptible to human passions and foibles; only such a being could guarantee the salvation which he envisioned. Daniélou's comment in his introduction to Lot-Borodine's study of deification is particularly cogent with regard to Athanasius. In her book, "Christ is envisioned essentially in his glorious state." The corollary of this is that the suffering Christ, the human Christ, does not figure prominently in the Greek Church.88 The problems implicit in this state of affairs give insight into why the Nicene formula seemed to open up into the Christological debate of the following years: how could God and man be united in one person?
But the other side of the coin, the problem to be considered here, was the one facing Athanasius: how could man, a creature, become God, the joint-heir of the Father with Christ? As we have seen, Athanasius answered this challenge with his doctrine of adoption and participation, which can be effected only by the grace of God. While the Son is αληθινος θεος, ομοουσιος with the Father, "other beings to whom he said, 'I said ye are gods,' had this grace from the Father, only by participation. . . ."89 It is the operation of grace which distinguishes us, the recipients, as sons, from the only-begotten Son by nature, the dispenser of that grace.
For as, although there be one Son by nature, true and only-begotten, we too become sons, not as he in nature and truth, but according to the grace of him that calleth, and though we are men from the earth, are yet called qeoiv, not as the true God or his Logos, but as has pleased God who has given us that grace.90
Again, men "become" sons of God not by nature but by adoption: God's kindness is manifest to us in that he is first our Maker, but "afterwards according to grace he becomes [our] Father also."91 Men can only become sons "by receiving the Spirit of the natural and true Son." When the Logos finds place in us, we may fitly "cry Abba, Father," and on the same principle "the Father calls them sons in whomsoever he sees his own Son."92 Thus while men are by nature creatures, and then "begotten" as sons, the Logos is by nature Son, and then becomes created and made by putting on flesh; "we become sons by adoption and grace . . . when in grace towards us he became man."93
The primary channels of God's grace, then, are the creation94 and the Incarnation. Athanasius' statement that "of the Son himself, all things partake according to the grace of the Spirit coming from him," has this double significance, since in Christ, the offspring of the Father's own essence, God "creates and makes all things, and all things are redeemed, and the new creation wrought afresh."95 The subtle but important relationship between the creation and redemption is further evident in his discourse on the Spirit's divinity:
In him the Logos makes glorious the creation, by divinizing and adopting it into sonship (θεοποιων δε και υιοποιων) he draws it to the Father. . . . in him the Logos deifies (θεοποιει) originated things.96
The work of God is thus progressive: from non-being we are created and given existence, and then our life is raised to the level of deity through adoption into the family of God.
In the course of this study, we have seen a two-fold solution to the problem of deification in overcoming the barrier of our ontological disparity from God: (1) the emphasis on our creation "in the image and likeness" of God, rather than out of chaotic and recalcitrant pre-existing matter, which gives us the capacity to develop the spiritual and moral qualities of godliness through the proper use of reason; and (2) the grace proffered through the Incarnation, which enables us to partake of the divine nature and be counted as children of God and joint-heirs with Christ, by virtue of the archetypal union of God and humanity in the person of the divine Saviour. It is a rather neat package, but does it hold together? Can a being, whose essence, having come into existence from nothing, has nothing essentially in common with a God whose nature is eternal and unchangeable, "become God," even in a limited sense? Ultimately, how compatible is Athanasius' soteriology with his ontology?
Reitzenstein's Die hellenistischen Mysterienreligionen delineated two basic views of man in the Orient: (1) the Semitic sharp distinction between man and God; and (2) the opposing view that man contained a divine element which held the nature and destiny of man in a direct relation with deity. Although this analysis has been challenged on several counts,97 it retains some validity for the fourth century, when the biblical distance between Creator and creature was presumed by Christian writers to be an ontological one. Athanasius based his attack on the Arians on the principle that
there is nothing between God and creature which can be called divine. Those who speak of a divine being which is not equal to the Father are guilty of idolatry. Therefore he accuses both the Arians and the Greeks of idolatry. There is a clear distinction between what is Divine and what is human.98
Yet in his own soteriology he teaches θεοποιησις by grace, which, in effect at least, seems to put him in the same camp with the Arians he so vigorously condemns for placing man on a level with God.99 To some commentators this signifies a double usage of θεος by Athanasius, on the principle that the Greek mind simply equated θεος with "immortal being."100 The so-called "physical theory of redemption" in the Greek Fathers has the attractiveness of largely ameliorating the problem at issue here. If the concern is merely with immortality, God can preserve man from the consequences of his mortal nature by his goodness and grace.101 But as deification is given a more profound basis as the radical transformation of human nature which the name implies, and which we have seen Athanasius develop in the preceding chapter, it becomes so much the more difficult to reconcile with his theological ontology.
Bernard sees the χαρις/κατ' εικονα of the Contra Gentes-De Incarnatione as enriched by the concept of divinization in the later anti-Arian writings.102 From our analysis, it would be more accurate to describe it as a "modification" of his ideal of a restoration to the original state of creation, since he distinguishes more and more between the divine acts of creation and adoption.103 The reason John 1:12f. says he gave believers power to become children of God is significant: "He says 'become' because they are not called sons by nature but by adoption. . . . from the beginning we were creatures by nature . . . but afterwards we were made Sons."104 We can imitate God by progress in virtue, but "we cannot become like God in essence."105 We are mutable, God is unchangeable; creatures can only be gods by participation in the Logos. "But things which partake cannot be identical or similar to that whereof they partake."106 Does this emphasis on the ontological disparity between God and "gods," which seems to tone down deification, indicate an awareness by Athanasius of the inconsistency inherent in his stance? Such a recognition lends poignancy to his appeal to grace, which threatens to undermine the whole basis of his soteriology. After asking what possible communion or unity can exist between originate things and that which creates, he goes on to say,
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 (κοινωνια) of the Spirit himself.107
Despite the problem we have discussed here, the Eastern Church continued to use the traditional language of deification in its soteriological formulations. But the logical incompatibility of orthodox ontology with deification led to its eventual rejection by mainstream Western Christianity, although it did survive, somewhat transformed, in the mystical tradition. In a sense, Athanasius pointed the way for Augustine with his increasing recognition of the centrality of God's grace. But the succeeding course of the various streams of Athanasius' thought lies outside the main concern of this study, although I have attempted a brief survey of this vast field in the Appendix. First, a summary and assessment of the value of this study is in order.