Athanasius lived in an era of transition. The glory of pagan antiquity was on the wane, and Christianity was emerging from the closet to fill the void. Nevertheless, even for Christians, it was still an "Age of Anxiety."1 The barbarian thrust did not end with the accession of Constantine, but was to grow gradually worse. Declining prosperity and urban discontent were ever present facts of life during Athanasius' episcopate. Demonic forces seemed to increase their activity, as heresy, schism and corruption continually threatened the progress of the Church. The victory of the "orthodox" party was by no means assured, especially as Emperors seemed particularly susceptible to Arian influence. Julian's policy of "toleration" seemed to come almost as a relief to the beleaguered exponents of Nicaea. The fervor and energy of Athanasius' unyielding commitment was a beacon of faith and integrity amidst profound insecurity. His hope was not in the uncertainties of a transitory material world, for "the sufferings of the present time were not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us."
And though we fought on earth, we shall not receive our inheritance on earth, but we have the promises in heaven.2
This preoccupation with the future existence, life after death, and the heavenly reward, contrasts sharply with major theological currents of our own time, with its existential, "realizing" type of salvation. Our society, which has so insulated itself from the dying and only in recent years is beginning to allow itself to think about dealing with death, has a hard time understanding an age when death was a common and very near experience. Religions competed with each other in promising an immortality beyond the grave, and Christianity's loudest proclamation was "He is risen!" Christology developed in response to soteriological needs and longings, and for Athanasius, Christology is soteriology.
Thus deification lies at the very heart of his Christianity, and is an important key to his doctrinal system. It is the goal of both creation and Incarnation. God created man in his own image and likeness, and then came to restore and fulfill that image. The integral relationship of the doctrine of deification to the overall plan of salvation is summarized by a modern Catholic theologian, but it applies with special force to Athanasius:
The end to which the creation leads is the realization of a union, in which nature and persons remain distinct, between man, the creature, made divine by grace but with his own consent and cooperation, and the One who, in the person of the Son, has taken upon himself human nature in order that we become sharers in the divine nature, consortes divinae naturae. The key to biblical teaching, Jewish and Christian, about creation, in the end is only to be found in the doctrine that the creature is made godlike, what the Greek Fathers called theiosis.3
For Athanasius, deification is a necessary corollary of the Christian faith, not a concession to pagan longings. His constant emphasis on participation, or deification by grace as opposed to nature, safeguards against both polytheism on the one hand and pantheism on the other. The deified Christian is never equal to God in essence, and remains subordinate by nature, nor is one identified with God so as to lose his individual consciousness or activity. The difference, for Athanasius, between Christ and the Christian, is that what the Saviour possesses φυσει και αληθεια, the saved attains θεσει και χαριτι.4
Nevertheless, this does not lessen the content of deification, which encompasses much more than just the immortality and incorruption of the body in resurrection. In this sense the description of deification as the "physical theory of redemption" has been seen to be inadequate, if not wholly misleading. Despite the qualifications which Athanasius must place on divinization as only participation in God, Christ has elevated the flesh, or human nature, above the limits of its weakness to enjoy the privileges and victory of the Word made flesh. As joint heirs with the Son and members of his body, the redeemed Christian possesses and enjoys to the full wisdom, justice, holiness, perfection, loving union, glorification and exaltation to the very life of the Trinity.5
The doctrine, however, is not without problems. Upon close examination, a tension was seen to exist between Athanasius' theology, which, against the Arians, placed both God the Father and the Son on a different and ultimately unattainable ontological plane, and his soteriology, which promised a participation in that Deity transcending virtually all the limitations of the human, creaturely status.6 In fact, it was this very soteriology which required the insistence on the absolute divinity of the Saviour. But this paradox, which has received scant attention in the secondary literature, only reached its breaking point in Western Christianity of later years. The divergence of West from East on the doctrine of redemption is traced in more detail in the Appendix, but we may observe here that with Augustine, the Latins effectually rejected or "outgrew" the doctrine of deification. Eastern Christianity, however, the Orthodox tradition, has maintained it, so that deification has been seen as the major theological dividing point between East and West.7
The ecumenical implications of this study are significant. As Turner notes, "The Greek doctrine of Redemption by deification has an importance which it would be hard to overestimate in the evolution of the Patristic tradition."8 Athanasius, by virtue of his unflagging defense of Nicaea, holds a firm place of honor in the three principle Christian traditions: Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant. Among all the Church Fathers, he provides perhaps the ideal starting-point for ecumenical dialogue and doctrinal reconciliation.9 Thus a better appreciation of his doctrine of deification could enhance the potential for solidarity inherent in our common tradition.
In reproaching the "shallowness" of Western theological understanding in its insistence on clear-cut doctrinal concepts, Turner observes that the obscurity of the Eastern doctrine of deification is not one of darkness.
It is rather the splendour of light which dazzles with excess and not with deficiency of being. It betokens the richness of the heritage which is ours in Christ Jesus, which transcends our limited powers of definition and comprehension, and which defeats our lesser clarities.10
For Athanasius, deification was the ideal term to describe the promise of that salvation which surpasses all understanding, which "eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man," but which God himself has prepared for those who love him.11 To ignore his vision of the eternal potential of humanity and the greatness of God's promise is not just to misunderstand the fourth-century Bishop of Alexandria, but to impoverish our own existence.