St Athanasius the Great: Theologian of the Cross

Contra Gentes (“Against the Heathen”) and De Incarnatione (“On the Incarnation”) together form one of the most important theological treatises in patristic literature. Written by St Athanasius the Great perhaps early in his episcopal ministry, the treatise presents what John Behr describes as “the defining exposition of Nicene theology, certainly as understood by the later Byzantine tradition” (“Introduction” to On the Incarnation, p. 21). With great brevity and simplicity, Athanasius expounds the whole of the story of salvation, from creation to recreation, the heart of which being the Incarnation of the eternal Word. If you are interested in learning about the theology of the Church Fathers, surely these are the two books with which to begin. And if you are a preacher of the gospel, you probably should re-read De Incarnatione every couple of years.

At the beginning of Contra Gentes Athanasius announces the purpose of the dual treatise—to proclaim and defend the saving cross of Jesus Christ. Athanasius’s purpose is both catechetical and apologetic:

For this is what the Gentiles traduce and scoff at, and laugh loudly at us, insisting on the one fact of the Cross of Christ; and it is just here that one must pity their want of sense, because when they traduce the Cross of Christ they do not see that its power has filled all the world, and that by it the effects of the knowledge of God are made manifest to all. For they would not have scoffed at such a fact, had they, too, been men who genuinely gave heed to His divine Nature. On the contrary, they in their turn would have recognised this man as Saviour of the world, and that the Cross has been not a disaster, but a healing of Creation. For if after the Cross all idolatry was overthrown, while every manifestation of demons is driven away by this Sign, and Christ alone is worshipped and the Father known through Him, and, while gainsayers are put to shame, He daily invisibly wins over the souls of these gainsayers—how, one might fairly ask them, is it still open to us to regard the matter as human, instead of confessing that He Who ascended the Cross is Word of God and Saviour of the World? (Gent. 1).

St Athanasius is first and foremost a theologian of the cross. This is easily forgotten, given that so much of his theological work was devoted to the defense of the homoousion; but at the heart of theology is a soteriological vision that informs all of his subsequent reflection and polemic. From the cross God has redeemed and healed all of creation.

Athanasius does not begin, in other words, with an abstract theory of the Incarnation (how are Christ’s two natures combined in one person?) nor with an abstract theory of the immanent Trinity (how is God both one and three?). He begins with the Scriptures and the story of salvation. He begins with the crucified and risen Savior. Athanasius stands within the early tradition before theology was intellectualized, schematized, and broken up into disconnected chapters. Behr elaborates on this early tradition:

The apostles were not interested in the images and analogies of plurality found in Scripture, nor in reconciling plurality and unity. But they certainly were concerned to explain, through the medium of Scripture, how the Lord Jesus relates to the one God, his Father, in the Spirit. This basic scriptural grammar of Trinitarian theology—that the one God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, made known in and through the Spirit—is preserved in the most abstract discussions of the fourth century, in the creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople, and in liturgical language. Yet this fundamental grammar is overlooked when the point of these discussions is neglected and the resulting formulae are taken in abstraction, as referring to an “immanent” Trinity—one God existing in three Persons—which is then presupposed and superimposed upon the scriptural revelation. At this point, it is not enough simply to assert the identity of the “economic” Trinity and the “immanent” Trinity, or to emphasize that the “economic” basis of our knowledge of the Trinity—that it is only through the revelation of the Son in and through the Spirit that we can speak of God as Father—must correspond to how the Trinity actually is in “immanent” terms. These two dimensions of Trinitarian theology, economic and immanent, should never have been separated, even if they are subsequently reunited. That Trinitarian theology results from reflecting on how the crucified and exalted Lord Jesus Christ reveals the one and only God as Father, in and through the Holy Spirit, who also enables adopted sons crucified with Christ to call upon the same God as Father, means that Trinitarian theology has less to do with the heavenly existence of three divine persons than with this new manner of confessing the one God—as Father, in the Son, by the Holy Spirit. (Nicene Faith, I:7-8)

As we shall see, Athanasius is willing to distinguish between the discarnate Word (the Word “before” he enfleshed himself) and the incarnate Word (the Word who is Jesus of Nazareth); but he does not engage in extensive speculation on the immanent life of the Holy Trinity apart from the economy of salvation nor on the mechanics of incarnation. As you read these postings, please observe how frequently St Athanasius, even when referring to the Logos asarkos, identifies the Word as “our Lord Jesus Christ.” In his writings Athanasius approximates a theological principle that I learned some twenty-five years ago from the 17th century Lutheran dogmatician Martin Chemnitz:

It is also the nature of the hypostatic union that now after the incarnation the person of the Logos cannot and ought not to be considered or made an object of faith outside of, without or separate from the assumed nature, nor in turn the assumed flesh outside of and without the Logos, if we wish to think reverently and correctly. Indeed, since for us poor sinners there is no approach open to the bare divine majesty any more than for a blade of straw to a consuming fire, the divine nature of the Logos assumed a nature of the same substance with ours and akin to ours, in which He placed the whole fullness of the deity personally, so that in this object which is of the same substance with ours and akin to us we might know God, seek, and grasp Him. For in the flesh of Christ dwells the whole fullness of the deity of the Son, and the Father is in the Son. We thus begin from the flesh of Christ and from there mount to communion with the deity of the Logos, and from there to communion with the entire Trinity. (The Two Natures of Christ, p. 79)

The consuming interest of St Athanasius the Great is the living Savior, the Word made flesh, and the recreation of the world that he has effected by his death and resurrection. “For he was incarnate,” the Alexandrian saint proclaims, “that we might be made god; and he manifested himself through a body that we might receive an idea of the invisible Father; and he endured the insults of human beings, that we might inherit incorruptibility” (Inc. 54).

(Go to “The Creation of Humanity“)

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4 Responses to St Athanasius the Great: Theologian of the Cross

  1. Pingback: St Athanasius the Great: Theologian of the Cross | Eclectic Orthodoxy |

  2. coffeezombie says:

    It is always striking to me to be reminded of how intimately so many of these debates in the first millennium of the Church were connected to our very salvation. In today’s world (particularly in the more Evangelical tradition in which I grew up), “theology” is generally seen as a sort of purely academic discipline, something for people who read and think too much, and is even often seen as almost mutually exclusive with an active faith in Christ. If nothing else, it has little bearing on our day-to-day life in Christ.

    I wish, when my mother and I were once arguing about the Trinity, when she asked me how having the “right idea” about the Trinity had anything to do with your relationship with Christ or how you worship or anything like that, I had been able to point to something like this and say, “It has everything to do with it!”


  3. coffeezomebie,

    …asked me how having the “right idea” about the Trinity had anything to do with your relationship with Christ or how you worship or anything like that…”

    Your comment brought a chuckle & nostalgia. When I was a catechumen 11 years ago I was having problems accepting the doctrine of the Literal Presence. Explanations & debate did me no good as I understood what was being said. This was the last topic in my catechumenate before my reception & it had become a wall which I could not get around. Finally in exasperation I asked the priest, “Why does it matter if I believe in the Literal Presence or not? What does it have to do with anything?” Then very quietly & with an intensity I have seldom seen before or since, he said, “It has to do with everything; & that is why it matters!”

    Thanks 🙂


    • coffeezombie says:

      “Explanations & debate did me no good as I understood what was being said.”

      I know exactly what you mean. For me, it was a sort of dual-issue of veneration of the Saints and icons. I understood all the arguments, heck, I could have probably defended the practices in a debate about as well then as I could now. But I just could not shake the “Saints/icons=idolatry” connection in my mind. I was convinced of basically everything else I understood of Orthodoxy, except for that.

      I’m still not really sure how that was resolved for me. I just, eventually, got to a point where I was willing to give it a try…and have been kissing icons and singing hymns to Saints ever since!


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