If the knowledge of God was to be restored and the human race saved, it was necessary that the eternal Word and Image of the Father assume a human body. Only the radical solution of the incarnation could have achieved this purpose, St Athanasius avers. No individual prophet could have accomplished the renewal of knowledge, for no individual can travel the entire world to disseminate true teaching; but even if such a prophet could have done so, would it have made any real difference? No one is able “to withstand the deceit and illusion of the demons” (De Incarnatione 14). What of the testimony of the creation itself? “But if creation sufficed,” answers Athanasius, “such evils would not have occurred. For there was creation, and human beings wallowed no less in the same error regarding God” (Inc. 14). Human consciousness is held captive to the world. It cannot raise itself to the divine. It is man himself who must be recreated by the divine Image:
For as when a figure painted on wood has been soiled by dirt from outside, it is necessary for him whose figure it is to come again, so that the image can be renewed on the same material—because of his portrait even the material on which it is painted is not cast aside, but the portrait is reinscribed on it. In the same way the all-holy Son of the Father, being the Image of the Father, came to our place to renew the human being made according to himself, and to find him, as one lost, through the forgiveness of sins, as he himself says in the Gospels, “I came to seek and to save that which was lost” (Lk 19.10). Therefore he said to the Jews, “Unless one be born again” (Jn 3.5), not referring to the birth from women, as they supposed, but indicating the soul being born again and recreated in that which is after the image. … So, rightly wishing to help human beings, he sojourned as a human being, taking to himself a body like theirs and from below—I mean through the works of the body—that those not wishing to know him from his providence and governance of the universe, from the works down through the body might know the Word of God in the body, and through him the Father. (Inc. 14)
In this passage St Athanasius cites two salvific benefits of the Incarnation—the renewal of the soul and the works of God in the body. One might expect the Bishop of Alexandria to focus on the former, given the importance of noetic contemplation, yet in De Incarnatione he focuses on the latter. As we have seen, Athanasius understands sin as the redirection of vision and thought away from the invisible God to self and the sensible objects of the world (see “The Fall of Man into the Body“). Fallen man is now so enmeshed in his sensorium that he is constitutionally incapable of reestablishing contemplative communion with God. Hence God decides to meet him on his own terms. If man is trapped in his perceptual experience of the world, then God will become an object of the world!
For since human beings, having rejected the contemplation of God and as though sunk in an abyss with their eyes held downwards, seeking God in creation and things perceptible, setting up for themselves mortal humans and demons as gods, for this reason the lover of human being and the common Savior of all, takes to himself a body and dwells as human among humans and draws to himself the perceptible senses of all human beings, so that those who think that God is in things corporeal might, from what the Lord wrought through the actions of the body, know the truth and through him might consider the Father. Being human and thinking all things in human terms, on whatever they cast their sense perception there they saw themselves being drawn and taught the truth from all sides: for if they were struck by creation, yet they saw it confessing Christ as Lord; or if their minds were predisposed towards human beings, such that they supposed them gods, yet comparing the works of the Savior with theirs, the Savior alone among human beings appeared the Son of God, for there were no such works among them as done by the God Word; and if they were predisposed towards the demons, yet seeing them put to flight by the Lord, they knew that only he was the Word of God and that the demons were not gods; if their mind was then fixed even on the dead, so as to worship heroes and those said by the poets to be gods, yet seeing the resurrection of the Savior they confessed that the former were false and that only the Word of the Father was the true Lord, the one reigning even over death. For this reason he was both born and appeared as a human being, and died, and rose again, dulling and overshadowing by his own works those of all human beings who ever existed, so that from wherever human beings were predisposed, from there he might raise them and teach them of his own true Father, just as he himself says, “I came to save and to find that which was lost” (Lk 19.10). (Inc. 15)
The dramatist becomes a character in his play in order to teach the other characters about their author and creator. For St Athanasius the hominization of the Word comprehends the entirety of his historical life, beginning with his virginal conception in the womb of the Theotokos, continuing in his teaching and miracles, culminating in his passion, crucifixion, and resurrection on the third day. The invisible God becomes visible; the incorporeal God becomes corporeal; the unknowable God becomes knowable. The Word is body—not an inert thing but a body with a history and life and proper name. And in the sacrificial offering of his body, Christ reveals himself to sinners who are unable to liberate themselves from their blindness and bondage:
Once the mind of human beings descended to perceptible things, the Word himself submitted to appear through a body, so that as a human being he might bring humans to himself and return their sense perception to himself, and then, by their seeing him as a human being, he might persuade them through the works he effected that he is not a man only but God and the Word and Wisdom of the true God. … The the Word unfolded himself everywhere, above and below and in the depths and in the breadth: above, in creation; below, in the incarnation; in the depths, in hell; in breadth, in the world. Everything is filled with the knowledge of God. For this reason, not immediately upon upon coming did he complete the sacrifice on behalf of all, delivering the body to death and resurrecting it, making himself thereby visible, remaining in it and doing such works and giving signs which made him known to be no longer a human being but the God Word. For in both ways the Savior exercised his love for human beings through his incarnation, in that he both banished death from us and renewed us, and also in that, although being unseen and invisible, through his works he appeared and made himself known to be the Word of the Father, the ruler and king of the universe. (Inc. 16)
When Athanasius states that by his signs and works Christ showed himself “to be no longer a human being,” I do not believe that he is in any way suggesting that Christ is not fully human but rather he is not a mere human (a created hypostasis). Christ is the Word made flesh, the dominical man. The Creator makes himself known in human being, as human being, as Jesus of Nazareth:
Properly, therefore, the Word of God took a body and used a human instrument, in order to give life to the body and in order that, just as he is known in creation by his works, so also he might act in a human being, and show himself everywhere, leaving nothing barren of his divinity and knowledge. Again, I repeat, resuming what we said before, that the Savior did this in order that as he fills everything everywhere by his presence, so also he might fill all things with the knowledge of himself, as the divine scriptures say, “The whole earth was filled with the knowledge of God” (Isa 11.9). For if anyone wishes to look up to the heavens, he sees its arrangement, or if he cannot raise his gaze to heaven but only to human beings, he sees through his work his power incomparable to that of human beings and knows that he alone among human beings is the Word of God. (Inc. 45)
Because God is now man, because he personally confronts us within spatio-temporal reality, he is able to renew our knowledge of him and draw us to himself. He looks and acts like a human being like anyone else–and indeed is a human like everyone else–yet if we look closer, if we pay attention to his words and mighty acts (what other human being can forgive sins and raise the dead?), we behold the eternal Son of the heavenly Father.
Byzantine theology has typically emphasized the unknowability of the incomprehensible God; but St Athanasius the Great advances what can only be described as a qualified apophaticism. The ineffable Deity has come as man to make himself known. “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” the incarnate Son declares (Jn 14:9). In the incarnation and resurrection the life of man, the man Jesus Christ, has been drawn into the divine life of the Holy Trinity. God now has a history, a narrative that is declaimed and celebrated by the Church. The knowledge of God flows from the cross. Ultimately, Khaled Anatolios concludes, Athanasius’s understanding of the incarnation “implies the priority of the cataphatic over the apophatic in the Christian vision of God” (Retrieving Nicaea, p. 132).
(Go to “The Body of God“)
My Augustinian antennae are tingling. Mustn’t we be careful when we discuss “saving knowledge”? That is, it should be made clear that we aren’t saved because we know — but rather we know because we are saved. We are children of wrath until the grace of Christ and the love of the Holy Spirit are poured into our hearts, thus vivifying our corrupt souls, which were previously dead in trespasses and trapped in utter darkness. “No man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father” (John 6:65). Or, one of my favorite lines in the whole New Testament: “But when the kindness and love of our Saviour God shone upon us—not of works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the laver of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Ghost, whom He shed upon us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; that, being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).
Greetings, PJ. Perhaps the most direct rejoinder is to simply note that St Athanasius is not an Augustinian; hence he would not formulate the question of individual salvation as you have just done. In Contra Gentes-De Incarnatione, to know God is to be saved. There’s nothing Pelagian about this, as it is God himself who has renewed the possibility of a saving knowledge of God in and by the Incarnation. We might wonder what this saving knowledge precisely means for Athanasius (at least I do) and how it relates to faith and love. Clearly it is something deeper and more transformative than what we might call an intellectual knowledge. In the Eastern tradition (we saw this clearly in St Gregory Nazianzen) Holy Baptism is often referred to as Illumination or Enlightenment. In any case, St Athanasius is standing firmly in the Johannine tradition, particularly as it was developed in Alexandria (think Origen).
Oh, I’m not suggesting Athanasius is a Pelagian. And I agree that there is a considerable amount of nuance I’m not considering. I’m just wary of where an Athanasian vision, detached from a robust sense of grace, will lead us.
My apologies for misunderstanding your criticism, PJ. I thought your statement that “we aren’t saved because we know — but rather we know because we are saved” indicated a concern about possible Pelagianism.
It does, but only based on an interpretation of the “eastern” vision — the Alexandrine vision of Origen and Athanasius — which isn’t tempered by the “western” concern — the Roman and North African vision of Augustine — for grace. That is, based on what I’d call a misinterpretation of Athanasius. Not that you are misinterpreting Athanasius — just that I can see how it could happen, given his language of gnosis, wisdom, knowledge, etc. You see what I mean?
I am confused as to where & how you come to the conclusion from this article that “an Athanasian vision is detached from a robust sense of grace”? In Orthodoxy, God’s love, mercy & provision for our salvation (eternal life, union with God) which entails both experience & knowledge of God is grace. The Incarnation’s restoring our ability to truly know, i.e. to truly experience God, can only be properly understood as God’s grace. For that matter the Incarnation, Crucifixion & Resurrection of Christ are & are by the grace of God. Athanasius three times in On The Incarnation refers to “the grace of the Resurrection” (8.4, 9.1, 21.1) To my knowledge St. Athanasius is highly respected in the West, even being venerated as a Saint, & no one has ever accused him of Pelagianism or any other heresy for that matter. It is thanks to the theological presentations by St. Athanasius & his bishop St. Alexander against those of Arius at the 1st Ecumenical Council that the entire Church (there was no East/West at that time) did not fall into Arianism.
St. Peter writes that knowledge is a vital part of salvation: Grace & peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God & of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life & godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory & virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great & precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, & to brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours & abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:2-8)
St. Clement wrote some 200 years before St. Athanasius: This is the way, beloved, in which we find our Savior, even Jesus Christ, the High Priest of all our offerings, the defender & helper of our infirmity. By Him we look up to the heights of heaven. By Him we behold, as in a glass, His immaculate & most excellent visage. By Him are the eyes of our hearts opened. By Him our foolish & darkened understanding blossoms up anew towards His marvelous light. By Him the Lord has willed that we should taste of immortal knowledge, (St. Clement of Rome, The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, ANF 1: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr & Irenaeus, pp. 14–15)
Also a side question: what was your religious background before you became RC?
I was born an “RC.” And I’ve read all of Athanasius’ major works. He is, with Augustine, my favorite church father. I certainly don’t think he is a Pelagian: that would be anachronistic if nothing else, seeing as how he died decades before Pelagius was even born. My only concern was that we recognize that we aren’t saved because know, but that we know because we are saved. This is why I believe it is important to read those fathers who emphasize Christian gnosis (which is entirely legitimate) in conjunction with those who emphasize the sovereignty of God in the regeneration of fallen man. Put simply: Man knows God in a saving way because God first “knows” man. I don’t mean to have confused anyone: the thought is only semi-relevant to the article. That’s why I clarified my first post with my second (or tried to).
“I am confused as to where & how you come to the conclusion from this article that “an Athanasian vision is detached from a robust sense of grace”?”
I am confused too, and I suspect two different construals of grace are at work here. Clearly, St Athanasius understands God as a God of infinite love and grace who desires the salvation of every human being. I don’t know how his vision could be more robust.
Gah! Okay. One more time.
I *did not* say “an Athanasian vision is detached from a robust sense of grace.” Rhonda misquoted me. Read my original post. I said, “an Athanasian vision, detached from a robust sense of grace…” Note two things: (1) the presence of a comma (2) the absence of the word “is.”
I am not accusing the Athanasian vision of being devoid of grace. I am worrying (somewhat off-topically) about the *misreading* of the Athanasian vision, so that man is saved by his own gnosis. Again: a *misreading*.
I hope *that* is clear. 😉
Perhaps it would help to explain “knowledge” a little more distinctly from the Orthodox perspective? This restoration “to know” of which Athanasius is speaking here is not that of the ability to learn facts, such as “God exists” or even to philosophize/rationalize about God’s existence, but rather, to understand or comprehend & thus relate to God as much as we are humanly able.
In Yannaris’ Person & Eros he writes that no form of knowledge can be obtained without experience via language & relationships (pp. 16-17). I.e. we learn to speak by hearing others speak; we learn to read because someone teaches us to read & etc. Thus gaining knowledge is connected with experience via relationships. To gain knowledge of God therefore requires experience of God, or IOW a relationship with God. This ability to “relate” to God, to have true knowledge of God, was lost in the Fall. This was reversed, so to speak, in the Incarnation of our Lord in which He united human & divine natures along with His Crucifixion & Resurrection in which He destroyed sin & death; thus Christ restored this ability for relationship with God.
I looked up the following concerning the background (Greek & Hebrew) of the Christian understanding of knowledge. Again the Church Fathers, such as St. Athanasius & others, transcended both of the Greek & Hebrew understandings of knowledge which preceded them. I edited out the Scriptural texts in the second leaving only the references to shorten this:
Thanks for answering. I obviously got you mixed up with another RC who became RC only 3-4 years ago.
For the Orthodox, salvation in Christ & knowledge of God are not separate, but rather they are integrated. Increased Knowledge of God leads to deeper union with God & deeper union with God leads to increased knowledge of God. You just cannot have one without the other. Anyway, thanks again.
But that knowledge is only acquired through rebirth and regeneration, which is the work of God by his own good pleasure: “Even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” And further: God “saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.” We are saved by grace, which yields sanctifying knowledge. Gnosis is a gift that begins with the illumination of faith and baptism. We are not saved by knowledge that we discover and acquire on our own. Apart from the love of God in the Holy Spirit, we are dead, trapped in a dark tomb. As I said: We know only because we are first known.
Do I discern the spectre of predestination lurking in the shadows? 🙂 But I’m going to resist getting into that subject and try to stick to St Athanasius (and specifically Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione). A few thoughts:
1) For Athanasius, God is a God of abundant love and grace. This is demonstrated in the divine dilemmas of which he speaks. Why does God act to redeem humanity? Because of his love. It is unthinkable to Athanasius that God would abandon mankind.
2) At every point God takes the initiative in the story of salvation. The Incarnation is not a response to human merit. It is an act of grace.
3) Man is created in the image of the Word. While this image has been damaged by the fall, it has not been irretrievably lost. Hence Athanasius can on the one hand say that even after the fall man was free to turn back to God in interior contemplation:
And yet on the other hand, as we have seen, Athanasius repeatedly insists that the Incarnation of the Image was absolutely necessary to restore the divine image in man and to stabilize man’s ontological vulnerability to nothingness. Man is given a new origin in the humanity of the Word. How does this all sort out? I’m not sure. Clearly an Augustinian will be unhappy with the above citation from Contra Gentes 30. I suppose all one can say is that Athanasius did not have to deal with the problem of Pelagianism. I do not know how he might have responded to it, but I doubt he would have been happy with St Augustine’s response to it.
Khaled Anatolios devotes a chapter in his book Athanasius: The Coherence of his Thought to the question of grace, with specific reference to Athanasius’s festal letters and his tract on St Antony. He summarizes Athanasius’s understanding in these words:
Perhaps this might help the the discussion we are having.
Thanks. Very helpful. This is how I’ve conceived of this process, but I always appreciate it when someone else is able to articulate what are often only wordless intuitions or gut convictions for me.
Today we celebrated the feast of St. Catherine of Siena. The Gospel was Matthew 11:27. It speaks to my point: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Gnosis is the gift of the Father through Son in the Spirit.
Fr. Aidan, could you evaluate the following articulation in light of the conversation between PJ and Rhonda? It seems to me the Orthodox view would be the following:
All of mankind has received grace sufficient to recognize God in that the Holy Trinity foreordained our salvation in Christ, which was because God “so loved the world.” According to the Tradition, “Christ … died for all” (1 Cor. 5:15), and Orthodox Tradition understands that all of humanity was reborn in Christ’s Resurrection. Some have expressed the Orthodox answer to the question frequently posed by Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians, “When were you born again?” as “approx. A.D. 33, in the death and Resurrection of Christ.” For each of us personally, whether that will be a rebirth unto judgment or salvation depends on our free will response to God’s gracious initiative in Christ. Our response is our actualization of this rebirth of human nature in our own lives and experience. This grace is also expressed in the Holy Spirit’s work of convicting “the world” of “sin, righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8) which conviction (grace) is what leads believers to repentance and faith, while it (grace) brings condemnation on unbelievers.
There is indeed a sort of … tension? … between Christ’s universal work in renewing human nature and His particular work in the election of individuals. It is mysterious, but I feel comfortable with accepting the mystery, as I know that the Father is good and holy.
Howdy, Karen. I’m reluctant to say what *the* Orthodox response to the question of grace and faith is, as I suspect there are several different Orthodox responses that might be made. I certainly lack the competence to speak for Orthodoxy.
I think your statement though is fine, as far as it goes. I believe that you are right on target to begin with the regeneration and deification of humanity in Christ.
May I recommend to you (and to everyone else reading this thread) a little book by Met Kallistos Ware: How Are We Saved? I very much like the approach that Met Kallistos takes. He strikes the important note of the sola gratia, while at the same time distinguishing the general Orthodox position from that of St Augustine. Ultimately, we really are talking about a mystery. A neat, tidy answer is impossible. Augustine does give a neat, tidy answer; but he ends up in double predestination (or close to it), limited atonement, and the damnation of unbaptized infants. That should tell us that something is wrong with the Augustinian approach. If you ever do read Met Kallistos’s book, let me know what you think of it.
The patristic consensus seems to be that young ones who die without baptism experience a state in between heaven and hell.
Gregory Nazianzen writes of unbaptized infants that they will “neither be admitted by the just judge to the glory of heaven nor condemned to suffer punishment, since, though unsealed, they are not wicked. . . . For from the fact that one does not merit punishment it does not follow that one is worthy of being honored, any more than it follows that one who is not worthy of a certain honor deserves on that account to be punished.”
Gregory of Nyssa similarly suggests, “The premature death of newborn infants does not provide a basis for the presupposition that they will suffer torments or that they will be in the same state as those who have been purified in this life by all the virtues.”
These thoughts are repeated in other writers, such as Anastasius of Sinai. In the west, opinion is a bit darker. Augustine maintains that there is no hope of salvation apart from baptism, even for infants. However, unbaptized young ones will only experience the “mildest chastisement.” Jerome and Gregory the Great concur. The nature of this “mildest chastisement” is generally left unstated. Eventually, the Latin church modified this view, moving somewhat closer to the earlier views of Gregory and Gregory: Those who die without baptism before the age of reason are deprived of the beatific vision, but they can experience natural happiness. This is the opinion of Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas. I think this makes is not unreasonable. Though I suppose we’re operating on a dearth of Scriptural data in this area.
Thank you, Father. Your point about *the* Orthodox response is well taken. I could just have easily have phrased my question as is this an articulation compatible with Orthodox understandings. Thank you for the recommendation of Bp. Kallistos’ book. I’ll look it up.
Quite true & actually, we are all in agreement with each other here. However, this idea has neither been stated nor implied anywhere here. It does appear to have been assumed however.
Just because grace or faith (or whatever) may not be mentioned in a quote does not mean that the author believes that grace or faith (or whatever) is not involved or important. As you well know Protestants actually used, & continue to use with impugnity, this kind of logic to argue against the Church, sacraments, icons, the priesthood, the Literal Presence, Saints & etc. in their far too literal interpretations that ultimately lead to “TULIP” as well as the 5 Solas.
When we speak of saving knowledge (think true knowledge of God–Truth) we (EO) never understand such a thing as being outside of God’s grace. We cannot because it is God’s grace; nor do we believe that it is something that we mere mortals can do for themselves. Orthodoxy understands & believes in God’s grace to the nth degree; even the fact that we live, breath & move about on this planet is God’s grace! I highly recommend reading For The Life Of The World by Fr. Alexander Schmemann.
Nor is this kind of “natural” knowledge referred to by St. Athanasius or any of the other Fathers (only the heretics). We are speaking of spiritual knowledge–or more properly spiritual understanding. We did not lose our ability to think or learn basic knowledge (facts, data) in the Fall or even to know that God exists. Again we agree that this type of knowledge does not save. Instead we lost our ability to properly understand & comprehend the deeper aspects of God by losing our ability to unite with God. And, yes, God’s grace is required in this as you correctly stated
Yes! Again, we are in agreement. It was never written or implied otherwise. The Scriptures you refer to are not in conflict with the others referred to; all are Truth & all must be correctly understood together as a whole. Any understanding or line of thought that pits one passage against another only means that one or both passages are not being understood properly. Like all words, “gnosis” has multiple layers of meaning & is used in multiple contexts. One has to look at the context in the Scriptures as well as the Fathers to discern if gnosis/knowledge is being used in the sense of natural knowledge or in the sense of spiritual knowledge. The natural does not save us (Rom 2:20, 1 Tim 6:20, Eph 3:19) while the spiritual is our salvation (Rom 11:33, 2 Cor 2:14 & 4:6).