Created from out of nothing, man is, by nature, incapable of apprehending the transcendent Creator; yet because he is also created in the image of the divine Image, he is given the possibility and privilege, by grace, of knowing God. It is this knowledge that is man’s salvation and life. It is God’s great desire to be known and enjoyed by man, declares St Athanasius; and for this purpose not only has he constituted man for this knowledge, but he has created the world through his eternal Word as the theatre of his self-revelation:
For God, being good and loving to mankind, and caring for the souls made by Him—since He is by nature invisible and incomprehensible, having His being beyond all created existence, for which reason the race of mankind was likely to miss the way to the knowledge of Him, since they are made out of nothing while He is unmade,— for this cause God by His own Word gave the Universe the Order it has, in order that since He is by nature invisible, men might be enabled to know Him at any rate by His works. For often the artist even when not seen is known by his works. And as they tell of Phidias the Sculptor that his works of art by their symmetry and by the proportion of their parts betray Phidias to those who see them although he is not there, so by the order of the Universe one ought to perceive God its maker and artificer, even though He be not seen with the bodily eyes. For God did not take His stand upon His invisible nature (let none plead that as an excuse) and leave Himself utterly unknown to men; but as I said above, He so ordered Creation that although He is by nature invisible He may yet be known by His works. (Contra Gentes 35)
Just as we can know an artist through his many creations, even though we may never have met him personally, so we can know something of the one God by the harmony, order, and beauty of the world he has made by his Word. “The universe,” writes Khaled Anatolios, “is most deeply understood as the ‘work’ which reveals God’s nature” (Athanasius: The Coherence of his Thought, p. 48). Athanasius’s understanding of the world as the place of God’s self-revelation therefore requires that we “attribute to him some notion of a kind of analogy between creation and its Maker” (p. 48). The world bears a resemblance to the Word who, in turn, “bears an absolute resemblance to the Father, and conveys access to the Father” (p. 53). The divine Word does not function as an intermediary that distances the Father from his creation—quite the opposite!
For if the movement of creation were irrational, and the universe were borne along without plan, a man might fairly disbelieve what we say. But if it subsist in reason and wisdom and skill, and is perfectly ordered throughout, it follows that He that is over it and has ordered it is none other than the [reason or] Word of God. But by Word I mean, not that which is involved and inherent in all things created, which some are wont to call the seminal principle, which is without soul and has no power of reason or thought, but only works by external art, according to the skill of him that applies it—nor such a word as belongs to rational beings and which consists of syllables, and has the air as its vehicle of expression—but I mean the living and powerful Word of the good God, the God of the Universe, the very Word which is God, Who while different from things that are made, and from all Creation, is the One own Word of the good Father, Who by His own providence ordered and illumines this Universe. For being the good Word of the Good Father He produced the order of all things, combining one with another things contrary, and reducing them to one harmonious order. He being the Power of God and Wisdom of God causes the heaven to revolve, and has suspended the earth, and made it fast, though resting upon nothing, by His own nod. Illumined by Him, the sun gives light to the world, and the moon has her measured period of shining. By reason of Him the water is suspended in the clouds; the rains shower upon the earth, and the sea is kept within bounds, while the earth bears grasses and is clothed with all manner of plants. And if a man were incredulously to ask, as regards what we are saying, if there be a Word of God at all, such an one would indeed be mad to doubt concerning the Word of God, but yet demonstration is possible from what is seen, because all things subsist by the Word and Wisdom of God, nor would any created thing have had a fixed existence had it not been made by reason, and that reason the Word of God, as we have said. (Gent. 40)
By his Word, who is fully divine in substance and agency, the Father is immanent and present in his creation. Unlike earlier theologians, as well as his Arian opponents, who posited a hierarchy of being, with Christ standing between the infinitely transcendent Deity and the finite world, Athanasius sees Christ as mediating the immanence of the Father precisely because he fully shares in the Father’s transcendence. Anatolios explains:
Athanasius’s doctrine in the Contra Gentes—De Incarnatione is one that clearly distinguishes between the relation of the Word and the Father and that between both the Word and the Father, taken together, and creation. The Word is other than creation and belongs in a unique fashion to the Father. … It is well to note, at this junction, the way in which previous Christian apologists had articulated a conception of the Logos as mediator between God and creation. Within a framework that was more or less subordinationist, such a conception tended toward the implication that transcendence conceived as otherness was more properly divine than a transcendence involved with creation. If the Word, who represents direct divine involvement in the world, was not true God, then such direct involvement was also not truly divine. On the other hand, in Athanasius, too, the Word is represented as Mediator. But here there is no trace of subordinationism, and the Word who is active in the world is himself clearly other than the world and belongs wholly to the Father. With reference to divine transcendence and nearness, such a perspective naturally implies that divine transcendence is in no way mitigated by nearness. In being most intimately involved in the world, God does not cease to be wholly other, as the Word is other than creation. Conversely, divine otherness does not entail distance from creation, as the Word is powerfully and intimately present to creation, yet belongs essentially to the transcendence of the Father: “Who could analyze the Father in order to discover the powers of his Word? For he is the Word and wisdom of the Father, and at the same time condescends to creatures to give them the knowledge and conception of his begetter” (CG 47). (pp. 45-46)
To participate in the creative activity and power of the eternal Word is to directly participate in and apprehend God the Father himself. Athanasius thus solves the key problem posed by the Church’s interpretation of the biblical God through Hellenistic categories of deity—the problem of transcendence and immanence. Once Christ Jesus is located on the Creator side of the Creator/creature divide, then it becomes possible to understand the Father as being intimately present to and active within his creation, through and by and in his Word. The Holy Spirit is markedly absent in Athanasius’s formulations up to this point; but in subsequent writings he would fully integrate the Spirit into his understanding of God: “the Father creates and renews all things through the Son and in the Holy Spirit” (Ad Serapion 1.24).
Humanity’s knowledge of God is not restricted, however, to contemplation of the created order. Being created in the image of God—and specifically, in the image of Christ the Word—man is given genuine and direct knowledge of the Father through the transcendence of sense and interior contemplation (see “The Creation of Humanity“). As Athanasius writes, God bestowed on human beings “of his own image, our Lord Jesus Christ, and made them according to his own image and according to the likeness, so that understanding through such grace the image, I mean the Word of the Father, they might be able to receive through him a notion of the Father, and knowing the Creator they might live the happy and truly blessed life” (Inc. 11). This interior contemplation via the nous was originally intended as man’s principal vehicle for knowing his Creator; but through the fall this knowledge was lost and spiritual communion with the Deity was broken. Man descended into himself and became captive to his passions (see “The Fall of Man into the Body“). He thus became incapable of transcending the world and thus became incapable of apprehending the invisible and incorporeal Creator who transcends the world.
Just as the introduction of death into the world confronted God with a divine dilemma (see “Substitutionary Atonement“), so the loss of the knowledge of God confronted God with a similar dilemma:
Since, then human beings had become so irrational and demonic deceit was thus overshadowing every place and hiding the knowledge of the true God, what was God to do? Be silent before such things and let human beings be deceived by the demons and be ignorant of God? But then what need was there in the beginning for human beings to come into being in the image of God? He should have come into being simply irrational, or having been rational not live the life of the irrational creatures. What need at all was there for him to receive a notion about God from the beginning? For if he is not now worthy to receive it, neither should it have been given him from the beginning. Or what profit would there be to the maker God, or what glory for him, if human beings, brought into being by him, did not revere him but reckoned others to be their makers? For God would be found creating them for others and not himself. (De Incarnatione 13)
Athanasius finds incomprehensible the suggestion that the “lover of mankind” would abandon human beings to their sin and irrationality. Why create man in the first place if that was what God was going to do? Why bestow on him the privilege of being made in the divine image if God intended to abandon him to idolatry and darkness of mind? It would have been better to simply have made him a beast from the get-go. No, the love of God for man “requires” and “compels” him to save man. God cannot destroy man, as he is portrayed as doing in the story of the Deluge; nor can he desert him, as Peter deserted our Lord. To do so would be to contradict his goodness and love and diminish his glory:
Moreover, a king, being human, does not permit the lands established under him to pass to and serve others, nor does he abandon them to others, but he reminds them with letters, and often enjoins them by friends, and, if need be, comes himself, shaming them by his own presence, only so that they will not serve others and his work be in vain. How much more will God allow his own creatures to not be led astray from him and serve things that do not exist? In particular, since such error is the case of their destruction and disappearance, it was not right that those who had once partaken of the image of God should be destroyed. What then was God to do? Or what should be done, except to renew again the “in the image,” so that through it human beings would be able once again to know him? But how could this have occurred except by the coming of the very image of God, our Savior Jesus Christ? For neither by human beings was it possible, since they were created “in the image”; but neither by angels, for they were not even images. So the Word of God came himself, in order that he being the image of the Father, the human being “in the image” might be recreated. It could not, again, have been done in any other way, without death and corruption being utterly destroyed. So he rightly took a mortal body, that in it death might henceforth be destroyed utterly and human beings be renewed again according to the image. For this purpose, then, there was need of none other than the Image of the Father. (Inc. 13)
Who can restore the divine image in man but the divine Image himself? The logic is simple. Eternally begotten of and homoousios with the Father, the Son perfectly images the Father and is perfectly united to the Father. Man was intended to know the Father in and through the Image, in whose image he has been made. But the divine image in man has been broken. Only the Image can repair the imago dei and restore mankind’s immediate knowledge of the Father. Again Anatolios:
Only the One who is true Image can renew humanity’s being according to the image (kat’ eikona). … The statement that humanity was created according to the Image is simultaneously anthropological and christological: to be created according to the Image is to be granted a participation in the one who is the true and full Image of the Father. When humanity lots its stability, which depending on remaining in the state of being according to the Image, the Incarnate Word repaired the image of God in humanity by reuniting it with his own divine imaging of the Father. Jesus Christ is therefore both eternal divine Image and restored human image. The saving union of divine and human image in Christ is characterized by immediacy. One foundation principle of Athanasius’s theological vision is this stress on the continuity of immediate connections between God and humanity and a corresponding abhorrence of obstacles and opaque mediations. As perfect Image, the Son is immediately united to the Father and transparently reflects knowledge of the Father; anything short of this immediate and transparent relation would deconstruct connection with the Father through the Son from the divine side. Through his incarnation, the Son repairs our human participation in his imaging of the Father from within the human constitution; anything short of a full incarnation would leave humans disconnected from both Father and Son. Thus, incarnation and the full divinity of the Son are both integral to the immediacy of our contact with the Father. (Retrieving Nicaea, pp. 107-108)
The epistemological dilemma is resolved: the Image becomes the image.