Slowly Reading St Athanasius: Those Pesky Dualists

by John Stamps

“Others, again, from the heretics fabricate for themselves another creator of all things besides the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, being greatly blinded even in what they say.”1

Athanasius didn’t really distinguish the “heretics” he worried about. Rather, they are a “family” of Dualist heresies: Manichees, Gnostics, and Marcionites.2 And let’s define Dualism: Dualism is a split right down the middle of the universe, between a good God and an evil God, between spirit and matter. This last group that St Athanasius targets is interesting. They have a different status than Epicureans and Platonists. They’re not pagans. They’re Christians but St Athanasius calls them heretics — they are the Choosers.3 They pick and choose one particular belief and focus on it. They end up riding that belief into the ground. The end result is they end up distorting the rest of the belief structure. However, I’m going to call them the Dualists from this point forward. It strikes me as more accurate.

For example, the Dualists claim to believe in Jesus, they claim to believe in the Bible, they claim to believe in God. Fair enough. But: they end up saying the God who created the physical material universe isn’t the Christian God. The true God is not the Creator of this world, this cosmos, this material universe.

We’ve been skirting the problem of evil for the last few weeks. Now we can’t avoid it. Let us try to unpack the belief structure of the Dualists before we return to St Athanasius.

Question: Why is there evil?
Answer: There are two Gods of equal power, one is good and one is evil. The present evil world is the creation of the evil God.

The good God didn’t make the material world you and I inhabit. It’s an evil God who created the world of earthquakes, disease, death, semen and sex, disgusting bodily fluids, cockroaches and mosquitoes, Covid-19, and Barry Manilow.

For the Dualists, Reality is split right down the middle between the spiritual and the material. If you followed last week’s class about Plato’s Timaeus, you should be quite familiar with this distinction. This is degenerated Platonism, Platonism that has gone to seed, the Platonic distinction between the intelligible/spiritual versus the material/physical run amuck.

We can put this distinction into simple caveman terms:

  • Matter bad, spirit good.
  • Flesh bad, spirit good.
  • Letter bad, spirit good.

These Dualists with their debased Platonism argued that the material world was created by the bad God and the spiritual world was created by the good God. There is one good force and one bad force and they are both trying to influence this world based on what they want.

And what is their battle ground? It’s the material realm.

You might be asking yourself, how in the world is this Christian in any sense? It starts with a misreading of St Paul.

Question: How should Christians read the Old Testament?
Answer: The heretics had a very good biblical verse at their disposal: “The God of this aeon has blinded the eyes of unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 4:4). It’s the orthodox themselves who are blind. But the Knowers, the Cognoscenti (for that is the true meaning of Gnostic), know better. They are special because they possess secret knowledge unknown to the orthodox. The Knowers know something you and I don’t know.

Does St Paul really think there are two Gods, the God of this world and the true God of the heavenly world? This is a serious but understandable misreading of St Paul.

Please indulge me for a few paragraphs to chase after one or two exegetical foxes that spoil the theological vineyard (Song of Songs 2:15). I’ll stipulate, with St Peter, 2 Corinthians 4:4 is a very difficult verse in one of the most lyrical and passionate passages in the entire Bible. I will lay my theological cards on the table. Satan is not “the God of this aeon.” St Paul doesn’t grant Satan that much power. There is not one atom, not one nanosecond, not one centimeter which Satan rules in this aeon. Instead, the God who created heaven and earth, all things visible and invisible, is the God of this aeon. And He is also the God of the aeon to come. We live in that painful intersection between the two aeons. Just as heaven and earth interlock and overlap in the Kingdom of God, so do the two aeons. This aeon lurches to its slow, painful, and inevitable death and the aeon to come already dawns in magnificence and glory. But it’s not here yet. In this aeon, the glory of God is veiled, because we don’t have the eyes to bear His splendor and we don’t have hearts of flesh to receive His forgiveness. The brightness of the light hurts our eyes and the words of Torah hurts our hearts. So Moses wears a veil, and his message remains veiled in this aeon, indeed, to this very day (2 Cor 3:14).

But even in this aeon, God has removed the veil in Jesus Christ. Even if  (and here St Paul is stating a crucial conditional) the Gospel is concealed, it is only a temporary stopgap. In this aeon, but only in this aeon, God has temporarily blinded the thought processes of unbelievers.4 The God who created light on the first day of creation even now shines His light in the face of Jesus Christ. Even now the God who spoke to Moses on Mt Sinai has removed the veil and we see God’s glory in the face of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. The God of this aeon even now reimages fallen men and women into the image of His Son.

St Paul doesn’t grant Satan even a toehold of ownership in matter, space, or time. The Devil is a usurper. But you can also see how and why a Manichee or a Marcionite could misread these verses.

If we have ears to hear, we can hear echoes of Genesis, Exodus (especially God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart but also the rebellion of the children of Israel), and Isaiah 6 and 63. The phrase “the God of this aeon” is unusual, but it is not that unusual in Second Temple Judaism: Daniel 5:4 LXX, Tobit 14:6 (Codex Sinaiticus), and 1 Enoch 1:4 (“the God of the age will march upon earth…”).

The glorious light of a new aeon is breaking in upon us, the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen according to the Scriptures. Christians live between the overlap of two aeons. The God who created light on the first day of creation is even now recreating ordinary men and women to shine light out of darkness. This is pretty sophisticated and heady stuff. But you can also see why certain people carelessly misread St Paul and mistreated him to their own destruction, admitted by no less than St Peter himself (2 Peter 3:16).

Earlier, St Paul stated in 2 Corinthians that the letter kills, but the spirit gives life (2 Cor 3:4-6). To the Choosers, the God of this world is the God of wrath, who tried to destroy the world by a flood, who ordered the Jews to destroy the Canaanites, and so on. Simply put, the Jewish God is an evil God.

But St Paul would reply, you misunderstand the letter/spirit distinction completely. The letter — or better yet “script” (γράμμα) — is not Scripture (γρᾰφή). There is no problem with Scripture (γρᾰφή). The problem is when γράμμα is not written on human hearts, when it is not incarnate, when it is not enfleshed. The New Covenant proclaimed by St Paul is not script or code or letter, but the Holy Spirit giving us a new heart and a new spirit. And if you weren’t paying attention, this is straight out of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. This is heady, sophisticated theology, not for the faint of heart and certainly not for the careless reader of the Old Testament. If we don’t hear echoes of Old Testament Scripture sounding and resounding in St Paul and in us, then we have failed to understand St Paul.

One very early criterion of orthodoxy is how you treat the Old Testament. If you pick up the Bible, is this one story from Genesis to Revelation? Or are these two completely different stories? One indubitable mark of heresy is snubbing and belittling the Old Testament with insult and derision.

How you read or how you misread the Old Testament has a dramatic impact on your anthropology.

Question: So what does it mean to be a human being?
Answer: The Dualist answer ends up being: You are a spark of divinity, you are a piece of God. But your true essence is trapped in a physical, material body.

This anthropology also affects your soteriology.

Question: What is salvation?
Answer: The Dualist answer is that salvation means escaping this putrid, rotting corpse of your physical body. Your body is a tomb — your σῶμα/soma is a σῆμα/sema — as Socrates puns in a couple of his dialogues.5

For Dualists, human existence is re-incarnation, the ghost-in-a-machine counterpart to genuine in-human-ization. Your immortal soul becomes recycled in material existence again and again and again until you eventually escape the cycle of physical existence. We are not saved until we escape bodily existence. “Salvation” is when you return to the pure spiritual world from whence you came. You are freed from the stinking and fetid corpse of your body. You are no longer weighted down by matter and flesh.

Now we return to St Athanasius (On Inc. §2). And here is why he defends the embodiment of the Word of God. Remember that the Christian hope is not immortality of the soul — rather it is resurrection of the body. At Pascha, we don’t celebrate with raucous joy that Jesus’ soul is immortal. Instead we sing our hearts out with the angels because Death is destroyed, the Tomb is empty, and God the Word was raised bodily on the third day.

The deep suspicion of matter of the Dualists in turn creates a deep suspicion of the sacraments by the Dualists. But look at how St Athanasius, an unmarried ascetic6 who you think might be tempted to denigrate marriage, responds:

For the Lord said to the Jews, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and will cleave to his wife, and the two will be one flesh.'” Then, referring to the Creator, he says, “What God has put together, let not man put asunder” (Matt 19.4–6). How then do they introduce a creation alien to the Father? For if, according to John, encompassing all things in saying, “all things were made by him and without him was nothing made” (Jn 1.3), how could there be another creator besides the Father of Christ?” (§2)

To be orthodox, we celebrate, embrace, and enjoy, yes, we enjoy, the goodness of the material creation. We affirm the Old Testament, because the story of creation kickstarts the story of our redemption. Our Creation and our Salvation are one story, not two disconnected and disjointed stories. There are not two different gods. There is only one creator God — the Father of the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Creation — this spatio-temporal physical material universe — is not alien to God the Father. God has wrapped His arms around the created order, everything from atoms to humans, and everything in between. St Athanasius affirms the sheer goodness of the sacramental universe — marriage and sex are not disgusting and defiling if you want to be quote-unquote spiritual. As C.S. Lewis reminds us:

There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely’ spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it. (Mere Christianity)

Elsewhere, Lewis … err … umm … Screwtape calls us amphibians — we are composite creatures. “Humans are amphibians … half spirit and half animal … as spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time.” The logic of Orthodoxy has always insisted that what is not assumed is not healed. To be sure, our spirits and souls need God’s redemptive healing. But so does our body and our mind and our will. This is the logic of mere Christianity, from St Athanasius to St Gregory Nazianzen, to St Maximus the Confessor.

And tomorrow happens to be the Sunday of Orthodoxy. Since we’re thinking about the Sunday of Orthodoxy, we see that C.S. Lewis really is just paraphrasing St John of Damascus:

Now, however, when God has been seen clothed in flesh, and talking with mortals, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God. How could God be born out of lifeless things? And if God’s body is God by its union with him, it is changeless. The nature of God remains the same as before, the flesh created in time is brought to life by a logical and reasoning soul. (On the Divine Images I.15-16)

Matter is not evil. Please repeat that after me and mean it — matter is not evil. The source of evil lies elsewhere. Mere Christians honor matter and we honor the God of matter. St Athanasius has cleared the decks and now he is ready to tell us about God’s creation out of nothing, creatio ex nihilo.

We’re now ready to tackle the next major section of On the Incarnation.

 

Footnotes

[1] Athanasius, On the Incarnation §2.

[2] You’ll notice he doesn’t mention Arius. You might ask yourself, Why? Why doesn’t St Athanasius mention Arius? Or the Council of Nicea? Or homoousios? Or Constantine the Emperor? We’ll talk about that later.

[3] Αἵρεσις in Josephus and the New Testament describes a distinctive philosophical sect or school. For example, Josephus calls the Essence a Fourth Philosophical School of the Jews. In Acts, St Luke uses αἵρεσις to describes Pharisees, Sadducees, and Christians themselves (5.17, 15.5, 26.5; 24.5,14, 28.22). By the time of St Athanasius, αἵρεσις represents its own distinctive form of deviant Christianity.

[4] 2 Corinthians is a dress rehearsal for Romans 9-11.

[5] “and we really, it may be, are dead; in fact I once heard sages say that we are now dead, and the body is our tomb (τὸ μὲν σῶμά ἐστιν ἡμῖν σῆμα), and the part of the soul in which we have desires is liable to be over-persuaded and to vacillate to and fro, and so some smart fellow, a Sicilian, I daresay, or Italian, made a fable in which—by a play of words—he named this part, as being so impressionable and persuadable, a jar, and the thoughtless he called uninitiate: in these uninitiate that part of the soul where the desires are, the licentious and fissured part, he named a leaky jar in his allegory, because it is so insatiate” (Plato, Gorgias 493). See also Phaedo 81a-e and Cratylus 400c-d.

[6] And St Athanasius’ favorite hero, St Anthony the Great, is a great ascetic monk.

(Go to “Playing the Creation Card”)

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9 Responses to Slowly Reading St Athanasius: Those Pesky Dualists

  1. DBH says:

    I have to go on record here and say that, well-meant as this article is, it is simply too unrefined in its divisions, and wrong on many points. Of course, yes, the theology of the New Testament does not break down into an ontological dualism, but that does not do away with the stresses and ambiguities that it encompasses. The argument here is simply an unconvincing attempt to impose a tidy narrative, dependent on later Christian conceptions of divine providential sovereignty, on texts that resist that narrative. It is every bit as forced and simplistic as a Marcionite reading of Paul.

    For Paul, it is indeed satan who is “the God of this Aeon,” just as he is for John “the archon of this cosmos,” the one who–according to Jesus (in a moment of hyperbolic praise)–was knocked from his heavenly seat by the mission of his disciples (Luke 10:18, which is not a reference to a pre-cosmic vision), the dragon that, according to Revelation, will be driven from heaven at the end of this age. The powers and principalities and dominions of whom Paul speaks are real celestial archons, angelic beings who govern here below but who have in some degree departed from the proper rule of God, which Christ came to restore in the New Age. Thus in Galatians the Law of Moses is itself defective, being the work of these angelic powers rather than the direct utterance of God (and aren’t we glad that Paul thinks that?). And thus, in 1 Corinthians 15 and elsewhere, Christ’s saving mission is revealed as a conquest of this God and the other powers thronging the planetary heavens and separating us from the love of God, so that God’s direct rule can be accomplished and God can become all in all.

    The distinction between gramma and graphe, moreover, simply does not work, and the very context of the discussion shows that to be so.

    And I won’t even bother here to mention the use of Enochian angelology in various texts of the canon, and what it implies.

    We always want the New Testament to sound like the more comfortable and clear-cut picture of Christian belief that later centuries extracted and abstracted and coerced from its pages. But that simply isn’t the case.

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    • TJF says:

      Hello Dr. Hart,

      Until I had read your translation of the NT, I was not aware of this reading, but now I cannot unsee it. I recently read Michael Heiser’s Unseen Warfare and I encountered a similar reading of the Old and New Testament’s. I was wondering if there was any further reading on the topic you could recommend. Also, I have an unrelated question. I was a bit perplexed by your reading of the Lord’s prayer. Elsewhere you seem to show a fondness for the Alexandrian school and allegorical readings of the Bible. Of course, that doesn’t mean you exclude literal readings, but I got the distinct impression from your article on the Lord’s prayer that you don’t believe that spiritual or allegorical readings of it are licit or, at least, as licit as literal readings. Is that the case or is there room for the debts to be sins and the wicked man to be spiritualized to Satan in your view? Thank you for your time.

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    • johnstamps2020 says:

      Hi David,
      My exegesis didn’t feel very tidy to me. And I thought I had pretty good backing from the Old Testament and other references in St Paul about God blinding people, even if it makes me extremely uncomfortable.

      My reading actually hearkens back to venerable patristic exegesis of 2 Corinthians 4:4. For example, St John Chrysostom:
      “But we assert of this passage that it is spoken neither of the devil nor of another creator, but of the God of the Universe, and that it is to be read thus; God has blinded the minds of the unbelievers of this world. For the world to come has no unbelievers; but the present only. But if any one should read it even otherwise, as, for instance, the God of this world; neither does this afford any handle, for this does not show Him to be the God of this world only. For He is called the God of Heaven, Psalm 136:26, etc. yet is He not the God of Heaven only; and we say, ‘God of the present day;’ yet we say this not as limiting His power to it alone. And moreover He is called the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; Exodus 3:6, etc. and yet He is not the God of them alone. And one may find many other like testimonies in the Scriptures. How then has He blinded them? Not by working unto this end; away with the thought! But by suffering and allowing it.”

      This patristic exegesis dropped out of favor. Patristic exegesis typically transposed the words.
      Instead of this:
      “The God of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers of this world.”
      They rearranged the words to this:
      “God has blinded the minds of the unbelievers of this world.”
      I wasn’t convinced.

      Your reading is the more typical one, where you, N.T. Wright, and a whole host of exegetes share common ground. And yes, I realized I was swimming upstream here.
      I’m reasonably satisfied with the contrast and intersection between this age and the age to come. I don’t want to give the devil his due if he doesn’t deserve one.

      Plus, I didn’t want to conflate a Johannine reading with a Pauline one. I’ll try to handle St Paul on his own terms as best I can.

      Respectfully yours,
      John

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  2. DBH says:

    Chrysostom spoke for his time guy, in terms that made sense to him. Unlike earlier exegetes, such as Justin, he was not immersed in the intertestamental sources and certainly did not enjoy the access to late antique texts that modern scholars do. To him, Paul’s language sounded scandalous.

    Anyway, Paul is quite clear on these matters, and I do not think there is any interesting debate to be had on the matter. In the context of his whole theology of cosmic restoration and (let’s be honest) the power of the Law, the reading you propose simply doesn’t work. And I’m glad it doesn’t. The god of this age has to much to answer for.

    For Paul the god of this world was Semyaza or Samael or someone like that. He is the prince of those powers who crucified the Lord of Glory.

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    • DBH says:

      Too much. And I don’t know where “guy” comes from. That’ll teach me to use the dictate function.

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    • johnstamps2020 says:

      Hi David,
      “The God of this age” within 2 Corinthians who blinds unbelievers yields tolerable sense in the light of Isaiah 6:9-10. God does blind people sometimes, for His own mysterious reasons, just as He also sometimes enlightens them, for equally mysterious reasons. God’s punishment for refusing to see or believe is blindness.

      But there’s yet one more reason to consider what I’m saying. It makes better exegetical sense to read 2 Cor 4:4 and 4:6 in parallel. So that I don’t bury the lede, here it is — the God who blinded the minds of the unbelievers is the very same God who enlightened the heart of St Paul.

      4.4 — “The God of this aeon has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God.”
      4.6 — “For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”

      Like I said in the blog piece, this is a dress rehearsal for Romans 9-11. How do we explain why some people believe and some don’t? We don’t need to posit the Devil blinding people in 4:4 any more than we need to posit the Devil in Romans 9-11. It’s the one and the same God who acts, hardens, but ultimately saves. The God who shut in all human beings to disobedience is yeah verily the very same God who shows mercy upon all human beings.

      I’m not arguing this is a particularly comfortable interpretation. But at least it’s a fairly consistent one within the context of 2 Corinthians 4. Plus we yield one more benefit — we can retrieve St John Chrysostom’s 4th century patristic reading pf 2 Corinthians 4:4, but using 21st century hermeneutics.

      And no, I’m not a Calvinist, Augustinian, or Jansenist.

      Again, not to underplay Satan’s power in 2 Corinthians. But elsewhere in the letter St Paul depicts him more as a pestilential nuisance than some all-powerful creature (2:11, 11:14, 12:7)

      And that’s honestly all I have to say about this topic. I’ve run out of arguments.
      Respectfully yours,
      John

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      • TJF says:

        I think you may have persuaded me John. Excellent argument. So it’s still God as in ho theos, but this can still be given a universalist reading. Wow. Thank you.

        Liked by 1 person

        • johnstamps2020 says:

          Still God as in ho theos. St Paul is riffing off of Genesis 1:1-3 in the LXX.
          καὶ εἶπεν ὁ θεός γενηθήτω φῶς καὶ ἐγένετο φῶς
          And yes, we can still give this a universalist reading. And we preserve St John Chrysostom as well. I don’t think St John Chrysostom is not the only church father who read 2 Cor 4:4 this way. But I don’t have a list at hand.

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          • DBH says:

            Sorry, John. I have to say this. You are talking total nonsense. It simply is not true. Your argument is objectively false, not merely exegetically questionable. The word “theos”–even sometimes when associated with the article, as a result of the syntax of the phrase (as in “the god of this age”) simply does not have the uniform meaning you want to assign it in Greek.

            I don’t know why you think it correct to separate Paul from the rest of the canon on this issue. He was a man of the same age and clime as the author 1John, who tells us that everything in this age lies under the power of the evil one, or the author of John, who is clear who the archon of this cosmos is, or the author of Revelation, for whom the dragon at present still rules from his heavenly seat. But the internal evidence of Paul’s writings is absolutely clear. His entire soteriology concerns Christ breaking the power of the “God” or gods or archons of this age, placing them all under his feet, and delivering all things over to the Father in the age to come. And the reading you propose ultimately renders Pauline theology incoherent (in a number of quite traditional ways).

            And you do indeed sound like a Calvinist or Jansenist (or Lutheran) for whom the devil is God’s right hand. In order to defend a fairly simplistic view of divine providence (or sovereignty), you are willing to sacrifice any coherent picture of divine goodness. And you are doing so in plain defiance of Paul’s clearly stated–and frequently stated–theology. And all because you are afraid of a far, far, far too vaguely conceived notion of “dualism.” I’m sorry, but Paul’s theology is full of provisional dualisms: works of the Law and works of love, this age and the age to come, the principalities of this cosmos and the direct rule of the Father inaugurated by Christ, and (yes) the god of this age and the Father of Jesus.

            And, by the way, John Chrysostom was objectively wrong as well. He knew very little of first century Hellenistic Jewish cosmology and angelology. Defending patristic exegesis when it comes to spiritual readings of the Old Testament is commendable. Defending patristic readings of the Bible that are simply the result of the understandable ignorance of the time in which they were advanced is not.

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