Slowly Reading St Athanasius: Playing the Creation Card

by John Stamps

These things, then, they fantasize. But the inspired teaching and faith according to Christ casts out their vain talk as godlessness. For it knows that neither spontaneously, as it is not without providence, nor from pre-existent matter, as God is not weak.1

St Athanasius has invited us to play stud poker. The stakes couldn’t be higher. In On the Incarnation §2, the Dualists had tried to crash the game. But Athanasius rebuffed them and sent them packing. 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. Everywhere it displays His oversight.

Athanasius then picks up the Epicurean card and flings it onto the discard pile. It is sheer mythology. To someone who has eyes to see, we live in a universe filled everywhere with the care and providence of God. God is very much involved in human affairs. Even if we suffer terrible evils at the hands of nature, the universe sings out with beauty and glory to someone with ears to hear.

Athanasius also tosses the Plato card on the pile, but with some reluctance. Yes, Plato’s cosmos pulsates with energy and goodness and intelligence at the hands of the Demiurge. But no, despite his great wisdom and facility, the Craftsman is not a Creator. The Demiurge is not worthy of genuine worship. He is a weak second-hand deity. The Craftsman is limited by the materials he starts out with. But most of all He is limited by Necessity. Platonic theology and cosmology are also sheer mythology.

St Athanasius now flips over the Creation card:

but from nothing and having absolutely no existence God brought the universe into being through the Word, which it says through Moses, “In the beginning God made heaven and earth” (Gen 1.1), and through that most useful book of the Shepherd, “First of all believe that God is one, who created and framed all things, and made them from non-existence into being,” as also Paul indicates when he says, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the Word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which appear” (Heb 11.3). (On Incarnation (§3)

We still might be puzzled why Athanasius plays the Creation card when ostensibly he is arguing why it is proper and reasonable for the Word of God to become incarnate. We can summarize the issue quickly: if we don’t understand the crucial difference between What is Uncreated and What is Created, then we will fail to understand Who the Incarnate Word of God is.

Creation from nothing (creatio ex nihilo) is ground zero for Christian theology. All thinking about God that deserves the name Christian starts there. Ex-nihil-ated Creation is Mere Christianity 101.

In the last post, we cleverly illustrated the Intelligible Realm versus the Physical realm in the Platonic worldview. Plato conceived of a dividing line that marks out and separates the Intelligible from the Physical. The Intelligible/Spiritual (including the Divine Craftsman, including the Forms) were above the line and the Physical/Material were below the line. The problem is that the Divine Craftsman, for all His goodness and loftiness, is still part of the same cosmos as the Forms and the Receptacle, which comprise the Living Animal itself.

Creatio ex nihilo radically reshapes this drawing. The fundamental distinction in the universe is not between Plato’s Intelligible versus the Physical. Christian theology re-draws Plato’s line but substitutes the Uncreated and the Created instead. God the Father does not create the cosmos using a blueprint or the Forms. The Forms, the Receptacle, the Pre-Existent Matter, they have all vanished.

Before we go any further, here is a Thought Experiment.

Question: What side of the line does Jesus of Nazareth, the Word of God, crucified and risen, go on? Up or down? Do you put Jesus on the Uncreated side or the Created side? And can He be on both sides of the line?

Answer: Your answer will determine whether you’re a Nicene Christian, an Arian Christian, or a semi-Arian Christian.

St Athanasius has an ace in the hole he is ready to spring on us.

For God is good, or rather the source of all goodness, and one who is good grudges nothing, so that grudging nothing its existence, from non-existence he made all things through his own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. (§3)

We should be a bit surprised by the theological strategy that St Athanasius employs here. We might have expected Athanasius to play the Divine Power card. He bluffed us by stating that Plato’s God was weak because the Craftsman was limited by pre-existent matter. We then might have expected Athanasius to say, Au contraire mes amis, the Christian God is not weak, for He created the cosmos ex nihilo. But Athanasius doesn’t play the omnipotence card. His argument is completely unexpected. Creation is not just an spectacularly dramatic example of divine omnipotence (i.e. God can do anything He wants). Instead, God’s goodness ex-nihil-ates creation. Then he elaborates, what else can God’s goodness be except extravagant with His gifts?

St Athanasius flips over an ace card you’d normally expect in Plato’s hand. He alludes to the Timaeus:

Now let us say through what cause the constructor constructed becoming and this all. He was good, and in one who is good there never arises any grudge about anything whatsoever; and so, being free of this, he willed that all things should come to resemble himself as much as possible. (29e)

St Athanasius then raises the stakes of existence. He knows one deep truth that Plato didn’t know. He knows via the Hebrew scriptures that Goodness itself created the entire material universe from nothing.

Creation is not an exercise of sheer divine power, but God the Good lavishing gift after gift upon creation. Goodness consents to “let be” — God lets be sun, moon, stars, sea creatures, land animals, and human beings made in His image. Goodness delights in nothing more than giving gifts and bestowing existence.

God’s own life as Father and Son is incomparably rich and inexhaustible, bursting with goodness.2 Goodness seeks to give. And God is goodness itself. God’s very essence is goodness.

Goodness being what it is — gracious and loving — holds no grudges. God is not jealous of His rights as God. God does not resent our existence. God is not jealous that something besides God exists. In fact, God is delighted that something other Himself exists. God “lets be” and a glorious cosmos filled with beauty and goodness comes into being.

With the help of the Word of God, He created us freely, without any compulsion or necessity on His part. Our being isn’t something that God needs to overcome. God doesn’t need our experiences of good and evil to realize His divine Selfhood or to come to a divine Self awareness. God does not need a universe to be God. And yet here we are.

The universe is not a given. Its very existence is called into question by creation ex nihilo. The Creator God is not a part of the universe that He created. Unlike Plato’s Craftsman, the God who creates ex nihilo is not restricted by pre-existent matter or the receptacle of space or the Intelligible forms.

Then St Athanasius flops another ace card on us.

Among these things, of all things upon earth he had mercy upon the human race, and seeing that by the principle of its own coming into being it would not be able to endure eternally, he granted them a further gift, creating human beings not simply like all the irrational animals upon the earth but making them according to his own image (cf. Gen 1.27), giving them a share of the power of his own Word, so that having as it were shadows of the Word and being made rational, they might be able to abide in blessedness, living the true life which is really that of the holy ones in paradise. (§3)

Mere human beings have a special participation in the Word of God. We are made in God’s image.

  • Not the sun.
  • Not the moon.
  • Not the stars.
  • Not angelic beings.

Mere men and women have been gifted by God with special communion in God.

To be a creature is to be gifted with existence. And to be a human being is to be gifted with the greatest gift of all, special communion and special participation in God.

And knowing again that free choice of human beings could turn either way, he secured beforehand, by a law and a set place, the grace given. For bringing them into his own paradise, he gave them a law, so that if they guarded the grace and remained good, they might have the life of paradise—without sorrow, pain, or care—besides having the promise of their incorruptibility in heaven; but if they were to transgress and turning away become wicked, they would know themselves enduring the corruption of death according to nature, and no longer live in paradise, but thereafter dying outside of it, would remain in death and in corruption. (§3)

Our very existence is a gift. We are not the product of fate. Or determinism. Or chaos.

But because human beings are created out of nothing, our existence seems quite precarious. Our very nature is we were created out of nothing. Human existence looks frail. You and I both know how fragile humans are, as Pascal observed how hazardous life can be: “There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapour, a drop of water is enough to kill him.” The Covid-19 virus as small as 0.06 microns but no larger than 0.14 microns strikes terror into the whole world.

We came out from nothing — that’s our principle of existence — and nothing seems easier than us slipping back into nothing from whence we came.

But St Athanasius assures us, we are given our very own Exodus out of nothingness. We are ridiculously gifted. God has given us Paradise. We share the very life of the holy ones in Paradise. We share communion with God. We are made in God’s image. We are given a share in God’s own Word. God gave us Torah that acts as guard rails to keep us from self-destruction. And He gave us a Paradise itself to live in. Human beings are lifted above nature and given reason, life, and immortality, a share of God Himself.

Should we be frightened we are created out of nothing? Should we be frightened that we are radically dependent on God?

Well, there is one catch — and it’s a big one, certainly not to be minimized. The gift also includes a task. God gave us responsibility for our own being. God wants us to guard our gift.

Question: What happens if we don’t guard the gift? What happens if we do not remain good?

Answer: We slip back into the nothingness from whence we came.

In a word, we have become corrupt. St Athanasius flips over a Joker card. He introduces a theme here that he will continue to expand upon in the following sections. Corruption slips us back into the Abyss of Nothingness. We de-create ourselves. Well, we try to anyway. But goodness would never let us dissolve back into the Nihil, the Nothing. Not without a fight anyway.

Humans have a deep distrust of God. St Athanasius seeks to assure us that skepticism of God is unreasonable in the extreme. He offers sweetly reasoned arguments, not just to satisfy our minds against obvious objections, but to woo our hearts into gratitude and devotion. There is absolutely no reason to fear the God who creates and sustains all things out of His goodness.

This hand is over. But the game isn’t. He is now ready to tell us why the Word of God became incarnate. To be more specific, he informs us why the Word became en-anthropized and embodied. 

 

Footnotes

[1] Athanasius, On the Incarnation (§3)

[2] St Athanasius is not yet a Nicene theologian. He doesn’t turn to the deity of the Holy Spirit until he starts writing his letters to Serapion.

(Go to “Staring Death …”)

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John Stamps is currently Senior Technical Writer at Guidewire Software in San Jose, California. He holds a BA in Greek from Abilene Christian University, an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, and did work towards an STM in philosophy of religion at Yale University. He is married to Shelly Houston Stamps and attends St. Stephen Orthodox Church in Campbell, California.

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2 Responses to Slowly Reading St Athanasius: Playing the Creation Card

  1. Looking forward to this later!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. John Grinnell says:

    Likewise.

    Liked by 1 person

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