by John Stamps
Kids love to ask their parents questions. Kids think nothing of asking tough questions. They ask them as easily as they eat or play or sleep. They think these questions are harmless. But the children are wrong. Parents dread these questions. Especially when you least suspect them, for example, when you’re trying to put your kids to bed and they’re stalling to stay awake just a wee bit longer. And so many of these questions are real doozies:
- Why is the sky blue?
- Where do babies come from?
- Why does our neighbor look different?
- Why do people die?
- Where did I come from?
- Why don’t we want others to see our private parts?
- How did God get invented?1
There’s a wrong way and a right way to answer kids’ questions. Appealing to authority never seems right. Take this classic parent-child interchange:
“Go wash your hands.”
“Because I said so!”
This parent-child interchange is also classic:
“Please go set the table for dinner.”
“Can I just put out forks?”
“No. In this house we eat with a knife, fork, and spoon.”
“That’s what we do in the Stamps family. That’s how we’ve always done it.”
Eventually children lose their innate curiosity after parents and the school system kills it. But kids also start to sense the stakes involved. They realize they are playing with dynamite. An unanswered question still lingers and remains a painful reminder about how much we just don’t know. The existential questions that adults ask late at night when we can’t sleep only become more difficult to answer. Who am I? Is this stupid 40 hour per week job really what my life is all about? Who invented liquid soap and why? Why am I so unhappy? How did God get invented?
And who wants to look stupid by not knowing all the answers to life’s big questions? Pondering the big questions of life, much less trying to find their answers, becomes mentally exhausting. Better to stop asking questions altogether. Even so, the truly important questions never go away. They gnaw away at us and then they pop to the surface at the most inopportune moments. When tragedy erupts, we find ourselves asking all over again: Why does a good God permit suffering? Why did my husband die? Why is there so much injustice and evil in the world? How did God get invented?
Most children and adults stop asking questions and we just carry on with the daily drudge of life’s quotidian burdens. That is, unless you’re Greek. Then asking questions turns into its own art form. The famous Greek thinkers of old — Thales, Solon, Socrates, Plato, and so on — had turned asking questions into an academic discipline.
Diogenes Allen, my old philosophy professor, was immensely proud of his own Greek heritage. He loved recounting how the ancient Egyptians thought the Greeks were like children. They were always asking, Why?2 Their persistent questioning wearied the Egyptians to no end. Critias tells Socrates and Timaeus the story of one prodigiously old Egyptian priest who informed the great statesman Solon, “You Greeks are always children, and there is no such as an old Greek. You’re young, young in soul, all of you. For in those souls you don’t have a single old opinion derived from ancient hearsay or any study hoary with time” (Timaeus 22b-c). Mere antiquity was no indication of truth. No self-respecting Greek thinker would believe any authority simply on somebody’s say-so. And like it or not, you and I are heirs of that critical tradition.
Which finally leads us straight into De Incarnatione Verbi Dei §7. Earlier, St Athanasius had weighed certain theological options in the Divine Dilemma and found them wanting (§6).
- If humans did not suffer the consequences of death and corruption when they disobeyed God’s law, it would be absurd. The most absurd thing we could say about God is that He is not truthful.
- If God neglected His creation by letting them lapse into the Nihil, it would not “fit” into what we know about God’s Goodness. The most unfitting thing we could say about God is that He is not goodness.
But maybe there are some other options open to God.
But just as this had to be, so also on the other hand what was reasonable3 for God lies against it, so that God should appear true in his legislation concerning death. (§7)
Right out of the chute, what startles me — perhaps you are startled too — is how St Athanasius simply assumes God is reasonable (εὔλογος/eu-logos). It’s St Athanasius’ favorite word in this section.
Here is St Athanasius’ argument in a nutshell: the God who is the Logos cannot be a-logos (ἄλογος) — without reason, irrational, unintelligible, or contrary to reason. The God who is the Logos can only be eu-logos (εὔλογος) — rational, sensible, fair, or probable. The God who is Logos is reasonable.
What St Athanasius says here is an extended definition of John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.” St John wedded the Torah (Genesis 1:1) to Greek thinking and St Athanasius took their lawfully-wedded union to the next step.4
Now some might claim this marriage was an ill-conceived shotgun wedding. This turbulent nuptial union gave birth to a child named Theo-Logos, and yes, what a stormy dysfunctional family it has been ever since. But inquiring for the logos of something is part of our mental furniture. As Diogenes Allen says:
This systematic search for reasons, or for the logos for anything and everything, is something we today take for granted. It is part of our mental makeup. We do it automatically. We share with the ancient Greeks a desire to push back the demand of the unknown and unveil all mysteries, and we share with them the concept of disciplines, which have their distinctive principles and methods of inquiry. Likewise it was part of the mental makeup of the early Church Fathers of Christianity, who fashioned Christian doctrines in a decisive way in the first centuries. The early Church Fathers sought to retain a proper sense of mystery, but they too were persistent in the asking of the revealed truth, “How is that so?” Their minds were Hellenic to that extent, and because they were Hellenic, they created the discipline of theology.5
The early Church Fathers believed in reason in such a way that we postmoderns simply find inconceivable.
If there are still firm 21st century believers in God, the God they believe in isn’t reasonable. Many theologians and preachers are delighted to stick their thumb in the eye of the modern world with a wildly voluntarist vision of God. The more arbitrary and capricious, the better. The more offensive your theology is to fallen human reason — totally depraved as we are — the better. Whatever God commands is fine by us. Double predestination? Go for it. Eternal hell fire? We’re fine with that too. Soli Deo honor et gloria indeed.
Be all that as it may, St Athanasius doesn’t play the Deus absconditus card in all his discussion of the most difficult of all Christian mysteries — the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of the Son of God. If you are looking for apophatic theology in all its Eastern Orthodox glory, you won’t find it in De Incarnatione.
God isn’t merely consistent. God is intelligible and fair, even sensible. There is an inherent rationality we can expect from the God we worship as goodness and as truth.
God after all possesses His “Logos,” which means word, thought, principle, speech, intelligence, even ratio.
St Athanasius stakes his entire incarnational discussion on the relationship between logos versus a-logos versus eu-logos. When Christians proclaim that God became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, we do not think we are intentionally making a ridiculous or paradoxical assertion. St Athanasius wants to show his Gentile audience that there is an inherent reasonability in God’s actions. The incarnation and crucifixion of God the Word are neither ludicrous or absurd. So Athanasius started his apologia to the Gentiles with the following bold claim: ”We must expound for you in writing what we have learned from our teachers — I mean the faith in Christ the Savior — that no one may regard the teaching of our doctrine as worthless or supposing faith in Christ to be irrational (ἄλογον)” (CG 1.3).
Diogenes Allen characterizes the theology of St Athanasius in this way:
With his Hellenically formed mind, he assumes that there is an explanation for everything that happens, including everything that God does. Since all things are rational, one can ask if anything, why is that so? even if one does not always have the ability or information needed to find the answer.6
I confess, I never really thought of St Athanasius as possessing a “Hellenically formed mind.” But carefully observe what Athanasius doesn’t do. He doesn’t brandish and wave God’s omnipotence into our face i.e. God can do anything He wants to do. He doesn’t double-down on God’s inscrutability. Athanasius doesn’t play the omnipotent God card found in the Book of Job: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.” (Job 38:2)
And unlike Job, St Athanasius doesn’t repent in dust-and-ashes, subdued before the Almighty. He accepts without question that it is perfectly reasonable for ordinary flesh-and-blood mortals to ask questions about God. And he accepts without question that it’s a perfectly worthwhile task for Christian thinkers to try to answer those questions as best we can. The teaching of Christian doctrine (logos) is not illogical. We must not suppose faith in Christ to be irrational (ἄλογος/alogos) but reasonable (εὔλογος/eulogos). We impugn God’s integrity if we suspect that God is capricious or arbitrary.
But let’s resume the actual test case at hand.
For it was absurd that God, the Father of truth, should appear a liar for our profit and preservation. What then had to happen in this case or what should God do? Demand repentance from human beings for their transgression? (§7)
To suppose that God can lie is pure absurdity. Not even to preserve the human beings He loves and created.
If God is Goodness Himself, can God lie? No, God cannot lie, even if we think God might be desperately tempted to save His creation. Because God is consistent with Himself and He is consistent with us.
God’s truthfulness is why God is God and not a human invention. Every page of De Incarnatione Verbi Dei is an explicit refutation of Ludwig Feuerbach. St Athanasius refuses to invent God in the image of fallen human beings. The holy God doesn’t act like we think the holy God should act:
I will not execute my fierce anger,
will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not man,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come to destroy. (Hosea 8:9)
Many theologians today would have you think that your metaphysical status in the cosmos is lower than a dog turd. You are the ontological worm that you think you are. Your value to the universe is worthless. “You are a fluke of the universe. You have no right to be here.”7 But no, St Athanasius reminds us that God is goodness itself and He loves human beings.
God is not trapped by His own attributes. He is not enslaved by His goodness and He is not trapped in a corner by His truthfulness. Whatever “solution” God comes up with to deal with the long downhill slide of humans into nothingness and corruption will “fit” His attributes suitably and worthily.
One might say that this is worthy of God, claiming that just as they were set towards corruption by the transgression, so by repentance they might again be set towards incorruptibility. But repentance would neither have preserved what was reasonable for God,8 for he again would not have remained true if human beings were not held fast by death, nor does repentance recall human beings from what is natural, but merely halts sins. If then there were only offence and not the consequence of corruption, repentance would have been fine. (§7)
Here’s St Athanasius’ favorite word to describe God for the second time in this section. Repentance by itself doesn’t preserve God’s reasonableness (εὔλογος). But why? Why isn’t a really “sincere apology” from human beings enough to get back in God’s good graces?9 Why isn’t repentance enough?
If the basic human problem was simply committing a trespass of some sort, repentance would be sufficient. But it’s not, for at least three reasons.
First, repentance doesn’t deal with the horrific after-effects of sin. God can forgive peccadilloes. A misdemeanor is no threat to God’s honor. Humans are not declared guilty of lèse-majesté because we committed a minor infraction. St Athanasius doesn’t bring up God’s honor at all. God isn’t infinitely offended by a slip-up or indiscretion.
You can anticipate his second argument. Repentance is not enough because death holds us in its terrible grip. God cannot violate His own standards of truthfulness. Truthfulness demands consistency. If we refused to obey God, the consequence is death.
Third, repentance doesn’t deal with the problem of corruption and our slide into nothingness. Repentance isn’t enough because we have become corrupt. St Athanasius certainly doesn’t disapprove of repentance. Repentance is a good thing. When humans repent, we stop sin in its tracks. But we suffered a new normal, rather a new abnormal. Death and corruption have entered our very nature. We needed a more radical solution, deeper than repentance. We humans have internalized corruption within ourselves.
There’s yet another reason why repentance isn’t sufficient. It grounds the entire argument why God became a human being. But I’m saving it for the grand finale.
Dr Allen oft reminded us theologians-and-philosophers-in-the-making how deeply the ancient philosophers feared instant gratification.10 Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle deeply feared letting young people learn easy pleasures. Instant gratification is nearly always destructive to our character. “The more you have, the more you want.” Easy pleasures are addictive and they corrupt good character. Because once somebody became corrupt, nobody knew how to repair the corruption.
One temporary pleasure can corrupt you for your entire life. Wise parents these days warn their children about dangerous drugs like fentanyl or crystal meth. These drugs are especially deadly because you can become instantly hooked if they don’t kill you first. The danger of an easy pleasure is you can quickly reach the point where you are beyond the help of doctors or medicine.
You and I understand the problem of corruption at a common sense level. Take an avocado. You buy a mid-winter avocado at the grocery store that’s hard as a rock because you’re desperate for Mexican food. You wait for it to ripen. But the next thing you know, the avocado has over-ripened and turned black. It’s not good for guacamole, it’s not good on a taco, and you toss it out sadly and none the wiser. Paraphrasing the Gospels, avocados are good; but if the avocado is black and rotten, with what will you make guacamole again? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.
But if, once the transgression had taken off, human beings were now held fast in natural corruption and were deprived of the grace of being in the image, what else needed to happen? Or who was needed for such grace and recalling except the God Word who in the beginning made the universe from non-being? For his it was once more both to bring the corruptible to incorruptibility and to preserve for the Father His reasonableness (εὔλογος) in all things.11 Being the Word of the Father and above all, he alone consequently was both able to recreate the universe and was worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to intercede for all before the Father. (§7)
And here is St Athanasius’ new favorite word to describe God the third and final time. A radical problem required a radical solution. The Logos who created us in the first place, that very same Logos must re-create us. For our situation was dire.
- We had become like my poor rotten avocado.
- We had cut ourselves off from the Tree of Life.
- We had become rotten to the core… err… to the very pit.
- We were dead inside.
- We had lost the gift of eternal life. We lapsed back to mere nephesh hayah, mere mortality.
- We had returned to the mortal bios we share with the animals, but we lost God’s zoe. When we lost God’s life, God’s zoe, our very nature became unstable. Like all created natures, we were in flux and subject to dissolution (CG §41).
- We were disintegrating into non-existence.
Corruption and death were not problems that mortal flesh-and-blood could solve on its own. Through our own foolish choice, we deprived ourselves of the grace of eternal life. The human race was drowning in corruption. Repentance alone cannot solve this problem. No human being can think or act his way out of death and corruption.
In short, we needed God to rescue us. We needed God to save us. St Athanasius’ entire argument hinges on his readers grasping this singular theological truth. Only the God we didn’t invent could deliver us from death and corruption. A new grace was required, a new re-calling. We needed a new creation.
- Only the Father’s Logos can maintain the Father’s reasonableness (εὔλογος).
- Only the Logos could re-create us.
- Only the Logos could re-stabilize us back to zoe.
- Only the re-creating power of the Logos could restore what we had lost. It is only reasonable that the Logos who created us can re-create us.
- Only the Logos can reasonably re-create the universe.
- Only the Logos can reasonably suffer and die for all humanity.
- Only the Logos can reasonably step in and mediate between God the Father and all human beings.
The incarnation of the God Word “fits” everything that we know about the God Christians confess — He is Good, He is Love, and He is Truth.12 If we think that God is eu-logos, St Athanasius argues the incarnation and crucifixion of the Logos fits the job description of what God would do.
It is not absurd that God incarnated Himself. What would truly be absurd is if the God Word had not incarnated Himself.
Critics of the Christian faith like Celsus have it all wrong about the nature of God. The incarnation, death, and crucifixion of the God Word don’t show God at His most unreasonableness. The incarnation of the Word of God is supremely worthy, fitting, and reasonable for Him. As Khaled Anatolios describes it, “anything but the Incarnation of the Word would have been unworthy of God.”13
The incarnation is completely reasonable, given what we know about God. It is not unworthy of the God Word to suffer for our sins.
We spurned God’s gifts of immortality and incorruption. But we didn’t simply enter back into mortal nature. We lost the gift of eternal life which we received by being created in God’s image. We became utterly corrupt. Death lorded it over us.
Human salvation enacted through the incarnation of the God Word saves the consistency of the Father. Our very nature has become corrupted. And repentance by itself cannot change a corrupted human nature.
The Word of God who created us ex nihilo, that very same God Word must re-create us. Only the God Word can restore us to incorruptibility and only the God Word can preserve the reasonableness of God the Father. Only the God Word can heal corrupted and alienated human nature. Then St Athanasius introduces a new note in the scheme of redemption. The God Word is worthy (and fitting) to suffer on behalf of all humanity, to re-create us. We unmade ourselves. Now the God Word must remake us through His suffering and death.
St Athanasius has now looped back to the crucifixion and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Is this any way for the God Word to act? What possible sense does it make to say the God Word suffers?
When the Word of the Father suffers for us, it is a cosmic act in His effects. His suffering includes the entire universe in its consequences.
How then, one might reasonably (εἰκότως)14 ask them, is this matter still to be considered in human terms, and should one not rather confess that He who ascended the cross is the Word of God and the Savior of the universe?” (CG §1)
We don’t invent God to suit ourselves. We don’t consider the goodness of God in human terms. The God Word who emptied Himself into our misery and degradation and ascended the cross is worthy of all our adoration and all our devotion. The only genuine and reasonable option to pull us out of self-annihilation is the God Word taking on a body just like ours. Incarnation and crucifixion is worthy of the true God. He fulfilled — up to the very top of the brim of the cup — God’s law that had been broken. Then He filled us with the fullness of God’s life, His zoe, to corrupted and dying human beings.
The God we didn’t create in our fallen and cruel image in-human-ated Himself for us men and our salvation.
The God that “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man” (1 Corinthians 2:9) was crucified under Pontius Pilate for our trespasses.
The God we didn’t invent was resurrected from the tomb on the third day for our justification.
The crucified God is the Savior of the entire universe.
 “How did God get invented?” The best answer to that perplexing question is, unsurprisingly, from Rowan Williams. Here is his answer to 6-year old Lulu:
Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this:
‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected.
Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like.
But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’
And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off.
I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too.
 Theology for a Troubled Believer: An Introduction to the Christian Faith, xvii. “The main source of Christian theology is the Bible, but Christian theology as an academic discipline would not exist without the kind of intellectual curiosity that was unique to ancient Greece. The ancient Egyptians said that the Greeks were like children because they were always asking, ‘Why?’ It is not that other ancient peoples, including the ancient Jews, did not ask for the whys and wherefores of many things. It is rather that in ancient Greece the practice became a matter of principle.” (italics his) Diogenes Allen makes the same point in Philosophy for Understanding Theology, page xvii.
 I am modifying Fr John Behr’s translation by swapping out “consistency” for “reasonable.” “Reasonable” is, after all, the primary meaning of εὔλογος in Liddell-Scott-Jones (LSJ).
 With help along the way from Philo, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and a few others.
 Philosophy for Understanding Theology, page xviii.
 Theology for a Troubled Believer: An Introduction to the Christian Faith, xviii-xix. St Athanasius seeks to understand every piece of the Gospel story as best he can, right down to its picayune details. Why didn’t the crucified, dead, and buried Jesus remain in the tomb two days or four days? Why three days? (§26) Athanasius thinks the question is worth exploring.
 From National Lampoon’s Deteriorata, a savage parody of Les Crane’s Desiderata.
 Robert Thomson here mistranslated εὔλογος as “repentance would not have saved God’s honor.” A better translation is, “repentance would not have saved God’s reasonableness.”
 Patrick Henry Reardon, Reclaiming the Atonement: An Orthodox Theology of Redemption, page 125.
 Quest: The Search for Meaning through Christ (1990), pages xvi-xix.
 καὶ τὸ ὑπὲρ πάντων εὔλογον ἀποσῶσαι πρὸς τὸν Πατέρα – quite literally, “and in all things what is reasonable to preserve/save for the Father.”
 The God Word (Θεὸς Λόγος) – and not simply the Word of God – is truly an apt description of the identity of Jesus of Nazareth. St Athanasius uses it frequently, 24 times at my count.
 Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought (1998), page 43, italics his.
 “Reasonably,” “rightly,” or “suitably,” per LSJ.