Theology in Reconciliation P. 235ff

(ii) It is in the Spirit that we have to do with God, who is Spirit, in the unity of his being and his act. While Athanasius holds that the distinctions between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are eternal distinctions, the Father always being the Father, the Son always the only Son, and the Holy Spirit always the Holy Spirit, there is yet one divine activity and one divine being in Father, Son and Holy Spirit.It is this unity of activity (ἐνέργεια), unity of being (οὐσία), and unity of Godhead (Θεότης ) which force themselves upon our understanding when we know God in the Spirit, and know the Spirit who realises and actualises the power  of the Godhead to be one with God in the identity of his eternal Being.That is to say, it is particularly as the theology of Athanasius moves from the doctrine of the Son to the doctrine of the Spirit that we find him thinking of the one Being of God in his Acts, and of his one Activity in his Being. It must be said, then, that the very basis of Athanasius’ doctrine of the One triune God in the coactivity and co-essentially of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, depends upon his holding together the Being of God in his Act and his Act in his Being–that is, declining to have anything to do with the distinction between his being (οὐσία) and his activities (ενεργεὶαὶ) which developed later in thought, starting with the Cappadocians and becoming characteristic in Byzantine theology. From Athanasius’ point of view, however, diversity in activity could only call in question the unity of Being in God,while the unity of activity would be evidence for the unity of being only if there was no separation between them–that is, if the activity inhered in the very Being of God as ἐνόυσιος ἐνεργεια.In other words, separation between the activity and the being would imply that God is not after all in himself always and reliably what he is toward us through the Son and in the Spirit,and so far as the Spirit is concerned that he is not by nature what he imparts to us.Once again, it is the propriety of the Spirit to the Son, and his oneness in being with the Son, which is crucial in Athanasius’ thought; for the intrinsic oneness of God’s Act and his Being is discerned from the fact that the Spirit is the activity (ἐνέργεια) of the Son., who is not outside of him but in him as he in the Father;and it is from the Son who is the one Form of the Godhead (ἒν εἶδος θεότητος) that we discern that there is only one Godhead, in the Father who is above all things, in the Son who pervades all things, and in the Spirit who is active in all things through the Word.8 The inherent unity of Being and Act which this entails forces upon us the understanding of God in which movement belong to his eternal Being. If God is he who is in his activity towards us through the Son and in the Spirit, then it belongs to the essential nature of his eternal Being to move and energise and act. When, therefore, it is said of the Logos or the Son of God who inheres in his eternal Being that he became man or became flesh, that becoming must be regarded not as something adventitious or accidental to God, and idea which Athanasius rejects,but as the outgoing movement if the divine Being in condescension and love, the coming-and-presence (parousia) of the Being (ousia) of God himself among us in Jesus Christ. It is, however, essentially an active presence, a presence in which God himself is active through the Son and and activity in which God himself is immediately present in the Spirit. What is decisive, of course, is the intimate relation of the Spirit to Jesus Christ.10

(iii) While God remains ultimately ineffable, beyond all created being, he is not closed to us, but makes himself accessible to us and knowable by us through his Word and in his Spirit. This follows from the previous point: for if the activity which God directs towards us is finally separated from his Being, then he is finally inscrutable to us as he is in himself; but if his activity and his Being instead of being separated  inhere in each other, then God really does make himself accessible to us and known by us through his activity toward us. That is to say, God really does reveal himself to us through his activity towards us, if he thereby does not just communicate something about himself but communicates himself to us in such a way that we participate in him, which is precisely what God does through his Word and in his Spirit. Nevertheless, while in this way we are enabled to apprehend God in himself we are unable to comprehend (καταλαβεῖν) him, for we cannot grasp what he is (τί ἐστι Θεός) or seize his divine Being with our minds. Finite creatures are quite unable to get behind God’s Being and know what it is for the specifically divine manner of being eludes them, but they can say what he is not, for God is not as man.11 This ineffability of God applies also to the Son, for even in our knowing of him, he remains far from what we are by nature able to comprehend. That is to say, the kind of ineffability which Athanasius has in mind is not the negative ineffability of mere apophaticism, but the ineffability of God who in making himself known to us through the Son reveals that he infinitely transcends the grasp of our minds. The only knowledge of God proportionate to God is that which obtains between the Son and the Father, where there is mutual relation of being as well as knowing between them. No one knows the Father except the Son, and to whom the Son wills to reveal him.12 Such is the knowledge of God mediated to us through Christ, but it is a knowledge which is realised only through the activity of the Spirit and only as in the Spirit we participate in the Son and through him in God.13 That is to say, it is through the Son and in the Spirit that a way is opened up for us to the Father, and we come to know him in some real measure as he is in himself since the Son and the Spirit are proper to the Being of God and dwell within his Being; and it is in the Spirit that our knowing of God really is knowing, since through participating in his Spirit (μετέχοντες τοῦ φεύματος αὐτοῦ) we are made partakers of God.14 This does not mean that by receiving the Spirit we lose our own proper being, any more than that the Lord when he became man for our sakes became less God.15 That is the characteristic emphasis of Athanasius in his Letters to Serapion Concerning the Holy Spirit; in the Spirit we have participation in God and therefore in the Spirit, creatures though we are, we are lifted up to know God in his own Being as he discloses himself to us through his Word.16 It is therefore in the Spirit that we have access to his intrinsic intelligibility  and his essential knowability, for inter-relation with God in the Spirit imports a two-fold openness: (a) an openness in the part of God in which by the inherent movement of his eternal Being he is able to relate himself to what is not himself and to become open to created realities beyond himself; and (b) and openness on the part of God’s creation, for through the Spirit of God is able to take possession of his creatures and to be present to them in such a way that they are lifted up to the level of participation in god where they are opened out for union and in communion with God far beyond the limits of their creaturely existence–which is another way of describing theosis. To be in the Spirit is to be in God, for the Spirit is not external but internal to the Godhead; but since it is only the Spirit of God who knows what is in God and it is he who joins us to the Logis in God, through the Spirit we are exalted to know God in his inner intelligible relations as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, yet in such a way that we are restrained by the sheer holiness and majesty of the divine Being from transgressing the bounds of our creaturely being in inquiring beyond what is given through the Son and received by the Spirit, and therefore form thinking presumptuously and illegitimately of God. Before the transcendent intelligibility and ineffability of the Godhead we veil our faces like the cherubim, and faith and a pious and reverent use of reason together with worship wonder and silence inform the movement on our part to the Father through the Son and in the Spirit answering to the movement of God’s part from the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit.17


1. Ad Serapionem 1.14, 20, 30; 3.6; 4.6; cf. Contra Arianos 3.15

2.Ad Serapionem 1.14, 19f., 28, 30; 3.6

3.Ad Serapionem 1.27; 3.3

4. Contra Arianos 2.2;cf., 2,28; 3.65; 4.1f.

5. Contra Arianos 1.17-20, 28, 36 the discussion of this point by E. P. Meirling, Orthodoxy and Platonism in Athanasius (Brill, Leiden, 1968 pp. 66f., 124f

6. Ad Serapionem 1.23-4. ‘If he makes men divine, it is not be doubted that his nature is of God.’

7. Ad Serapionem 1.20f., 30; 3.2, 5; 4.3f.

8. Contra Arianos 3.6, 15-16; De synodis 52–the term εἶδος in these passages is the equivalent of ὑπόστασις or οὐσία or φύσις. For the use of these terms by Athanasius see below 243ff.

9. Contra Arianos 1.17f., 20, 27f., 36; 2.38, 45: 3.65; 4.2; De Decretis 22; Ad Serapionem 1.26; 3.3f.; Ad Afros 8

10. Of the closing words of the Festal Letter 14: ‘Let us keep the festival to the Spirit, who is always near us, in Jesus Christ, through whom and with whom to the Father be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen

11. Ad monachos 2; Cf De Decretis 22 and De synodis 35; ἀκαταάληπτος οὐσία

12. Contra Arianos 2.22, with reference to Matthew 11.27; and In illud, omnia on Luke 10.22. Cf. Contra Arianos 1.6, De synodis 15, and Origen De Principiis 4.4

13. Contra Arianos 1.15-16

14. Contra Arianos 3.19

15. De Decretis 14

16. Ad Serapionem 1.23-29

17. Ad Serapionem 1.15-20, 24; 4.2-7