Theology in Reconciliation p.247ff

Page 247 of Theology in Reconciliation

What then of the word physis? Athanasius appears to have used this term in several related ways.1   This does not imply any ambiguity in his thought, but once again a proper variation in accordance with the demands of reality (which is not unlike the variation we employ today in our use of the word ‘subject’), throughout which Professor J A B Holland has shown, there prevails, especially in adverbial forms of this term, the sense of what is ‘aboriginally true.’2  On the one hand, then, Athanasius uses it differently of uncreated and created being, that is in such a way that the Physis of God is sharply distinguished from the physis of man as the ousia of the Creator is from the ousia of the creature.  In this sense it was consonant with Athanasian theology to speak not only of the inequality of Christ’s divine nature to ours, (τò πρòς ήμας ἀνóμοιον τῆς φúσεως) but of the divine and human natures with respect to the Incarnate Son.3  On the other hand, Athanasius use physis more or less as the equivalent or as the synonym of reality (ἀλήθεια, or ούσιά), as we see in the frequent use of the expression ‘in accordance with his nature’ (κατά φúσιν) where to think in accordance with the nature of things is to think truly (ἀληθῶς) of them.4 It was in this sense of the term that he could use the expression mia physis, that is, one undivided reality, one ούσιά or úπόσασις, in contrast to what is one ‘by will’ (βουλήσει).5

As Athanasius used it in these ways, physis had an overall slant deriving from the Christian understanding of God in his active relation to the world he has created and continues to sustain by his creative presence within it.  It has a distinctively dynamic rather that a static sense, for the old Greek idea of an unchanging nature known only through static patterns and immutable relations (e.g., in classical mathematics or geometry) is set aside. Physis describes actual reality which confronts us in its own independent being, and which is known in accordance with its own inherent force or natural force in virtue of which it continues to be it actually and properly is.  This concrete use of physis as synonymous with what a thing actually and essentially is, with reality, understandably excludes any abstract notion of physis as signifying some general or universal ‘nature’, and so it operates outwith the orbit of the Aristotelian distinction between primary and secondary ousia. To know God kata physin, in accordance with his own nature, is to know him under the impact of his distinctively divine energeia, that is, to know him through a living empirical relation determined by theosis. Thus Athanasius insisted that theologia and theosebeia, theology and godliness, belong inseparably together: for genuine knowledge of God arises only within an intellectual experience of his transcendent reality and majesty, and is maintained in the continuous context of worship, prayer, holiness and godly living.  That is to say, God being God, the empirical and the theoretical, the religious and the theological, are ultimately and finally indivisible in our experience and knowledge of him.

There is, however, still another way of using physis found among the Fathers, mostly of the Greek Antiochene sort.  This derives from a more Aristotelian, biological or vitalist approach, in which the stress on the relation of physis (= nature) to phuo (to produce or grow).  It is this naturalistic sense of the word physis, corresponding to the Aristotelian ‘second substance’,6 that is properly translated by the Latin natura. Serious difficulties and misunderstandings arose among the Fathers when this vitalistic or naturalistic sense of physis was employed of the divine and the human physeis in the one Person of Christ, as though it were the equivalent of the word physis in its other meaning as reality. Problems such as these have continued in the differences between the so-called Eastern monophysites and the ‘Chalcedonians’ who, as far as I can see, basically intend the same thing! Indeed more actual monophysitism may be found in the West that in those who today are usually called ‘monophysite.’7

If the development of an apposite theological language was an essential part of Athanasius’ theological activity, this was due not only to the fact that forms of speech rightly used refer to realities beyond themselves, but also to the fact that his rejection of cosmological and epistemological dualism carried with it an end to the abstraction of form and being or structure from substance, which had for centuries been so characteristic of Greek thought.  Now what we are concerned with in theology is a field created by the interaction of the divine Logos who  inheres in the being of God and world of created being on which God through creation had conferred intelligibility in such a way that there too, form inheres in being, and logos inheres in human being.  Thus unity of Logos and Being in God in accordance with the unique nature of God, and the unity of logos and being in man in accordance with the utterly different creaturely nature of man, alone mean that a different method of inquiry and argument must be found that which obtained in Aristotelian science, where classical geometry constituted the model of scientific argumentation and demonstration, for here we cannot operate as in classical geometry and the separation of form from being, or therefore with the abstract interrelation of idealised forms through necessary logical processes.  But in theology properly so called we are concerned with economy (οἰκονομία)8 set up by God’s gracious condescension to interact with us in our world of space and time, without, of course, ceasing to be who he eternally is in himself apart from creation and the incarnation.  This again forces theology to develop a different method of enquiry and an appropriate mode of argumentation, through which it will allow the field established between God and man to become disclosed to our mind and inquiries in its inner dynamic structures. Theology is concerned to penetrate into the inherent order, the innate coherence, the essential pattern of God’s self-communication to us in revelation and reconciliation, and in and through that to rise in the Spirit to an understanding of God in his Triune Being (as far as that is allowed for finite creatures) which Athanasius called theologia in its strictest sense (ἐν τριάδα ἡ θεολογία τελεíα ἐστί).Theology thus moves from discerning the orderly structure of the saving oikonomia (for example in what we call the ‘economic Trinity’) to the inner relations of God in Himself (which we call ‘the ontological Trinity’ or ‘the immanent Trinity’).


1. J A B Holland, The Development of Trinitarian Theology of Athanasius, in his conflict with Contemporary Heresies, 1963 (unpublished thesis in Edinburgh University Library), pp. 79f., 120, 555, 589, 732, etc., 1038, 1070-81, 1222 f., 1293 f.

2. Contra Gentes 35, 40f.; De Incarnatione 2ff; Contra Arianos 1:14f., 20, 24, 26, 28f., 36f., 51f., 61; 2.24, 29; 3:914, 16, 20, 22f., 60ff., etc.

3. De Incarnatione 34; Contra Arianos 1:55ff.; 2:70; 3:16, 20, 34, 62: De Decretis 11ff., 20ff.; In illud, omnia 6.

4. Contra Arianos 1:27, 37; 2:2ff., 31, 50, 58f., 70, 72,; 3:9f., 19ff., 25, 34, 60ff.; 4:1; De Synodis 52f.; De Sententia Dionysii 23f., 26; De vita Antonii 14; Ad Afros 8; cf also Contra Apollinarium 1:5f., 9ff., 16f., 2:9.

5. Contra Arianos 3:4, 18, 22, 59ff: Ad Antiochenos 6; cf. Contra Apollinarium 1:5f., 2:13; (N/A) and similar expression ‘of one nature’ (ὁμοφυής), Contra Arianos 1:58; De Sententia Dionysii 18; De Synodis 48, 52; Ad Serapionem 1:17 and ‘identity of nature’ (ταυτότης τῆς φύσεως) Contra Arianos 3:22; cf De Synodis 50.

6. Clement of Alexandria (fragment from the Peri Pronoias G. C. S., vol 3, p. 219): φύσις λέγεται παρὰ τò περφυκέναι. πρὡτη ούσíα ἐστι πᾶν τó καθ’ ἑαυτò úφεστóς οἶον λιθος. δευτέ ρα δἐ οὐσíα αὐξητικἠ καθò αὒξει φθίνει, τὀ φυτόν

7. In the ancient Church a distinction must be drawn between Greek ‘monophysites’ who were Apollinarian and Eutychian,and the Syrian and Coptic ‘monophysites’ who were Cyrillian – although Greek theologians are also found in the latter group, e.g., Severus of Antioch or John Philoponos of Alexandria.

8. See the following passages from the Contra Arianos 1:55; 2:6, 9, 11ff, 44, 51ff., 75ff., and also in In Illud omnia 1; De Decretis 1, 25; De Sententia Dionysii 6, 24; Ad episcopos 2; Ad Antiochenos 7; Ad Serapionem 2:7 etc., Ad Palladium. The usual interpretation of κατά οìκονομíαν to mean ‘in a qualified sense’ or ‘by way of reserve’ is inadmissible, being determined from behind by an abstract Hellenic notion of the immutability or impassibility of God quite different from that found in the thought of Athanasius or Cyril of Alexandria, who take seriously the parousia of the divine Being within the structures of space and time.

9. Contra Arianos 1:18

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