“In Thy Light do we see Light”
Although this verse from the psalms held many implications for Athanasius, the primary meaning that he found in it was its meaning for the doctrine of the person of Christ. It meant to him that in Christ the light from God me could, by revelation, see God as light, and Christ as the radiance of the Father was coequal with God as light. This was not the principal passage from the Old Testament in the panoply of Athanasius against the Arians. That distinction appears to have belonged—strange though this seems to modern judgment—to the eighth chapter of the Book of Proverbs. In conjunction with the prologue to the Gospel of John, which was its New Testament counterpart, the eighth chapter of Proverbs was central to the exposition, speculation, and argumentation about the person of Christ during the third, fourth, and fifth centuries. There was, however, a second echelon of biblical testimonies which sometimes illustrated and sometimes corroborated the evidence of the several passages that were truly crucial and decisive. In this second echelon the words of the psalmist, “In thy light do we see light,” had their place.
Secondary thought the importance of the Psalm 36.9 may have been as an individual biblical testimony about the person of Christ, the image of light and radiance, which it contains, was of primary significance for the entire ancient church. Indeed, this image took its place just behind the image of Christ the Logos of God and the image of Christ as Son of God, contributing its special elements to the theological thought and language of the fathers like Athanasius and helping eventually—a generation after Athanasius—to formulate the orthodox doctrine of the holy and undivided Trinity. Thus history of the development of the doctrines of the Trinity and of the person of Christ in the first five centuries and could conceivably be written around the several explanations and expositions of this image, as the interpretation of the image of light advanced from the naïve and unreflective suggestions of the early fathers to the sophistication of the late Greek fathers, in whose thought “the old sun-and-radiance metaphor is gathered up and preserved in the new formulation of the coinherence.” Through the evolution of the image of light and radiance from the rhetorical naïveté to theological sublety and precision, the dogma of the Trinity came of age, and for this evolution Athanasius deserves a good share of the credit.
The earliest application of the image of light to the relation between Christ and the Father occurred in the New Testament itself. The Epistle to the Hebrews called Christ apaugasma, the radiance, brightness, or reflection, of the glory of the Father. In the setting of the argument being developed by the opening paragraphs of the epistle and in combination with the other language employed there, the image of Christ as the radiance of the Father suggested two distinct theological motifs, the derivation of Christ from the Father and the identity of Christ with the Father. As the subsequent history of this image demonstrated, the problem was: How could both the derivation and the identity receive full justice in a single theological formula? To that problem much of the history of Christian thought about the image of light and the related image of fire was devoted. Only gradually did the fuller implications of the image become explicit for thinkers of the church like Athanasius, as more profound reflection upon it eliminated the simpler and rather superficial conclusions it has originally suggested.
An examination of how the image of radiance and light was used by some Christian theologians in the second and third centuries indicates that the derivation of Christ from the Father was its early and obvious meaning, but that the concept of identity between the light and the radiance began to impose itself upon the fathers as they probed more deeply into the image. Justin Martry and his pupil Tatian, for example, took it to mean that as fire could be ignited from fire without diminishing that from which it was taken, so the Son derived from the Father without a loss in the deity of the Father. Here the accent was not so much upon the coessentiality of the Father and the Son as upon the inviolability of the Father despite the generation of the Son. For the purpose of making that point, it was an apt image. But if it was carried beyond this single point of analogy, it quickly led to conclusions that threatened the concept of the coessentiality between the Father and the Son. As Athanasius eventually acknowledged, the image of fire kindled from fire suggested that the new fire or firebrand was something external to the old, created and wrought by it but separate from it. If, for example, something were to be ignited from the heat of the sun, its fire could properly be said to be derived from the sun. Yet if the fire were extinguished, that would not affect the heat of the sun at all. Applied to the relation between God and Christ, the image of fire from fire soon made the Son radically subordinate to the Father, as the creature was subordinate to the Creator.
If the image of light and radiance was to serve the purpose of the church’s confession that Christ was ‘very God of very God,’ it has to be disengaged form the image of fire from fire. Without intending to support Arian teaching, and orthodox theologian could be beguiled by the image of fire into statements that had a pronouncedly Arian flavour. Thus Dionysius of Alexandria, one of Athanasius most distinguished predecessors, in the middle of the third century said of the begetting of the Son by the Father: “Life was begotten from life, and it flowed as a river from a well; and from light unquenchable bright light was kindled.” Harmless enough in its poetic and rhetorical intent, this declaration, upon more careful examination, began to look like evidence for the Arian doctrine that the Son was less than the Father, and therefore proof that the tradition of the centuries since the apostles was on the side of Arius rather than of Nicaea. To meet this claim, Athanasius composed and epistle in which he sought to demonstrate that the author of this declaration “opposed the Arian heresy, just as the Council of Nicaea did, and that it is useless for the Arians to slander him by claiming him for their position. Other passages from the writings of Dionysius made clear that he did not intend to use the image of fire from fire to support the Arian doctrine, but that he did use the image of light and radiance to support what was eventually to emerge as the Nicene doctrine.
From one such writing, entitled Refutation and Defence (which has been lost since), Athanasius quoted and extensive exposition of the image of light and radiance.
Being the radiance of eternal light, he [the Son] is surely eternal himself; for if the light exists always, it is evident that the radiance, too, exists always . . . If the sun were eternal, the daylight also would be unending; but since that is not so in fact, the day begins with the sun and ends with the sun. God, however, is eternal light, neither beginning nor ending. Therefore the radiance lies before him and with him eternally, having no beginning and being eternally begotten.
Other fathers too had to be rescued form the charge that their imprecise use of images like fire and light made them ancestors to Arianism. Not only in his special defence of Dionysius, but in other works as well, Athanasius felt obliged to quote the fathers and by a careful exegesis to show their consensus in support of the orthodox doctrine. A fragment of Origen, for example, asked “The God who, according to John, is called light (for ‘God is light’)—when was he ever without a radiance of his very own glory?” Hence, according to Athanasius’ exegesis of Origen, the image of light and radiance had to signify that the Son of God was eternal as God, who could not be without his radiance. And int he same treatise Athanasius quoted Theognostus of Alexandria in support of the contention that the radiance was neither the light itself nor something alien to the light; so the Son of God was distinct from the Father, yet of the same essence with the Father.
Form the opposite end of the North African coast along the Mediterranean, from Carthage, came further testimony on the image of light and radiance. Tertullian, who was responsible for the origin of much of the theological language of the Western church, made use of this image in his accounts of he person of Christ. In his Apology, for example, he asserted: “Christ is spirit from spirit and God from God, as light is kindled from light.” This meant, he continued, that God as light suffered no loss through the kindling of light from him; but it meant also that the Son of God was God and that the two were one. The application of the image of the light to the relation between Christ and the Father was one the lessons—one of the few lessons—that Tertullian ascribed to the instruction of the Paraclete who spoke through and to the Montanist movement. it proved that Christ and the Father were one and the Son could properly be termed a projection [problē]” of the Father, despite the heretical, Gnostic connotations of that term. Among both the Greek-speaking and Latin-speaking fathers, then, the image of God as light and Christ as radiance begun to acquire, by the end of the third century, the subtle and profound connotation that Athanasius, following the Council of Nicaea, recognised in it.
Thus it took its place just one degree below two other basic images for the relation between Christ and God: the Son of God and the Logos of God. In the literature on the history of the doctrine of the person of Christ these latter two images have claimed the major share of the theological and scholarly attention and with good reason. The development of the doctrines of the person of Christ and of the Trinity did consist in the effort of the church to strip these images of the connotations that did not belong in a Christian confession and to replace these connotations with others that were appropriate to Christian theology. The image “Son of God” carried at least two sets of connotations of which it had to be cleansed if it was to serve as a reliable bearer of the church’s testimony to what God had done in Jesus as the Christ. Likewise, the image “Logos of God” connoted two clusters of ideas diametrically opposite to those connoted by the metaphor “Son of God,” but equally inimical to Christian worship and witness. To understand the significance of the image “radiance of God,” one must compare and contrast it with these two classic Christian designations for the way Jesus the Christ is related to God. For, like them, it was a device for answering the question of the ancient church, as summarised by Adolf Harnack: “Is the divine that has appeared on earth and reunited man with God identical with the supreme divine, which rules heaven and earth, or is it a demigod?”
From earliest times a favourite Christian term for Jesus as the Christ had been “Son of God.” Indeed, the Gospel of Luke made this term a part of the prenatal confession of the angel to the divine mission of Jesus (Luke 1.35): “This child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” Throughout the New Testament this image was echoed, both in the gospels and in the epistles; and virtually every Christian creed has contained the declaration ascribed to Peter at Caesarea Philippi, that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matt. 16.16). The well-nigh universal distribution of this image in early Christian literature guarantees to the phrase “Son of God” a place in any Christian speech about Jesus. It is not surprising, therefore, that its appearances can be documented from the writings of church fathers East and West, Greek and Latin, orthodox and heterodox. Still, as has been indicated, the image “Son of God” was freighted with at least two sets of connotations that prevented it from communicating directly what the Christian faith meant by its confession that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ of God. And the image of Jesus as the radiance of God, together with other images, served to counterbalance both these sets of connotations; for no one image could carry alone the weight of the Christian revelation and the burden of the Christian confession.
From the reaction of the Greek and Roman philosophers to the Christian designation of Jesus as “Son of God” it was clear that Christian thought had great difficulty exorcising this designation of its mythological and superstitious implications. Having spent several centuries on the task of purging their own religion of these implications, the nobler minds of paganism resented the reintroduction of this image into the language of religious thought. This much must be admitted: In spite of the care and precision of Christian theological formulation, the debasement of the metaphor “Son of God” of connotations that suggested subordination of the Son to the Father. How could one who was derived from another—be coequal and coessential with that other? Athanasius was aware of this disability in the image, but would not concede the argument to the Arians on account of the disability. Instead, the invoked other images for the derivation of the Son from the Father, images in which the notion of subordination was not so prominent. Among these the image of light and radiance proved extremely useful. With its aid Athanasius sought to demonstrate that “Son of God” did not reintroduce carnal thoughts into religion and that the radiance of God, thought derived, was coequal in light with its source.
(For a more complete and excellent study of this subject, you will need to buy the book)