There is little doubt that for St Athanasius method and material content always go together- that is part, at least of the significance of the intimate relation between the Spirit and the Word in his thought. Particularly striking is the centrality and the epistemological significance of the homoousion (applied in the first place to the Son, and then, as we have seen to the Spirit), for that tells us that through the Son and in the Spirit God has communicated to us himself, so that how we know God and what we know of Him are inseparable. Through the Word made flesh, we human beings with our created minds are enabled by the Spirit to know and think of God in such a way that our knowledge and thought of him repose upon his divine reality, or, to express it the other way round, that his divine reality through Jesus Christ and in his Spirit determines the way in which we know and think truly of him. It is because in Jesus Christ the Word of God who is internal to the Being of God has become man, and assumed our human nature into union with himself, without any diminishing or swallowing up of that human nature, that genuine theological activity can be an enterprise of men on earth, in which God himself is by his grace the proper object of their thought.
Moreover, it is because it is in Jesus Christ the Logos, by whom all men have been created and in and through whom they continue to exist as men, that human nature is fully established in Jesus Christ, and the created intelligibility of the contingent existence, far from being suppressed, is upheld and maintained. To say of Athanasius’ thought, as Grillmeier does, that ‘the bright Light of the Logos swallows up all created light’, is to charge him with a kind of epistemological monophysitism. which is the exact contrary of the truth.1
On the other hand, if God and the world are separated, as in the Arian scheme of things, and if the cosmos noetos and the cosmos aisthetos are disjoined from one another, then theology in the strict and proper sense is impossible, and there can be only mythology. Mythology is possible only on the axiomatic assumption of a radical dichotomy or chorismos between God and the world, for then our attempts to think of God are only epinoetic acts grounded in our own this-worldly self-knowledge and projected into God across the great gulf between us.2 But when that kind of gulf is eliminated by the condescension of the living and loving God who interacts with our world and human existence, and becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ, then a dianoetic way of thinking is possible, in which our thoughts, while remaining fully human, nevertheless repose upon the reality of God himself and are determined by his hypostatic self-communication to us in this world. Jesus Christ himself, the Word made flesh, is here not only the Life and the Truth but also the Way to the Father: ‘Through Jesus Christ we have access to the Father in one Spirit’. That is why the relation between the Incarnate Son and the Father constitutes the epistemological heart of Athanasius’ theology, for, as he so often cited from the worlds of Jesus, ‘no man knows the Son except the Father, and no man knows the Father except the Son’. There is then, as we have just seen, a mutual and exclusive relation between the knowledge of the Father and the knowledge of the Son, but through the Spirit that relation has been inserted, as it were, into human flesh, in the Incarnation so that we through the same Spirit may participate in the relation of the Son to the Father and of the Father to the Son, and know and love the triune God as he is in himself, even though he infinitely transcends our conceiving and speaking of him.
It was to theologia of this kind that Athanasius assimilated the scientific method that had been developed in Alexandria, namely, rigorous knowledge according to the inherent structure or nature (κατὰ φύσιν)3 of the realities investigated, together with the development of appropriate questions and the apposite vocabulary demanded by the nature of the realities as they become disclosed to us.4 It is in this way that theology adapts its method to its proper subject-matter to determine the appropriate forms of thought and speech about God.
So far as scientific theology is concerned, this means that we forced to adapt our common language to the nature and reality of God who is disclosed to us in Jesus Christ, and even where necessary to coin new terms, to express what we thus apprehend. Hence Athanasius insisted that when our ordinary terms are applied to God they must be stretched beyond their natural sense and reference and must be employed in such a way that they indicate more than the actual terms can naturally specify.5 Theological terms, therefore, which by function and use are deployed to refer to God in his relation to the world, in the nature of the case must have an elastic quality, terminating on God himself at one end and upon the world or man at the other end.6 To use modern scientific language, theological terms inevitably embody a relation of differentiality like the variational principles of physics, conformable to the precise nature and force of the realities to which they are used to refer. Indeed, in developing a theological understanding of space in respect of the dynamic relation between the ‘space’ (τόπος) of God which is to be understood strictly in accordance with nature of God as God, and the place (τόπος) of man in this created world which is to be interpreted strictly in accordance with the nature of man as man, Athanasius projected something rather like what we now call topological language.7
Here we have a marked characteristic of Athanasius’ mind and method. He disliked the habit of indulging in logical distinctions that did not really correspond to the facts.8 His was the kind of mind which thinks connections, and preferably connections in things rather than connections that are merely mental or notional, for basic concepts and terms have their meaning in realities signified and in their objective interrelations. Thus, for example, where others might operate with a faculty psychology involving a tripartite, or bipartite, division of the soul, Athanasius preferred to speak of the soul or of the self as a rational agent functioning in different ways.9 That is to say, he preferred a functional use of language in which the surface meaning of terms varied in accordance with the realities intended and the general scope of thought or discourse.10 This is particularly evident in his differential use of terms used to speak of the being and subsistence of persons in the Holy Trinity – he preferred to speak concretely of relations between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, avoiding as much as possible the employment of fixed terms, and he took care to use human language referring to God in such a way that the natural images and analogies they might carry over from their this – worldly usage would not be read back into the Deity but would be critically controlled by the self-revelation of the divine Being which they were employed to express. Thus in the De synodis Athanasius showed the greatest caution in the use of technical terms, while at the same time he was prepared to clarify actual questions through rigorous analysis and technical terminology.11 That had the effect of laying a foundation on which further technical terms could be elaborated by the drawing of distinctions – e.g., his own detailed support of the homoousion later on in his life.12 But in the variable situations in which he found himself, confronted with different uses and conflicting interpretations of theological concepts and terms, Athanasius preferred to keep to concrete speech in which verbs were often used instead of abstract nouns, so that thought about God would not be trapped in artificial distinctions. Yet he was clearly prepared, as we see in Ad Antiochenos, for further clarification and precision in the use of apposite theological terms, within this or that context of discussion, provided that the realities signified were kept clearly in view and were allowed to have priority over the terms signifying them. Room is left, however, for modification or variation in actual use of terms, if, in obedience to the Holy Scriptures, the same truths are actually intended.13
It is in this way, I believe, that we are to interpret the subsequent development of the difficult terms ousia (οὐσία) hypostasis (ὑπόστασις), physis (φύσις), which have caused so much misunderstanding and difficulty in ancient as in modern times.
Ousia, as we have seen, refers to that which is. And is such it can be used pre-eminently of God as he who is who he is, to speak of the ousia of him who is.14 In the nature of the case, however, ousia has to be understood in one in accordance with the Being of God who is beyond all created being and who is the creative source of all being other than God, and yet in a very different way of created being.15 We are able to link these two together in theological understanding and statement not because of some alleged likeness in being (ὅμοιον κατ’ οὐσίαν) between the Creator and the creature, but because the Creator Word has himself become the creature, without ceasing to be the Creator, and has established and dynamically maintains through himself a relation between them which is the constant ground of our knowledge of God in his interaction with man in this world. But the doctrine of both the Logos and the Spirit are eternally inherent in the one Being of God means that we know God, as far as we may, in the inner triadic relations, and so when we use the term ousia of this God we are using it to signify something more than his transcendent existence or self-existence, namely something about him as he is in himself. It is ousia used in this way that finds its place in the theology of Athanasius, referring to being in its interior reality.16 It remains true, however, that for Athanasius the precise meaning of the word is to be found in its actual use. Hence, when we come to investigate created realities with a contingent intelligibility of their own which God has conferred on them, through his creation of them, here too we really know things when we know them in their internal relations and not simply in their external relation to other things, i.e., in accordance with the nature (κατὰ φύσιν) and not otherwise. Thus, Athanasius’ theology would appear to have affected his general epistemology, and provided a deeper scientific and philosophical understanding of what knowledge actually is.
Hypostasis was a term which Athanasius used with considerable hesitation, except where it merely the equivalent of ousia in its simplest sense of ‘very being’ (αὐτὸ τὸ ὄν) which again is the equivalent of existence (ὕπαρξισ).17 Used in this way ‘one hypostasis‘ was more or less synonymous with the ‘one ousia‘ which was an acknowledged Nicene usage where it was ousia and homoousia that were predominant terms.18 In this sense it was natural to speak of the person of Christ in terms of ousia but not as external to the Father or as created, but as ousia of the Father.19 Yet the distinctive nuance of hypostasis lay in its indication of self-supported or independent reality,20 i.e., of something in its objective identity or distinctive self-manifestation – which was the ground, as we shall see, for Athanasius’ hesitation to use it of the Son or of the Spirit. In respect of this distinctive nuance, then, hypostasis refers to the reality that actually supports our knowledge of it, or to express it theologically the other way round, it refers to the Being of God as the objective reality upon which our thought and speech of him actually terminate and by which they are controlled from beyond themselves- which in some contexts would make hypostasis and ousia once more virtually synonymous.21 In the nature of the case, however, hypostasis on the Athanasian scientific principle must be understood in accordance with the nature of the reality or being with which we are concerned – which is why some Antiochenes particularly could use hypostasis interchangeably with physis in their doctrine of Christ. Thus hypostasis is to be understood in one way of inanimate and impersonal things, and in another way, quite appropriately, of personal realities or beings; and again, in one way of created things and in another and entirely appropriate way of the Creator himself. Thus it is understandable that, as a strictly theological term, hypostasis came to be associated with ‘name’ onoma (ὄνομα) used in its concrete sense and above all with ‘face’ or prosopon (πρόσωπον) to refer to what we know as self-identifying personal being or reality. This was applicable above all to the Logos, who, far from being any impersonal cosmological principle, is God the Son, the divine Autologos (one of Athanasius’ favourite terms),22 come to us in Jesus Christ, revealing himself to us face to face and speaking to us directly in person-ἐκ προσώπου.23 It was in this way that hypostasis came to be stretched, changed and developed to such an extent that it became suitable for theological speech expressing the objective, identifiable self-manifestations of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit – that is, as three hypostaseis and one ousia, a formulation which on occasion Athanasius would use.24 That was a development in which the Cappadocians (Basil, Nyssa, and Nazianzen), Didymus the Blind and Cyril (both of Alexandria) had their part to play, on the solid biblico-theological foundation laid for them by Athanasius.
In his own use of hypostasis, however, Athanasius retained the freedom to vary its sense in accordance with the precise demands of the nature of that which it was intended to signify and which had to be allowed to show through the term used. That is why he declined to be committed to a fixed formalisation of the term hypostasis for all contexts which might have violated his semantic principle that terms are not prior to realities but realities come first and terms second.25 When it came to thinking of three hypostaseis in God, he preferred to think concretely in terms of Father, Son and Spirit, which while certainly distinct in the otherness of each (ἄλλος ὁ πατὴρ ἄλλος υἱός), are three in one indivisible Godhead, rather than in terms of three partitive hypostaseis which suffer from Aristotelian polymorphism making them into three separated hypostaseis (equivalent to three ousia) of Gods.26 Athanasius refusal to have anything to do with partitive language to speak of divine Persons was entirely consistent with his adherence to the homoousion of Nicaea which meant not merely that the ousia of the Son was the ousia of God, but that there was an indivisible and continuous relation of being with the Father in the Son, so that the being of the Godhead is whole and complete not in the Father alone but in the Son and in the Holy Spirit as much as in the Godhead.27 The homoousion of the Son and the Spirit stood for the indivisible unity of the Being of the Godhead in three co-equal Persons: hence Athanasius’ constant emphasis upon the simple, uncompounded and undivided nature or being of God, in sharp opposition to the Arian separation of the Son from the Father, and the semi-Arian separation of the Spirit from the Godhead.28 It was in entire consistency with this whole approach that when Athanasius spoke of three distinct but undivided subsistences in the one Being of God, he preferred to use verbs (ὑφιστάναι and ὑπάρχειν) together with the personal pronoun (αὐτός) and associated with them the word ‘subsistence’ (ὕπαρξισ) which, unlike the Arian use of the word hypostasis, would not imply that faith has three ‘objects’, for while we believe and worship each of the three Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in one God, we do not believe in or worship the three alongside of one another.29 Nevertheless, he made it clear in the Ad Antiochenos that it was satisfactory for those who did not reject the unity of the ousia to speak of three hypostaseis or persons in God, but was also prepared to uphold the Nicene identification of hypostasis and ousia in a context where it was necessary to reject Sebellianism which questioned the objective hypostatic reality of the Son and the Spirit.30
1. Not available
3. See the eighth book of Clements Stromateis, passim; e.g., 8.4.16 ἡ μέθοδος τῆς εὑρέσεωσ
7. See ‘The Relation of the Incarnation to Space in Nicene Theology’ in Andrew Blane, The Ecumenical World of Orthodox Civilisation, Essays in Honour of George Florovsky (Mouton, The Hague, 1974), pp. 61ff.; and Space Time and Incarnation (OUP, London, 1969), pp. 14ff.
8. See book
9. Contra Gentes 2ff., 19, 23, 26, 30ff.; Ad Marcellinum 27 (N/A); Contra Arianos 3.35. See E P. Meijering, op cit., p. 22. A faculty of psychology would not be able to make much sense of the statement that Christ ‘delivered his own body to death as an ἀντίψυχον, for the salvation of all’, De Incarnatione 9, 37, 49-which is of course the antithesis of Apollinarianism.
11. De Synodis 40ff., 5.11 (Not sure what this refers to).
12. De Synodis 33-54
14. De Decretis 22; cf. the fragment of Clements lost Peri Pronoias, in GCS., vol 3, p. 219. (N/A)
15. De Decretis 10-11
16. See especially De synodis 34, and cf. the comment of G. L. Prestige on this passage, God in Patristic Thought, p. 195. In view of this Prestige speaks of ousia as signifying being in its ‘inner constitutive relations’.
17. Ad Afros 4-i.e., in the New Testament sense of Hebrews 1.3
19. De Decretis 25
20. Contra Gentes 6-7, where ὑπόστασις = ἐν ὑποστάσει καθ’ ἐαυτὴν εἶναι = οὐσία
23. This expression is also applied by Athanasius to God speaking in the Scripture, De Incarnatione 3
25. Contra Arianos 2.3 καὶ γὰρ οὐ πρότεραι τῶ οὐσιῶν αἱ λέξεις, ἀλλά αἱ οὐσίαι πρῶται, καὶ δεύτεραι τούτων αἱ λέξεις. Contra Gentes 21: οὐ δίκαιον τό σημαίνοντα τοῦ σημαινομένου προτιμᾷν; also De Decretis 10-11; De sententia Dionysii 9 .