The account of Athanasius’ theology usually advanced by patristic scholars is one that takes departure mainly from the thought associated with the Catechetical School in Alexandria, and in particular from Clement and Origen. That background must certainly be taken into account, for especially through the great Origen it made an immeasurable impact upon the church. Even in the thinking of that background, however, there is a difference that must be noted: Alexandrian Christianity never really expelled the Gnostics, and never offered the sharp critical front to the tradition of Basileides and Valentinus which we find in the teaching of Irenaeus. As far as I understand Athanasius, however, he stands squarely in the tradition of Irenaeus, and develops the biblical-theological understanding of the Gospel which we see reflected in his works, and in the works of others of the same school of thought, such as Melito of Sardis.
There are two other streams of thought upon which I would especially like to direct attention, for they have far more importance for the understanding of Athanasius’ theology than is usually assumed1. I refer in the first place to the Episcopal tradition and its school in Alexandria, which must be accorded with the primacy in determining the shape of his theology. It was the Episcopal tradition going back to Alexander, Peter Dionysius and Demetrius, allegedly to Mark, which embodied the teaching of those Christian Jews who streamed into Alexandria before and after the fall of Jerusalem in the first century, and gave it such a distinctly Hebraic cast of mind, which, as Sellers has shown, was one of the outstanding characteristics of Athanasius’ theological outlook, in which there is very little if any trace of Hellenistic rationalism to be found.2 That is not to say that Athanasius did not have a philosophical cast of mind, for he was profoundly aware of the epistemological issues at stake in communicating and articulating the Judaeo-Christian Religion within the world of Greek culture. What was said of St Alexander his patron and predecessor in the See of Alexandria, must certainly be said of Athanasius as well: Φιλοσοφῶν ἐθελόγει.3
In the second place, I want to refer to the scientific tradition in Alexandria, where, as is well known, Greek science had reached its highest peak of development and had advanced furthest in the direction of what we know as empirical science, as is clearly evidenced by the great discoveries of men like Heron and his successors, the so-called ‘mechanists’ who along with the ‘dogmatics’ (those who asked the scientific questions that yield positive answers), were singled out for attack by Sextus Empiricus. This scientific background Athanasius shared, of course, with Clement and Origen,4 but Athanasius’ own writings reveal a remarkable understanding of the scientific approach and its heuristic method, ἡ μέθοδος τῆς εὑρέσεωσ operating through εὑεετικὴ ἐπιστήμη. The discussion goes back as far as Clement’s Stromateis where, in the concluding book, he offered a careful analysis of what scientific questioning and scientific proof are about. There are two kinds of demonstration (ἁπόδειξις) he claimed: that which we use in geometry and kindred sciences in which we argue necessarily to certain conclusions from fixed premises or axioms, and a different kind of demonstration in which we through questioning we allow our minds to fall under the compelling evidence of the reality of things, where it is the basic assent (πίστις, συγκατάθεσις) of the mind to the evidence which is the decisive factor-that is to say, the sheer fidelity of the mind (what we today call the ‘scientific conscience at least in certain contexts) to the nature of what we are investigating.5 It must also be noted that already in Alexandria there had been developing in the time of Athanasius a conscious philosophy of science, particularly evident in the extant fragment of Anatolius (i.e., ἐπιστημονικὴ θεωρία as distinct from ἐπιστήμη θεωρητική), in which rigorous attention was given not only to the nature of scientific enquiry but to the proper development of scientific terms- what Gregory of Nazianzus was later to call τὸ καινοτομεῖν τὰ ὀνόματα.6 All these features are clearly seen in the writings of Athanasius: indeed it was in the East and Hilary, his later contemporary in the West, more than any other Christian theologians known to me, gave the most serious attention to the nature of the change that language and technical terms must undergo when they appropriately employed in the service of knowledge and speech about God.
When in this light we examine Athanasius’ early writings, and not the least the Contra Gentes, we find a profound change in philosophico-theological orientation from that which dominated the Catechetical School, and the Origenist tradition which was later to have such an effect on the Cappodocians. Athanasius entirely rejected the cosmological and epistemological dualism of Hellenism, Gnosticism and Origenism-nowhere in his writings, for example, do we come across him deploying the χωρισμός between the κόσμος αἰσθετός and the κόσμος νοντός, which we find in Origen’s Commentary in St John’s Gospel. He set aside the philosophical notion of Logos as an impersonal cosmological principle and rejected along with that the Stoic notion of the λόγοι σπερματικοί.7 Above all, perhaps, he rejected the Platonic doctrine of God as “beyond knowledge and being’ which had been combined in Alexandria with a transcendentalist Judaism in its notion of the ‘namelessness” of God, and with an intellectual mysticism such as we find in Neoplatonism.8
On the other hand, there is a clear and deep link with the epoch-making through of Origen in his attack upon the Greek, especially on Aristotelian and Stoic, notions of God, Greek philosophy had come to hold that we can know only what is limited, for what is unlimited is beyond rational grasp, and must be regarded as irrational. In this case knowledge of God could only knowledge of a finite, limited and intra-mundane deity. Origen had turned that way thinking upside down, while accepting the fact that we can know only what is limited. He taught that God, the infinite and eternal God, has created all things out of nothing, creating space and time in and with the creation of the universe and comprehending it gave it beginning and end, and imparted to it its own innate order. distributing, a he said, number to souls and logos to things,9 which made them accessible to rational knowledge and inquiry, while God himself remained transcendent over them all. However, because Origen still worked with the Philonic and Neoplatonic dichotomy between the κόσμος νοντός and the κόσμος αἰσθητός he was forced to think of God as finally beyond being and knowing and so lapsed into the old Platonic doctrine of God.10 The concept of God as beyond being (ὑπεπέκεινα οὐσία ὑπερούσιος), was to have a damaging effect in the development of Greek theology even when it was maintained in the modified form of οὐσία ὑπερούσιος which we find in the teaching of John of Damascus.
The task of Athanasius, then, while working within the Origenist reversal of the Aristotelian-Stoic relation of the human reason to God, was how to bring to faithful expression and articulation the Hebraic-Christian understanding of God. This he did by insisting that while God is beyond all created being and all human devising (ἐπίνοια), he nevertheless remains Being in his own transcendent way and in accordance with his own transcendent nature as Creator of all other being.11 He is the one who really and truly is God. (ὁ ὄντως ὠν Θεός).12 In speaking of the being or οὐσία of God, Athanasius used the term in its simplest sense as that which is and subsists by itself,13 but allowed that to be changed and transformed by the nature of God. Thus the οὐσία of God as Athanasius understands it is both being and presence, presence in being,14 and being and activity, activity and being,15 the transcendent Being of God the Creator who actively, creatively present in all that he has made, upholding it by the Word of his power and by his Spirit.God creates all things through the Logos, his own eternal Son, and continuously maintains them in their created being so that they do not lapse back into nothing. All created existence is brought into being by the grace and pleasure of God, by God’s creative power and will, as entirely other than God, yet continually dependent upon the gift of his grace. That applies no less to the invisible realm of rational souls than to the visible realm of phenomena. And to all that he has made God assigns its proper order and function, thus conferring upon contingent existence and inherent intelligibility through his creative Logos, who is the one fountain and source of all rationality that pervades the created cosmos. That is not to say that the rationality of creatures, things or souls, is an uncreated participation in the transcendent Rationality of God, or even the mimesis of that Rationality in some sort of Platonic μέθεξις for it is the participation only by God’s grace;16 even in their contingent state in which they are naturally mutable and labile, i.e., corruptible and liable to dissolution, they are sustained in their creaturely structure or intelligibility by the continuous creative action of the divine Logos upon them from above and beyond all created existence.17 Thus Athanasius insisted that the creation must be regarded not only as having taken place through the Logos but in the Logos which nevertheless remains utterly transcendent over it all.18
1. See the important essay by A. A. T. Ehrhardt, ‘Origen, Theologian in the Cataclysm of the Ancient World’, in Oikoumene. Studi Paleocristiani publicati in Onore del Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano II (Catania, 1964), pp. 273-321, especially 284f., and 293f)
3. Socrates, Historia Ecclesisastica 1.5
4. Cf Gregory Thaumaturgos, The Panegyric on Origen, VIII. Incidentally, the extant fragments of alexander’s writings supply us with a remarkable clue for the interpretation of Athanasius.
5. See book on page 217
6. Cited from G Florovsky, ‘The Concept of Creation in Saint Athanasius’, Studia Patristica, VI, 1962, p. 38.
7. Contra Gentes 40
9. Origen De principiis, GCS, Edn. by Koetchau, vol v, 360:10f (N/A)
18. Contra Arianos 2.31.