The Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione together provide a good example of this kind of rational activity in which an attempt is made through heuristic argumentation with the field of God-man-world or God-world-man inter-connections to find a way into the central unity or order of things which is then allowed as the inquiry proceeds to throw light upon the whole complex of connections with which we are concerned in theology, and not least upon the distinctive kind of intelligible connection appropriate to its actual subject-matter. All a priori argumentation is set aside, and with any argumentation from an epistemological or cosmological system people may have inherited or attained prior to or independently of their actual knowledge of God as the Father of Jesus Christ. Nor is this an attempt to derive knowledge of God abstractively from the words of Holy Scripture or to develop it out of the manuals of earlier theologians,1 but rather an attempt within the field of faith in God through Jesus Christ to penetrate into its own intrinsic order and intelligibility, by argument that operates on the actual ground on which faith has arisen, and with reasons and evidence derived from the material content of faith. The Contra Gentes and the De Incarnatione, even apart from Athanasius’ later and major works, have thus great methodological significance for the history of Christian theology, for they broke new ground and put forward a scientific method in showing how a conjunctive and synthetic mode of thought could penetrate into the intrinsic subject-matter of theology with positive results: in disclosing an organic way in which creation and redemption are to understood from a point of central reference (or skopos) in the Incarnation of the Word or the Son of God, and in developing an intelligible structure of understanding reaching back to a creative centre in God, which throws an integrating light upon all theological relations and connections.
The first thing Athanasius sought to do in the Contra Gentes was to lay bare the inherent reasonableness of worship and faith in Christ the Saviour and the knowledge of the Father through him, by showing up the inconsistent and contradictory character of erroneous approaches and then by letting the truth shine in its own light in such a way as to command trust of faith in it.2 It is truth itself that is the final judge of the rightness or wrongness of our ideas about it.3 Hence theological activity must break through all disorderly and irrational into orderly and rational connections, to the point where the mind assents in faith the self-evidence of reality itself.4 That is to say, it must seek to understand things in their own compulsive movement and in their innate coherence, and develop forms of thought in harmony with the ordering and sustaining activity of God,5 that becomes manifest to us when through obedience to him we do not stray from the perspective of the truth.6
The intention is to get on to the way of the truth that leads to the really existent God as the proper object of faith and knowledge,7 but that way opens up to us only as we let our thinking fall into line with the appropriate order or pattern of connection that pervades the universal relation of God to the creation, and then only as we learn to attend away from ourselves in contemplation (θεωρία) of what is outside of, other than, or above ourselves – indeed the capacity to think diacritically and objectively in accordance with what is beyond us is the essence of human rationality.8 Athanasius is convinced that when our mind acts in that way, it is in tune with the rational order that pervades the created universe, and is already on the way of truth that leads to the really existent God.9 This does not mean that he thinks of the human soul as being able to reach God by logical reasoning, but rather that through communing with the providential and regulating activity of God in the symmetry (συμμετρία), order (τάξις), concord (ὁμόνοια), harmony (αρμονία), symphony (συμφωνία), and system (ςύνταξις) of the cosmos, which cry aloud for God, the human soul is directed through its own rational nature as by a mirror to look away from the creaturely rationalities to the uncreated and creative Logos of God.10 This is not some immanent reason in the universe, but the Autologos of the living and acting God who is other than created things and all creation, the good Word of the good Father, who has established the order of all things, reconciling opposites into a single harmony.11 That is the Logos in accordance with whose image man has been created by grace, the Logos of the Father who has condescended to created things in Jesus Christ.12 It is in and through him, therefore, that we are really able to discern the fitting order of things, how by the will of God the Word of the whole universe is regulated, with everything taking place in its own appropriate way, resulting in one common order everywhere.13
The immense emphasis of Athanasius lays upon the one common order in the one created cosmos, the fact that by the intrinsic rationality of things (λόγου ὄντος φυσικοῦ)14 there is not finally chaos or disorder but one harmonious system of the cosmos (κόσμου παναρμόνιος συντάξισ) enlightened and regulated by the one Logos, pointing to the fact that God is one and not many (ἒνα καί πολλούς), is a sustained rejection of the dualism, pluralism and polymorphism of Hellenic philosophy, religion and science.15 The entire universe of visible and invisible, celestial and terrestrial, realities is a cosmic unity due to the all-embracing providential and integrating activity of the divine Logos, so that a single rational order pervades all created existence and contingent upon the transcendental rationality of God, the Lord of creation who is himself beyond all created being.16
Having thus turned into the central and creative order of things in God’s relation to the universe, and grasped something of man’s intelligible relatedness to it all, at least in a general way, Athanasius turned in the De Incarnatione to concentrate upon the scientific relation of God to man and man to God discerned in the Inhomination of his Logos in Jesus Christ. Man himself is part of the whole cosmos, so that when the Logos became incarnate in man, God revealed himself through a part of the whole, and thus provided not only the essential clue for our understanding of the relation of God to the world in the light of his redeeming and renewing activity in Jesus Christ, but also the essential way of truth along which we may travel knowing the invisible Father himself.17 And so Athanasius set himself to the distinctively theological task of inquiring into the ordering force and the distinctive pattern of grace manifested in the life and work of the Incarnate Logos in order to learn from the Logos himself, as far as it is possible for human nature, the inner movement and reason for God’s redeeming and renewing activity in the cosmos. Hence it is the humanity which Christ assumed from us and what he did for us and on our behalf in it that presents us with the key for deeper theoretic insight into the saving economy of God.
While all this is possible only because the Autologos has condescended to us in our physical existence and made himself known to us there, that through him we may attain some conceptual grasp of God the Father, we are unable to bring within the compass of our finite minds the multiform activities of the Logos, far less to conceive of their integrated wholeness, so that we have great difficulty in grasping the economy of God towards us in its inner relations and connections. Athanasius likened this difficulty to that which we have when trying to take into our gaze the vast expanse of the ocean and it innumerable waves, ‘As one cannot grasp all the waves with one’s eyes, for successive waves baffle the perception of anyone who attempts it, so he who tries to grasp all the achievement of Christ in the body is unable to bring them within the compass of reasoning, since what comes before his mind greatly transcends what he thinks he conceives. Hence it is better not to try to speak of the whole when one cannot be precise about a part, but yet to bring to mind on part while leaving you to wonder at the whole.’18
Two comments may be offered about this. (a) Here we have a kind of order which is at once simple and complex, with a scope and range that utterly surpasses what a human mind can master through an analysis of its particular components. Nevertheless, some advance into an understanding of its structured relations may be possible if and as we develop the appropriate conceptual instrumentality through which we tune our thinking into the power of its intrinsic order or pattern of intelligibility. To do that we will have to operate with some essential part of the whole where the organic structure of the whole reveals itself, even though as a whole its range indefinitely transcends what we can bring within the compass of our comprehension.19 (b) Here then we are in a situation where forms of thought and speech which we must use indicate far more than can be formalised,20 so that in faithfulness to the distinctive subject – matter of theology we must operate with appropriate and open structures of thought – open structures that is, which are correlated to the unlimited reality of God.21 The dynamic patterns of connection intrinsic to the field of interaction between the living God and his creation elude all attempts to contain and construe them within the limited or constructive framework of causal and logical relations, for the kind of order they involve is not amenable to causal and logical explanation. While we must certainly think consistently (κατ’ ἀκολουθίαν) we must allow the distinctive nature (φύσις) of what we are thinking about to determine what are the suitable and fitting connections in terms which we may interpret it aright.22 Theology that proceeds strictly by thinking κατὰ φύσιν of God in his economic condescension to us in Jesus Christ, cannot proceed by determining certain fixed positions and then arguing deductively from them as axioms in the Euclidean or Aristotelian way, for that would involve operating with a kind of necessity which is alien to the nature of God and the activity of his Spirit. Nevertheless, some way must be found to discern the coherent sequence of relation or chain of connection (ἀκολουθία or εἱρμός) in God’s saving economy, and to develop that as a basic clue (πρόφασις, πρόλεψις or ὑπόθεσισ) for our understanding, in the most appropriate and accurate way possible, of the essential pattern of truth as it is in Jesus Christ.23
1. Contra Gentes 1
2. Contra Gentes 1.7
4. Contra Gentes 27
14. Contra Gentes 39.
19. Cf. De Incarnatione 42, in which Athanasius points out that the Logos reveals himself to us in the universe by operating through a part of the whole.
20. Cf. Ad Monachos 1f.
21. Hence the conceiving (καταλαβεῖν) takes place only in so far as human nature is able to learn about God the Word: καθ’ ὄσον ἐστι τῇ ἀνθρώπων φύσευ περὶ τοῦ Θεοῦ λόγου μανθάνειν-De Incarnatione 57; cf. Contra Arianos 2.32
23. See De Incarnatione 1-4; and ‘The Hermeneutic of St Athanasius,’ Ekklesiastikos Pharos (Central Printing Press, Addis Ababa, 1970)