P. 241 of Theology in Reconciliation
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 (κατά φύσιν) of the realities investigated, together with the development of the appropriate questions and the apposite vocabulary demanded by the nature of the realities as they become disclosed to us.1 It is in this way that theology adapts its method to its proper subject-matter, and allows 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 are 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 naturally specify.2 Theological terms, therefore, which by function and use are deployed to refer to God in 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.3 To use modern scientific language, theological terms inevitably embody a relation of differentiality like the variation 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 to dynamic relation between ‘place’ (τόπος) of God which is to be understood strictly in accordance with the 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 call topological language.4
Here we have a marked characteristic of Athanasius’ mind and method. He disliked the habit of indulging in logical distinctions and/or engaging in analytical methods resulting in distinctions that did not really correspond to the facts.5 His was the kind of mind which thinks in connections and preferably connections in things rather than connections that are merely mental or notional, for basic concepts and terms have their meaning in the realities signified and in their objective interrelations. Thus, for example, where others might operate with a faculty psychology involving tripartite, division of the soul, Athanasius preferred to speak of the soul or of the self as a rational agent functioning in different ways.6 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.7 This is particularly evident in his differential use of the terms used to speak of the being and subsistence of persons in the Holy Trinity—he preferred to speak concretely of the relations between the 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.8 This 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 his life.9 But in the variable situations 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 teaching of the Holy Scriptures, the same truths are actually intended.10
Notes for page 241
4. See ‘Relation of the Incarnation to Space in Nicene Theology‘, in Andrew Blane, The Ecumenical World of Orthodox Civilisation, Essays in Honour of Georges Florovsky (Mouton, The Hague, 1974), pp. 61ff.; Space, Time and the Incarnation (OUP, London, 1969), pp. 14ff.
5. C. Kannengiesser has pointed out that Athanasius was the only one in ‘the Origenist tradition’ who did not make a distinction between kat ‘eikona and kath’ homoisin with respect to Genesis 1.26, Theological Studies, 34.1, 1973, p. 109 (Academic access available).
6. Contra Gentes 2ff., 19, 23, 26, 30ff.; Ad Marcellinum 27; Contra Arianos 3.35. See E. P. Meijering, op cit., p. 22. A faculty psychology would not be able to makes 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.
8. De synodis 40ff., 5:11
9. De synodis 33-54