Athanasius is regarded as a Church Father by Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and many Protestants. Basically, that means that Athanasius is generally seen as a theologian who maintained and clarified the tradition passed down from the apostles, over against the innovation and distortion of heretics. Athanasius is especially important in Eastern Orthodoxy.
Of course, you could probably just as easily shift your perspective and see Athanasius and other Church Fathers as merely members of the faction of early Christians that happened to secure enough ecclesial power to call themselves “the Church” and condemn everyone who disagreed with them as “heretics”. (For more on that perspective, check out this book about the Gospel of Judas.) Tomato, tomahto, right?
In any case, the vast majority of Christians after Athanasius have considered his work to be an authentic, even authoritative statement of Christian belief. I’m reading his very short (72 pages) book On The Incarnation, which is mostly about (you guessed it) the Incarnation.
How to save naughty iPhones
This book opens with a reference to another book in which Athanasius evidently argued that Jesus is divine. Having already established the fact of the Incarnation, here Athanasius explains the rationale for the Incarnation. What did God achieve by becoming an embodied person?
Athanasius’ answer to that question is, unsurprisingly, kind of complicated. It’s also weird; a lot has changed since the fourth century. Luckily for you, I have done my best to translate Athanasius’ take on humanity, God, sin, and salvation into more relatable terms.
Imagine that we humans are all iPhones. According to Athanasius, God is the one and only Ultimate Battery that never loses its charge. Luckily, God gave us little iPhone-sized batteries that, so long as they are protected and plugged into God, will keep us running indefinitely – even forever! Unfortunately, we iPhones get so preoccupied with doing naughty things to each other that we eventually wander away from God. Our internal batteries get damaged, they don’t get hooked back up to the Big Battery, and eventually, they run out. Broken and disconnected from the divine charge, we run out of battery and die.
Luckily, God loves us iPhones – or, at the very least, it would look bad if all of God’s fancy gadgets died and stayed dead. So God becomes a God-Phone (what else am I supposed to call it?) with an infinite battery. The God-Phone gets banged up like the rest of us, but its Ultimate Battery within jolts it back to life. Like a pool noodle pushed under water, that iPhone eventually pops back to the surface. Now my metaphors are all mixed up.
The point is, this iPhone has survived the standard wear and tear without staying dead. Afterwards, God issues an iOS update so that we can all get this new God-Phone software and live forever – as long as we accept the new “Terms and Agreement” and become Christians. (In other words, Jewish and pagan phones are still screwed.)
God as Source of Being
I’ll explore some relevant details of Athanasius’ implicit understanding of God in later posts. But just from Athanasius’ account of creation, sin, and salvation, an interesting view of God emerges. Kind of like a battery that never runs out, Athanasius’ God is the infinite source of being.
If that sounds meta, it’s because it is meta. In Athanasius’ metaphysics, nothing can exist apart from connection to the divine life. To live on after our bodies die, we need to be plugged in to the source of being. Mortality is the problem and God is the solution.
To a Protestant like me with a thoroughly modern education, this is foreign territory. Growing up in church, I was basically taught that people are intrinsically immortal souls, either ending up in eternal bliss or suffering God’s punishment in hell. For Athanasius, immortality is something humans only get through union with God. Death isn’t a separate act of divine punishment; it is simply the logical consequence of being unplugged from the divine source of life.
Why would anyone think of God, let alone reality, in that way? In a few months, I’ll find out when I get to David Bentley Hart’s Experiences of God, in which he explains how the experience of being has driven people in many religions (including Christianity) to think of God as the source of being.
A little while after that, I’ll read Volume One of Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology, in which Tillich insists that God is not a being, but Being itself. Tillich says that it’s technically incorrect to say that “God exists”, since God is existence itself, not one participant in existence. Tillich’s thought, as we’ll see, remains virtually immune from popular atheist arguments against a divine “being”.
Perhaps Hart or Tillich will help me appropriate Athanasius’ salvation/God theory in a way that makes persuasive sense to me. Until then, I’ll file it away in my mind as an unfamiliar but fascinating way of thinking of God that makes sense of Jesus, salvation, and judgment without needing God to be nasty and vengeful.