“What was God in his goodness to do?”
The Logic of Divine Constancy in Athanasius
by John Drury
What was God in his goodness to do? Athanasius asks this question throughout his On the Incarnation of the Word.[i] This phrase caught my eye as a potential clue to the way Athanasius thinks about divine activity in general and the logic of the incarnation in particular. In this brief reflection, I aim to describe Athanasius’ thought-world as determined by divine constancy (the consistency of divine activity) as a basic principle.
After describing the creation of the world out of nothing and humanity’s fall into sin, Athanasius asks,
“So, as the rational creatures were wasting and such works in course of ruin, what was God in his goodness to do? Suffer corruption to prevail against them and death to hold them fast? And where were the profit of their having been made, to begin with? For better were they not made than, once made, left to neglect and ruin. For neglect reveals weakness, and not goodness on God’s part” (61, italics mine).
Athanasius argues that divine intervention by means of incarnation befits the character of God. Though he is not making an argument for the strict necessity of the incarnation, he is making an argument for its coherence with divine activity.
The coherency of this action plays out in the Athanasius’ exposition of the dual purpose of the incarnation. The Word of God became incarnate “both to bring the corruptible to incorruption, and to maintain intact the just claim of the Father upon all” (62). The Word was sent not just restore us, but also to secure a consistency in God’s rule over the earth. The incarnation is the means by which God remains consistent with his divine character.
This dual restorative purpose is accompanied by an equally important revelatory purpose. Again, Athanasius asks the question, “What, then, was God to do? Or what was to be done save the renewing of that which was in God’s image, so that men might once more be able to know him?” (67). It was logically consistent for God to reveal himself by the Word made flesh.
As the treatise continues, Athanasius focuses in on the Cross. Once again, the action of God is displayed as coherent. He points out that “it was necessary also that the debt owing from all should be paid again, for, as I have already said, it was owing that all should die” (74). In order to remain consistent, God does not simply absolve the debt of sin, but rather extinguishes it by sending the Word to die “in the stead of all” (74).[ii]
The logic of divine constancy pervades Athanasius’ argument. He goes on to argue that it was not inconsistent for God to be known by the incarnation of the Word because “it is God’s peculiar property at once to be invisible yet to be known from his works” (86). Toward to end of his argument, Athanasius makes explicit use of the coherency test as an apologetic move against Greek objections: “Consistently, therefore, the Word of God took a body …” (99). And Athanasius is quick to point out the consistency between the suffering of Christ and the martyrdom of Christians (81-85). Athanasius assumes that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and has set out to test the consistency of the doctrine of the incarnation against this basic affirmation.[iii]
[i] All in text citations are to Archibald Robertson’s translation of “On the Incarnation of the Word” in Edward R. Hardy, ed., Christology of the Later Father (LCC; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954).
[ii] It is interesting to note that the language of substitution (Christ dying in our place) is already tacitly present here in Athanasius centuries before the development of the Anselmian tradition.
[iii] One could dare to call this a case of “ad hoc apologetics,” in which Athanasius is blocking a potential or real objection, namely the inconsistency of the doctrine of incarnation with divine constancy.