Athanasius and the eternal generation of the Son

Writing at Reformation 21, Aaron Denlinger recently pointed to Athanasius’s defense of the eternal generation of the Son. Athanasius was of course responding to the arguments of Arius that God the Son must have been created, since fathers always precede sons:

In response to Arius’s argument, Athanasius didn’t shy away at all from the designation of the second person of the Trinity as “Son” or as “begotten.” He simply pointed out, firstly, that human fatherhood is modeled upon divine fatherhood (rather than vice versa): “For God does not make man His pattern; but rather we men, because God is properly, and alone truly, Father of His Son, are also called fathers of our own children.” Thus warning signs are posted along the pathway of attempts to elicit essential truths about the relation of God the Father to God the Son from the relation of human fathers to their sons.

But Athanasius goes further by, secondly, showing how the analogy between divine fatherhood and human fatherhood properly understood (i.e,. in conformity with catholic and biblical Christian truth) actually supports Scripture’s broader identification of the Son as eternal and divine. “If they inquire of parents concerning their son,” he writes, “let them consider … the child which is begotten. For, granting the parent had not a son before his begetting, still, after having him, he had him, not as external or as foreign, but as from himself, and proper to his essence and his exact image, so that the former is beheld in the latter, and the latter is contemplated in the former.” Athanasius’s point is that sons, by the very nature of sonship, share in the nature of their fathers. Like begets like. Humans, who are temporal by nature, beget humans. Despite my younger daughter Geneva’s earnest hope, revealed when asked before Austin’s birth whether she anticipated a brother or sister, that “mommy’s belly” had a “baby puppy” in it, my wife gave birth to a human being last Thursday. Austin was born at a point in time — and so is, by definition, a temporal creature — because his mother and father are themselves temporal creatures who were born at specific points in time.

What human sonship properly implies for non-human sonship, then, is not the temporality of the one born, but the begotten one’s participation in (or possession of) the very same nature as the one who has begotten him. If an eternal (and divine) being begets, then, he necessarily begets an eternal (and divine) being; the begetting of a temporal being by an eternal being would be as implausible as the birth of a “baby puppy” to a daughter of Eve. And if the begotten One is himself eternal (like his Father), then his “birth” cannot have occurred at any moment; that birth itself is eternal (which is precisely what the Nicene Creed affirms).

Fictive baptism

Aaron Denlinger recently wrote a post at Reformation 21 describing his daughter’s recent interest in baptism after seeing a baptism in church. He referred to some stories from church history related by Marcia Colish in her recent Faith, Force and Fiction in Medieval Baptism Debates:

In the early church stories arose of pagan persons who pretended baptism as part of Roman plays enacted on stage in mockery of Christian beliefs. In other words, water was applied to individuals in the Triune name not in the interest of actually conferring the sacrament, but in ridicule of Christian faith and ritual. But, according to Christian legend, the actors undergoing baptism in mockery of Christian practice were on more than one occasion actually converted by the sacrament, and then immediately announced as much to their fellow-actors and audiences, and — without fail — were martyred either by the unimpressed crowds or civil authorities who happened to be in attendance. This apparently happened to one Ardalion in 293, one Gelasinus in 296, and one Porphyrius in 362.

Roman actors weren’t the only ones engaging in pretended baptisms. The fourth-century historian Rufinus tells a story of the Alexandrian Bishop Alexander observing several young boys mimicking Christian baptism on the banks of the river Nile. Intrigued (and somewhat troubled) by the scene, Alexander had the boys brought to him and interrogated them regarding their play. When one boy among them who had assumed the role of “bishop” described to Alexander the words and rite he had employed in baptizing his friends, Alexander concluded that the baptisms administered were in fact valid, and that the baptized boys should subsequently be catechized. The young baptizer (who himself came under care of the church) was no other than Athanasius, the future (real) bishop of Alexandria who championed the cause of Nicene orthodoxy for much of the fourth century.

The stories of actors and children pretending — whether innocently or not — baptisms which, by one judgment or another, proved valid if not effective, figured significantly into later patristic and medieval conversations about the proper criteria for baptismal validity and efficacy. So Augustine, for example, reckoned that pretended baptisms were genuine and that recipients of such, even if genuine faith came later, should not be re-baptized, but denied that such baptisms were ultimately effective (as instruments for those spiritual realities which baptism signifies, such as the remission of sins) until the persons so baptized came to genuine faith and repentance (See Augustine’s On baptism 1.12). This of course complemented Augustine’s position on baptisms administered by profane or heretical persons — such baptisms, according to Augustine, were likewise valid (but ineffectual unless or until the baptized joined himself to the true church). Thomas Aquinas took a slightly stricter view on these matters, arguing that proper intent to receive baptism was a criterion for baptism’s validity (at least for those of sufficient age to intend), thereby raising doubts about the authenticity (and so, by implication, the purported efficacy) of at least those baptisms received by Roman actors.

Belief, belonging, and behavior in the ancient Christian church

Change of Conversion and the Origin of ChristendomChange of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom by Alan Kreider

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While reading Kreider’s contribution to Constantine Revisited, I noticed that he had written this short book on the church’s changing conception of conversion over the first six centuries of Christian history. Kreider argues that the pre-Constantinian church differentiated itself from the non-Christian world by bringing its members through a rigorous process:

  • evangelization
  • catechesis that taught believers how to behave like Christians (interestingly, before they were considered fully a part of the Christian community) and give up careers considered to be sinful – including those, like soldiering, that involved killing enlightenment in Christian beliefs in preparation for baptism
  • administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper to new converts, which meant that they belonged to the Christian community (in the 300s, mystagogy was added as a stage that explained baptism and the Lord’s Supper)

Kreider argues that the conversion of Constantine that brought more members and a new relationship with the empire meant that the church struggled to teach distinctive beliefs, behavior, and belonging to its members.
From a historical perspective, it’s a fascinating study. It does raise some questions, though. What would have been the right way to handle Constantine and the increased numbers? How were children of believers handled with this model in place? Does participation in government really always mean participation in “the world” in a sinful sense?

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Athanasius vs. the philosophers

Last year, I posted on the difference between ancient Christian leaders’ and ancient Greek philosophers’ views on the possibility of the moral transformation of people’s lives, noting that Christians believed that anyone, even commoners, could live a changed life through God’s grace.

Athanasius, in his treatise On the Incarnation, reflects this point of view:

As for Greek wisdom and the grandiloquence of the philosophers, I think that no one needs our argument, as the wonder is before the sight of all, that while the wise among the Greeks had written so much, and were unable to persuade even a few from their neighborhood about immortality and the virtuous life, Christ alone by means of simple words and by means of humans not wise in speech has throughout the inhabited world persuaded whole churches full of human beings to despise death but to think rather of things immortal, and to disregard what is temporal but to consider rather things eternal, and to think nothing of earthly glory but to seek rather only immortality.

Section 47, page 100-101 in St.Vladimir’s Seminary Press’ 2nd edition

Defending the incarnation


On the Incarnation
by Athanasius of Alexandria

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had long wanted to read this classic exploration of the reasons for and implications of Christ’s incarnation, as well as the famed introduction by C.S. Lewis. Neither disappointed. Athanasius’ treatment of Christ’s divinity and humanity was both beautiful and helpful for Christian readers. For example, he drew a parallel between the Son who is the Divine Word and the Image of the Father saving human beings who can speak words and are made in God’s image. He also pointed to Christ’s replacing rival objects of human worship – dead heroes of myth, idols, demons – as people around the world turned to Him and lived virtuous lives as reasons that Gentile unbelievers should cease their mockery of Christ.

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Discussing Constantine

Constantine RevisitedConstantine Revisited by John D Roth

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a collection of politely critical responses to Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine, along with a brief reply by Leithart at the end. The reviewers are all sympathetic to Leithart’s target, John Howard Yoder.

The two responses that really stood out were Alan Kreider’s challenge on the grounds of ancient church teachings and practices regarding catechesis, baptism, and military service and D. Stephen Long’s systematic application of Yoder’s principles from Christian Witness to the State. William Cavanaugh’s chapter is also interesting, though somewhat more theologically liberal than I expected. The rest of the selections were interesting but not nearly as good.

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Resisting, not accommodating, Hellenization

It’s often said that Christianity was Hellenized away from its Jewish roots as it came into the Greco-Roman world. Surely, there are some examples of this happening, but Peter Leithart shows in a short piece that Athanasius’ defense of the divinity of Christ is hardly one of them. A key passage:

As Rowan Williams pointed out in his classic study of Arius, Greek metaphysics assumed that the Absolute must be free of relations. Un-relatedness was the very definition of Absoluteness, because a being in a necessary relation must be defined in relation to that to which he is related. The Absolute can only be truly absolute if it exists on its own, in isolated Oriental splendor.

Athanasius knew what he was about when he charged that Arius was a “Greek.” Working from common notions of the Absolute, Arius naturally concluded that the Father was a lone God, without relation, until he created the Son. Later anti-Nicene theologians went so far as to abandon the title “Father” once they recognized that “Father” is a relational term that implies the existence of a Son. Eunomius preferred the chilly title “the Unbegotten”—an austere being into whose lap one would not wish to climb.

Orthodoxy, by contrast, shattered the Greek Absolute. Tracing out the import of biblical descriptions of the Son as the Father’s “radiance,” “word,” and “wisdom,” Athanasius insisted that the Son must be co-eternal with the Father. No light can be without radiance, and if the Son is radiance he must have shone from the Father from eternity. No God worthy of worship can be without Word and Wisdom, so if the Son is Word he must have always been in the Father’s mouth. By denying the eternity of the Son, Arius insulted the Father too: If there was when the Son was not, then there was a “time” when the Father was a light without radiance, a God without word, an Absolute fool. Perhaps without fully realizing the havoc he was wreaking on Greek thought, Athanasius put forward a strange new being, the related Absolute.

Leithart quotes Robert Jenson in calling the development of ancient Trinitarian theology “the evangelization of metaphysics.”