Class Day 2 – Athanasius and Gregory: God Is Not a Monster

AthanasiusMy wife has subscribed to Facebook updates from Nancy Leigh DeMoss, and while most of them are perfectly fine, every so often DeMoss posts something like this:

Did you notice who killed the firstborns? The Lord (Ex. 12:29). And years later, God Himself put to death His own beloved Son so we might be set free from slavery.

Back away slowly.

It’s worth remembering that even as the early church fathers explicitly focused on the notion of theoprepes, what is fitting for the divine, we do this, too. Everyone puts God in a box. Can God sin? If your answer is no, then you have decided it is not fitting for God to sin. Can we describe God with feminine pronouns? If your answer is no, again you have used theoprepes. 

For Origen and his successors, theoprepes was important because it was a significant criticism from the Greek pagans, who largely agreed with Plato’s conception that the soul had sinned and fallen into the body. Therefore, the body was something like a contaminant, and unfitting to house God. The incarnation thus was a major stumbling block, and the early fathers needed to explain why theoprepes  allowed for God to take on flesh.

Athanasius of Alexandria followed Origen in this vein with his work On the Incarnation of the Word. In answering the question of the fittingness of the incarnation, he argued it was not only for the liberation of humanity from sin and death, but to restore humanity its dignity. Further, it was not the annulment of creation, but its culmination. The world was renewed by the same Word who created it.

This was an important fact. The Gnostics and the Marcionites, as we have discussed, saw the creator and redeemer as different. Athanasius was responding to these heresies, both of which saw the material world as evil. No, Athanasius argued: The physical world is not evil, it is salvific.

So why did God become human?

The race of men [would have] gone to ruin had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to meet the end of death. (I.9)

God may be sovereign, Athanasius writes, but as our creator, he is responsible for our well-being. Only a human being can redirect the human condition, but only the divine can rescue humanity. Humanity was drifting away in corruption and death – disappearing, you might say – and the work of God was being undone. Would it have been more fitting, Athanasius asks his interlocutors, for God to have left creation to fall apart? Why would God create humanity to let us drown?

Gregory of Nyssa echoes these themes in his writings on creation in An Address on Religious Instruction.

Like Athanasius, he sees the incarnation as fitting for God because any alternative would have been less so. We’ve discussed Gregory’s ideas about evil and atonement. He developed these in part because he sought to show that God need not become evil in taking on flesh. If evil is a corruption or privation of the good – and is therefore not a substance per se – then flesh is not inherently evil. The divine does not have to become evil in the incarnation.

Rather, the opposite is true: God steps into the world to rid it of the parasite that threatens to destroy it. Gregory sees God as providing divine therapy. In a truly radical move for his time – and, I would argue, ours as well – Gregory says that God comes to the aid of those who need it.

Gregory and Athanasius, in other words, have a message for us: God is not a monster.

God did not leave his creation to suffer and decay under the bondage of sin and death. The God of love, grace and justice found a way to rescue us. He is not the author of death; he is the defeater of it. He does not reject the physical world; he creates it, affirms it and restores it.

If you, like me and like my professor, wound up hearing or inferring a different story, a far bleaker tale of wrath and judgment, death and retribution, I hope you find these arguments from the years immediately after the incarnation to be freeing. Indeed, if the church is the body of Christ, an extension of the incarnation, then the notion of rescuing and restoring the world around us should spur us to action in a way “I’ll fly away” eschatology and hoping for the created order’s imminent destruction never could.

God did not become human to perpetuate the cycles of death in which we were trapped. He did not enter our world to condemn and destroy its physicality. God became human to heal, affirm and restore the created order.

That is truly fitting.

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