The Fathers and Theistic Arguments (II); Athanasius

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My first example is Athanasius, from On the Incarnation:

(2) In regard to the making of the universe and the creation of all things there have been various opinions, and each person has propounded the theory that suited his own taste. For instance, some say that all things are self- originated and, so to speak, haphazard. The Epicureans are among these; they deny that there is any Mind behind the universe at all. This view is contrary to all the facts of experience, their own existence included. For if all things had come into being in this automatic fashion, instead of being the outcome of Mind, though they existed, they would all be uniform and without distinction. In the universe everything would be sun or moon or whatever it was, and in the human body the whole would be hand or eye or foot. But in point of fact the sun and the moon and the earth are all different things, and even within the human body there are different members, such as foot and hand and head. This distinctness of things argues not a spontaneous generation but a prevenient Cause; and from that Cause we can apprehend God, the Designer and Maker of all.
Others take the view expressed by Plato, that giant among the Greeks. He said that God had made all things out of pre-existent and uncreated matter, just as the carpenter makes things only out of wood that already exists. But those who hold this view do not realize that to deny that God is Himself the Cause of matter is to impute limitation to Him, just as it is undoubtedly a limitation on the part of the carpenter that he can make nothing unless he has the wood. How could God be called Maker and Artificer if His ability to make depended on some other cause, namely on matter itself? If He only worked up existing matter and did not Himself bring matter into being, He would be not the Creator but only a craftsman.
Then, again, there is the theory of the Gnostics, who have invented for themselves an Artificer of all things other than the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. These simply shut their eyes to the obvious meaning of Scripture. For instance, the Lord, having reminded the Jews of the statement in Genesis, “He Who created them in the beginning made them male and female. . . ,” and having shown that for that reason a man should leave his parents and cleave to his wife, goes on to say with reference to the Creator, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” How can they get a creation independent of the Father out of that? And, again, St. John, speaking all inclusively, says, “All things became by Him and without Him came nothing into being. How then could the Artificer be someone different, other than the Father of Christ?

(3)Such are the notions which men put forward. But the impiety of their foolish talk is plainly declared by the divine teaching of the Christian faith. From it we know that, because there is Mind behind the universe, it did not originate itself; because God is infinite, not finite, it was not made from pre-existent matter, but out of nothing and out of non-existence absolute and utter God brought it into being through the Word. He says as much in Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth;[4] and again through that most helpful book The Shepherd, “Believe thou first and foremost that there is One God Who created and arranged all things and brought them out of non-existence into being.” Paul also indicates the same thing when he says, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the Word of God, so that the things which we see now did not come into being out of things which had previously appeared.” For God is good—or rather, of all goodness He is Fountainhead, and it is impossible for one who is good to be mean or grudging about anything. Grudging existence to none therefore, He made all things out of nothing through His own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ and of all these His earthly creatures He reserved especial mercy for the race of men.

Notice the following about Saint Athanasius:

(1) Theistic arguments do not provide the foundation of theological belief-structures in Athanasius. He speaks as though Christian theology has authority separately from the considerations of his arguments. Notice how he takes divine Revelation as giving an adequate answer to opponents: “Such are the notions which men put forward. But the impiety of their foolish talk is plainly declared by the divine teaching of the Christian faith. From it we know that, because there is Mind behind the universe, it did not originate itself; because God is infinite, not finite, it was not made from pre-existent matter, but out of nothing and out of non-existence absolute and utter God brought it into being through the Word.” He knows that God is infinite, not finite because of divine revelation–a claim that would make little sense if he thought his trust in the contents of Christian revelation required theistic arguments first.

(2) Theistic arguments are primarily rhetorical/persuastive/polemical for Athanasius.
He appeals to the common standard of human *experience* (not some kind of supreme, neutral “reason”) to argue that the Epicurean view is unbelievable. He appeals to intuitions about divine perfection to argue against Platonism’s view that matter coexisted with God. This use of a shared standard of authority to show inconsistencies within opponents’ view and bring them in the direction of Christian faith is rhetorically powerful. In the first case, Athanasius argues that experience supports one specific view; in the second case, he argues that the view in question is inconsistent.

(3) The conclusions Athanasius draws are modest. Athanasius argues from experience and intuition to some of what the fathers would call “names of God”. He shows that God has names such as Creator, Orderer, etc. But this is very different from reasoning to truths about the divine essence. For creating and ordering are divine activities. God’s names of Creator and Orderer are designations of His personal acts. Athansius leads his opponents to approach the persons who are God via their personal activities.

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