The Church celebrates many saints, but there are few as great as St. Athanasius, who died on 2nd May 373 A.D. Above all else Athanasius is known for his brave stand in defence of orthodoxy in the face of Arianism.
In this extract, we get a flavour of the richness of Athanasius theology. Athanasius takes it upon himself to defend the Fatherhood of God against the Arian notion of ‘God as Unoriginate’. The Arian Controversy was concerned with the very nature of God – God, in and of himself. Both sides wanted to clarify the nature of God the Bible reveals, and the Church proclaims. The Arians claimed that God first and foremost is Unoriginate. God existed in eternity by himself, transcendent above all, self-absorbed, simple, singular monad. The Unoriginate definition excluded the Son from the life of God. The Son, to the Arians, was Originate, a lower level of divinity who had a beginning. In fact, they used Unoriginate as a way of excluding the Son from God being, consequentially, making the term Father a secondary and unnecessary title.
To Athanasius on the other hand, the notion of fatherhood was foundational to God’s being. God, first and foremost, is Father. As Father he eternally co-exists with the Son – that is who God is – in and of himself – all else follows from this basic foundation. The following extract is a small sample of Athanasius’ sweet theology. It cuts through to the heart of the controversy, showing us why the fatherhood of God matters.
“….it is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate. For the latter title… does nothing more than signify all the works, individually and collectively, which have come to be at the will of God through the Word; but the title Father has its significance and its bearing only from the Son. And, whereas the Word surpasses things originated, by so much and more doth calling God Father surpass calling Him Unoriginate. For the latter is unscriptural and suspicious, because it has various senses; so that, when a man is asked concerning it, his mind is carried about to many ideas; but the word Father is simple and scriptural, and more accurate, and only implies the Son. ‘Unoriginate’ is a word of the Greeks, who know not the Son; but ‘Father’ has been acknowledged and vouchsafed by our Lord. For He, knowing Himself whose Son He was, said, ‘I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me;’ and, ‘He that hath seen Me, hath seen the Father,’ and ‘I and the Father are One;’ but nowhere is He found to call the Father Unoriginate.
Moreover, when He teaches us to pray, He says not, ‘When ye pray, say, O God Unoriginate,’ but rather, ‘When ye pray, say, Our Father, which art in heaven.’ And it was His will that the Summary of our faith should have the same bearing, in bidding us be baptized, not into the name of Unoriginate and originate, nor into the name of Creator and creature, but into the Name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. For with such an initiation we too, being numbered among works, are made sons, and using the name of the Father, acknowledge from that name the Word also in the Father Himself. A vain thing then is their argument about the term ‘Unoriginate,’ as is now proved, and nothing more than a fantasy.” Against the Arians I. 34
The Collect for the feast of St. Athanasius
“Ever-living God, whose servant Athanasius testified to the mystery of the Word made flesh for our salvation: help us, with all your saints, to contend for the truth and to grow into the likeness of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen