"Proper" Theology Print
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Saturday, 02 January 2010 15:02

The fourth-century church father Athanasius of Alexandria is typically viewed as the great defender of the Nicene Creed.  Against all the world – emperors and bishops and heretics – Athanasius stood fast in his defense of the great slogan of the creed, the confession that the Son of God was “the same substance” (homoousios) with the Father.

It is true that Athanasius confessed and defended the creed, including the homoousios that was the creed’s most crucial and controversial term.  He believed that this term accurately described the relation of the Father and Son, and he also defended the Nicene Council’s use of a term that was not found in the Bible.  Scripture’s terms are more accurate, but sometimes, he argued, we need extra-biblical terms to clarify the Bible’s sense.  Besides, homoousios sent the Arians bonkers, so it had to be good.

Important as it is, homoousios is not at the center of Athanasius’ theology.  Closer to the heart of his understanding of the gospel was a more modest term, the Greek word idios, which describes what is “one’s own,” what is “proper” to a thing or person.  “Proper” has to do with something’s most basic “properties.”  Human beings are finite; that is proper to their being as humans.  God is infinite, good, just, and all these things are “proper” to His being as God.

What did Athanasius squeeze out of this little word?  Most everything.

For starters, Athanasius used idios far more often than homoousios to describe the Son’s relation to the Father.  The Son is “proper” to the Father.  Arians did not believe that God was always Father.  Once He was only “God,” and became Father only when He begot His Son.

But if God was not eternally Father, what kind of being was he?  The Arians couldn’t really say, except that God was “Ungenerated” – that is, he had not been made by anything else.  A warm, personal word, that: “Our Ungenerated, who art in heaven. . . . your heavenly Ungenerated knows before you ask. . . . so the heavenly Ungenerated in heaven clothes the grass of the field.”   That won’t do.  Our theology must match our prayers, Athanasius said, and we pray to a heavenly Father, not an Ungenerated and all but unknown Something in the sky.

To say that the Son was proper to the Father is to say that the Father was always Father, because He has always, from all eternity, had a Son.  Fatherliness is not some added extra to God, not some secondary property like having a limp or blue eyes.  Father is what He is, what He always has been.

Saying that the Son is “proper” to the Father also tells us something about the Son.  If the Son is “proper” to the Father, then He is as close to the Father as any of the Father’s attributes.  The Father is as much “Father-to-the-Son” as He is good, just, holy, omnipotent, omniscient.

In fact, Athanasius often said that the Father is good, holy, just, wise, powerful because He has a Son.  He often quotes 1 Corinthians 1:24 to make the point (“Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God”), and he takes Paul quite literally.  The Father doesn’t have “proper” power, power of “His own,” that is nearer to the Father than the wisdom and power that is the Son.  The Arians insulted the Father when they say “there was when the Son was not.”  If the Son is the Father’s power and wisdom, then the Arians are saying that once the Father was an impotent fool.  Athanasius put it simply: If the Arians are right, then before the Son the Father was nothing, since “The Son is the Father’s all.”

But Athanasius is not done with idios.  He uses the same term to describe the relationship of the Word to the flesh that He takes in the incarnation.  Flesh is not essential to the Son in the way that the Son is essential to the Father.  Taking flesh is a free act of God’s will.  Once the Word willed to take flesh, He made flesh “proper” to Himself.  It is “His own” flesh.

Along with flesh, the Word makes every other human limit and foible His own.  For Athanasius, it is not accurate to say that the Word Himself, considered as the eternal God, is limited as creatures are.  Yet, since He has appropriated flesh, and bound Himself intimately and inseparably to it, He has freely taken on human limits.

Jesus says He doesn’t know the day or hour of His coming; that’s because the Word made the ignorance of the flesh His own ignorance.  Jesus gets hungry, thirsty, sleepy, frightened by the cross; that’s because the Word made the weakness of the flesh His own.  In the flesh, the Word suffers and dies on the cross; that’s because the Word embraced our suffering and our death, made it His, so that He could deliver us from it.

That leads us to the final point that Athanasius developed around the word idios.  When the Word made our flesh “proper” to Himself, He didn’t simply take on the individual flesh that made Him Jesus of Nazareth. He joined Himself intimately to His people.  By taking flesh, living, dying, and rising against, the Word has freely chosen to hold us as close to Himself as His own attributes.  Eternally, the Word is the Power and Wisdom of God.  But in history, without ceasing to be that Power and Wisdom, He made Himself our Husband, our Head, our Savior, our Lord.  Those titles have become “proper” titles of the Son, because He has made His bride, His body, His people “proper” to Himself.  “Having-a-bride” becomes one of the attributes of the eternal Son of the Father.

What did Athanasius make of that little word, idios?  Most everything: The Father who has a Son that is proper to His essence sent that very Son to take flesh and make the flesh proper to Himself, so that His people could become proper to the Son, and so that we, still living in the flesh, might share by the Spirit in the Power and Wisdom that is proper to the Father.

That, according to Athanasius, is the gospel.  That is proper theology.

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