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Creation and Salvation – Irenaeus and Athanasius 3

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Creation

Where has creation come from?  There are three popular options.

1) Maybe it's come out of some problem in the heavenly realms.  Perhaps it's the body of a slain monster as in the Babylonian myth Enuma Elish - literally a monstrosity.  Perhaps, as the Gnostics would have it, creation arises after a member of the spiritual realm has been sin-binned for some misdemeanor.  Again, this being who is outside the spiritual constitutes creation.  Perhaps - a popular one today - it's arisen from explosions and endless struggle.  In these variations on a theme the underlying belief is that fall precedes creation and gives rise to it.

2) Another option is to say that creation has always existed.  It's just an immovable, eternal fact - godlike in its own right.  Here, if you believe in God, he's got his hands tied and basically does his best with the materials available.

3) A third option is to say creation is a matter of the will.  There is first a God (or some power or principle), and creation exists alongside as a demonstration of his power.  To get to the heart of all things is not to find a heart at all but only force.

Interestingly our modern creation myth is a synthesis of all these errors.  We are the result of explosions, chaos, death and struggle; God (if he exists) is a far-off clockmaker and really the only way to live in such a world is to acknowledge that might is right and propagate our selfish genes.

But there is another way to see creation.  And the trinity is crucial.

As Irenaeus and Athanasius saw it, the Father of all was first Father of the Son Whom He loves.  And this Father-Son love in the Spirit provides the key to understanding creation rightly.  Robert Jenson puts it well:

The Father’s love of the Son is... the possibility of creation.  Insofar as to be a creature is to be other than God, we may say that the Father’s love of the Son as other than himself is the possibility of creation’s otherness from God. (R.Jenson: Systematic Theology, vol 2, p48.)

The massive significance of this can be seen when we ask the question, what is it like to be 'other' than God?

With option 1) above, to be other than God is to be a cosmic embarrassment, the fruit of a defect.  With option 2) to be other than God means to be a cog in an impersonal machine.  With option 3) to be other than God is to be a slave.  But with the triune God, to be Other than God is to be beloved and included.

In eternity the Son has been Other to God.  He is the Father's eternal complement as Body to Head (1 Cor 11:3).  Otherness is therefore not competitive or defective but corresponding and desired.  And creation that is in Christ and through Christ and for Christ is the extension of this eternal love-for-otherness.  Colin Gunton says:

To create in the Son means to create by the mediation of the One who is the way of God out into that which is not Himself.  (Triune Creator, p144)

Before creation there was not nothing and there were not wars, there was a Loving Father eternally anointing His Son in the Spirit.  And as Irenaeus has said, that Son is called Christ "since through Him the Father anoints and adorns all things." (Demonstration §53)

That's worth meditating on!

For Irenaeus, even our individual formation in the womb comes through Christ.  (Ad. Her. IV.31.2; V.15.3)

The Father of Jesus brought all things into existence from nothing through His two hands – the Son and the Spirit, His Word and Wisdom.

For the hands of God in Scripture see, for e.g. Isaiah 48:13, 51:9; Psalm 98:1; Ezekiel 3:14,16; Daniel 5:5; 10:10f; Matthew 12:28; Luke 11:20.

So Irenaeus says:

This hand of God which formed us at the beginning, and which does form us in the womb, has in the last times sought us out who were lost, winning back His own, and taking up the lost sheep upon His shoulders, and with joy restoring it to the fold of life.  (Ad. Her. V.15.2);

And, because God is rational, he therefore created what is made by his Word, and, as God is Spirit, so he disposed everything by his Spirit. (Demonstration. 5.);

For with Him were always present the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, by whom and in whom, freely and spontaneously, He made all things. (Ad. Her. IV.20.1)

On all these points, Athanasius was in agreement.

The key advance which Athanasius made with regard to a Christological doctrine of creation was his definitive differentiation between the Son’s eternal generation from the Father and creation’s in-time manufacture.  Irenaeus would surely have agreed with Athanasius on these points but he didn't have an Arius forcing him to articulate his position in quite the same way.

The issue arose because for Arius the world was willed by a God who is not essentially Father and therefore not essentially Lover.  The world is a product of will.  And Christ too is the off-shoot of this will since he must be made as a demi-god mediator in order to (somehow!) bridge the infinite otherness-gap of God and creation.  All of this is the absurdity of unitarianism.  Yet it was Arius who found trinitarian thinking absurd.

He would ask Athanasius, "Why do you say there was a time when creation began to exist, but not a time when the Son began to exist? What convincing distinction can be made between begetting and making?"

Athanasius answers that there is a crucial distinction between what is begotten and what is willed.  Paternity is a matter of essence, not will. As soon as a father has a son he is a father.  Therefore the Father has always been Father just as the Son has always existed.  Yet creating is a matter of will not essence – one can be a maker before one actually makes.  Therefore, just because God has always been Maker does not mean that there has always been something that is made (i.e. creation).

So creation has a beginning in time but the Son does not.  Jesus is the Father’s Son by nature (or essence), creation is God’s handiwork by will. He is Begotten not Made as the creed now says.

But here's the good bit - the Father has willed a commitment to the creation that is very much tied to His essential commitment to the Son.  The creature is lovingly and purposefully willed by the Father as that which is ‘after’ His eternal Image Whom He loves. His love for the creature corresponds to His love for the Son, for when He beholds the creation He delights ‘in seeing the works made after His own Image; even this rejoicing of God is on account of His own Image.’ (Contra Arianus. II.82)

Because of the mediation of the Son, creation could never be a matter of indifference to the Father.  The love with which He has loved the Son is now bound up in the world He has made for Him.  But precisely because it is for Him then Athanasius has successfully reversed Arius’ heretical proposition:

It is not He who was created for us, but we are created for Him. (Contra Arianus, II.31)

A properly trinitarian account of creation has therefore preserved the honour of Christ as Divine Creator but also the honour of the world as beloved creature.

Where have we gotten to?

I do not live in a monstrous reality arising from chaos.  I don't live in a grand, impersonal machine.  And I don't exist for the magnification of might.  I am from the Father, created purposefully out of His overflowing love through the Son, and - by the Spirit - for Him.

It's that "for Him" that's we'll discuss next time.  We will consider the purpose for creation.

CONTINUED HERE

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