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The purpose of creation
In a key passage of De Incarnatione, Athanasius defines the purpose of creation:
…why should God have made them at all, if He had not intended them to know Him? But, in fact, the good God has given them a share in His own Image, that is, in our Lord Jesus Christ, and has made even themselves after the same Image and Likeness. Why? … [so that] they may be able to perceive the Image Absolute, that is the Word Himself, and through Him to apprehend the Father; which knowledge of their Maker is for men the only really happy and blessed life. (De incarn. 11)
The creature is willed by God out of His abundant goodness as the overflow of His triune life.
It is absolutely foundational to Athanasius’ doctrine of God that He is ‘good’. On the Incarnation abounds with the ‘goodness’ and ‘sheer goodness’ of the ‘All-good God.’ E.g.:
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. (De. Incarn. 3)
Athanasius' doctrine of God is a decidedly happy one!
Therefore from God's overflowing goodness, He does not will to be God alone. And so the creature is brought into being, not in independence but in happy dependence to know God. As one made after the true Image – the eternal Word – the proper destiny of man is to participate in the divine life. Man, in union with Christ – who is "Man among men" – is to be taken up to the Father, by the Spirit, and so to participate in God.
This participation is described variously by the two:
For Irenaeus it's ‘passing into God’ (Adv. H., IV. 33.4.); being ‘promoted into God’ (Adv. H., III.19.1.). And most famously he says:
Our Lord Jesus Christ… did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself. (Adv. H., V. pref.)
He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God.’ (De incarn., 54);
The Word became flesh in order both to offer this sacrifice and that we, participating in His Spirit, might be deified. (De Decret., ch 14)
What is the essence of this participation in God? Obviously neither of the Bishops could speak of this deification in ethereal ways. For theologians who look to Christ to see the fullness of deity, 'becoming God' couldn't possibly mean becoming less human. Any more than Christ's becoming Man meant His becoming less God! No, participation in God is not about dissolving into a divine stuff. It's about participating in the relationships of the trinity - being loved by the Father in the Son and through the Spirit.
Listen to Irenaeus explain deification:
“Those who receive and bear the Spirit of God are led to the Word, that is to the Son. But the Son takes them up and presents them to the Father, and the Father bestows incorruptibility. Therefore one cannot see the Word of God without the Spirit, nor can anyone approach the Father without the Son. For the Son is the knowledge of the Father, and knowledge of the Son of God is through the Holy Spirit. But the Son, in accord with the Father’s good pleasure, graciously dispenses the Spirit to those to whom the Father wills it, and as the Father wills it.” (Demonstration. 7)
Participation in God does not mean participation in some omni-being of attributes. It means being properly related to our triune Creator.
Creation has come out of the triune love of God and its goal is to be drawn back in. Not in dissolution we must add. Creation remains truly itself as it participates in the love that birthed it. As all things are drawn by the Spirit under the feet of Christ, the world maintains - and actually achieves - its concrete otherness because the love of God does not dissolve but affirms distinction and difference.
But this is the goal of creation – many brought into God in the Son.
In the heresies we have met, the divine could not be divine in its engagement with the creation. Nor could the creature attain to the divine without escaping the created. Yet the Triune LORD’s relationship to the creation allows the Eternal Word to be Himself even as He works immanently in, with and through His world. And we can truly participate in this triune God even as we live our creaturely lives. We can be truly spiritual and truly physical all at once without falling off one side of the horse or the other.
The fall, though, threatens to thwart God’s goal.