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Athanasius: Why Not Eternal Creation?

In an most interesting section of his Orations Against the Arians, Athanasius fields an objection against the eternal generation of the Son based on a parallel with creation. Athanasius has been arguing that certain divine names (Father, Wisdom, Word) show us that God must have always had a second hypostasis who was nevertheless consubstantial. For God to always have been Father, He must have always had a Son. To this, the Arians object saying that God has always been “Maker,” yet creation is not eternal.

Why doesn’t Athanasius’ logic require creation itself to become eternal and a part of the godhead?

Here is Athanasius’ response:

Senseless are these Arians; for what likeness is there between Son and work, that they should parallel a father’s with a maker’s function? How is it that, with that difference between offspring and work, which has been shewn, they remain so ill-instructed? Let it be repeated then, that a work is external to the nature, but a son is the proper offspring of the essence; it follows that a work need not have been always, for the workman frames it when he will; but an offspring is not subject to will, but is proper to the essence. And a man may be and may be called Maker, though the works are not as yet; but father he cannot be called, nor can he be, unless a son exist. And if they curiously inquire why God, though always with the power to make, does not always make (though this also be the presumption of madmen, for ‘who hath known the mind of the Lord, or who hath been His Counsellor?’ or how ‘shall the thing formed say to’ the potter, ‘why didst thou make me thus?’ however, not to leave even a weak argument unnoticed), they must be told, that although God always had the power to make, yet the things originated had not the power of being eternal. For they are out of nothing, and therefore were not before their origination; but things which were not before their origination, how could these coexist with the ever-existing God? Wherefore God, looking to what was good for them, then made them all when He saw that, when originated, they were able to abide. And as, though He was able, even from the beginning in the time of Adam, or Noah, or Moses, to send His own Word, yet He sent Him not until the consummation of the ages (for this He saw to be good for the whole creation), so also things originated did He make when He would, and as was good for them. But the Son, not being a work, but proper to the Father’s offspring, always is; for, whereas the Father always is, so what is proper to His essence must always be; and this is His Word and His Wisdom. And that creatures should not be in existence, does not disparage the Maker; for He hath the power of framing them, when He wills; but for the offspring not to be ever with the Father, is a disparagement of the perfection of His essence. Wherefore His works were framed, when He would, through His Word; but the Son is ever the proper offspring of the Father’s essence. (Orations Against the Arians 1.8.29)

A few observations are worth making:

1) Athanasius argues that “father” and “maker” imply different things. Without a son, a father just is not a father. A maker, on the contrary, must be a maker before he makes something. It is because he is a maker that he makes.

2) An offspring is not merely a subject of the father’s will but in fact partakes of the father’s essence. Earlier in this treatise Athanasius has explained the difference between the divine essence and all created essences. The divine essence is simple and admits of no variation, division, or dimunition. As such, the Son can be begotten and yet not require any interval or time or space, nor receive any ontological subordination.

3) While God always has the power to create, creation does not have the power to be eternal. “[A]lthough God always had the power to make, yet the things originated had not the power of being eternal.”

4) Athanasius argues that divine properties must be eternal because they are proper to the essence. “What is proper to His essence must always be.” Works, on the other hand, must not be always be– precisely because they are works and not the Worker. “Wherefore God, looking to what was good for them, then made them all when He saw that, when originated, they were able to abide.” Also, “that creatures should not be in existence, does not disparage the Maker; for He hath the power of framing them, when He wills,” and “Wherefore His works were framed, when He would, through His Word.” Yet, on the other hand, “but the Son is ever the proper offspring of the Father’s essence.”

Thus a property of the divine essence is not the same thing as a work of the divine essence.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.