Athanasius’ “theosis”

Rowan Williams’ conclusions at the end of his fine book (Arius Heresy and Tradition, Eerde­mans, 2001) are not a simple historical assessment; they are theological.  They have more to do with a trans­historical significance than actual history.  They identify what many Christians see as the unique and irreplaceable contribution of Christianity to the religious needs of humankind as they played out in later centuries.  One may disagree.  Athanasius claimed that Arius’ theology was a pale and bloodless version of the real meaning of the Christ event; redemption was more transcendent than Arius would have us imagine.  Arius’ belief that the Logos was a second, lesser and created “god,” according to Athanasius, would fundamentally eliminate the real “God” from the equation and thus obviate theosis (“divinization”).

Arians insisted that they took theosis seriously, but Athanasius “denies that this can be done while still clinging to the idea of a mediatorial created redeemer.”[1]

[Arians] seem to have argued that the creaturely status of the Son did not affect the power of the divine word uttered through him; the agent of redemption remains God alone.  Athanasius’ retort is to ask why, in this case should there be an incarnation at all. … The only decisive redemption — as opposed to continual acts of grace and pardon — is the transfiguration of the human condition from within, the union of grace with the body, as Athanasius puts it (con.Ar. II 68).  The argument returns to the point of the absolute newness and difference of redeemed humanity; for this newness to make sense, we must suppose a critical rupture in the continuities of the world; and for this God alone is adequate … [2]

It is important to clarify: the “critical rupture” Williams refers to in this paragraph can only be something that functions like Augustine’s “original sin” recapitulating Platonic substance dualism, i.e., something that drives an “ontological” wedge between humankind and God.  And the “transfiguration” mentioned has to be some kind “ontological” repair that makes theosis, “divinization,” more than a metaphor.  We know what theosis meant to Athanasius’ Platonic mindset: it meant immortality — setting humankind on the level of the gods, erasing the “unnatural death sentence” incurred by the human material condition aggravated by original sin.  It needs to be emphasized: theosis in Athanasius is not just the emotional aspiration of a Christian romantic who feels close to Jesus, it is inextricably part of the cosmology of alienation stemming from Plato’s dualism, reformulated as “original sin” by Paul and Augustine forming the fundamental tradition of Catholic Christianity.  We must understand this: they are talking about science: a metaphysical not just a relational or moral rupture. This metaphysical rupture was then “healed” by baptism which created a new ontological bond between God and humankind; they are talking about what for them was cosmology, science, not poetry.

Now, I want to say this and say it very clearly: If there is no dualism dividing matter from spirit, and no “original sin” …  if our alienation from “God” is moral  and relational and not ontological, then this entire worldview with its many variants falls like a house of cards.  None of it makes any sense, philosophically or theologically, except as metaphor, meaningful only to those who understand Platonism.  It is not religion, it is a phantasmagorical cosmology.  The Jews, who wrote Genesis, reject it unequivocally.  They claim that the story of original sin (their story) was not literal, and was intended from the very beginning as simply a fable — an allegory, a catechetical device chosen for its pedagogical ability to illustrate the importance of obeying “God’s” commands and relating to one another morally.  Genesis is not a record of scientific and historical “facts.”  There was no “critical rupture” in the “continuity” between God and man.  Such a theory, even for Paul, was tangential: it was not central to his view of the Christ-eventIt was increasingly used to justify the “supernatural” nature of the Christian claims as Platonism came to predominate in the ancient mindset; for as Williams admits in the above citation, without such a supposition Christian sot­er­i­ology “makes no sense” nor does the incarnation.   Indeed!


The view of things officialized in the Nicene version of the incarnation contrasts with the “pagan” religiosity which it was even then displacing.  Peter Brown (The Making of Late Antiquity, Harvard, 1978) claims that the Christian vision amounted to “a denial of the ease of access to the supernatural that would have put ‘heavenly’ power in the hands of the average sinful believer.”[3]

Pagans watched this development [the focus on the “other world”] with deep religious anger.  For in the “debate on the holy” Late Antique pagan sentiment maintained to the last, one feature of the traditional position: the supernatural was constantly available to men. … the easy-going unity of heaven and earth somehow mirrored the unity and solidarity of the civilization they had inherited, which had passed on to them a richness of well-tried means of access to the other world.[4]

The Jews who wrote Genesis did not have any need for a mediator, like Plato’s “Craftsman,” no matter what its divine pedigree.  They were in direct contact with Yahweh at all times because they were his natural creatures, the children he created to share existence with — his family.  The theory of a mediator between God and humankind — Plato’s Craftsman, who served as model for the incarnate Word — is Greek and was required by Plato’s substance dualism in order to interface between a Spirit-God and a world of corrupt matter.  The theory of the fall is Greek and it was concocted to explain how we came to have a spirit-soul in a body of matter.  Philo distorted the Jewish Scriptures in order to have them mesh with Plato’s substance dualismHe took a human fantasy like Plato’s Craftsman in the Timaeus, called it Logos and poetically suggested that it was the “Wisdom” of Proverbs 8, an entity a real person, a subordinate “god.”  Christianity then applied Philo’s fantasies to Jesus.  Nicaea, by ultimately insisting that Plato’s Craftsman was really the high God himself, ironically eliminated the very mediator that was so important to Plato’s view of the world.  It was an indirect hit on substance dualism and while it obviously was not fatal, it introduced a fundamental incoherence into the once tidy Platonic picture that Arius was trying to preserve with his clear and logical explanations.

Brown sees the ancient pagan mysteries as having evoked a different worldview from that of the ascendant “otherworldliness” of fourth century Christianity.

Among the pagans, therefore, the crisis of a great tradition was sensed as nothing less than a crisis in the relations of heaven and earth. … ‘The central claim of the mysteries to authority and legitimacy rested precisely on this complex of correspondences with the nature and order of the cosmos.’[5] The pagan still expected to feel embedded in this cosmos.  The Christians had brutally torn the network of correspondences on which pagan belief depended.  Hence the anger with which Plotinus rounded on the Christian-influenced “Gnostics,” who refused to be either humbled or consoled by the majesty of the cosmos.[6]

Brown quotes from Iamblichus of Apamea (+ 327, a follower of Plotinus’ Neoplatonism) lamenting the loss of simple religiosity brought about by the focus on philosophical transcendentalism, an accusation that is applicable to both sides of the Nicene dispute:

… placing the physical presence of the superior beings outside this earth … amounts to saying: the divine is at a distance from the earth and cannot mingle with men; this lower region is a desert, without gods.[7]

I would like to take that accusation seriously and advance an argument for another and entirely different way of conceiving the relationships that were in contention in the Nicene controversy.  It is a view that “places humankind correctly against the overwhelming backdrop of the cosmos.”[8]

[1] Williams, op.cit., p. 241

[2] Ibid., p. 240-1 (emphasis is mine)

[3] Brown, p. 99

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., Brown quotes from an article by Richard Gordon in The Journal of Mithraic Studies 1976

[6] Ibid., p. 99-100

[7] Ibid., p. 101

[8] Ibid., p. 100

Greek Christianity

This post discusses some of the background to the Council of Nicaea.  It accompanies a new book by Tony Equale just published called “Arius and Nicaea:  Science and Religion in a Material Universe.”  It is 165 pages.  It is available for sale here in Willis now, and on Amazon and B&N soon.

It deals with the Arian dispute of the fourth century which occasioned the Council of Nicaea and the dogmatic declaration that Jesus was “God” of the same nature as the Father.

The book is a combination of historical and philosophical reprise designed to reconstruct the mindset and intentions of the actors in this ancient drama that settled Christianity’s core identity and decided the destiny of Eurasia for the next two millennia.  We, in our day, are its direct inheritors.  The analysis in the book uses this understanding heuristically: as a guide for our own deliberations about the present and future of “religion.”

You may order by communicating directly to 414 Riggins Rd NW, Willis, VA. 24380.  The phone number is (540) 789-7098.  The price is $15.95.  You may also order by sending an e-mail to or by making a request in a comment in the “page” in the sidebar to the right.  Clicking on the book image will take you there.  Shipping is included in the price. 

I hope you can find the time to read it.  It will be well worth your while … you won’t encounter this perspective anywhere else.

Tony Equale

Greek Christianity

The Ancient Mediterranean World where Christianity was born came eventually to be dominated by the ideas of Plato, a Greek Philosopher who died 350 years before the time of Christ; Christianity’s early definitions of its core identity — like those made at the Council of Nicaea — were intimately involved with that phenomenon.

Plato had a basic vision of reality that stemmed from his thinking about the nature of ideas … and from there the human mind.  Unlike all the individually existing things in our material universe, ideas were not individual, they were universal.  The one idea of “horse,” for example, comprehended every imaginable horse: not only all those that exist now everywhere on the face of the earth but also every horse that ever existed in the past or will exist at any time in the future.  Ideas are potentially infinite and unlimited.  Even though we can “see” them clearly, and we know they are real because we build our lives around them,  ideas are invisible and do not exist in space and time.

Plato was convinced that nothing with these characteristics could be made of matter.  Matter was individual, visible, tangible, limited to the here-and-now.  Ideas and the human mind that produced them had to be made of some real “stuff” that was other-than-matter.  Plato called it spirit.

So, he said the universe was divided between two kinds of “things,” spirit and matter.  Each was the polar opposite of the other: matter was not rational, had no mind and produced no ideas; matter existed in space and time, it was composed of parts and would eventually decompose and die; spirit was rational, it was not made of parts and could never decompose … and therefore it was naturally immortal. 

This world, except for humans, was totally material, therefore ideas and the spirits that produced them must come from another world that was invisible to this one: a world of ideas.  The fact that humans have “spiritual” minds means their “souls” must be spiritual and somehow “fell” from that other world of immortal ideas and into the foreign world of matter and material bodies where everything perishes.  It’s as if our souls were being confined in a dungeon … as if being human were a punishment.

This view of things is called dualism.  Insofar as it speaks of the dual nature of reality as matter and spirit, it’s called metaphysical dualism.  And because it also speaks of the existence of two worlds corresponding to each — a world of spirit and a world of matter — it is also called cosmological dualism.

The Supernatural

Thus was born the concept of the supernatural.  What was “natural” for us was what belonged to this world of matter, and what was beyond it was “super-natural” i.e., “spiritual” — entities and abilities and an immortality that were characteristic of “spirit” and could not be explained by any natural source, cause or origin in this world.

When Christianity came along the Greco-Roman people were more and more persuaded that Plato was right, and the Christians who were trying to explain the significance of Jesus’ life and work increasingly used Plato’s categories to do it.  So the Christian message focused more and more on Plato’s ideas about the mortality problem that matter created for us, and the other world where we were destined to live forever, and less and less on Jesus’ message which was not based on either of those issues.   Christianity offered itself to the Greeks as a way of addressing their concerns: overcoming the lethal effect of irrational matter, escaping this natural world where everything dies and obtaining a living residence in the other world of spirit, a supernatural world, where “God” lives and nothing dies.

But there was a problem.  The Jewish Bible, which formed the basis of Jesus’ message, said that “God” made everything “good.”  But in Plato’s version of things, matter was “evil” because the unruly passions of our bodies made us sin, and matter was the cause of death.  If matter were good, as Jewish Jesus believed, there would be no irrationality, there would be no uncontrolled passions, there would be no decomposition and decay, there would be no death and no need to go to another world.  “Religion” would be a question of learn­ing to live in the natural world that God made and not finding a way to go to a “supernatural” one.

But, like everyone else in the Roman Empire, Christians died.  The matter in their bodies decomposed; they could see it right before their eyes.  If matter were good, that wouldn’t happen.  Matter is clearly “evil,” like Plato said.  If “God” made matter “good,” as Jesus’ Bible claims, how did it get to be “evil”?

Christians said that Genesis provided an answer to that question: it was Adam’s sin of disobedience in the Garden of Eden that did it.  Augustine explained it this way: “God” made matter good, but matter became corrupt through original sin and could never be whole again without the re-creating power of “God.”  That’s why we have unruly passions, and our bodies die.  Only the death of Christ could turn things around.

Augustine’s “explanation” agreed with Plato that matter was evil, the only difference was how it got to be that way.  Plato said matter was mindless and necessarily irrational; it was naturally evil because it was composed of parts and subject to decay and death.  Augustine couldn’t deny those facts, so he conjectured that before Adam’s sin matter must somehow have been immortal … and because being immortal was not natural to matter, matter was created in a supernatural state from the start.  In other words, “God” allegedly created a “spiritualized matter” that belonged to that other world of spirit, and Adam’s punishment was to lose the unnatural spirituality with which matter was originally created.

At this point things are starting to sound a bit far-fetched.  Augustine’s explanations were unconvincing, and seemed to be concocted to maintain a basic concurrence with mainstream Platonic assumptions about the respective significance of matter and spirit and the immortality that was at stake.  All explanations, even Plato’s theories about matter, were in function of preserving the belief in another world, the world of the immortal gods where death did not exist, and that there had to be some way for us to get there.


Just as Greek Christians developed a belief about matter that paralleled and preserved Platonic assumptions and abandoned Jesus’ Jewish ideas, they also had a corresponding “doctrine of ‘God’” that played a similar role.

Platonists and Neoplatonists rejected the polytheism of their traditional myths and had come to the conclusion that there was only one “God,” whom Plato identified with “the Good” and Neoplatonists called “the One.”  They imagined this one and only “God” to be Pure Spirit, self-existent — what they called agennētos, “unbegotten.”   As the quintessence of the characteristics of spirit, the “One” was the utter antithesis of everything material.  “God” was “Mind” and did nothing but think.  What he contemplated was the “Beautiful” and the “Good” and that could only be Himself.  It filled his mind with “ideas” … a world of ideas.

But how could this spiritual “God” be the cause of a world of matter?  Plato thought long and hard about it and when he came up with his solution he dedicated an entire dialogue to explaining his theory. The dialogue was called Timaeus.  It imagines that somehow from the Mind of the “One” there emerged the “idea” of a “craftsman,” or “architect,” what in Greek is called demiourgos.  This “Craftsman” like all “God’s” ideas became a real existing thing.  It was a divine entity, a god, whose job it was to create a universe of material things.   The “Craftsman” could see the “World of Ideas” that filled the mind of “the One” and devised a way of translating them into a blueprint for material things that were beautiful and good and reflected “The Beautiful” and “The Good” that was the “One” himself.  The Craftsman filled the universe with them and inserted a “World Soul” that was another divine entity like himself which enlivened it all, making it all “divine.”

The reason why Plato conjured up the Craftsman was what he imagined to be an infinite unbridgeable gap that existed between the total simplicity of the immortal spiritual “One” and the perishing world of material multiplicity.  The “One” was remote, totally inaccessible to us, and so was the immortality that he enjoyed.  What made this “God” to be what he was, was his “nature,” what the Greeks called ousía.  This one “God’s” nature was solely his own.  Not even the Craftsman shared his ousía.  For Plato each thing had its own ousía, its nature.  And only the “One” had the ousía of pure invincible immortality.

Plato’s Craftsman from the Timaeus was the bridge, the interface, the mediator between the remote inaccessible “God” and the world of perishing matter.  The Christians claimed that Jesus was Plato’s Craftsman come to earth and born of a woman; he was God’s “Wisdom” that created the universe, incarnate as this man; he was the divine mediator between God and humankind, and his followers would be carried by him into the very ousía of “God,” and immortality.  They called the Craftsman “Logos, because Philo of Alexandria, a Greek Philosopher who was also Jewish, used that word and image to refer to  the Bible’s Book of Proverbs where God’s “Wisdom” was similarly portrayed as a Craftsman, the “first born” of God, through whom God made the world.

Now, God’s “Wisdom” in the Book of Proverbs was a personification.  It was a literary device — a poetic way of saying that a “wise God” made the world.  For the Jews and for Jesus, “Wisdom” was not “a second god.”  God made the world directly all by himself … and because he was wise he made it “good.”  There was no mediator between God and the world.  The Wisdom-Architect of Proverbs was a metaphor, but the similarity to Plato’s vision was uncanny.

In all of Jesus’ preaching there was not the slightest suggestion that God needed a demi-god mediator to create the world, much less that he was that mediator.  Greek Christianity, in order to have its message “make sense” to the Greeks, changed the focus of Jesus’ Jewish message.  Jesus was trying to get people to trust a loving “God” and cherish the “good” world he made.  Greek Christians turned Jesus into a “second god” who made contact with Plato’s inaccessible “high God” possible, overcoming the “evil” resident in our very bodies and in the material universe.

But here again, there was the same problem.  If as Jesus said, God loved us and made everything good, it would contradict Plato.  For Jesus, God was not inaccessible.  There was no “infinite distance” between us and God.  There was no need for a “divine” mediator.  Jesus’ message about “our Father” who loved us, as in the parable of the prodigal son, was the whole story.  We did not need a special mediator to make contact with a remote and distant God.  We were never alienated from God, except by our own mistrust and selfish abuse of one another and the world.  All we needed to do was to change our attitudes and behavior … we did not need to change reality.

But how could a “good” God who loved us end up being so punitive that he would allow “death” to turn life into a nightmare.  It’s as if we were being punished … just like Plato said.  If God really loved us, we would never die.  Something must have made God angry.

Once again Augustine found the “answer” in the book of Genesis.  That same “sin of Adam,” he said, must have so torn apart the very fabric of the cosmos that it created an infinite gap between us and “God.”  It wasn’t God’s doing … God always loved us, but he had to find some way to bridge the unbridgeable metaphysical distance between us that Adam’s sin had created.  It was as much a problem for “God” as it was for us, and it was “God” who figured out a way to resolve it.  He sent his son to die in our place for the heinous crime of disobedience and finally do away with the “state of alienation” that “we” had created, and with it death.

It was an elaborate theory that was obviously designed to make Jesus’ death “fit” Platonic needs and fulfill Platonic aspirations.  So just as in the case of “evil” matter, Christians developed a theory about “God” that allowed them to make the Bible seem to conform to Plato’s vision.  Plato insisted that God was remote and inaccessible.  Christians found a way to agree with him in their own terms.  But what Christians were telling themselves in order to be in sync with their Platonic neighbors flew in the face of what Jesus had said.  By insisting on God’s inaccessibility, they totally distorted Jesus’ message about the nearness of God.  They created a religion that, as a Jew, he could not have accepted.  It contradicted the very core of Jesus’ message to say that God was remote and inaccessible and that we were born alienated from God.

Whatever one may think about the value of Greek Christianity, there should be no doubt that it was different from the vision of Jesus … and therefore the Greco-Roman “Catholic” Church’s claim to represent him is false and misleading.  If there is any proof that Jesus is not “God” in the theist sense — i.e., a rational “person” who controls things providentially and wants his plans carried out — this is it.

God’s “providential plans” are rarely discernible, but in this case we know exactly what Jesus’ message conveyed.  If he were “almighty God,” would he ever have permitted that such a contradiction to his clearly stated intentions be disseminated in his name by an organization that claims to be the living expression of his very person?  Some, convinced of the demi-god status of the Church, have argued backwards from the effect to the cause … insisting that what the Church teaches is necessarily compatible with the message of Jesus, despite the glaring counter-evidence of the gospels.  The gospels, they say, must be re-interpreted in that light.

By the time of the Council of Nicaea, the message of the Jewish Jesus had lost its independent clarity and was no longer discernible.  It had been absorbed into one or another version of Platonic Christianity.  The dispute of 325 was about which of those Platonic versions, Arius’ or Athanasius,’ represented the Greek Christianity that had been chosen to rule the Roman Empire.


Reflections on Religion and Science in a Material Universe


There is a new book by Tony Equale just written and right now in the process of being published.  It is called “Arius and Nicaea:  Science and Religion in a Material Universe.”  It is 165 pages.  It should be available for sale here in Willis, and on Amazon and B&N before or right after X’mas (I hope). 

The book deals with the Arian dispute of the fourth century which occasioned the Council of Nicaea and the dogmatic declaration that Jesus was “God” of the same nature as the Father.

The book is a combination of historical and philosophical reprise designed to reconstruct the mindset and intentions of the actors in this ancient drama that settled Christianity’s core identity and decided the destiny of Eurasia for the next two millennia.  We, in our day, are its direct inheritors.  The analysis in the book uses this understanding heuristically: as a guide for our own deliberations about the present and future of “religion.”

We live in a material universe.  How does Nicaea suggest we should deal with that?


The following snippet is from the introduction:


Arius and Nicaea

Science and Religion in a Material Universe

The Arian controversy, theoretically resolved at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, was a crossroads in the development of Christianity.  There is virtually nothing else that all Churches, east and west, cite as the absolutely non-negotiable litmus test of Christian orthodoxy than the acceptance of that first ecumenical Council held under Imperial auspices early in the fourth century.  What is most remarkable about the irrevocability with which the Council’s declarations have been embraced is that they represented an unprecedented innovation in Christian doctrine.

The Council condemned the teachings of Arius of Alexandria who said that Christ was “God” only in a derived sense; like everything that exists, he was a creature.  The Council declared, to the contrary, that Christ was not only divine but that his divinity was “the same as that of the Father.”  That had never been explicitly stated by any Christian theologian prior to the Council without being condemned,  and, it may be presumed, had never before been the officially sanctioned object of universal belief.

The canons of Nicaea represent the clearest and possibly most important example of a change that is rationalized in orthodox terms as “the development of doctrine.”  Richard Hanson in The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, says the story of Nicaea

… is not a story of embattled and persecuted orthodoxy maintaining a long and finally successful struggle against insidious heresy.  It should be perfectly clear that at the outset nobody had a single clear answer to the question raised, an answer that had always been known in the church and always recognized as true, one which was consistently maintained by one party throughout the whole controversy.  Orthodoxy on the subject of the Christian doctrine of God did not exist at first.  The story is the story of how orthodoxy was reached, found, not of how it was maintained.

There is no doubt that the pro-Nicene theologians throughout the controversy were engaged in a process of developing doctrine and consequently introducing what must be called a change in doctrine.

Interested?  You may order by communicating directly to 414 Riggins Rd NW, Willis, VA. 24380.  The phone number is (540) 789-7098.  The price is $14.92.  You may also order by making a request in a comment on this blog.   Shipping is included in the price. 

The book is also available in paperback at

I hope you can find the time to read it.  It will be well worth your while … you won’t encounter this perspective anywhere else.

Tony Equale