Athanasius on Election in Christ

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In my series Reforming Calvinism, I have been proposing ways in which the five points of Calvinism (TULIP) can be brought into greater harmony with Scripture. One of the potential critiques is that the revision that I am proposing (similar in many ways to that of Barth) is an innovation that departs from orthodox church teaching. In reply, I would simply demur that it is not only coherent with the teaching of many church fathers such as Irenaeus and Athanasius, but that it also a necessary implication of the fundamental Christian conviction that Jesus Christ is, as stated in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, ‘of one being/substance [homoousion] with the Father’. If it is true that Jesus Christ is and has always been eternally equal to and one with the Father in being, nature, will, and activity, then it follows necessarily that the will of God revealed to the world in Jesus Christ – supremely in his incarnation, death, and resurrection – is the full and complete revelation of who God is and what his intentions are toward humanity from all eternity. That is, if the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ reveal that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17), then it necessarily follows that this fully reveals, without distortion or remainder, what was the will of God from all eternity with respect to the world that he made.

This is what we see in the writings of Athanasius who was the principal champion and defender of pro-Nicene orthodoxy in the fourth century against the various ‘Arian’ theologians who essentially denied the full divinity of Christ. One of the preferred biblical texts that the Arians used in support of their position was Proverbs 8 which to them indicated that the Son was ‘created’ as the beginning of God’s ways and works in creation, and thus they concluded that he could not be fully equated with the Father. To counter this, Athanasius responded that Proverbs 8 did not refer to the Son’s creation but rather to the Triune God’s determination that the humanity of the Son incarnate – Jesus Christ – would be the beginning of all his ways and works vis-à-vis creation. It is this key insight that led to Athanasius’ understanding of how Scripture can speak of our election even before we existed:

How then has He chosen us, before we came into existence, but that, as he says himself, in Him we were represented beforehand? and how at all, before men were created, did He predestinate us unto adoption, but that the Son Himself was ‘founded before the world,’ taking on Him that economy which was for our sake? or how, as the Apostle goes on to say, have we ‘an inheritance being predestinated,’ but that the Lord Himself was founded ‘before the world,’ inasmuch as He had a purpose, for our sakes, to take on Him through the flesh all that inheritance of judgment which lay against us, and we henceforth were made sons in Him? and how did we receive it ‘before the world was,’ when we were not yet in being, but afterwards in time, but that in Christ was stored the grace which has reached us? Wherefore also in the Judgment, when every one shall receive according to his conduct, He says, ‘Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ How then, or in whom, was it prepared before we came to be, save in the Lord who ‘before the world’ was founded for this purpose; that we, as built upon Him, might partake, as well-compacted stones, the life and grace which is from Him?

And this took place, as naturally suggests itself to the religious mind, that, as I said, we, rising after our brief death, may be capable of an eternal life, of which we had not been capable, men as we are, formed of earth, but that ‘before the world’ there had been prepared for us in Christ the hope of life and salvation. Therefore reason is there that the Word, on coming into our flesh, and being created in it as ‘a beginning of ways for His works,’ is laid as a foundation according as the Father’s will was in Him before the world, as has been said, and before land was, and before the mountains were settled, and before the fountains burst forth; that, though the earth and the mountains and the shapes of visible nature pass away in the fulness of the present age, we on the contrary may not grow old after their pattern, but may be able to live after them, having the spiritual life and blessing which before these things have been prepared for us in the Word Himself according to election. For thus we shall be capable of a life not temporary, but ever afterwards abide and live in Christ; since even before this our life had been founded and prepared in Christ Jesus.

Nor in any other way was it fitting that our life should be founded, but in the Lord who is before the ages, and through whom the ages were brought to be; that, since it was in Him, we too might be able to inherit that everlasting life. For God is good; and being good always, He willed this, as knowing that our weak nature needed the succour and salvation which is from Him. And as a wise architect, proposing to build a house, consults also about repairing it, should it at any time become dilapidated after building, and, as counselling about this, makes preparation and gives to the workmen materials for a repair; and thus the means of the repair are provided before the house; in the same way prior to us is the repair of our salvation founded in Christ, that in Him we might even be new created. And the will and the purpose were made ready ‘before the world,’ but have taken effect when the need required, and the Saviour came among us. For the Lord Himself will stand us in place of all things in the heavens, when He receives us into everlasting life. This then suffices to prove that the Word of God is not a creature, but that the sense of the passage is right. [1]

Not only was the primacy of the humanity of Jesus Christ as the beginning of all the ways and works of God in creation the key insight that informed Athanasius’ understanding of election, but it was also crucial to Karl Barth’s revision of the traditional Reformed view in his Church Dogmatics II/2. Barth expresses his debt to Athanasius in the following manner:

It should be quite clear that Athanasius had a very powerful perception of the third possibility which lies between the being of the eternal Word or Son as such and the reality of the elected man Jesus, together with the election of those who believe in Him as this election is bound up with His election. He saw that the election of the man Jesus and our election, with all the grace and gifts of grace which this includes, have their “foundation,” as he himself says, in the eternity of the Word or Son, an eternity which differs not at all from that of the Father. Without prejudice to His eternity, then, he ascribed to the eternal Word or Son of God a determination towards the elected man Jesus and towards the election of believers in Him as they are enclosed in Him.

As against Thomas [Aquinas], he not only had a conception of the pure being of the triune God on the one hand, and a conception of the concrete temporal history of salvation willed and fulfilled by God on the other, but over and above that he had also a conception of the concrete decree of salvation made in the bosom of the triune Godhead, and a conception of the Johannine Logos which was identical with Jesus and which was in the beginning with God. He had, then, a truly Christian conception of the divine decree. With Athanasius the decree, or predestination, or election, was, in fact, the decision reached at the beginning of all things, at the beginning of the relationship between God and the reality which is distinct from Him. The Subject of this decision is the triune God—the Son of God no less than the Father and the Holy Spirit. And the specific object of it is the Son of God in His determination as the Son of Man, the God-Man, Jesus Christ, who is as such the eternal basis of the whole divine election. [2]

Let it not be said, therefore, that a so-called ‘Barthian’ (or better, Evangelical Calvinist) revision of the Reformed doctrine of election represents a deviation from orthodox Christian teaching. As attested by both Athanasius and Barth, it is quite the opposite. Defining election primarily in terms of Jesus Christ himself who simply is the election of God and therefore of all humanity is not innovative; it is rather the understanding that derives from giving full place to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan assertion that Jesus Christ is homoousion – fully equal to and one with the Father.

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[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. Four Discourses against the Arians. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, pp. 389–390.

[2] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics II/2: The doctrine of God. London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.109-110

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