St. Athanasius as a Functional Open Theist

By | December 7, 2023

Since turning toward Eastern Orthodoxy about three years ago, I’ve become heavily interested in the history of Christianity and, in particular, the Church fathers, those influential individuals of, roughly, the first eight centuries AD who were instrumental in shaping what is now known as “orthodox” Christianity. One of those individuals was Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 299–373 AD), the chief defender of Nicene orthodoxy against the Arians between the first (325 AD) and second (381 AD) ecumenical councils. With respect to Athanasius, I’m currently reading his short treatise On the Incarnation (trans. John Behr). Right near the beginning of the treatise (§3, p. 52 in Behr’s translation) he says something which indicates that Athanasius was, at least as of the time of this writing, a functional open theist if not actually an open theist.

By a ‘functional’ open theist, I mean someone who takes the future to be open-ended in practice (even if not in actual truth) from God’s own perspective. That is, the future is causally open and providentially open even if not epistemically open for God. Among common models of God, the open theist, simple foreknowledge, and timeless knowledge models of God are all functionally open theist—God relates to creation as if open theism were true. Molinism and theistic determinism (aka ‘Calvinism’) are not because they affirm that the future is providentially settled if not also causally settled. God, on those views, foreordains “whatsoever comes to pass” (Westminster Confession 3.1).

So, turning to Athanasius, consider the following passage:

[O]f all things upon earth he [God] has mercy upon the human race, … creating human beings … according to his own image (cf. Gen. 1:27), giving them a share of the power of his own Word, so that … they might be able to abide in blessedness … And knowing again that free choice of human beings could turn either way, he secured beforehand, by a law and a set place, the grace given. For bringing them into his own paradise, he gave them a law so that if they guarded the grace and remained good, they might have the life of paradise—without sorrow, pain, or care—besides having the promise of their incorruptibility in heaven; but if they were to transgress and turning away become wicked, they would know themselves enduring the corruption of death according to nature, and no longer live in paradise, but thereafter dying outside of it, would remain in death and in corruption. (emphasis added)

I see three things in this passage indicating that Athanasius is writing as a functional open theist.

First, it is implied that, prior to the Fall at least, the future was causally open because “that free choice of human beings could turn either way” and that God knew this. This is affirmation of the idea that free will requires alternative possibilities.

Second, there is no hint here that God knew that Adam and Eve were going to fall. Indeed, we are told that they were “able to abide in blessedness” on account of being made in God’s image. Their remaining in blessedness was, therefore, a causally open possibility.

Third, God engages in testing and contingency planning. We’re told that God “secured beforehand … the grace given” by situating Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (paradise) and giving them a prohibition (i.e., don’t eat from the fruit of that tree). The “grace given” that Athanasius speaks of here refers to humanity being made in God’s image. God undertook to “secure” that grace by giving Adam and Eve a test. If they had passed the test, then the grace of the imago dei would have been secured because it would have endured incorruptibly in heaven. But why couldn’t God have set things up so that failure was impossible and no test necessary? Athanasius’s answer seems to be that simply in virtue of being creatures, Adam and Eve were intrinsically liable to death and dissolution. Bestowing on them the “further gift” of the imago dei granted them the moral freedom to “abide in blessedness” but it could not, by itself, ensure that they do so. Adam and Eve had to choose for the Creator over against their created nature so that the image of God in them could be secured. But, alas, Adam and Eve failed the test, which sets up Athanasius’s later argument for why there needed to be an incarnation. Basically, God’s goodness and concern to preserve his own image in humanity required that he mount a rescue mission (§6). Since God knew beforehand that failure was a possibility, he therefore prepared the incarnation of the Word in advance as a contingency plan.

That God engages in testing and contingency planning of any sort entails functional open theism. If God micro-manages everything and thus foreordains “whatsoever come to pass,” as on Calvinism and Molinism, then testing and contingency planning are pointless. One doesn’t prepare in advance for possibilities one knows for certain will never eventuate. One doesn’t run tests to ascertain whether something one knows for certain to be false is true. On Athanasius’s account, it would have made no sense for God to secure beforehand the grace given by setting Adam and Eve a test he knew for certain they were going to fail.

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