§3. Fundamental Ideas of God, the World, and Creation.
The Athanasian idea of God has been singled out for special recognition in recent times; he has been claimed, and on the whole with justice, as a witness for the immanence of God in the universe in contrast to the insistence in many Christian systems on Gods transcendence or remoteness from all created things. (Fiske, Idea of God, discussed by Moore in Lux Mundi (ed. 1) pp. 95–102.) The problem was one which Christian thought was decisively compelled to face by the Arian controversy (supra, p. xxix. sq.). The Apologists and Alexandrians had partially succeeded in the problem expressed in the dying words of Plotinus, to bring the God which is within into harmony with the God which is in the universe, or rather to reconcile the transcendence with the immanence of God. But their success was only partial: the immanence of the Word had been emphasised, but in contrast with the transcendence of the Father. This could not be more than a temporary resting-place for the Christian mind, and Arius forced a solution. That solution was found by Athanasius. The mediatorial work of the Logos is not necessary as though nature could not bear the untempered hand of the Father. The Divine Will is the direct and sole source of all things, and the idea of a mediatorial nature is inconsistent with the true idea of God (pp. 87, 155, 362, comparing carefully p. 383). All things created are capable of sustaining Gods absolute hand. The hand which fashioned Adam now also and ever is fashioning and giving entire consistence to those who come after him. The immanence, or intimate presence and unceasing agency of God in nature, does not belong to the Word as distinct from the Father, but to the Father in and through the Word, in a word to God as God (cf. de Decr. 11, where the language of de Incarn. 17 about the Word is applied to God as such). This is a point which marks an advance upon anything that we find in the earliest writings of Athanasius, and upon the theology of his preceptor Alexander, to whom, amongst other not very clear formulæ, the Word is a μεσιτεύουσα φύσις μονογενής (Thdt. H. E. ii. 4; Alexander cannot distinguish φύσις from ὑπόστασις or οὐσία; Father and Son are δύο ἀχώριστα πράγματα, but yet τῇ ὑποστάσει δύο φύσεις). This is indeed the principal particular in which Athanasius left the modified Origenism of his age, and of his own school, behind. If on the other hand he resembled Arius in drawing a sharper line than had been drawn previously between the one God and the World, it must also be remembered that his God was not the far off purely transcendent God of Arius, but a God not far from every one of us (Orat. ii. p. 361 sq.).
That God is beyond all essence ὑπερέκεινα πάσης οὐσίας (c. Gent. 2. 2, 40. 2, 35. I γενητῆς οὐσίας) is a thought common to Origen and the Platonists, but adopted by Athanasius with a difference, marked by the addition of γενητῆς. That God created all things out of pure bounty of being (c. Gent. §2. 2, §41. 2, de Incarn. §3. 3, and note there) is common to Origen and Philo, being taken by the latter from Platos Timæus. The Universe, and especially the human soul, reflects the being of its Author (c. Gent. passim). Hence there are two main paths by which man can arrive at the knowledge of God, the book of the Universe (c. Gent. 34 fin.), and the contemplation or self-knowledge of the soul itself (ib. 33, 34). So far Athanasius is on common ground with the Platonists (cf. Fialon, pp. 270, sqq.); but he takes up distinctively Christian ground, firstly, in emphasising the insufficiency of these proofs after sin has clouded the souls vision, and, above all, in insisting on the divine Incarnation as the sole remedy for this inability, as the sole means by which man as he is can reach a true knowledge of God. Religion not philosophy is the sphere in which the God of Athanasius is manifest to man. p. lxxiii Here, again, Athanasius is Christo-centric. With Origen, Athanasius refuses to allow evil any substantive existence (c. Gent. §§2, 6, de Incarn. §4. 5); evil resides in the will only, and is the result of the abuse of its power of free choice (c. Gent. 5 and 7). The evil in the Universe is mainly the work of demons, who have aggravated the consequences of human sin also (de Incarn. 52. 4). On the other hand, the evil does not extend beyond the sphere of personal agency, and the Providence of God (upon which Athanasius insists with remarkable frequency, especially in the de Fuga and c. Gent. and de Incarn., also in Vit. Anton.) exercises untiring care over the whole. The problem of suffering and death in the animal creation is not discussed by him; he touches very incidentally, Orat. ii. 63, on the deliverance of creation in connection with Rom. viii. 19-21.