church history

Athanasius and Divine Simplicity

All citations come from Athanasius, The Complete Works of St. Athanasiusand his On The Incarnation.


The most valuable player for the side of orthodoxy during the Nicene Council certainly had to have been Athanasius. He’s mostly known for defending the biblical doctrine of the incarnation against Arius who imagined Christ as a creature. In his works, Athanasius broadens his scope of defense, inevitably, when he speaks of the Son’s relationship to the Father.

This is incredibly important for our purposes here precisely because what Athanasius says about the Father, he also means for the Son. If Athanasius says of the Father that he is unchanging, he also means that of the Son. While this is not a volume defending the doctrine of the Trinity per se it helps to understand what Athanasius predicates concerning God. Moreover, without classical divine simplicity, it is impossible to construe the doctrine of the Trinity in any orthodox sense.

Athanasius contended for a classical doctrine of divine simplicity, pure and simple. A cursory glance through his work would enlighten any reader unto the fact that Athanasias would agree with Aquinas in many areas of theology proper––not to mention, Aquinas was well studied in Athanasius and knew full well what the early fathers believed. He said things like, “For God is good––or rather, of all goodness He is Fountainhead, and it is impossible for one who is good to be mean or grudging about anything.”

God is the absolute perfection of goodness.  He derives nothing from something else in order to be good. Rather, He is the absolute standard of goodness. If this is true, God cannot properly be goodness plus something else. When we say God is good and just, for example, we are communicating truths about God in an imperfect way. Athanasius seemed to understand the tension in the use of language when he bounced from saying “God is good,” to, “or rather, of all goodness He is Fountainhead.”

He confessed, with all early orthodox Christians, “We believe in one Unbegotten God, Father Almighty, maker of all things both visible and invisible, that has His being from Himself.” God is a se. Because God is a se, He has His being in Himself. God is. If God has His being from Himself, He can’t have it in part from Himself and in part from love, or justice, or mercy, or any other attribute. If that were the case, God would not have His being from Himself, but from Himself plus something else.

Much of Athanasius’ divine simplicity may be found in his defense of the deity of the Son in the face of Arian heresy. What is said of the Father must also be said of the Son. He writes:

As then the Father is not a creature, so neither is the Son; and as it is not possible to say of Him ‘there was a time when He was not,’ nor ‘made of nothing,’ so it is not proper to say the like of the Son either.

Some, who I will interact with in the next and final chapter, have denied divine simplicity altogether on the basis of the Triunity of the Godhead. However, this is only to destroy unity for the sake of diversity, a temptation we must not crumble under as Trinitarian Christians. To destroy unity is to destroy any reason which prevents a person from becoming a tritheist.

Why ought we not think of the three persons of the Trinity as three different gods if they cannot each be identified with the divine essence, yet made distinct from one another. If simplicity falls because of the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of the Trinity falls because of the doctrine of the Trinity! Athanasius holds together the unity and diversity within the Godhead beautifully when he assumes that anything predicated of the Father must also be predicated of the Son. If the Father is good, the Son is good; if the Father is uncreated, so is the Son, and so on.

What Athanasius says next is absolutely  crucial for our purposes in this present volume. Some, while not denying simplicity, have opted instead to hold on to simplicity while also claiming that God added something to Himself at the point of creation. Athanasius says:

And this was the wonderful thing that He was at once walking as man, and as the Word was quickening all things, and as the Son was dwelling with His Father. So that not even when the Virgin bore Him did He suffer any change, nor by being in the body was [His glory] dulled: but, on the contrary, He sanctified the body also. For not even by being in the universe does He share in its nature, but all things, on the contrary, are quickened and sustained by Him.

The change is not found in God because of creation. Rather, as God remained all that He was before creation, creation was actualized. Time, space, and matter came into existence, yet God was the same. He did not add anything to Himself at the point of creation, according to Athanasius, because to change––to become that which a thing was not before––is characteristic of the universe, not of the divine. Athanasius boldly retains divine simplicity when he says that God, according to the divine essence, did not share in the nature of the universe, even at the point of the incarnation. He goes on:

For in this rather is He shown to be the Father’s Expression and Image, remaining what He is and not changing, but thus receiving from the Father to be one and the same. If then the Father change, let the Image change; for so is the Image and Radiance in its relation towards Him who begot It. But if the Father is unalterable, and what He is that He continues, necessarily does the Image also continue what He is, and will not alter.

What God essentially is He continues to be. This may sound like a simple statement that everyone should agree with, but it carries heavy implication. If God remains what He has always been, then He is not added to nor taken away from. He doesn’t become anything more than what He already was from eternity. Athanasius also says:

For the Father is unalterable and unchangeable, and is always in the same state and the same; but if, as they hold, the Son is alterable, and not always the same, but of an ever-changing nature, how can such a one be the Father’s Image, not having the likeness of His unalterableness?

For Scripture, as in the above-cited passage of the Psalter, signifying under the name of heaven and earth, that the nature of all things originate and created is alterable and changeable, yet excepting the Son from these, shows us thereby that He is no wise a thing originate; nay teaches that He changes everything else, and is Himself not changed, in saying, ‘You are the same, and Your years shall not fail [Hebrews 1:12].’ And with reason; for things originate, being from nothing , and not being before their origination, because, in truth, they come to be after not being, have a nature which is changeable; but the Son, being from the Father, and proper to His essence, is unchangeable and unalterable as the Father Himself. For it were sin to say that from that essence which is unalterable was begotten an alterable word and a changeable wisdom.

But the God of all, being one really and indeed and true, is faithful, who is ever the same, and says, ‘See now, that I, even I am He,’ and I ‘change not ;’ and therefore His Son is ‘faithful,’ being ever the same and unchanging, deceiving neither in His essence nor in His promise…

It can be seen from the broad array of Athanasius’ own words that the doctrine with which we now deal has been around for an awful long time. Classical divine simplicity reaches back to the Nicene Council and, I would argue, to the time of the biblical authors.

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