‘God Most High’: Is Divine Fatherhood Distant?

God the Father can have a shadowy place in our theology. The Lord Jesus Christ, his only Son, as the Creed names Him, feels up close, immediate. After all, he is the one who became like us. He, we are told, is able to sympathise with our weaknesses. The Father, on the hand, can feel distant and aloof, one who requires us to have a mediator with him before he will have anything to do with us. The effect of that can be that we think that somewhere in the heart of God there is a strain of disapproval, a sense that we don’t really belong no matter how much Jesus vouches for us. It’s easy to see how that notion would inhibit our prayers, our joy and our witness. Thankfully, that notion is false and one way to understand why it is false is to follow the logic of those that taught the church how to understand the relationship between the Father and the Son in the fourth century.

In his exploration of the theology of Athanasius, the great defender of Trinitarian theology, Khaled Anatolios argues that his most famous work, On the Incarnation, is implicitly engaging his contemporary, Eusebius of Caeserea. Nowadays, Eubesius is known as a church historian but back then he was a close associate of the Emperor Constantine. Eusebius, though he had reluctantly signed up to the Nicene Creed in 325, had what we would now call ‘Arian’ tendencies in that he saw the Son as a subtly lesser being than the Father. Anatolios argues that in On the Incarnation, Athanasius takes up the framework that Eusebius had used in his works and reworks them without ever mentioning Eusebius, or even the debate about the Trinity, by name.  In contemporary terms, we could say that the whole work is, as the kids say these days, one massive Athanasian subtweet.

One area where Anatolios spots a contrast between Athanasius and Eusebius is on the issue of Divine Transcendence: that is the vast, infinite, gulf between God and creation, the fact that God is, as Isaiah puts it, ‘high and exalted.’ Now, God’s transcendence obviously raises the question of how such a high and exalted God relates to the world down here. In our hearts we often feel that one so great, so vast, couldn’t, or wouldn’t take notice of us. And yet, the wonderful news of the Scriptures is that God does come close to us, he is not only transcendent, but he is also, as theologians put it, immanent, nearby. 

How though, do we relate Divine Transcendence to the fact that God is Father, Son and Spirit? For Eusebius, Anatolios points out, ‘divine transcendence and divine immanence tend to be associated with the Father and the Son, respectively, The Father represents the extremity of divine transcendence; the Son, the attenuation of the Father’s transcendence and the extremity of divine immanence’.[1] So for Eusebius, the Father is distant and the Son is near. And this seems to chime with our intuitions; isn’t the Son the one who makes the Father known (John 1:18)? Isn’t Christ Jesus the one mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5)? It’s easy to believe that the Son, therefore, sits in a mid-point position between us and the Father, high but not too high that he cannot grasp our hand and lift us up into the presence of God.

And yet, there are problems with this kind of Eusebian idea. One is to do with the Son, Eusebius’ idea threatens the Son’s divinity. If we posit that in their divinity the Father is invisible but the Son is more visible, or that the Father is ‘Most High’ and the Son is, by implication, a little less high, then the implication is that God the Son is a slightly lower grade of God than God the Father. This Athanasius cannot have. While it is true that it is the Son and not the Father who became like us, that it is the Son and not the Father who suffered and died for us, this happened through the Divine Word becoming flesh and is not an indication of the Son’s lesser divinity. For Athanasius, the Son is homoousios with the Father, possessing the same invisible, transcendent nature as the Father, just as high and just as exalted. So, Athanasius can speak of the Word as ‘Invisible in Himself.’[2]

This means that Athanasius has to reconsider the question of how a transcendent God relates to the world. It cannot be that a distant Father relates to the world through his slightly closer Son. Rather, Anatolios explains, ‘Instead of assigning divine transcendence and immanence to Father and Son respectively, he construes them as attributes that belong to divine being as such…while God is by nature inaccessible, he makes himself accessible to creation through his love.’[3] For Athanasius, God’s transcendence is no barrier to his engagement with the world. As he writes concerning the Son, 

‘The marvellous truth is, that being the Word, so far from being Himself contained by anything, He actually contained all things Himself. In creation He is present everywhere, yet is distinct in being from it; ordering, directing, giving life to all, containing all, yet is He Himself the Uncontained, existing solely in His Father.’[4]

For Athanasius, the Son shares the transcendent invisibility of the Father, and, of course, the Holy Spirit. But this quality does not make Him distant but close. In thinking this way, Athanasius is tracing out the teaching of the Scriptures that since God is the creator, ‘In Him we live, and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). In the Scriptures, God’s transcendence is not in tension with his immanence, but its ground. It is because God’s knowledge is so wonderful and lofty that ‘Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely.’ (Ps 139:4) Only a God so High can get so near.

Of course, this means that we need to think carefully about the Son. He is no less transcendent than the Father. He is visible in his incarnate flesh, not in His divinity. It was for this reason that one of Athanasius’ successors in the North African church, Augustine, urges caution about identifying which person of the Trinity it is that is appearing in the Old Testament.[5] While we may question his conclusions in one or two places, we should understand his hesitation. His aim is not to obliterate the revelation of the Trinity but to maintain it, for any suggestion that the Son is more visible than the Father strikes at the heart of the idea that they are homoousious, of the same substance.

Fundamentally, though, Athanasius’ Trinitarian view of transcendence touches not just on the identity of the Son but the character of the Father. After all, in our material way of thinking, we can imagine that as the Son and the Spirit were sent, the Father stayed at home, at a distance. Given the Father is so high, he must always be at a distance from we who are so low. Athanasius’ account does away with all that. The Son did not become flesh because that was the only way God could have contact with creation. He didn’t put on flesh like someone putting on a lanyard in order to get through security and get access to the building. He put on flesh because as God he could not die. As Athanasius explains, 

‘The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as could not die. For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death…’[6]

Our need for an incarnate yet divine, mediator was moral, legal and covenantal. Not only does this clarify our understanding of the incarnation but it transforms our conception of the Father. The Father is not absent because He is not incarnate. He does not stand off at a distance, in another room. No, though He is not sent, he is near. As Jesus taught his disciples, ‘“Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.’ The Father’s purpose in sending the Son was to make His home our hearts. He is the one who hems us in behind and before. (Ps 139:5). He is High and Lifted up (Isaiah 6:1) and yet dwells with the lowly and contrite of heart. (Is 57:15). His love for us is just as infinite, just as perfect, full and overflowing as the Son’s love for us. Thus it is that the paradox of Christian Trinitarianism is that when we understand that the Son is just as high as the Father, we see that the Father is just as close as the Son. 

[1] Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea, 104

[2] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 3,18

[3] Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea, 104

[4] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 3,17

[5] ‘we should not be dogmatic in deciding which person of the three appeared in any bodily form or likeness to this or that patriarch or prophet, unless the whole context of the narrative provides us with probable indications.’ Augustine, De Trinitate, II,7. 

[6] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, II,9 The sentence continues, ‘in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection.’

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