Athanasius on the Hidden God

Steven Paulson writes beautifully on Luther’s understanding of the God who hides himself in the world:

Why would God do this? Why does anyone hide? One hides initially, of course, so as not to be found. Yet, even in the game of hide-and-seek a child initially hides so as not to be found in one place, only later to reveal herself in the safe goal, with a cry, ‘Here I am!’ The game would have no point if remaining forever unfound were its goal. God’s game of hide-and-seek is not far different, though the ‘game” is a matter of life and death. God hides so as not to be found where people seek him, and reveals himself where he is not sought. In the safe goal, so to speak, God can declare a new sort of victory over hapless seekers for meaning, certitude, affirmation, fame, success, and whatever else humans have determined to be of worth to themselves while breaking the the first commandment.

img_5224God hides himself from sight in the places of this world that we might expect to find God so that we don’t slip into the mistake of making idols out of good things and thereby miss God altogether. What he rather does is reveal himself in impossible, weak, and unacceptable things so that his own glory might show forth. He willingly puts the treasure of his glory in jars of clay (2 Cor. 4:7). He comes as a baby in a feeding trough. He reveals himself as king by being crucified as a criminal on a Roman cross.

This is how St. Athanasius believes reflection on the incarnation should begin. In the first chapter of On the Incarnation, he begins by writing to those with faith that they might better understand, credo ut intelligam. He writes,

Come now, blessed one and true lover of Christ, let us, with the faith of our religion, relate also the things concerning the Incarnation of the Word and expound his divine manifestation to us, which the Jews slander and the Greeks mock, but we ourselves venerate, so that, all the more from his apparent degradation, you may have an even greater and fuller piety towards him, for the more he is mocked by unbelievers by so much he provides a greater witness of his divinity, because what human beings cannot understand as impossible, these he shows to be possible, and what human beings mock as unseemly, these he renders fitting by his own goodness, and what human beings through sophistry laugh at as merely human, these by his power he shows to be divine, overturning the illusion of idols by his own apparent degradation through the cross, invisibly persuading those who mock and disbelieve to recognize his divinity and his power.

The word that John Behr translates here as “unseemly” is ἀπρεπής, meaning “to not meet a standard and therefore subject to rejection.”1 It is unacceptable to some standard–in this case it’s a human standard. But God does not come to live up to our standards of what we think things should be, nor has he come to “bless our mess.” Rather, God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself, calling us to see him on a cross for us and thereby overturn our illusions and idols.

Be sure to read Paulson’s whole article and pick up one of the beautiful copies of On the Incarnation from St. Vladamir’s Press with both original Greek and English translation along with an introduction by C. S. Lewis. It makes great Advent reading!

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1. William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 125.

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