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Athanasius (2): the extra-Calvinisticum

I’ve written before on Calvin’s extra – his view that during the incarnation God the Son still filled the heavens and upheld all things as Infinite God.  Before Calvin, this view was asserted by Athanasius in On the Incarnation of the Word, III.17:

The Word was not hedged in by His body, nor did His presence in the body prevent His being present elsewhere as well. When He moved His body He did not cease also to direct the universe by His Mind and might. No. The marvelous 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…. His body was for Him not a limitation, but an instrument, so that He was both in it and in all things, and outside all things, resting in the Father alone. At one and the same time – this is the wonder – as Man He was living a human life, and as Word He was sustaining the life of the universe, and as Son He was in constant union with the Father.

The other pre-reformation text I’ve read so far is Basil the Great’s On the Holy Spirit, and I was interested to see that Basil also affirms the extra-Calvinisticum in 8.18: “the Infinite God, remaining changeless, assumed flesh and fought with death, freeing us from all suffering by his own suffering” (italics mine).

This is really an amazing thought, that the Son of God was, as one person, simultaneously sleeping in a manger and upholding the universe.  But as I have argued before, I think a robust Creator-creation distinction absolves any difficulties that arise.

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3 Responses

  1. Gavin,
    I went back and read your discussion of the extra calvinisticum – very good thoughts. I particularly appreciated the analogy to that of Tolkien writing himself into the Lord of the Rings. That is a helpful picture of how Christ could be present in heaven upholding the universe, while being in a manger being held by Mary. Good reminder that heaven and earth are not the same as Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

  2. Thanks Penny. I find that author-story metaphor helpful in so many ways for clarifying the Creator-creation relationship. Hope you are doing well brother.


  3. Gavin–

    I think that Athanasius and Calvin differ on how to spell this point out. This goes back to their different Christologies. For Athanasius, the Word’s upholding the universe is something that He accomplishes by using his divine power to perform divine actions. His sleeping and eating and laughing as a baby is done by the Word activating the creaturely abilities of the nature He has become personally intrinsic to by assuming it in the Incarnation. The same person wills both humanly and divinely at the same time.

    For Calvin, the Word of God remains extrinsically related to Jesus’ human nature. It is not that the Word of God is intrinsic to his body and soul as a human person is intrinsic to his or her own body and soul (which is how Athanasius would articulate it). Rather, the Word controls and operates on the body and soul of Jesus extrinsically. This reflects the principle that the finite can never partake of the infinite for Calvin and the other Reformers. It is seen in the way that the Reformers teach that the divine will must subordinate and control the human will even in the human nature of Christ to prevent sin and accomplish salvation. It is also reflected in the Reformed denial of the communication of divine power from the divinity of Christ to his humanity. So the agreement of Calvin and Athanasius regarding the Word’s ability to uphold the universe even during the Incarnation does not equate to an agreement about *how* this was done or *why* it was possible.

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