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Panayiotis Christou

Uncreated and Created, Unbegotten and Begotten in the Theology of Athanasius of Alexandria

From: Augustinianum 13, Roma 1973 (pp. 399-409).
Typed for our pages by the Holy Monastery of the Theomitor, Ilioupolis.

It is common fallacy that the entire contrast between Orthodoxy and Arianism in the fourth century , and the theology resulting from it , revolve around the term ομοιούσιος, ομοούσιος , όμοιος and ανόμοιος . That this impression is not substantiated by the facts is demostrated as much by the lack of consistency in the use of these terms , as by the fact that Athanasius wavers between the first two of them . In fact , so as not to provoke opposition , instead of the term ομοούσιος , which seemed to divide Christians , he at first preferred the term ομοούσιος and only when he perceived that the sense given it by the semi-Arians was different (1) did he chose the term ομοούσιος with the aim of later declaring finally that both terms are acceptable .

This indicates that these terms did not have quite the importance we attribute to them today . They were simply watchwords in a battle which nevertheless certainly expressed definite theological ideas , since they also occupied a position in the creeds drawn up in the councils that met during that period .

The extent to which Athanasius attributed little significance to these words is apparent in his letters on the Holy Ghost , where he writes : “ It is enough to know that the Spirit is not a creature ” (2) . This indicates where the basis of theological disagreement is to be found between the rival parties . What is the Spirit , a creature , or a non-creature being ? What is the Son , a creature , or a non-creature being ? Upon the answer hangs all else .

Athanasius bases his theological work in general upon polemic against the tenets of Arius “ out of non-being ”, “there was when he was not ” “ of a changeable nature ” , and “ creature” (3) , which are clearly all connected with creation .

The two opposing poles in the universe are the imperishable and the perishable , the άφθαρτον and the φθαρτον , which correspond to the two forms of existence the άκτιστον , uncreated , and the κτιστόν , created . This dinstinction has a direct connection with the creative energyof God which connects the uncreated with the created . This is fundamental to the Christian understanding of the universe . Christians directly link the idea of God with that of the Creator .

Although the same does not happen with the Greek philosophers , it is impossible to refrain from mentioning here the misinterpretation which has so often slipped into this question . The usual assertion that the Greek position is diametrically opposed to the Chistian is based on an oversimplification of the facts , because the Greeks had the concept of both the uncreated , as Athanasius himself recognizes (4) , and of the Creator . For nearly all the Greek philosophical systems there is a distinction between the one and the many between the unchangeable όντως ον , and the things which are changeable , even if the idea of a creator , was not always included and when it was it did not perform the same rτle that it did in Christianity .

Thus , to confine ourselves to the two principal representatives of Greek thought , Plato draws a distinction between the uncreated which is eternally the same , and the created , which is liable to corruption (5), and then adds a third element , that of space , or rather of room , which could be identified with what Aristotle calls matter , fomless matter , upon which God acts .

According to Aristotle , matter represents the element of genesis and of corruption , which is extended to one point only , beyond which exists the world of the unchangeable - pure energy . The pure energy is the prime mover that is not itself moved , God , through whose operation matter is transformed , and the world of perishable beings is created .

Consequently the idea of the creator is found in both Plato and Aristotle , but in both writers creation appears as having been carried out upon pre-existent matter . Matter certainly in their thought approximates to non-being , since it is neither a quality , nor any of those things by which being is defined (6).

Creation , therefore , could be seen as formed , in the view of these two philosophers , from non-being , if matter were merely non-being , nothing .

The Greek Philosophers , therefore, when speaking about God, did not , from necessity , immediately reach the Creator , and they did not give creation the character it has in Christianity .

It is reasonable , then , that instead of the terms characterizing the uncreatedness of God , and the createdness of the world , they used terms that indicated that God is unoriginated and the world originated , that is to say they used the words , αγένητος and γενητός , instead of άκτιστος , and κτιστός .

In spite of all this , the notions of the uncreated and the created , with all their particular aspects , exist in both systems, the Greek philosophical and the Christian , and this is what interests us in our inquiry .

Because of the place of creation in the Christian theological system , Athanasius prefers for God the terms δημιουργός and κτίστης , to αγένητος which is a negative term not capable of portaying the creative energy of God . He does not , however , reject the word completely , but uses it occasionally ( with reservations ) , in that it had certainly become a by-word on the lips of the Arians to distinguish the uncreated God from the created Son (7). Athanasius rarely uses it whithout reservation . He always sounds a warning against using it to distinguish between the Father and Son , as it merely distinguishes between creator and creatures .

Therefore , he says , the term αγένητος signifies a distinction of the Father not from the Son , but from the things made through the Son ; and correctly so , for God is not like created things (8). These terms indicate a gulf between God and the world , and the impossibility of comprehending the former . God , who exists beyond all originated nature , is incomprehensible to man , who is made from non-being , while God is inoriginated , “ and what communion , or what can there be between creature and creator ?” (9)

Given this distinction , God is described by Athanasius with the terminology of Plato as for ever unchangeable (10), while created things are subject to change (11), because they derive from non-being via an initial radical change . The creatures bear no essential resemblance to the creator (12),and have a predisposition towards corruption , a tendency towards non-being . Since they came from non-being , they tend to return to non-being . This return is accomplished through corruption (13) . This is an innate inclination in man , althougt he is equipped with a bestowed likeness to God , by means of which , if he kept it intact , he would blunt the corruptible which is his by nature , and would become imperishable (14).

Arius particulary exalted the concept of creation , having as model the second century Apologists , the Dynamic Monarchians , and above all Origen . It is uncertain whether the Apologists could clearly distinguish between the categories of divine essence and divine revelation , but it is quite clear that they inseparably linked the Logos with the work of creation .So also did Origen explicity connect the begetting of the Son with the origin of the world .

Origen , following the general line of Christian theology , could not conceive God without being led immediately on to the creator . But he was mistaken in his precise evaluation of things , apparently because he wanted to give excessive emphasis to the concept of the identity of God and creator , against the Gnostic assertions that they were separate . From the principle that the creator was certainly God , he arrived at the conclusion that God was certainly a creator . This , however , means that he was always a creator , and that creation is an eternal product of God , in a kind of projection . Naturally the Logos existed before the ages , and its existence is linked to creation .

Of course , since he realized the danger of Christian Theology concluding from this idea that the world existed before the ages , just like God , he ascribed the creation before the ages to the will of God . He was then led on to a further absurdity ; because of the close connection , in his understanding , between the Logos and the world , he understood the Logos also to have been begotten from the will of the Father (15). He rejects the opinion that Logos was begotten εκ της ουσίας του Πατρός , out of the essence of the Father , because he saw it as leading to the Gnostic world view , not realizing that he thus removed the Son from the Godhead .

Arius’ theory had a cosmological starting point , as he was not interested in other properties of God than the creative ones . Instead , however , of relegating creation to eternity , as did Origen , Arius debases the Logos by placing it within time. The fact however that he sometimes places the existence of the Logos “ before time and before the ages” (16) is, made of no effect by his use of all those other exressions that define the Logos as a creature . “ All things are about from non-being , and all that have been brought into being are creatures and works . So also the Logos of God was brought about from non-being , and there was when he was not , and he was not before he was brought about , but he as well had a beginning of being created ” (17) . Consequently the phrase “ before time and before ages ” has a completely typical sense since , through the genesis , that is the creation , of the Logos , a certain change occours , which can only be perceived within time . The difference is that his genesis was realized before the other beings came into existence , for the sake of other beings , as he was a necessary intermediary .

Thus , as Arius believed , the unique quality of God’s being uncreated was preserved . This , following an extension of the Aristotelian view , is a characteristic only of the Prime Mover.

Only God the Father is uncreated , unoriginated , and eternal . He placed the dividing line , not between God and the creatures , but between God and the Logos which was linked with the creatures . The Logos as a creature is unlike the Father , and was finite , mutable , subject to change . His divinity , however , is authentic (18).

The Orthodox line of thought differs from this Arian one by giving a fuller of God in depth . God is creator , but not merely this , because he also exists apart from his creative activity . The other thing inherent in God’s existence is his nature. God , that is is nature and will together , and the former certainly dominates the latter : nature is above will (19) . He is therefore being and energy , which in the theological terminology that later prevailed are essence and energy . There is , therefore , an essential distinction - not merely a nominal one - in God’s existence (20).

In these two categories of God-head , essence and will , there are corresponding and analogous distinctions . In the essence , to start with , there are the distinctions of existence or otherwise of the Triadic hypostases , which belong within the God-head , while on the other hand , in the will there are the distinctions of the creative relations which belong outside .

Within the Godhead there is γέννησις ( birth ) ; without , γένεσις ( genesis ) pertains . Hence God is at once Father and Creator. Wheras he is Father by nature , he is creator by will. Consequently he might not have to be a creator , and the created world might not have existed . The dividing line , in Orthodox Christionity , lies between God and creatures , between the uncreated and the created .

The origin of the Logos is a process which belongs within the category of nature or essence . The creatures , as products of a will , at one time were non-existent ; God “ wills ” to create them . He did not , however , “ pre-will ” his Logos , which was begotten from his own nature (21) . Nor is the existence of the Logos directly linked to creation . If he is a creator , this occurs not because this is his function , as he were brought about specifically to create , as an instrument , especially since God does not need an intermediary , but rather as the perfect image of God (22).

“ The Logos of God , ” Athanasius writes , “ did not come about because of him , and him were all things created . And he , being powerful was not , because of our weakness , brought into being by the Father alone , so that the latter might create us as through an instrument . Certainly this is not the case . And even if it were glory to God not to have made , the Logos would nevertheless be in no way diminished before God , and the Father would nevertheless be within him . Nevertheless , the creatures were unable to come into being without the Logos . Thus they came into being and were created through him ” (23).

As the Logos had this origin , it is not possible to connect him with creation , from which he is separated by a wide gulf.

He is within creation , but only through his operation . He holds creation together ,and stops it returning to non-being (24). But in his essence he is outside creation (25).

As uncreated and begotten of the Father , the Logos has all the properties of the Father , who is unoriginated , unchangeable, imperishable , immortal , and he is ομοούσιος with the Father , inasmuch as it is not possible for several uncreated beings that are of different essence ( that is in effect several uncreated essences ) to exist . Ontologically , multiplicity implies temporality and change , while unity entails eternity and unchangeability , according to a basic tenet of Greek philosophy . That the Spirit does not belong to the many indicates , according to Athanasius , that it is uncreated and ομοούσιος with the Father , as is also the Son (26).

By his teaching , Athanasius himself changed the direction of theology from the genesis of the Son ( as , of course , also of the Spirit ) to the begetting ; from γένεσις to γέννησις . Since creation is a category outside the sphere of the divine , αγένητος and γενητός , uncreated and created , are used for describing the relatin between God and creation , while the terms αγέννητος and γεννητός , unbegotten and begotten , are more frequently used for describing the rlations within the Trinity ; these are the same words , but written with two ν’s , and certainly having a different meaning and etymology . Upon these Last two words ( αγέννητος γεννητός ) the Anomoens constructed their whole theory , adopting them so as to emerge from the deadlock with their far-fetched interpretation . The two words are distinguished by the wide gap indicated by the prefix α- . Two persons are consequently distinguished which belong to two completely different words . The first in the eternal and unchangeable ; the second in the temporal and changeable .

“ If he is unbegotten , he is not Son , if he is Son , he is not unbegotten ” (27) , taught Eunomius. The Logos , if he is Son , is necessarily begotten .

It can be said that the Anomoeans returned to the original doctrine of Arius , using the term αγέννητος with the sense of αγένητος or άκτιστος and the term γεννητός with the sense of γενητός or κτιστός ; the term unbegotten , that is in the sense of uncreated , and begotten in the sense of created . Consequently the change of terminology , which Athanasius’ arguments against the Son’s having been created imposed , did not in any way change the opinions of the Arians .

The semi-Arians accepted the new terminology much more readily . The Synod held in Ancyra in 358 under Basil , bishop of that city , clearly emphasized the distinction between αγένητος as being uncreated , and αγέννητος as not begotten , but begetting .

" Creator and creature are one thing ; Father and Son are quite another " (28). Both categories of divine existence are to be found here ; that of the will through which God creates and is creator , and that of the essence through which he begets by nature , and is Father . So for them , the change of terminology meant almost full alignment with Athanasius on this question .

This alignment , however , only covered half the area . Even thought the semi-Arians abandoned the term and concept of the Son’s having been created , they did not abandon it for the Spirit , which they peristed in seeing as of another essence, ετερούσιον (29), and as an angelic creation , αγγελοειδές κτίσμα (30). Athanasius sharply refuted their views on the Spirit , and was not able to accept even a simple conjecture on its being a creature . He attributes to its procession the idea of birth , because it also proceeds from the essence of God , even though he does not specifically use this word ; even though he does not specifically call him God , or ομοούσιον with the Father . The reserve is due exclusively to the desire to avoid any new pretext for conflict , and to find means of making a rapprochement with the semi-Arians .

What is said , however , about the Spirit covers the full extent of its divinity . If it is unique and united with the Father , it is unquestionably divine and if it is uncreated it is true God . To say that the Spirit is uncreated is to say everything about it , because anything that is uncreated is essentially God. On the other hand , when something is named God , it is not neccessarilly uncreated , because the word god is also used to describe the possession of divinity by participation , and in other cases as well (31). Consequently it is a more exalted description to call the Spirit uncreated than to call him god .

This terminology of Athanasius is connected on the one hand with the Trinitarian doctrine , and on the other with the religious practice of Christians .

The Trinitarian doctrine is a concept of the divine that is innate in Christianity , because right from its first emergence it was based on faith in a triad of divine persons . Certainly , ever since , attempts have been made to interpret the Trinity as an imaginary state , but in the fourth century , when Monarchianism of the Sabellian kind had been fully superceded , Christian Theologians generally wrote along the lines of Trinitarian theology , as moreover did the Neo-Platonic theologians at exactly this time , by way of imitation .

Yet while the Trinitarian doctrine based on Logos-Christology included an element of subordination , which was the basis of the doctrine of Arianism ,Athanasius left this stage behind , although he did not abandon the world Logos .

He did not accept identity of the Divine Persons , but identity of the essence of the Persons . Each of them as uncreated possesses the entirety of the divine nature , and is God , but as far as the internal relations are concerned , Athanasius preseves the divided state within the Trinity . On the other hand he did not accept diversity of nature . Internally , the Trinity is not unlike , or of diverse nature (32), but is composed of uncreated beings identical in nature and essence . It is therefore not possible to accept the divinity of the Father and to regard the Son and the Spirit as creatures , nor can one accept the divinity of the Father and the Son , and regard the Spirit as a creature . Within the Trinity , nothing alien is mingled with its essence . “Ου γαρ αλλότριον επιμίγνυται τη Τριάδι ” (33). If Logos and the Spirit were creatures , they would be subject to time , and if they were not without beginning , the Triad would depend upon time , it would be an economic Trinity (34).

Further , the redemption and rebirth of mankind generally , and of each person individually is caused by the Trinity acting as a whole , but also by the persons of the Trinity acting individually . How would man be made divine if the Logos were not God , if mankind had been linked , by the incarnation of the Logos , to the creature ? How would man be brought to the Father , if the one that put on a body were not himself the true Son by nature ? (35) How should we become communicants in the Divine Nature , with the sharing in the Spirit , if the latter were a created nature , and not God? (36) Baptism , pronounced in the name not only of the Father , but also of the Son and the Spirit , would have no value if it were given in the name of creatures . It was these pragmatic considerations , far more than any reflections which led Athanasius to impart a polemical tone to his theology .


1. Cf. I. KALOGIROU, “ Το τριαδολογικόν δόγμα κατά τον δ’ αιώνα ”, Επετηρίς Θεολογικής Σχολής Πανεπιστημίου Θεσσαλονίκης 13 ( 1968 ) , 299 .

2. Letters to Serapion I , 17 .

3. “ εξ ουκ όντων ” “ην ποτέ ότε ουκ ην ” “ τρεπτής φύσεως ” “ κτίσμα ” “ ποίημα ”. Cf . I . KARMIRIS , Τα δογματικά και συμβολικά μνημεία της Ορθοδόξου Καθολικής Εκκλησίας , V . I Athens 1960 , pp. 57 ff.

4. Contra Arianos I ,34 “Το αγένητον παρ’ Ελλήνων είρηται , των μη γινωσκόντων Θεόν ”. Because they do not know God , they are not able to speak about a Father and speak about an unoriginated Being .

5. Timaeus 52a , “ Εν μεν είναι το κατά ταυτά είδος έχον , άγένητον και ανώλεθρον ... το δε δεύτερον αισθητόν , γενητόν ... γιγνόμενόν τε εν τινί τόπω και πάλιν απολλύμενον ”. 27d , “τι το ον αεί , γένεσιν δε ουκ έχον , και το γιγνόμενον μεν αεί , ον δε ουδέποτε ”. Cf . Phaedruos 245d , on the world soul , “επειδή αγένητόν εστί και αδιάφθορον ανάγκη είναι ”.

6. “ Λέγω δ’ ύλην η καθ’ εαυτήν μήτε τι μήτε ποσόν , μήτε άλλο μηδέν λέγεται , οις ώρισται το ον ” , ARISTOTLE , Metaphys. XXIII 1029 a.

7. Contra Arianos I , 30-33 .

8. “ Το αγένητον άρα ου δια τον Υιόν αλλά δια τα δι Υιού γενόμενα σημαίνεται και καλώς , ότι ουκ έστιν ως τα γενητά ο Θεός ” ,Contra Arianos I 33 .

9. Letters to Serapion I , 9 .

10. Contra Arianos I ,35 , “ άτρεπτος και αναλλοίωτος και αεί ωσαύτως έχει ” .

11. Ibid , I , 36 .

12. Ibid , I , 20 .

13. De Incarnatione 4 “ η γαρ παράβασις της εντολής εις το κατά φύσιν αυτούς επέστρεψεν” “ έστιν μεν κατά φύσιν άνθρωπος θνητός , άτε δη εξ ουκ όντων γεγονός ” .

14. Ibid , 4 , “ δια δε την προς τα όντα ομοιότητα , ην ει εφύλαττε δια της προς αυτόν κατανοήσεως , ήμβλυκεν αν την κατά φύσιν φθοράν και έμεινεν άφθαρτος ” .

15. “ Εκ του θελήματος του Πατρός εγεννήθη ” , MANSI , Sanct. Cocil. Coll. , IX , 525 as quoted by Justinian .

16. “ Προ των χρόνων και προ των αιώνων ” , Letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia,EPIPHANIUS , Panarion , LXIX , 6 ,and THEODORETUS , Hist. Eccl. I, 4 , 63.

17. “ Πάντων γενομένων εξ ουκ όντων και πάντων όντων κτισμάτων και ποιημάτων γενομένων , και αυτός ο του Θεού Λόγος εξ ουκ όντων γέγονε και ην ποτέ ότε ουκ ην και ουκ ην πριν γένηται αλλ’ αρχήν του κτίζεσθαι έσχε και αυτός ” , Contra Arianos I , 5 .

18. Cf . I. KALOGIROU , “ Το τριαδολογικόν δόγμα κατά τον δ΄ αιώνα ” , pp. 287 ff.

19. “ υπεραναβέβηκε της βουλήσεως το πεφυκέναι ” , Contra Arianos , II, 2 .

20. G . FLOROVSKY , “ The Concept of Creation in St. Athanasius ” , Studia Patristica V ( 1961 ) , 56 ff.

21. Contra Arianos III , 61 , “ τα μεν γαρ μη όντα ποτέ , αλλ’ έξωθεν επιγινόμενα ο δημιουργός βουλεύεται ποιήσαι , τον δε ίδιον Λόγον εξ αυτού φύσει γεννώμενον ου προβουλεύεται ” .

22. G . FLOROVSKY , “ The Concept of Creation in St. Athanasius ” , p. 47 .

23. “ Ο του Θεού Λόγος ου δι’ ημάς γέγονεν, αλλά μάλλον ημείς δι’ αυτού γεγόναμεν και εν αυτώ εκτίσθη τα πάντα , ουδέ δια την ημών ασθένειαν ούτος , ων δυνατός , υπό μόνου του Πατρός γέγονεν , ιν’ ημάς δι’ αυτού ως δι’ οργάνου δημιουργήση , μη γένοιτο , ουκ έστιν ούτω . Και γαρ , ει και δόξαν ην τω Θεώ μη ποιήσαι τα γενητά, αλλ’ ην ουδέν ήττον ο Λόγος προς τον Θεόν και εν αυτώ ην ο Πατήρ. Τα μέντοι γενητά αδύνατον ην χωρίς του Λόγου γένεσθαι , ούτω γαρ και γέγονεν δι’ αυτού και εκτίσθη ” .

24. Contra Gentes 41 .

25. De Incarnatione 17 , εκτός μεν έστιν του παντός κατ’ ουσίαν , εν πάσι δε έστι ταις εαυτού δυνάμεσιν .

26. Letters to Serapion I , 27 , “ και ουκ άδηλον , ότι ουκ έστι των πολλών το Πνεύμα , αλλ’ ουδέ άγγελος , αλλ’ εν ον , μάλλον δε του Λόγου ενός όντος ίδιον , και του Θεού , ενός όντος, και ομοούσιόν εστι ”

27. “ Αν τε γαρ αγέννητος , ουχ Υιός , αν τε Υιός , ουχ αγέννητος ” , EUNOMIOS ,Apologia II

28. “ Άλλο κτίστης και κτίσμα , άλλο Πατήρ και Υιός ” , EPIPHANIUS , Panarion , 7 , 3 .

29. The Tropicists in Egypt , cf . ATHANASIUS , Letters to Serapion I , 2 .

30. Macedonius , SOCRATES ,Hist . Eccles . II , 45 .

31. Letters to Serapion II, 4 , “ ει δε και θεοί τινές εκκλήθησαν , ου τη φύσει αλλά τη μετανοία του Υιού ” .

32. Ibid I , 20 .

33. Ibid I , 27 .

34. I KALOGIROU , “ Το Τριαδολογικόν δόγμα κατά τον δ’ αιώνα ” , p . 298 .

35. Contra Arianos II , 70 “ Ουκ αν δε πάλιν εθεοποιήθη κτίσματι συναφθείς ο άνθρωπος , ει μη Θεός ην ο Υιός , και ουκ αν πάρεστη τω Πατρί ο άνθρωπος , ει μη φύσει αληθινός ην αυτού ο Λόγος ο ενδυσάμενος το σώμα ”.

36. Letters to Serapion I , 24 “ Ει δε τη του Πνεύματος μετουσία γινόμεθα κοινωνοί θείας φύσεως , μαίνοιτ’ αν τις λέγων το Πνεύμα της κτιστής φύσεως και μη της του Θεού . Δια τούτο γαρ και εν οις γίνεται , ούτοι θεοποιούνται , ει δε θεοποιεί , ουκ αμφίβολον ότι η τούτου φύσις Θεού εστίν ”.

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