It is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate.
As a child, I used to have an almost physical reaction to the word God. To me, it was a sharp-edged word that cut through all others. When it was spoken, I felt both searched and unsettled. Now, I knew enough to understand why the uttering of that word should make me feel searched. God, I realized, was high and holy; I was not.
But why was I unsettled? That question would pester me for years. It wasn’t merely that God transcended me. It wasn’t only his dazzling perfection. I had only the dimmest appreciation of those realities. What I couldn’t quite express at the time was that God in his glory was not then beautiful to me. His holiness troubled me, not just because it exposed me, but because I did not clearly see him as good.
And so, I found myself interested in heaven, interested in salvation, even interested in Jesus, but not attracted to God. I longed to escape hell and go to heaven, but God’s presence was not the inducement. Quite the opposite: I would have been far more comfortable with a Godless paradise. At the same time, I loved the idea of justification by faith alone, but couldn’t quite believe it — for, quite simply, God did not strike me as being that kind.
Rescued from the Unsmiling God
I have always been an avid bibliophile, and as a teenager I began to be drawn especially to the writings of the Reformers and Puritans. And one soon stood out to me: Richard Sibbes.
The way Sibbes described the tenderness, benevolence, and sheer loveliness of Jesus was utterly enthralling. And I knew he was right. Yet it didn’t compute. How could the Son of God be so beautiful when God was not? It could only be, I dimly reasoned, that the kindness of the Son was but window dressing. Jesus was the lovely facade behind which lurked a more saturnine being: an unsmiling God, thinner on compassion and kindness.
Perhaps it was unsurprising then that I soon found myself surrounded by books about the Arians, that fourth-century group who held that the Son was a different being from the Father. Then I met Athanasius. Where the other writers struck me as dull, he had a twinkle in his eye and a mind that saw with a clarity none of the others had. It was as if he lived in some sunny upland, free of the fog that clouds more mundane intellects. One sentence of his tugged at me:
It is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate. (Against the Arians, 1.34)
It doesn’t immediately pop out from the page. For me, it started out more like a pebble in a shoe. It niggled. But the more it niggled, the more I came to see it as the jewel in the crown of Athanasius’s thought, and the most mind-bending sentence ever written outside Scripture.
God Who Is Father
Athanasius’s point was that the right way to think about God is to start with Jesus Christ, the Son of God. “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). He is the Word and revelation of God. Our thinking about God cannot start with some abstract definition of our own devising. It cannot start even by thinking of God first and foremost as Creator (naming him “from His works only”). For if God’s essential identity is to be the Creator, then he needs a creation in order to be who he is.
“Athanasius showed this struggling, God-wary sinner that there is no God in heaven who is unlike Jesus.”
We cannot come to a true knowledge of who God is in himself simply by looking at him as Creator. We must listen to how he has revealed himself — and he has revealed himself in his Son. Through the Son, we see behind creation into the eternal and essential identity of God. Through the Son we see a God we never could have imagined: a God who is a Father.
If we try to know God “from His works only,” we will not sense that Fatherliness of God. God’s kindness seen in Christ will seem like something extraneous and not truly characteristic of him. If our thoughts about God are based on something other than the Son, we will have to assume that God has none of the loveliness we see in Christ. When we think of his glory, we will imagine it as something rather like our own. We will not dare dream of the sort of glory revealed in “the hour” of his glorification on the cross (John 12:23, 27–28). And so we will harbor a quiet reserve about the “real” God behind that glorious self-revelation.
No God Unlike Jesus
Athanasius showed this struggling, God-wary sinner that there is no God in heaven who is unlike Jesus. In the Son of God, we see all the perfections of God blazing forth, and we see them — the love, the power, the wisdom, the justice, and the majesty of God — all defined so differently from our sinful expectations.
“God himself, made known through Christ, became the true object of my adoration.”
In the Son of God, we do not see a haughty God, reluctant to be kind. We see one who comes in saving grace while we were still sinners. In him we see a glory so different from our needy and selfish applause-seeking. We see a God of superabundant self-giving. We see a God unspotted in every way: a fountain of overflowing goodness. In him — and in him alone — we see a God who is beautiful, who wins our hearts.
It changed everything for me. It meant that instead of trying to wrestle other rewards from God and treasuring “heaven” and “eternal life” as things in themselves, I came to treasure him. God himself, made known through Christ, became the true object of my adoration. And with that, Athanasius’s sunny disposition made sense, for like him, I found in Christ a God I could truly and wonderfully enjoy.