Athanasius as Interpreter of the Trinity: Why the Nicene Creed and Penal Substitution Are Incompatible | The Anástasis Center for Christian Education & Ministry


The Relevance of the Father-Son Relation

Athanasius’ understanding of the Father-Son relationship (1) disqualifies penal substitutionary atonement where the Son receives the punitive and retributive wrath of God; (2) questions any definition of justification in which the Father has a different experience of us than the Son and the Spirit; and (3) makes impossible a husband-wife hierarchy based on the idea that the Trinity is a hierarchy of power.

Athanasius is far from unusual in his views.  His position on the Father-Son relation was commonplace for early Christians, especially in the fourth century when the use of certain terms were stabilized by the church bishops meeting in councils.  Their understanding of the Father-Son relationship was central to their thinking.

Why is this?  Athanasius was a zealous defender against anything he considered to be ‘Arian.’  The theologies of the various camps Athanasius considered to be ‘Arian’ had in common an aversion to naming the Son as fully divine and equal to the Father.  But is penal substitution, by implication, ‘Arian’?  If we restrict the significance of the Nicene-Arian debates to the question of whether the Son is as divine as the Father, then I suppose the answer would be, ‘No, not in that narrow, technical sense.’

Interestingly enough, the Arian methodology of reasoning from human experience and projecting it onto the divine is present in penal substitution.  The Arians argued that the human experience of being a man then becoming a father should be read into the meaning of the Father-Son relationship:  God produced His Son and then became a Father at a certain point in time.  Athanasius and others flatly rejected that as not only wrong, but projected from human experience.  In the penal substitution framework, people reason from our human experience that separation and distance from any parent or authority figure is a fitting punishment for wrongdoing, like being sent to your room, or sent to prison.  You want to get out, and be reunited on good terms with the authority figure, but you cannot, since they are punishing you.  Then they project that meaning onto the cross, as if Jesus experienced that as well.  But this interpretation depends on a shallow understanding of the biblical texts and a distorted understanding of the Father-Son relationship.

The Father-Son Relation in Penal Substitution

Penal substitution rests on critical assumptions about the Father-Son relation that Athanasius, as we will see below, would explicitly reject as being unbiblical.  In addition, the great Alexandrian theologian would argue that the word ‘homoousios’ in the Nicene Creed itself foreclosed long ago on the possibility of penal substitution or defining the Trinity as a hierarchy of power.  Given that Athanasius was a leading architect, and the most vigorous defender, of the creed of Nicaea, this is a subject of great importance.

Athanasius’ understanding of the Father-Son relation differs subtly but markedly from Augustine’s.  And since Augustine is often credited with being the foremost influence in Western, Latin Christianity, from which Roman Catholicism and Protestantism flow, it is worth noting here that Augustine’s conception of the Trinity is one of the many building blocks that made penal substitution possible.  Augustine did not himself believe in penal substitution,[1] which must be the topic of another exploration.  By contrast, Athanasius’ view of the Trinity, and that of the Cappadocians and the Eastern Greek church, prevents any variety of the doctrine of penal substitution.

Augustine vs. Athanasius on the Trinity

Peter Leithart notes with considerable sensitivity and skill how Augustine’s understanding of the Trinity differs from Athanasius’.  To explain why, Leithart explains that Augustine imagined that the Father had his own wisdom, the Son had his own wisdom, and the Spirit had his own wisdom.  The Father had his own power, the Son had his own power, and the Spirit had his own power.  And so on.  Augustine therefore suggests that the term ousia be understood as a divine substance, or collection of divine characteristics, which each person of the Trinity possessed in some measure, exhaustively.  Leithart notes:

‘…But the way Augustine finally interprets 1 Corinthians 1:24 suggests that the Father has attributes that are more proper than the Son, more intrinsic to the being of the Father than his being Father.  Perhaps this is where the criticisms leveled against Augustine hit home, particularly the criticism that he privileges the one essence over the persons.  Saying that the Father has ‘his own’ wisdom is not exactly ‘privileging’ unity over plurality, but Augustine leaves open the possibility that the Father has some surplus goodness left over that is not exhaustively poured out in the Son, that is not wholly expressed in his being Father…

Athanasius points, I think, in another direction, a path towards cognitive rest, if not ‘resolution.’  He insists that the Father’s wisdom simply is the Son, as is his power.  This might be taken in two ways.  On one view, the Father truly is nothing without the Son.  Of course, since the Son is begotten of the Father, the Son is nothing without the Father either.  Of course, too, the Father never has been without the Son, who is his own Word, ‘proper’ to his essence, so the Father has never been without his power, wisdom, goodness, being.  Yet the Father’s attributes are utterly dependent on the existence of the Son and are realized in the Son, just as much as the sun is realized and is light because of the radiance that supplements it.  On this interpretation, God is radically dependent internally.  I am before I am a father; I am apart from at least some of my human relations; I am more than my fatherhood.  The heavenly Father is not before or apart from being Father; the person Paul calls ‘God’ is not God except as he is Father of the Son.  On another interpretation, Athanasius is saying that the Father has ‘his own’ wisdom, but that wisdom is paternal wisdom, which means wisdom that exists in the Father (ad se) only as it is the wisdom poured out for and manifest in the Son.  The Son too has ‘his own’ wisdom, but has that wisdom only as receptive wisdom, received eternally from the Father.  Each of the persons shares all the same attributes, and these attributes are their ‘own,’ but these attributes are ‘inflected’ relationally, ‘held’ by each person distinctly as a person.  All the Father’s attributes are inflected paternally, the Son’s filially, the Spirit’s spiritually.

Augustine would agree that there is not the slightest sliver of space between the Father and the Son, just as he would not allow the slightest sliver of space between the Father and his attributes.  But for Athanasius, those two statements are identical:  there is not the slightest sliver of space between the Father and his attributes because he has all that he has in the Son, who is proper to his essence.  Augustine believes as strongly as Athanasius in an eternal radiance from the light of the Father.  Yet Augustine is still capable of conceiving an unsupplemented origin: the Father ‘in himself’ having attributes ‘in himself,’ the light without radiance, the fountain without the stream.  Augustine seems to leave a small crack open for thinking that the Father has something that is ‘his own,’ something that appears more intimate and intrinsic to his being than the Son.  Athanasius will have none of this, and so he is more radically trinitarian, because he does not envision any glimmer of life for the Father that is not realized in the Son.  In slight but significant contrast to Augustine, he sees that the Scriptures entail the conclusion that ‘the Son is the Father’s All; and nothing was in the Father before the Word (Discourses 3.67, emphasis added).  For the Father, too, it is all about the Son, all about the eternal Word that became flesh.’[2]

The problem for penal substitution advocates is immediate:  If the Son is the Power of the Father, then what Power is there from which the Father judges or punishes the Son?  If the Son is from the proper Essence and inherits all the Father is except the Father’s divine personhood, then what leverage point is there from which the Father can exercise power upon the Son?

Quoting from Peter Leithart has the additional benefit, for my purpose, of providing my readers with an example of a penal substitution advocate who respects Athanasius enough to be an honest scholar.  Leithart is an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church of America, and a minister in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches, which holds to Calvinist doctrine such as the Westminster Confession.

Penal Substitution, Forensic Justification, and the Trinity

In addition, the Lutheran-Calvinist definition of ‘justification,’ since it rests on top of the conceptual structure of penal substitutionary atonement, seems to maintain the divide between the Father and the other two persons of the Trinity.  In this understanding, the Father ‘reckons,’ ‘regards,’ or ‘perceives’ us as blameless ‘behind’ the Son who exhausted the divine wrath, who was a legal substitute for our judicial penalty.  Moreover, the Father ‘reckons,’ ‘regards,’ or ‘perceives’ us as having the righteousness of the Son credited to us in a legal and meritorious sense.  However, the Spirit, who is within believers, ‘knows’ us as weak and weighed down by sin so much that he groans (Romans 8:26 – 27).  Does the Father ‘know’ us in the same way that the Spirit and the Son do?  And if the Son is the Wisdom of the Father, then can the mind of God be divided such that the Father ‘knows’ us as perfectly innocent behind the legal innocence of Jesus imputed to the believer?

In his comprehensive recounting of the Nicene period, Lewis Ayres concisely points out how pro-Nicene theologians like Athanasius insist that the Father, Son, and Spirit know us and act towards the creation inseparably, in union with one another:

‘It is at this point that we must return to the principle of inseparable operation.  Inseparable operation sets bounds to how we envisage the persons… It is true that pro-Nicenes do intend to place restrictions on the way that we imagine the unity of God.  Most clearly, if we were to imagine God as three potentially separable agents or three ‘centres of consciousness’ the contents of whose ‘minds’ were distinct, pro-Nicenes would see us as drawing inappropriate analogies between God and created realities and in serious heresy.’[3]

Yet separate operations are precisely what penal substitution requires.  In atonement, God the Father must have some ‘power’ of his own, which is then directed at the Son and against/upon the Son, in wrath and judgment against his personhood.  Who punished Jesus?  Perhaps the dominant variant of penal substitution says that the Father punished Jesus, who stood in our place as in instead of us.  It should be noted, by way of explanation, that this is the most logical way of speaking of the punitive mechanism.  If God’s wrath is personal, and directed at the personhood of human beings, then the gravitational pull of penal substitution theory draws its adherents to the conclusion that God the Father punishes God the Son with some kind of divine, retributive torment.  They maintain this because God’s wrath must have a personal origin, presumably in one of the persons of the Trinity.  So too, God’s wrath must have a personal destination, which is invariably the Son, who substitutes himself in personally so we would not be punished personally.  They claim this despite the fact that nowhere in the New Testament is the Greek word for ‘punish’ (kolazo) used to describe an event at any time during the Father-Son relationship.[4]

Some adherents of penal substitution formulate the mechanism of punishment whereby divine attributes (wrath) are not identified with divine persons (the Father).  Nevertheless, in this modified schema, God as a whole must still have some ‘power’ of God’s own which operates separately from the Son in principle, in order to be directed at the Son, and wielded upon him.  The modification, therefore, still runs afoul of the Nicene conviction that the three divine persons of the Trinity do not operate separately.  Moreover, the modification seems to fold under the parallel logical insistence that divine wrath be personal; the nuance seems to evaporate; and the Father is once again assigned the attribute of divine wrath.

In any case, God the Son must have a ‘mind’ of his own, separately from the Father and the Spirit, for Jesus to mentally experience the Father’s wrath and/or separation for the punitive atonement to have any meaning.  That is, the non-Nicene principle of separate operations must be true of ‘mind,’ if not ‘wisdom’ categorically:  the Father appears to be the person of the Trinity whose perception of us constitutes our ‘justification.’  Athanasius would not support this view.

Athanasius’ Understanding of the Father-Son Relation

Leithart makes these further remarks about these ‘Western’ Augustinian and ‘Eastern’ Athanasian views of the Trinity by voicing his appreciation of Athanasius:

‘But I believe another Athanasian insight is more fruitful.  Above, I suggested that Athanasius’ trinitarian theology is more radically trinitarian than that of Augustine, since the latter appears to leave space to consider the Father ‘in himself,’ not sheerly as Father of the Son.  To use Athanasius’ terminology, Augustine does not grasp as clearly as Athanasius that the Son is ‘proper’ to the Father, as intimate and intrinsic to the Father’s being as any wisdom of power the Father could call his ‘own.’  Augustine finds it nonsensical to say that the Father can beget his own wisdom, unless he has some prior wisdom of his own to confer.  But that, it seems, is to fall into an Arian paradigm, and to run into Athanasius’ critique of the ‘double wisdom’ of Asterius.  If the Father has ‘his own’ wisdom, which is eternally conferred on the Son, which is then also his Wisdom, then we are multiplying Wisdoms.  That will not do.  God is one, and his Wisdom must be one.’[5]

Does Athanasius have the more correct interpretation of 1 Corinthians 1:24 and other biblical insights about the Father-Son relation?  I believe so.  To be sure, Athanasius gives us a way to understand the ‘Father-Son’ language around the biblical idea of bestowing an inheritance:  the Father gives all of who he is to the Son.  Athanasius often quotes from Jesus’ Father-Son discourse in John 5 (especially v.19 – 30), the Good Shepherd discourse in John 10 (especially v.30), and the Upper Room discourse in John 14 and 17 to support this understanding.  He draws upon John 1:1 – 3 and Colossians 1:15 – 17 as anchor texts.  Hebrews 1:1 – 3 also occurs frequently in Athanasius’ exposition of the Father-Son relation, and Matthew 11:25 – 27 and Luke 10:21 – 22 are drawn in for support.  A noteworthy sermon by Athanasius on Luke 10:22/Matthew 11:27 is extant.

Jesus’ statements in John 5:19 – 30 are especially pertinent to my topic here.  Jesus declares that, in relation to the Father, the Son acts in two ways.  First, the Son does what the Father does (Jn.5:19 – 21).  The Son acts in tandem with the Father, in perfect partnership with the Father.  Second, the Son acts on behalf of the Father, because the Father has given him certain things to do (Jn.5:22 – 30).  In particular, the Son judges, speaks, and speaks with authority to judge.  ‘The Father judges no one’ says Jesus, and one might add for clarification, not even the Son.  In medical substitutionary atonement, this perfect partnership and perfect representation of the Father by the Son fits quite well.  The Son personally judges the corruption of sin within himself, because (1) the Father does it in tandem with the Son and (2) the Son executes all judgment because the Father entrusted all judgment to him.  Medical substitution respects the principle of unified operations of the persons of the Trinity, which would seem to be the point of John 5:19 – 30.  But in penal substitution, by contrast, the Son must be the recipient of divine judgment from outside of himself.  This requires that we wedge a very significant exception into Jesus’ explanation of his relation to the Father.  The Father judges no one, says Jesus.  But some divine person must personally judge the Son.  Who else but the Father?

Athanasius, John’s Gospel, and the Rest of the New Testament

John’s Gospel is important to Athanasius and to the Nicene Creed because there is a very real sense in which the Nicene Creed is the fruit of the ministry of John the apostle.  John consciously wrote against the gnostic heresy(-ies).  Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written primarily to explain how Jesus fulfilled the Hebrew Scriptures.  John, by comparison, wrote to engage the Greek Hellenistic world which divided heaven and earth, spirit and matter, and then soul and body.  John’s Gospel became extremely important to the church when it faced the most insidious and dangerous expression of that division, the division between Father and Son that was expressed by Arius.  In simplistic terms, Arius thought that the Father was truly God and truly divine, and that the Son was a created being, not fully God and not fully divine.

While maintaining the concern to anchor our interpretation of Jesus with the Hebrew Scriptures, John put to writing Jesus’ discussions of his inner life with the Father.  He stressed the unity of the Father-Son relationship, both in its functional dimension and its ontological dimension.  The Father and the Son mutually indwell each other (Jn.14:9 – 11).  The Father did not turn away from the Son at the cross (Jn.8:28 – 29; 16:32).  The relationship between the Father and the Son is a relationship of unbroken love (Jn.5:20; 6:27; 10:17; 15:9 – 10; 17:20 – 26).  From the writings of John, because there is no way that the Father could or would turn against, or away from, the Son, there can be no possibility of penal substitution.

Penal substitution advocates might raise the very good question of Matthew and Mark narrating Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  This leads some towards an eclectic position about the Father-Son relationship, and about the four Gospels as a whole.  Some believe that we must ‘hold in tension’ John with Matthew and Mark.

This excellent question is the subject of the next series of blog posts.  Suffice to say here that David, the original human author of Psalm 22, during his pre-enthronement period when he was rejected and hunted by the reigning powers, was registering a complaint.  David complained to God of feeling horizontally forsaken to enemies, but not vertically forsaken by God in some absolute sense.  He had not lost the anointing of the Holy Spirit by which God anointed him to be king.  And even in Psalm 22 itself, he expressed an awareness of the Father’s love and favor.  Likewise, Jesus quoted this song of David to identify himself as the greatest heir of David, who was retelling, repeating, and filling to the full David’s story.  That included experiencing a greater rejection and suffering at the hands of enemies than David himself.  But Jesus never lost his anointing of the Holy Spirit to be king.  In fact, as we will see, Jesus quoted Psalm 22 in order to make the claim that he was ascending, like David had, towards his enthronement.  Therefore, a proper interpretation of Matthew and Mark (Luke does not include the quote) yields the conclusion that the Father never turned against or away from the Son, which is what John tells us.

Taking that one step further, we do not even have to ‘hold in tension’ John with Matthew and Mark.  Why not?  Because there is no tension.  There is no ambiguity about the Father-Son relationship between the four Gospels, and across them.  John’s portrayal may be more straightforward.  But he says nothing more or less than what Matthew, Mark, and Luke would say:  The Father never turned against, or away from, the Son, even at the point of the cross.

Functionally setting aside John’s Gospel leads to the intrusion of a thought that is absolutely foreign to Christian faith:  the idea that a separation opened up between the Father and the Son.  That foreign intrusion tends to lead to characterizing God as if He uses relational abandonment and/or retributive justice in His toolbox of relational strategies with people.  That tends to lead to assigning retributive justice into the divine character on a plane equal to divine love.  That tends to be connected with reading Matthew and Mark, since they narrate Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 22 from the cross, as if he were complaining about a hellish rupture that the Father had just opened up between them, at the point of his most dire need.  That also tends to lead to reading the apostle Paul as saying God can only accept us if there were a rupture in the Father-Son relationship.  That, in turn, tends to lead to reading the Old Testament as if God was relating to Israel through retributive justice as the uppermost principle.  And that tends to lead straight on to a view of hell.  What is hell, in this framework rooted in the distancing of persons?  Relational abandonment and/or retributive justice.  But many Christians would like to maintain that God is love – that His nature is love.  Yet why would a loving God keep repentant people in a prison forever when they want to get out and be with Him?  It is very difficult, if not impossible, to explain how, in this framework, and with that relational dynamic, an eternity in hell is God’s expression of love for them.

Thank God that the united church believed in a very different view of hell for over a thousand years, a view still held by Orthodox, Catholic, and some Protestants today.  All due to the Nicene Creed and a fair reading of John.  God does not use distancing, abandoning, or inflicting pain for retaliation’s sake.

Athanasius, John’s Gospel, and Atonement

Suffice to say here, therefore, that I believe in Athanasius’ Contra Arianos we have enough evidence to accomplish a much more specific goal.  I believe Athanasius’ early two volume work Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione, and especially his dogmatic works Contra Arianos, discredits the claim of any penal substitution supporter who seeks to enlist the bishop of Alexandria to their cause.  Scholarship on the fourth century and the Christian development of dogma and creeds also raises the very searching question of whether the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 and the word homoousion negate very critical assumptions about the Father-Son relation made by many members of the Lutheran and Calvinist traditions.  Anyone asking these questions must pass through the fire of Athanasius’ theological thought.

Looking towards an examination of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds of 325 and 381 AD, we can begin to ask a related question.  Do those earliest and greatest Creeds of the church foreclose the possibility of penal substitution?  The word homoousion, which means ‘same in being,’ was applied to the relationship between the Father and the Son in a certain way and for a certain purpose.  It rejected the idea that the Son shared ‘attributes equal to the Father’s attributes,’ or had ‘stuff in common’ with the Father.  Thus, penal substitution is excluded on the grounds of the Nicene Creed itself.  And that would be quite an obstacle to overcome.

More blog posts to come on Athanasius as Interpreter of the Trinity and how this topic is still relevant today.


[1] Stanley P. Rosenberg, ‘Interpreting Atonement in Augustine’s Preaching’, edited by Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James, The Glory of the Atonement (Downers’ Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2004), p.233 – 238.  It is notable that the editors of this book wanted to honor Dr. Roger Nicole, an American evangelical theologian, who upheld the penal substitution view.  Rosenberg, however, recognizes that Augustine cannot be pressed into this editorial purpose.

[2] Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), p.75 – 77 also describes the impact of Augustine’s version of the Trinity on Thomas Aquinas and other western theologians:  ‘We can see how the pressure of this argument led Thomas and others to conclude that the persons simply are their relations, top-to-bottom:  the Father is Father all the way down, the Son is simply and sheerly Son.’

[3] Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p.296

[4] So noted by T.F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), p.72.  I appreciate Torrance’s work deeply, although one criticism is he does not establish the distinction between our personhood and the corruption of sin within our human nature.

[5] Leithart, p.86



6 Comments Add yours

  1. You always get me to stay up too late trying to finish these wonderfully crafted essays! As usual, I don’t always agree with your premises or conclusions (though I do more often than not!), but you invariably deeply challenge me to think deeply on the subject and I always profit from engaging with what you have to say.


  2. makonagasawa says:

    Thanks for reading, David! I’m honored by the time you invest in it.


  3. josiahmacrae says:

    Excellent work! Well written too! I’m doing research on Isaiah 53, and the LXX/MT differences in translation and how they relate to atonement theology. I’m particularly interested in the medical/therapeutic interpretation of Isaiah 53 and how this view might be found in the Early Church. Any recommendations for sources to start with? Thank you! God Bless.


    1. makonagasawa says:

      Thanks Josiah. Yes, Isaiah 53 is a major question when it comes to atonement. My stuff on Scripture in general is found here: The first group of posts is Isaiah 53 ( And probably the one you’d be most interested in is this one: Please post comments there and let me know if it’s helpful to you.

      Liked by 1 person

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