The Trinity and the Divine Attributes: Athanasius on Omnipresence

When I was a teenager I first tried to read a Systematic Theology. I got bogged down in a seemingly never ending few chapters on the divine attributes and paused my reading attempt until the next summer. Ever since then I suppose I’ve had a ‘complicated’ relationship with this one particular area of theology. It’s not that the attributes are unimportant or that the character of God is uninteresting. It’s more that we have a terrible tendency to take what should be interesting and exciting and make it, well, not.

You see, as Dorothy Sayers famously pointed out, ‘the dogma is the drama.’ In other words, Christian doctrine isn’t a series of abstractions or ‘timeless truths’, but rather it is the drama of redemption. We, on the other hand, have a wonderful propensity to turn this thrilling story into a series of dull bullet points and impenetrable philosophical discussions. And perhaps this is seen nowhere so clearly as in the doctrine of the divine attributes, for this is where we have a terrible tendency to lose sight not only of the drama but also of the very identity of the God of whom we speak.

You see, the God we’re speaking of in Christian theology is the Triune God. But how often does the Trinity bear any impact on our thinking concerning the divine attributes? Shockingly, some evangelical systematic theologies even count Trinity among the attributes, as if God’s very being as the Father eternally loving His Son in the joy of the Spirit were somehow the same sort of thing as omnipotence.

So, what we all too often end up with is a division between thinking about the One God – about whom we think in terms of the divine attributes – and thinking about the Trinity (which usually gets tacked on at the end after copious amounts of discussion of the attributes of the One God!).

But the One God is the Triune God. That’s who He is. That’s His very identity. So the attributes of the One God are, strictly speaking, the attributes of the Three. And when we think of the attributes in Trinitarian terms perhaps they will be brought back into the drama of the dogma and rescued from the realms of philosophical speculations and bullet points.

Which brings me to Athanasius. We need to relearn how to think of the attributes Trinitarianly, and perhaps the great Athanasius can help us with that. Let’s take omnipresence as an example attribute (because that’s the one I’m going to point to in Athanasius!). We tend to think something like this:

God is omnipresent --> The Holy Spirit is God --> Therefore the Holy Spirit is omnipresent.

But how does Athanasius think about the omnipresence of the Son and the Spirit? Does he follow such an argument as we probably would? Not at all! For Athanasius, if you’re going to think about the omnipresence of the Son or the Spirit, you have to think about how they relate to the Father! The attributes can only be understood in light of the Trinity.

So, for Athanasius, the Son isn’t omnipresent because He’s in every place. No – the Son is omnipresent because He is in the Father. And the Spirit? Well, He’s omnipresent because He’s in the Son.

Here’s what Athanasius had to say in his own words:
So the Son is everywhere. Because he is in the Father and the Father in him, he rules and holds all things together … But if the Son is everywhere because he is not in places assigned to him but in the Father, and if he is not a creature because he is outside of all things, then it cannot follow that the Spirit is a creature, because he is not in places assigned to him but fills all things and is outside of all things … For he is not in a place but outside all things and in the Son, as the Son is in the Father. (Athanasius, Letters to Serapion on the Holy Spirit, 2.13.2-3)
You see – omnipresence, for Athanasius, isn’t about a philosophical description of ‘the One God’, but rather it’s rooted in the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Omnipresence doesn’t define the identity of God, rather it points us to God’s true identity in the loving inter-relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This might not solve all our problems of non-Trinitarian thinking about the divine attributes, but at least Athanasius gives us somewhere to start!