A Distinction Between God and Matter (Athenagoras)

The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols.   -              Edited By: Alexander Roberts      I’ve mentioned the 2nd century church father Athenagoras on this blog several times before (on theology here, on violence and abortion here, and on homosexuality here).  One helpful section of his treatise called “A Plea for the Christians” is where Athenagoras defends the fact that Christians do not worship matter, but God, who is separate from matter and the Creator of it.  In today’s language, we’d say that Athenagoras was making a distinction between the Creator and the creature.

Athenagoras put it this way:

“[We] distinguish God from matter, and teach that matter is one thing and God another, and that they are separated by a wide interval.”

Many in the Roman Empire accused Christians of impiety and godlessness because they did not worship images of the gods.  Here is part of Athenagoras’ answer to the charge of impiety:

“…The the multitude [of people], who cannot distinguish between matter and God, or see how great is the interval which lies between them, pray to idols made of matter, are we therefore [[we who do distinguish and separate the uncreated and the created, that which is and that which is not, that which is apprehended by the understanding and that which is perceived by the senses, and who give the fitting name to each of them]] are we to come and worship images?

If, indeed, matter and God are the same, two names for one thing, then certainly, in not regarding stocks and stones, gold and silver, as gods, we [Christians] are guilty of impiety. But if they are at the greatest possible remove [distance] from one another – as far asunder as the artist and the materials of his art – why are we called to account [of impiety]?

For as is the potter and the clay (matter being the clay, and the artist the potter), so is God, the Framer of the world, and matter, which is subservient to Him for the purposes of His art.  But as the clay cannot become vessels of itself without art, so neither did matter, which is capable of taking all forms, receive, apart from God the Framer, distinction and shape and order. And as we do not hold the pottery of more worth than him who made it, nor the vessels or glass and gold than him who wrought them; but if there is anything about them elegant in art we praise the artificer, and it is he who reaps the glory of the vessels: even so with matter and God – the glory and honor of the orderly arrangement of the world belongs of right not to matter, but to God, the Framer of matter.

So that, if we were to regard the various forms of matter as gods, we should seem to be without any sense of the true God, because we should be putting the things which are dissoluble and perishable on a level with that which is eternal.”

This is obviously part of a larger apologetic argument, but I think it makes sense without the larger context.  I appreciate it because Athenagoras is defending the Christian faith by explaining the distinction between the Creator and the creature.  Many religions today are pantheistic, so Athenagoras’ defense of Christian truth still speaks today.

Athenagoras, “A Plea for the Christians,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. B. P. Pratten, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 135.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

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