In the last two posts, I explained that Arius believes the Son is created from nothing. Athanasius, for his part, denies this. As he sees it, the Son is begotten, and here, ‘begetting’ (or ‘generating’, as it’s also called) is a technical term for the natural process of procreation, as when living organisms produce offspring. For Athanasius, the Son really is a son; he’s the natural offspring of the Father.
Athanasius does not, so far as I know, ever explain exactly how he understands the process of procreation, but I think we can extract the general picture from three of his comments.
The first comment I want to highlight appears at a point where Athanasius is trying to explain why human fathers can sire many children rather than one. There, he says human fathers beget by losing a part of their substance, but they can regain what they’ve lost by eating some food, at which point they can procreate again.
Apparently, Athanasius believes that once a man has impregnated a woman, he can’t do it again until he’s had a good meal. When a man gives up his seed, he is, in effect, giving up a part of his substance, but when food is broken down and processed in the body, it replenishes the bit of substance that he’s lost, and then the man is able to give up his seed again.
Now, I don’t know what Athanasius means here when he talks about a father’s ‘substance’. The Greek word he uses is ousia, and that of course is a very vague term. Maybe Athanasius has something material in mind; after all, he says it can be replenished by food. On the other hand, maybe he is thinking that it’s an individualized human nature that gets repeated in each child. But these are just guesses. Athanasius does not, so far as I know, ever say just what he means here, so I’m going to retain the ambiguity of ousia by continuing to use the equally vague English term ‘substance’.
In any case, the point to glean from this is that for Athanasius, fathers give a part of their substance to their children. To capture this idea, Athanasius often uses the metaphor of light radiating out of the sun, or water flowing out of a fountain. As Athanasius might put it then, a son ‘comes out of’ or ‘is produced from’ his father’s substance.
The second comment to note about procreation is this: Athanasius often says that creatures and works of art are produced ‘externally’, while sons are produced ‘internally’. Works of art are produced ‘externally’ from other materials, and creatures are produced ‘externally’ from nothing at all. But sons are produced ‘internally’ from their father’s substance.
I think the point here is that the bit of substance a son gets from his father counts as a pre-existing ingredient (in my sense of the word). Thus, when a father gives his seed to a woman, that bit of his substance then becomes one of the ingredients that go into forming a zygote in the mother’s womb.
That’s why sons don’t count as creatures. A son is produced with at least one pre-existing ingredient, namely a bit of his father’s substance, and so a son is not created from nothing.
Third, Athanasius often says that when a father procreates, he produces something that’s the same kind of thing as himself. Creators and artists, on the other hand, make things that are different in kind. And the reason is that sons come from their father’s substance, while creatures and works of art do not.
What I gather here is that however else we want to characterize the bit of substance a human zygote gets from the father’s seed, that bit of substance includes a human nature. That is, it provides the zygote with all the properties it needs in order to be (or develop into) a member of human kind. Thus, human children quite literally get their human natures from their fathers.
This is not so for creatures and works of art. God created Adam, but he did not give Adam his divine nature. Michaelangelo sculpted the David statue, but he did not give the statue a human nature. (Of course, creators and artists can give their image or likeness to a product, but that’s not the same thing as giving it their kind-nature.)
So that’s the basic model of procreation that Athanasius seems to have in mind. In the next post, I’ll look at how Athanasius applies this the production of the Son.