I was in a little bible study on Hebrews 1 recently. We were looking at v3:
The Son is the radiance of God's glory
Someone asked the excellent question: "Does this mean that God couldn't shine without Jesus?"
What would you reply?
Perhaps our knee-jerk response is to say "No of course God could shine without Jesus. He's God after all!" Well let's hold our horses just a minute.
Athanasius and Arius had a disagreement over a very similar issue. They both looked at verses which called Jesus "the Wisdom of God" (e.g. 1 Cor 1:24) and it led to a similar question: Could God be wise without Jesus?
Again... how do you instinctively want to answer that question? Don't you want to say, "Don't be silly, God is wise, Jesus is wise, the Spirit is wise - the Father doesn't need Jesus in order to be wise. He just is wise"
Really? But what does the verse actually say!?
Athanasius took verses like this seriously and followed them to their conclusion. So he argues like this:
And if the Son is the “Word” and “Wisdom” of God, how was there “a time when He was not?” It is the same as if they should say that God was once without Word and without Wisdom. (Depostion of Arius)
Here's the argument:
1. The Son is the Wisdom of the Father.
2. It is inconceivable to have the Father without wisdom.
3. The Father must have always had the Son.
Now it doesn’t take much thought to imagine the Arian come-back. Surely Arius could simply reply that the Father has always had wisdom in Himself, i.e. considered apart from the Son. But this was a move which Athanasius was unwilling to make. He just took the verse at face value - Jesus is the Wisdom of God. Thus the logic of Athanasius’ position - without which his argument fails - is that the Father must have the Son to have wisdom. And without the Son He is not wise.
To be clear - Athanasius assumes that the Father does not have wisdom in Himself. Rather the Father has wisdom in His Son who is His wisdom. But, and here's the argument for the Son's eternity, God is never without His Son, indeed He is in His Son and the Son in Him.
Therefore a time without Christ is as absurd as a Father without a Son which is as absurd as a God without wisdom. But truly God would be without wisdom if He did not always have His Son. That's Athanasius's thinking.
And I think it's so refreshingly different to the majority of today's sytematic theologies. So many theology books consider the divine attributes first before discussing the Persons-in-relationship. So they build up their statements of God's perfections (whoever this God may be): "God is wise, God is powerful, God is immense." And then they raise the issue of triunity and introduce us to the three Persons. Of course now that they've determined what it is to be God, they'll have to convince us that all three of these Persons qualify. So each Person must now prove that they've individually got the full complement of divine attributes. And then, by the end of the process, we've finally got the omni-being thrice repeated. All hail the Unoriginate!
Yet we must prefer Athanasius here. The Persons do not have identical CV’s of God-stuff with only the Names at the top differing. Rather the God-stuff is, irreducibly, the communal life of different Persons inter-penetrating each other in non-reversible relations. Each Person therefore shares in the common divine life not because they've got identical CVs but because they so belong to one another that Each has a complete share in the life of the Others. Yet their distinct giftings are properly unique to the Persons in their distinct existences as Begettor, Begotten and Proceeding. The Son is the Wisdom of the Father. The Father is not wise in Himself but only in the Son and by the Spirit.
Ok, now that we're thinking about this... let's touch on that old thorny issue - the ignorance of the Son about His return. (Matt 24:36) Well, now that we're thinking in Athanasian ways, the Son's ignorance is fine, right? I mean, clearly we don't have to go down the tortuous road of saying "He's ignorant according to His human nature, He knows according to His divine nature." Instead, don't we just say that the Son entrusts knowledge of that day to His Father. Simple right?
In a certain sense He has knowledge of that day because the Father does. But much more fundamentally He's happy to depend on His Father completely such that, considered by Himself, He is ignorant. And this doesn't make Him less divine - it reveals His true divine nature as the Sent One who goes at the Father's inititative.
I don't see a problem with this solution. It's no more (in fact it's much less) shocking than the fact that the Father is without wisdom when considered apart from the Son. Father and Son depend on each other (and on the Spirit - 1 Cor 2:10f) in order to know what they know. The Persons are not identical and they are not self-sufficient - they really do depend on each other for everything.
So then, this has been a very roundabout way of answering a simple bible study question. But I hope we're now in a position to give a straightforward answer: Could God shine without Jesus?
No! So it's a good thing He's never without Him.