I blogged about Athanasius, the (in)famous Alexandrian bishop three years ago. I have had reason, by way of Seminary to revisit this seminal thinker. Now that I am actually studying the nuts and bolts of Church history (instead of taking potshots based on strawmen and secondary interpretation), I can see where Athanasius is coming from in his critique of the Arians. This is, and remains, no small issue.
Arius, if nothing else, was defending a credible understanding of the Biblical God, revealed in Jesus the Christ, in line with Greek philosophy. I say 'credible' because in Greek thought, it worked. The problem, though, is what the Platonic milieu he spoke in meant by the multivalent word 'God'. For the thorough-going Platonist of that era (and who wasn't?), God was totally transcendent, wholly other from Creation -- so much so that he/she/it/they could have no real contact with said Creation, in other words, there could be no mixture of "essence" or "nature" or "substance". This God fit the Greek criteria of impassibility, unmoveability, and immutability. The problem was that, in some way, the Word of God (however conceived) was revealed as "becoming flesh" (Jn. 1:14) -- if the Word was fully God how could he/it commingle with the created flesh of Jesus? But positing a difference in "nature" or "essence" (the infamous 'ousia'), the Greek transcendence problem could be overcome. And leave the Church, substantially, with two divine sources, or two Gods. If the Word was God, he/it could not suffer and salvation could not happen. Therefore the Word was "god" in a lesser, derivative sense and so could.
Athanasius' response is ingenious and complicated. Suffice it to say that he was very concerned to stress the reality of the divine nature of the Word, equal with God and the human nature, at least of the body/flesh, of the hypostatic union known as Jesus. The Word must be God to save; the Word must be made flesh so that man could be saved. He ran the risk (and may have fallen headlong into -- it is hard to tell) of both Sabellianism and Apollonarianism.
In doing so, though, Athanasius effected a fundamental shift in the world of thought, quite unconsciously: by using Platonism he effectively destroyed the overall system. It is clear that Athanasius held to a similar conception of the divine substance as other Platonic thinkers: separate, impassible, etc. However, he also defined "death" as disintegration of the person, that it total solitary self-reflection without reference to another outside (cf. Zizioulas in Being As Communion, this is a fundamentally Eastern way of understanding personhood), which is a very close description of the Platonic God! In the Wholly Other's place, though, he substituted a more Biblical understanding of a God that is transcendent, but also extremely near in Jesus the Messiah. This God is one of intimate and everlasting relationship, which is his definition of life. To have a share in this God (theosis) is to have life, instead of sharing in the god of death and non-existence (being not in relation to anyone else). While he did not take this idea to its logical limits, it was (and is!) pregnant with possibility, especially in undertaking some sort of understanding of the economy of salvation, how God gets things done.
The interesting piece, historically, to add is that whenever the Platonic god raises his ugly (and totally other) head, various heresies come along with it: with the rise of Deism (extremely Platonic) we have the reemergence of Sabellianism, Adoptionism, and other forms of Unitarianism, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses. When God is thought of in relational terms, no such heresies exist: note that the detached, otherworldly Trinity of the Western Church has led to many such outbreaks in history, but the Eastern tradition has had no such 'luck'.
The historical accomplishment, even if flawed at some levels, of Athanasius and the Cappadocians after him, needs a heavy reassessment by Christian thinkers. A God in relation is necessarily a God for us, revealed in Jesus the Messiah and in the Spirit of God, Spirit of Jesus. Let the doxology flow.