Our last blog post focused on the construction of the biblical canon. It is fitting, then, that we focus this blog on Athanasius of Alexandria, as the first, complete list of canonical books for the early church is attributed to Athanasius. Just as important is the impact of Athanasius on our understanding of the incarnation of God in Jesus Messiah, the Trinity, and Christian orthodoxy (our generally accepted theology). Athanasius is recognized as the foremost defender of the orthodox faith during the fourth century.
Arian Controversy in Brief
By now, many of us have heard of the Nicene Creed; however, we are not always familiar with its original purpose. The Nicene Creed was written in response to the development of Arianism. In the early fourth century CE, a localized conflict between Alexander (the bishop of Alexandria), and Arius (one of his deacons) exploded into one of the most divisive issues of the early church.
Arius, defended the idea that God and Jesus were two different “people.” For Arius, Jesus became a moral exemplar, or example of perfected creation to which we should aspire. Jesus was made perfect through his suffering on the cross. He was created by God, not begotten. Since he was a part of the created order he could not have a divine (perfect) nature. He was the first adopted son of God, not the Son of God. This makes Jesus into some sort of a demigod, rather than co-equal with God. A common maxim of the followers of Arius was, “there was a time when the word was not.”
Arians gave three reasons for their denial of the divinity of Jesus. First, God is unoriginated: uncreated. If the Son is begotten by the Father, he cannot be unoriginated also; this is a property that cannot be transferred. Second, if the Father and the Son are of the same substance, then both must be unbegotten and unbegettable. The Son cannot be both begotten and unbegettable. Finally, if the Father and the Son share the same properties, then the Son will have become the Father to his own Son, repeating his own begetting, Father to Son, for eternity.
Arianism was no small heresy. Despite the ratification of the Nicene Creed, and the anathematization (declaration of heresy) of Arianism, the church was deeply divided. At first, Constantine was on the side of the orthodox, and banished adherents of Arianism from their cities. In short order he believed Arianism was the truth, and reversed his order for banishment; the Arians were allowed back into their cities, and the orthodox were banished instead. For the next sixty (or so) years, the Christology (theology of Jesus) of the church was in significant turmoil as imperial and church allegiances and interests changed.
In his book, The Doctors of the Church, Bernard McGinn writes, “Athanasius’ greatness rests in his unremitting opposition to Arius and his sympathizers.” (p. 27) In response to Arianism, Athanasius, while not considered the most rhetorically perfect theologian, developed on of the most consistent and thorough treatments of Christology in the early church. His writings against Arianism include On the Incarnation of the Word of God, Orations against the Arians, Apology against the Arians, and Letter on the Decrees of Nicaea.
Athanasius argued that the Arians had completely misunderstood the relationship of the Son to the Father. Athanasius explained that the Son and the Father shared the “substance of God-hood.” God the Father, and God the Son are both God. In a great mystery of being, Father, and Son are more than aspects of the same God, and yet less than separate entities. They are of the same substance, and nature, and yet are related to each other as distinct.
Ultimately, Athanasius’ argument against Arianism can be said to have three parts. First, one must understand the unchangeable nature of God. If God is unchangeable, then he has always been as he is now. If God has always been as he is now, then he has always been the Father. If God has always been the Father, then there can never have been a time without the Son. In Orations against the Arians, Athanasius wrote that the axiom of the Arians (There was a time when the word was not) robs “God of His Word [by saying] that He was once without His proper Word and Wisdom, and that the Light was once without radiance, and the Fountain was once barren and dry.”
Second, Athanasius explained that the core problem humankind faced was death caused by sin. Jesus’ work on the cross was to effect salvation from sin and death for humankind. Athanasius understood that this happened by joining humankind with a divine nature through Jesus Christ (a process called divinization). The only way this could happen was if Jesus was both fully human (which the Arians did not have a big problem with), and fully divine (which the Arians did not agree with at all). This is important for us because in this way Jesus is able to be tempted, and to resist temptation; retaining the potential to sin, while remaining sinless.
Finally, Athanasius reasoned that only God could fully reveal God. In much the same way that Paul writes, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly,” (1 Cor. 13:12), Athanasius argued that humankind can only dimly represent God. If part of the purpose of the incarnation of Jesus was to reveal the true nature of God, Jesus must be divine. In his Orations against the Arians, he wrote that God, “no longer…willed to be known by image and shadow of wisdom…made the true wisdom Itself to take flesh, and to become man, and to undergo the death of the cross.”
It is very easy to see, given the above review of Athanasius’ anti-Arian arguments, the monumental impact his writings had on the foundation of our Christian orthodoxy.
Athanasius served as bishop of Alexandria for forty-five years. During this time, he was exiled five times (totaling sixteen years) for his opposition to Arianism. Despite the trouble his orthodoxy caused him, he never gave up. In large part due to Athanasius’ stand for orthodoxy, Arianism was finally denounced at the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE, although he did not live to see it. Athanasius serves as an example of tireless service before the Lord, and demonstrates that although we may not see the fruits of our labors in this life, perseverance in the face of persecution can create great and lasting change.
For an excellent introduction to the writing of Athanasius read his Life of Antony.
For an understanding of Athanasius’ theology read On the Incarnation of the Word of God, and Orations against the Arians.
For a deeper reading on the life of Athanasius read Carol Beck’s chapter “Athanasius,” in the book, Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy (pp. 153-189).
This blog was written by seminarian Brandon Pritchard for a history course at Northern Seminary on early and Medieval Christianity