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Athanasius and the Person of Christ
The Christian Church today owes a debt of gratitude to this early Church Father of the 4th century who courageously defended the truth of our Lord’s perfect deity as well as his true manhood when this fundamental teaching came under sustained attack from enemies within the visible church who were called Arians (named after Arius, a subtle, gifted presbyter and popular preacher, who taught the Father alone was God). This heresy, akin to present day Unitarianism and Modernism became so widespread as to threaten the very existence of doctrinal orthodoxy in the early post-apostolic visible church.
Arius held that the Son of God or Logos (Word) had not existed from eternity but had been created by the Father who alone was the eternal self-existent God – the first and greatest creature indeed by whom God created all other creatures - yet a finite creature. This may have been a plausible, rational, attempt to safeguard the oneness of God but was most dishonouring to the eternal Son of God, the infinite value of His atoning work and the reality of the Gospel salvation. For no mere creature, however exalted, can save us from our sins, but One who is God and also became man to die for our sins. Arius failed to see the wonder, glory and unfathomable mystery of the Incarnation – that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself. Unbiblical, erroneous, views concerning the Person of Christ are fatal to the Gospel doctrine of salvation.
Strong opposition to this heresy was to be expected from orthodox lovers of the truth.
Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, called a church council in 320 to deal with this serious heresy which had now become widespread, particularly in the eastern part of the Church – influenced by Origen (an earlier Church Father) who had asserted that the Son was inferior to the Father. Alexander contended that the Son was God in precisely the same sense as the Father and secured Arius’ deposition, resulting in widespread resistance by Arius and his followers. The controversy now focussed on two able antagonists – Arius and a pious, gifted champion for biblical orthodoxy called Athanasius, a deacon in Alexandria who, in 328, became bishop of Alexandria, on Alexander’s death. Athanasius now emerged as the unwavering champion of the orthodox party in the church.
The question at issue centred on: Was Christ the Son of the same identical substance or essence (homoousios) as God the Father, equal in power and glory? Or was He of like substance (homoiousios) – a semi-Arian view, or of different substance (heteroousios) – an extreme Arian view? Athanasius saw Arianism as the reaction of rationalistic thinking to the adorable mystery of the Incarnation.
A dangerous crisis had emerged and the Emperor Constantine summoned all parties to large ecumenical Church Council at Nicea in 325 attended by some 300 bishops from throughout the Roman Empire (the greater number being from the East). Athanasius dominated the council and stood immovably for the eternal generation of the Son. He had rightly perceived the dangers of this heresy as being the infiltration of pagan doctrine and practice, resulting in the Son being dishonoured and the efficacy of His redemptive work being overthrown. In short, it was a subtle satanic attempt to destroy the Gospel!
Athanasius was a man of great stability and genuineness of character and showed the sure foundation on which he stood – in his firm grasp of the unity of God, which preserved him from the subordinationism (of the Son to the Father) so common in his day. He also manifested his unerring tact when teaching men to recognise the nature and significance of the Person of Christ. He felt that to regard Christ as a creature effectively denied that faith in Him brings man into saving union with God.
Furthermore, Athanasius strongly emphasised the unity of God and insisted on a construction of the doctrine of the Trinity that would not endanger this unity. While the Father and the Son are of the same divine essence, there is no division or separation in the essential Being of God, and it is wrong to speak of a ‘second’ God. But while stressing the unity of God, he recognised three distinct persons in God. He refused to believe in the pre-temporally created Son of the Arians and maintained the eternal independent personal existence of the Son while at the same time insisting that the three ‘persons’ were not to be regarded as separated in any way (leading to polytheism).
It was not merely the need for logical consistency that motivated Athanasius and determined his theological views. Undoubtedly, his clarity of conviction sprang from his own personal experience of saving grace and that no creature, but only One who is Himself God, can unite us with God.
Despite setbacks and several banishments which failed to shake his resolve, and the conflict being described as at one time ‘the world against Athanasius’ and another time as ‘Athanasius against the world’, his orthodox party eventually triumphed and the resultant Nicene Creed (as it was later termed) upheld the truth concerning the Son of God as ‘begotten of the Father, only begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom (Christ) all things were created both in heaven and on earth; Who for us men and for our salvation came down and was incarnate, was made man, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended into heaven, and is coming again to judge the living and the dead; and (we believe) in the Holy Spirit’.
This anti-Arian creedal statement remains a fundamental tenet of Christian orthodoxy.
Fresco showing antique Alexandria as a centre of wisdom.
By Wolfgang Sauber (Own work)
[GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons