The Theological Precision of Athanasius

Church history is full of ironies. The maze of church history looks confusing to us from our finite perspective. However, we must bear in mind that God is sovereign over every detail of history’s timeline, big or small. Psalm 135:6 declares, “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.” Since He is sovereign, God is able to use–and indeed does use–conflicted and contradicting figures as His human instruments to preserve both His church, and orthodox teaching within His church.

Three of these interesting human instruments include Origen (184-253), Constantine (272-337), and Athanasius (c.296-373). Origen lived before both Constantine and Athanasius who were contemporaries. But it was the teachings of Origen that another man, Arius, derived his heretical views of Christ. The story of these men create a web of both political and theological complexities. But through it all, we learn once again that God is sovereign over history. History is truly His-Story.

Constantine, Emperor of Rome in the early 4th century, converted to Christianity, ending three centuries of Christian persecution. His decriminalization of Christianity put an end to the atrocities inflicted on the church since the time of Christ, which reached a climax with the intense persecution of the church led by Diocletian who reigned over the Roman Empire from 284-305. The most severe persecution of the early church took place during his reign between the years 295-305. 

Persecution of Christians ebbed and flowed based upon who ruled as Emperor, as well as the different geographical regions of the Empire. Broadly speaking, Christians were removed from government positions, required to sacrifice to the gods, and church leaders were arrested for holding church services. Christian buildings and books were banned. But Constantine ended wide-spread persecution in 313 with the Edict of Milan. He initiated several reform policies in favor of the church such as reinstating Christians to the military, providing a tax-exempt status for clergy, and most importantly, declaring that all Christians within the Empire were to be treated benevolently. Under Constantine churches were now allowed to own property and become corporations. 

On the whole, Constantine’s reforms were a very good thing. The gospel began to spread even more due to this religious freedom of Christians. However, there were disadvantages. This state sanctioned Christianity required, for instance, all soldiers serving in the Roman military to worship God on Sunday regardless of their religious persuasion. This is but one example which demonstrates that Constantine’s policies ushered in a new experience not just for Christians, but the entire Empire itself. It was an attempt to “Christianize” the culture. The church and state merged to become at certain points indistinguishable from each other. This resulted in a nominal Christianity and the growing corruption of the church. Monasticism, which had already been established grew even stronger, and began to be viewed as the super religious thing to participate in, but only intended for a small segment of the Christian population. The rest of Christendom population was not held to the same moral standards of the monastic lifestyle.

For Constantine’s part, he had successfully rescued the church from persecution. However, it came with a cost. His insistence on the Christianizing of the Empire required, by necessity, many complex concessions for the sake of unity. The compromises that he both tolerated and then propagated resulted in increasing corruption for leaders in both the church and state level, as well as theological confusion at the church level. One of these confusing areas related to–of all things–the doctrine of the person of Christ. 

Two great factions existed. One group was led by Arius, and another by Alexander. Arius was a presbyter and very popular teacher in Alexandria. But Arius’ understanding of the person of Christ opposed Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria. Alexander argued that the Son of God was begotten from eternity, meaning that He was fully God and an uncreated being. But Arius argued that the Son of God was not begotten from the beginning, but was a created being. Arius argued that though perfect, Christ the Son of God was nevertheless still created. He argued, “There was a time when He was not.” Both Arius and Alexander lobbied and marketed their cases, each man gaining his own group of followers. In 318, Alexander called a synod and excommunicated Arius for what he rightly deemed a heretical position concerning the person of Christ. 

Arius was attempting to protect monotheism (the view that there is but one God), but tragically his position resulted in the eternal subordination of Christ the Son of God. John Gerstner argues that Arius used Origen’s writings to support his own, howbeit that Origen did not explicitly teach what Arius espoused. This is an indication that we must be very careful in articulating what we believe. Origen had some strange and unbiblical views about many things. But it is unlikely, according to Gerstner, that he held the same views on the person of Christ as Arius did. Nevertheless, Arius used Origen’s writings to make certain erroneous conclusions about Christ.

This is where Constantine comes back into the picture. This conflicted and contradicting Emperor called for the first ecumenical church council to deal with the schism between the Arian and Alexander factions in 325. He wished to end the controversy once and for all by calling together 318 delegates of church leaders to vote on the orthodox position. This is what we refer to as the Council of Nicaea. Other issues were dealt with at Nicaea such as whether voluntary castration was Scriptural, whether new converts should be ordained, as well as the permissibility of clergy to live with women other than relatives. However, these were all peripheral issues compared to where one landed on the person of Christ. The gospel stands or falls on our understanding of the identity of Jesus Christ. 

At just the right time of this crisis in the early church, God rose up the all-important church father, Athanasius. Much like the apostle Peter’s leadership during the first major church crisis we call the Jerusalem Council (cf. Acts 15), Athanasius boldly stood tall for truth during the days surrounding the Nicaea Council. Athanasius did not become the Bishop of Alexandria until 328 after the Nicaean Council met. But early on Athanasius was able to see through the careful, yet unbiblical wording, of Arius. He rightly saw Arius articulating the view that Jesus was not co-eternal with God the Father; that He was not eternally divine, but rather a god-created being. In other words, Arius believed Christ was the first creation of God through which everything else was created. This rendered Christ as unique and “first” (above) the rest of creation, but still a created being Himself. This made the Father’s divinity as greater than the Son’s divinity, rendering the Son as less than God; that is, less than divine. Such is incompatible with orthodox monotheism.

At Nicaea, it was Athanasius’ mentor Alexander who led the cause against Arianism, arguing that the Son was co-equal with the Father. Eusebius of Nicodemia led the Arian viewpint. Constantine himself apparently suggested the addition of an important word to describe Christ within the creed. The word was homoousios, meaning “of the same essence”. This affirmed that Christ the Son of God was of the same essence as the Father. The Council voted in favor of Alexander’s views and the adoption of this important word, which resulted in the condemnation of Arius as a heretic leading to his exile. Even Eusebuis signed the creed along with all but 2 of the other 318 delegates. Constantine was happy. The church had made a decision about Christ and would no longer be divided.

Unfortunately, Constantine’s hopes of ending a church division were not reasonable. Eusebuis returned to Nicodemia and worked to have every leader at Nicaea removed as bishops and exiled. Constantine became fearful of more intense division, and therefore began to backpedal. He began to now view Athanasius as the villian, not Arius. Athanasius rose from deacon and assistant to Bishop Alexander to become the new bishop of Alexandria himself. He used his new post to continue condemning Arius and his teaching. This made Athanasius, the “noble champion of Christ”. But it also caused him to be viewed as a threat to the unity of the Empire and church. But Athanasius was a careful theologian. He was not playing games. He saw that our understanding of the incarnation of Christ related directly to our understanding of the sinner’s redemption by Christ. He stood by the wording of the creed, that Christ was homoousios– of the same essence of the Father. His argument centered around not just one word, but one letter of one word! Arius was comfortable with homoiousios–of similar substance with the Father.Athanasius and the other men of the council were for a word with only one distinguishing letter. But the meaning of this word meant the vast difference between orthodoxy and unorthodoxy, truth and falsehood, heaven and hell.

Following Nicaea, Athanasius wrote On the Incarnation, which became foundational to an orthodox position on Christ’s person being co-equal and co-eternal with the FatherBut the division in the church was greater than before. This resulted in Constantine, under the influence of Eusebius and others, releasing Arius from exile and demanding Athanasius accept him back into the church as a legitimate Christian. Athanasius refused. He suffered exile himself from both Constantine and Constantius (Constantine’s son). He lived with continuous threats against his life. And for what? All for one letter of one word. He spent the rest of his life arguing over the importance of one letter of one word! 

Athanasius argued for homoousios– that Jesus was of the same essence with the Father. He was, therefore, arguing against homoiousios–that Jesus was only of similar substance to the Father. The letter i made all the difference in the world. This is a lesson to all of us that getting Christ precisely right is critical. Getting the person of Christ right means we get the work of Christ right. But if we get the person of Christ wrong, then we get the work of Christ wrong. This results in our eternal damnation. Athanasius’ consistent insistence in arguing for an orthodox view of the person of Christ solidified forever the decision of the Nicaean council. Because of Athanasius’ bold persistence, the orthodox affirmation of Christ’s identity found in the Nicene Creed has stood the test of time. Who is Christ? Well, the Nicene Creed rightly answers he is “very God of very God” and “He was made man”. He’s not a created being. He became a man in His incarnation while fully retaining His divinity. He was not created, but in fact is the Creator. He is not subordinate to the Father in His essence. Rather, He is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father. He is homoousios–of the same essence with the Father.

May we forever learn to lay down the claim that theology doesn’t matter, or that the details are unimportant. Sure, there exist first and secondary matters of importance when it comes to theology. Getting the person of Christ right is far more important than, say, trying to gage, as the Nicene council did in the church’s first ecumenical council, whether voluntary castration is Scriptural or not. But this does not mean the details of our theology don’t matter in any sense. Every detail of what we believe is important. Our beliefs matter greatly! Getting the person of Christ right boiled down not simply to one council. It boiled down not simply to one manwilling to take a stand against all others, including a powerful Emperor. It boiled down to one letter of one word! Theology matters. Truth matters. Fighting for the truth, in many cases, is an issue of fighting for the truth concerning Christ, the truth concerning the gospel. Getting our doctrine right is a matter of life and death.

It is said that the epitaph on Athanasius’s tombstone read, Athanasius contra mundo. Translated, this means, “Athanasius against the world”. We should be grateful that God used him to stand against the world so that we could live in a world where orthodox doctrine could be passed down concerning the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus claimed to be God–“I and the Father are One” (John 10:30). So if Jesus was but a created being as Arius taught, then this renders Christ a liar, which renders Him a sinner, disqualifying Him from being the perfect substitute to save sinners through both His obedient life and death. But Christ is homoousios–of the same substance, or essence with the Father. He is indeed one with the Father. He is our Mediator. He represents God to man and man to God. Through Christ, and Christ alone, the sinner is reconciled to the Father.