Athanasius and the Deity of Christ
I've found one of the most exciting and profitable areas for Christian study to be the history of the Lord's Church — and more particularly the history of the proclamation, preservation, defense and definition of its gospel doctrines.
One of the most revealing points of view from which to approach the subject is given in the promise our Lord made about the coming and work of His Holy Spirit. He assured His followers, troubled by the announcement of His departure,
I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth: whom the world cannot receive; for it beholdeth him not, neither knoweth him: for he abideth with you, and shall be in you.John 14:16, 17
He shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you.John 14:26
He shall guide you into all the truth ... He shall take of mine and shall declare it unto you.John 16:13, 14
We believe that the Lord has kept His promise, not as the Roman Catholics take it by guaranteeing an infallible church organization, but by preserving, defending and sometimes restoring through all the churches' troubled history a continuing declaration of the doctrines of His Word. In that process the Lord raised up and used men in a fascinating way — it's a movingly human story — but He did not use them in the sense, as the old and new heresies would have it, that men and their experiences produced the gospel, but in the sense that men were raised up, led and used by God to speak and live, struggle and triumph in confessing before the world the same doctrines God had revealed in the Bible, "the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints" (Jude 3).
In the long centuries of church history it is doubtful if anyone was ever more remarkably raised up and used in this way than was Athanasius.
A Forgotten Story
Even the name Athanasius is little known in the churches today. Unless one happened to run across the Athanasian Creed in the back of our hymn books he might never have heard of it in our churches. A student who had just returned home from his first months at college once asked me about that church history of Athanasius' time. His professor had told the class that the Nicene Council (which produced the Nicene Creed), consisting largely of unscrupulous church politicians and under pressure from an emperor who was still at least half pagan had been vastly overrated in the traditions of the church. Was this charge true? I had to concede that there was truth in those observations. But had they been told the story that emerges out of that dreary account of dirty politics, the story of the 46-year career of one church man who stood up and out, where necessary against the whole lot of unscrupulous self-seeking politicians and at the cost of 5 exiles totaling 20 years, often standing it seemed one man against the world, "Athanasius contra mundum," to insist that our Savior was and must be confessed to be no one less than God? Unfortunately, they had not been told that story. What a pity! It is a story of God's preserving His gospel through His man which the whole Christian church ought to know.
Recalling it might be extremely encouraging to many troubled Christians and preachers in our time. One of the most fascinating accounts of Athanasius' career is found in Edward Gibson's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. As he detailed the life-story of the churchman Gibson, despite his own cynical skepticism, became positively carried away by admiration for Athanasius' character although he might not be able to appreciate fully the reason why the man could be neither frightened nor bought.
Beginnings of Conflict
In the year 318 Patriarch Alexander, leader of the Church in Egypt, made a speech to his clergy on the Trinity, stressing the Oneness of God. One of his elders, Arius, took exception to this speech arguing that it did not do justice to the distinctions between the divine Persons. He maintained that since the Father had begotten the Son there must have been a time when the Son did not exist, appealing to such texts as Colossians 1:15 and Proverbs 8:22 and held that the Son must be less than the Father. The bishop saw in these views of his elder an attack on Christ and the doctrine of salvation. The Christian faith, no longer persecuted since Constantine's conversion, was now threatened by compromise with the old paganism in these views of Arius.
When Arius began to propagate his views (like those of Jehovah's Witnesses of our time) and to seek the support of highly placed friends who were closely associated with the Emperor, the bishop called a synod in Alexandria to depose him from office.
The Emperor, Constantine, more concerned about the unity of his new empire than about what he considered an insignificant difference of opinion between clergy first admonished the two parties to stop their foolish arguments and disturbance of the church. When this did not resolve the matter he called a general synod to meet at Nicea in 325 to represent his whole realm. This synod too he admonished to seek peace and unity. At this synod there were three main parties, the Arians, a large compromising group holding middle ground and Bishop Alexander and the orthodox. The middle party proposed a rather broad, loosely worded statement which might accommodate all, but the orthodox, asking for mere clarity and definition, succeeded in amending it to state that the Son was "of one (literally 'homo,' 'the same') substance with the Father." Although some preferred using only the Bible's language, this confession of Christ's unity was accepted and staunch supporters were excluded, deposed and banished.
Continuing Strife and First Exiles
Although the Nicene Council seemed to have settled the matter it did not do so for long. Within three years the deposed Arians had won the favor of the Emperor and been restored to their offices. The Patriarch Alexander had died and been replaced in office by his thirty-year old secretary, Athanasius, who had early interested himself in this important doctrinal dispute. The new bishop, Athanasius, was ordered by the Emperor to receive Arius back into office, and when he was compelled by conscience to refuse was threatened with banishment and accused by the enemy clergy of a variety of crimes including treason and murder. Although he readily met and answered these fabricated charges and even produced the man he was accused of murdering, his defenses did no good. His condemnation had been determined and it was carried out by a synod called by the Emperor because he had disturbed the peace of the church. Falsely charged also with threatening the grain shipments from Egypt to Constantinople, he was exiled to the West for two years.
On the death of Constantine in 337 his son, Constantius, became Emperor in the East and first restored the banished bishops. Athanasius, returning to Alexandria, soon had to flee in a second exile to Rome when the Eastern Emperor replaced the orthodox with men of the middle, compromising party. The Emperor Constantius, eventually wearying of the church strife halted the persecution of the orthodox and Athanasius was welcomed back to Alexandria in 346. After marrying an Arian wife, however, the Emperor changed his mind about church policy and ripping up the Nicene Creed he demanded that all now subscribe to the compromise formula that Jesus is "of like substance," not "of the same substance," with the Father. Most bishops, intimidated by the imperial order, subscribed. Soldiers were ordered to seize Athanasius and he fled to the desert, finding refuge among the hermits in a third exile, which lasted six years. It seemed that the Emperor had achieved his aim of unifying and bringing peace to the church by compelling general acceptance of a creed which denied the full Deity of Christ.
The experience of Athanasius in those six years would out-do the drama of most fiction.
Although as Gibbon wrote, "whole armies were successively employed to pursue a bishop and a fugitive; the vigilance of the civil and military powers were excited by the Imperial edicts; liberal rewards were promised to the man who should produce Athanasius either alive or dead; and the most severe penalties were denounced against those who should dare to protect the public enemy," the fugitive bishop was faithfully served by the hermit monks who were his "guards, ... secretaries, and ... messengers."
He was never found by his Imperial enemy. The tales of his various hiding places and even of his secret presence at some important church councils would make a plot for a bestselling novel. Through this long exile his continuing writing united and encouraged the orthodox in their seemingly hopeless resistance to the politically promoted and apparently triumphant heresies, and the orthodox doctrine gained popular support. People sang in defiance of their preachers the doxologies to the Trinity and some formed separate assemblies led by elders.
More Passing Storms
When Constantius was succeeded on his death by Julian, who turned from Christianity to promote paganism, the new Emperor first decreed the return of all Christian exiles, and Athanasius returned to his office in Alexandria. Continuing to insist on the full Deity of Christ, he sought to win and conciliate those who had erred and to remove secondary misunderstandings so as to truly unify the church in the orthodox doctrine. Eight months after the return of the bishop, Julian, learning that many pagans were beginning to turn to the church under his ministry, decreed his arrest. Then the story is told that the old bishop, having to flee into his fourth exile, reassured his weeping friends, "Be of good cheer, it is but a cloud; it will soon pass"!
Pass, it did, in less than a year, when the emperor was killed by a stray arrow of one of his own soldiers, and Jovian his successor restored Athanasius to his office. Within another year, however, Valens, who succeeded Jovian, favored the Arians and Athanasius again fled just ahead of the arrival of those who came to arrest him. This fifth and last exile lasted only four months and after that he was restored, in 366, a man of seventy, to the last seven years of peaceful leadership in a church in which the orthodox doctrine of the Deity of Christ was triumphing over what had long appeared to be the victory of false doctrine and godless church politics.
How is one to understand the incredible career of this old church father which even excited the admiration of a skeptical Gibbon? Why did he resolutely and at times seemingly alone refuse to compromise, even to the point of refusing to add one little letter "i" to the orthodox confession (changing the "homo-usios" or "same substance" to "homo-ousios" or "like substance") when every other important church leader in sight found it expedient or necessary to do so? Athanasius was firmly convinced that this was no quibbling about mere words or letters. At issue was the question whether the Christ we must confess was truly God who saves us or whether he was someone less who could not. This ground-truth of the gospel was not to be compromised, no matter what the cost of maintaining it might be.
How was he able to bear up against such prolonged and unrelenting pressures, and in the face of apparent defeat on all sides, to cheerfully persist in what must have seemed to most people an endless and hopeless struggle? The answer to that question is apparent in the scene of the bishop seated on his throne in the largest church in Alexandria as the doors burst open and the troops sent to seize him appeared in the entrance. He calmly ordered the deacon to read the 136th Psalm which celebrates the triumph of God over the enemies and His deliverance of His people, "O, give thanks unto the Lord: for He is good," while the people responded in the recurring refrain, "for his mercy endureth for ever." Only after the congregation had safely departed would he let his protectors carry him to safety. By raising this kind of church leader the Lord fulfilled the promise,
I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Matthew 16:18
In our times the same problems increasingly trouble us: the pressures to compromise the truths of the faith and to dismiss their careful formulations as not worth arguing about, the temptation to adapt the gospel to changing times, the tactics of politicians ever ready to sacrifice the integrity of the gospel to expediency and to pleas for a united front, the effort to silence those who refuse to share such compromises, all these increasingly characterize our church life today. And how can one resist, not to say overcome, such pressures? It is still in the conviction of the truth of God's gospel and in the assurance of His sovereign power and sure triumph over all opposition that we are called to the same kind of steadfast confession, labor and struggle as Athanasius and the orthodox were in His day. Ours must be the same faith as Luther's and Athanasius'.
And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God has willed,
His truth to triumph through us.