Athanasius: Guarding Against Heresy and Holding Fast to Sound Doctrine
The new issue of Credo Magazine, “The Great Tradition,” focuses on the early Church Fathers. The following is an excerpt from one of the issue’s featured articles by Bryan Litfin. Bryan Litfin (PhD, University of Virginia) is an editor at Moody Publishers. He taught theology at Moody Bible Institute for sixteen years. He is the author of several books including Early Christian Martyr Stories: An Evangelical Introduction with New Translations, After Acts: Exploring the Lives and Legends of the Apostles, and Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction.
It all started on a beach. For most men of God, that probably wasn’t the place where their pastoral vocation began. Yet for one small, brown-skinned boy in Roman Egypt, a playful moment on the beach led to a long and fruitful pastoral ministry. Perhaps you too have experienced humble beginnings that led somewhere unexpected in God’s great plan.
The ancient historian Rufinus tells us (Church History 10.15) that the eminent bishop of Alexandria, named Alexander, was sitting by the sea one day when he glanced up to see some boys playing a game on the beach: not tag, nor chasing after a ball, nor swimming. These Christian boys were mimicking the actions they had witnessed in church.
As Alexander watched, he realized the boys weren’t just performing the more public actions of a Sunday church service, but even the private and mysterious ritual of baptism. Bishop Alexander brought the boys before him. He asked what they were up to. Frightened, they wouldn’t answer at first, but finally admitted they were baptizing their playmates.
Alexander asked the ringleader, Athanasius, what he had said, what responses were made, and how the ritual had been performed. After learning the facts, the bishop ruled that the baptisms were entirely valid! Then, after summoning the parents of the children who had shown such spiritual promise, he took the boys under his wing and had them educated for future service to the church. Such was the beginning of Athanasius’s long and illustrious pastoral career. By personality, he was an energetic leader and bold debater, a feisty little fellow whose Coptic complexion earned him the nickname “the black dwarf.” Click To Tweet
Precocious Athanasius went on to become Alexander’s personal secretary, then his successor as the bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius was ordained even before he was thirty years old. By personality, he was an energetic leader and bold debater, a feisty little fellow whose Coptic complexion earned him the nickname “the black dwarf.”
And his scrappy spirit was needed in those tumultuous times. Athanasius lived when the early church was fractured by the Arian heresy. The rise of “Arianism,” as it came to be called by its opponents, was the great theological conundrum that caused the whole Christian church to gather at the Council of Nicaea. From the wisdom of this council, an important creed was produced to refute the Arian view. Even today, many Christians still recite the Nicene Creed, which is a slightly adapted version of what the council fathers produced at that historic meeting. But what was all the fuss about? It’s such an important part of the great tradition of Christianity that it’s worth taking a moment to examine the theological issues that were on the table.
A few years before the council, the Libyan pastor Arius had started claiming that there was a time when the Son of God did not exist, and only afterward did the Father bring him into existence. This meant that Jesus was an inferior deity who was created by the Father’s decision. Was Arius trying to blaspheme the Savior? Just the opposite: he was trying to protect the oneness of God from what seemed like polytheism, the introduction of a second deity into the Godhead. For Christianity to be monotheistic and worship only one God, Jesus couldn’t be God too. Or could he?
Arius reasoned like this. Any God who is truly divine in the fullest sense of the word must have no source. Rather, he must be the creator of all that exists. Yet the Bible clearly states (as anyone knows who has ever read John 3:16) that the Son of God was “begotten” of the Father. Human sons, of course, do not exist before they are begotten by their fathers. That is why Arius declared about the Son of God (whom he described in Johannine terms as the Word), “There was [a time] when he was not.” After God had brought his Word into being, the Word existed as a glorious creature with great power to make the world. Eventually, the Word became flesh as Jesus Christ (John 1:14). Yet as a creature, the Word had a source: his Father who made him. Therefore, Jesus could not be called “true God” since createdness cannot characterize the Supreme Being. Jesus had to be less than supreme because God made him. The Bible clearly states (as anyone knows who has ever read John 3:16) that the Son of God was “begotten” of the Father. Click To Tweet
In response to Arius’s line of thinking, Bishop Alexander and his right-hand-man Athanasius countered that Jesus Christ would be reduced in power and glory under the Arian scheme. No matter how much respect Arius tried to give the Word, he was still an inferior creature, a kind of demi-god existing on a level between God and us. Athanasius insisted there had to be a way to keep Christ equal to the Father from all eternity, yet distinguish him as well, since equating him precisely with the Father would be the heresy known to us as “modalism.” (The ancients referred to it as Sabellianism.) A new way of thinking was needed to strike the perfect balance.
As complex as these issues were, let us recognize that this wasn’t just useless wrangling about the metaphysics of the Godhead. The doctrines under debate had enormous ramifications for salvation. Athanasius intuitively understood that a Jesus who wasn’t fully divine was a Jesus who couldn’t reunite sinful humans to the heavenly Father. Only the full and complete deity of the Son could make salvation possible. In this doctrinal debate, eternal souls were on the line! And that was why this issue had to be adjudicated at an empire-wide council. Fortunately, the new Christian emperor was in the mood to call one.
**Read the remainder of Bryan Litfin’s article in the latest issue of Credo Magazine.