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Guarding Against Heresy and Holding Fast to Sound Doctrine

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.

Tumultuous Times

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. 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

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.

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. 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

Turning Point in Church History

Emperor Constantine summoned several hundred church leaders to the city of Nicaea (Iznik, Turkey) in the summer of AD 325. Arianism had some vocal supporters, but so did the view represented by Athanasius. The debate was vigorous, and the council sessions took several weeks. Yet in the end, the bishops recognized that the Lord Jesus Christ could not be reduced to the status of a mere creature. Arius’s view was condemned. (However, the ancient saint Nicholas of Myra, who later morphed into our Santa Claus, never slapped Arius. That is a much later legend!)

The doctrine of the Trinity that won the day at Nicaea insisted that Christ was equal to God from the very beginning. He wasn’t created, but was eternally begotten from the Father, identical in power and glory. Yet if Christ was fully divine, and so too was God the Father, how could Christians avoid polytheism or modalism? The answer was the introduction of a new word which, though it didn’t appear in Scripture, was believed to reflect biblical teaching (e.g., John 10:30, “I and the Father are one”). The Greek word was homoousios (homo = same + ousia = substance or essence). The council fathers agreed that the Father and Son are distinct from one another, yet they possess the “same substance,” which meant they are equally divine and co-eternal. Crucially, this doctrine allowed the Gospel to do its work. When a Christian believer is united by grace to the Lord Jesus, he or she is returned into the life of the Holy Trinity. Only a Savior who is fully God and fully Man—not a mere creature—can accomplish such a thing.

The Nicene Creed was a great milestone for Bishop Alexander and his associates. A turning point in church history had been reached. However, since Arianism wasn’t immediately defeated after Nicaea, Athanasius spent the rest of his life fighting this heresy. After his death, a second council was called in the year 381, from which we get the final version of the Nicene Creed. It amplified what had already been said, making clear that the Holy Spirit was fully divine too. Now the Trinity was on solid footing. Soon after this, the Arian heresy was stamped out in the ancient world, though it still rears its head today in cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Mormons. Modern Christians can be grateful for the example of someone like Athanasius. Guarding against heresy and holding fast to sound doctrine is a vital task in every generation! The ancient saint Nicholas of Myra, who later morphed into our Santa Claus, never slapped Arius. That is a much later legend! Click To Tweet

The Bishop’s Mighty Pen

Though Athanasius might have been small in stature, his pen was mighty. A torrent of his writings has come down to us: sermons, commentaries, apologetic works, letters to his flock, and a whole lot more. The fact that Athanasius was exiled from his pastorate in Egypt five times—often for months or even years—makes it all the more amazing that he could be so productive. He spent 17 of his 46 years as a bishop in exile! Yet nothing could set him back: not heretics, nor complex church politics, nor even the Roman emperors who favored Arianism and needed to be rebuked. Pastoral courage is a virtue well exemplified by this ancient saint.

The ink kept flowing from Athanasius’s pen right until the end of his life. Shortly before he died, he wrote a letter to a Caesarean pastor named Palladius who was embroiled in a dispute between some monks and the local bishop—the famous Basil of Caesarea—about pneumatology, or the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Athanasius’s tone was gentle as he wrote to his “beloved son” and urged him to remedy the divisions in the church. The work of a pastor to foster unity and heal church splits is never done.

Two Great Writings

Though Athanasius’s literary output was prolific, perhaps we can focus on two of his most enduring works. The first is his magnificent treatise On the Incarnation, which most historians think he wrote early in his life—though it is so mature that some scholars insist it must be the product of his later years. Whatever the answer, this book deserves to sit on every Christian’s shelf. A nice, inexpensive edition of it has been published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press in the Popular Patristics series. Although the English translator of this Greek work was an anonymous monk, no less a luminary than C. S. Lewis wrote the introduction. Lewis’s insightful comments about the importance of reading old works is worth the book’s price, but don’t stop there. Athanasius’s theological remarks are profound, and Professor Lewis would be quite disappointed if you missed them.

On the Incarnation emphasizes an important biblical theme, one that the Greek Orthodox Church still emphasizes today, but too many Evangelicals have forgotten: that the incarnation is a vital part of God’s saving work, not just the necessary precursor to the “real action” at the Cross. The incarnation must be theologically tied not only to the crucifixion but also the resurrection and the ascension, creating a single story of divine descent, union with Christ, and restoration to the Trinitarian life of God.

Athanasius first describes how God made human beings in his own image. But at the fall, they became corrupted and started fading into non-being. To solve this “divine dilemma,” the eternal Word of God took on flesh and entered our world as a true human being. Jesus lived in perfect obedience, died for our sins, conquered the grave (and with it, Satan’s reign), and ascended on high in glory.

For Athanasius and many other ancient theologians, salvation is not just about an atoning payment that averts God’s wrath (though that language is certainly found in Scripture); it is also mystical union with the Savior who restores the divine image in us and takes us back to the God from whom we came. Modern Christians would do well to view salvation not just as a payment or a transaction, but as a cosmic narrative of rescue and restoration.

A second book from Athanasius’s mighty pen is well worth reading: his Life of Anthony, which is a biography about the ostensible founder of ancient Christian monasticism. Many editions of this work exist on internet sites. But one reliable volume is again from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Robert Gregg’s translation, Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus in The Classics of Western Spirituality Series.

Anthony was an Egyptian orphan whose parents had left him with a nice inheritance. Yet God had a serious call upon his life. Anthony left his comfortable existence to take up residence in the desert, like other people were beginning to do at that time. He fasted much and slept little. Demons accosted him by night, yet he fought them like a spiritual warrior, often finding himself bruised and battered when he awakened the next morning. On the Incarnation emphasizes an important biblical theme, one that the Greek Orthodox Church still emphasizes today, but too many Evangelicals have forgotten: that the incarnation is a vital part of God’s saving work, not just the… Click To Tweet

Over time, Anthony became the most famous “hermit,” that is, a solitary monk. Yet we should not think Anthony was useless to the world because of his isolation. He often served as a spiritual director to other earnest brothers. And he spent more hours in prayer than just about anyone ever could. Despite his rigorous lifestyle, Anthony lived over a hundred years, and he spent most of those decades in constant prayer and contemplation of God. Athanasius was right to compose a biography about so worthy a man. His famous biography—which even contributed to the conversion of St. Augustine—is a story that modern Christians should know and emulate.

Not for Professionals Only

In the introduction to On the Incarnation, C.S. Lewis writes, “There is a strange idea abroad that . . . ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books . . . This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology.”

Lewis is exactly right. Too often, ancient books are thought to be only for scholars and professors. But Athanasius reminds us how wrong that idea is. Today’s believer in Christ ignores this ancient father at his own peril. As the Eastern liturgy declares: “Wisdom! Let us attend!”

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 TranslationsAfter Acts: Exploring the Lives and Legends of the Apostles, and Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction

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