Athanasius’ name, which means ‘immortal’, could hardly be more fitting. His life of high action and derring-do, his rapier-like mind and the sheer force of his personality made him one of history’s entirely unforgettable characters.
Yet there is a greater reason why Athanasius deserves a place in any Christian hall of fame. As CS Lewis put it: ‘His epitaph is Athanasius contra mundum, “Athanasius against the world.” We are proud that our own country has more than once stood against the world. Athanasius did the same. He stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, “whole and undefiled,” when it looked as if all the civilised world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius – into one of those “sensible” synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen. It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.’
A COLOURFUL LIFE
Athanasius was born around 296-8 AD, and educated in Alexandria. During his early years, he saw some of the most intense waves of persecution that the Roman Imperial authorities had ever mustered. They killed off many of the most prominent Christians of the generation above him.
Then, in 318, a presbyter of the Church in Alexandria, called Arius, began teaching that the Son was actually a created being, made by the Father to go on and himself create the universe. A brilliant propagandist, Arius put his theology into ditties, set them to well-known tunes, and quickly whipped up popular support for his views.
Before long (in 325), the Roman emperor Constantine had called a general Church council at Nicea (near modern Istanbul) to resolve the matter of Arius’ teaching. The small Arian contingent fared badly at Nicea: when they expressed their view of the Son of God, they simply horrified the other bishops, some of whom covered their ears while others lost control and started a scuffle. The outcome of the council was the Nicene Creed, which contained the core anti-Arian affirmation that the Son was ‘begotten, not made, of the same being of the Father’. They would be words to which the young secretary, Athanasius, would devote his life as he defended them and drew from them the most profound theology.
Athanasius’ theology in brief
‘The things which they, as men, rule out as impossible, He plainly shows to be possible…and things which these wiseacres laugh at as “human” He by His inherent might declares divine.’ On the Incarnation
‘It is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate.’ Against the Arians
‘When we call God Father, at once with the Father we signify the Son’s existence.’ Against the Arians
‘We, apart from the Spirit, are strange and distant from God, and by the participation of the Spirit we are knit into the Godhead.’ Against the Arians
THE TROUBLES BEGIN
Three years later, Athanasius was appointed bishop of Alexandria – and his trials began. Having swiftly established himself as the leading opponent of Arius, he became a magnet for trouble. Five times he would be forced out of Alexandria and into exile. On one occasion, Constantine’s Arian son, Constantius, ordered a surprise attack on the church where Athanasius was leading a vigil. Five thousand Roman soldiers surrounded the building before bursting in, swords drawn and arrows flying into the congregation. Athanasius ordered the people to leave so that nobody else might get hurt. However, in the melee, his monks grabbed him and smuggled him out. A price was put on his head; even the desert was scoured; but Athanasius was kept concealed by an army of loyal monks who simply moved him on when any Imperial search party got too close.
It was there, in exile, that Athanasius fashioned the weapons that would bury Arianism, in particular his masterpiece Against the Arians. Inspired by the desert monks, he also wrote his Life of Antony, a work that would be the fertiliser for the monastic movement.
Another moment from his years on the run shows Athanasius’ sparkle and humanity. Being chased up the Nile in a boat by Imperial troops, he turned the vessel around and drew it alongside that of the pursuers. They asked if he had seen Athanasius. He replied with a twinkle in his eye, ‘He is not far off’, before drifting back down the river to steal into Alexandria while the pursuers went on.
Clearly, many hated Athanasius for his extraordinary tenacity in defending the real deity of the Son and the Spirit, but the majority in Alexandria made their support for him clear. Athanasius died there in 373, revered, but also victorious: his theology had triumphed over Arianism and he would be canonised eight years later at the Council of Constantinople.
A PASSIONATE DEFENCE OF THE TRINITY
What exactly was it about Arianism that caused Athanasius to give his life to its rebuttal?
Arius started out in his thinking with the idea that God is the origin and cause of everything, but is not caused to exist by anything else. ‘Uncaused’ or ‘Unoriginate’, he therefore held, was the best basic definition of what God is like. But since the Son, being a son, must have received his being from the Father, he could not, by Arius’ definition, be God.
Athanasius believed that Arius had simply started in the wrong place with his basic definition of God. ‘It is’ he said, ‘more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate.’ That is to say, the right way to think about God is to start with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, not some abstract definition we have made up like ‘Uncaused’ or ‘Unoriginate’. In fact, we should not even set out in our understanding of God by thinking of God primarily as creator (naming him ‘from His works only’) – that would make him dependent on his creation. Our definition of God must be built on the Son who reveals him. And when we do that, starting with the Son, we find that the first thing to say about God is, as it says in the creed, ‘We believe in one God, the Father.’
That different starting point and basic understanding of God would mean that the gospel Athanasius preached felt and tasted very different to the one preached by Arius. According to Arius, God had created the Son to do the hard graft of dealing with the universe for him. It was not, then, that the Father truly loved the Son; the Son was just his hired workman. And if the Bible ever spoke of the Father’s pleasure in the Son, it can only have been because the Son had done a good job. That, presumably, is how to get in with the God who is simply The Employer. But that is no fatherly God of true relationships and heartfelt kindness.
The Nicene Creed (325 AD)
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord, Jesus Christ the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the being of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father, through Whom all things came into being,
Who for us and for our salvation came down, and became incarnate and became man, and suffered, and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and dead.
And in the Holy Spirit. But as for those who say, ‘There was when He was not’, and, ‘Before being born He was not’, and ‘He came into existence out of nothing’, or who assert that the Son of God is of a different being, or created, or is subject to alteration or change – these the catholic and apostolic Church condemns
GOD MUST BE LOVE
Arius’ view had yet more worrying connotations: if God is not inherently and eternally loving, what moves us who are made in his image? Not love for his Son, if even he lacks that. Perhaps we just need to do the right things and make the right choices. Well, we can do that easily enough without much help. No need for a new birth and a new heart with the god of Arius, it would seem.
Arius, in other words, was throwing away the God of love and the gospel of grace in exchange for a steely idol who lacked any real conception of love. Arius would have to pray to ‘Unoriginate’. But would ‘Unoriginate’ listen? Athanasius could pray ‘Our Father’. With ‘The Unoriginate’ we are left scrambling for a dictionary in a philosophy lecture; with a Father, things are familial. And if God is a Father, then he must be relational and life-giving, and that is the sort of God we could love.
That was why Athanasius so tenaciously defended Nicea’s confession that the Son is ‘of one being with the Father’. He was upholding the fact that God the Father isn’t using the Son as hired help, and the Son isn’t using the Father to get heavenly glory. The Son has always been at the Father’s side. He is the eternally beloved, the one who shows that there is a most loving Father in heaven, the one who can share with us more than a business understanding with God: sonship!
Michael Reeves is director of Union Theology (uniontheology.org) and author of Introducing Major Theologians (IVP)