Athanasius: The Current Issues that the Church Faces

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May 20, 2006 by Joseph Krohn

What’s the difference between asking friends to run your business for you and asking them to ruin it? The survival of your business is “only” the difference of the smallest letter of the alphabet! The survival of the gospel hinges on the “iota”, the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet. Athanasius knew that the difference between “homoousios” and “homoiousios” is as unbridgeable as the difference between “run” and “ruin”.

“Homo” is Greek for “same” or “one” or “identical”; “ousios” for “nature” or “being” or “substance” or “essence”. Is the Son identical with the Father, possessed of the same substance as the Father? Or is the Son merely similar to the Father, only like Him? (And if only like the Father, how like: a little bit like or a lot like? And if even a lot like, is a “miss” here “as good as a mile”?)

In his lifetime Athanasius was known as “The Father of Orthodoxy”. Aware that orthodoxy (“right praise”) presupposes “right understanding” or truth, Athanasius tirelessly championed the doctrine of the Incarnation. Recognized as brilliant, courageous and persistent in the early days of his vocation as clergyman, the mature Athanasius was appointed Bishop of Alexandria (Egypt). His gospel-discernment, genius and skill with language triumphed at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 as the Nicene Creed affirmed unambiguously that the son is “of one substance” with the Father.

Athanasius’s creed had preserved the New Testament confession of Jesus Christ. Still, his ecclesiastical opponents, smarting from their defeat, sought to crush him. Soon a rival bishop accused him of gross misconduct. All such charges were refuted, the rival bishop and his supporters exposed as shameless slanderers. Still, Athanasius was deemed a troublemaker, anything but a politically correct “team player”. Not surprisingly, he was exiled to Treves in February, 331, and lived there for two and one-half years. Subsequently his detractors in the church co-opted political authorities and together they had him exiled three more times. (All told, Athanasius was exiled five times at the hands of four different emperors.) In between his bouts of enforced absence he returned home and worked in his diocese, the longest “return” being 346 to 356.

In 373 he was finally released from his decades-long struggle, dying in his bishopric of Alexandria, loved by those who had long hailed him as the advocate for the faith “once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3)

To apprehend the glory of Athanasius’s faithfulness we must understand the two heresies he refuted. Ebionitism insisted that Jesus Christ is certainly human but only seemingly divine; docetism, that Jesus Christ is certainly divine but only seemingly human. Since the former denied Jesus to be divine, it insisted that Jesus couldn’t be the focus of faith (as he plainly is in the New Testament); instead faith is focused on a God to whom Jesus points. (That is, Jesus points away from himself to God rather than pointing to himself as God). The docetists, on the other hand, regarded the human nature of Jesus as unreal; naturally, then, they looked upon his suffering as unreal too. In denying that the Word had become flesh they reduced the saving truth and reality of the gospel to a religious idea.

Oddly, the church in Athanasius’s day blended both ebionite and docetic heresies. The resultant heretical hodge-podge did what the New Testament does not: it contrasted Jesus Christ with God and placed him alongside God, whereas the apostles had always affirmed Jesus Christ to be God-with-us.

Immediately Athanasius knew what truths he had to uphold; namely, if Jesus Christ isn’t God then he can’t reveal God to us, since only through God may we know God — while if Jesus Christ isn’t human then he can’t be our Saviour, since only as one with us can God be savingly at work in our actual human existence. To say the same thing: if Jesus Christ isn’t true God then there is no divine reality to all he said and did — while if he isn’t genuinely human then what God did in him has no saving relevance for human beings. Athanasius, grasping all the implications of what the church’s defectors were saying, wrote that the Son was “begotten of the Father, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father…”. In other words, faith in Jesus Christ coincides perfectly with faith in God (as the New Testament everywhere insists.) To be sure, “homoousios” (“of one substance”) was not itself a biblical term. Nonetheless, said Athanasius, “It breathes the spirit of scripture.” What mattered for him was the biblical meaning it conveyed and the biblical reality to which it pointed.

The gospel-significance of “one substance” is crucial. For consider what would occur if Father and Son weren’t of the same nature:

* God would be unknowable, since there would then be no oneness between what the gospel presents to us as the revelation of God and God himself. * God would be unknowable, since there would then be no oneness between what the gospel presents to us as the revelation of God and God himself.

* the gospel would not be the self-communication of God and the self-bestowal of God; rather, God would communicate and bestow “something” but not himself. * the gospel would not be the self-communication of God and the self-bestowal of God; rather, God would communicate and bestow “something” but not himself.

* God’s love for us, however great, would yet be tragically deficient. His love (so-called) would stop short, never condescending to becoming one with us. * God’s love for us, however great, would yet be tragically deficient. His love (so-called) would stop short, never condescending to becoming one with us.

* God would mock us, in that God is said to love us in Jesus Christ without being (“homoousios” again!) that love in himself. * God would mock us, in that God is said to love us in Jesus Christ without being (“homoousios” again!) that love in himself.

* on the cross Jesus would be neither representative human (suffering the penalty for humankind’s sin) nor really divine (absorbing that penalty into God’s own heart). On the cross Jesus would be merely one more of many martyrs. Athanasius, on the other hand, insisted that “the whole Christ — God and man — became a curse for us”; i.e., to save us God condemned our fallen humanity and condemned himself in condemning it. Athanasius commented most pithily in this regard, “Our resurrection is stored up in the cross of Christ.” * on the cross Jesus would be neither representative human (suffering the penalty for humankind’s sin) nor really divine (absorbing that penalty into God’s own heart). On the cross Jesus would be merely one more of many martyrs. Athanasius, on the other hand, insisted that “the whole Christ — God and man — became a curse for us”; i.e., to save us God condemned our fallen humanity and condemned himself in condemning it. Athanasius commented most pithily in this regard, “Our resurrection is stored up in the cross of Christ.”

* on the last day we should find ourselves judged by a God who is arbitrary in that he bears no essential relation to Jesus Christ and all that the latter stood for.* on the last day we should find ourselves judged by a God who is arbitrary in that he bears no essential relation to Jesus Christ and all that the latter stood for.

Yet Athanasius knew that none of the foregoing is true; all of it is contradicted by the glorious reality of Jesus Christ — for he is of the same nature or substance or essence as the Father. The Father has absorbed in his own heart all that the Son did and suffered for us. Atonement has been made, pardon secured, invitation issued — all of which means the church has a gospel worthy of the name!

With his customary insight Karl Barth insisted that Athanasius’s “of one substance” was the most significant theological statement since the time of the apostles.

Yet those who dismiss it abound. In the late 500s Gregory the Great travelled to Constantinople and found all one hundred congregations espousing the heresy that Athanasius had struggled to refute 200 years earlier. In the face of it Gregory neither quit nor conformed. Instead he whispered resolutely, “I have work to do.”

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One thought on “Athanasius: The Current Issues that the Church Faces

  1. Joel says:

    Great article! In this day of the “Da Vinci Code”, this shows why the true Gospel prevailed!

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