Pastor's Blog

Athanasius: Standing for Orthodoxy against the World

Posted under: Reformation — by Leroy Demarest

Arianism is an ancient heresy put forth by Arius, a priest from Libya in the early part of the 4th century. Arianism proclaimed that Jesus was not divine but was the first created being of God. Because of his first creation Jesus should have a greater standing than we but was not eternal nor God. His basis for this was, amongst others, Colossians 1:15, He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

While we today, in true Christianity, would reject this argumentation it became the orthodox Christology of the church during the time. Aside from standing contrary to the biblical teaching John 1, Hebrews 1, the next verse of Colossians 1 and elsewhere, it also has impact on our soteriology or understanding of salvation. Furthermore, the theology of Arius can be directly linked to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Islam and, to some extent, Mormonism. Jehovah’s Witnesses suggest that Christ was actually a created being; more so, he was the Archangel Michael incarnate. In fact, if you were to read their translation of John 1:1 you might pick up this theology expressed. Instead of reading: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God; the New World Translation reads: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was a god. It is a subtle difference but one that again has great implication in our salvation. Likewise, Muslims will argue that Jesus was a created being and the greatest Prophet (aside from Muhammad), even reserving the designation of Peace Be Upon Him every time his name is mentioned. He will also come back and judge us. However, he was a created being by a Unitarian (not Trinitarian) God. Along this line, Mormons believe that Jesus, who was divine, was the spirit child of God the Father and a spirit wife and the brother of Lucifer.

Had Athanasius not fought steadfastly we may have stood with them in heresy. He too, was concerned with soteriology. To him if Jesus was not divine, he might be able to atone for his sins, but not ours and certainly not be able to save us. He is quoted as saying ‘Those who maintain, ‘There was a time when the Son was not’ rob God of His Word, like plunderers.’ As a creature Christ would not be God’s Word, he also would not have truly Divine attributes and could change not be the pure lamb to be sent.

As the deacon assistant to the, then, Bishop of Alexandria (aptly named Alexander), Athanasius traveled to Nicea to discuss this teaching. It was there condemned, the initial Nicene Creed was written and Arius was exiled. However, it wouldn’t be long before Arius was reinstituted into the church. In fact, Emperor Constantine, who called for the council to be formed, ordered Athanasius (by now he had succeeded Alexander as the bishop) to restore Arius. Which he refused and with this refusal, along with a number of lies against him, caused Athanasius to be exiled to an area in western Europe not far from the modern city of Luxembourg.

Shortly thereafter, Constantine died and with the exile of Athanasius, Arianism spread. Even though Athanasius was later restored, Arius’ teaching was so influential that over the course of 20 years Athanasius would be exiled three more times. At one point, a colleague of his remarked that the World was against him. To which Athanasius replied, ‘Athanasius contra mondum’, or ‘then it is Athanasius against the World’.

However, Athanasius would continue to fight for the trinity and would eventually win ‘against the world’, restoring biblical orthodoxy on the Trinity to the world and giving us an incredible church father to look up to as well as a predecessor to the Reformers of the 16th century who would again be forced to stand against the world.

 

A creed on the trinity is named after him, which you can read here: https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/creeds/athanasian-creed

The Nicene Creed, of which he worked on, can be read here (it has been revised since Athanasius time):

https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/creeds/nicene-creed

For more reading on Athanasius and Arianism see the links below:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/theologians/athanasius.html

https://carm.org/arianism-and-its-influence-today

https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/12/30/athanasius-contra-mundum/