In my continuing housecleaning efforts on this blog (i.e., dismantling the “Stories Evaluated . . . ” page), I would like to post this paper, from Seminary-the-Second-Time. It’s pretty well related to last Thursday’s post. It’s also pretty long, but evidently a lot of people researching this topic end up at my blog because of it . . . Athanasius is almost as much a reason for people to end up here as Emmylou Harris is. Who knew?
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
A Time When He Was Not: Did the Arian Controversy Really Matter?
CH501: The Church to the Reformation – Dr. Garth Rosell – Spring 2010
I am a member of Generation X. As far as I can tell, my generation forms the seam between modernity and post-modernity, a state of affairs which occasionally leads to ambiguity and confusion. For example, the twin ideas of orthodoxy and heterodoxy both fascinate and repel me. Like any good post-modern, I wonder how we can really know who is right. In the Patristic era, for instance, often both sides of an issue argued from the Bible. Both sides were evidently sincere. I am tempted to believe in an orthodoxy that is unknowable, and a grace which offers the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, when I read about the controversies themselves, I find myself thinking like a modern. I want the orthodox to “win.” I find myself critiquing their arguments and sometimes getting annoyed at what seems like an inadequacy in the presentation. At the beginning of my research, I anticipated a paper that would outline my sense of the futility of the entire enterprise against heterodoxy. However, the more I read on the topic, focusing in particular on Athanasius and the Arian controversy, the more convinced I become that orthodoxy is worth fighting for, even in the face of better logicians, and even when, from the perspective of the present day, it seems that the heresies have remained alongside orthodoxy after all.
This Present Heresy
The Arian controversy went live for me, although I didn’t realize it at the time, with an email from a young agnostic during turn of the year. Andrew and I used to have heated religious debates when we worked together at Starbucks. Now he was starting them up again with an email about the Trinity. Although not all of his musings ran to Arianism, he did assert the “God-ness” and the “oneness” of God the Father, saying that the Son was created later. “In a sense,” he said, “the theos is the uncreated, the being, and the logos is the created, the coming into. John 1:1 says ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ This implies that there was the God of no beginnings, the theos, and the God of beginning, the logos. That theos is the essence of being and logos is the essence of becoming.”
Like the small-scale, backwater, post-modern Athanasius that I was about to become for a brief moment, I sent him a letter of rebuttal. This, it seems, is what the church fathers did to combat heresies when they were not holding councils about them instead. I wanted him to know that the Son and the Spirit were coeternal with the Father. But my powers of debate pale in comparison to my friend’s, and I don’t think that anything I said rang true to him. And, after all, did it really matter? The fact that any conception of the Trinity at all had found a home in his understanding seemed preferable to some of his previous philosophies, and who can really explain the Trinity anyway? I hoped Andrew would someday reach a point where he understood the Word to be necessary for salvation. At that juncture, would it really matter if he thought the Word was co-eternal with the Father or not—even if I did?
As if to confirm this idea, Robert C. Gregg and Dennis E. Groh contend in their book Early Arianism that part of the reason Arius and his philosophies caused such a storm was because they were misunderstood. The traditional interpretation of Arius and his adherents, these men argue, is of men who were primarily “cosmologians,” when in reality, their main concern was soteriology. “At the center of the Arian soteriology was a redeemer, obedient to his Creator’s will, whose life of virtue modeled perfect creaturehood and hence the path of salvation for all Christians.” The question is, is this soteriology enough? If my friend ultimately came to this conclusion at the end of his musings on the Trinity, could I be content to leave him to his thoughts? Should I be?
The Back Story
Basic church histories will certainly mention the Arian controversy, if for no other reason than that the first great ecumenical church council (the Council of Nicea) was called largely because of it. Arius was a presbyter from Alexandria who created a stir by his assertions that the Son of God had not always existed eternally with God the Father. Instead, according to him, the Son was created by the Father—unique among all other creatures by virtue of having been created first and from nothing—but a creature nonetheless. As first among creatures, this Son of God was the one through whom all other creatures were made. Because of his perfect life, he was adopted into the Godhead. As Gregg and Groh put it, “ . . . central to the Arian understanding of salvation was the view that Christ attained his favor with God through the machinery of ethical advance and thus established a like goal for all true believers.”
On the other hand, Bishop Alexander of Alexandria and his successor Bishop Athanasius saw these ideas as touching the very core of the Christian faith and twisting it around until it became something quite different—and quite dangerous. Athanasius, in particular, spent most of the rest of his life combating Arius, his adherents and his philosophical descendents. Sometimes Athanasius’ pronouncements met with favor; sometimes he was exiled. In fact, he ended up being exiled far more times than Arius ever was, though not from doctrinal charges, and though this may in part have been because Arius gave up the game and the ghost before the battle had even properly begun.
The fight, which was to take up so much of the fourth century, began “as a local quarrel. But Arius had invoked weighty support outside Egypt, and now Alexander of Alexandria was being opposed by important bishops . . . “ The Emperor Constantine, who had hoped the Church could be the unifying element in his empire, was distressed. He called the first major ecumenical Church council at Nicea in hopes that the bishops could come to some sort of agreement and keep the peace within his realm. At first it looked like they could. A creed, followed by some curses upon people who held to Arian doctrines, was drawn up, and almost all of the bishops signed—even the supporters of Arian theology.
Within only a few years, however, the powerful and insidious Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had co-opted the Arian cause to the neglect of its founder, returned to defame his enemies and argue the point once more. A chief plank in his platform was that the Greek word homousion, used in the Nicene document to describe Christ’s consubstantial relationship to the Father, could not be found anywhere in the Bible.
Although Athanasius, for one, saw this argument as a conniving way of skirting the real issues, there are, as any post-modern will tell you, two sides to every story, and perhaps there was something in Eusebius’ objection. In the patristic period, the Bible was “the” source of theological authority. “Terms in dispute and debate, phrases which needed explication, and even whole perspectives on soteriology were built up out of a careful examination of systematic and incidental treatments of a given topic by the scriptures. This meant that . . . scriptural justification was primary.” Even if Eusebius’ motives were doubtful, Arius had been a presbyter, who had made his living teaching the laity the Scriptures. He would have been committed to thorough exegesis, surely. If the conclusion of this exegesis was “that even the preexistent Christ was, and had to be, a creature, no matter how exalted were the results of his creaturehood,” who has the right to begrudge a man his attempt sincerely to discern the truth?
Granted, the entire ordeal became intensely political, what with the involvement of Constantine, the power plays of Eusebius and the frequent banishments and reinstatements of Athanasius. But just because some men took things too far, was Arius himself guilty of heresy and deserving of banishment? “Far beyond the clear desire to deflate what the Arians considered to be a disastrously overinflated Christology was the desire to chronicle the savior’s creaturely characteristics for a positive soteriology which seemed to the Arians to conform better to scripture and human experience.”
Men Behaving Badly
Constantine, as has already been stated, simply wanted a unified Empire at any cost. Whether or not he was a genuine Christian is, and probably forever will be, a matter of conjecture and debate, but it is certain that he was no theologian. The issues at stake during the Council of Nicea and for years afterwards were clearly lost on him and on his sons, who succeeded him and variously supported different factions in the controversy based on their own political aspirations at the time. “The order of banishment against Arius and his followers, with which Constantine attempted to show his support of the decisions of the Council, established a bad precedent: thereafter, when theological argument failed, and even before making use of it, one could always make use of the resources of politics and have one’s enemy banished.” Meanwhile, the Church was having its own internal political trouble alongside its doctrinal controversies, as relations between the Eastern and Western branches were becoming more and more tense. The Arians were able to play off of these tensions and build up quite a strong base of support. That any kind of unbiased, accurate analysis and formulation of Christian doctrine could happen in such a climate, which looked so little like the example of the debated Christ, was unlikely.
Nor, in fact, did it happen. “The orthodox and the Arians observed the codes and conventions of polemic and were equally adept at argument by insinuation, slander by association, and the deflection and misrepresentation of opponents’ assertions.” Athanasius as a young man was something of a zealot, so it was not difficult for Eusebius of Nicomedia to oust him from his role as bishop. As if in retaliation, Athanasius, whether at home in Alexandria or abroad in some exile, taught and wrote scathing letters against the Arians themselves and the doctrines they promoted.
“Polemic” is not an inaccurate description of Athanasius’ diatribes against the heretics. While arguing against specific tenets, such as the creatureliness of the Son, the nature of the Father or the Arians’ objections to the term homousion, he also indulges in certain rants and insults, which sound to twenty-first century ears completely tactless and undignified. He is anti-Semitic, calling his enemies “Judaizers”—comparing them to “the Jews” who were incapable of seeing Jesus for who he was and therefore guilty of his death. He taunts them that, whereas Nicene doctrine has been passed down from respected sources—even the Apostles themselves—the Arians can claim no such lineage, but only have Satan as the father of their lying claims. He calls Arius the “forerunner of the Antichrist.” Over and over again he calls the Arians impious, irreligious (an “insult” which many modern and post-modern Christians would receive with pride) and insane. He even exclaims, “who but would justly hate them while possessed by such a madness?” Even considering the technically conditional nature of that cry, the idea of a supposedly Christian bishop enjoining hatred against those who don’t toe the party line is unsettling. It happens all the time. It is what people like my agnostic friend expect of Christians. Is hatred and doctrinal yelling and judgment and rejection really all the Church has ever been about—has ever been “good” at? Is there anything, to use a loaded term, redeeming about it?
Once Upon a Time
From a general perspective, the answer to that question is, maybe surprisingly, a qualified “yes.” Christians nowadays cry, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” Even though that is easier said than done and the cliché often cloaks an actual hatred of the sinner in question, at face value it is a reasonable ideal that should apply to heresy as much as to anything else. The distinction between orthodoxy and heterodoxy “is inevitable if one is to speak and think about Christianity in a way that does not do violence to the fundamental Christian experience of salvation in Christ.” According to both modern and post-modern sensibilities, the possibility of violence to a religious idea sounds like it is missing the point. Are we not supposed to love our neighbor? Surely that is more important than fighting over words about God. But we are to love God first, and perhaps sometimes those words mean more than we think they do.
Bishop Krumm reminds us, “It is perfectly obvious to anyone who is acquainted with a modern academic community that some limits are set to the tolerance that serious scholars can extend to a man whose views are wildly divergent from those of the overwhelming majority of his fellows. So whether the word ‘heresy’ is used or not, the kind of judgment it represents is being passed all the time in even the most liberal and enlightened intellectual circles.” In other words, maybe there really are heresies. If so, maybe they really are worth fighting. Even if the vitriol expressed in the fight appears neither seemly nor Christian, maybe sometimes ideas emerge that need to be removed or dissociated from the environment in which they formed.
Evidently Athanasius thought this was the case regarding Arianism. “For what have they discovered in this heresy like to the religious Faith, that they vainly talk as if its supporters said no evil? This in truth is to call even Caiaphas a Christian, and to reckon the traitor Judas still among the Apostles, and to say that they who asked Barabbas instead of the Saviour did no evil . . . ” In spite of Gregg and Groh’s charge that both Alexander and Athanasius exhibited “a tendency repeatedly encountered in orthodox argumentation to deflect or divert Arian soteriological assertions in the direction of concerns which might more precisely be called theological or cosmological in character,” it is clear throughout Athanasius’ impassioned writings that he knew very well that somehow salvation itself was at stake.
Athanasius was not a philosopher or a logician like many of the Arian leaders. His arguments are not as clever theirs and occasionally he resorts to repetition and bluster. These are the things that make the modern in me cringe. I would like him to have logical, well-thought-out arguments, precisely expressed. Though the greatest theologian of his time, he was more pastoral than intellectual. “His work and his theology developed in response to the needs of each moment rather than on the basis of the requirements of a system.” Gregg and Groh observe that, while Athanasius accused Arius of being heretical because his ideas were not Apostolic, in fact, elements of Arius’ subordinating Christology had been present in Christian teaching from its earliest days, whereas Athanasius’ doctrine of grace was “peculiarly his own.” Gonzalez agrees with this assessment. If this is true, and Arius was a better debater, how was it that in the final analysis, Athanasius and his doctrines won out, and how can we be sure that they should have?
Arguing whether Jesus had always existed or not—was really of the same substance as the Father or not—seems like splitting hairs. Even when I emailed Andrew, however, not knowing exactly what to say or exactly why it mattered, or where the doctrine of the eternality of Christ came from, I knew that the role of Jesus in the Godhead was of vital importance to the understanding of salvation. How could a creature just like me save me? The Arians said that no one could ever be greater than the Son, but that it was hypothetically possible for people to be his equal. But what if we weren’t? Did the Arians really think they were? If this creature-Son was good enough to get into God’s good graces—adopted into the Godhead itself—that still doesn’t mean I am. Then what? It could, perhaps, be that the created Jesus’ goodness would be enough to count for me, too, but it seems very arbitrary, and it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve understood from Scripture. And really, how many people could one mere man’s perfection really cover?
Athanasius muses that if the Son was not eternally with and from the Father, but rather a being of other substance tacked on to the Trinity, then God could conceivably be added to and subtracted from. In this case, God can be both improved and diminished. “But this is not so;” he says, “perish the thought!” Later he explains, “Such statements do not glorify and honour the Lord of all, but the reverse; for he who dishonours the Son, dishonours also the Father.” He clearly would not have agreed with Gregg and Groh that Arius was simply trying his best to exegete correctly and give everyone their proper due. Both Arius and Athanasius use the terms Word and Wisdom to denote the Son, but Athanasius contends that to say that the Son had a beginning and then was adopted into the Godhead is to imply, among other things, that God was once without word or wisdom. Athanasius sees God’s word and wisdom as that which flows out from him like the living water of a fountain, which is sometimes used to describe God in the Bible. If God were once without word or wisdom, then surely he used to be a desert, and word and wisdom came to him from an external source. Athanasius finds this not only repellently sacrilegious, but baffling, as, I confess, do I. The water, Athanasius argues, is inherent to the fountain, just as the Father and Son are, and always were, one.
The Arians liked to use the word “Ingenerate” to describe God. Athanasius, perhaps ironically, takes them to task for using a word stolen (inaccurately) from Greek philosophy and not found in Scripture. Although Athanasius uses the term himself on occasion, he accuses the Arians of using it so as to avoid using the term “Father,” which naturally implies a Son. This changing of names and terms and definitions is a hallmark of heresies, and Athanasius implies that calling God the “Ingenerate” depersonalizes him and changes his relationship with creation. “For He has bid us be baptised, not in the name of the Ingenerate and generate, not into the name of the Uncreate and creature, but into the name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; for with such an initiation we also are made sons verily, and, while using the name of the Father, we acknowledge from that name, the Word in the Father.”
Divine revelation, Krumm points out, is not mechanical—it is always a personal disclosure of the “heart and purposes of God.” Heresies can swing to the opposite end of the spectrum, such that God becomes a “buddy” who averts his eyes from misbehavior. “Personal revelation” can be turned into a manipulation tactic. In the case of the controversy with Arius, however, Athanasius seems to have picked up on this important distinction between the impersonal and the personal God, though he did not use those words to describe it.
The Arians believed that the creation of the Son was necessary for our own creation. Apart from the logical difficulties, which Athanasius points out ad absurdum, regarding the mediation needed to create the Son if he was a necessary mediator to the rest of creation, it makes God looks distant and uninvolved. “It is impious to suppose that He disdained, as if a humble task, Himself to form the creatures which came into being after the Son, for there is no pride in that God, who goes down with Jacob into Egypt, and for Abraham’s sake corrects Abimelech in behalf of Sara, and speaks face to face with Moses, who was but a man, and descends upon Mount Sinai, and by His secret grace fights for the people against Amalec.” Athanasius knows the Scripture as more than a formula. He knows the stories, and that the stories are about people, and that the God of the Bible—the eternally coexistent Triune God—was directly involved with them.
How, Athanasius wants to know, can the rest of humanity be considered the Father’s sons along with the Son, if the Son is a creature, too? According to the sort of creature the Arians say the Son is, he was necessary in order for us to be created, and we take our substance from him. But in that case we share substance with him only, and not with the Father, since the Arians are bound and determined to express the difference between the Son and the Father. In that case, Athanasius quips, we should be called the Son’s sons, and not sons of the Father.
Or how, he also wonders, can anyone speak of God creating his Only Begotten Son? On a human level, he points out, a man conceives a son from his substance, and a man builds a house, but you don’t say that the house bears the man’s image, nor do you try to assert that the son was made by, and not a part of, his father. Certainly the Son was created—but only his humanity, not his substance. He was necessarily always and forever divine. Once upon a time he became human as well. His entering creation from his divinity was what was necessary for our salvation, not his having been a creature from the start and pulling himself up by his bootstraps to show that the rest of us could. “And as we, by receiving the Spirit, do not lose our own proper substance, so the Lord, when made man for us, and bearing a body, was no less God; for He was not lessened by the envelopment of the body, but rather deified it and rendered it immortal.”
These are the things Athanasius understands as crucial to salvation: that we become God’s children because God entered his own creation himself to remake it and draw it back to himself. In the end, the trouble with Arianism, as with so many heresies, was that it gave humans too much credit, and didn’t give God enough. Athanasius knew that God could have just spoken to lift the curse. It was something implied by the Arian idea that Christ was humanity’s (un-unique) representative before God, instead of God himself bringing his own nature into humanity. But if God had just waved away the consequences of sin, grace would still be external to us and not a part of us as it has become from Christ’s sharing our nature. Most likely we would have sinned again, so the cycle would have had to repeat for all eternity.
God has come to us instead of waiting and demanding that we come to him. He has entered our reality and saved us himself, instead of sending a proxy. He has become personally involved. “He was not first man and then became God, but He was God and then became man, and that in order to make us gods. Otherwise, if only when He became man, He was called Son and God, yet before He became man, God called the ancient people sons . . . it is plain that He is called Son and God later than they.” Something about the Arian time-line is definitely inconsistent if the Son becomes a part of time. It is difficult to see how a finite Christ’s righteousness and title could really have any bearing on the generations before him, let alone the ones after. On the other hand, an always-existent, divine Christ can cover all of humanity, having infused it, past and future, with his own perfect nature.
“For of this was man’s nature in want, because of the degradation of the flesh and of death. Since then the Word, being the Image of the Father and immortal, took the form of a servant, and as man underwent for us death in His own flesh . . . therefore also, as man, He is said because of us and for us to be highly exalted, that as by His death we all died in Christ, so again in Christ Himself we might be highly exalted, being raised from the dead and ascending into heaven . . . “
In the end, I’m still uncomfortable with bishops calling their flock to hate heretics. I know that heretics don’t always change, and that they can know Scripture better than some Christians and still not be open to the influence of the Holy Spirit to explain those Scriptures to their hearts. Athanasius himself observes, “ . . . but I cannot hope that those restless spirits will give up their opposition now any more than then. They will doubtless run about in search of other pretences, and of others again after those.” But the grace—the real grace—which God has offered us through Jesus, His Only Begotten, consubstantial Son, is too amazing and too important to keep silent about. I know I can’t change his mind, but I’m not content for Andrew—and many others like him—to remain in his own heresy. To that end, I will pray that the divine nature enters his own to remake it, and I will, as the opportunity arises, keep writing letters about Jesus, the coeternal Son of God.
Athanasius of Alexandria “Against Arius: Discourse 1,” in Select Treatises of St. Athanasius in Controversy with the Arians trans. John Henry Newman. 6th ed. vol. 1. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1895. 155-220.
Athanasius of Alexandria, “Athanasius,” in The Early Christian Fathers: A selection from the writings of the Fathers from St. Clement of Rome to St. Athanasius. ed. and trans. Henry Bettenson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956. 274-299.
Athanasius of Alexandria, “Epistle of Athanasius,” in Select Treatises of St. Athanasius in Controversy with the Arians. trans. John Henry Newman. 6th ed. vol. 1. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1895. 10-55.
Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church: The story of emergent Christianity from the apostolic age to the foundation of the Church of Rome. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1967.
Gregg, Robert C. and Dennis E. Groh. Early Arianism: A View of Salvation. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981.
Gonzalez, Justo L. A History of Christian Thought, rev. ed. vol. 1. From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970.
Krumm, John M. Modern Heresies. Greenwich, CT: The Seabury Press, Incorporated, 1961.
N****, Andrew. Personal correspondence. Email. 3 January 2010.
 Andrew N****, personal correspondence, email, 3 January 2010.
 Robert C. Gregg and Dennis E. Groh, Early Arianism: A View of Salvation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), ix.
 Ibid., x.
 Ibid., 117.
 Henry Chadwick, The Early Church: The story of emergent Christianity from the apostolic age to the foundation of the Church of Rome (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1967), 135.
 Ibid., 129.
 Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, rev. ed., vol. 1, From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970), 266.
 Chadwick, 136.
 Ibid., 134.
 Athanasius of Alexandria, “Epistle of Athanasius,” in Select Treatises of St. Athanasius in Controversy with the Arians, trans. John Henry Newman, 6th ed., vol. 1 (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1895), 11.
 Ibid., 14.
 Gregg and Groh, 8.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., 12.
 Chadwick, 128.
 Gonzalez, 273.
 Chadwick, 133.
 Gregg and Groh, 45.
 Chadwick, 134.
 Athanasius, “Epistle,” 12-13.
 Athanasius of Alexandria, “Against Arius: Discourse 1,” in Select Treatises of St. Athanasius in Controversy with the Arians, trans. John Henry Newman, 6th ed., vol. 1 (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1895), 162.
 Athanasius, “Discourse,” 208.
 John M. Krumm, Modern Heresies (Greenwich, CT: The Seabury Press, Incorporated, 1961), v.
 Ibid., 5.
 Athanasius, “Discourse,” 156.
 Gregg and Groh, 64.
 Gonzalez, 291.
 Ibid., 292.
 Gregg and Groh, 43.
 Ibid., 182.
 Gonzalez, 295-296.
 Athanasius, “Discourse,” 177.
 Athanasius, “Discourse,” 213.
 Athanasius, “Discourse,” 178.
 Athanasius, “Epistle,” 49-50.
 Athanasius, “Epistle,” 52-53.
 Athanasius, “Epistle,” 53-54.
 Krumm, 56-57.
 Athanasius, “Discourse,” 195-196.
 Athanasius, “Epistle,” 21.
 Athanasius, “Discourse,” 172.
 Athanasius, “Epistle,” 51.
 Athanasius, “Epistle,” 29.
 Athanasius, “Epistle,” 30.
 Gregg and Groh, 29-30.
 Athanasius of Alexandria, “Athanasius,” in The Early Christian Fathers: A selection from the writings of the Fathers from St. Clement of Rome to St. Athanasius, ed. and trans. Henry Bettenson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), 293.
 Athanasius, “Discourse,” 217.
 Athanasius, “Discourse,” 220.
 Athanasius, “Epistle,” 54.