This is part of a series that will blog through Trevin Wax’s choices for Christianity’s Most Important Theologians. We will explore each to show why Trevin and others find these figures so influential.
Athanasius is the theologian people have always loved, though in recent years it has become fashionable to grudge him. Some of this anger is theologically motivated (he felt heresy in priests was grounds for excommunication) and some is culturally motivated (we sniff at his angry style of writing). Despite these concerns, Athanasius’ tone was not much worse than others in his own day, and so focusing on his theological ideas will yield a better impression of the man.
Athanasius was born in the city of Alexandria sometime in the 290s. The city was a culturally vital city for the Roman Empire, being both a major focal point for education as well as the breadbasket for much of the East. It is one of the rare cities that had intellectual leaders from paganism, Hellenistic Judaism, and Christianity—all drawn to the city’s philosophical schools and the fabled Library of Alexandria.
We know little about his education and family, so the earliest concrete evidence we have is when he entered the service of the bishop of Alexandria—a man conveniently named Alexander. Athanasius learned his theology and pastoral skills under Alexander as a deacon and eventually served as his secretary. He shadowed the bishop during the rise of the struggle against Arianism.
So as the Arian controversy arose, Athanasius still served in a support role until after the Council of Nicaea. He would later follow Alexander to the bishopric of Alexander, and much of his fame grew from these later years, as he championed orthodoxy against the ongoing efforts to support some of Arius’ conclusions. Nearly all of Athanasius’ works come from after Nicaea, and were used to clarify, defend, and encourage the orthodoxy of the Nicene Creed.
The Arian Controversy
Arianism was not a philosophy that sprang out of thin air. It came from a context based, on the one hand, on a reaction to an earlier heresy and, on the other hand, on theological ideas already in the bloodstream.
One of the earliest heresies from the 2nd century is what we today call Modalism. The central idea in Modalism is to solve the tensions in our language about the Trinity by collapsing Father, Son, and Spirit into a single being. This means that when the Bible talks of each of the persons of the Trinity these are masks or modes that God uses to reveal himself. Sometimes God shows up as Father, sometimes as Son, sometimes as Spirit. But there is no real difference between these modes, as they are all one God.
While it may sound logical, there is a problem in this idea: it ends up doing violence to the natural reading of the Bible. Jesus calling out to the Father on the cross, or the Father speaking of the Son at his baptism, or Jesus praying to the Father are now little more than a farce. God is calling out to himself, asking why he has abandoned himself. Jesus is praying to himself, not to his Father.
After the rejection of Modalism, many theologians began to work on language that helped separate Father, Son, and Spirit. They didn’t believe there were three gods but they nevertheless wanted to protect people from falling into Modalism. To do so, they stressed how the Father was not the Son, the Son not the Father, etc.
When Arius began to teach in Alexandria he fell into the same camp of ‘anti-Modalists’. His language, though, ended up on the other extreme: he argued that the Father alone was truly God and that the Son was the first and greatest creature made by the Father. This made sense to Arius because of the language of Father-Son: a father gives birth to his son and no one considers them to be the same being. Arius’ language though stressed that the Son did not always exist and was created. In other words, if you were to ask if the Son was really God, Arius would answer that he was not. He was a creature, made by God to accomplish salvation. The Son is more like us than he is like God.
In the end, this teaching by Arius gave rise to a controversy, first in Alexandria, then spilling out to other regions in the eastern Empire. In the end, the need for a council to decide the problem became necessary.
The Nicene Council (325 AD)
The Council of Nicaea was not the first time the church had met in a council to decide on a controversial issue. This had occurred in Acts 15:1-35. What made Nicaea unique was the fact that it was called and enforced by Emperor Constantine and it attempted to bring together bishops from all known parts of the Christian world. This was not a regional council, then, but one that would attempt a universal answer to a theological problem.
The council met and heard the claims of both Arius and Alexander. The debate was not as up in the air as it seems. Part of the council’s deliberations were spent understanding what Arius’ teachings actually were, since many were unaware of his theology. In the end, the council came down like a hammer on the idea that the Son was a creature, stating that the Son was ‘begotten, not made, of one being with the Father’.
It is common to hear that Athanasius played a key role at the council and had a hand in writing the creed. The truth is actually the opposite: Athanasius’ role in the council would have been nonessential. He was still the secretary for Bishop Alexander and so almost certainly would not have been allowed to speak, much less shape the creed itself.
Athanasius was nevertheless shaped by the debates over Arius and his teachings. Like most of those present, he saw the problems that come from describing the Son as a creature—namely, he cannot be our Lord and Savior. So after the council was over, and Arianism still on the rise in the East, Athanasius would come to devote his life to championing the orthodox teachings on the Trinity.
Athanasius the Theologian and Bishop
Alexander died and so Athanasius was elected to the bishopric of Alexandria on May 9th, 328. His election was immediately controversial, mostly because he was below the canonical age to take this office. He was also the target of opponents of the Nicene Creed, who worked to eliminate its conclusions of that the Father and Son were the same being. He also came up against Constantine’s son, now ruling the eastern half of the Empire. Athanasius was frequently portrayed by his enemies as a divisive, angry little bishop who was sowing division.
On five occasions Athanasius was banished from the city of Alexandria. He nevertheless remained unwavering in his commitment to the divinity of the Son. His most famous work today is On the Incarnation—a book more on the divinity of the Son before he took on flesh than on the incarnation itself.
The legacy of Athanasius, then, is based almost entirely on his heroic efforts to defend the divinity of the Son (and by extension the Spirit) against those whose theological reflections felt this was nonsensical. For Athanasius, the issue was not mere abstract reasoning, but the plain reading of the scriptures. Jesus is God himself come down, not a mediating creature. Therefore, while we believe God is one, we understand that he is three persons in relation to one another. We do not worship a creature or a man but God himself in human flesh.