Old Dead Guys Notes #3 – Athanasius

Old Dead Guys Note #3—Athanasius

John Wiers, PhD 2020


  1. R. Olson– “It may not be much of an exaggeration to say that all Christians have Athanasius to thank that the theology of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is not orthodoxy of most of Christendom.”
  • He was the great champion of the deity of Christ during a very tumultuous period of early church history.
  • He was a native of Egypt and was born in a little village along the Nile; Coptic was his native tongue.
  • His opponents called him the “dark little dwarf.”
  • His name means “immortal”
  • Most of the opponents in theological debate likely saw him as a quarrelsome and inflexible single-minded controversialist.  Many of the bishops, who had signed the original Nicene Creed, didn’t always like Athanasius calling some of their friends heretics. 

7. Not all modern church historian like him either.  One called him a “little gangster.’

  • If some theologians are known for their panoramic visions, Athanasius was noted for his dogged determinism to defend one key doctrine. 
  • He was exiled 5 times during his career, the longest in Trier which is on the border between modern Germany and Luxembourg and was among the farthest outposts of the Roman Empire.

10. This is crucial because modern evangelicals often unwittingly believe heretical Christologies and Trinitarian doctrine– cf. evangelical theologian Christopher Hall– “95% of the students I quiz on basic knowledge of the Trinity respond in terms of classical heresies.’

I. Basic outline of his life

  1. Born sometime between 295-298 and died in 373.  Most of his ministry was in Alexandria, the key cultural and theological city of Egypt and would become one of the patriarchal cities of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
  • He likely witnessed the last. Longest and greatest period of persecution under emperor Diocletian before it was ended in 313 with the Edict of Milan.
  • While most of his early training was saturation in scripture, he also received a good classical education.  Later theologian Gregory of Nazianzus, who was influential in formulating Trinitarian and Christological doctrine, said that he had meditated on every book of the Old and New Testament to a depth that no one else had applied them. 
  • He became a deacon and attended the Council of Nicaea as a theological assistant to Alexandrian bishop Alexander, who was a voting delegate to the Council of Nicaea called in 325 by Emperor Constantine in an attempt to stop the furious debates on the deity of Christ.  A scuffle actually broke out at that Council.  St Nicolas was supposed to have punched Arius on the nose during that scuffle.
  • He succeeded Alexander as bishop of Alexandria by popular acclamation in 328, but he wouldn’t compromise with the Arian party- -Arius had been a presbytery in Alexander and died one day before he was to be restored to office by official decree (some have claimed he was poisoned) — and they plotted to get rid of him.
  • Although not above using intimidation himself, he was the brunt of it when the Arian party– Arius died in 336– accused him of murder of bishop Arsemius through the use of black magic.  The bishop had connived with the Arians and gone into hiding.
  • They also accused him of levying illegal taxes. 
  • He was exonerated at the Council of Tyre, but was again accused of plotting to keep Alexandrian grain from reaching Rome and Constantine had him exile.  His first exile was short, but he likely wrote his most famous popular work, On the Incarnation during that first exile.
  1. In 339 he was forced to flee again, and went to Rome where he established contacts with the Western church which would overall be supportive.
  • One of the bishops who succeeded him was actually lynched by a mob. 
  • In 346 he was restored again, but the 2 sons who had succeeded Constantine as co-emperors disagreed about him and almost went to war over it.  In 356 he was again driven into hiding until 361.   The church where he was leading services had been surrounded by over 1,000 soldiers and only the help of the congregation snuck him out in the chaos before they could arrest him.  His replacement as bishop, George, had been a pork salesman before he was made bishop. The monks in the desert often hid him and moved him from place to place.  The people had thronged to hear his voice when he returned after this exile. 
  •  He had one more short exile under the reign of Emperor Julian in 362-363 and a final exile in 363-364.  
  • His last years were spent building up a pro-Nicene party and after his death orthodoxy triumphed at the Council of Constantinople in 381 that gave us the expanded version of the Nicene Creed that is used today.

II. His work as theologian

  1. He wrote a number of treatises.  His most well-known work was On the Incarnation— one of the best modern versions has an introduction by C. S. Lewis.
  • We know he wrote a number of biblical commentaries, but only fragments are still around of those.
  • He wrote 4 Discourses Against the Arians, his major polemical works.
  •  He also wrote a number of letters, a number of which have rich theological content, including his most developed thoughts on the Holy Spirit, which is underdeveloped elsewhere.
  •  He wrote a treatise advocating the benefits of virginity– one source in the early church claimed that a great revival had broken out because a large number of young people had taken vows of chastity. 
  • He also wrote a Life of St Anthony, the great desert hermit monk.  It was this work that most impressed Augustine and led him to decide to live a life of celibacy after his conversion.

III. Arianism

  1. Not so much a unified theology as a group of related thinkers who were unwilling to say that Christ was fully divine.  Arius was their early key spokesman, but was more of a figurehead to rally around after he died, although he wrote great ditties that became popular among the crowds and set forth his doctrine.
  • Arianism at its root was philosophical, although they could quote favorite Bible texts when needed– Proverbs 8 and the texts that speak of Jesus not knowing the time of his 2nd advent were favorites.
  • 4 key propositions of Arius

          1.  Christ the Word must be a creature whom God the Father has made out of nothing

          2. As a creature Christ the Word must have had a beginning: ‘there was a time when He was not.”

          3. The Son, therefore can have no communion with or direct knowledge of the Father.  Being a creature, and of a different order of existence, He cannot comprehend infinite God.

          4. The Son must therefore be liable to change and to sin.

  •  The most central idea about God for the Arians was that God was “unoriginated” and thus the Son could not be divine if He is “begotten.”  It was this notion of God that Athanasius would challenge. He would also chide them that this word was extra-biblical as well.
  • Much of the debate would revolve around 2 different Greek words, homoousios (of the same substance) and homooisios (of similar substance).  Critiques have often joked that this was a debate over a single Greek letter!  Both were extra-biblical words and Athanasius was heavily criticized for this by some Arians and semi-Arians  who claimed the high ground by avoiding the use of either.
  • Many were willing to use the latter term because they were afraid of falling into an earlier heresy, Sabellian modalism which had said that the 3 persons of the Trinity were the same being, put  just appearing in different Prosopans (faces).  Sort of like a cosmic Transmogrifier. 
  • Athanasius would argue that one could see the Son as of being of “one substance” with the Father– the words of the Nicene Creed, without falling into Sabellianism.
  • Athanasius had the support of many– the monk Anthony said Arianism was the “worst of heresies”– but many bishops were looking for a compromise and political leaders waffled back and forth.
  1.  Arianism attempted to give simple answers to simple questions and ended up supporting a serious heresy. 
  • Arianism had a popular following and Arius taught simple little songs that were easily memorized and taught his beliefs showing the power of music.

III.  Key themes in Athanasius

  1. He refused to let philosophy determine the meaning of the terms- i.e. he argued that begotten had a distinctly theological meaning when referring to God and should not be determined by human notions of begetting.  In this sense he was showing that theological language must necessarily be analogical.
  • He focused on the incarnation because he argued that it was essential to salvation.  His basic argument with Arianism was that it could not provide any real salvation or any real relationship to God in any meaningful sense.
  • He sometimes worked with themes similar to Justin Martyr (the Logos) and Irenaeus– many of I’s recapitulation themes will sound similar to themes developed by Athanasius, but he put more emphasis on the Father-Son relationship than either of those 2 did.
  • He works with a similar restoration of creation model as Irenaeus and is not afraid of using the term deification, although like Irenaeus, he maintains the Creator/creature distinction.
  • He works a lot with the idea of Christ as the true image of God and salvation as the restoration of the image.  Becoming adopted Sons of God who then become actually conformed to Christ is central to his argument.  His notion of the image of God was primarily knowledge and fellowship. 
  •  Much of his critique of Arianism is that it’s understanding of who Christ is simply can’t do that restoring work that we need.
  • 3 key arguments for the necessity of the incarnation from Athanasius
  • Humans had corrupted the image of God originally planned for them.
  • Our inner beings had become diseased.
  • We incurred a debt we could not repay.

h.      While Athanasius has some elements of paying the debt for sin, these are relatively underdeveloped and he focuses far more on the healing of the corruption that sin has brought.  Even his payment for sin, is much more spoken of in terms of paying the wages of death.

I. He  particularly emphasizes that because we have become polluted, simply granting forgiveness would not be sufficient.

K. He particularly emphasizes that Father is the eternal name for God.  He has always existed as Father and the Son has been eternally begotten.  While Athanasius held to the classical Christian notion that God was impassible– i.e. didn’t change or experience suffering– he didn’t see this in a static way as the Arians did.  Rather God was always relational– in that sense he would hint the direction Augustine would develop the Trinity.

L. His answer to the texts that the Arians liked to point out that seemed to imply that Christ while on earth was not fully divine, was to attribute those things to his human nature.  Some moderns have criticized him as having a Christology of “God in a space suit” and have claimed that he didn’t see Christ as having a real human soul– i.e. the latter Apollinarian heresy– but this has been shown to be inadequate. 

M. He frequently appealed to what he called the skopos-the scope- of scripture that showed that we ought to look at the person of Christ from more than one perspective to get the full picture. Arians tended to flatten it out, he believed.

N. He has been seen as coming close another later heresy, the Nestorian, which saw the person of Christ as almost 2 persons as well as 2 natures, but he never crosses the line.  He strains a few texts in his handling of the material, but overall his exegesis is very similar to that of most later orthodox Christology. 

O. He continually hammers the Arians that their Jesus really can’t save because he can’t bring one into the closest relationship with God.  Athanasius emphasized that seeing Christ as “of the same nature” as the Father meant that He could truly reveal the Father and draw humans into the closest of relationships with God.

P. The book of Hebrews contained some of the most popular texts he expounded in his writings, especially in his atonement theology in which he frequently expounded 2: 14ff about destroy the works of the devil and delivering us from the power of death through his partaking of flesh and blood.

Q. Where he was similar to Justin Martyr was when he talked about the Logos and said that the human soul had become illogical because it had rejected the Logos and had allowed our bodies to rule us.  The restoration of the image of God included restoring us to true reason. 

IV.  What we can learn from Athanasius

  1. He had theological limits–cf. John Piper
    1. He didn’t see the fullness of what Christ achieved on the cross in terms of law, guilt and justification
    1. Yet his emphasis on sonship clearly included an already/not yet emphasis, so that he could give real hope to believers.
  • He shows us that it’s important to have close links between creation, redemption and consummation for our theology to make sense. 
  • Piper– loving Christ includes loving propositions about Him.
  • He would have been appalled at those who continually say that doctrine divides, but Christ unites.  He would have answered with; ‘what Christ are you talking about.”
  • He showed that we need to use confessional/extra biblical terms to defend what the Bible teaches because in the name of Biblicism many actually deny biblical truth.
  • He shows us that it is dangerous to “paper over” theological differences when the gospel is really at stake. Cf. John Piper: “What if someone had said to Athanasius: ‘Athanasius, people have disagreed on this issue of Christ’s deity for 300 years, and there has never been an official position taken in the church to establish one side as orthodox and the other as heresy.  So who do you think you are?  Half the bishops in the world [an understatement] disagree with you and they read the same Bible you do.  So stop fighting this battle and let different views exist side by side.”
  •  He shows us that sometimes we have to appear “cantankerous” if vital truth is at stake. 
  •  He shows us that sometimes some of the most precious truths of scripture can be counter-intuitive to many and go against the prevailing popular and philosophical grains.  
  •  Many of the “simple answers” can be dead wrong. 
  1.  Sometimes those who contend for the truth of God will lose many short-term theological battles, but never give up– G. McDermott. 
  1.  “If the Arian parties are the Constantinian frontier outlaws, its sheriff must be Athanasius.” Matt Jenson. 
  1. C. S. Lewis sums up his life best: ‘He stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, whole and undefiled when it looked as if the whole 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, as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen.’