Arius’ Heresy, the Council of Nicea, and Athanasius

Over the month of December, I want to explore St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word of God as a defense of the divinity of Christ and His work in entering in to our sinful calamity to save us from our sins and damnation. I would like to put up smaller posts that has quotes from others, thoughts, and basic research instead of putting together massive posts that lay everything out altogether.
The Council of Nicea was called by Emperor Constantine in 325 AD to address the claims of Arius and his followers, who were basically saying that Jesus was less than God the Father. Athansius (298-373), who later became the Bishop of Alexandria but at this time was a deacon to the bishop, opposed Arius and his teaching. Here is a brief summary of what happened at Nicea from Justin Holcomb’s Know Your Creeds and Confessions:
In Alexandria in AD 318, a presbyter (elder) named Arius began publicly proclaiming his theory that Jesus was not God at all, only a celestial servant of the true Most High God, who alone was almighty, transcendent, the creator and first cause of all things. After all, Jesus was prone to emotion (as opposed to the Father, who was always in control of his emotions), grew and learned (as opposed to the Father, who never changed), and died (as opposed to the Father, who is immortal). Only the Father could be considered uncreated and “timelessly self-subsistent.”

Arius thought that his interpretation had good footing in the theology of the great teacher Origen of the prior century. Origen had said that the Father was due glory and reverence as God himself (autotheos) that was not due to the Son. Arius’s bishop, Alexander, disagreed, pointing out that Origen also said “Father” is an eternal attribute of God. This means two things: first, since it’s not possible to be a father without also having offspring, the fact that God is eternally a father means that he eternally has a son. Furthermore, Alexander pointed out, God is perfect and not subject to change, so how could God change from not being a father to being a father? In attempting to preserve the dignity of the Father, Arius was tampering with some of the crucial distinctions that separate God from humanity…

…If Christianity had agreed with Arius that Jesus could be a lesser god — if it had failed to defend monotheism, if it had fallen into the trench of professing three unrelated deities — it may have dissolved into the religion of Rome and its pantheons of false gods. If the early Christians had lost their nerve and conceded the “lesser divinity” of Jesus, whatever that might mean, then the work of God in Christ for our salvation would have been rendered meaningless. No mere man, nor half god, could possibly intervene to save fallen and sinful humanity, let alone restore all of creation. Only the Creator can enter creation to fix its brokenness and redeem its original, latent purpose. Athanasius explored this truth in On the Incarnation, defending the claim that the Father and the Son share one common substance (homoousios). Only the Creator can recreate. Only the Maker can remake. Only God can save us from our sins.

We will begin to look at On the Incarnation soon, but the background is needed, obviously. It was said that Athanasius stood “contra mundum,” or Against the World. He was sent into exile five times for his beliefs because succeeding emperors did not agree with him. We’ll explore how he articulated his perspective on the Divinity of Christ and how that was demonstrated through the Incarnation, which is what Christmas is all about. As Holcomb says, “Only the Creator can enter creation to fix its brokenness and redeem its original, latent purpose.” Here, we see Athanasius argue backwards from the Incarnation back to divinity just as Paul did with the Resurrection when he says in 1 Corinthians 15 that if WE are not raised from the dead then Christ was not resurrected because the two are tied together.

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19 ESV)

In the same way, the very salvation that we proclaim means that Jesus must be God because only the Creator could fix the Creation. There is no way that Jesus could be a Savior for us if He was not of the same essence/substance as the Father, yet distinct in His personhood. Some doctrines are worth fighting and living and dying for and we can be thankful that Athanasius stood for the divinity of Christ when it was under assualt in the early church.

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