The Theology of Athanasius Pt 1.

One can only begin to understand the enormous significance of the work of Athanasius when we place him in the whole context of the history of the church from the time of the Apostles through to the Nicene Council of 325AD through to the 7th Century.  The elements of his method highlight the sharpness of his intellect and the enormous example of the self-discipline that is required on our part to remain faithful to the object of our faith, Jesus Christ.  There is nothing new in the work of Athanasius. Rather, it is just a more refined and disciplined method of conveying the truth that had been handed down to us through the centuries beginning with the Apostles of Jesus Christ.  What is highlighted in Athanasius is the consistency of his approach to preserve the one rule of faith that we find in their exegesis of the two testaments of Scripture.  We see the same consistency in the Apostolic, Niceno/Constantinopolitan and Athanasian Creeds over the four councils, Councils of Nicaea, Constantinopolitan and Ephesus, in the first five centuries of the Church.

There was the strong and unshakable belief in the Incarnation of God, namely the very Person of Jesus Christ.  This was the Word of God who was in the very presence of the Father entering into our creaturely existence by making Himself human and existing in our time and space without ceasing to be who He eternally is in Himself.  For the first time in the whole of human history, God came to us in Person and proceeded to explain Himself face-to-face through His spoken Word and His actions.  Thus the very Being of God was put on public display for all to see. This meant we have God who, being God Himself, knows all things about God, teaching human beings the things of God i.e. the things of Himself. Jesus Christ is God speaking from the heart. Here in Matt. 11.27 (cf. Luke 10:22), “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” was taken very seriously right from the start.  Such a statement meant that ALL other ideas regarding who God is, or is not, what He can or can’t do are now obsolete. To continue with such ideas apart from Jesus Christ is to talk in a manner that is impious and godless.

Birthed in the heart of Jewish culture was the centre of knowledge of all the ways and works of God in the very Person and work of Jesus Christ who is of the same being with the Father.  His speech and action were the outworkings of the very substance of Father displaying to us who He is in Himself.  All truths about God and ourselves begin outside of our subjective fantasies and have their point of contact objectively in a centre from within God in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ is God’s Word to humanity while at the same time in His own Person, He is humanity’s response to God.

This Word of God through whom all things were made and in whom all things are held together is now a living breathing Human Being.  God intervened in human affairs for the sake of humanity through His sheer loving-kindness entirely for humanity’s benefit.  This meant God dialogued with humanity in creaturely language in a way that humanity could comprehend the Creator within the creaturely limitations of understanding.  This meant that for the first time in history, the study of God now had a point of which human observation could take place.

In Jesus Christ the whole context for understanding God resides in Him. Jesus Christ came onto the human scene thus creating a situation for which our understanding of God had a Source.  The Truth for our understanding of God now had a starting point in the heart of the very Being of The Triune God in Jesus Christ.  The reality of His testimony concerning the Truth of Himself flowed out so that faith now is the product of the Truth of all Truths with a particular starting point in Jesus Christ.  A new kind of conversation arose that turned all human ideas of God on its head.  “Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar,” (Rom. 3:4).  In fact, in Jesus Christ, every man is found to be a liar unless what they declare is the very same (ὁμόλογος) as what He declared to us.  Even the claims of the Jews at the time of Jesus Christ were found to be lies resulting in his betrayal and death. The testimony of Jesus Christ is the testimony of the truth of God.  To live a life of piety, holiness and sanctification took on a whole new meaning.  God has now ripped out the Tree of death by the roots reaching under our sin and depravity and has replaced it with His own Being, the Tree of Life.  His life has been inserted into the core of our being with His Truth resonating deep within our hearts. When we say the same thing (ὁμόλογος) as He is saying it is like playing in the same key as in music.  When we declare the same thing as Him to others, it now has the ‘ring of truth.’  Thus a life of piety, holiness and sanctification is to “say the same thing” (ὁμόλογος) as Christ.  We say the same thing because we trust His words as the Word of God from the centre of God’s own Being.  When we trust Jesus Christ, He reveals to us how precious we are in His sight, so precious that Jesus, the Father and the Spirit have made their home in us.  This love bestowed on us helps us to realise that every person is just as precious to Him in His sight.

The followers of Jesus Christ were comforted by the knowledge of God seated at the centre of their being is the Spirit of Christ who mediated the truth of God to them.  It was with the assurance that the objective centre for truth lies in no one but Jesus Christ.  The understanding there was a Supreme Being who was the ultimate Source of all things was widely held belief in the ancient world. Now the Christians  were declaring to the Pagans this Supreme Being has come as the Man, Jesus Christ. He has been seen, human hands have held Him, He has been heard and He has risen from the dead!  They delivered the conversation of this coming of the “Supreme Being,” the Man Jesus Christ into the Pagan world. This is now the reality of all things pertaining to God.  Now a shift had to occur in all those who had contrary ideas about the ways and works of God.  It was subjective fantasies, i.e. mythology, or precise knowledge of God through Jesus Christ i.e. theology as T F Torrance would say: “genuine knowledge that arises only within an intellectual experience of his transcendent reality and majesty, and is maintained in the continuous context of worship, prayer, holiness and godly living.  That is to say, God being God, the empirical and the theoretical, the religious and the theological, are ultimately and finally indivisible in our experience and knowledge of him” (Theology in Reconciliation, p. 248), i.e. theology.

The opposing conversations regarding who God was and what He could and could not do were constantly trying to offer so called correctives to the Christian faith.  We see strong warnings against this in the New Testament by Paul.  There was the constant attempt by the opponents to erode the significance of the Incarnation. With the extraordinary claims made by the Christian and the subsequent implications of the Incarnation destroyed any credibility of the heretics and their pagan ideas. As far as the scholars of the ancient world were concerned, the incarnation of a deity was absolutely impossible therefore the claims regarding Jesus Christ as the divine made human could not be true. By chipping away at this truth, these false teachers attempted to gain a foothold and thereby replace the mediatorial role of Jesus Christ with their subjective anti-Incarnational ideas.

What happens when we create a dualism, we are left with a vacuum that has to be filled.  This dualism has the idea of something like: God is too holy to look upon sin.  This weakens the Incarnation to the level that satisfies the dualism.  We hear other terms like, sin is separation from God. This is also weakens the implication of the Incarnation.  Once the reality of the Incarnation is undermined, other explanations had to fill the gap.  Instead of hearing the truth deep within us, we suddenly find ourselves dependant on those whom we believe should be in the know.  More often than not, this has led to an abuse of power through control and manipulation of their followers. With such a focus on sin, guilt and shame become the powerful tools to coerce followers to their every whim.  This still happens to this very day.

The battle to preserve the truth handed down by the Apostles began right from the start at Pentecost, continued on for the first few centuries into the Nicene period and still continues to this very day. When we read ancient church’s writings this was that explained the canonical texts (canon is means the “Rule of Faith) from this ancient period, this is what was taught to the working class of the day.  This was normal Christian conversation that was undertaken in homes, on the street corners, in the market places in a day-to-day conversational manner.  The heretics tried to infiltrate these communities and, through clever plays on words, through logic, cause and effect debates regarding the Incarnation, they attempted to get Christians to doubt what they believe and lead them to believe something else.  Through the centuries these conversations were running alongside heretical attempts to distort the truth.  However, around about the 7th century, the conversations of the pagan world started to have an impact on the Christian tradition.  The reality of the Incarnation began to be undermined little by little.  Today, in mainstream Christianity, our understanding of the significance of the Incarnation of God in the Person and work of Jesus Christ is a far cry from what the ancient church believed.  What was taken for granted in this period as the Truth and “saying the same thing” (ὁμόλογος) as Jesus Christ is now treated with grave suspicion by the mainstream church.

The rule of faith in the ancient church is grounded on the Incarnation of God and is disclosed to us in the Scriptures through the Person and work of Jesus Christ.  The premise and the beginning of all theological conversation begins with Jesus Christ and it is from Him we learn all the ways and works of God.  Godly talk is speaking the same as Jesus Christ who tells us in Person, face-to-face, things that are from the depths of God’s own being because He Himself is God speaking to us on His own behalf.  All knowledge of the Father is disclosed in Jesus Christ. All knowledge of the Spirit is disclosed in Jesus Christ whom we declare is the Spirit of Christ.  No one knows the Father except Jesus Christ and no one knows Jesus Christ except the Father.  Therefore the “rock of faith” from which all the truths that can be drawn from regarding the ways and works of God is the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ.  This we find unwavering in the writings of the early church particularly in Irenaeus, Against Heresies and the Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching with the very same framework of thought in the writings of Athanasius.

If we allow ourselves the time to read through Irenaeus’ Against Heresies and allow ourselves to be guided by T F Torrance in his book The Trinitarian Faith, particularly the footnotes on pages 31-34 (2nd edition pub 1997), we find the same kind of focus on the apostolic tradition with Jesus Christ as the rock of faith as we do in Athanasius in the 4th century.  Considering Irenaeus was once a student of Polycarp and Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John, Irenaeus is a good place to start to gain a grasp on the foundational truths of Athanasius and the other Nicene fathers. Irenaeus goes through the heresies of his day in some detail.  What we find are the heresies of his day are very much the same heresies of our day.  These are not new heresies, just old heresies dressed in new clothing. There are many wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing in the church today where these people do not realise they are wolves in sheep’s clothing.

The aim of the community who are involved in Trinity in You is to highlight this significant period of history as the way to bring a unity of faith.  That is faith as the fathers defined, faith as the product of Truth.  Truth here is not a set of carefully defined points of truth laid out in a statement of belief. Rather, the Truth here is The Person of Jesus Christ who in Himself reveals to us God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Three in One and the One in Three.  The Son, Jesus Christ, is the Incarnate Son of God who meets us face-to-face and gives us insights into the Truth of the Triune God.  It is the Truth delivered to us His way as He Himself declared, I am the way, the truth and the life. There is no other place in the entire universe where the knowledge of God can be found except in Jesus Christ.  We meet Him and we learn from Him.

We have put together a footnote study of T F Torrance’s The Trinitarian Faith.  This is a helpful study guide to begin to understand the thought of the early church and what it is they actually believed.  Reading this book in conjunction with the footnote links on this website will help us understand the conversation that was going on in the ancient church.  If you have the book click here to begin the fascinating journey into the mind of the ancient church