Athanasius was the key figure in the fourth century who brought about the resounding defeat of Arius and his followers. The ideas proposed by Arius have had far reaching effects even to this day. There is enough of Arianism today to have filled the gospel with such confusion and misinformation creating many divisions within the body. So subtle are these heresies that even the very elect within the denominations are not even aware of the inconsistencies between their doctrines compared with the one doctrine of the ancient church. Many are not aware of how enormous the inconsistencies are between their rigidly held doctrines strung tightly by logically strung scriptures compared with the whole scope of Scripture. The main reason for this is the very Person and work of Jesus Christ has been so severely eroded that He no longer becomes the object for which we draw truths about God. In the very same way Newtonian mechanics are more concerned with theories rather than the reality enclosed in the object, evangelicalism is more concerned with trying to understand “God”—apart from Jesus Christ—endeavouring to draw truths from within the darkness of their own imaginations. Even though Jesus Christ is the only proof that God exists, the central significance of the Word made flesh bares very little or no significance at all. To better understand the problems of the Arian influence on modern theology, it would be best to go back to the fourth century to see what it is that Arius believed.
At this time Arius was a presbyter in Alexandria in Northern Africa which was presided over by Bishop Alexander. As far as Arius was concerned Alexander appeared to have a confused idea between the relationship of the Father and the Son, especially concerning the status of the Son. He may have feared that Alexander was heading to some form of Sabellianism. Alexander always insisted, as Arius complained in a letter to Eusebius of Nicodemia, “The Son is God Himself . . . ” and “The Son exists unbegottenly with God.” For some peculiar reason, Arius was acting as if he had some exclusive information that only he was privileged to know. He stood in the midst of a very strong Apostolic tradition and put forward a view that cut across the widely accepted and understood meaning of the Incarnation. His mind was firmly set in the Hellenistic worldview. Arius had a deep concern for what is God and what is not God. Rather than follow what is steeped in tradition and has been handed down through the centuries from the Apostles themselves, Arius incorporated the absolute distinction between Jesus who is begotten and God who is unbegotten. He concluded on this basis that Jesus is not the unbegotten God and therefore is made. He claimed, There was a time when he was not. To make Jesus Christ unbegotten, or co-eternal with the Father, then he must somehow be identical with Him, making God divisible and destroy its simple uniqueness. From his own philosophical standpoint, which had significant support in this period of history, the Incarnation of God was impossible so the term homoousios (of the same being) was rejected.
This is the classic example of how the Newtonian mechanical mind works. Arius did not begin with Jesus Christ. He started with a philosophical theory and not the object which is central to the ancient church. Whereas the church was focussing on Jesus Christ and allowing Him alone to disclose to all the facts of Himself, Arius rejected them all and made their object, Jesus Christ, fit into his theory. In Arius’ own mind, there was a qualitative difference between what is of God and what is not of God. That is the created and the Uncreated. To maintain this divide, Arius inserted his premise into his christology. Tradition was rejected. It came down to these ideas: That which has a cause or source from outside itself and that which has not a cause or source outside itself. Arius could not conceive any possibility that the two could come together as we see in the Incarnation. If we believe the Incarnation to be true, then the Creator became the Creature, or, the One who creates all things, allows Himself to become one of the very human beings He created through an act of the Holy Spirit by means of human birth. It was right here that Arius rejected much of the tradition.
The purpose of the Council of Niceae held in 325AD was to exclude, in the strongest possible way, any teaching of Arius in whatever form. After much debate, it was decided that the term homoousios to Patros (of the same being with the Father) be introduced into the Creed. This term was enormously controversial as it was an unbiblical one. In fact another term, homooisios (like, or similar to, the being) was discussed. However, when the bishops realised the Arian camp would rather have this term because there was the capacity to describe how unlike or dissimilar the Son is to the Father, it was agreed, not without some reservations, homoousios would be the preferred term. In this way, it could clearly be stated that what this term represented was the very same teaching that was handed to them by the apostles themselves.
The reason why Arius was so resoundingly defeated at the Nicene Council came down to one thing: The missing element in his whole scheme was God Himself. God is remote, distant and silent. He resides in His own serenity whose being does not change and is not moved. On the contrary, God who is described in the Old and New Testaments God speaks and acts as the Holy One among Israel (Lev. 26.12; Zech. 2.10-11; Is. 5.19; 12.6; 43.5; Hosea 11.9 etc.). It is especially evident in the New Testament when Jesus is given the title Immanuel or “God is with us” (Matt. 1.22). For the church, they begin with Scripture as the reliable testimony of God who acts in history and is present in a world which He calls His own. As far as the church was concerned, this was the foundational reality upon which all teaching is built on. Not just Scripture itself, but who it is the Scripture points to.
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.
On the other hand, Arius could not conceive of Jesus being such a reality of God as the ancient church claimed Him to be. Therefore Arius is starting in unreality and is trying to turn it into reality. His theory becomes more important than the stark reality of Jesus Christ, God with us. Athanasius battle against Arius and his followers was from the reality of the Object of which Scripture testifies. Arius believed his unreality. He was not able to comprehend that the god he believed in did not exist. For Athanasius the reality of God was fully disclosed in Jesus Christ. If the whole theme of the New Testament means Jesus Christ is the Incarnation of God, then an appeal to any other god besides Him must be counted as a false god.
The theory Arius held was more important to him. He had to change the structure of Scripture just so his theory could be held together. This was the very same problem prior to the changes in scientific methods brought about by Maxwell and Einstein. In physics, the theory was more important than the reality under observation. Experimentations carried out were only believed if the results corresponded with the theory. When Maxwell and Einstein trusted the reliability of what their object disclosed, the theories that followed best reflected the internal structures of the object they studied. Arius would only accept that Jesus was a created intermediary between God and creation according to his own theory. Thereby God had no direct connection with creation. Strings of text where logically ordered together to make it sound as if his theory was a fact. However, Athanasius begins with the fact of the Word made flesh and allowed God’s own self-communication in Jesus Christ to disclose to Him the facts of the ways and works of God in relation to creation. It is through the lens of this Reality that the whole scope of Scripture is interpreted. For Arius, his mythological structure filtered through the Scriptures manipulating and changing their original intention and undermining the integrity of Jesus Christ. For Athanasius, the way the truth and the life of God pulsated through the Scriptures so the original intention could shine through, the integrity of Jesus Christ was upheld and the very same that the Apostles taught was preserved. Time and time again Athanasius appeals to the Apostolic tradition, that which was taught from the very beginning.
De syn 5 ‘Thus believes the Catholic Church;’ and there upon they confessed how they believed, in order to show that their own sentiments were not novel, but Apostolical; and what they wrote down was no discovery of theirs, but is the same as was taught by the Apostles.
Ad Serapion 1.28 But, beyond these sayings, let us look at the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers kept. Upon this the Church is founded, and he who should fall away from it would not be a Christian, and should no longer be so called.
Ad Afros 1. The letters are sufficient which were written by our beloved fellow-minister Damasus, bishop of the Great Rome, and the large number of bishops who assembled along with him; and equally so are those of the other synods which were held, both in Gaul and in Italy, concerning the sound Faith which Christ gave us, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers, who met at Nicæa from all this world of ours, have handed down.
Fest Epistle 2.7 For as each of the saints has received, that they impart without alteration, for the confirmation of the doctrine of the mysteries. Of these the (divine) word would have us disciples, and these should of right be our teachers, and to them only is it necessary to give heed, for of them only is ‘the word faithful and worthy of all acceptation;’ these not being disciples because they heard from others, but being eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word, that which they had heard from Him have they handed down.
I know I have discussed this in a previous post. However, I believe it is crucial to grasp the enormous significance of what happened at the Nicene Council. If we try to push this aside then we are pushing aside the apostolic tradition. The Creed that came about as a result of this council was a concise summary of what the church believed. It was not something new nor a construction of novel ideas. It was something carefully structured as to faithfully represent what was originally handed to them by the apostles themselves. One can trace such statements in this creed back through the fathers to the apostles themselves and see the consistency with which the church steadfast in what it is they believed. Our freedom from the tyranny of moral/judicial based religion is its ability to understand the unity of being between the Father and the Son as well as the Son and His own humanity which was in our likeness. The Nicene Creed represents an announcement that Jesus Christ is the one and only source for our seeing and understanding all the ways and works of God. As light is the fixed invariant object in physics so the Incarnate Jesus Christ is our Light and likewise is the fixed invariant object from which all the truths about God begin and are drawn.
Particular attention must be paid to the term homoousios. This term means of the same being. At the time of the Nicene Council in 325AD, it appeared to have been adopted with considerable reservations. As the decades rolled on after the Nicene Council, many distanced and divided themselves from the concept of homoousios. However, other heresies started to rise such as; Apollinarianism—Christ did not assume a human mind as the human mind was replaced by the divine mind—and then Nestorianism—where Jesus had two natures, one divine and one human. Thus Mary was the mother of Jesus and not the Mother of God. There were other premises that tried to press in and corrupt the ancient truth. It began to emerge that the term homoousios was so very important in upholding what the fathers called the bond of faith, that which firmly fixed Jesus Christ as the invariant, dynamic point from which all the ways and works of God is to be drawn. Eventually there was a shift from concerns with the word itself towards an understanding of the power of what the word stood for. For the church this term meant that faith in Jesus Christ is simultaneous with having faith in God, equally with the Father. It meant God acted and spoke in the Person of Jesus Christ and it is through Him all things were made making Him Creator, equally with the Father. When we say through Him, we mean Jesus Christ had a direct hand and action in creating the universe and all that is in it. As we encounter Him, we have access to real and authentic knowledge of God. Furthermore, it meant the human nature of Jesus Christ was assumed into His divine nature. This did not mean one nature dissolved into the other. Rather it meant the divinity of Jesus and His humanity acted as one.
The one bone of contention of the heretics revolves around what they considered to be enormous problems with the Incarnation. If they could somehow convince the church the impossibility of such an event, then they could gain the control and power they so desperately desired. All heresies in one way or another will downplay and undermine the incarnation at varying degrees to suit whatever premise they are driving. This is why T F Torrance says there are no new heresies, just the same old heresies dressed in new clothes. If there is any disregard for the Incarnation in anyway whatsoever, then we can be sure that what follows are close friends with Arius and all his contemporaries throughout history.
With the many heresies that tried to infiltrate the Apostolic tradition and change it, the church fathers found themselves faced with the extremely subtle, deceitful methods of invention. Though widely considered the most accurate way, the fathers endeavoured to remain entirely within the scope of Scripture. This left the very tradition the fathers endeavoured to preserve open to manipulation and twisting of its intended meaning. The non-biblical term homoousios was introduced as a safeguard against those who attempted to corrupt the truth. The heretics utterly protested to this term purely on the basis that it was non-biblical. Yet the heretics often used non-biblical methods and words to support their heretical views. On the one hand, there came a tug of war to avoid a slide into Arianism in all its forms. Some preferred the term homoiousios, meaning like the father. This could easily play into the hands of the Arians. On the other hand, many tried to avoid the word homoousios for the fear of sliding into Sabellianism. There was much confusion as to which direction orthodoxy should go and by trying to turn anywhere else but the term homoousios left doors open for heretics to gain a foothold and corrupt the Apostolic truth. The decades following the Council of Nicaea put the word homoousios under much rigorous testing and clarification so that its purpose was made clear. By the Council of Constantinople in 381AD the term homoousios was affirmed as the most suitable way to preserve the faith.
By finally adopting homoousios to Patri (ὁμοούσιοσ τῷ Πατρί) as the universal means of defining the relationship between the Father and the Son and agree on what the word stood for, it was now possible to have a universal confession that preserved the very faith that was consistent with what was handed to them by the Apostles. Of the same being preserves the inherent being and nature of God within the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Therefore, to seek true knowledge of God begins in Him and is accessible to all. What one says about the Christian God can be tested against the rule of faith which is Jesus Christ Himself. If we move away from Him, then the knowledge of God becomes empty. If the Godness of Jesus Christ is undermined and removed partly or completely, then we have nothing but theories and presuppositions in the heart of humanity’s fantasies. The Christian rule then becomes whatever anyone wants it to be. The term homoousios broadens our picture of who God is and brings us more clarity and detail on what is contained in that picture. Not only do we each see it but we see it collectively. We also hear collectively what the picture is trying to tell us. Firstly it shows us the bond between the being of the Son and the being of the Father is one. Secondly it shows us the bond between the divinity of Jesus and His humanity operates as one so the word and acts of Jesus Christ are the actual words and acts of God. Thirdly, it shows us Jesus Christ is also united to our mortal being and nature. Fourthly, it shows that Jesus Christ is intrinsically connected to the very fabric of all creation.
If the homoousion is not true, the picture disappears and it is restricted according to a particular opinion and a particular idea at the hands of the one who proposes them. In the church today, we have 30000+ denominations with as many and varied opinions and ideas. Many of them do not have a fixed rule of faith accessible to all. I obviously cannot speak for all the denominations but speaking generally we find a logical bridge is built between the theoretical theological principles based on selected strings of scriptures and a god they have created in their own minds. For as long as Jesus Christ is ignored as the one and only source for all the ways and works of God, knowledge is placed in the hands of the dark motives of ordinary human beings and becomes powerless. God forbid! Let God be true and every man a liar (Rom. 3.4). As we seek clarity on the ways and works of God, in the end, we must treat every human being, I mean literally every single one of us, as if we are in total darkness to the ways and works of God. The only light that is shed in our minds has its source in our true God, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The truth of such a phrase as homoousios to Patri (ὁμοούσιοσ τῷ Πατρί), ie of the same being with the Father, give us the assurance that the light which shines forth from out of the being of the Man, Jesus Christ, is the very same light which shines forth from out of the being of the Father. It is this one God in whom the Son appeared to us as this Man, Jesus Christ, is the one shining light who shines in the darkness of humanity. As we come into the light, we declare Him to be true and as we assent to His knowledge we become partakers and witnesses of the light of which we share by grace. By maintaining Jesus Christ’s union with the Father and the rule which determines the manner in which we speak of Him, then our language is transformed, which the father’s described as Godliness. We speak the same as Jesus Christ, our true God, speaks. When we speak Christ’s language as the one true God, then we speak as if He is speaking through us. When we allow Him to speak through us, then we cannot help but speak the very same as was handed down by the Apostles. It is the reality of the Word made flesh in His identity of being with the Father that gives us the scope of the whole message of Scripture. When we hold this to be true and we willingly come to this knowledge then our language will reflect the reality of the object we testify to.
Athanasius used such practice in his many writings defending the faith against the Arians. Ignore the reality of Jesus Christ as the fundamental point from which all truth is measured and they walk in darkness. The language of God is muted and whatever is said is anyone’s guess. Turn from darkness and embrace the reality of the unity of being between Jesus Christ and the Father then it is the light of Christ that shines when they speak. The language that follows is the empirical understanding of the knowledge of God that is precisely reflected in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. This is what he says in Contra Arianos 3:29:
Now the scope and character of Holy Scripture, as we have often said, is this,–it contains a double account of the Saviour; that He was ever God, and is the Son, being the Father’s Word and Radiance and Wisdom; and that afterwards for us He took flesh of a Virgin, Mary Bearer of God, and was made man. And this scope is to be found throughout inspired Scripture, as the Lord Himself has said, Search the Scriptures, for they are they which testify of Me [John 5.39].’ But lest I should exceed in writing, by bringing together all the passages on the subject, let it suffice to mention as a specimen, first John saying, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was made not one thing [John 1.1-3];’ next, And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of one Only-begotten from the Father [John 1.14];’ and next Paul writing, Who being in the form of God, thought it not a prize to be equal with God, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and being found in fashion like a man, He humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross [Phil 2.6-8] .’ Any one, beginning with these passages and going through the whole of the Scripture upon the interpretation which they suggest, will perceive how in the beginning the Father said to Him, Let there be light,’ and Let there be a firmament,’ and Let us make man [Gen. 1.3, 6, 26] ;’ but in fulness of the ages, He sent Him into the world, not that He might judge the world, but that the world by Him might be saved, and how it is written Behold, the Virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a Son, and they shall call his Name Emmanuel, which, being interpreted, is God with us [Matt. 1.23] .’