“ATHANASIUS CONTRA MUNDUM” (Athansius against the world) is the moniker given to the Saint we commemorate and venerate on 2 May. In the early years of the debates concerning Christology (the nature of Christ and his relationship to God) Athanasius stands out as the most significant person in the course of the development of our understanding of who Jesus was. As in all good dramas Athanasius thinking stood in opposition to that of another austere and talented priest whose ideas failed to prove true in the light of critical analysis. That being one Arius who became the father of Arianism whose cult took the position that our Lord, as second person of the Holy Trinity who was not equal to or of the same substance as God. This thinking was a derivative of the Platonic idea about the nature of God. ” If God is eternal and unknowable as Plato pictured him, Jesus Christ cannot be in the same sense God, since we know of him and of his deeds through the Gospels.(1) This meant then that since the supreme God is one, that Christ must in some respect come after and be other than the Father even if we accept that he was created or begotten before all worlds. Moreover, since the Father is indivisible , he cannot have created the Son out of himself; if the Son was crated before all things, it would therefore logically follow that he was created out of nothing. Arius Christ was inferior or subordinate to the Father . (2)
Arius theological notions became very controversial and he found himself condemned by a local synod of Egyptian Bishops. The controversy spread throughout the whole Church rendering it divided on the issue. The Emperor Constantine became furious as the division in the Church would threaten the stability of the Empire. Since the Edict of Milan in 313 the Christian Church had become the official Chruch of the Empire and as such one of its official voices. Therefore, unity of doctrine and unity behind those doctrines was essential for the empire’s political good. Constantine summoned a Council to the City of Nicaea (now the pleasant lakeside town of Iznik in modern day Turkey) and informed the delegates that they would enjoy the climate and also that he intended to “be present as a spectator and “participator in those things which will be done”( 3) This was a hint from the Emperor that all must go well and turn out “right”.
MacCulloch (4) notes that it was probably the Emperor Constantine himself, on the recommendation of his ecclesiastical advisor, a Spanish Bishop, Hosius of Cordova, who proposed one of the most significant clauses in the Creed which emerged as the Council’s agreed pronouncement : the statement that the the Son was of “one substance with the Father.”(known as homoousios) . While imposed by the Emperor and adopted by the Council unanimous acceptance of this doctrine did not come easily, It was largely through the efforts of Athanasius that universal acceptance of homoousios was achieved.
Athanasius was born in 295 in Alexandria. (5) and was ordained deacon in 319. He attracted notice for his opposition to Arius and was a key figure in bringing about acceptance of the “one substance” homoousios doctrine. He was “fixedly determined” to defend the doctrinal consensus on the nature of the divinity achieved at Nicaea . (6) At the heart of his thinking was a potent and paradoxical idea that sums up the fascination of Christianity’s idea of an incarnate God: the Son of God has made us sons of the Father, and defied men by becoming himself a man. (7) Athanasias showed remarkable political talent as he used categorizing (something our modern day politicians like to do all the time) as a tool to characterize his opponents in that he referred to them as Arians. (8)
When Bishop Alexander died in 328 Athanasius became Bishop. He fearlessly defended the Nicene Christology against emperors, magistrates, bishops and theologians. He often seemed to stand alone in what we consider the Orthodox faith . Five times he was sent into exile. during his last exile however his popularity among the citizens of Alexandria was so great that the Emperor had to recall him from exile to avoid insurrection.(9)
Athanasius wrote voluminously ” biblical interpretation, theological exposition, sermons, and letters. His treatise, On the Incarnation of the Word of God is still a widely read classic (10) In it he writes, “The Savior of us all, the Word of God, in his great love took to himself a body and loved as Man among men, meeting their senses, so to speak, half way. He became himself an object for the senses, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things might apprehend the Father through the works which he, the Word of God, did in the body. Human and human-minded as men were therefore, to whichever side they looked in the sensible world, they found themselves taught truth.”
(1) Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity The First Three Thousand Years (London 2010) see p. 213.
(3) ibid, 214
(5) Episcopal Church USA, Lesser Feasts and Fasts, (New York, 2000) p. 232.
(6) MacCulloch, p. 216
(9) Lesser Feats and Fasts, p.232