Part Two: “My Lord and My God!” Arius Versus Athanasius and a Classic Apologetic

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Statue of Athanasius at Lichfield Cathedral, Staffordshire, England

Consequences of Arianism

A hidden premise, or rather a dangerous presumption, lies behind the denial of Jesus’s divinity:  If Jesus is not fully divine, as Arius taught, then he is merely a “perfect creature [that] only models for us the way for us to salvation.”[1]  The picture that Jesus is only a creaturely example engenders a false assumption that if we simply try harder, we can earn salvation.  Instead of through grace that is given by God, salvation is placed on the perilous path of a works based system. “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9). [2] “One can hardly think too little of one’s self” wrote Chesterton of this paradox, and yet “one can hardly think too much of one’s soul.”[3]

More importantly, such a denial diminishes the offense of sin.  In his book, Studies in Doctrine, Alister McGrath notes that “Arius was perfectly prepared to accept that we are redeemed only through Christ.”[4] Still, he writes that ultimately “it meant that one creature (Jesus Christ) was held to be able to redeem other creatures (sinners).”[5] This lessens the depths of our depravity by lowering the terms of the atonement to the level of a created being. The idea that anything less than absolute and infinite perfection could atone for sin, in the long run, either lessens the need for the atonement or decreases the results of the atonement. In the end, Arianism inadvertently downplays the moral seriousness of sin as compared to God’s goodness.[6]

Ultimately, the disciple’s unambiguous exclamation after touching the side of the risen Jesus must be explained away with a whole host of other scriptures.[7] Hart notes that, “the Arian position was untenable because it reduced to incoherence the Christian story of redemption as it had been understood, proclaimed, prayed, and lived for generations.”[8] It necessarily diminished the truth that the atonement was more than a transaction, but a means by which the infinite divide between God and us – something the Neo-Platonists correctly intuited – was bridged by the Infinite himself – a feat that the Neo-Platonists thought impossible. God alone could bring about such a mysterious reconciliation and even adoption (Ephesians 1).[9]

In the quest to fit the gospel within the hierarchical cosmos of antiquity, the very truth that the Creator of the universe was willing to humble himself in such way in order to rescue us is obscured (Philippians 2).[10] In the end, ironically, the Creator of reality is limited by his own transcendence. God, whom we are to understand is Love itself, cannot enter the works of his own hands in order to demonstrate his love for us. Arianism denied the sin-torn world, yearning for transcendence, the healing balm it desperately needed. It declared that creation was too fallen and its creatures too stained to contain the presence of its creator. Hart writes that in the Arian view (in accordance with the metaphysics of the ancient world) God was ultimately “fixed up ‘there’ in his proper place within the economy of being.”[11] This brings to mind what Chesterton said of a lonely god who is a “mere awful unity.”[12] Centuries after Christ, a god of this terrible sort would threaten Christendom from the east and remain a challenge to this day. “For it is not well for God to be alone.”[13]

Also, the unity of God’s attributes such as His love, justice, perfection, and goodness (the true indivisibility of God)  is severed in Arianism. We cannot think of God’s perfect love separate from his perfect justice and indeed all of his other attributes.  Doing so ends up distorting them.  Finite beings that we are, we consistently fail to perceive that “all the attributes fitting to God are united and inseparable in God’s being.”[14]  The struggle arises, in part, out of our own prideful tendency to practice one virtue out of proportion (or to the exclusion) of others.  Chesterton wrote “the modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad … because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.”[15]  As a result, we either emphasize Truth to the point that we neglect the need for compassion or we crown compassion king and in doing so, we distort truth.[16]  It should come as no surprise then that we transfer this tendency to God.  Thomas C. Oden writes that because it is through His dealings with mankind throughout history we perceive God’s attributes, “as history unfolds, there may be one occasion where one of the attributes (such as justice or holiness) may seem to the believing community more recognizable or dominant.”[17] Yet, God’s “perfectly integrated character is precisely the appropriate balance of these excellences or insurmountably good qualities.”[18]  We must keep in mind that our division of His various attributes is artificial, a consequence of our own limits as temporal and sinful creatures.  To focus on one attribute to the disregard of others necessarily diminishes God’s holiness, that which “consummates and harmonizes all the other divine characteristics.”[19]  Where His holiness is diminished in our perception, so too is our worship of Him.  Like Arianism, we present a picture of God that is as discordant as an out-of-tune piccolo in an orchestra.  We must remember that unlike us, “the fullness of God is present in each of God’s discrete actions.”[20]

In the end, Arius’s orthodoxy was indeed sacrificed on the altar of philosophy, and the consequences ultimately weakened the gift of salvation offered to us by God. There is a vital link between Christ’s Incarnation and the Atonement.  But who would challenge a view that harmonized so well with the ethos of the age?

A Classical Defense of the Divinity of Christ:

Chesterton notes that the acceptance of Arianism was driven by the fact that it seemed “to many more reasonable and less fanatical; and among these were many of the educated class in a sort of reaction against the first romance of conversion.”[21] This quickly became the official form of Christianity in the waning days of the Roman Empire.  Chesterton reminds us that being official did not ensure its orthodoxy.  Just when it looked that the revolution of orthodoxy was over, there arose, “defiant above the democratic tumult of the Councils of the Church, Athanasius against the world.”[22]

Athanasius’s defense of the Incarnation was none other than a frontal assault on the pagan hierarchical cosmos with its desolate deity.  Beginning with creation ex nihilo, the picture that he paints is that of a Supreme Being who is as intimately involved with the works of his hands as an artist is with clay.  He writes that God “had mercy upon the human race, and seeing that by the principle of its own coming into being it would not be able to endure eternally, he granted them a further gift, creating human beings not simply like all the irrational animals upon the earth but making them according to his image.”[23] Athanasius notes that God had created us “for incorruptibility and an image of his own eternity,” but that Satan was able to cause us to turn from him in sin and back towards corruptibility and the contingencies of the universe.[24]  Because of the image of God in man, if man “had guarded through his comprehension of him, [he] would have blunted his natural corruption, [and] he would have remained incorruptible.”[25]  Athanasius writes that it was our own rebellion that formed “the occasion of [Christ’s] descent … we were the purpose of his embodiment, and for our salvation he so loved human beings as to come and appear in a human body.”[26]  Love was the impetus of both creation and the incarnation.

In particular, Athanasius’s focus is not merely upon the transaction that occurred on the cross that saved us from the consequences of sin, but also on the details of what occurred by necessity after that transaction.  In Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection, the Ground of Being rescues and renews our being from gradually returning “to non-being.”[27]  Repentance alone was not sufficient to “recall human beings from what is natural,” namely, death.[28]  “For this purpose,” wrote Athanasius, “the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God, comes into our realm,” that was made for him, by him, and through him.[29]  His birth signals the rebirth of God’s image in man, if man but turn to God.  Christ, “who is life itself”, is able to “raise up the mortal” by joining the immortal with it, accomplishing this by taking on two natures, the divine and human.[30]

Athanasius challenges the Arian concept of a distant Creator too transcendent to enter his realm by likening Christ’s incarnation to the idea of a king entering one of his cities and dwelling amongst his subjects.  The king’s presence gives dignity to his subjects and he alone has the power to thwart “every design of the enemy” against his people.  “For if a king constructed a house or a city, and it is attacked by bandits because of the carelessness of its inhabitants, he in no way abandons it, but avenges and saves it as his own work.”[31]  This is in contrast to the pagan and Arian conception of the detached God, “dwelling at the top of the scale of essences, who acts upon creation only from afar, by a series of ever more remote deputations.”[32] Indeed, Athanasius contends that, like the king, God himself is the one who comes to seek and save that which was lost.[33]  God alone has the power to conquer the decay to which the world was enslaved.  “So he rightly took a mortal body, that in it death might henceforth be destroyed utterly and human beings be renewed again according to the image.”[34] Athanasius writes that in Christ’s mortal body death was destroyed by His divine nature.

Finally, Athanasius writes that the most “ignominious death which they thought to inflict” became the “trophy of his victory over death”, not unlike how the champion is most triumphant when his opponents are chosen for him.[35]  In this, we also learn something of our fallen and unworthy nature: that we would subject him who is love and life to such humiliation.  It reveals the depths to which we have fallen, and the muddy pits to which he was willing to descend, for our sake, to restore our being.   In this service to his creatures, God himself provides the ultimate example of humility to mankind.  By sharing in its humanity, he proves his ability to make remission for sins, and he also becomes a source of comfort – because “he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”[36]

According to Athanasius, Christ’s decisive victory over death is best demonstrated in his followers’ willing and joyful submission to martyrdom.  For the first time, a world enslaved to the fear of death was freed to hate death instead.  “Before the divine sojourn of the savior,” writes Athanasius, “all used to weep for those dying as if they were perishing.”[37]  Since his resurrection, his believers “tread on [death] as nothing, and would rather choose to die than deny their faith.”[38]

Part One: “My Lord and My God!” The Incarnation and Arianism

Part Three:  “My Lord and My God!” Conclusion

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The Crucifixion of St. Peter by Luca Giordana, 1660

[1] Michael B. Thompson, 18.

[2] Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV: “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.…”

[3] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 90.

[4] Alister McGrath, Studies in Doctrine, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 308.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Romans 1:29-32, ESV: “They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, and ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”

[7] John 20: 19-29, NIV: “Thomas replied, ‘My Lord and my God!’”

[8] Hart, 205.

[9] Ephesians 1:4-10, NIV: “In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”

[10] Philippians 2:5-8, NIV: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

[11] Hart, 204.

[12] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 132.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Thomas C. Oden, Classical Christianity, (New York: HarperCollins, 1987), 29.

[15] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), 26.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Oden, 28

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 63

[19] Ibid., 42

[20] Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, 195.

[21] Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, 196.

[22] St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, trans. John Behr (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press), 52.

[23] Ibid., 54.

[18] Ibid., 55.

[24] Ibid., 53.

[25] Ibid., 55.

[26] Ibid., 56

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 70.

[29] Athanasius, 58-9.

[30] Hart, 207

[31] Athanasius, 66.

[32] Ibid., 63.

[33] Ibid., 75.

[34] Hebrews

[35] Athanasius, 78.

[36] Ibid.

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2 thoughts on “Part Two: “My Lord and My God!” Arius Versus Athanasius and a Classic Apologetic

  1. Pingback: Part One: “My Lord and My God!” The Incarnation and Arianism | Along the Beam

  2. Pingback: Part Three: “My Lord and My God” Conclusion | Along the Beam

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