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]

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

View of Acropolis & Parthenon from stone

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in the Son.”[1]

During the twilight hours of late-antiquity, the deepening gloom of cosmic despair could be seen on the horizon upon which the mythologies and philosophies of man had exhausted themselves. In his book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, David Bentley Hart writes that it was “a time when religion and philosophy alike were increasingly concerned with the escape from the conditions of earthly life, and when both often encouraged a contempt for the flesh more absolute, bitterly unworldly, and pessimistic” than ever before.[2] With noble resignation, mankind had come to accept this world as nothing more than a material prison.  History was stuck in an endless cycle, punctuated by the wiles of capricious and demanding gods.   In this view there was a regularity in history that followed the cycles of nature – an endless, thus meaningless, continuum of “creation and dissolution, without beginning or end.”[3]   The wisest amongst the pagans would agree that “generations come and generations go, / but the earth remains forever,” all the while the Supreme God remained completely out of reach and uninvolved.[4] The most one could hope for is to be able to cultivate a resigned soul that was “immune to the effects of time and nature alike.” [5] Salvation could only be found in escape.

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The Post-Christian West and the Eye of a Needle

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Nocturne by Whistler

“Round us in antic order their crippled vices came—
Lust that had lost its laughter, fear that had lost its shame.
Like the white lock of Whistler, that lit our aimless gloom,
Men showed their own white feather as proudly as a plume.
Life was a fly that faded, and death a drone that stung;
The world was very old indeed when you and I were young.”

~ G.K. Chesterton

Taking up a theme from a previous post, here is another area in which Christianity changed the world for the better.  Not only did the Gospel’s focus on the poor and unforgotten give value to an entire segment of society that the pagan world looked upon with patronizing pity at best, the Gospel revolutionized mankind’s conceptual framework for understanding reality.  The modern world rejects Christianity at its own peril, as Hart will demonstrate.  We are deluding ourselves, in fact.

In his book, Atheist Delusions, David Bentley Hart notes that we moderns “believe in nature and in history: in the former’s rational regularity and in the latter’s genuine openness to novelty.”[1]  Not so for the pagans.  They had no concept of “the arrow of time” and did not assume that history contained a “narrative logic” broad enough to house “both disjunction and resolution.”  For them, history could not move “towards an end quite different from its beginning” but was stuck in an endless cycle, punctuated by the wiles of capricious and demanding gods.[2]  In their view, there was a regularity in history that followed the cycles of nature – an endless, thus meaningless, continuum of “creation and dissolution, without beginning or end.”[3]  The wisest amongst the pagans would agree that “generations come and generations go, / but the earth remains forever” all the while, the ultimate deity remained completely out of reach and uninvolved. [4]  The most one could hope for is to be able to cultivate a resigned soul that was “immune to the effects of time and nature alike.”[5]

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The Wind and the Trees by G.K. Chesterton

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“The Wind and the Trees”

by G.K. Chesterton

I am sitting under tall trees, with a great wind boiling like surf about the tops of them, so that their living load of leaves rocks and roars in something that is at once exultation and agony. I feel, in fact, as if I were actually sitting at the bottom of the sea among mere anchors and ropes, while over my head and over the green twilight of water sounded the everlasting rush of waves and the toil and crash and shipwreck of tremendous ships. The wind tugs at the trees as if it might pluck them root and all out of the earth like tufts of grass. Or, to try yet another desperate figure of speech for this unspeakable energy, the trees are straining and tearing and lashing as if they were a tribe of dragons each tied by the tail.

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Peter’s Tears

A detail from St Peter in tears by El Greco

St. Peter’s Tears by El Greco (1541-1614)

In his book, Atheist Delusions, David Bentley Hart contends that when we moderns read the scriptures, we do so through a lens that has been fashioned by those very texts.  As a result, what was once extraordinary has become more than ordinary, appearing as natural and effortless as breathing.  In no other event is this more evident than in Peter’s denial and his subsequent sorrow.  Hart writes that “what is obvious to us—Peter’s wounded soul, the profundity of his devotion to his teacher, the torment of his guilt, the crushing knowledge that Christ’s imminent death forever foreclosed the possibility of seeking forgiveness for his betrayal—is obvious in very large part because we are the heirs of a culture that, in a sense, sprang from Peter’s tears.”[1]

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The Love That Upholds the Universe

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Seven hundred years ago, Dante Alighieri would end his Divine Comedy with the claim that it is “Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”[1]  Our modern age would dismissively quip, “That sounds lovely, but since the time of Newton, we’ve been enlightened to the fact that it’s just gravity that governs the motions of objects in space.”  Indeed, we would knowingly remark that even love has been ‘discovered’ to be an evolutionarily derived biological survival mechanism.  Dante’s statement is rendered meaningless; it’s merely the nonsensical babble of a pre-scientific era.  We are so clever today, aren’t we?

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A Biologist’s Sonnet

george-john-romanesOne of our friends, Dr. Tim McGrew, shared this moving sonnet with us recently. It’s from the famous biologist (and a favorite student of Charles Darwin) George Romanes. Romanes started out as a Christian (and aspiring poet) but lost his faith as he studied evolutionary biology. He would return to his faith at the end of his life after knowing several Christians whose ability to have a reasoned and rational faith, two things he thought impossible, gave him hope.

What is remarkable about Romanes is that he seemed to understand what he was losing in his apostasy and it caused him great sadness.  This resonates with me for I too struggled through a long season of doubt, grieving in the deepest parts of my being that Christianity might, after all, be mere wishful thinking.

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