Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Athanasius and his Influence at the Council of Nicea - by Matt Perry

In the year 313, the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan which ended the persecution of Christianity. Now, it stood as a protected, even favored religion by the emperor. Once the crises of the persecutions from outside the church ended, crises arose from within the church about, among other issues, the nature and person of Jesus. These discussions had taken place around 150 years before the Edict was enacted with several groups coming to the fore in expressing their views.

Of considerable influence were the Monarchians ? who held to the unity or ?monarchy? (?one source?) of God. Some such as Sabellius, a third-century Roman teacher, who viewed God as one person revealing Himself in different modes throughout history as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (soon known as modalists). Other Monarchians known as adoptionists believed Jesus was adopted by the Father and endowed with complete divine presence. Neither of these views were embraced widely by the church because, as Mark Noll states, ?they either undercut the conviction that Jesus was a distinct person or shortchanged the fullness of his deity.?[10]

The word ?Trinity? was coined by Tertullian, a distinguished lawyer from Carthage. Origen (c. 185- c. 254) sought to preserve the unity of this concept, while at the same time to preserve the distinction between the Father and Son. Mark Noll states again that, ?some who followed Origen?s train of thought, however, did not share his concern for balance.?[11] This brings us to a presbyter from Alexandria named Arius (c. 250-c.336).

In 318, Arius told Bishop Alexander of his views of the Father and Son. The Father was eternal in character, but the Son was in a lower strata that the Father. Arius began making his teachings about the nature and person of Jesus Christ, the ?logos? of God, known throughout the area. He taught that ?God begat him, and before he was begotten, he did not exist.?[12] The Arians state:

If the Son were, according to your interpretation, eternally existent with God, He would not have been ignorant of the Day [of His return ? see Mark 13:4, 32], but have known it as Word; nor would he have been forsaken if he was co-existent ? nor have prayed at all. . . . [B]eing the Word, he would have needed nothing.[13]

In spite of what the Arians state, Christopher Stead argues that Arius was ?teaching a relatively high view of the Logos.? He continues:

He is determined to safeguard the Father?s preeminence; but ... he has no pressing concern to reduce the honours traditionally accorded to the Logos; he describes him as ?mighty God?, as Monogenes, as God?s first-born Son, as the Wisdom who assisted the Father at creation. Athanasius himself, while criticizing Arius? presentation of this last point, cannot deny that it was made. ... That Arius described the Logos as merely one of the creatures, or alternatively as a mere man, does not rest on good documentary evidence but on polemical sallies which have been wrongly treated as quotations.[14]

Regardless of Dr. Stead?s contentions, Arius? view even on the points of agreement concerning what he did say were still divisive and destructive to the unity of the church and the Gospel.

This teaching, condemned by the bishops of Egypt, forced Arius flee to Nicodemia. He gathered a following and influence and a place where he could state his position. Soon, a Christianity that battled the state in their persecutions now would be infighting concerning who the Son of God truly was and is.[15]

Justo Gonzalez puts it well when he says,

What Arius taught was that the one who had come to us in Jesus Christ was not truly God, but a lesser being, a creature. Such a notion was unacceptable to Athanasius ? as it was also to the monks who had withdrawn to the desert for love of God Incarnate. . . . For Athanasius, for the monks, and for many of the faithful, the Arian controversy was not a matter of theological subtleties with little or no relevance. In it, the very core of the Christian message was at stake.[16]

As mentioned previously, his book On the Incarnation of the Word dealt with this very issue and how it is central to the Scriptures. Athanasius compares it to a king who enters a large city and stays in one of the houses. His staying there guarantees protection not just for that house but for the whole city.

Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and inconsequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled, and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the huna race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.[17]

Athanasius debated that the implications of Arius? views were far-reaching, even to the point of affecting the efficacy of Christ?s ability to save us. If Christ does not share an eternal Godhood with the Father, then our salvation would be impossible for creature cannot redeem creature. Also, as Alistair McGrath points out, ?the Christian church was guilty of idolatry, as Christians regularly worshipped and prayed to Christ. As ?idolatry? can be defined as ?worship of a human construction or creation,? it followed that this worship was idolatrous.?[18] So it is clear that the lines were drawn. The clergy in Alexandria sided with the Godhood of the Logos, while those following Arius in Nicodemia (and soon in all parts of the Empire) believed that the Logos was a created being of God. This issue in particular led to the Council of Nicaea.
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