FAITH OF OUR FATHERS
Athanasius (296-373 AD)
‘Greatest theologian of 4th century’
By Roland Chia
WITHOUT A DOUBT, Athanasius, Bishop and Patriarch of Alexandria, is one of the most important figures in the Church in the Patristic era. Often described as the most remarkable bishop and the greatest theologian in the 4th century, he was a staunch defender of Nicene orthodoxy.
His commitment to the doctrine of the Trinity, however, meant that he often became the victim of ecclesiastical politics, as the result of which he was exiled no less than five times from his diocese – 335-337, 339-346, 356-362, 362-364 and 365-366. Yet the Patriarch and theologian from Alexandria soldiered on, producing some of the greatest works on the Incarnation and the doctrines of the Trinity and salvation in the period, and earning a well-deserved accolade, Athanasius contra mundum (Athanasius against the world).
A theological controversy concerning the doctrine of God arose when Arius, a presbyter in the Church in Alexandria, taught that the Son is a creature and therefore cannot be said to share the essence of God, the Father. Determined to protect the monotheism of the Christian faith, Arius insisted that the Son is at best a “middle being”, less than God but more than man. Being a mere creature (although the most splendid of God’s creation), the Son is not co-equal with God. Arius therefore denied the pre-existence of the Son in all eternity, and rejected the orthodox concept of God as triune. According to him, the divine attributes ascribed to the Son must be understood merely in an honorary sense due to the grace that the Father has bestowed on him. Thus Arius was adamant that “there was time when the Son was not and he was not until he was brought forth, for even he had a beginning, when he was created”.
Afraid that this controversy might destabilise his Empire, Constantine summoned 318 bishops to the first ecumenical Council in Nicaea in 325. The Council, which lasted for two months, deliberated on a number of issues but mainly on the controversial teachings of Arius. The bishops rejected the Arian doctrine of the Son in favour of the orthodox teaching. Constantine then appointed a commission of bishops to formulate what is now known as the Nicene Creed. Against the most fundamental teaching of Arius, the Creed taught that the Son is “begotten not made”, “of one substance (Greek: homoousios) with the Father” and that “through him all things were made”. As the uncreated co-Creator, the Son, according to the Fathers of Nicaea, is co-equal and co-eternal with God the Father.
Attached to the Creed is an anathema which read: “But as for those who say, There was [a time] when he [the Son] was not, and, before being born he was not, and that he came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance, or is created, or is subject to alteration or change – these the Catholic Church anathematizes”.
The Council of Nicaea, however, did not end the theological controversy concerning the status of the Son, nor did it unite the Church as Constantine had wished. The Arian party continued to exert such a strong influence that even Constantine, pressured by powerful sympathisers of Arius, was swayed at one point to support their cause. In 332, Constantine unilaterally declared Arius restored as a presbyter of the Church of Alexandria. The Emperor also pressured Athanasius, who had just taken over Episcopal duties to accept Arius back into communion. Athanasius made it clear that he would only reinstate Arius if the latter would embrace the Nicene Creed and its Trinitarian concept of God. Arius refused. Athanasius therefore rejected Arius and simply ignored the threats of Constantine. Consequently, in 335 Athanasius was exiled by Constantine to the German city of Tier, the farthest outpost of the Roman Empire in the West. He returned to Alexandria in 337, after the death of Constantine.
Throughout his career as Bishop, theologian and Patriarch, Athanasius resolutely defended the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity. In his treatise against the Arians, Orationes contra Arianos, he writes: “The Son is not another God … He and the Father are one through the unique nature which they share in common and through the identity of the one divinity” (III: 4). In dealing with another heretical group, the Tropici, who taught that the Holy Spirit is a creature or some sort of angelic being, Athanasius insists that just as the Son is of the same substance as the Father, so the Spirit is of the same substance as the Father and the Son. In his Letter to Serapion, he writes: “True worshippers, therefore, worship the Father, but in Spirit and Truth, confessing the Son and in him the Spirit. For the Spirit is inseparable from the Son, as the Son is inseparable from the Father” (I:33).
Among the many lessons that Athanasius teaches us in his long battle with the Arians is that the Bible is the book of the Church and that the Church alone has the authority to interpret it. The problem with Arius and his followers is that they interpreted Scriptures apart from the ecclesial tradition. In his defence of the orthodox doctrine of the deity of the Son and the Trinity, Athanasius appealed to many passages of Scripture, and interpreted them according to the tradition. It must be remembered that although we speak of the Church in the 4th century as the early Church, for him it was an old Church, already endowed with a rich theological and liturgical tradition. For him, the Bible cannot be properly understood if this great tradition is ignored.
Athanasius warns us of the danger of reading the Bible without relying on the wisdom of the Church. This warning applies as much to individual Christians with their personal and idiosyncratic interpretations of the Bible as to Western universities that study the Bible within the boundaries of an academy isolated from the ecclesial community.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine and Dean of the School of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.
“His commitment to the doctrine of the Trinity meant that he often became the victim of ecclesiastical politics, as the result of which he was exiled no less than five times from his diocese.”