Athanasius on Defending Trinity
ATHANASIUS CONTRA MUNDUM: DEFENDING THE FULL DIVINITY OF THE FATHER, SON, AND HOLY SPIRIT
The fourth century could be characterized as the “advent of Christian theology.” It was dominated by ecclesiastical controversies, church councils, and the establishment of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire. The Arian controversy was the first great doctrinal debate to shake Christendom. It stemmed from the difficulty that had troubled the church since the early second century: the concept of the Trinity. The early church, because of its Jewish roots, acknowledged the oneness of God, yet it also recognized that Christ and the Holy Spirit functioned as God. How were the early Christians to deal with this conundrum? They were sure that God was One, so how were they to relate Christ and the Spirit to God? Initially, the church fathers found analogies and employed language from contemporary philosophies they were familiar with. As time went on, however, they found these analogies to be inadequate. The notion of the Trinity was just too novel. Eventually, controversies arose among them, ultimately forming the basis of orthodox theology.
The first of these controversies, as mentioned above, was the Arian controversy. It involved the Arians and their archrival, Athanasius (ca. 298-372 AD). Athanasius toiled relentlessly for more than a half century to establish and defend the doctrine of the Trinity against the Arians. He persevered through five exiles (a total of seventeen years in exile) and withstood recurrent harassments/persecutions from emperors, colleagues in clergy, and other Arians/Arian sympathizers. Despite this overwhelming pressure, he stood steadfast in his denunciation of Arianism. In fact, his tireless resolve earned him the moniker “Athanasius contra mundum” (against the world).
Finally, toward the end of Athanasius’s life the tower of Arianism began to crumble under the weight of his unassailable arguments from Scripture. He was able to convince Christendom that his view of the Trinity was the right one according to Scripture. Hence, his unyielding tenacity and inexorable fight against the Arians became the impetus that established and cemented the doctrine of the Trinity within orthodox Christianity.
The Arian controversy was spawned by Arius (ca. 250-318 AD), a presbyter in the church at Alexandria. Arius, deducing certain unwarranted conclusions from Origen’s theology, rejected the full divinity of Christ. He argued the Son was a created being (albeit the highest of God’s created beings). For example, he writes in his letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia:
But what do we say and think and what have we previously taught and do we presently teach? — that the Son is not unbegotten, nor a part of an unbegotten entity in any way, nor from anything in existence, but that he is subsisting in will and intention before time and before the ages, … the only-begotten, unchangeable. Before he was begotten, or created, or defined, or established, he did not exist. For he was not unbegotten. But we are persecuted because we have said the Son has a beginning…
Thus, Arius promulgated a form of monarchism in which the Son was subordinate to the Father. Moreover, he reasoned the Son cannot be the same substance (homoousios) as the Father since he was created by that Father.
In addition to diminishing the deity of Christ, Arius also depreciated the deity of the Holy Spirit. In fact, he denied the personhood of the Holy Spirit altogether. He understood the Holy Spirit as an influence or force emanating from the Father.
The Council of Nicaea
As Arius’s distinctive Christological teachings began to spread, it became an important matter of debate in and around Alexandria. Bishop Alexander of Alexandria thus convened a synod in Alexandria of almost a hundred bishops to discuss the issue. Though Arius was condemned at this synod, the dispute did not abate; rather, it intensified because Arius refused to concede, enlisting the support of other leading bishops in the East. As the debate widened, it threatened to split the Eastern Church. Hence, to stem this tide of disunity imperiling the Roman State, Emperor Constantine convoked the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea (325 AD). He summoned more than 250 bishops and hundreds of other clergy to deal with the matter. Of these clergy, Athanasius, a deacon of Bishop Alexander, played the most active role in opposing Arius. He contended that the Son was not created and was consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father, thus He was fully God as the Father is God. Ultimately, Athanasius’s view won the day; the council embraced, almost unanimously, this homoousion position of the Trinity, declared Arius a heretic, and formulated the orthodox statement on the Trinity, i.e., the Nicene Creed.
The Anti-Nicaea Reaction to Homoousios: A Problematic Word
Though the homoousion position had been officially declared, the great majority of Eastern Church Fathers still found it difficult to accept the term homoousios as the proper description of the Trinity. According to Everett Ferguson, a respected Christian historian, “The new word homoousios had a suspect history: (1) it was not used in Scripture; (2) it had been used by the Gnostics; (3) it had been used by Paul of Samosata in some way not now clear; and (4) it sounded Sabellian (and some Nicenes were close to this position).” Consequently, most of the Eastern bishops chose the word homoiousios(similar substance) instead of the Nicene term homoousios.They believed homoiousios more accurately represented Christ’s relationship to the Father. Moreover, it did not ring of Sabellianism as did Homoousios. This post-Nicenehomoiousion view – different from Arianism in that it did not espouse Christ as heteroousios (unlike in substance) with the Father – became the intermediary view know as Semi-Arianism.
While the Semi-Arians spurned the term homoousios, Athanasius vehemently defended it, seeing it to be the very heart of Christianity. In fact, according to Athanasius, the Son must be homoousios with the Father for redemption to be possible. He asserted, “Therefore let those who deny that the Son is from the Father by nature and proper to His Essence [homoousios with the Father], deny also that He took true human flesh of Mary Ever-Virgin; for in neither case had it been of profit to us men, whether the Word were not true and naturally Son of God, or the flesh not true which He assumed.” Hence, according to Athanasius, if one denies the Son is homoousios with the Father, then he must also deny the Son’s incarnation, thus making any hope of salvation impossible. Furthermore, the Son must be fully God (homoousios with the Father) in order to accomplish salvation for mankind.
Athanasius on the Defense of the Holy Spirit as Homoousios
In addition to upholding the divine Sonship, Athanasius also defended the deity of the Holy Spirit, most notably when a certain group in Egypt began claiming the Holy Spirit was a created being. In his Letters to Serapion, Athanasius argued that the Holy Spirit, like the Son, was fully God, uncreated, and consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father. He states:
If the Son is named, the Father is in the Son, and the Spirit is not outside the Word. For there is from the Father one grace which is fulfilled through the Son in the Holy Spirit; and there is one divine nature, and one God who is over all and through all and in all. Thus Paul also, when he said, ‘I charge thee before God and Jesus Christ’, realized that the Spirit had not been divided from the Son, but was himself in Christ, as the Son is in the Father.
Thus, Athanasius saw the Holy Spirit as God just as the Father and Son were God. Moreover, according to him, the Holy Spirit’s close connection with the Father and Son through the creation, incarnation, inspiration of the prophets, and invigoration of the church inferred He was homoousios with the Father and Son, thus fully God. Furthermore, only a Spirit who is fully divine can impart life to man.
During these early post-Nicene years, Athanasius, the stalwart champion of the Nicene Creed, became the bishop of Alexandria. Using this respected position – the second most important episcopal see after Rome – Athanasius was able to eliminate Arianism/Semi-Arianism from Egypt altogether. He, however, was not as successful at convincing the rest of the East, at least at first (the Western Church predominately agreed with Athanasius’s homoousion position, at least in the early stages). The Semi-Arians and other Arian sympathizers, viewing Athanasius as their prime adversary, contrived to have him removed as bishop of Alexandria and ultimately anathematized. They even went so far as to accuse him of imposing illegal taxes, practicing magic, being too young to hold an episcopal office, and supporting and collaborating with seditious persons. Finally, in 335 AD Athanasius’s opponents got their wish; he was summoned by Constantine to a church council at Tyre to respond to the accusations against him. Since most of the clergy at the council consisted of Semi-Arians and Arian sympathizers, they were able to persuade Constantine to have Athanasius banished to Treves in Gaul.
One year after being exiled in Gaul, Constantine died. His son Constantine II, now co-emperor with his with brothers (Constantius and Constans) reinstated Athanasius in his bishopric at Alexandria. Two years later, however, Eusebius of Nicomedia – the voice of the Arians since Arius had died just a few years earlier – convinced Constantius to banish Athanasius from Alexandria once again. This time Athanasius went to Rome where he remained for seven years before the emperors allowed him to return to his see at Alexandria.
Nevertheless, about ten years later, Athanasius had to leave Alexandria once more. Emperor Constans, his chief defender, had been murdered; thus, Constantius, an ardent Arian, now had free reign to pursue Athanasius. Therefore, Athanasius, afraid for his life, absconded into the Egyptian wilderness to hideout with the desert monks for six long years.
This exile, though long and arduous (lasting five years), proved pivotal for turning the tide of Arianism towards Athanasius’shomoousion view. Philip Schaff, an eminent theologian of the nineteenth century, calls this exile “The Golden Decade” for Athanasius. He notes:
The third exile of Athanasius marks the summit of his achievement. Its commencement is the triumph, its conclusion the collapse of Arianism. … But by 362 the utter lack of inner coherence in the Arian ranks was manifest to all; the issue of the fight might be postponed by circumstances but could not be in doubt. The break-up of the Arian power was due to its own lack of reality: as soon as it had a free hand, it began to go to pieces. But the watchful eye of Athanasius followed each step in the process from his hiding-place, and the event was greatly due to his powerful personality and ready pen, knowing whom to overwhelm and whom to conciliate, where to strike and where to spare.
Hence, even while being secluded in the wilderness, Athanasius found a way to fight for the homoousion cause and bring down the tower of Arianism.
Like the previous exiles, this exile ended with a change in political power. Soon after the death of Constantius, Julian, the new emperor, rescinded Constantius’s order to apprehend Athanasius; thus, Athanasius returned from the Egyptian desert to his see at Alexandria. Nonetheless, Athanasius’s return from exile was very short-lived (only eight months). Julian quickly did an about face; now considering Athanasius troublesome for his empire, he demanded that Athanasius leave Egypt. Thus, Athanasius once more left Alexandria, though not Egypt as Julian had commanded.
This exile, as the previous one, was brief; it lasted until Julian’s untimely death fifteen months later. The new emperor, Jovian, reinstated Athanasius in his post at Alexandria. But, as before, Athanasius was unable to stay for very long in Alexandria because Jovian died shortly after taking the throne – reigning for less than a year. Valens, the next emperor (co-emperor with his brother Valentinian) was not as friendly towards the Nicene party. He issued a decree banishing all the bishops who had been dismissed by Constantius and reinstalled by Julian. Thus, Athanasius departed one last time for the Egyptian desert to dwell with monks. Five months later, however, Athanasius was again reinstated at his bishopric in Alexandria.
Athanasius was man of unwavering disposition and deep insight, who was wholly devoted to God. These qualities, along with his prolific writings against Arianism, contributed to the eventual downfall of Arianism and establishment of thehomoousion view of the Trinity within orthodox Christianity. Though others also contributed to the homoousion cause, Athanasius’s assiduous effort to defend it certainly weighed the heaviest in establishing it as orthodox. Indeed, his efforts, namely his abundant writings, provided the foundation for the Cappadocian Fathers (younger fourth century contemporaries) to formulate a more complete doctrine of the Trinity.
For Athanasius, the homoousion doctrine was of utmost importance; it involved the very heart of Christianity, i.e. the redemption of mankind. According to Douglas Honeyford, a respected theologian and biblical commentator, Athanasius “recognized that Christianity itself was the issue involved. Athanasius stood for that without which there would have been no church to divide. The deity of Jesus Christ, His equality and oneness with the Father, is the keystone in the arch of Christian truth.” Therefore, no ecclesiastical debate ranked higher than the Arian controversy. Moreover, no schismatic was more influential than Arius, who carried such a great following over a vast period of time (almost century) and nearly convinced the Eastern Church of his heretical views.
Ultimately, Athanasius triumphed over Arius. Though to do this, he had to labor relentlessly for half a century – enduring five exiles, constantly writing and polemicizing against the Arians, and carrying on despite the incessant harassment/persecution from emperors and clergy.Notwithstanding this overwhelming pressure, even when it seemed the whole world was against him, he stood firm in his condemnation of Arianism. He certainly did live up to the appellation, “Athanasius contra mundum” (against the world)!
Thus, this was the battle Athanasius waged for most of his life for the sake of the orthodoxy. Soon after he died, the bulwark of Arianism began to fall under the weight of his irrefutable arguments from Scripture. He had persuaded Christendom that his homoousion view of the Trinity was the right one according to Scripture. Hence, his stalwart resolve and tenacious fight against Arianism was the driving force that established and cemented the homoousion doctrine of the Trinity within orthodox Christianity. According to John Piper, the well-known pastor and respected theologian, “No one comes close to his influence in the cause of biblical truth during his lifetime.
1 Everett Ferguson, Church History, vol. 1: From Christ to Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context, Kindle Edition (Grand Rapids, MI:Zondervan, 2009), Kindle locations 640, 3488, 3605.
2 Ibid., Kindle locations 1464-1465.
3 Kenneth S. Latourette, A History of Christianity, vol. 1: Beginnings to 1500s (NY: HaperCollins, 1975), 140.
4 Donald Tinder, “The Doctrine of the Trinity: Its Historical Development and Departures,” Emmaus Journal 13, no. 1 (2004): 132,www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/emj13-1-05 (accessed April 10, 2013).
5 John Piper, “Contending for Christ ‘Contra Mundum’: Exile and Incarnation in the Life of Athanasius,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 12, no. 2 (2008): 20,http://www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/sbjt12-2-03(accessed April 6, 2013).
 Charles Kannengiesser, “Arianism,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Lindsay Jones, 2nd ed., vol. 1. (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005), 478-479, Gale Virtual Reference Library. go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CCX3424500194&v=2.1&u=vic_liberty&it=r&p=GVRL&sw=w (accessed April 27, 2013).
 Herbert Bess, “The Term “Son of God” in the Light of Old Testament Idiom,” Grace Journal 6, no. 2 (Spring 1965): 17,www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/gj06-2-03 (accessed April 20, 2013).
 “Fourth Century Christianity: Letter of Arius to Eusebius of Nicomedia,” Wisconsin Lutheran College,http://www.fourthcentury.com/urkunde-1/ (accessed April 29, 2013).
 Ron Biglke, “The Doctrine Of Double Procession In Eastern AndWestern Theologies,” Journal of Dispensational Theology 14, no. 41(2010): 24-25,
www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/jodt14-41-03 (accessed April 28, 2013).
 Johannes Van Oort, “The Holy Spirit and the Early Church: Doctrine & Confession,” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 67, no. 3 (2011): 3, http:// dx.doi.org/10.4102/hts. v67i3.1120 (accessed April 28, 2013).
 Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology. Rev. exp. ed. (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008), 257.
 Thomas C. Oden, “A Libyan History Awaiting Discovery,”Bibliotheca Sacra 167, no. 665 (2010): 15,www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/bsac167-665-01(accessed April 29, 2013).
 Ferguson, Church History, Kindle locations 3686-3689.
 Latourette, A History of Christianity, 153.
 Ibid., 154.
 Sozome and Philostorgius, The ecclestical history of Sozomen: Comprising a History of the Church from A. D. 324 to A. D. 440, trans. by Edward Walford (London: Bohn, 1855), 40,www.archive.org/details/theecclesiastica00sozouoft (accessed April 29, 2013).
 Douglas C. Honeyford, “The Question of Christ: An Historical Study,” Bibliotheca Sacra 95, no. 377 (1938): 87,www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/bsac095-377-08(accessed April 29, 2013).
 Mark Carpenter, “A Synopsis of the Development ofTrinitarian Thought From The First Century Church Fathers to the Second Century Apologists,” Trinity Journal 26, no. 2 (Fall 2005): 315, www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/trinj26-2-07(accessed April 29, 2013).
 Ferguson, Church History, Kindle locations 3772-3774.
 Biglke, “The Doctrine Of Double Procession, 31.
 Edward Robie, “Doctrine Of The Trinity,” Bibliotheca Sacra 27 no. 106 (1870): 285,www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/bsac027-106-03(accessed May 1, 2013).
 Tinder, “The Doctrine of the Trinity,” 131,132.
 Athanasius, Against the Arians: Discourse 2:70, trans. John Henry Newman, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/28162.htm (accessed May 1, 2013).
 Tinder, “The Doctrine of the Trinity,” 132.
 David F. Wright, “The Formation of the Doctrine of the Trinity in the Early Church,” Reformation and Revival 10, no. 3 (Summer 2001): 84,www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/rar10-3-04 (accessed May 3, 2013).
 Van Oort, “The Holy Spirit and the Early Church,” 3.
 Athanasius, Letter to Serapion, Trans. by C.R.B Shapland (New York: Eppworth Press, 1951), 94,http://ia701207.us.archive.org/20/items/TheLettersOfSaintAthanasiusConcerningTheHolySpirit/Athanasius_Letters_to_Serapion_Shapland.pdf(accessed May 3, 2013).
 Wright, “The Formation of the Doctrine of the Trinity in the Early Church,” 84.
 Norvelle W. Sharpe, “Athanasius The Copt, And His Times,”Bibliotheca Sacra 70 no. 288, (Oct 1915): 629,http://www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/bsac072-288-06 (accessed April 1, 2013).
 Piper, “Contending for Christ ‘Contra Mundum’” 22.
 Ferguson, Church History, Kindle locations 3777-3786.
 Ibib., 23.
 Norvelle W. Sharpe, “Athanasius The Copt, And His Times,” 631.
 Ibid., 632.
 Piper, “Contending for Christ ‘Contra Mundum’” 25.
 Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series II/Volume IV/Prolegomena/Life/Section 7, Wikisource,http://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=Nicene_and_Post-Nicene_Fathers:_Series_II/Volume_IV/Prolegomena/Life&oldid=2232731(accessed May 4, 2013).
 Norvelle W. Sharpe, “Athanasius The Copt, And His Times,” 634.
 Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Section, 9.
 Piper, “Contending for Christ ‘Contra Mundum,’” 26.
 Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Section, 9.
 Ferguson, Church History, Kindle locations 3853.
 Latourette, A History of Christianity, 158.
 Ferguson, Church History, Kindle locations 3881-3886.
 Van Oort, “The Holy Spirit and the Early Church,” 8-9.
 Honeyford, “The Question of Christ,” 87.
 Norvelle W. Sharpe, “Athanasius The Copt, And His Times,” 623.
 Piper, “Contending for Christ ‘Contra Mundum,’” 20.
Arius. Letter of Arius to Eusebius of Nicomedia. translated by GLT. Wisconsin Lutheran College: Fourth Century Christianity.www.fourthcentury.com/urkunde-1/ (accessed April 29, 2013).
Athanasius. Against the Arians: Discourse II. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 4. Edited. by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Trans. by John Henry Newman and Archibald Robertson. Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1892. Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/28162.htm (accessed May 1, 2013).
________. Letter to Serapion. Trans. by C.R.B Shapland. New York: Eppworth Press, 1951. “Internet Archive website.” http://ia701207.us.archive.org/20/items/TheLettersOfSaintAthanasiusConcerningTheHolySpirit/Athanasius_Letters_to_Serapion_Shapland.pdf (accessed May 3, 2013).
Bess, Herbert. “The Term “Son of God” in the Light of Old Testament Idiom.” Grace Journal 6, no. 2 (Spring 1965): 17-23.www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/gj06-2-03 (accessed April 20, 2013).
Biglke, Ron. “The Doctrine Of Double Procession In EasternAnd Western Theologies.” Journal of Dispensational Theology 14, no. 41 (2010): 22-43.
www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/jodt14-41-03 (accessed April 28, 2013).
Carpenter, Mark. “A Synopsis of the Development ofTrinitarian Thought From The First Century Church Fathers to the Second Century Apologists.” Trinity Journal 26, no. 2 (Fall 2005): 294-319.
www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/trinj26-2-07 (accessed April 29, 2013).
Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Rev. and expanded. ed. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008.
Ferguson, Everett. Church History, vol. 1: From Christ to Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009. Kindle Edition.
Honeyford, Douglas C. “The Question of Christ: An Historical Study.” Bibliotheca Sacra 95, no. 377 (1938): 77-90.www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/bsac095-377-08 (accessed April 29, 2013).
Latourette, Kenneth S. A History of Christianity, vol. 1: Beginnings to 1500s. New York: HaperCollins, 1975.
Oden, Thomas C. “A Libyan History Awaiting Discovery.” Bibliotheca Sacra 167, no. 665 (2010): 4-16.www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/bsac167-665-01 (accessed April 29, 2013).
Piper, John. “Contending for Christ ‘Contra Mundum’: Exile and Incarnation in the Life of Athanasius.” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 12, no. 2 (Summer 2008): 19-34.http://www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/sbjt12-2-03 (accessed April 2, 2013).
Robie, Edward. “Doctrine Of The Trinity.” Bibliotheca Sacra27 no. 106 (Apr 1870): 263-288www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/bsac027-106-03 (accessed May 1, 2013).
Schaff, Philip. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Series II/Volume IV/Prolegomena/Life/Section 7. Wikisource,http://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=Nicene_and_Post-Nicene_Fathers:_Series_II/Volume_IV/Prolegomena/Life/Section_7&oldid=2232739 (accessed May 4, 2013).
Sharpe, Norvelle Wallace, M.D. “Athanasius The Copt, And His Times.” Bibliotheca Sacra 72 no. 288 (Oct 1915): 619-640.http://www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/bsac072-288-06 (accessed April 1, 2013).
Sozome and Philostorgius. The ecclesiastical history of Sozomen: Comprising a History of the Church from A. D. 324 to A. D. 440. trans. by Edward Walford. London: Bohn, 1855. Internet Archive Full text.www.archive.org/details/theecclesiastica00sozouoft(accessed April 29, 2013).
Tinder, Donald. “The Doctrine of the Trinity: Its Historical Development and Departures.” Emmaus Journal 13, no. 1 (Summer 2004): 122-149.http://www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/emj13-1-05 (accessed April 10, 2013).
Van Oort, Johannes. “The Holy Spirit and the Early Church: Doctrine & Confession.” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 67, no. 3 (2011): 1-8. http://search.proquest.com/docview/1282169840?accountid=12085 (accessed April 2, 2013).
Wright, David F. “The Formation of the Doctrine of the Trinity in the Early Church.” Reformation and Revival 10, no. 3 (Summer 2001): 70-92.www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/rar10-3-04 (accessed May 3, 2013).