Is Jesus really God? In AD 319, Arius, a deacon in Alexandria, fired the first shots in a 60-year war that would come to engulf all of Christianity in the Roman empire.
Arius argued, ‘If the Father begat the Son, then he who was begotten had a beginning in existence, and from this it follows there was a time when the Son was not’. By these words Arius denied the full deity of Jesus and gave birth to Arianism.
Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, assisted by his chief deacon Athanasius, stood against Arius. In 321 they deposed Arius from his office, declaring his views heresy. Yet what Arius had released could not be contained and the controversy quickly spread throughout the Roman empire.
Fearing the consequences of a major split between the bishops, the Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea in 325. Over 300 bishops assembled at Nicaea and for four months debated the issue.
By the end of the council, Alexander and Athanasius had prevailed and the Nicene Creed was signed by all but two of the bishops in attendance. The creed confirmed the eternal deity of Jesus, by stating that Jesus was, ‘Very God of very God; begotten, not made; being of one substance with the Father’.
In 328 Athanasius succeeded Alexander as bishop of Alexandria. He was immediately thrown back into the Arian controversy, for it became apparent that many of the bishops who had signed the Nicene Creed had done so with duplicity — Arianism had not gone away. In fact, by 329 Arius had been restored to his former position and accepted back into the church.
When Athanasius continued his stand against Arianism, he found himself outnumbered and politically outmanoeuvred. His opponents accused him of murder, sorcery and treason, and the emperor was convinced to banish Athanasius from his bishopric to the German city of Trier.
This was only the beginning. From 330-366, Athanasius would be exiled five times from Alexandria and would have to spend many of those years in hiding from his opponents. It was during these troubled years that gave rise to the phrase ‘Athanasius against the world’ (Athanasius contra mundum), for at many points it seemed as if Athanasius stood alone against an overwhelming tide of Arian bishops and emperors.
Yet, in God’s providence, the years of exile proved to be the most fruitful for Athanasius’ cause. Like Martin Luther during the Reformation, Athanasius’ time in seclusion allowed him to write his most forceful works against Arianism and so, despite being cut off from the world and his position of authority, his pen reached to the ends of the empire.
Although Athanasius died in 373, the fruit of these writings was seen when, in 381 at the Council of Constantinople, the bishops ended the controversy by reaffirming the Nicene Creed.
Athanasius had succeeded. His work, almost single-handedly, ensured the full divinity of Jesus would be the orthodox view of Christianity, right up until today. For a moment it had looked like the world had turned Arian, yet through Athanasius’ faithfulness the tide was stopped and orthodoxy won out.
Despite it costing him his bishopric, his home and potentially his life, this was a battle that Athanasius believed had to be won, for ‘the Arian controversy was to him no battle for ecclesiastical power, nor for theological triumph. It was a religious crisis involving the reality of revelation and redemption’ (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2.4, p.lxvii).
For Arianism called into question God’s biblical self-revelation as Father, Son and Spirit, where the Son (and Spirit) has eternally been part of the Godhead as the Father’s equal.
Just as importantly, Athanasius believed that Arianism also called into question the very basis of our redemption. As the Nicene Creed goes on to say, it is the Jesus who is the same substance as the Father, who ‘for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again’.
Quite simply, if Jesus was not God incarnate, then his death could not pay for our debt of sin and satisfy the wrath of God. Only the God-man could take on the sins of the world and absorb the wrath of God.
In summary then, Athanasius’ life is a stark reminder of the need to faithfully stand for the essentials of the Christian faith, even if we stand alone. It doesn’t take a prophet to see that, in the coming years, orthodox Christian beliefs are going to come under more and more attack, from both outside and inside evangelicalism.
There are increasing movements to recognise Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses as Christians, as well as a growing movement called ‘Chrislam’ that embraces Islam. Yet all these groups deny the deity of Jesus.
Beyond that, there are many other key doctrines of the Christian faith that our culture, and even some professed evangelicals, would love us to abandon. Yet, in Athanasius’ life, we see someone who was prepared to stand alone in defence of God’s revelation and redemption. It may well be that, in our increasingly hostile culture, Christians will have to follow his example.
David Holmes is a recent graduate of the Irish Baptist College. This article first appeared in Insight, the magazine of the Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland, and is used here by kind permission.