Victory of Athanasius
The Church owes a huge debt to the thinking of St. Athanasius, the arch-deacon who became Archbishop (Patriarch) of Alexandria at the age of thirty-three, whose influence as adviser to his own Archbishop Alexander at the Council of Nicaea was significant in steering the Council to a solution against the teaching of Arius, and who suffered exile five times from his archdiocese defending the decision of Nicaea. For he understood more than most the impact the teaching of Arius would have had on the Christian concept of salvation if it had been ratified by Nicaea.
Julian the Apostate
The saga of events after the Council of Nicaea turned radically in favor of the supporters of Arius. By 360 a.d. they had overturned the Nicene Creed and replaced it with their own creed. Just when it looked like it could not be worse for the Nicene bishops the Emperor Constantius, the supporter of Arius, died in 361 a.d. He was succeeded as emperor by his cousin Julian. A philosopher and a scholar in his own right, Julian was trained as a youth in the ways of Christianity. But, after watching his uncle Constantine put many of his family members to death and living in fear of Constantine’s sons (his cousins) for most of his life, Julian rejected Christianity and demeaned it. He intended to center his empire on the ancient Roman pagan religion and he spent his time trying to reestablish it. Hence, he has been called “Julian the Apostate”.
Through instituting reforms such as placing all state education in the hands of pagan teachers, he tried to win the minds of Christians. When his efforts to prevent the spread of Christianity bore little fruit he attacked Athanasius, whom he had initially allowed to return to Alexandria. Thus, Bishop Athanasius was again place into exile. The reign and religious revival of Emperor Julian lasted only two years as he was killed in 363 a.d. while fighting the Persians.
A Blessing in Disguise
As it turned out, however, his reign was a blessing in disguise for the Nicene wing of the Catholic Church perilously close to being overwhelmed by the Arians. During Julian’s reign Bishop Athanasius traveled around the empire convincing other bishops of the value of the Nicene theology and the need to use the word “homoousios”. Thus, for the first time bishops, reluctant to use a non-biblical word to describe the relationship in the Trinity, began to really understand why “homoousios” was central to Christian belief about God.
Sometimes a belief or a new teaching, though not true, may sound attractive and refreshing and even likely to be true, like some of the pantheism and neo-gnosticism in modern times. And without thinking about it very deeply many embrace it. When it came to the teaching of Arius about Jesus many embraced it perhaps for one or more of the reasons just listed, maybe because Arius was a dynamic preacher, or maybe because of previous religious thinking they understood the Trinity in a polytheistic way.
Obviously, most of the bishops at Nicaea opposed his notions because they rejected them. Many were even outraged. But, Athanasius may have been the only one who understood the significance of the issues being debated at Nicaea not just on the Christian concept of God but also on the Christian concept of salvation.
In his book, The People of The Creed, Anthony Gilles tells us that Athanasius understood that the teaching of Arius distorted the faith of the Church in at least two ways. First of all the teaching was not monotheistic, altering the Christian concept of God. Secondly, it completely shattered the Christian understanding of salvation.
He goes on to say that Athanasius firmly held to the idea that what Christianity meant by salvation was that man was being made like God, by God. In other words, salvation is the action of God through which humanity is individually and collectively being divinized. Salvation is divinization. Athanasius held that God, through Christ, was giving divine life to humanity. God giving himself totally holding nothing back invites humanity to participate in the life of the Trinity, a relationship that begins now in this life.
“His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and devotion, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and power. Through these, he has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature….” 2 Peter 1:4
Not Just a Good Example
Athanasius knew, therefore, that if Christ was a creature only, as Arius claimed, then God’s power to save and restore humanity did not truly enter the world because Jesus would not have had divine life to give. (“No one can give what he does not have.”) Were that the case Jesus could be seen as being “Jesus the good example”, one of the prophets, a good man, or a moral teacher but nothing more. (Truly, some people today think of him in that way.)
But Jesus, in the view of Athanasius, was not just a good example, or simply a moral teacher, or just another prophet. He was way more than that. Athanasius knew Jesus to be the divine, Second Person of the Holy Trinity, true God, who became true Man (the Incarnation). Athanasius was convinced the word “homoousios” was the best way to describe this.
- Salvation becomes God donating his own self completely to humanity.
- Participation in the eternal life of God is where the true identity of every human lies. It is who we really are, as St. Paul says, the adopted Sons and Daughters of God, and as Peter says, sharers in the divine nature.
- Athanasius understood that Jesus is someone no one else is. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Baruch, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Samuel, Nathan, John the Baptist, they are all prophets. But Jesus, is the divine Second Person of the Trinity and they are not.
- If Athanasius was correct then salvation is participating in the life of the Trinity, putting on the “new Man”, adopting the divine nature, having a similar mystery within that Christ does, being “divinized”. If Arius, (or any of the heretics) was correct then none of this would or, even could, be possible.
- The “secret” of Christian spirituality, of “putting on Christ”, involves a life-long process of receiving eternal life while in this life (imperfectly but really), being integrated into the divine nature, having human nature changed, until we are fully eternally realized on the other side of death.
- As Catholics we receive grace (eternal life) every time we receive sacraments, and we receive grace in moments of our lives to help us through when it is most needed.
As Athanasius believed salvation is truly God’s power at work in the world giving divine life. For being convinced of that, and for being resolute in his opposition to beliefs that represented a severe misunderstanding, we owe Athanasius a great debt.
Next: Athanasius and the Three Cappadocian Fathers