Standing Firm in God’s Love with Athanasius

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Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” – 1 John 4:8

“God is love.” This is a sentiment that we all, well, love. We love to say it, and we love to believe it. But what does it mean? Love implies a relationship between two or more persons. And to say God is love implies that God is an eternally and infinitely perfect relationship of persons. Our most comforting affirmation as Christians leads us to the most ineffable reality: the Holy Trinity.

This reality—that God is love—is simple but not simplistic, received by the childlike but not the childish. In fact, it has often been the “sophisticated” and “wise” who have pushed back on the doctrine and teaching of both the deity of Christ and the Trinity, two foundational and interrelated teachings of the classic, orthodox Christian faith.

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And this pushback is not new. The spearhead of controversy in the 4th century was a presbyter named Arius. Arius’s teaching can be summarized in the phrase, “There was a time when he was not.”  The “he,” of course, refers to Jesus. Arius posited that if Jesus was truly a son, then he could not be God. This new teaching spread across the Church like wildfire.

Enter Athanasius. Athanasius was born circa 298 in Alexandria, Egypt, lived through the great Diocletian Persecution as a child, became a deacon in 319 (around about 21 years of age!), assisted Bishop Alexander at the Nicene Council in 325, and succeeded Alexander as Bishop of Alexandria in 328. One summary of his life notes,

He fearlessly defended the Nicene Christology against emperors, magistrates, bishops, and theologians. Five times he was sent into exile. He often seemed to stand alone for the orthodox faith. “Athanasius contra mundum (against the world): became a by-word. Yet, by the time of his last exile, his popularity among the citizens of Alexandria was so great that the Emperor had to recall him to avoid insurrection in the city.[i]

Athanasius defended what all classical, orthodox Christians affirm as true in a moment when, in the fog of battle, the truth seemed all but clear. In this, Athanasius teaches us at least three things.

Getting God Right Matters—And It Matters Eternally

Athanasius’s firm grasp of Holy Scripture and the teaching of the Apostles led him to the firm conviction that if you get God wrong, you get everything else wrong. Literally.

In the tradition of Athanasius, British theologian Michael Reeves writes, “Because the Christian God is triune, the Trinity is the governing center of all Christian belief, the truth that shapes and beautifies all others. The Trinity is the cockpit of all Christian thinking. … [It] is the vital oxygen of Christan life and joy.”[ii] Lose the Trinity, and the oxygen goes out.

But perhaps we’d rather just not bother with all this “Trinitarian” talk (too many syllables for one thing!) – just keep things down to earth for folks, you know? Reeves writes again, “If the Trinity were something we could shave off God, we would not be relieving him of some irksome weight; we would be shearing him of precisely what is so delightful about him. For God is triune, and it is as triune that he is so good and desirable.”[iii]

For instance, perhaps that one line in the Athanasian Creed seems like overkill to us. You know the one:

Whosoever will be saved, before all things, it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.[iv]

As C.S. Lewis points out, the key word here is “keep.”[v] Having been taught the truth, to go on lying deliberately and purposefully about the nature of God is deadly for one’s soul and for the souls of others. Imagine that someone is trying to describe your parents. Imagine then that this person goes on to insult your parents in Monty Python fashion: “Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries!”

While that may be a little ridiculous and absurd, you get the point. That’s not only insulting, it’s wrong. Your mom wasn’t a hamster, thank you very much, and your father smelled much better than elderberries. Yuck! Now, apply that God—to be found to be lying about God to yourself and others is deadly serious. It is, in fact, a violation of the First and Second Commandments.

In Anglicanism, this is one reason why our shared worship is so explicitly, ardently, unmistakably Trinitarian. Take the Gloria Patri, for instance. In the Daily Office particularly, this short acclamation is used as a response to Psalm readings and Canticles. One of the things it does is act as a set of training wheels for our minds and our lips. We learn to speak of God as he is: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Collects play the same role: we learn to share in the life of the three-personed God, praying to the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Spirit. And that is gloriously good news for us.

Getting Jesus Right Matters—And It Matters Eternally

Moving from the nature of the Trinity, we move to the nature of Christ Jesus. Obviously, one flows from the other. Athanasius rightly saw that if the scriptural, apostolic portrait of Jesus was not maintained, then salvation itself would become imperiled. Athanasius focuses us in on humanity’s problem: sin and the defacing (he would say erasing) of the Image of God in mankind. Listen to his teaching in On the Incarnation:

What, then, was God to do? What else could He possibly do, being God, but renew His Image in mankind, so that through it men might once more come to know Him? And how could this be done save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ? Men could not have done it, for they are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, Who could recreate man made after the Image…

You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself, and seek out his lost sheep. [vi]

The thread that Athanasius is weaving is this: according to Scripture, only God could restore of the Image of God in man. Only the Artist could come and restore his defaced painting. Only the God-Man could, by his death and resurrection, destroy sin and death and reclaim his beloved creatures back to himself.

A Man Immovable, Not “On a Journey”

The last thing that Athanasius teaches us is the importance of standing firm in the Faith. Against Arius, Athanasius contended for the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Arius would have claimed to have been saving Christianity, making it more palatable to the tastes of his generation, but Athanasius never claimed to be defending new doctrine. He claimed faithfulness to the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ alone. Arius was the innovator, not Athanasius. As C.S. Lewis summarizes, “It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.”[vii]

As has been said, the church that desires to wed itself to the spirit of the age will find herself a widow in the next. Orthodox, classical Christian thought represents the truth as we have it from Christ himself. Heresies are the new-fangled fads. In a word, Athanasius gives us a living example of how to stand firm in this reality.

In a time where it is fashionable to be “on a spiritual journey,” we need this example. Of course, in some sense, the image of a journey is appropriate. The life of the Christian is dynamic—running the race, active in faith, walking with Christ. But, Scripture also exhorted us to be as still as stone, fixed and immovable in the hope of the Gospel. In fact, “standing fast” was one of the Apostle Paul’s favorite pictures of the Christian life (e.g., Romans 5:2, 1 Cor. 16:13, Galatians 5:1, Philippians 4:1). Not all change is good change, especially when that change relates to the nature of God or of the Savior himself. As Christians, all our journeys must begin and end at the foot of the Cross.

Throughout this article, I’ve referred to, but not defined, “orthodoxy.” What does that mean? Well, lowercase “small o” orthodoxy literally means “straight praise.” It means “right belief”—getting our beliefs about God on the mark. That may sound a bit bookish and irrelevant, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In truth, orthodoxy is about the great romance and drama of God. It’s about being invited into and participating in the Great Story of God’s redemption of his creatures and his world through the Incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ our Lord. That is what Athanasius fought for, upheld, and protected so fiercely, thanks be to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Further Resources

If you would like to delve further into Athanasius’s life and thought, I suggest two resources.

  • First, Pastor John Piper has produced a well-written biography on the life and ministry of Athanasius called “Contending for Our All.” It was written for pastors and is given from a Reformed Baptist perspective. Very helpful.
  • Secondly (and lastly), read Athanasius himself. More specifically, On the Incarnation, which is considered a classic. You may be reluctant to engage with Athanasius directly, but remember, his work has stood the test of time because it’s a classic. Or rather, it’s become a classic because it’s both readable and helpful. You’ll find it accessible and deep at the same time.

Footnotes

[i] The Church Pension Fund, Lesser Feasts and Fasts (New York, New York: Church Publishing Inc., 1998), 232.

[ii] Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 16, 18.

[iii] Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 9.

[iv] The Book of Common Prayer (2019), (Anglican Liturgy Press, 2019), 769. The Athanasian Creed was not written by Athanasius but rather upholds the same Faith he sought to defend. The Anglican Church in North America affirms that “We confess as proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture the historic faith of the undivided church as declared in the three Catholic Creeds: the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian.” Found in the Fundamental Declarations of the Province, pg. 767 of The Book of Common Prayer (2019).

[v] C.S. Lewis, “Preface” in Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 8. Full quote: “The operative word is keep; not acquire, or even believe, but keep. The author, in fact, is not talking about unbelievers, but about deserters, not about those who have never heard of Christ, nor even those who have misunderstood and reused to accept Him, but of those who having really understood and really believed, then allow themselves, under the sway of sloth or of fashion or any other invited confusion to be drawn away into sub-Christian modes of thought.”

[vi] Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 41-42.

[vii] C.S. Lewis, “Preface,” in Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 9.


Image: Mosaic of St. Athanasius at St. Spyridon Church, Trieste, Italy. Photo by onlyfabrizio from Getty Images, courtesy of Canva.

Author

Justin Clemente

The Rev. Justin Clemente serves as Associate Pastor to the people of Holy Cross Cathedral in Loganville, Georgia. With his wife, Brooke, he has six beautiful children.

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