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AUSTIN GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY

ATHANASIUS CONTRA ARIUS: ARGUING FOR THE DIVINITY OF CHRIST FROM SCRIPTURE AND EARLY CHURCH PRACTICE

CHURCH HISTORY MICHAEL WEED, Ph.D.

BY SERGIO N. LONGORIA

AUSTIN, TEXAS

DECEMBER 3, 2009

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ATHANASIUS CONTRA ARIUS: ARGUING FOR THE DIVINITY OF CHRIST FROM SCRIPTURE AND EARLY CHURCH PRACTICE

In the third and fourth century a group of Christians called Arians were affirming that Christ was not divine. The Arians were following the teachings of Arius. Arius argued for an interpretation of the Son of God focusing on Scripture that seemed to indicate that Jesus, or the Son of God, had not always been in existence. They claimed that there was a time when He was not, that in fact, the Son of God had a beginning. This would make the Son less divine than the Father. Much of Christendom of the time was following in line with the teachings of Arius. But one man stood up to oppose him and defend the orthodox view of the divinity of Christ: Athanasius. In this paper I examine some of the claims of Arius (d. 336 A.D.). I will look at one of the Scriptures that he used to support his argument, but more importantly, I also examine the refutation made by Athanasius (d. 373 A.D.). I will specifically focus on some aspects of his treatment of Proverbs 8:22 in his Second Discourse Against the Arians which is part of his work, Orations Against the Arians. I will principally focus on Athanasius’ method of refuting Arius claims by use of Church tradition as embodied in Scripture and Church practices. I will begin with a brief introduction to both Arius and Athanasius and the nature of the controversy that led to Arius’ condemnation at the

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council of Nicea (325 A.D.). I will then present Arius’ specific case in Proverbs 8:22 as presented by Athanasius in the Second Discourse Against the Arians followed by Athanasius’ refutation.

Arius Arius was probably born in Libya around 260-280 A.D.1 He was ordained into the diaconate by Bishop Peter of Alexandria. He was later deposed for siding with a heretical group called Melitians. He later asked for forgiveness and was re-instated and ordained a priest by Peter’s successor, Bishop Achillas. Arius was put in charge of the Church of Baucalis. There he gained a reputation for his ascetic life, his theological thinking and his skill in logic. He had attractive qualities, was well educated, an able preacher, and had a rather austere appearance.2 But according to Molly, Arius had other less than admirable qualities such as, being proud, ambitious, insincere, and cunning. This shortcomings not withstanding, Arius was a persuasive speaker, with a good outward appearance, social grace and a pleasing voice that gained him many followers.3 E. A. Livingstone, ed., Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church, Revised Second Edition. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), s.v. "Arius.”
1

Michael E. Molloy, Champion of Truth: The Life of St. Athanasius (New York, NY: Society of St. Paul, 2003), 14-15.
2 3

Ibid., 15.

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In 313 A.D., Alexander was consecrated the new bishop of the see of Alexandria. This see included the church of which Arius was pastor or senior presbyter. It seems that for a time Alexander and Arius maintained a cordial relationship. Yet between 318 and 323 A.D. Arius and Alexander clashed over the nature of Christ. It seems that during a gathering of clergy, Alexander took the opportunity to teach them about the unity of the Father and the Son. Alexander taught in accordance with the traditional teachings, but to this Arius took exception and began to contradict the teaching of Alexander.4 Arius asserted that the Father and the Son were not equal and that any appearance to the contrary found in scripture was just merely titles of honor for Christ.5 Arius had reasoned erroneously from a human premise that since God was a Father, there must have been a time when he had not yet had a son.6 From this comes the famous Arian dictum, “there was once when he was not”7 to signal that there was a time when the Son did not exist and was

4 5

Ibid.

Alister E. McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1998), 33.
6 7

Molloy, Champion of Truth: The Life of St. Athanasius, 16.

Walter A. Elwell, ed., The Concise Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1991), s.v. "Arianism,” by V. L. Walter.

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therefore created afterwards by God.8 Arius’ did not set out to oppose orthodoxy merely because he was evil as it might be supposed. Rather, Arius had a zeal for maintaining monotheism and he saw danger to this in the teaching of Alexander. But Arius’ ideas at first seemed to preserve monotheism as well as uphold the divinity of the Son, even when this was merely honorific or bestowed divinity, as distinct from the inherent and eternal divinity of the Father. Arius’ ideas quickly gained acceptance among the common converts of Alexandria.9 Alexander and his assistant Athanasius saw much danger in what Arius was teaching.

Athanasius Athanasius was born around 295-299 A.D. in Alexandria, one of the great cosmopolitan cities of the Roman Empire. He received a classical and theological education probably under the tutelage of Bishop Alexander.10 In 319 A.D., he was ordained a deacon and soon became the secretary of bishop Alexander of Alexandria, who would be a major force at the Council of Nicea when Athanasius was scarcely 30 years old or younger. Athanasius Molloy, Champion of Truth: The Life of St. Athanasius, 16.

8 9

Mike Feazell, “Is Jesus really God? A look at the Arian controversy,” http://www.christianodyssey.com/god/jesusgod.htm. Accessed, October 18, 2009. Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius, ed. Carol Harrison (New York, NY: Routledge, 2004), 4.
10

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accompanied Alexander to that council, where he seems to have participated in some of the debates, although only the bishops voted. In 328 A.D., upon the death of Alexander, Athanasius was elected bishop of Alexandria, but this was immediately contested accusing him of being under the canonical age of 30 for this office.11 Although Athanasius was aware of the inroads that Arianism was making, he does not come to the forefront until after the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. when Emperor Constantine calls in an Ecumenical council of the Church to deal with the questions that Arianism was posing. Yet as early as 321 A.D., Alexander had called a council to deal with Arius. But even after the council of Nicea in which Arius is officially condemned, Arianism remained and continued to grow in the empire. Arianism also exerted a political force in the empire with the result that Arian bishops exile and excommunicate apostolic bishops and vice versa. Athanasius is also the subject of multiple exiles directly or indirectly at the hands of Arian leaders or sympathizers. The result of this is that the defense of orthodox Christianity spanned several councils and many years of struggle even after Nicea. To deal with the growing heresy, Athanasius spent much of his time, and his time in exile, writing to counteract the Arian heresy. It is during his second exile ca. 339 A.D.-340 A.D. that he writes his work, Orations Against the Arians.12 Ibid., 5. Ibid., 87.

11 12

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The Controversy The great controversy over the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ was a controversy led by the bishops and their theologians in a political background created by the interests of each Christian power center within the political boundaries of the Roman Empire.13 It is well beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the intricate theologico-political interrelationships developed around the Arian controversy, but it is important to simply mention that the controversy was not only theological, but also had elements of political expediency. This is why we see Emperor Constantine intervening and calling into session the council of Nicea in 325 A.D. At the center of the theological debate rested the very essence of the understanding of the relationship between God the Father and Son. It is from this council that we get the orthodox confession which declares that Jesus was “begotten of the Father…of the substance of the Father…begotten not made, of one substance with the Father.”14 The council also anathematized Arius and his followers, but Arius arguments had to be dealt with exegetically and not just by the power of the state-church for years to come. That is, they had to be defeated in the arena of ideas and not just under the threat of action by the state.

Charles Kannengiesser, “Athanasius of Alexandria and the Foundation of Traditional Christology.,” Theological Studies 34, no. 1 (March 1973): 106107.
13

Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), 249.
14

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At Nicea the affirmation of the divinity of Christ was conceived largely by the use of Greek philosophical categories. The “of the substance of the Father” is the Greek term homoousios which orthodox adherents were using as opposed to the Arians’ use of homoiousios which merely denoted the Son’s likeness in substance or essence to that of the Father.15 Yet Athanasius refers to these Greek words only once or twice in his refutation of the Arians and prefers to stay close to the Biblical text.16 Arius did not argue in a vacuum or from a priori premises. In fact, Arius and the Arians argued from Scripture. This made their arguments all the more compelling. As Helyer points out, “the Arians relied primarily upon Scriptural texts that seemingly asserted the createdness of Christ.”17 One such passage used by Arians is found in Proverbs 8:22. This passage reads, “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work.” At the time, Arian and orthodox exegetes did not have the benefit of modern methods and essentially were unaware that this verse was not to be necessarily linked with the Logos or Word of God. But in Arius and Athanasius times, everyone

McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought, 32.
15

Kannengiesser, “Athanasius of Alexandria and the Foundation of Traditional Christology.,” 111.
16

Larry R. Helyer, “Arius Revisited : The Firstborn over all Creation (Col 1:15),” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 31, no. 1 (March 1988): 59.
17

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located the meaning of the text not so much in the intentions of the human author, but in the objective reference to divine realities placed there by the Spirit.18 So that everyone understood that Wisdom, the Logos and the Word was essentially referring to Jesus. Anatolios explains that for Origen, “Wisdom” was the primary designation for Christ.19 And so it was of absolute expediency to deal with the Arian assertion that this verse implied that Wisdom, as the Christ, was created at the beginning of God’s work. Meaning, that God had created Christ rather than Christ being co-eternal with the Father.

Athanasius’ Refutation Athanasius argues that it is useless to argue a priori about the divinity of the Son, or as a mere supposition of reason.20 Athanasius instead inquires into Scripture and sees how it teaches us to discover the divinity of the Son starting from the concrete confessions of the Church. Such clues can be found, for example, in the confessions of the early Church, some of which ended up recorded as Scripture. One such confession mentions the Father, the

18 19 20

Anatolios, Athanasius, 110. Ibid.

Kannengiesser, “Athanasius of Alexandria and the Foundation of Traditional Christology.,” 112.

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Son and the Holy Spirit in the baptismal formulas. But this approach to Biblical inquiry is novel in Athanasius time; in fact, partially borrowed from the Arians themselves who use Scripture to buttress their case.21 According to Arius, God is necessarily uncreated, unbegotten and unoriginate, and hence he is absolutely incommunicable and unique. Since Proverbs 8:22 clearly designates Wisdom, the Logos as created, Arius concluded that the Logos cannot be true God. Although designated as Son of God and even God in Scripture, the Logos enjoys this status either by participation in grace or by adoption.22 In any case for the Arians Christ is clearly a creature dissimilar in all things from the Father, a perfect creature and immensely above all other created beings, but a creature nevertheless. In response to Origen's view of an eternal generation from the Father, Arius steadfastly asserted "there was when he was not."23 In his response to the Arian’s assertion that Proverbs 8:22 demonstrates that the Son of God is a created being, Athanasius uses an impressive amount of Scripture and rhetoric in his refutation of the Arian heresy. It is not possible to go into detail here about all of them. It will be sufficient to show an example

21 22 23

Ibid. Helyer, “Arius Revisited: The Firstborn over all Creation (Col 1:15),” 59. Ibid.

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of Athanasius’ strategy in order to appreciate the force of his arguments. Athanasius wrote Second Discourse Against the Arians to deal with this particular issue during his second exile.24 The Second Discourse Against the Arians is an extensive work comprised of eighty-two chapters in which Athanasius deals specifically with confronting the heresy around Proverbs 8:22. It can be seen in this work, as pointed out above, that he makes liberal use of Scripture texts, and presents them along confessions of the faith. For example, Athanasius rhetorically asks why did the Church confessions include the Son along with the Father in the performance of baptism if the Son is a creature? Why too in the baptismal consecration is the Son named together with the Father? For if they say that the Father is not all-sufficient, then their answer is irreligious, but if He be, for this it is right to say, what is the need of the Son for framing the worlds, or for the holy laver? For what fellowship is there between creature and Creator? or why is a thing made classed with the Maker in the consecration of all of us? or why, as you hold, is faith in one Creator and in one creature delivered to us? for if it was that we might be joined to the Godhead, what need of the creature? but if that we might be united to the Son a creature, superfluous, according to you, is this naming of the Son in Baptism, for God who made Him a Son is able to make us sons also. Besides, if the Son be a creature, the nature of rational creatures being one, no help will come to creatures from a creature.25

24 25

Anatolios, Athanasius, 87.

Philip Schaff, ed., “Christian Classics Ethereal Library,” NPNF2-04. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/ schaff/npnf204.html. Or. Ar. 2:41.

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Athanasius response establishes that the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son, not because God lacks anything, but because God wills it so. In his response Athanasius uses other biblical texts to support his argument. That the Son is named with the Father, not as if the Father were not allsufficient, not without meaning, and by accident; but, since He is God’s Word and own Wisdom, and being His Radiance, is ever with the Father, therefore it is impossible, if the Father bestows grace, that He should not give it in the Son, for the Son is in the Father as the radiance in the light. For, not as if in need, but as a Father in His own Wisdom hath God founded the earth, and made all things in the Word which is from Him, and in the Son confirms the Holy Laver.26 In this section of Athanasius response he makes reference to Proverbs 3:19 (The LORD by wisdom hath founded the earth; by understanding hath he established the heavens.) And there is also reference to wisdom literature as in Wisdom 9:1 (O God of my fathers, and Lord of mercy, who hast made all things with thy word). Athanasius then adds, “So it is because the Father is named in baptism that the Son must also be named along with him.”27 The entire procedure of Athanasius in refuting the Arian interpretation of Proverbs 8:22 is geared toward showing that the overall patterns of the scriptural language clearly point to the Word as God and not as a creature and that the overall theme of Scripture precisely involves a double account of the Son referring alternatively to his divinity and humanity.28 Ibid. Anatolios, Athanasius, 136. Ibid., 111.

26 27 28

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To further illustrate Athanasius’ use of scriptural references, the following is also part of his refutation: Now it is plain that our body is Wisdom’s house, which It took on Itself to become man; hence consistently does John say, ‘The Word was made flesh’ and by Solomon Wisdom says of Itself with cautious exactness, not ‘I am a creature,’ but only ‘The Lord created me a beginning of His ways for His works,’ yet not ‘created me that I might have being,’ nor ‘because I have a creature’s beginning and origin.29

Conclusion I have attempted to trace some of the issues involving the Arian controversy of the fourth century by broadly outlining the position of Arius and Athanasius. But more specifically, it was shown that Athanasius used Scripture and early Christian practices in his refutation of the Arian position concerning the divinity of Christ. In particular it was shown that Athanasius continually refers to Scripture and on at least one occasion presented here, he uses the baptismal formulas of the early Church as part of his refutation against the Arian understanding of Proverbs 8:22. Even though Arianism continued to make inroads in the Empire, in the end Athanasius’ orthodoxy won the struggle. The important thing here is to show that rather than focusing on Greek concepts and categories, Athanasius shows how to correctly handle the Word of truth against those who choose to distort its meaning.

29

Schaff, “Athanasius: Select Works and Letters,” Or. Ar. 2:44.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Anatolios, Khaled. Athanasius. Edited by Carol Harrison. New York, NY: Routledge, 2004. Elwell, Walter A., ed. The Concise Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1991. S. v. "Arianism," by V.L. Walter. Feazell, Mike. “Is Jesus really God? A Look at the Arian Controversy.” http://www.christianodyssey.com/god/jesusgod.htm./(accessed October 18, 2009). Grenz, Stanley J. Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000. Helyer, Larry R. “Arius Revisited: The Firstborn over all Creation (Col 1:15).” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 31, no. 1 (March 1988): 5967. Kannengiesser, Charles. “Athanasius of Alexandria and the Foundation of Traditional Christology.” Theological Studies 34, no. 1 (March 1973): 103113. Livingstone, E. A., ed. Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church. Revised Second Edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006. S. v. "Arius." McGrath, Alister E. Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1998. Molloy, Michael E. Champion of Truth: The Life of St. Athanasius. New York, NY: Society of St. Paul, 2003. Schaff, Philip., ed. “Christian Classics Ethereal Library.” NPNF2-04. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf204.html.

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