Athanasius (293?-372 A.D.) on Arianism
by Lindsey L Hurd

Of every tree that is in the garden thou shalt eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat, for in the day that ye do eat, ye shall surely die.

Dubbed the Father of Orthodoxy, and author of the Athanasian Creed, Athanasius (293?-372 A.D.) has long been respected for his valiant fight against Arianism, a prevailing heresy of the early Church. His book, On the Incarnation, is a brilliant orthodox defense of Christ’s Incarnation, as well as a call to gentiles and Jews to lay aside their unbelief and idols for the one true God. Starkly contrasting his study, the Arian position asserts that instead of being coeternal with God, Jesus was actually created by God, being inferior to Him. Athanasius adamantly asserted that Christ was indeed the very Word of God, having coexisted with God from the very creation of the world. Christ’s incarnation and death was necessary, not only that he might disciple us, but that His resurrection should defeat death, the penalty that had been brought upon man by his fall, and reconstruct God’s image in man, which was hitherto utterly corrupted by the Fall.

The Arian belief of a finite Christ arose from Plato, who scorned the body, believing that it is essentially sinful and depraved. In order to escape sin and pettiness, he believed, man must focus exclusively on philosophy. He used the example of the underground cave in his The Republic, an image where carnal and ignorant man must be led from the cave of his body up into the open sunlight of philosophy before he can be free to truly and intelligently know anything. The words "down" and "up" are significant. Going down signified a retreat into the body and necessarily resulted in ignorance, sinfulness and boarishness. Going up meant scorning and forsaking the body and all pleasures and instead, focusing on philosophy for the ultimate bettering of one’s soul. Thus, Plato could never have comprehended Christ assuming a human body and coming down to earth. To do so, he believed, was a denial of godhood, as well as a sign of weakness and frailty. Thus it was that the Arians could not believe that Christ was actually God.

In addressing the Arian position, Athanasius went back to the very beginning of time: Genesis and the creation of man. Sin is not man’s natural character, Athanasius asserted, but upon man, "[God] bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked – namely the impress of His own Image, a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself, so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even as He does, though in limited degree they might continue forever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise." Man, therefore, is naturally good. He is created in God’s very image; the impress of God is upon him. That is man’s essence. However, as a result of the fall, man is fallen and depraved

By his act of eating the forbidden fruit, man acted on the assumption that he was his own god, while God’s word and law was negligible. The consequence was the corruption of the world, as mankind headed to destruction. God could not, of course, go back on His word and continue to give man life in spite of his rebellion, nor could He let His own creation and image-bearers return to non-existence through corruption. Such a thing would be unworthy of His character, for he could never allow corruption and death to have victory. To have allowed His own creation, through neglect and indifference, to perish would have argued against God’s goodness and love. Thus, in accordance with His divine plan, and that the Devil might not have victory over him, it was necessary that man be made once more whole.

But why, Arians and Gentiles alike asked, if man is now fallen and depraved, couldn’t God have just sent them a sign or miracle to get them on the right path? Athanasius contended that God had already shown Himself to all of man in three ways. One was the witness of the amazing order, intricacies and vastness of the whole universe. Then there is the witness of holy men and prophets whom God has sent to men. Lastly, there was the law which He gave all men, so that at the very least, man could forsake his wicked ways and lead a good life; for the laws, Athanasius wrote, were a "sacred school of the knowledge of God and the conduct of the spiritual life for the whole world." Despite more than sufficient proof and signs, Man refused to acknowledge his Lord, and suppressed the truth in unrighteousness, continuing in his path of wickedness like a brute beast. Man didn’t need a spectacular sign. He needed a reconstructed image.

Athanasius makes an interesting point in regard to man’s habit of suppressing the truth, calling it the "dehumanizing of mankind". Because we are made in His image, our absolute being and purpose in life depends upon God and His image, which He impressed upon our souls. To deny and to suppress God is to essentially deny and suppress ourselves, and the result is that we become less than human. The fault of the body lies not in any innate wickedness thereunto, but in our Fall from God and His grace. Man needed a Savior to humanize him once more. "And how," asked Athanasius, "could this be done save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ?"

However, the Arians took issue with the incarnation of a deity. It was incomprehensible to them that Christ could remain God and yet enter a human body. Athanasius explained that because Christ is immortal and cannot die, it was necessary for Him to adopt a human body capable of death so that in dying, He could make a sufficient exchange for all. Just as Adam, in his human body, sinned for the world, Christ, in His human body, died for the world so that man might once again live in the renewed image of the Father.

As it was absolutely necessary that Christ give the propitiation for our sins, how then could He escape being defiled by his assumed body? Athanasius wrote that instead of being defiled by it, Christ, as God, transcended it. He was not limited to it, but continued to be omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, though He had adopted a human body as the instrument by which to redeem and restore His own image to His people. Illustrating this point, Athanasius analogized, "Just as the sun is not defiled by the contact of its rays with earthly objects, but rather enlightens and purifies them, so He Who made the sun is not defiled by being made known in a body, but rather the body is cleansed and quickened by His indwelling."

Through Christ’s Incarnation, we recover our truly human nature, and lay aside our old body of death. We are no longer under bondage to death, and the unnatural and alien nature of sin no longer destroys and deforms us. Man’s Fall is redeemed by Christ, the very God of very God, who was begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made - and the One who makes all things new. (Rev. 21:5) The significance of new is uniquely Biblical; "it is not novelty or change, but a fresh, ongoing, revitalizing social energy and force, the power of God unto salvation." (Revolt From Maturity, R. J. Rushdoony; pg. 283) By Christ’s glorious work on the cross, we are a new creature.

 

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Patrick L. Hurd
Weatherford, Texas
PHurdWford@AOL.com

EST. 01/01/01