August 09, 2012
Why should evangelicals care about the early church, about the first several centuries after the end of the New Testament? Another reason why we should take that period seriously is that the church fathers—at least some of them—demonstrated remarkable discernment in the midst of a very politically-charged atmosphere. Nowhere was this more true than during the fourth-century Trinitarian Controversy, and no one demonstrated more discernment than a person who is not known for discernment—Athanasius of Alexandria.
You may know the situation: A relatively small group within the church, led at first by a man named Arius (from whom we get the name “Arianism”) believed that God the Son was the first and greatest of created beings, but not equal to God or eternal as God is. What enabled them to make this claim was their belief that salvation comes as we march up to God, so the “Savior” could be a creature who himself marched up to God and blazed the trail for us to follow. In contrast, the church recognized, we cannot rise up to God, so God had to come down to us to save us. At the most fundamental level, this means that the persons who came down—the Son at the incarnation and the Holy Spirit at Pentecost—had to be just as fully God as the Father in order for us to be saved. This much was relatively clear to everyone, and so when Arius wrote openly around the year 318 that the Son was a created being—this idea was rejected fairly quickly, most notably in the year 325 at the Council of Nicaea, which we now call the First Ecumenical Council.
However, this clear rejection of Arius’s thought took place in a tumultuous political atmosphere. The Roman Empire had gone from severely persecuting Christians to regarding Christianity as its most favored religion, all in the space of less than two decades after Constantine became a Christian. The inevitable result of imperial favor toward the church was imperial involvement in the church. After Constantine died in 337, his three sons vied for control over his empire and each tried to enlist Christian bishops and Christian theological slogans on his side. The result was a bewildering proliferation of creedal statements, with various different ways of speaking of the Son’s relationship to the Father. The Council of Nicaea had declared the Son to be “of one essence with the Father,” and now other creeds called him “like the Father” or “like the Father in all respects” or “exactly like the Father” or “like the Father in essence.”
The situation rapidly became confusing, as it became harder to tell which statements were equivalent and which ones actually reflected unacceptable differences of opinion. In this confused situation, many people tended to latch onto a single statement and to insist on it in opposition to all others. Parties started to emerge based on particular slogans, and the rival claimants to the imperial throne backed one party or another, one slogan or another, by exiling bishops who held to different slogans.
This is where Athanasius’s extraordinary gift for discernment came into play. No one was ever more adamant in opposing Arianism, but if he had been equally adamant about insisting that everyone use his slogans to oppose Arianism, the controversy might never have ended, since almost everyone was distrustful of everyone else’s slogans. In the midst of the confusion and name-calling, Athanasius was uniquely able to recognize that beneath many (not all!) of the varied statements lay a consensus, shared by most of the church in opposition to Arianism. In the 350s and early 360s, he worked tirelessly to uncover the consensus that he believed lay behind the various anti-Arian statements, and in the year 362, he held a small council in Alexandria at which he was able to show the different groups that they were saying the same thing. This local council was the turning point in the Trinitarian controversy and paved the way for the church’s acceptance of the Nicene Creed (with its bold assertion that the Son is equal to the Father and that this Son “came down” for our salvation) at the Second Ecumenical Council in 381.
Times of emotionally-charged political rhetoric call for stalwart, faithful perseverance in the midst of pressure to compromise. But such times also beget confusion about who is and is not firmly standing for the faith. An important but neglected aspect of faithfulness is the biblical/theological discernment to recognize what is and is not an acceptable way of affirming the faith. In the case of Athanasius and the Arian crisis, this kind of discernment was just as important to the work of the gospel as the fortitude for which he is much more famous. In discernment as well as fortitude, he is a shining example to us of how to live Christianly in a complex, confusing world. And there are other noteworthy examples from the early church as well, examples from whom we can profit as we try to live Christianly in a similarly complex, confusing world.
Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.