Athanasius: Two Aspects of Faithfulness Under Fire

Dr. Donald Fairbairn

The theme “faith under fire” is a stirring one that conjures up images of persecuted Christians under intense pressure. History recounts the way these believers faithfully withstood the pressure, and we who hear the accounts come away either marveling at the Christians’ firmness, or ashamed of our own flimsiness—or maybe both.

Even though such accounts are intended to inspire us, we Christians who live under only mild persecution, or perhaps none at all, often feel a deep sense of spiritual inferiority to those who endured persecution. We assume that they must have been much better believers than we are, because of the purifying fire through which they passed.

One thing we have to realize, however, is that persecution does not merely purify the church. Sometimes persecution hardens believers, isolating them from the surrounding society, or gets them to focus so much on small matters (in the name of purity, of course) that they become hostile toward each other, and lose contact with the very people they are called to reach with the gospel. Sadly, persecution often fractures and isolates the body of Christ as much as it purifies it.

Furthermore, persecution of Christians is often indirect. True, sometimes a government committed to atheism or to another religion besides Christianity tries very directly to stamp out the church, as was the case in the early years of the Soviet Union or is the case in some Islamic-controlled regions today. But far more often, persecution takes the form of advocating changes that appear small, but actually have far-reaching effects.

The implications of Nazi ideology for the Christian faith were not apparent immediately, and most German Christians missed them for years. Persecution creates a fog of confusion that makes it difficult for Christians to know what is central and what is peripheral. As a result, it is important for us to recognize that maintaining the faith under fire is not just a matter of having the fortitude to resist frontal assaults on Christianity. It also involves having the biblical and theological discernment to see clearly in a fog, to recognize what is most central and what is less crucial.

One of the great examples of faith under fire in all of Christian history is the 4th century Egyptian theologian and bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius. He lived during the Christian church’s greatest theological crisis—the battle against Arianism, which is the belief that the Son and Spirit are lesser beings than the Father. Athanasius’s fortitude has never been questioned, and is the source of his super-hero status in the church.

Athanasius was exiled five times by four different Roman Emperors. He spent 17 years out of a 45-year episcopate in banishment. And throughout those long years, he fought tirelessly—even viciously—for the truth that the Son and the Spirit had to be, and were, equal to the Father. He coined the word “Ariomaniacs” to describe his opponents. He drew a line in the sand by saying that if the Son were the way the Arians said he was—a being inferior to the Father and therefore not the same God—such a Son could not have saved us. And ultimately, Athanasius prevailed. But behind this dramatic story of Athanasius’s fortitude lies another story, one of his discernment. This story is less well known, and I believe it is worth recounting here as we consider the theme of faith under fire.

Simply put, the truth at stake in the Arian controversy was that we could not rise up to God ourselves, so God had to come down to save us. The persons who came down—the Son through the incarnation and the Spirit at Pentecost—had to be fully equal to the Father in order for us to be saved. This much was relatively clear to everyone. So when Arius wrote openly around the year 318 that the Son was lower than the Father—indeed, that he 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 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.” 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.” In a related issue, the church was also looking for words to describe the oneness and threeness of God, and some people used the same Greek word (hypostasis) to refer to his oneness that other people were using to refer to his threeness. Thus, some (like Athanasius himself) spoke of “one hypostasis” in God (meaning “one essence”), while others spoke of “three hypostases” (meaning “three persons”).

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, fog and name-calling, Athanasius was uniquely able to recognize that beneath 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. He insisted that since they were saying the same thing, they should begin to say it the same way, and it is a tribute to his humility that he did not insist in every case on the way he had said things earlier in his career. He accepted the use of hypostasis to mean “person” (which was not the way he had previously used the word), even as he insisted that the phrase “of the same essence” was the best way to show the equality of the Son to the Father. This local council was the turning point in the Trinitarian controversy. It 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 persecution call for stalwart, faithful perseverance in the midst of pressure to compromise, or worse. But such times also beget confusion about who is and is not firmly standing for the faith. An important but neglected aspect of faithfulness under fire 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, too, he is a shining example to us of how to live Christianly in a 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. Before coming to Gordon-Conwell, he taught at Erskine Theological Seminary, served as Associate Dean of Theology and directed the Th.M. program. He has also taught at Donetsk Christian University in Ukraine, and has served on the international staff of Campus Crusade, ministering in Soviet Georgia and researching Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam in Eurasia.