Athanasius and the dodgy worship leader

Worship songs can be very catchy can’t they?  The Arians loved their worship songs.  One favourite chant went:

                              en hote pote ouk en

Ah, maybe not so catchy unless you’re a fan of ancient Greek. It means “There was a once, when he was not.”  Still  not that catchy for modern ears?  Well back in early church history it was a number one best seller. If that one doesn’t work for you try this:

“The uncreated God has made the Son

A beginning of things created

And by adoption has God made Son

Into an advancement of himself

Yet the Son’s Substance is

Removed from the substance of the Father

The Son is not equal to the Father

Nor does he share the same substance

God is the-all wise Father

And the Son is the teacher of his mysteries

The members of the Holy Trinity

Share unequal glories[1]


Who were the Arians and where did they come from?


One of the big questions in the early church was “what did it mean to describe Jesus as ‘only begotten son,’ ‘Lord,’ ‘ One with the Father’ etc.”


A big concern was to protect God from rivals. Three suggestions were offered.

  1. Monarchy/Modalism –God appears as three modes (e.g. Sabellius)
  2. Adoptionism –Jesus adopted into God’s fullness at birth or baptism
  3. Subordinatism –Jesus is less than God


Arius was a Presbyter (or pastor) in Alexandria, Egypt.  In 318AD he confronted his bishop Alexander


“Alexander (Bishop of Alexandria) attempted one day, in the presence of the presbyters and the rest of his clergy, too ambitious a discourse about the holy Trinity….Arius, one of the presbyters under his jurisdiction, a man possessed of no inconsiderable logical acumen, thinking that the bishop was introducing the doctrine of Sabellius the Lbyan, from love of controversy advanced another view diametrically opposed to the opinion of the Libyan”[2]

Alexander himself explains about Arius and his followers


“They assert ‘God was not always a father, but that there was when he was not a father; the word of God was not from eternity, but was made out of nothing; for that ever existing God has nade him who did not previously exist, out of the non-existent’ Wherefore ‘there was when he was not.’[3]

“they taught that ‘the Son is a creature and a work; he is neither like the father in essence, nor is by nature either the Father’s true word or his true Wisdom, but indeed one of his works and creatures.”[4]

In his own words, Arius writing to Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia C320 explains:

“The Son is not unbegotten”[5]

“But we are persecuted because we say, ‘the Son had a beginning but God is without beginning.”[6]

In other words the key emphasis is that:

Jesus was not eternally the Son of God

He was created at some point prior to the Creation of the Universe


In a circular letter from Alexander of Alexandria c 324 we are told what the Arian strategy was.

“They deny his divinity and declare him to be on a level with all mankind.  They pick out every saying relative to his saving dispensation and to his humiliation for us, and try to compound from them the proclamation of their own impiety, by abandoning the words showing his divinity from the beginning and his ineffable glory with the father.”[7]

“They make their own the impious view of Greeks and Jews about Christ and endeavour, as far as they possibly can to get praise among them.”[8]

“They daily excite persecutions against us.”[9]

“They tried by running to and fro to reach our fellow ministers who were of one mind with us.  They make a show of reverence for the fair name of peace and union, but in fact, endeavour to infect some of them with their own disease by means of fair words, and ask them for all too verbose letters which they read aloud to those that they have deceived and confirm them as unrepentant in their error, on the ground that they have bishops to agree and be of one mind with them.”[10]

“They do not confess to them the wicked teaching and actions that led to their expulsion but they either pass them over in silence or deceive them with specious words and writings.”[11]


In other words their strategy could be summed up as

  • – Proof texting from Scripture –taking verses out of context to support their case
  • – Stirring up trouble for true believers by making false accusations
  • – Pretending to be the good guys who just want everyone to get along
  • – Lying about their true motives and record


The Response


The Council of Nicaea convened on the  20th May 325. It was pulled together by the Emperor, Constantine.  On  October 28 312AD he had fought and won a great battle under the chai rho [12] symbol at Milvian Bridge on the Tiber. This was the beginning of a process where Constantine converted publicly to Christianity and made Christianity the official religion of the Empire.


The status of Christ within the Godhead was one of the major points of discussion leading to a summary statement known as the Nicaean Creed


“We believe in one God, Father Almighty maker of all things, seen and unseen:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God, begotten as only begotten of the Father, that is of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things came into existence, both things in heaven and things on earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was incarnate and became man, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended into the heavens, is coming to judge the living and the dead.

And in the Holy Spirit.

But those who say ‘There was a time when he  did not exist,8 and’Before being begotten he did not exist,’ and that he came into being from non-existence, or who alledge that the Son of God is of another hypostasis or ousia, or who is alterable or changeable, these the Catholic and Apostolic church condemns.”[13]

Note the important innovation here:

“The reference to the Son being ‘of one substance (ousia) of the Father’ is an innovation.  Athansius tells us how it got included.  When it was proposed that the Son was ‘from God,’ the Arians agreed, since they accepted that the Son is indivisible from the substance of the Father, always in the Father (and the Father always in the Son) the bishops were forced to use extrabiblical terms to convey the sense of Scripture’ realising that biblical language alone could not distinguish from the false teaching they were combatting.”[14]


Athanasius  lived from 296-393AD and eventually became bishop of Alexandria.  He went to Nicaea as his bishop’s assistant.  He was exiled 5 times for his robust defence of the Trinity against Arianism

Here are two important things he tells us

  1. The Father and Son revelation is a vital truth

“But when we call God Father, at once with the Father we signify the Son’s existence. Therefore also he who believes in the Son, believes also in the Father: for he believes in what is proper to the Father’s Essence; and thus the faith is one in one God. And he who worships and honours the Son, in the Son worships and honours the Father; for one is the Godhead; and therefore one  the honour and one the worship which is paid to the Father in and through the Son.”[15]

  1. The doctrine of the Trinity is vital to the doctrine of Salvation

“For it was absurd that, having spoken, God should lie, in that he had established a that men would die by death if he were to transgress the commandment, and man did not die after he had transgressed, but God’s word was made void.  For God would not have been truthful, if after he had said we would die, man had not died.  And furthermore, it would have been improper that what had once been created rational and had partaken of his Word, should perish and return again to non-existence through corruption.  For it would not have been worthy of the goodness of God that what had been brought into existence by him should be corrupted on account of the deceit which the devil had played on men.  And it would have been especially improper that the handiwork of God in mankind should come to nought, either through their neglect, or through the deceit of demons.” [16]

“But as this had to be, so again on the other hand lies opposed to it what was reasonable for God, that he should appear truthful in passing the law about death.  For it would have been absurd that for our benefit and permanence God, the Father of truth, should appear a liar.” [17]

“For this reason the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God came to our realm; .. And lest what had been created should perish and the work of the Father among men should be in vain, he took to himself a body, and that not foreign to our own.  For he did not wish simply to be in a body, nor did he wish merely to appear, for if he had wished only to appear he could have made his theophany through some other means.” [18]

In other words

  1. God’s plan for his creation cannot be frustrated
  2. God’s Word –his law of death cannot fail to come true
  3. So God must act

The fitting thing to happen was for God himself to come as a man, live among us and take the penalty on himself.

Jesus is fully God and fully man.


Athanasius saw that the Doctrine of the Trinity was vital because without it the truth that God had come as a man and lived and died for us goes as well.  The Doctrine of the Trinity is vital to salvation.

[1] Arius, Cited in Mark Noll, Turning Points, 53.

[2] A New Eusebius, 321.

[3] A New Eusebius, 323.

[4] A New Eusebius, 323.

[5] A New Eusebius, 325.

[6] A New Eusebius, 325.

[7] A New Eusebius, 328.

[8] A New Eusebius, 328

[9] A New Eusebius, 328-329.

[10] A New Eusebius, 329.

[11] A New Eusebius, 325.

[12] A combination of the Greek letters x (chai) and p (roe) equivalent to c and r in modern English and representing the start of Christ’s name.

[13] Cited in Letham, The Holy Trinity, 116.

[14] Letham, The Holy Trinity, 116.

[15] Athansius, “Orations Against the Arians 111,” XXIII, 5, 862-863.

[16]  Athanasius, De Incarnatione, s6, 149.

[17]  Athanasius, De Incarnatione, s7, 149-151.

[18]  Athanasius, De Incarnatione, s8, 152-153.