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Athanasius of Alexandria

History

Athanasius of Alexandria came to be known as one of the staunchest defenders of the Christian faith as it was defined at the Council of Nicea over against the heresy of Arianism. He was small (he was called the “Black Dwarf”), but mighty. Athanasius had, at one point, fallen out of favor with Constantine and was unable to be granted an audience with the Emperor in order to argue for the correctness of the Nicene definition of Christian faith. Not to be deterred, Athanasius hid in the bushes close to a spot he knew the Emperor would be passing by. When Constantine approached, Athanasius jumped out from the bushes, grabbed the reigns of the Emperor’s horse, and would not let him go until he had been heard. This may not have been the wisest move (Constantine liked him even less because of it), but it is a fine display of Athanasius’s fervor and fearlessness. Orthodox Christianity has rarely found such an effective pairing of intellect and guts.

Athanasius is also notable for his nuanced understanding of sin. For him, sin was not a mistake to be corrected, not a debt to be paid, and not a sign of our need to be reminded of the way back to God or educated. These were all common understandings of the nature and function of sin at his time (and they continue through today). Particularly powerful in Athanasius’ part of the Christian world was the idea that sin pointed to a need to be educated. The sinful soul was lost on its journey and needs to be taught divine truth in order to get back on the right track and so be saved. But Athanasius saw more to sin than that. For him, sin was the introduction of a sort of disintegrating element into the world that worked destruction. Being much more than simple mistake or a reminder of the need for divine education, sin is not so easily dealt with. As Athanasius pictures it, the radical destructive force brought into the world through sin has only one effective remedy: a new creation.

This leads Athanasius to a different understanding of God’s work in the world. If what is needed is a new creation, only the creator can bring it about. It may sound terribly run of the mill to us, but what Athanasius was building was a new conception of how God saves. A popular theological and philosophical assumption about God had been that God’s transcendence—His status as different from and above creation—meant that God could not have any direct dealing with the stuff of creation. In this conception, the Word (that which has become incarnate in Jesus Christ) acts as a mediator between God the Father and the world. The Word or Logos, then acts as the way in which God can act in the world without being directly in contact with creation. But Athanasius’s understanding of sin as destructive force only remedied by a new creation opens up the possibility for God the Creator to be directly involved—mediator-free—in and with the world. For Athanasius, the transcendence of God does not mean that God cannot be involved directly in creation. Instead, God has established a direct relationship with the world in the act of creation and is now in constant contact with it in order to keep it in existence.

What this meant for theology was a paradigm in which divinity did not have to be understood as antagonistic to creation. From Plato through early Church theologians such as Justin Martyr and Origen, the things of God were seen as unmixable with the things of creation—a gulf had to be maintained between the two. Athanasius, however, constructed a different conception. And his understanding has important pastoral implications. Here is just one.

Life is often ugly. And the pastor is regularly invited into some of the ugliest parts of it. Death may be an extreme example, but it is a reality that the pastor is constantly dealing with. It is ugly enough for us in our culture that we tend to separate ourselves from it as much as possible. We have a ready stash of euphemisms that protect us from having to talk about death directly and we spend endless time, energy, and money at keeping others and ourselves alive at almost all costs. But it finally becomes inevitable, and when it does it is often a mess. I have visited many people on their deathbeds and families mourning the deaths of loved ones who have been unknowing beneficiaries of Athanasius’s new theological paradigm. As ugly and difficult as death is for us, imagine the burden that is subtly added to this by a belief that God cannot directly handle and deal with even what we experience as good in creation. Although many of us have not realized it, Athanasius has given to us a more effective pastoral comfort. Here we have a God free to be personally active in the realities of creation—even the ugly ones. And the Church can have confidence in a God who can Himself provide His unmediated presence in the realities of the world… even at the ugliness of the deathbed.