Fully man and fully God

It’s a statement that many know by heart, reciting it regularly, in some cases weekly, in church services. The Nicene Creed maintains a pervasive presence in contemporary Christian teaching and has shaped Christian theology for almost 1,700 years. And we owe the survival of its orthodox views, at least in part, to a controversial Egyptian deacon-turned-bishop. 

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Constantine claims the cross

Many aspects of Christian life in the late third and early fourth centuries are unrecognizable to us today. Paganism and the cult of the emperor dominated the religious landscape in the Roman Empire. Christians faced intermittent but deadly persecution at the hands of the state. Systematic Christian theology and the biblical canon were only just coming together. 

In 312 something occurred that changed the course of history: pagan Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. According to his biographer, Constantine applied the Christian chi-rho symbol (the Greek letters for the beginning of Christ’s name) to his standard after receiving divine instruction in a vision and a dream. He then triumphed over his rival Maxentius in a famous battle at the Milvian Bridge in Rome. 

The next year, Constantine legalized Christianity in the Edict of Milan, officially endorsing the fledgling religion. While its new status brought the church access to wealth and material resources, it did not result in the immediate resolution of heresy and division—rather, Christian controversies seemed to become even more public and political.

The church attempted to prune various heresies away through local councils. One of the earliest and most devastating of these was the teaching of Arius, a priest in Alexandria (on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt), around the year 318. In an attempt to protect the absolute unity of the Christian God, Arius argued that the Father had to precede the Son in existence, because he believed that to describe the Father and Son as co-eternal would be polytheism. This led to his famous problematic statement that “there once was a time when [Christ] was not.” 

The controversy quickly consumed Christian discourse; Gregory of Nyssa wrote that 50 years later you couldn’t buy a loaf of bread without the baker telling you the Son was created out of nothing and there was a time when he was not. The church needed someone to set the record straight. 

Athanasius defends the Incarnation

When the controversy broke out in 318, Athanasius (c. 299–373) was a deacon to the bishop of Alexandria and the author of a little book, On the Incarnation (written sometime before 319), which ended up striking a blow to the Arian view. Athanasius wrote it for a Christian friend, Macarius, before the controversy sprang up. The book argues that to save us from sin and death the Redeemer must be truly human and divine: “Christ was made man that we might become God.” It is the Eastern equivalent to Why God Became Man by Anselm over 700 years later [#17]. C. S. Lewis [#8] praised Athanasisus for standing for orthodoxy “when it looked as if all the civilised world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius.”

The two greatest influences in Athanasius’s own life were the Diocletian persecution, which he had witnessed first-hand in Alexandria during his pre-teen years, and the Egyptian desert monks, such as Antony (see “Master of monasticism,” p. 11), whose life Athanasius later recorded. 

These influences instilled in him a devotion and unwavering commitment to his faith. His contemporary Gregory of Nazianzus eulogized him as “gentle, free from anger, sympathetic, sweet in words, sweeter in disposition; angelic in appearance, more angelic in mind” and “both peaceable and a peacemaker.”

A year after the founding of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) in 324, the controversy caused by Arius escalated to such a level that Constantine returned early from a military campaign to personally deal with the situation. Out of desperation he called for an ecumenical council at Nicaea (325), where the church’s bishops gathered to represent the church as a whole. Athanasius was present only as a deacon and did not have a vote.

The creed issued by Nicaea was probably based on the baptismal confession used by churches in Jerusalem. It used the Greek term homoousios (“of one substance,” which does not appear in the New Testament) to describe the shared substance of Father and Son: 

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father, that is from the substance of the Father, God from God; light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father. . . .

The Holy Spirit was mentioned briefly, almost as an afterthought. 

The Nicene Creed condemned Arius without naming him explicitly: 

And those who say “there once was when he was not,” and “before he was begotten he was not,” and that he came to be from things that were not, or from another hypostasis or substance, affirming that the Son of God is subject to change or alteration—these the catholic and apostolic church anathematizes.

Three years after Nicaea, Athanasius was made patriarch (bishop) of Alexandria—despite his protests that he neither wanted nor needed the job. Over the next 50 years, Arianism continued to plague the church. In the mid-fourth century, Athanasius wrote to a colleague that divine justice seemed to have prevailed in the death of Arius, who, after making a false recantation of his heretical teaching, had fallen ill. Apparently his guts burst open while he was on the toilet! 

But the popularity of the Arian views was relentless, and members of the church hierarchy still held them. Eventually both the creed’s use of homoousios and Athanasius himself fell under attack. He was exiled five times from 338 to 365, only finally being reinstated as patriarch in 366, seven years before his death. In response to this tumult, the First Council of Constantinople was convened by the emperor in 381 to restore political and ecclesiastical unity. 

Constantinople dropped the anathemas against Arius and filled in the blanks about the role of the Holy Spirit: “. . . the holy, the lordly and life-giving one, proceeding forth from the Father, co-worshiped and co-glorified with Father and Son, the one who spoke through the prophets.” This form of the creed is what many Western Christian churches profess today. 

In the sixth century, some Christians in Spain began to use “and the Son” after “proceeding forth from the Father”; Rome’s decision in the eleventh century to insist on this wording contributed to the split between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. One wonders what Athanasius would have said about that, had he been around. Centuries later Lewis praised the steadfast bishop in these words: “It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.” CH

This article is from Christian History magazine #116 Twenty-Five Writings that Changed the Church and the World. Read it in context here!

By Jennifer Freeman

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #116 in 2015]

Jennifer Freeman is art researcher for Christian History.
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