Sunday, November 13, 2016

Seminary PL27: Athanasius: No Compromise!

This is the thirteenth post on church management in my "Seminary in a Nutshell" series. In this series, I first did a section on the Person and Calling of a Minister. Now this is the twenty-sixth post in a section on the Pastor as a Leader (see at the bottom).

The previous post in this series looked at how to navigate issues where Christians disagree. This week continues with an example from church history: Athanasius. When do you stand firm no matter what?
1. Almost all Christians have believed firmly in the Trinity now for 1600 years. The Trinity of course is the belief that, although there is only one God, God exists as three persons--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You cannot divide the substance of these three--they are one God. But they are distinct persons, three persons.

It is difficult for us to imagine, but the Trinity was a matter of strong debate in the 300s, during the fifty or so years after the emperor Constantine made Christianity a legal religion. Up till the year 313, Christianity was an illegal religion, so Christians did not really have the opportunity to meet together on a universal scale to hammer out theological debates like this one. [1] Every so often, there would be a time of persecution where the concern was more about survival than the precise nature of Christ.

2. Enter a man named Arius (256-336). Egypt at this point of history was Roman, with a vibrant Christian community including both mainstream believers and other groups. [2] Arius was part of the mainstream at that time--indeed he probably represented a majority position in Egypt then. Decisions on the precise nature of Christ in relation to God the Father had never been settled at large.

Arius argued that Jesus was the "firstborn of creation" (cf. Col. 1:15), meaning that God created Jesus first before any other being or thing in the creation. Accordingly, Jesus was the most exalted person and being in the whole creation. Arius used Scripture to argue for his sense that Jesus was not God in substance because there was a point before time when God created him: "There was a point when the Son was not."

The bishop of Egypt, Alexander (d. 328), did not agree. Alexander argued that Jesus was "of the same substance" (homoousios) as God the Father. The emperor Constantine, in the interest of unity, called the first "ecumenical council" at Nicaea (located today in northwest Turkey) for Christians to decide what they thought on this issue. He thought that Christianity might be able to unify the Roman Empire, an empire that was on the decline because of a sharply declining population spread out over such a large area that he scarcely had enough troops to defend it.

Constantine himself looked to some sort of a compromise position between Arius and Alexander. Eusebius (ca. 260-340), the first major church historian of Christianity, suggested that Christ was "of similar substance" (homoiousios, with an added i in the middle) to God the Father. But this was not far enough for Alexander, who had brought his assistant Athanasius (ca. 296-373) with him, still a deacon at that point. Athanasius argued strongly for the Trinity at the council.

3. The Trinitarians would win the vote at the Council of Nicaea. For the first time, the Trinity was the official position of Christianity. But they had only won on paper. The empire and the bishops of the church still favored unity over doctrine, and they had the power to enforce the continued acceptance of "Arians" within the church as Christians in good standing. Nor did the decision of some leaders at a council immediately change the popular positions of everyday Christians throughout the empire. If you had taken a poll in the year 350, it is quite possible that more Christians were still Arians than Athanasians.

We are trinitarians today largely because of the persistance of one man: Athanasius. There is a Latin expression, athanasius contra mundi, which means "Athanasius against the world." Athanasius would not accept compromise on this issue under any circumstances, and his long life kept his influence going for almost eighty years. Less than ten years after his death, The Council of Constantinople would issue the Nicene Creed as the official belief of Christianity and there would be little debate over the Trinity from that point on in history. [3]

In the year 380, the emperor Theodosius I would declare Nicene Christianity the only legal religion of the empire.

4. Athanasius was repeatedly exiled, not for his theology but because of his rigidity. After Alexander died in 328, Athansius became the bishop of Alexandria in Egypt. In 335, Athanasius was exiled for his treatment of Arians. Possibly, Athanasius was willing to go so far as to try to cut off grain supplies to Rome. [4]

After Constantine died, his son Constantine II banished him again, but his support was growing. Athansius was able to hide in Rome where there was now a parallel emperor to Constantine II. Constantine I had moved the center of the empire to Constantinople in what is now the northwestern tip of Turkey. So Athanasius was able to use political division in order to gain theological support in the western empire for his positions.

A third time he fled Alexandria for the desert monastic communities that had developed in southern Egypt. This allowed Athanasius to influence the thinkers of the church. He would be exiled a fourth and a fifth time before his death. In 368 a regional council of the church declared that a person could no longer become a bishop unless he held to Nicene Christianity.

5. So what can we learn from the uncompromising attitude of Athanasius? Hindsight is 20/20. We believe in the Trinity. It was the right position for him not to compromise on. His doggedness got us to where we are. Maybe we would have got there anyway... or maybe not.

So at the time, he probably seemed like a very, very annoying personality. Stubborn, unbending, willing to use his power to get what he thought was right. Normally such people are not helpful. Again, could the church have come to the same destination without this uncompromising person? Perhaps, but perhaps not.

The problem is that this personality type often thinks that everything they think is essential and not to be compromised on to the bitter end. This is the type of person that starts wars over his or her ideas. On the whole, we should probably consider Athanasius the exception, rather than the rule--at least in terms as what is ideal.

In fact, the unifying and conciliatory attitude of Athanasius' opponents was far more biblical and Christian than that of Athanasius. The theme of unity runs strongly throughout Paul's writings. There were matters that Paul was uncompromising on--the Gentiles being justified by faith, staying away from sexual immorality. His insistence on the first was actually an insistance on the unity of the church, particularly the unity between Jewish and Gentile Christian.

6. At the same time, it is usually those who are dogged like Athanasius that are the winners of history. When we think of how driven the ideology of Hitler was, how devastating it was to the world, it took the concerted, unified effort of a massive number of people, supported by the grace of God, to stop this stubborn, persistant force for evil. If you aren't willing to fight human personalities with such force, your cause is--at least from a human perspective--likely to lose. Arguably, God would have brought us to the Trinity some way, but God used this extremely uncompromising figure to do it.

7. There is a time to refuse to compromise. But a certain personality thinks almost every occasion is of this sort. Such individuals are not likely to be right--they enjoy fighting for its own sake. They are what we might call "contentious" people. When those who normally would find middle ground do not compromise, that is a time to take notice of.

In the end, there are very few Athanasius level issues. We should be very careful about identifying issues as "fight to the death" ones. There are especially few ideological issues that are on this level. We are so unaware of the forces that lead us to take certain positions that there is a high likelihood that much of what we think and how we think it is more a product of tradition and culture than God or the Bible. Standing up for others who are being harmed is a much more likely area where we should stand firm than on matters of ideas.

Next Week: Pastor as Leader 28: Zwingli: No Compromise?

[1] Christians who argue for contemporary political positions merely based on the idea of the rule of law should always consider the fact that Christians have always disobeyed civil law when they believed it to conflict with God's law (Acts 4:18-20). Civil disobedience follows as a possibility directly from the fact that the city of God never coincides exactly with the city of man. God's law wins.

[2] We are still 300 years away from the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 640.

[3] It is also around this point that the precise contents of the New Testament seem settled, first declared in an Easter Letter from Athanasius in 367.

[4] Barnes, Timothy D., Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1993), 23.

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1 comment:

RDavid said...

Reminds me of K. Drury's comments about some positions being written in pencil, some in pen, some in blood