Sunset - Larnaca

Sunset - Larnaca

Thursday, 13 October 2016

St Athanasius and the First Ecumenical Council

Saint Athanasius spent the early part of his ecclesiastical work as Alexander’s (Bishop of Alexandria) secretary, and in 325 became his Archdeacon. His writings proved to lead the way against the Arian controversy, and assisted Alexander, to a great extent, when attending the Nicene Council. His defence of the Nicene Council, our chosen text, would have been written between 346 and 356. Acacius (Arian) was Bishop of Caesarea by this point, and Eusebius of Nicomedia is not referred to as though still alive, having died in 342. Not only is it an attack on the Arian heresy, but also a criticism of their conduct during the Council; ‘caught whispering..and winking with their eyes.’

 A question one might ask regarding the work, career and theology of Athanasius, is to what extent he was motivated politically? The German scholar Eduard Schwartz for example, argues his motivations were purely political, and that his theological opinions surrounding the Council were simply pretexts to cover his desire for power. It could certainly be argued that Athanasius sought power, in the sense that he suppressed opposition within his diocese and was suspicious of the Emperor Constantius who challenged his imperial authority. However, the flaw in Schwartz’ argument, is the lack of realisation of how important theology was throughout this period, for the Early Church. These are undoubtedly spiritual matters affecting the life of the Church, with the central source for Athanasius’ decree on the Council of Nicaea being the Holy Scriptures. The reason for the Church exerting its power and authority is in order to preserve the Orthodox, Scriptural, Apostolic Faith, discerned and preached by the Council and its Bishops. It is also perhaps easy for us to misconceive the way in which the Christian faith and doctrine was linked to the Empire, and to the political situation under Constantine.

Athanasius, within his ‘Decree of the Council of Nicaea,’ rebukes the Arian notion of Christ being ‘a creature,’ or ‘belonging to us’ men, but is rather, according to him,‘other than’ all God-created things; thus defending the Orthodox position of the Council. His decree, written in 350/351AD, defends Nicene terminology, as it was accused of being non-Scriptural.    Separated from all other created beings, the incarnate Word is ‘Lord and Fashioner of all.’ For this reason, according to Athanasius, the Council declares Christ to be ‘of the substance of the Father,’ as He is ‘other than generated beings,’ ‘unalterable,’ ‘always existing,’ and eternally the same God.

Unlike the human relationship between Father and Son, Athanasius describes the relationship between these two persons of the consubstantial Trinity as inseparable, in the sense that they are of one substance, for ‘the Word is always in the Father and the Father in the Word.’ Interestingly, he explains this relationship further with the example of radiance in relation to light. The light (Father) as the source of the radiance (Son) shares the same substance, however simultaneously begets, and acts through (1 Cor 8:6) this radiance in every action, when sharing the light upon the world. 

St Athanasius’ writings during this period would certainly have been influenced by Origen’s, who’s writings had already stated the importance of Christ’s eternal nature. However, for Origen, because the works done by the Son are those of the Father, he assumed there was ‘absolutely no dissimilarity between the Father and the Son,’ while the Father, or first person, is the only one who is God in the fullest sense, whereas the Son is his δύναμις, power. Athanasius would instead describe the Son as the Father’s image, and the Father as the Source Who begets His Only-Begotten Word. They are of the ‘same substance,’ yet both identifiably different. (later to be clarified as two different persons) Nonetheless, Origen had previously noted that it was impossible for there to be a time when Christ, the Word and Wisdom of God, was not, and this view is approved of by Athanasius and taken further. As Athanasius later notes, Arianism undermines the Christian doctrine of God by presupposing that the Son (and the Holy Spirit ) is not eternal, which virtually reintroduces polytheism. The eternity of the Word and Son of God is essential for our understanding of salvation in Christ, for only ‘if the Mediator was Himself divine could man hope to re-establish fellowship with God.’ 


To conclude, Athanasius’ Decree of Nicaea affirms Christ as γεννηθέντα ού ποιηθέντα (Begotten not Made), as ομοούσιον του Πατρός (of the same being, or essence as the Father) and as true God. This short piece has discussed the relevant doctrine, Athanasius’ contribution at the time of, and following the Council, and ways in which he had been influenced by, and worked upon, Origen’s theology. 


Apart from the Primary Source (St Athanasius' Decree of Nicaea) the following sources were used:

Behr, J 2001, The Way to Nicaea, SVS, New York.
Hanson, R.P 2005, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, T&T, Edinburgh.
Jurgens, W.A 1970, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Liturgical Press, Minnesota.
Kelly, J. N. D 1968, Early Christian Doctrines, A&C, London.
Newman 1957, St Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.

Online Articles:

 - Perry M 2003, Athanasius and his Influence at the Council of Nicaea, accessed from http://www.quodlibet.net/articles/perry-athanasius.shtml.
 - Origen, within the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, accessed from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/origen/.

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