Historical note: Athanasius was bishop of Alexandria from the year 328 until his death forty-five years later. He is primarily known for defending the Faith against a heresy known as Arianism.
He resisted any form of compromise, so “Athanasius against the world” became a by-word of the age. It is due to him, more than to any other teacher, that we still have the Nicene Creed (from For All the Saints).
The Athanasian Creed p. 695 Book of Common Prayer (full text below)
(After reciting the Athanasian Creed): You want a good dose of militant catholic Christianity? Well, here it is!
St Athanasius is known primarily as a defender, as one who warded off the ideas and insights of people like Arius. His creed is precise and definite and emphatic, as if to say “God cannot be anything but this, and you are doomed if you think otherwise!!”
Arius, a priest of that era, had dared to speculate on the nature of the relationship between Jesus and God the Father. He taught that Jesus Christ was divine and was sent to earth for the salvation of humankind, but disputed whether Jesus and God could be considered equal and one. Since the essential nature of God is incomprehensible to human beings, one wonders how and why church leaders like Athanasius could pronounce with such absolute confidence about these matters, and yet they did.
We often admire people who stand up for their principles, who won’t bend in the face of pressure or opinion, and Athanasius is certainly one of those. But what if they are completely wrong or even insane? What good is their inflexibility then?
Adolph Hitler, for instance, was seen by many as a Saviour-type, as he tried to rid Germany of all non-Aryan influences, so some of the greatest art and literature and music Germany had known was banned and in many cases burned. He thought he was doing everyone a favour. Zeal for purity can become a very destructive thing.
St Paul himself got so caught up in righteous zeal that he ended up oppressing, harming, and enabling the executions of Christians. The account of Paul’s conversion, and dramatic moments like Pentecost remind us of how God the Holy Spirit sometimes intervenes directly, in order to help self-righteous people get back on the right track – so they can say with integrity “God’s will, not mine, be done.”
As they say, “every great movement begins with prophets and ends with policemen.”
An Edict by Emperor Constantine against the Arians says: “if any writing composed by Arius should be found, it should be handed over to the flames, so that not only will the wickedness of his teaching be obliterated, but nothing will be left even to remind anyone of him. And I hereby make a public order, that if someone should be discovered to have hidden a writing composed by Arius, and not to have immediately brought it forward and destroyed it by fire, his penalty shall be death. As soon as he is discovered in this offence, he shall be submitted for capital punishment…..”
Can God be accurately described, or precisely defined? In the Fourth Century, this was considered not only possible but necessary. The Romans were very particular about rules and order and hierarchy, so as the Christian Church was co-opted into the Empire, and began its “Roman phase,” it was eager to follow suit. The Church’s hierarchical, tightly ordered and patriarchal orientation all stem from this era of conflict and transition.
Like the Jews of Hitler’s Germany, Arius was caricatured and shunned, his works were burned and he was shoved out of the Church – excommunicated and exiled. People now, who might have been able to assess his work under calmer, less polarized conditions, are unable to because virtually everything he wrote was destroyed.
Nowadays we tend to value freedom of thought and opinion – it’s been said if you have 30 Anglicans in a room you’ll have at least 40 opinions.
We tend to believe that the free flow of ideas and questions and debate is essential to the health of any society – church or otherwise. But as the Church entered its Christendom phase, the church got into the mindset of orthodoxy to such a degree that it has become known for shutting down ideas and insights. The Church in many people’s eyes today is associated with things like the Inquisition or imprisoning people like Galileo (who of course turned out to be right).
Ideas can be dangerous, as we have just seen in the Boston Marathon bombers. Apparently normal people can be persuaded to do terrible things, even in the name of God, by people with powerful ideas.
Ideas can be dangerous, as the aboriginal people of this country found out when Europeans began to invade their lands. In the movie Black Robe, the missionaries astound the aboriginals with their advanced ways, including a moment when the priest shows them how writing works as a tool of communication. The Natives’ immediate response is that he must be some kind of a demon!
That is the way we tend to react to anything that is completely outside our sphere of existing knowledge or experience – we are suspicious, and so we demonize it and destroy it if we can.
Trying to be perfectly orthodox is a bit like trying to walk a high wire over Niagara Falls. Orthodoxy is a very narrow way, and the desire for theological perfection has caused innumerable rifts in the Church. The truth is that it is very difficult to tell whether you are operating according to the wisdom of God or the narrow perspective of a particular ideology or personal vendetta – whether you are motivated by faithfulness to God or by fear and selfishness.
There is little virtue in priding ourselves on what we already know, and building walls to keep out any new insights that might oblige us to change or evolve. Our own tradition reminds us over and over again of the ways in which the living God will not be contained or controlled or reduced to human concepts, and every now and again, as at Pentecost, blows away our concepts and obliges us to relate to God in a new way – more directly, more personally – instead of relying on merely on doctrines.
There are those today who maintain that anything traditional is automatically suspect or wrong. There are those in the Church who insist that all innovation is wrong. Anglicans, who usually try to find common ground on such things, would suggest that the truth is somewhere in between.
If we totally deny tradition, we end up rootless, without precedents, unable to learn from history or from the wisdom of others, something like an amnesiac – or a stubborn, prejudiced fool.
But if we shut out all new ideas and innovations, we end up isolated and stale and left behind in the past, unable to learn anything new and thinking we are being faithful when in reality we are tragically blocking the very Spirit that is trying to sustain us and keep us viable. In that sense we could be compared to the person with severe dementia who is unable to integrate anything from the present moment – including her own grandchildren – but can remember things from 80 years ago with clarity, and basically dwells there instead of the present.
Our Anglican Church exists today because our ancestors in the Church in England protested the theology and practices and traditions of its day and separated from the Church of Rome, which continues to behave as though all the rest of us are merely heretics – like Arius – and dismisses us.
Again, can God be precisely defined? The authorities of the Fourth Century Church came to think so, and thus Athanasius and people like him became the heroes, while people like Arius were treated with contempt. An ancient Christian writer described Arius’s sudden death with great glee, but for most of us, the belief that someone deserves to die because of certain ideas sounds foreign, un-Christian, more like Jihad than Christianity.
Athanasius, as a defender of a certain concept of orthodoxy, may be applauded for his determination, but another view might have suggested a more inclusive approach, less either/or, black or white, clean or unclean – an approach based on the belief that ultimately God does not need anyone to defend or define Him (Her).
I leave you with this powerful thought from 20th Century priest/theologian Michel Quoist:
“How excruciating is the fear of those “well-disposed” Christians who mourn and lament the “loss of faith” – of others. How deceptive is the good will of those who mobilize to defend the faith as though they were preparing to fly to the aid of a beaten and retreating army. Let them stop their trembling. Let them still their battle cries. Let them put away their weapons. Let them learn that their fear betrays a basic lack of faith. How can one believe in a Risen God who loses battles and needs someone to defend him . . . Christians should at least have faith! Let there be no more of this ‘unbelief of the believers’ that does so much harm. Jesus Christ has come. He has saved the world. He is risen. He does not stand there trembling, waiting for his disciples to defend him” (from Christ Is Alive!).
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
THE CREED OF SAINT ATHANASIUS (COMMONLY SO CALLED)
Upon any day in the year, may be sung or said at Morning Prayer, instead of the Apostles’ Creed, this Confession of our Christian Faith, commonly called the Creed of Saint Athanasius, by the Minister and people standing.
WHOSOEVER would be saved / needeth before all things to hold fast the Catholic Faith.
2 Which Faith except a man keep whole and undefiled, / without doubt he will perish eternally.
3 Now the Catholic Faith is this, / that we worship one God in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity;
4 Neither confusing the Persons, / nor dividing the Substance.
5 For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, / another of the Holy Ghost;
6 But the Godhead of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one, / the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal.
7 Such as the Father is, such is the Son, / and such is the Holy Ghost;
8 The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, the Holy Ghost uncreated;
9 The Father infinite, the Son infinite, the Holy Ghost infinite;
10 The Father eternal, the Son eternal, the Holy Ghost eternal;
11 And yet there are not three eternals, but one eternal;
12 As also there are not three uncreated, nor three infinites, / but one infinite, and one uncreated.
13 So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, / the Holy Ghost almighty;
14 And yet there are not three almighties, but one almighty.
15 So the Father is God, the Son God, the Holy Ghost God;
16 And yet there are not three Gods, / but one God.
17 So the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, / the Holy Ghost Lord;
18 And yet there are not three Lords, / but one Lord.
19 For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity / to confess each Person by himself to be both God and Lord;
20 So are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion / to speak of three Gods or three Lords.
21 The Father is made of none, / nor created, nor begotten.
22 The Son is of the Father alone; / not made, nor created, but begotten.
23 The Holy Ghost is of the Father and the Son; / not made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
24 There is therefore one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; / one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.
25 And in this Trinity there is no before or after, / no greater or less;
26 But all three Persons are co-eternal together, / and co-equal.
27 So that in all ways, as is aforesaid, / both the Trinity is to be worshipped in Unity, and the Unity in Trinity.
28 He therefore that would be saved, / let him thus think of the Trinity.
29 FURTHERMORE, it is necessary to eternal salvation, / that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
30 Now the right Faith is that we believe and confess / that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is both God and Man.
31 He is God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; / and he is Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world;
32 Perfect God; / perfect Man, of reasoning soul and human flesh subsisting;
33 Equal to the Father as touching his Godhead;/ less than the Father as touching his Manhood.
34 Who although he be God and Man, / yet he is not two, but is one Christ;
35 One, however, not by conversion of Godhead into flesh, / but by taking of Manhood into God;
36 One altogether; / not by confusion of Substance, but by unity of Person.
37 For as reasoning soul and flesh is one man, so God and Man is one Christ;
38 Who suffered for our salvation, / descended into hell, rose again from the dead;
39 Ascended into heaven, sat down at the right hand of the Father, / from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
40 At whose coming all men must rise again with their bodies, / and shall give account for their own deeds.
41 And they that have done good will go into life eternal; / they that have done evil into eternal fire.
42 THIS is the Catholic Faith, / which except a man do faithfully and stedfastly believe, he cannot be saved.
GLORY be to the Father, and to the Son, / and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, / world without end. Amen.