Athanasius and the Arians: A Commentary

I’m currently working my way through John Behr’s book, “The Nicean Faith”. This is a very helpful work that goes into depth of theological and historical events surrounding and involved in the Council of Nicea. This article is really just from me reading and then writing down thoughts I have from my reading. Hope it is helpful.

The basis of Athanasius’ argument against those whom he calls “Arians” is exegetical: he claims that they have not properly understood the scriptural texts that they cite in support of their contention that the Son is a creature. Several times, during the course of examining the disputed texts, Athanasius turns to the principles of exegesis and the elements of the text that should be taken into account, following what any student would have learnt from his grammatikos.

John Behr, The Nicene Faith, Part 1 & 2, vol. 2, The Formation of Christian Theology (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004), 208.

This section is very interesting. Behr notes the foundation of Athanasius’s push against the Arians is indeed Scripture. Sure, there was philosophical language adopted by the Nicean council (hypostasis and homoousious being at least two examples of this) that were not expressly found in Scripture, but this great church father wanted to ensure that his arguments were not based on philosophical assumptions as helpful as those assumptions may be. He saw this issue as to who Christ is as one that should be settled by going to the authoritative Scriptures. This, at the very least, bears seeds of sola scriptura that would be a large part of the Reformation hundreds of years later. Behr even goes on to discuss the hermeneutical methodology employed by Athanasius.

As both Athanasius and those whom he called “Arians” agreed that the referent of the text of Scripture is the Word of God, the brunt of Athanasius’ argument against his opponents falls upon his claim that Scripture speaks throughout of Jesus Christ, himself the Word of God, and does so in a twofold fashion. As Athanasius sees it, by failing to differentiate how or under what “aspect” any given text of Scripture speaks of Jesus Christ, the “Arians” have conflated theology and economy and have so ended up with an intermediary being, their Word, who is himself subject to time (or at least subsequent to God), even if begotten before our time. Athanasius, on the other hand, by distinguishing what is spoken of Christ as he is from what belongs to what he has done, the economy, can maintain that the abiding, timeless, subject of theological reflection is Jesus Christ, who has himself acted in time for us.

John Behr, The Nicene Faith, Part 1 & 2, vol. 2, The Formation of Christian Theology (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004), 213–214.

There is an interesting distinction between the “Arians” and Athanasius: while they both held to Scripture as God’s Word, only one party held to a view of Scripture that did not allow for extra biblical language. The Arians did not like homoousious and such language since it was not a term found in Scripture. Francis Turretin notes:

The Arians, Sabellians and other anti-Trinitarians pressed this against the orthodox in their day—that the names ousias, homoousios, hypostaseōs, etc. did not occur in the Scriptures and so ought not to be admitted in the church.

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–1997), 257–258.

This extra-biblical language assisted in the description of biblical truth and was not seen as contrary to it. However, the Arians did not hold to such things. They gawked at the idea that anything not expressly found in Scripture could be introduced into the church’s vocabulary. This means that they denied, at least when it came to Christ, good and necessary consequence that flows from what is expressly written in the Scriptures. Contrary to this, we see the tradition of Nicea being carried down through the medieval time period into he Reformation. Among the Reformed there was the strong belief that what flowed from the express Scripture was also to be upheld. Both the Westminster Confession of Faith and the 1677 London Baptist Confession of Faith in chapter 1, paragraph 6 teach this concept, seemingly following along the same lines of the early church in their hermeneutic.

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture

1677 London Baptist Confession of Faith Chapter 1, Paragraph 6

I think the 1677 LBCF does a better job of communicating the principle of good and necessary consequence. It does not just teach that what necessarily flows from express Scriptures is good or helpful but actually says its “contained” in the Scriptures themselves. This is very important. The Westminster carries the same sentiment, but I do not think communicates this as clearly:

The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture

Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 1, Paragraph 6

This is clear evidence of the identification of these Reformed groups with the “catholic” church on core doctrine and biblical interpretation and not redefining such things.

When therefore the theologians [i.e., the evangelists] who speak of him say that he ate and drank and was born, know that the body, as body, was born, and was nourished on suitable food; but that he, God the Word united with the body (αὐτὸς δὲ ὁ συνὼν τῷ σώματι θεὸς λόγος), orders the universe, and through his actions in the body made known that he himself was not a man but God the Word. But these things are said of him (λέγεται δὲ περὶ αὐτοῦ), because the body which ate and was born and suffered was no one else’s but the Lord’s; and since he became man, it was right for these things to be said [of him] as concerning man (ὡς περὶ ἀνθρώπου λέγεσθαι), that he might be shown to have a true, not an unreal, body. And as, from these things, he was known to be bodily present, so by the works he did through the body he made himself known to be the Son of God. (Inc. 18)
Athanasius appears to be claiming that it is the body itself that ate, was born, and suffered, as if the body were a second subject alongside the Word who dwells in it. But, as with his treatment of partitive exgesis, where two subjects also seemed to be implied, closer examination shows that the primary concern for Athanasius is the unity of the one subject, about whom, nevertheless, various things are said in two distinct categories. His point is that, the Word having become man, what happens to the body is properly “said of him”; these things are said of no other, for the body belonged to no one else but the Word.

John Behr, The Nicene Faith, Part 1 & 2, vol. 2, The Formation of Christian Theology (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004), 217–218.

This is very advanced Christology given that creed of Chalcedon would not be ratified until 451, almost 100 years after the death of Athanasius. You can see even the seeds of the unity of the divine and human natures of Christ in the person of the Word. This is not to say that there was monolithic grasping of this Christology as seen clearly from the dissenting Arians, but this would be the principles found in orthodoxy later on. Even Athanasius would have what I would call less than helpful language to describe “suffering” as it relates to the Incarnation (although he did maintain that the Word was impassible while the human nature was not). Nevertheless, the distinction of Christ’s two natures and their unity around the one person of Christ is there. This is also seen in the fact that Athanasius was using partitive exegesis to see how the Scriptures were talking about Christ. Scott Swain notes what this type of exegesis is:

“Partitive exegesis” refers to the practice of ascribing both divine and human natures, actions, and sufferings from scriptural accounts of Jesus’s life to a single personal subject, the second person of the Trinity. Though his divine and human natures account for how Jesus did and suffered what he did and suffered (i.e., as God and man), they do not account for who it is who did and suffered what Jesus did and suffered. Partitive exegesis, as an exegetical practice, is a way of observing that, in all of his doings and sufferings, we are dealing with one personal subject, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity incarnate.

Swain, Scott. “Trinitarian Personalism and Christian Preaching.” Reformed Blogmatics, 30 Sept. 2019, https://www.scottrswain.com/2019/09/27/trinitarian-personalism-and-christian-preaching/.

This exegesis requires a specific hermeneutic to look at how the text of Scripture is be interpreted relating to Incarnation. And given that this exegesis is specific, it indicates the advanced Christology that was in the 4th century and that Athanasius didn’t come to this by accident, but was working with an intentional approach to the text. This should be a lesson to us, that we should read Scripture as the early church did. Seeing these truths as flowing from good and necessary consequence means they utilized conclusions not expressly found in the text. The real division between the human nature of Christ and and the divine is not found in so many words in the text, but flows naturally from what it does say clearly about both natures. There is only one person namely the Son (who just is a certain mode of existence of the divine essence) brought out in the Scriptures, not multiple personalities. And as the Scriptures in John 1:14, the Word became flesh. The Son, as divine, did not change into a human being as this would violate the nature of God (Malachi 3:6). He assumed human flesh, uniting the nature the human through the unique subsistence of the Son thereby uniting the two natures in the person of the Son.

…the only necessary consequent of this assumption of the human nature, or the incarnation of the Son of God, is the personal union of Christ, or the inseparable subsistence of the assumed nature in the person of the Son.

Vidu, Adonis. “The Incarnation of the Son Alone.” The Same God Who Works All Things: Inseparable Operations in Trinitarian Theology, William. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 2021, p. 165. (quoting John Owen’s work, The Holy Spirit)

Even Owen sees these concepts as “necessary consequent” of the assumption of Christ as found in Scripture. Owen then in turn is following in the “catholic” church’s hermeneutic utilizing partitive exegesis in describing the Incarnation. This shows yet again the clear identification of the Reformed with the orthodox and their desire to retrieve that which came before and not invent new doctrines or methods.

– Daniel Vincent

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