Athanasius and Nicea
By William P. Farley
In A.D. 325, the Roman emperor Constantine (A.D. 272–336) convened what Philip Schaff calls “the most important event of the fourth century.”1 This event — the first ecumenical council of the Christian church — would permanently shape the history of the Western World.
Constantine invited all of the nearly 2,000 bishops in the Roman Empire to a council in the little resort town of Nicea in Western Turkey. The emperor guaranteed all travel expenses, including board and room for each bishop, two elders, and three attendants. Constantine’s invitation was accepted by 318 bishops.
These bishops met for 3 months. No minutes from their meetings have survived, but their efforts produced the first draft of the Nicean Creed still used by many churches today. Of the 318 bishops attending, 316 signed the Nicean document. Two abstained. It was the first time Christian leaders signed an official document.
The idea of an ecumenical council was new and radical. Since the death of Christ, Christianity had been reviled. The most recent period of persecution had ended around A.D. 310. Because of this persecution, many bishops who came to Nicea had scars or missing eyes and limbs testifying to their suffering.
In A.D. 312, at the battle of Milvian Bridge, Christ’s cross appeared to Constantine in a vision. In A.D. 313, the Edict of Milan granted religious toleration to all Christians. By a decade later, the emperor had decided to use the Christian religion to unify his far-flung empire.
Constantine’s plan faced one obstacle: The Christians were divided. Since A.D. 313, a long-simmering debate concerning the nature of Christ had boiled to the surface, and it threatened the emperor’s plan. Was Christ truly God or was He godlike; a created being or something less than deity? This was the issue. To resolve it, Constantine convened Nicea.
To understand what happened at Nicea, we need to examine the lives of three men, Arius, Alexander, and Athanasius.
Arius, Elder Of Alexandria
Arius was born circa A.D. 260.2 He was “a man of tall stature, of austere countenance and ascetic life. He had charming manners and went about from house to house with his sleeveless tunic and scanty cloak, popular especially among women.”3 Others describe Arius as “a man of ascetic character, pure morals, and decided convictions.”4 Pride is the fertile soil in which heresy usually thrives. Schaff adds the telling details: He was an “austere, fascinating man, but proud, artful, restless, and disputatious.”5
Arius was a priest in the church at Alexandria, the prestigious city at the mouth of the Nile, the second city in Christendom. A popular and winsome preacher, his teaching gained widespread interest from friends and foes alike. The problem was his teaching’s content.
Most Christians adhered to the doctrine of Christ’s full divinity, and no one had contested this doctrine. As a result, the church had not formally defined what it believed about Christ’s nature.
Arius’ trouble started when his teaching concerning Christ became contrary to the teachings of the church (after A.D. 310). Almost no written record remains of Arius’ thoughts or ideas. We learn about his teaching from the written reports of those who knew him.
Like many bishops and priests of his day, Arius was uncertain about the nature of Christ. He feared polytheism and could not reconcile one God with three Persons. Specifically, Arius taught: First, that the Son and the Father were not of the same essence; second, that the Son was a created being; and third, that even though He was as the Creator of the worlds, and therefore must have existed before them, there was a time when He did not exist.6
This teaching brought him into direct contact with his superior, Alexander, bishop of Alexandria (A.D. 313–328). Alexander summoned Arius before his peers to correct his theology, but Arius would not yield. Next Alexander convened a council of nearly 100 bishops from the greater Egyptian area. They weighed Arius’ teaching, excommunicated him, and banished him from the Egyptian church.
Arius, however, knew of Eastern bishops who sympathized with his teaching. He went around his Egyptian brothers and contacted Eusebius of Nicomedia (Western Turkey), and Eusebius of Caesarea (Judea). Within a few years the controversy had gone public.
The nature of Christ became the hottest debate of the fourth century. “In Constantinople,” notes Schaff, “all classes, even mechanics, bankers, frippers, market women, and runaway slaves took lively part in the questions Homousion7 and sub-ordination, of the begotten and unbegotten.”8
When Constantine invited the bishops to Nicea, he also invited Arius.
Alexander And Athanasius
Alexander, a wise and gentle man, clung tenaciously to the orthodox, biblical formula of Christ’s full divinity and humanity.
Around A.D. 318, a precocious youth named Athanasius came to Alexander’s attention. Athanasius was born between A.D. 295 and 300. He was short and stocky, but what he lacked in physical appearance he made up for in fervent piety, holiness of life, penetrating intellect, and unusual gifts of leadership. In A.D. 321, on behalf of Bishop Alexander, Athanasius wrote the excommunication statement that banished Arius.9
Alexander quickly perceived Athanasius’ gifts. He began grooming the youth to replace him. When Alexander sailed for Nicea in A.D. 325, his young lieutenant sailed with him. At Nicea, Alexander, with the young Athanasius by his side, took a strong stand for Christ’s full divinity, signed the new creed, and then sailed for home. It appeared all was settled, but matters were to prove more complicated.
In A.D. 326, Alexander died. On his deathbed, he appointed Athanasius as his successor. Because of his youth and the prominence of the position, there was vigorous debate over the young man’s qualifications. He was ordained bishop of Alexandria in A.D. 328, a position he held until his death in A.D. 373.
Reaction To Nicea
The victory at Nicea was hollow. All but two bishops had signed the Nicean Creed, but many, it turned out, signed dishonestly. They signed because they feared the emperor. They had little conviction about the importance of the doctrine.
Meanwhile Constantine continued to receive counsel from Eusebius of Nicomedia who supported the views of Arius. Slowly, Constantine weakened. By A.D. 335, 9 years after Nicea, Eusebius had convinced Constantine to command Athanasius to readmit Arius to communion.
Unlike his peers, Athanasius perceived the importance of sound doctrine concerning Christ’s nature. He saw the crucial issue: If Christ were not God, men were not saved. Since sin is an infinite offense to God, only a sacrifice of infinite value — God himself — would be sufficient to propitiate the wrath of God and atone for sin.
Athanasius understood the holiness of God and the sinfulness man. He was one of the first to see that salvation depended on a right formulation of Christ’s nature. Because of the doctrine’s importance, Athanasius defied the emperor and refused to reinstate Arius. He spent the rest of his life defending and suffering for the doctrine of Christ’s divinity.
Constantine did not appreciate Athanasius’ stubbornness. In A.D. 335, Constantine banished Athanasius to northern Gaul (modern France). The intellectual turmoil that precipitated Nicea was back. Schaff notes that “the highways were covered with galloping bishops.”10
In A.D. 336, Constantine died and was replaced by his son, Constantius II (A.D. 317–61). Constantius was in full agreement with Eusebius and the growing Arian party. Under political pressure from Constantius, many bishops capitulated to the Arian view of Christ’s nature. The Nicean victory that seemed sure and complete only 10 years prior was now in full retreat.
Athanasius stepped into the fray and contended earnestly and persistently for orthodoxy. He came into direct conflict with Constantius and the new Arian majority.
The Nicean Council had asked the Alexandrian church to set the date for Easter each year. Attached to this announcement sent to all bishops was a Paschal letter from Athanasius. He used it to cajole, persuade, and convince his readers to stand on orthodoxy.
Because of Athanasius’ many efforts, Constantius repeated his father’s actions and banished Athanasius, first to Rome for 6 years, and then to the Egyptian desert for 7 years. Athanasius suffered greatly for upholding the truth.
Meanwhile, God used this evil for good. Athanasius used his banishments to travel, teach, and broadcast the truth in far-flung corners of the Roman Empire. Over time, his influence was great.
Athanasius Contra Mundum
In A.D. 373, Athanasius died not knowing if the orthodoxy, for which he spent his life, would prevail. Many believed he had wasted his life. The controversy raged on for another decade, but slowly orthodoxy gained the upper hand.
In A.D. 381, 56 years after Nicea and 8 years after Athanasius’ death, the emperor called a second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople. By this time the perseverance and insights of Athanasius were impacting the church. Constantinople reaffirmed the Orthodox Trinitarian formula. With minor exceptions, this formula has continued to be our understanding of Christ’s nature.
The Roman church awarded Athanasius two titles. The first was Contra Mundum, Latin for “against the world.” He stood for the truth when the world stood against him. He was a man of great courage, fortitude, and insight. When the world was going left, Athanasius went right.
Second, the church dubbed him “The father of Orthodoxy.” Before, Nicean orthodoxy was assumed; afterward, it was clearly spelled out. Athanasius spent his life defending and vindicating truth.
S.J. Mikolaski notes that Athanasius “was a clear-minded and skilled theologian, a prolific writer with a journalist’s instinct for the power of the pen, and a devout Christian — which endeared him to the large Christian public of Alexandria and the vast majority of the clergy and monks of Egypt. … Almost single-handedly Athanasius saved the Church from pagan intellectualism.”11
Speaking of the fourth century, Phillip Schaff gives Athanasius this high compliment: He “is the theological and ecclesiastical center, as his senior contemporary Constantine is the political and secular, about which the Nicene age revolves.”12
What can we learn from Nicea and Athanasius? First, theological debate is good. Most people avoid controversy, but controversy has been the lifeblood of the church. Throughout history, theological debate has usually followed the release of God’s power; and, often the greater the power, the greater the disagreement. Theological controversy is often a sign of spiritual life. God uses debate to sift the wheat from the chaff.
“Some controversy is crucial for the sake of life-giving truth,” notes John Piper. “Running from it is a sign of cowardice but enjoying it is usually a sign of pride. Some necessary tasks are sad, and even victory is not without tears — unless there is pride. … Historically, controversies that have swirled around the meaning and implications of the gospel, far from damaging the Church, have contributed to its vitality. Like a refiner’s fire, intense theological debate has resulted in clarified belief, common vision, and invigorated ministry.”13
Gresham Machen (1881–1937), a man embroiled in great controversy, wrote, “In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight.”14
Second, truth is not defined by majority opinion. Crowds are often wrong. For decades Athanasius was in the minority, but that did not make him wrong. It takes great courage and conviction to persevere when most people disagree with you. Only daily immersion in Scripture and prayer will provide the power to prevail.
Third, theology matters. Not all theological issues matter as much as the assertion of Christ’s divinity, but major doctrines are worth living and dying for. The Trinity, substitutionary atonement, justification by faith alone, the inerrancy of Scripture, the Incarnation, and Original Sin are a few such doctrines.
Fourth, theological conflict will never cease in this fallen world. Sin influences our intellects and ideas, and infects our wills. Until Christ returns, this world will remain a spiritual Normandy. History is a battleground of contending ideas. Each generation must contend again for basic truths.
Fifth, God protects His church. Why were men like Alexander and Athanasius present at Nicea? Why did the fourth-century majority opinion not prevail? Because “the gates of hell” will “not prevail against” Christ’s church (Matthew 16:18, KJV). The Holy Spirit gives the church stalwart men who will stand for the truth when the day is evil. For that we give God praise, honor, and glory.
History is His Story.
1. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 3 (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2006), 631.
2. The birth dates of many men in this article, and other dates, are contested. Scholars date Arius’ birth between A.D. 250 and 260.
3. Elesha Coffman, “Saints and Heretics,” Christian History Magazine 85, (2005): 85.
4. Henry Wace and William C. Piercy, ed., A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1999), 41.
5. Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 3, 620. Italics mine.
6. Wace and Piercy, A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography, 41.
7. The Greek word Homousion means “one substance” or “same in essence” when comparing Christ with His Father.
8. Schaff, vol. 3, 601.
9. John Piper, Contending for Our All (Wheaton, Crossway, 2006), 44.
10. Schaff, vol. 3, 632.
11. J.D. Douglas, ed., The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 81.
12. Schaff, vol. 3, 885.
13. Piper, Contending for Our All, 17, 30. Piper is quoting Parker Williamson, Standing Firm: Reclaiming Christian Faith in Times of Controversy (Springfield, Pa.: PLC Publications, 1996), 2.
14. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923), 1,2.