Tag Archives: Athanasius

Who do you say that I am?

Suppose you ran into an old friend of yours after you hadn’t seen each other in while. As you’re catching up, he happily mentions that he has entered into a relationship with a new girl. He seems really excited about her, so you ask her name.

“Oh, it’s either Jennifer, or Jessica, or maybe Mindy. Definitely something like that.”

“Well, what’s she look like?”

“Oh, you know, she has brown or maybe blackish blonde hair. I’m almost certain she isn’t bald, at any rate.”

What would you think of this relationship?

This is how a lot of people approach their relationship with God. But a relationship where you show no interest in what the other person is like is not a true relationship at all. Keep this is mind as we study the Arian Controversy, because while it may seem like it turns on obscure points of theology, the issue of who Jesus is and who God is stands at the very heart of Christianity.

The Council of Nicea

Having just finished reuniting the Roman world, Constantine found Christianity itself divided. To resolve the controversy and unify the empire’s new religion, he called for a church council at Nicaea. Roughly 300 bishops attended.

Many, like the holy apostle, bore in their bodies the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul, bishop of Neo-Cæsarea, a fortress situated on the banks of the Euphrates, had suffered from the frantic rage of Licinius. He had been deprived of the use of both hands by the application of a red-hot iron, by which the nerves which give motion to the muscles had been contracted and rendered dead. Some had had the right eye dug out, others had lost the right arm. In short, the Council looked like an assembled army of martyrs.

To those who attended the council, Constantine manifested great kindness, addressing them with much gentleness, and presenting them with gifts. He ordered numerous couches to be prepared for their accommodation and entertained them all at one banquet. Those who were most worthy he received at his own table, distributing the rest at the others. Observing that some among them had had the right eye torn out, and learning that this mutilation had been undergone for the sake of religion, he placed his lips upon the wounds, believing that he would extract a blessing from the kiss. After the conclusion of the feast, he again presented other gifts to them.

This is known as the first ecumenical council because it pulled in bishops from all of Christendom, including outside the Roman Empire. The council accomplished several things: the construction of the Nicene Creed, settling the method for calculating the date of Easter, and the promulgation of some early canon law, which basically gave rules for how the church should be governed. By far the most important and far-reaching consequence of this was the Nicene Creed.

The Arians submitted a document with their recommended creed, signed by 18 bishops. The backlash against it was strong; bishops actually leapt to their feet and tore the document to pieces. 16 of the signers immediately recanted. The Nicene Creed was adopted instead, and along with it the following condemnation of Arius:

And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not, or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion — all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.

A grand total of six bishops opposed the creed. In the end, four of them gave way, with only two bishops and Arius refusing to sign the creed. They were deposed and exiled. (Eusebius of Nicomedia actually signed the creed, but refused to condemn Arius, and so he was exiled as well).

This was not the end of the story

Constantine himself did not stick to the decisions of the council for long, and soon Arian bishops were allowed back in, and even gained the upper hand politically. Over the course of his life, Athanasius was exiled five different times for his dogged defense of Trinitarian Christianity. At some points, it seemed like he alone defended Nicea against the whole world. Yet, in the end, he triumphed, and now the Nicene Creed stands as one of the most basic tests of orthodoxy.

I take some comfort in this. Trinitarianism first passed the truth test of commanding the assent of the first ecumenical church council. After this, its opponents attempted to stamp it out with their superior political power, and yet it survived and thrived, just as basic Christianity had before it. Had the defenders of Nicea retained the political power, we might wonder how much of its survival was due to superior firepower instead of truth. Had they failed to gain acceptance at the council in the first place, we might wonder how the church so badly missed the truth. Happily, it passed both tests.

So what is the Trinity?

It is easier to say what it is not:

With that out the way, the Trinity can be summed up as follows:

  1. The Father is God
  2. The Son is God
  3. The Holy Spirit is God
  4. The Father is not the Son
  5. The Son is not the Holy Spirit
  6. The Holy Spirit is not the Father
  7. There is only one God

You can see the problem there; that last statement seems contradictory. On the other hand, delving into the ultimate nature of reality has landed physics in similar territory.

Not that that helps us understand it any better. As you have just seen, most analogies end up as a heresy instead.

That said, here’s some analogies, courtesy of the great St Augustine

Mind is composed of memory, understanding, and will. We understand our memory, remember understanding, will to remember, and will to understand, understand our willing, etc. Each of these are in a way distinct from each other, but at the same time they are all the same thing.
Just about everybody loves themselves (and usually too much). However, we are in fact allowed to love ourselves, so long as we also love our neighbor similarly. In so loving, We are simultaneously the lover, loved object, and the lover’s love.

Note that these are all still just analogies, and if you take them too far, you will probably again lapse into something that has been condemned as a heresy.

So why should we believe in this Trinity thing at all?

This is one of the few doctrines agreed on by all branches of the church, over a long, stretch of time. Those which deny it quickly lose the rest of their Christianity (see, for example, Unitarians). The messy history of how it came to be accepted also gives reason to trust it. When the church came together to consider it, they nearly unanimously came down on the side of the Trinity. Then, lest we fear that this was due to Constantine’s influence, political power almost immediately turned against it, and so Trinitarianism had to prove itself in the face of political repression, just as Christianity itself had.


  • Nicene Canons – The document that the Nicene Council ultimately set forth. It is brief, and well worth your time to read, if only to debunk some of the nonsense that has been promulgated about its contents.
  • On the Incarnation – Athanasius’ explanation of the Trinity and Jesus’ incarnation. If you read one book as a result of this class, make it this one.
  • Class Materials – Certainly the least important document in this list, but it does contain my chess-board visualization of the post-Nicene political wrangling, of which I am rather proud.
  • For good measure, the Nicene Creed in all its original glory:

    We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten (γεννηθέντα), not made, being of one substance (ὁμοούσιον, consubstantialem) with the Father. By whom all things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth. Who for us men and for our salvation came down [from heaven] and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered and the third day he rose again, and ascended into heaven. And he shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead. And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost.

Love not the world

Writing in 197 AD, Tertullian said the following:

We are accused of being useless in the affairs of life. How in all the world can that be the case with people who are living among you, eating the same food, wearing the same attire, having the same habits, under the same necessities of existence? We are not Indian Brahmins or Gymnosophists, who dwell in woods and exile themselves from ordinary human life.

Within 50 years or so, this was no longer true for a significant chunk of the Christian population. The Christian ascetics and later the monastics sought to deny themselves and die to the world by cutting themselves off from it. Today we are going to learn about two of the most famous monastics. St Anthony, who served as the inspiration for millions more to go into the desert seeking God, and Pachomius, who brought the Christian hermits back together into their own form of community.

Anthony the Great, Father of Monasticism (251-356 AD)

Anthony was an Egyptian, born to wealthy, Christian parents. They died when he was around 20. Not long afterward, he was walking along thinking about how the apostles forsook everything and sold all they had to follow Jesus, and he happened to wander into church right as Matt 19:21 was being read: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
Anthony took this as a clear message from God to him. He sold off his family’s more than 200 acres and most of their possession, giving it to the townspeople and the poor. He kept just a small amount for himself and his sister.

The next time he walked into church, Matt 6:34 was read: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow.” Immediately he left and gave his remaining possessions to the needy. He gave his sister over to the care of a proto-convent, and “apprenticed” himself to a local hermit. He then left there and traveled about seeking out other ascetics to learn from, most of whom lived somewhat isolated lives on the outskirts of cities.
Finally, he had a friend seal him in a tomb, where he had his first great confrontation with Satan and his demons:

And when the enemy could not endure it, but was even fearful that in a short time Anthony would fill the desert with the discipline, coming one night with a multitude of demons, he so cut him with stripes that he lay on the ground speechless from the excessive pain. … But the enemy, who hates good, marveling that after the blows he dared to return, called together his hounds and burst forth, ‘Ye see,’ said he, ‘that neither by the spirit of lust nor by blows did we stay the man, but that he braves us, let us attack him in another fashion.’ But changes of form for evil are easy for the devil, so in the night they made such a din that the whole of that place seemed to be shaken by an earthquake, and the demons as if breaking the four walls of the dwelling seemed to enter through them, coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things. And the place was on a sudden filled with the forms of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves, and each of them was moving according to his nature.

The lion was roaring, wishing to attack, the bull seeming to toss with its horns, the serpent writhing but unable to approach, and the wolf as it rushed on was restrained; altogether the noises of the apparitions, with their angry ragings, were dreadful. But Anthony, stricken and goaded by them, felt bodily pains severer still. He lay watching, however, with unshaken soul, groaning from bodily anguish; but his mind was clear, and as in mockery he said, ‘If there had been any power in you, it would have sufficed had one of you come, but since the Lord has made you weak, you attempt to terrify me by numbers: and a proof of your weakness is that you take the shapes of brute beasts.’ And again with boldness he said, ‘If you are able, and have received power against me, delay not to attack; but if you are unable, why trouble me in vain? For faith in our Lord is a seal and a wall of safety to us.’ So after many attempts they gnashed their teeth at him, because they were mocking themselves rather than him.

Nor was the Lord then forgetful of Anthony’s wrestling, but was at hand to help him. So looking up he saw the roof opened, and a ray of light descending to him. The demons suddenly vanished, the pain of his body straightway ceased, and the building was again whole. But Antony feeling the help, and getting his breath again, and being freed from pain, besought the vision which had appeared to him, saying, “Where were you? Why didn’t you appear at the beginning to make my pains end?” And a voice came to him, “Anthony, I was here, but I waited to watch your struggle. And now, since you have persevered and were not defeated, I will be your helper forever, and I will make you famous everywhere.” Having heard this, Anthony arose and prayed, and received such strength that he perceived that he had more power in his body than formerly.

Anthony set out from there to the desert, one of the first ascetics to do so. Eventually he came to deserted fortress, and shut himself inside with enough food for 6 months. He spent the next twenty years there, and though he had visitors, he did not allow anybody in or ever venture outside. Those who did visit reported that they heard what sounded like mobs inside crying out, “Get away from what is ours! What do you have to do with the desert? You cannot endure our treachery!” When they peeked in and saw nobody there, they realized that it was demons they were hearing.

This, by the way, is a recurring theme with the desert monks. They saw themselves as very directly confronting and being confronted by the demons. Though they did not physically fight them off, this war was very real and very literal for them. One of Anthony’s later speeches to his fellow monks consists largely of practical advice for how to deal with the demons when they troubled them by either appearing in strange shapes or even whispering future events to them.

Finally, so many people had gathered outside the fortress wanting to follow him in asceticism that they tore open the door, and he finally ventured forth. “From then on,” Athanasius tells us, “there were monasteries in the mountains and the desert was made a city by monks, who left their own people and registered themselves for citizenship in the heavens.”

The following is from a speech given by Anthony to his fellow monks:

Nor let us think, as we look at the world, that we have renounced anything of much consequence, for the whole earth is very small compared with all the heaven. Wherefore if it even chanced that we were lords of all the earth and gave it all up, it would be nought worthy of comparison with the kingdom of heaven. For as if a man should despise a copper drachma to gain a hundred drachmas of gold; so if a man were lord of all the earth and were to renounce it, that which he gives up is little, and he receives a hundredfold. But if not even the whole earth is equal in value to the heavens, then he who has given up a few acres leaves as it were nothing; and even if he have given up a house or much gold he ought not to boast nor be low-spirited. Further, we should consider that even if we do not relinquish them for virtue’s sake, still afterwards when we die we shall leave them behind.

Therefore, children, let us hold fast our discipline, and let us not be careless. For in it the Lord is our fellow-worker, as it is written, “to all that choose the good, God worketh with them for good.” But to avoid being heedless, it is good to consider the word of the Apostle, “I die daily.” For if we too live as though dying daily, we shall not sin. And the meaning of that saying is, that as we rise day by day we should think that we shall not abide till evening; and again, when about to lie down to sleep, we should think that we shall not rise up. For our life is naturally uncertain, and Providence allots it to us daily. But thus ordering our daily life, we shall neither fall into sin, nor have a lust for anything, nor cherish wrath against any, nor shall we heap up treasure upon earth. But, as though under the daily expectation of death, we shall be without wealth, and shall forgive all things to all men, nor shall we retain at all the desire of women or of any other foul pleasure. But we shall turn from it as past and gone, ever striving and looking forward to the day of Judgment. For the greater dread and danger of torment ever destroys the ease of pleasure, and sets up the soul if it is like to fall.

Pachomius (290-347 AD)

“How can a person test his humility when he has no one to whom he can show himself the inferior? How will he give evidence of his compassion, if he has cut himself off from association with other persons? And how will he exercise himself in long-suffering, if no one contradicts his wishes? If the Lord washed the feet of the disciples, whose feet will you wash?” – St Basil (330-379)

“To save souls, you must bring them together.”-Pachomius

Born in Egypt to pagan parents, he was drafted into the army at 20. On the way to the front, he and his fellow soldiers stopped at Thebes, where they were housed in a prison. Local Christians came to visit the inmates and bring them food, which greatly impressed Pachomius. He vowed to investigate Christianity when he got out of the army, which was soon afterward. He became a pupil of the hermit Palamon for seven years, after which he set out on his own to follow the discipline of St. Anthony.

One day, God led him out about 10 miles to a deserted village by the Nile called Tabennesi, and commanded him, “Build a monastery; for many will come to you to become monks with you.” He built a cell there in 320, where his brother joined him as his first follower. Before long the community grew to 100, and by the time of his death it contained 3,000 monks. They shared everything in common, prayed and worked together, and followed the rules Pachomius laid out. These rules regulated the entire day, dictating when they would wake, when they would pray, what work they would do, and even how they would greet visitors to the monastery.

This system became known as “coenobitic monasticism” from the Greek words “koinos bios” (common life). It formed the basis for the rules that would organize all future monasteries, most notably the Benedictine monasteries.

Simeon the Stylite (390 – 459)

Simeon entered a monastery before the age of 16, and subjected himself to ever-increasing bodily austerities, from severe fasting to standing upright as long as he could possibly bear it. Eventually, he confined himself to living on a small platform on the side of a mountain. However, he was so overwhelmed by pilgrims seeking his advice that he finally decided to try escape the world vertically. He set up a platform on top of a 12 foot pillar and lived on it. Followers provided him with taller and taller pillars as time went by, the final one being over 45 feet tall, and there he lived for 37 years until his death. People continued to flock to him, and he preached to them and wrote letters. He converted thousands to Christianity, and inspired imitators all the way through to the 1400s.


and fails

Where has all the magic gone?

and failsIf you’ve never read a Tim Powers book, go do yourself a favor and check out The Anubis Gates, which ranks in my top 3 favorite works of fiction. One of the underlying themes in the book is the idea that over time, magic has become more and more difficult to perform, and that the spread of Christianity is somehow responsible for this.

Now, this is neither here nor there, because Anubis Gates is very much a work of fiction. The primary theme, after all, is time travel, and his other books have revolved around voodoo, Kabbalah, and in one case, magical beer. The curious thing is that if you read very old books, you will often find exactly the same idea expressed: magic was real, but Christ has stopped it.

I noticed it particularly in Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. There, he is addressing non-Christians, and uses the death of magic as a proof of Christianity:

When have oracles ceased and become void of meaning, among the Greeks and everywhere, except since the Savior has revealed Himself on earth? … When did the practice and theory of magic begin to be spurned under foot, if not at the manifestation of the Divine Word to men?

Again, in former times every place was full of the fraud of the oracles, and the utterances of those at Delphi and Dordona and in Boeotia and Lycia and Libya and Egypt and those of the Kabiri and the Pythoness were considered marvelous by the minds of men. But now, since Christ has been proclaimed everywhere, their madness too has ceased, and there is no one left among them to give oracles at all. Then, too, demons used to deceive men’s minds by taking up their abode in springs or rivers or trees or stones and imposing upon simple people by their frauds. But now, since the Divine appearing of the Word, all this fantasy has ceased, for by the sign of the cross, if a man will but use it, he drives out their deceits.

And what is one to say about the magic that they think so marvelous? Before the sojourn of the Word, it was strong and active among Egyptians and Chaldeans and Indians and filled all who saw it with terror and astonishment. But by the coming of the Truth and the manifestation of the Word it too has been confuted and entirely destroyed.

What is noteworthy here is not so much the argument as the axioms. Athanasius takes it as a given both that magic exists, and that it is fading, and he assumes that his critics will think the same. This was apparently something that would be so obvious to anybody living in this time period (ca. 320AD) that it can simply be taken as an axiom. What his readers may doubt is that Christ is the cause of this, and in this case Athanasius actually invites them to try it out for themselves:

Anyone, too, may put what we have said to the proof of experience in another way. In the very presence of the fraud of demons and the imposture of the oracles and the wonders of magic, let him use the sign of the cross which they all mock at, and but speak the Name of Christ, and he shall see how through Him demons are routed, oracles cease, and all magic and witchcraft is confounded.

In a book filled with Platonic-style proofs, this is the only part where he actually gives the reader an experiment that they can try themselves. That is how confident Athanasius is in this argument. It is hard to imagine that he would have felt this way if he had not personally witnessed the experiment carried out on numerous occasions.

Athanasius is not alone. The great pagan historian Plutarch, born not long after Jesus died, also noticed a great weakening of magic, to the point that he dedicated one of his dialogues to explaining it. It is here that we first hear of the death of Pan:

Suddenly from the island of Paxi was heard the voice of someone loudly calling Thamus, so that all were amazed. Twice he was called and made no reply, but the third time he answered; and the caller, raising his voice, said, ‘When you come opposite to Palodes, announce that Great Pan is dead.’ On hearing this, all, said Epitherses, were astounded and reasoned among themselves whether it were better to carry out the order or to refuse to meddle and let the matter go. So, when he came opposite Palodes, and there was neither wind nor wave, Thamus from the stern, looking toward the land, said the words as he had heard them: ‘Great Pan is dead.’ Even before he had finished there was a great cry of lamentation, not of one person, but of many, mingled with exclamations of amazement. As many persons were on the vessel, the story was soon spread abroad in Rome, and Thamus was sent for by Tiberius Caesar.

Tiberius reigned from 14-37AD; it is not hard to see why this tale later became beloved by Christian apologists, including the historian Eusebius.

All of this implies an intriguing possibility: what if magic really was real, but is simply no longer effective? Sadly, I can think of no way to test this, so it will have to remain nothing more than an intriguing possibility.

Now what?

Our church history class is over, but I’m hoping that won’t be the end for you. Obviously, there is plenty more history that we did not cover, even in the small time periods that we did discuss. If you want to fill those in, the best way is to read. You don’t even need to read a lot; I have committed myself to only 10 pages a night, but over the past 8 years, that has really added up.

If you read only two books as a result of this class, let them be On the Incarnation and Confessions of St. Augustine. I would even encourage you to make a study of them with whatever small group or bible study you’re a part of. If you’ve already read them, skip ahead to the rest of the resources you should check out.

On the Incarnation, by Athansius

Athanasius was the greatest defender of Trinitarian Orthodoxy during the turbulent times after Nicea. On the Incarnation, written before he even turned 30, is a brilliant explanation of the incarnation of Christ. C.S Lewis praised it especially highly:

Athanasius stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, “whole and undefiled,” when it looked as if all the civilised world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius—into one of those “sensible” synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen. It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.

When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece. I knew very little Christian Greek except that of the New Testament and I had expected difficulties. To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; and only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity.

As you read, you would also do well to listen to relevant episodes from this podcast, as he walks his own class through this book.

On the Incarnation is available in a variety of formats:

The Confessions of St. Augustine

It’s a classic for a reason. Augustine explores human nature and whole range of other topics in this masterpiece, and even comes close to deriving the Big Bang from an analysis of Genesis. If you want to study this with your small groups, contact me and I’ll pass my notes along to you from when I did the same.

Please note that there are many translations, and you would do well to find one in modern English, which will likely mean getting an actual physical book.

More History!

For a good overview of church history, I recommend this book: Church History in Plain Language. It goes all the way up to the present time.

If you’re online, you can do even better. A number of college courses make recordings of their lectures available online for free. The best part about audio resources like this is that you can let them play while you do other things. The following two were particularly helpful in preparing this course:

However, if you really want to know what’s going on, you need to dive into primary sources. I have made sure to include primary sources in every class partly for this reason, and partly to show you that they’re still perfectly approachable. We can learn directly from the greats.

Luckily for us, all of these primary sources are available on the internet. However, they’re almost all from the Roberts-Donaldson translation from the early 1800s, and the language is very King Jamesy. You are better off finding an actual book with a modern translation. I’m sure you can get these from fine publishers such as Zondervan or Baker Books. Your local college library is also likely to have some more obscure texts.

If you stick to the online world, you will likely find yourself visiting the Christian Classics Ethereal Library often. Early Christian Writings is also a handy site. If you like your books electronic, Orthodox e-books may interest you.

Test everything. Hold on to the good.I Thessalonians 5:21

See the rest of the Church History posts