Today in our Cor Deo meeting we spoke of Athanasius as one of the heroes of the faith. As bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, (328-373) he was sent into exile by various Roman emperors five times, so that of his 45 years in office he was away more than he was at home. Still he wrote boldly in defense of the orthodox views of the Trinity despite intense Arian opposition.
The dispute was stirred, in part, by sermons on the Trinity offered by Athanasius. Arius, a Libyan priest, rejected his views, arguing that because the Son was born of God it only followed that “there was a time when the Son was not.” According to Arius the Son was, indeed, the creator of the universe but he himself had first been created by God.
The controversy spread so that throughout the Roman empire Arian Christians could be heard singing a lively tune: “There was a time when the Son was not.” In every city, wrote one historian, “bishop was contending against bishop, and the people were contending against one another, like swarms of gnats fighting in the air.”
While the Arian views gained traction Athanasius dismissed their claims with scorn. For him it was a matter of salvation: the Son must be wholly God and wholly man because only a fully human being can atone for human sin; and only a wholly divine being is big enough to swallow death. To build his case against Arius Athanasius also pointed to the baptismal references to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in Matthew 28:19 that treated the Triune equality as a core conviction of the New Testament church. He scolded the Arians, too, for returning to a form of polytheism by making Christ out to be a second-tier deity. There were other arguments as well, brought to bear with unique energy throughout his lifetime.
Others soon followed, including the three Cappadocian Fathers, and the Arian movement eventually declined to insignificance. We still have a residue presence of modern day Arians knocking on doors around the world but the main work of meeting and dismissing their views was completed in the 4th and 5th centuries.
Today we have new challenges to confront and dismiss, and some of them have as much traction among Christians as the Arian views did in their heyday. Readers may think of some of these. Perhaps the myth of progress that treats nature as virtually divine. Or an existentialism that seeks unrestrained sensual and mental stimulation as ends in themselves.
What concerns me most, however, is the portrayal of God as a disaffected and distant deity: an offspring of the unmoved-mover of Aristotle. This power-centric God is presented among too many Christians through anthropopathic themes. That is, in such circles God has only the appearance of human love, and his disaffected “love” is what he uses to shape human conduct by manipulating our human hunger for affection. So, in this view, any presumptions that God is a real lover are distortions because divine vulnerability to us—the stuff of love—is excluded by logical necessity.
There have been some rallies against this movement but they offer solutions as destructive as the disease they seek to cure. Both Process Theology and its more conservative cousin, the Openness of God effort, reduced God’s being in order to have room for the dynamic give-and-take of love. But these are not answers supported by Scriptures.
Instead we find the Bible portraying the Triune communion as having embraced the human freedom of response to God’s love—to love or not to love him in return—as part of God’s eternal and creative plan for the creation: i.e. “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4) as a function of divine love. We may not be able to analyze the particulars but we are at least assured that the love of the Godhead is real and our love is birthed by his prior love for us.
We should, as a final note, comment on a common thread between the disaffected version of God in a gospel commonly promoted today and the God of Arius: both elevate God as a monad or singularity rather than the eternally relational Triune God of the Bible. Christ, in turn, is reduced to an instrumental figure, used by God to do his will.
Both versions of God are literally dead ends. Let us resist their claims, even if we may have to face a few years of social exile. It is worth any disruptions we might face in order to get things right.