Arianism posed a dangerous threat to the Church in the 4th century when it challenged the orthodox doctrine of the deity of Christ. In his refutation of Arianism, Athanasius the orthodox theologian displayed rare insight by identifying the doctrine of salvation as the heart of the dispute and cogently demonstrating that soteriology is a touchstone to determine the acceptability of any theology for the Church.
Arianism initially gained popularity because it offered an attractive path to salvation, that is, by imitation of Christ who perfected his own virtues through self-discipline and then enables his followers to do likewise. Christ as the first of the perfected creatures and his perfection is the promise of the heights that believers may aspire to achieve. Christ is the pioneer and perfector of our faith since he perfected his virtues while possessing the same human weaknesses as we have. Naturally, Arianism emphasized the human characteristics of Christ at the expense of his divine qualities, to which Athanasius retorted, “For looking at the human characteristics of the Savior, they have considered him to be a creature.”
The Son’s commonality with the Father is rejected so that he may share commonality with the rest of us. Christ’s sonship becomes adoptive rather than inherent or genetic. It is conferred by the same grace that is available to all believers. Arianism was unafraid to attribute changeability to the Son as the prerequisite for moral advancement. As Adolf Harnack observed, “It has first of all, a Christ who gradually becomes God, who therefore develops more and more in moral unity of feeling with God, progresses and attains his perfection by the divine grace. This Christ is the Savior insofar as he has conveyed to us the divine doctrine and has given us an example of the goodness perfectly realized in the exercise of freedom.”
The Arian soteriology may be summarized as follows:
The Arian Soteriology required the Savior, that he might be the imitable, to be related to the Father on the same terms as other finite beings. This entailed a bond and connection postulated not upon the ability to know and perceive the Father’s essence and to enjoy ontic identity, but upon the dynamic (so frequently met in biblical depiction of covenant) of command and obedience, upon the transactions of will which constitute the people – sons and daughters – of God.
It is understandable that the Arian soteriology attracted many sincere Christians, especially those who are inclined to rigorous discipline in the spiritual life. But Athanasius with theological acumen, exposed Arianism as a dangerous heresy. What was it in Arianism that Athanasius saw so clearly and opposed so vehemently? The Arians effectively tailored the doctrine of the person and work of Christ to fit a prevailing system of logic in order to gain acceptance. Arianism begins with an abstract schema and then forces the subject of theology into that schema. Beginning with the fundamental premise of the absolute uniqueness and transcendence of God, Arianism applies an unyielding logic to draw the following conclusions:
- Since “we acknowledge one God, who is alone ingenerate (άγευνητος), alone eternal, alone without beginning, alone sovereign, etc.”
- Since the being and essence of Godhead cannot be shared for that would imply that he is divisible and subject to change.
- Therefore, whatever else that comes into existence must not be by the communication of God’s being but by an act of creation.
- Therefore the Son must be a creature.
- Therefore the Son must have a beginning. Hence the Arians repeatedly chanted, “There was when He was not.”
- Consequently the Son cannot have direct knowledge of the Father. Even the glorious titles that he possesses are given to him because he participates in the eternal Wisdom of God.
- Therefore, the Son could change or sin even though God gave Christ impeccable glory based on the foreknowledge that Christ would be good on the basis of his human nature.
The final portrait is a Christ who is suspended between man and God, identical with neither but related to both. It should be noted that Arianism was willing to accept a diminished Savior not merely because of logic, but rather, because the scheme offers an attractive soteriology.
In contrast to the Arians, Athanasius showed himself to be the theologian of redemption par excellence who resolutely subordinated everything else, even the formula “homoousios” (of the same substance) to the doctrine of redemption and what this fact means for the person of the redeemer. He did not hesitate to employ Greek categories which may prove useful for his argumentation, but he ensured the terms used are consistent with the scriptural view of man’s relationship to God as a response to God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
For Athanasius, it is an act of grace that God made man in his image and invested man with the capacity to be perfected, if only man would maintain his contemplation of and communion with his Maker. It is this grace that man rejected in the Fall when he turned away from God, resulting in the loss of the image of God and the bondage of corruption. Against this background Athanasius insisted on two fundamental principles:
- Salvation is not a matter of reversing human disobedience, for then repentance would have sufficed. But something has happened since the fall. Anthropologically, death, mortality and corruption are no longer external to human nature but have become an essential part of man. As such, repentance is no longer sufficient to reverse the human tragedy. What is required is not an ethical but an ontological solution. The problem of corruption necessitates the incarnation.
- Only Christ the Logos, being the principle of life, can destroy the principle of death in us and give man the gift of incorruptibility. Through the incarnation, the Logos has brought human nature into contact with divine nature. This work of grace done by the Logos is so effective that it resulted in an irreversible work of restoring the inner constituent of man. Human nature is elevated to a blessed state of incorruption (deification) as far as its creatureliness permits.
However, the benefit of divinization is not automatic. It comes to human beings only as they are in a special spiritual relationship with Christ through the Holy Spirit. “The Word became flesh in order both to offer this sacrifice and that we, participating in His Spirit, might be deified” (De Incarnatione 9).
It was critical for Athanasius to link the Christ essentially and eternally to God – “The Word could never have divinized as if he were merely divine by participation and were not Himself the essential Godhead, the Father’s veritable image” (De Synodis 51). Athanasius’ soteriology demands a savior who is in need of nothing; he is the plenary Wisdom who is totally sufficient and eternally perfect. For Athanasius it is Christ’s divine nature (ousia) that secures his work as our redeemer. This is in contrast to the Arians’ teaching that Christ did not participate in the Father’s eternal nature, but came into being by a moment of creative will and pleasure, and that Christ became an exalted being by the obedience of the will to the commandments. “[Christ] by his care and self-discipline had triumphed over his mutable nature.” The category of “will” clearly leads to the belief of a saved savior!
Athanasius saw clearly how destructive the Arians’ teachings were to the Christian doctrine of salvation. He rejected the Arians’ voluntarist categories in his teachings. These categories would only create instability and capriciousness in the order of creation and salvation; after all, “will” implies an inclination which can shift. In contrast, only the category of “nature” can secure the constancy of divine purpose and action.
Athanasius insisted that there are irreducible differences between Christ and us and that the relationship between God and Christ is more than a mere moral union. It is a union beyond imitation. True, we are sons of God by grace but while we are merely recipients of this grace, Christ is the donor or mediator of grace (John 1:17). The fundamental error of the Arians is to obscure this essential difference between Christ and his believers when both are subsumed under the same concept of grace.
Accepting the Arian doctrine of redemption would bring disastrous consequences to the life and mission of the church.
When [the Arians] drove the wedge between the Father and Son, and reduced Christ to the level of a creature, it both separated the world we live in from the world in which God dwells and reigns, and also taught mankind to look for salvation to sources other than the Lord of heaven and earth. This line of thought drives people to rely on human and earth bound expedients and to minimize the need of grace.
Nevertheless, for Athanasius, the humanity of Christ is no less significant for soteriology than the Arian Christ. Christ assumed human nature in order to destroy death and secure eternal life for humanity, “for he was immortal, took to himself a body which could die in order to offer it as his own on behalf of all, and in order…to destroy him who held the power of death, that is the devil, and to deliver all those who through fear of death had been all their lifetime subject to bondage” (De Incarnatione 20). The vital difference is that for Athanasius the work of salvation remains the work of Christ alone. Man cannot add to or imitate it. Since salvation is solely accomplished by Christ, it can only be accepted as a gift of grace.