St. Athenasius, the premier Nicene theologian of the Fourth Century
As I continue to prepare for the classes I will be presenting at our seminary this spring I have been trying to do some extra reading in addition to fulfilling the many requirements of the holy office of Pastor, a challenge indeed given the blessed additional opportunities to worship the God who has blessed us so incredibly and so consistently, the most Holy and Divine Trinity. I have been assembling notes on a number of different themes I am going to address which includes: what was it in Roman law that allowed for and even necessitated the persecution of the early Christians; the ten “formal” persecutions of the early Church; various Christian Apologetic responses; the life and writings of a specific group of men who immediately followed the Apostles collectively referred to as the “Apostolic Fathers. I have been working toward concluding the class with a presentation of the very clear connection between the theology of the early Church and that which “classical” Lutheranism continues to believe, is still faithfully teaching and confessing given the opportunity to do so. I have chosen to conclude with this topic because it has been a contention of mine since my seminary days that a key issue that Lutheranism in America has largely failed to adequately address in its seminary educational process is this highly important connection. I, along with a number of the other pastor’s in our diocese have repeatedly been made aware of the consequences of this shortcoming by the number of our seminary classmates, and some pastors we have gotten to know after seminary, who have “Gone east” over the years. “Gone east” is an expression which means they have left not only Lutheranism but Latin Christianity to the Greek or Russian form of Christianity. In almost every case that I am personally acquainted with the deciding factor was not that the man was deficient academically but quite the opposite, that he was competent, and in some cases to an exceptionally degree. The change in their theology came about because of their “discovery” of the early Church with reference to two topics in particular: (1) the writings of the “Fathers” of the Church and/or (2) the ancient forms of liturgy and practice.
Thus it is that in order to address this critical issue in the spiritual lives of the men who are and will be training to be pastors in our diocese I believe it is necessary that I make, as clear as I can, the connection between “the Fathers” of the early Church and true, “classical” Lutheranism. I leave the topic of the liturgy to others far more competent than am I.
This being one of my goals I am putting together an “overview” of the theological connection between the “several early Church Fathers and three of the premier Lutheran theologians in the concluding hours of my presentation. First will be Dr. Luther with he who is, in my opinion, the premier Nicene theologian of the fourth century the bishop of Alexandria, St. Athanasius. There is an ancient expression about him which largely explains his uncompromising theological commitment and unwavering efforts to defend the supremely critical doctrine of the divine equality of the Only-begotten Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth with God the eternal Father. It is from this effort that the ancient expression came forth “Athanasius Contra Mundum,” meaning “Athanasius against the world.” And while I suggest that for a time in the Reformer’s life we could also say “Luther Contra Mundum” my intent is not to express the similarity between the two in their willingness to suffer for the Catholic faith and confession, but to identify some of the theological connections between the two, and which we have embraced.
The second connection I aspire to make is the theological connection between the “Cappadocian Fathers” and he who might well be called the Reformer’s “Right hand man,” Phillip Melanchthon. Given the fact that it was he who wrote the Augsburg Confession, and so much more in support of “Classical Lutheranism” makes him of great importance.
Thirdly, but only in sequence not of importance, is he who quickly became known as “The Second Martin,” Martin Chemnitz. There is an old expression that sums up the significance of his theological contributions to Classical Lutheranism as follows: “If the second Martin [Chemnitz] had not come, the first Martin [Luther] would not have stood.” The degree of his connection to the theology of the early Church Fathers is witnessed to by the fact that just one of his many highly-important works, The Two Natures in Christ is comprised of approximately 475 pages of actual text which in turn consists, to an overwhelming degree, not of his own thoughts or reflections, but of quotations from the Fathers of the Church primarily from the third, fourth and fifth centuries and that vast host of Church councils held during that period, both orthodox and heterodox alike.
So, it was in pursuit of the above goal that in the middle of December I came across the following. It was written by St. Athanasius and the current scholarly consensus is that it was composed no later than the summer of A.D. 342. It was written to rebut the “Arian” interpretive meaning of St. Luke 10:22 (and St. Matthew 11:27) which quotes Jesus: “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father,…” The Arians argued that “if ‘all things’ had been handed over to the Son by the Father,
it naturally followed that there was a time when the Son was not.” This was one of the most fundamental articles of the “Arians” misguided faith and confession, that the Son of God did not eternally exist, but was “brought” into being by the Father. As I read through this rebuttal by St. Athanasius’ two thoughts immediately came to my mind: firstly, how true, Biblically-based theology need not and must not be changed through the passing of the ages and, secondly what a clear and concise reminder of why that divinely-wrought miracle which we commemorate during the Christ-mas season is of such profound importance. St. Athanasius wrote the following (the underling and boldface is mine to emphasis as clearly as possible what the Bishop was teaching to all in his diocese):
§2. For whereas man sinned, and is fallen, and by his fall all things are in confusion: death prevailed from Adam to Moses (cf. Rom. v. 14), the earth was cursed, Hades was opened, Paradise shut, Heaven offended, man, lastly, corrupted and brutalized (cf. Ps. xlix. 12), while the devil was exulting against us;-then God, in His loving-kindness, not willing man made in His own image to perish, said, `Whom shall I send, and who will go?’ (Isa.vi8). But while all held their peace, the Son said, `Here am I, send Me.’ And then it was that, saying `Go Thou,’ He `delivered‘ to Him man, that the Word Himself might be made Flesh, and by taking the Flesh, restore it wholly. For to Him, as to a physician, man `was delivered’ to heal the bite of the serpent; as to life, to raise what was dead; as to light, to illumine the darkness;and, because He was Word, to renew the rational nature (to logikon). Since then all things `were delivered’to Him, and He is made Man, straightway all things were set right and perfected. Earth receives blessing instead of a curse, Paradise was opened to the robber, Hades cowered, the tombs were opened and the dead raised, the gates of Heaven were lifted up to await Him that `cometh from Edom’ (Ps. xxiv. 7, Isa. lxiii. I). Why, the Saviour Himself expressly signifies in what sense `all things were delivered’ to Him, when He continues, as Matthew tells us: `Come unto Me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matt. xi. 28). Yes, ye `were delivered’ to Me to give rest to those who had laboured, and life to the dead. And what is written in John’s Gospel harmonizes with this: `The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into His hand’ (Joh. iii. 35). Given, in order that, just as all things were made by Him, so in Him all things might be renewed. For they were not `delivered’ unto Him, that being poor, He might be made rich, nor did He receive all things that He might receive power which before He lacked: far be the thought: but in order that as Saviour He might rather set all things right. For it was fitting that while `through Him’ all things came into being at the beginning, `in Him’ (note the change of phrase) all things should be set right (cf. Joh. i. 3, Eph. i. 10). For at the beginning they came into being `through’ Him; but afterwards, all having fallen, the Word has been made Flesh, and put it on, in order that `in Him’ all should be set right. Suffering Himself, He gave us rest, hungering Himself, He nourished us, and going down into Hades He brought us back thence. For example, at the time of the creation of all things, their creation consisted in a fiat, such as `let [the earth] bring forth,’ `let there be’ (Gen. i. 3, Gen. i. II), but at the restoration it was fitting that all things should be `delivered’ to Him, in order that He might be made man, and all things be renewed in Him. For man, being in Him, was quickened for this was why the Word was united to man, namely, that against man the curse might no longer prevail. This is the reason why they record the request made on behalf of mankind in the seventy-first Psalm: `Give the King Thy judgment, O God’ (Ps. lxxii. I): asking that both the judgment of death which hung over us may be delivered to the Son, and that He may then, by dying for us, abolish it for us in Himself. This was what He signified, saying Himself, in the eighty-seventh Psalm: `Thine indignation lieth hard upon me’ (Ps. lxxxviii. 7). For He bore the indignation which lay upon us, as also He says in the hundred and thirty-seventh: `Lord, Thou shalt do vengeance for me’ (Ps. cxxxviii. 8, LXX.).
§3. Thus, then, we may understand all things to have been delivered to the Saviour, and, if it be necessary to follow up understanding by explanation, that hath been delivered unto Him which He did not previously possess. For He was not man previously, but became man for the sake of saving man.And the Word was not in the beginning flesh, but has been made flesh subsequently (cf. Joh. i. 1 sqq.), in which Flesh, as the Apostle says, He reconciled the enmity which was against us (Col. i. 20, ii. 14, Eph. ii. 15, 16) and destroyed the law of the commandments in ordinances, that He might make the two into one new man, making peace, and reconcile both in one body to the Father. That, however, which the Father has, belongs also to the Son, as also He says in John, `All things whatsoever the Father hath are Mine’ (Joh. xvi. 15), expressions which could not be improved. For when He became that which He was not, `all things were delivered’ to Him. But when He desires to declare His unity with the Father, He teaches it without any reserve, saying: `All things whatsoever the Father hath are Mine.’ And one cannot but admire the exactness of the language. For He has not said `all things whatsoever the Father hath, He hath given to Me,’ lest He should appear at one time not to have possessed these things; but `are Mine.’ For these things, being in the Father’s power, are equally in that of the Son.But we must in turn examine what things `the Father hath.’ For if Creation is meant, the Father had nothing before creation, and proves to have received something additional from Creation; but far be it to think this. For just as He exists before creation, so before creation also He has what He has, which we also believe to belong to the Son (Joh. xvi. 15). For if the Son is in the Father, then all things that the Father has belong to the Son. So this expression is subversive of the perversity of the heterodox in saying that `if all things have been delivered to the Son, then the Father has ceased to have power over what is delivered, having appointed the Son in His place. For, in fact, the Father judgeth none, but hath given all judgment to the Son’ (Joh. v. 22). But `let the mouth of them that speak wickedness be stopped’ (Ps. lxiii). II), (for although He has given all judgment to the Son, He is not, therefore, stripped of lordship: nor, because it is said that all things are delivered by the Father to the Son, is He any the less over all), separating as they clearly do the Only-begotten from God, Who is by nature inseparable from Him, even though in their madness they separate Him by their words, not perceiving, the impious men, that the Light can never be separated from the sun, in which it resides by nature. For one must use a poor simile drawn from tangible and familiar objects to put our idea into words, since it is over bold to intrude upon the incomprehensible nature [of God].
Although bishop Athanasius refined some aspect of this treatise a little more clearly later in what is arguable his most important work “Three Orations Against the Arians,” he did so to be more precise about the divinely-established relationship between God the eternal Father and the Only-begotten Son, as God reveals this truth in His own word, the Bible. Athanasius’ contention, that the Only-begotten Son of God is not only of full divine equality, in every way, with God the eternal Father but also of eternal existence and of the same divine essence is and shall forever remain – divine truth divinely revealed and forever a divinely-established reality.
Is it thus not truly amazing to you that this is He of whom we sang about with such great joy so recently? This is He who was “born in a stable and laid in a manger.” This is why we refer to Jesus’ Nativity as a “Silent Night, Holy Night” for it surely was both! Jesus of Nazareth, He whose fleshly birth the Holy Angels revealed with celestial joy to some lowly shepherds by night not “was” but “is” none-other than the eternally-existing Only-begotten Son of God who is also the second Person of the most Holy and Divine Trinity incarnate as a Man of true flesh and blood, apart from sin, inherited and actual. This is He who has made Himself – our Lord and Savior, even while we are here in space and time, but by His grace will continuing on – for the rest of forever.
By God the Holy Trinity’s divine and saving grace, for there is no other God nor source of saving grace, and the divine providence by which He directs everything in creation (which He brought into being and continues to maintain) He has in a loving and Fatherly way led us into another year into the life of the Bride of the Christ as well as that of the secular calendar. Dear redeemed, it is important that we struggle to keep in mind the fact that “history” is in essence, nothing less than the paced, divine providence of God the Holy Trinity, within the realms of space and time, and unfolding in our lives.
I have periodically wondered over the years we have been on this journey home together if some members of the congregation have wondered why I don’t reference Luther more than I do. It’s not that I don’t appreciate him or his work! In fact I think most highly of his writings for it was his commentaries of the Books of Romans and Galatians along with reading the Book of Concord which were pivotal in my final commitment to what I believe is the true ancient, Catholic and apostolic faith that is believe, taught and confessed in its purest form among sinful mankind which is alone, “classical” Lutheranism. But what I have found through reading is that the true foundation of “classical” Lutheranism is not built only upon Luther’s writing and preaching but first-and-foremost what is divinely-revealed in the Bible. From its truth, as the ultimate primary-source of truth about God the Holy Trinity has flowed forth a vast host of writings of faithful, orthodox pastors and teachers who had preceded the Reformer, stretching all the way back to the time of the Apostles. For sure, only the Bible is divinely-inspired, but God the Holy Ghost in particular has continually both called and equipped men (never a woman) to preach the Gospel – in its purity and truth, and to write in the same fashion. This – is our – wonderfully enriching and salvific “spiritual inheritance,” the “spiritual inheritance” I pray I will be able, by the grace of God the Holy Trinity, to impart to at least some small degree to our seminary student(s).
Dear saints, I ask that you continue to pray for me as I continue to strive to faithful preach and teach you the one and only divine and saving truth only as it is divinely revealed in the Bible. Pray that our most gracious God, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost will enable me to continue doing this among you and also to our seminary student(s) He has so graciously sent into our midst.
Perhaps he who has been given the honorific title “the Athanasius of the West” St. Hilary, the bishop of Poitiers, a faithful confessor of the Nicene faith and coworker of St. Athanasius has said it best:
“We must learn from God what we are to think of God, for He is the only source of knowledge, about Himself” (St. Hilary of Poitiers, DeT I.18)
To Jesus alone be everlasting glory,
For the salvation He has freely given us
Amen and Amen
Pastor C.D. Hudson