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Athanasius, "Champion of Orthodoxy"
"What's the difference between asking friends to run your business and asking them to ruin it? It's only the difference of the smallest letter of the alphabet. Likewise the survival of the gospel hinges on the "iota," the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet.

Known in his lifetime as the "Father of Orthodoxy," Athanasius (296-373 AD)knew that the difference between "homoousios" and "homoiousios" is as unbridgeable as the difference between "run" and "ruin." "Homo" is Greek for same, or one, or identical, whereas "ousios" means nature or being or substance or essence. Is the Son of God identical with the Father, possessed of the same substance as the Father? Or is the Son only like Him? And if only like the Father, how like—a little bit like or a lot like?

Aware that orthodoxy ("right praise") presupposes "right understanding," Athanasius tirelessly championed the doctrine of the Incarnation. Recognized as brilliant, courageous and persistent in his early days, the mature Athanasius was appointed Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt. His genius and skill with language triumphed at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 as the Nicene Creed affirmed unambiguously that the Son is "of one substance" with the Father.

… we must understand the two heresies he refuted.

Athanasius's creed had preserved the New Testament confession of Jesus Christ. Still, his ecclesiastical opponents, smarting from their defeat, sought to crush him. Soon a rival bishop accused him of gross misconduct. All such charges were refuted, the rival bishop and his supporters exposed as shameless slanderers. Still, Athanasius was deemed a troublemaker, anything but a politically-correct "team player." Not surprisingly, he was exiled five times by his detractors in the church at the hands of four different emperors. In between his enforced absences, he returned home and worked in his diocese. In 373 he was finally released from his decades-long struggle, dying in his bishopric of Alexandria, loved by those who had long hailed him as the advocate for the faith "once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).

To apprehend the glory of Athanasius' faithfulness we must understand the two heresies he refuted. Ebionitism insisted that Jesus Christ is certainly human but only seemingly divine; docetism, that Jesus Christ is certainly divine but only seemingly human. Since the former denied Jesus to be divine, it insisted that Jesus couldn't be the focus of faith; instead faith is focused on a God to whom Jesus points. That is, Jesus points away from Himself to God rather than pointing to Himself as God. The docetists, on the other hand, regarded the human nature of Jesus as unreal and looked upon his suffering as unreal, too. In denying that the Word had become flesh, they reduced the saving truth and reality of the gospel to a religious idea.

Oddly, the church in Athanasius's day blended both ebionite and docetic heresies. The resultant hodge-podge did what the New Testament does not: it contrasted Jesus Christ with God and placed Him alongside God, whereas the apostles had always affirmed Jesus Christ to be God-with-us.

… what would occur if Father and Son weren't of the same nature …

Athanasius knew that if Jesus Christ isn't God then He can't reveal God to us, since only through God may we know God. As well, if Jesus Christ isn't human then He can't be our Savior, since only as one-with-us can God be savingly at work in our actual human existence. Athanasius, grasping all the implications of what the church's defectors were saying, wrote that the Son was "begotten of the Father, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father." In other words, faith in Jesus Christ coincides perfectly with faith in God.

Consider what would occur if Father and Son weren't of the same nature:

  • God would be unknowable, since there would then be no oneness between what the gospel presents to us as the revelation of God and God Himself.

  • the gospel would not be the self-communication and self-bestowal of God; rather, God would communicate and bestow "something" but not Himself.

  • God's love for us, however great, would yet be tragically deficient, never having condescended to become one with us.

  • God would mock us, in that God is said to love us in Jesus Christ without being that love in Himself.

  • on the cross Jesus would be neither representative human (suffering the penalty for humankind's sin) nor divine (absorbing that penalty into God's own heart). On the cross Jesus would be merely one more of many martyrs.

  • On the last day we should find ourselves judged by a God who is arbitrary in that He bears no essential relation to Jesus Christ and all that the latter stood for.

Athanasius knew that none of the foregoing is true; all of it is contradicted by the glorious reality of Jesus Christ—for He is of the same nature or substance or essence as the Father. The Father has absorbed in His own heart all that the Son did and suffered for us. Athanasius insisted that "the whole Christ—God and man—became a curse for us." To save us God condemned our fallen humanity and took the condemnation upon Himself … Atonement has been made, pardon secured, invitation issued. "Our resurrection is stored up in the cross of Christ," Athanasius commented pithily. All of this means that the church has a gospel worthy of the name.

With customary insight, Karl Barth insisted that Athanasius's "of one substance" was the most significant theological statement since the time of the apostles. Yet those who dismiss it abound. In the late 500s Gregory the Great traveled to Constantinople and found all one hundred congregations espousing the heresy that Athanasius had struggled to refute 200 years earlier. In the face of it Gregory neither quit nor conformed. Instead he whispered resolutely, "I have work to do."

Rev. Dr. Victor Shepherd is minister at Streetsville United Church, Mississauga, Ontario. Author of five books, he is professor and chair of Wesley Studies at Ontario Theological Seminary in Toronto.

Fellowship Magazine, Mar 1998,




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