Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Athanasius has Left the Building

The recent controversy over T. D. Jakes and his supposed trinitarian confession has surprised me.  It's not surprising that good, well-meaning Christians have a hard time articulating their understanding of the Trinity.  It's also not surprising that many believers would hear Jakes' comments at the Elephant Room conference and think that he had been "won over."

What is surprising to me is how leaders within the church have failed to understand the significance of what Jakes said or have decided that the distinction between what he believes and what we believe about the Trinity is not important enough to quibble over.

How important is our description of the Trinity?  Is it a doctrine that church leaders must understand precisely or is there "wiggle room"?

The fourth-century church leader Athanasius believed that our articulation of the Trinity was so important that he was willing to face the wrath of an emperor rather than budge one little Greek mark--literally.

Arianism was a fourth century heresy that taught Jesus was not co-equal with God but rather created.  In The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform, Roger Olson describes how Athanasius stubbornly held on to the biblical, orthodox understanding of the Trinity:
Athanasius served as archbishop and patriarch of Alexandria for forty-five years until his death in 373.  He spent approximately one-third of that time in forced exile due to his steadfast defense of the key terminology of the Nicene Creed in the face of imperial oppposition.  With good reason he has come to be known as the "saint of stubbornness" because of his uncompromising opposition to anything that smacked of Arianism--even when emperors threatened his life.  It may not be much of an exaggeration to say that all Christians have Athanasius to thank that the theology of Jehovah's Witnesses is not the "orthodoxy" of most of Christendom (161).
Emperor Constantine's son, Constantius, wanted to see the controversy over trinitarianism done away with.  He believed that the Nicene Creed presented an obstacle to unity and believed that one, tiny, insignificant change to the creed could allow all Christians to live in peace with one another.
The emperor wanted peace, and uniformity was its path.  He came to believe that the term homoousios...should be replaced in the Nicene Creed with homoiousios, which means "of a similar substance" and would be acceptable to the semi-Arians and even many trinitarians.  If accepted, the new terminology would have made orthodox the belief that the Son and the Father share a "similar substance" or a "like being" instead of the belief that they are of the same substance or being.
Athanasius stubbornly resisted the change and even condemned it as rank heresy....  [H]is concern was not merely to defend some sacrosanct wording but to defend the gospel itself.  For Athanasius and his supporters, salvation itself depends on the Son of God being God and not merely a great creature "like God." For him "the fundamental issue is that only very God can unite a creature to God" and "salvation is not...possible through an hierarchical chain, from the Father through an intermediate Son to creatures...."  
One modern critic of early Christian orthodoxy has suggested that Athanasius played a role in the downfall of the Roman Empire because of his obstinacy over one tiny letter that in Greek is only a diacritical mark over a vowel (164-5).  
As is so often the case, little things matter when speaking of the Trinity.  Athanasius was absolutely right and his brave defense of clear articulation of the Trinity protected many from heresy.

But where is Athanasius today?  Are "manifestations" the same as "persons" when speaking about the Trinity?  Do little things still matter?

The answer to the last question is "yes" and I'd encourage you to keep this in mind when reading these excellent essays: Carson and Keller on Jakes and the Elephant Room and Thabiti Anyabwile's 11 Things I'm Thinking in the Wake of Recent Events.


Adam Byerly said...

I would not (nor would I be in a position to) disagree with any high esteem of Athanasius. Nor would I ever but defend him as worthy of his appellation of “the father of Orthodoxy” (even in his own time: “ ̔Ο πατήρ τῆς ὀρθοδοξίας”, Epiphanius of Salamis). Truly, before continuing, I want to acknowledge fully that I see your window into Athanasius to be very clear and accurate to my understanding of him.

With this in mind and sincerely, with all due respect, how are we (while thinking about the Elephant Room 2) to account for the following: “Towards the unessential errors of good men, like those of Marcellus of Ancyra, he was indulgent. Of Origen he spoke with esteem … pronounced [Basil’s] liberality a justifiable condescension to the weak … He was more concerned for theological ideas than for words and formulas; even upon the shibboleth homoousios he would not obstinately insist, provided only the great truth of the essential and eternal Godhead of Christ were not sacrificed … as president of the council of Alexandria in 362, he acted as mediator and reconciler of the contending parties …” (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-590. § 163. Athanasius the Great.) I believe it is especially important to note that the aforementioned Marcellus of Ancyra was widely condemned for ascribing to a form of Sabellianism and of course Origen was widely condemned through the ages for being speculative, allegorizing, and holding to a universalism more encompassing than that held by Rob Bell.

Help me to draw the distinctions that I am struggling with here.

Bill said...

Hey Daniel...

I appreciate your post. I have also been trying to gain insight and instruction from this entire ER2 mess.

Tell me what you think about this thought: As important as the Modalism/Trinitarian distinction is, I think the major issue is Jakes prosperity gospel (btw-I like the way Carson/Keller title his teaching) which seems to be largely forgotten as people try to taut his "orthodox" confession.

I do not think the two are unrelated though. The reason why Jakes can speak of the Trinity the way he does is because theology is really of little concern to him. He can appease (or try to) Trinitarians and yet prefer modalism language because he really does not believe its important. He may in fact be more Trinitarian but prefers his old language so that he can appeal to more people - and he can play both sides without a stand because theology really doesn't matter to him. As long as he has a hearing, and sells books, and feels as though he is helping people, he's okay with it.

Those (in random haphazard expression) are some of my thoughts on the issue. Closing I want to also echo Thabiti's comment in your linked article:

"The Church is split more than it was previous to the ER. We have new lines of division... My only point is to say, “This division inside the broadly ‘Reformed’ camp feels new to me.”"

This is my biggest concern also.

Daniel Bennett said...

Adam, your concerns about some aspects of Athanasius' theology are good. I thought about addressing that, but thought it probably went beyond the scope of the purpose of this post. It's fair to say Athanasius leaves us a mixed-legacy.

Bill, I also thought Thabiti's comment was powerful.