St. Athanasius shows us that the explicit formulation and development of Catholic doctrine was not a matter of abstract philosophical speculation. It was, rather, an unfolding of the central features of the Gospel. Catholic doctrine protects the saving and transformative word of the Gospel from degenerating into a mere human philosophy. It assures that Jesus present in the Church remains free to approach the human person in the fullness of the truth of who He is and what He wills to give to every human life.
The first heresy in Christian history to wield extensive political and social power was a kind of rationalist attack on the Trinity—in particular a denial of the true Divinity of the second person, the Son and Word of the Father. In the center of this storm was the singular figure of St. Athanasius, the celebrated bishop of Alexandria and fearless defender of Trinitarian orthodoxy. The greatness of St. Athanasius was not only his implacable opposition to Arianism in all its forms, but also his insight into the relationship between the mystery of the Trinity and the way in which God truly gives His creatures a share in His own eternal life and glory.
In the first decades of the fourth century, a popular, talented, and politically astute priest in Alexandria named Arius had developed a theory about the Trinity. Up until this time, most attempts by Christian thinkers to shed light on the unity and distinctness of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit had been provisional at best. For Arius, classical Catholic accounts of the Trinity were dissatisfying and ambiguous and seemed to involve the Church in irrational and contradictory affirmations about God.
He proposed a simple solution, logically coherent, easy to understand, and—at first glance—seemingly consistent with the language of the New Testament: God is one. He is the Unoriginate. The Logos, the Word, is his first and greatest creature. The Word is a reflection of the Divine Being, so perfect that he is called “Son” and God is his “Father” in a unique manner. Nevertheless, he is a creature. According to a famous slogan of Arius which he even set to music, “there was a time when he was not.” This first creature fashioned everything else in turn; therefore he is called “god” in relation to the rest of creation; however he is not divine by nature. The Holy Spirit, too, is a creature, the first and greatest creature of the Word who is himself the divine-like creature of God the Father.
What Arius proposed was ingenious and remarkable, and seemed to give a rationally satisfying explanation of the Trinity. In fact, however, Arius had deconstructed the mystery of the Trinity. After causing some significant controversy especially in Alexandria and the other Eastern churches, and arousing the concern of the Emperor Constantine, Arius’s theory was condemned at the Council of Nicaea in 325, wherein the Only Son of the Father was proclaimed God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father. After this Council, however, the Arian party succeeded in gaining imperial favor by means of deception and intrigue. Enormous political pressure was brought to bear against orthodox bishops by Constantine’s successors, and imperially sponsored synods tried to construct and then impose compromise Trinitarian formulations that secretly favored the Arian position.
It was under the pressure of the now supposedly Christian (but in fact Arian favoring) Roman political administration that St. Athanasius gave his great personal witness to the Catholic faith. Athanasius was exiled from his see no less than five times during his tumultuous career, because he stubbornly opposed any and every politically engineered compromise with the Arian position. Modern secular historians may often wonder why Athanasius was so passionate and so persistent about what might seem to be an abstract theological point. Yet we can appreciate the energy of his zeal if we realize that he perceived the deep connection between the mystery of the Trinity and the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption.
Athanasius’s conviction about the Trinity was inseparable from his conviction about the Christian event and its significance for the life of man. Through the incarnation and redemption, God has made it possible for us to share in His very life. Our union with the Word made flesh gives us a participation in the Divine life. This is the great patristic teaching on deification (“theosis”): God became man so that men might become “gods”—that is, adopted sons of the Father.
Athanasius perceived the radical implications of Arius’s theories: if the one who became incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary was not fully Divine, how could he possibly give us a participation in the Divine life? In the Arian system, the magnificent destiny of the Christian man comes crashing to the ground. The one who walked the earth, who became our friend, who gave us his flesh to eat and his blood to drink, was merely another creature like us. God has not shown us His face nor invited us into his friendship. He remains a stranger to us.
Thus Athanasius declares: “the Son of God became Son of Man, so that the sons of man, that is, of Adam, might become sons of God. The Word begotten of the Father from on high, inexpressibly, inexplicably, incomprehensibly and eternally, is He that is born in time here below, of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, so that those who are in the first place born here below might have a second birth from on high, that is, of God.” Moreover, if the Holy Spirit is not fully God, how can he possibly transform us into the likeness of God? “If the Holy Spirit were a creature, there could be no communion of God with us through Him. On the contrary, we would be joined to a creature, and we would be foreign to the divine nature, as having nothing in common with it…If by participation in the Spirit we are made partakers in the divine nature…it cannot be doubted that His is the nature of God.”
Thus for Athanasius, the full co-eternal divinity of the Word and the Holy Spirit was not only a truth about the mystery of God; it was also a matter of life or death for man—it was a truth decisive for the human vocation. Only the Divine Word made flesh divinizes His brothers and sisters in the flesh. If Christ is anything less than God, then the gates of heaven are closed and man is still in exile from his eternal home. The comfortable rationalism of Arius, in the end, robbed Christianity of its very heart.