Athanasius: The problem with an understandable God
One of the most important questions for us all to come to terms with is “Who is God and what is he like?” Imagine a room. In it there is a Muslim, a Jehovah’s witness and a Christian. They are all seeking to answer the question
A Muslim might say “Allāh is the all-powerful and all-knowing creator, sustainer, ordainer and judge of everything in existence. Allah is one.” Jehovahs witnesses would say “God is the Creator and Supreme Being”. Both would agree Jesus is not God. It would be easy for the Christian to feel on the defensive, they seem to have a much more rational God. Will the Christian give up on the Trinity? Does it matter much anyway?
1700 years ago one man helped the church to definitively answer these questions and see the beauty of what the bible clearly teaches.
Athanasius stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, “whole and undefiled,” when it looked as if all the civilised world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius—into one of those “sensible” synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen.
CS Lewis preface to on the incarnation by Athanasius
We are going to be spending the next few blogs getting to know Athanasius. Many people were drifting away from what the bible taught to follow the teaching of a guy called Arius. Arius taught a “sensible” religion which people liked because they could understand it:
“We acknowledge one God, who is alone ingenerate, alone eternal, alone without beginning, alone true, alone possessing immortality, alone wise, alone good, alone sovereign…” Arius
Like the Muslim and the Jehovah’s witness Arius stressed that God is by himself and therefore, logically, Jesus must have been created and isn’t really God:
“Before [Jesus] was.. created.. he did not exist. We are persecuted because we say “the son has a beginning, but God is without beginning.” …And this we say because he is neither part of God nor derived from any substance.” Arius
Athanasius saw right through this. He committed his life to exposing the horror and consequence of believing Arius’ “sensible” religion. Athanasius exposed that the “god” Arius was arguing for could not reveal himself, he could not save us and we could not enter into a loving relationship with him. More on that to come…
Go back to the room. “Who is God and what is he like?”
Arius loved having a pop at the idea of God the Son being eternal. He used to try and argue Christians around to his position by saying “Did your kids exist before you got pregnant? No. So the son of God must have been made. There was when he was not” Don’t be so stupid to believe the trinity, it doesn’t make any sense. This is how Athanasius responded:
[Arius teaches women] ‘Had you a son before bearing? Now, as you had not, so neither was the Son of God before His generation.’ In such language do the disgraceful men sport and revel, and liken God to men, pretending to be Christians, but changing God’s glory into an image made like to corruptible man. ..When they thus speak, they should have inquired of an architect, whether he can build without materials; and if he cannot, whether it follows that God could not make the universe without materials.
Look back at that last sentence. Can an architect build without materials? No. Well if God is just like us then he can’t have created the universe out of nothing! Arius argument might seem compelling, but it is foolish because God is different from his creation. We cannot work back from us to him to understand him.
Athanasius exposed a common error in trying to answer the question “Who is God and what is he like?”. We look in the wrong places to answer that question and so imagine up the wrong God.
“It is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate.” Athanasius
All “sensible” religions work out who God is by looking at Gods works and working back to say God is removed, powerful and distant. This is the wrong. I can see why people are turning to atheism if this is what they think God is like.
Athanasius, says we need to start in the right place. We need to start with Jesus if we want to answer the question “Who is God and what is he like?” If we start with Jesus we will realise that God can be known intimately and we can call him father. This is much, much better than anything we can make up or understand.