Arius and Athanasius: … what was each trying to accomplish?
Arius was trying to do two things. First, by emphasizing Jesus’ traditional identification with Philo’s Logos–Craftsman, Arius was trying to preserve inviolate the sense of the utter unknowability and inaccessibility of the “One” beyond all ousía. We needed a mediator precisely because we could not contemplate the “One” directly and by our own lights; “God” was beyond us. Looking at Jesus we would be content with a human model and we could let “God” be whatever unknown thing “he” was and thus the correct relationships would be maintained. Second, as a corollary, he was out to preserve the humanity of Jesus, and thus protect him as a human role model and teacher of human wisdom against a tendency to have him absorbed into the unknowable Father and thus made irrelevant to a humankind who needed a shepherd they could see and follow.
Athanasius, for his part, was committed to what Christianity had always claimed was the epic achievement of Jesus: that he broke down the walls of separation between us and “God” and brought “God” near. Jesus forged an intimate connection with the Godhead by grafting us into his own flesh. For Athanasius this intimacy was only secondarily relational. It was first and foremost metaphysical. We participate in the life of God not primarily through obedience, nor even by admiration and love, but we actually become “flesh and blood” members of the “body” of God — sharing his ousía and its immortality — because the ousía of Jesus IS the same ousía as the Father. Morality is a derivative: since we are being “metaphysically” divinized we are expected to behave like “God.”
For Athanasius, if theosis, “divinization,” was going to occur, homoousía had to function in two directions simultaneously. Jesus had to be homoousios with “God” and the human being had to be homoousios with Jesus. The Incarnation was a bridge. It meant that ultimately we were homoousios with God. To share ousía with the source of LIFE was to achieve immortality.
Athanasius’ premise, however, was the same as Arius:’ the high God was transcendent, remote, inaccessible, alienated from us and it was Jesus’ epic achievement to bring him near. For Athanasius that meant in his own flesh; Jesus had to be homoousios — “God” — to do that.
But consider: if the premise is false, i.e., if “God” is not remote and inaccessible, the rationale for everything that follows from it, disappears. Anyone who reads the gospels will immediately recognize that Jesus’ Jewish message contradicted the very premises that drove the Arian dispute. There was no infinite gap between “God” the Father and us. Jesus taught that “God” was our father … loved us … was near to us … clothed us like the lilies of the field … cherished every hair on our heads … mourned every sparrow that fell from the sky … ran to us when we were still far off … . If Athanasius honestly felt that he needed the homoousios to bring “God” close, he never really heard what Jewish Jesus was saying.
In the context of a mindset that considered the high “God” remote and inaccessible and humankind hopelessly alienated, making Jesus the high “God” had an effect that was, in hindsight, entirely predictable. Instead of bringing “God” near, it made Jesus remote and inaccessible and took from us one who was once our brother.
Athanasius’ argument in the decades of polemics subsequent to the Council was that the homoousios guaranteed theosis, “divinization” and thus immortality. It was a notion that was given deep mystical applications later on. Fifty years after the Council Gregory of Nyssa will describe theosis as an ever deepening process whereby we are borne into the unfathomable heart of the self-existent Godhead by our identification with the risen flesh of Christ-God. “Salvation,” in his view, is not simply a “state of safety,” it is an endless ecstatic activity totally engaged at each “present moment” in exploration — a continuous mind-expanding adventure that begins right here and now and continues in an unpredictable creative newness for all eternity. Christianity is a relationship to LIFE that implies endless living, not a morbid, static “non-condemnation.” The key word is “implies.” Immortality was a secondary and derived feature of this conception, the primary focus was the connection to LIFE itself.
Dodd in The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel has a lengthy commentary dedicated to showing how John in his gospel clearly distinguished these same two aspects of “eternal life” and emphasized the priority of relationship to LIFE in the here and now.
In the dialogue preceding the raising of Lazarus the evangelist appears to be contrasting the popular eschatology of Judaism and primitive Christianity [life after death] with the doctrine which he wishes to propound.
That “doctrine,” Dodd goes on to say, is implied in Jesus’ expansion of Martha’s statement of belief in the “resurrection on the last day.”
The implication is that the believer is already “living” in a pregnant sense which excludes the possibility of ceasing to live. In other words, the “resurrection” of which Jesus has spoken is something which takes place before bodily death and has for its result the possession of eternal life [LIFE] here and now. … The evangelist agrees with popular Christianity that the believer will enter into eternal life at the general resurrection, but for him this is a truth of lesser importance than the fact that the believer already enjoys eternal life, and the former is a consequence of the latter. … the “death” which is in view is rather the mode of existence of unenlightened humanity. … For John, this present enjoyment of eternal life has become the controlling and all-important conception.
We might go so far as to say that if it were possible for us to contemplate the resurrection on the last day as a fait accompli, it would still be, as in the raising of Lazarus, no more than a sēmeion [sign, symbol] of the truth that Christ is himself both resurrection and life — the giver of life and the conqueror of death.
But for Athanasius, guaranteeing Jesus’ divine status was motivated by much more practical interests. He was convinced that our metaphysical state prior to baptism was a state of insuperable alienation from the source of LIFE and necessarily incurred death. It was not at root a moral condition of malicious will or weakness of character. It was the way things were. Death was due to a corrupt nature. It was “science.” And the “scientists” at Nicaea were not intellectualizing, they were being stone practical: they were talking about conquering death. The fact that there was death in the world proved to Platonic scientists that an unnatural “fall” had taken place. Death could not possibly be natural … for we are spirit and spirit cannot dis-integrate. It was a metaphysical reality that only the Creator could change. This was Platonic science.
Now, it is important to ask, what exactly was this state of alienation? The background all along was the Platonic belief that human nature was intrinsically corrupt due to a pre-historic fall of spirit into grubby matter. This was the metaphysical assumption which the Greco-Roman educated classes accepted as scientific truth. “Original Sin” was its reprise in a Judeo-Christian idiom. By Athanasius’ time the story of Genesis had already been retrofitted to accommodate Plato’s “science.” The key factor is that Platonism had made this “fall” metaphysical, not moral or relational, and its sign was physical death. “Original Sin” was given the same role. It was not principally moral, it was metaphysical. To turn things around, being good was not good enough … you had to be reborn as a new kind of entity, and Christianity provided that rebirth because it was the source of LIFE himself — the Logos — who was incorporating you into his “body” in baptism.
Plato generated a cultural illusion that death was unnatural, a sign that something was wrong with nature. What makes this all so bizarre is that every other life-form on the planet dies naturally. That undeniable fact never made a dent in the insane Platonic belief that death in our case was unnatural. If we are not struck by the obvious delusional nature of this conviction, it is only because we ourselves are culturally engulfed in it.
Christianity for all its historic importance, was only a minor subset of the overall Platonic two world, spirit-matter, life-after-death fairy tale that has characterized our civilization since at least 350 bce and maybe earlier. It is the peculiar legacy of Greek “science.” It’s good to remind ourselves that the majority of the ancient Mediterranean religions — the many Mysteries, the Hermetists, the Gnostics, the Manicheans, the Mithraists — that existed at the time Greek Christianity was born, all shared that vision. This was intensified in Late Antiquity.
… the religion of the age was to a great degree other-worldly and escapist. Despairing of true happiness for themselves in this life or of the triumph of peace, justice and prosperity on earth, men turned their thoughts to a future life beyond the grave … In the mystery religions … the dominant motif was to seek assurance for a life after death. … In philosophical circles there was a strong tendency to regard the material world as inherently evil and the body “a cloak of darkness, a web of ignorance, a prop of evil, a bond of corruption, living death, a conscious corpse, a portable tomb.”
These religions were all dualist, and they all believed that we were spirits that should not have to die. Christianity was only one of Platonism’s many cultic forms; it displaced all the others only because of the single fortuitous event of becoming the religion of Constantine, the Roman emperor. The empire carried it to all of Europe and the European nations spread it to their colonies throughout the world. It was a local myth that enjoyed a global expansion by sheer historical accident.
The much touted quest of Athanasius for “mystical” union with God is overstated by Williams. Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, like so many Christian apologists, is trying desperately to find some core values in the Nicene formulas that will give them a transhistorical and transcultural significance. Whatever mysticism Athanasius was trying to preserve he based on mechanics and hydraulics that were designed to work within an ancient physics and cosmology. He was grounding his mysticism on the science of his times. It turned the Church’s sacraments into magic talismans, objective “instruments” which infallibly produced a metaphysical transformation “infusing” humans with “divinity” which would eliminate death in their case, individual by individual. Moral and relational changes were secondary to these physical/metaphysical changes and were thought to follow naturally. The entire picture was sheer fantasy, and it easily sidelined the here and now relationship to “that in which we live and move and have our being.” Homoousios was an essential part of a self-interested solution to a terror-of-death generated by the “immortality mania” characteristic of a Platonic universe. As Dodd said: “Hellenistic society … was haunted by the spectacle of phthora [decay], the process by which all things pass into nothingness, and which engulfs all human existence.”
But if we are sensitive to these underlying Greek aspirations represented by Athanasius we can see the analogue between what he thought he was guaranteeing with the homoousios and the religious aspirations of all humankind which seeks “union” with its source and sustainer naturally. The Nicene controversy was born of the unresolvable inconsistencies of the Platonic view of the world. By attempting to resolve those inconsistencies in Platonic terms it locked Christianity even more inextricably into the Platonic Universe. But the Platonic Universe does not exist. They did not know that in the fourth century, but in the 21st century we do. What needed to be said to guarantee union with the “source of existence” in a Platonic Universe, does not need to be said to guarantee that same union in ours.
We can see by the visions of both Arius and Athanasius how they were utilizing familiar features of their common Platonic world view to support the relational priorities that they each saw made possible by the Christ event. That imaginative process resulting in two hundred years of violent disagreement and division eventually settled nothing. And I contend there is no way it could have. For the only reason they saw their respective positions as incompatible was that they were looking at them primarily as objective scientific facts rather than relational goals. The relational goals of each were legitimately and traditionally Christian. Why couldn’t they see that? … because they were mesmerized by what they thought were the facts. Arius was saying that because Jesus, factually, was a creature, to worship him as “God” was idolatry: it sapped our sense of the awesomeness of God and diluted our worship. Athanasius was saying if Jesus were not in fact God, theosis could not take place, and there would be no resurrection. The philosophical world-view that they both shared had the familiar fixed features of Philo’s Platonism which determined the facts of the case. And they each “worked backwards” from their preferred relational effect to what had to be the “scientific” cause in the Platonic universe. They were interested in the facts.
This was not their doing. Right from apostolic times the use of Philo’s Platonic “facts” to “explain” the Christian worldview to Greeks in their own terms, eventually got out of hand and supplanted the primacy of the relationship. Jesus’ Jewish message had no such complexity. It was relational in the most simple, uncomplicated terms imaginable. Love “God” and love people. Nicaea could have reinforced that message, but it did not. Nicaea might have confirmed the validity of the relational goals promoted by each side and left the expression of it in the form of the liturgical metaphors where it had been safely kept for 250 years. But even if that were their intention, would Constantine have let them do it? I don’t think so. The Emperor wanted a religion that gave him “facts” and “certain knowledge,” a basis for demanding subordination and behavioral compliance, not some symbolic invitation to embrace the darkness.
But religion is born and thrives in darkness. We are related in blood and bone to what we neither know nor understand. Religion does not attempt to escape that ignorance; it revels in it. Ignorance feeds the sense of the awesome mystery of existence … and religion embraces it! Religion’s “knowledge” of “God” is not scientific, it is biblical: it is carnal knowledge — knowledge that comes from the intimate surrender of relationship, not science. To science religion is darkness.
Today, we have an entirely different world-view from fourth century Platonism, the “science” of its day. But If their relational goals — an awe-filled relationship with the unknowable invisible source of cosmic LIFE, triumph over the fear of death, solidarity among suffering human beings, “redemption” from a sense of alienation from ourselves and the cosmos that spawned us, the retention of Jewish Jesus as role model and teacher of human wisdom — are important for us, we will seek to ground those relational choices in the world-view that we share with one another today. The “facts,” the science has changed; but the relationships are heuristic: they guide the enquiry. Those relationships are what we have chosen them to be; it is what we think we are. And through our cultural tools like religion we become who we think we are. We cannot pursue our relational goals in the scientific world-view of Arius and Athanasius. It was theirs, it is not ours; we have our own. But if the relational goals of the Judeo-Christian tradition — love of the Source of our spectacular universe and love for one another — are to remain the same, we have more than the right, we have the obligation to understand, ground and celebrate those goals in terms of the science / philosophy of our times.
There is no sense even thinking about eliminating scientific world-views altogether. The quest for some kind of “fact-free” other-worldly “religious” approach to this business of religious relationships is an illusion. Relationship is not a theoretical exercise. Relationship cannot occur in a world that does not exist.
We can only understand the doctrinal tradition we have inherited from the distant past by understanding the world-view of those that created it, which in the case of traditional Christianity is not ours. And we can only assess the validity of the relationships that their efforts envisioned by testing them against the demands of our view of reality.
These things are ours to decide.
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
 Williams, op.cit,. p.26.
 Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, Bk II, #219 ff.
 Dodd, pp. 144-150 and 364-366
 ibid pp. 148-9 (emphasis mine)
 Ibid., p. 366
 Jones, op.cit., p. 41 (sic. He quotes someone without giving the reference.)
 Augustine’s claim that the centuries of slaughter, treachery, rape, plunder, slavery and cultural obliteration that went into the creation of the Roman Empire was, all along, “God’s plan” for the universal expansion of Christianity, is the absurd extension of this mega-Myth. And if it weren’t for our cultural blindness such an outrageous claim would be considered self-serving on the very face of it; it was a contradiction of the character of “God.” Like “Original Sin” and “life after death” it’s part of the artificial scenery — the stage backdrop against which we watch this “drama” we have created for ourselves unfold.
 Dodd, op.cit., p.366
 The immortality of the soul was not a generalized belief among the earliest Christians because Platonism, which was the ideology that proposed it, did not dominate Mediterranean culture until centuries later. One’s personal resurrection was considered a special gift that resulted from being incorporated into the death and resurrection of Christ. For the Greeks, man was mortal; only the gods were immortal. In his tract On the Incarnation, Athanasius shows residual signs of that older belief, and his desperate insistence on the homoousios can be understood as a function of it. Effectively for Athanasius, if Jesus were not “God,” being incorporated into him would not guarantee immortality.