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A Note on the Significance of Athanasius’s Statement: “…of one substance with the Father…”


The Contenders: Bishop Arius (256 — 336)
Bishop Athanasius (296 — 373)


The Arian Heresy:
– there are not three “persons” in the Godhead, co-eternal and co-essential, but one only, the “Father”.
– the Son is only a creature, made out of nothing like all creatures.
– the Son is called “God” only figuratively, only by an extension of language.
– the Son is not Son by nature, but only by adoption: God foresaw his merits.
– the Son’s creatureliness is unique: he is peculiarly associated with the Father, but his nature is not that of the Father.

The apostles attest that Jesus Christ was sent by God, was from God, and is of God the Father. What does this mean?

We must look at two heresies that surfaced in the early church (and have been found in the church ever after.)
EBIONITISM: Jesus Christ is only apparently divine.
DOCETISM: Jesus Christ is only apparently human.

The Ebionites maintained:
– that Jesus is the man chosen for a special divine sonship through the descent of the Holy Spirit upon him at his baptism; i.e., JC is not “begotten” but rather “created”.

– that JC is not God-Incarnate, but rather something closer to a prophet (albeit the supreme prophet) indwelt by the Spirit.

– that there is no internal relation between the Father and the Son, but merely an external, vocational relation that Jesus fulfilled in doing the work of the Messiah.

The Ebionites sought to say how God was in Christ so as to recognize Christ’s uniqueness (according to the church’s understanding), without compromising the transcendence of God.
However, they insisted that JC does not embody in his own person the real person or the saving activity of God among humankind.

Therefor JC is not the focus of faith (as he plainly is in the NT); rather, the focus of faith is that Father to whom Jesus directed us in his teaching. (Jesus ultimately points away from himself to God, never to himself as God — said the Ebionites.)

The Docetists sought to explain how God became man in JC so as to give full weight to his divine reality, yet without compromising the unchangeability of God through union with human flesh.

Result: (i) the human nature and the suffering of Christ were treated as unreal, (ii) the gospel was reduced from the saving word to the merely ideational, (iii) the objective and historical reality of Christ was undermined.

Since docetic christology can never affirm that in JC God has taken upon himself the human consequences of sin and absorbed these into himself so as to effect atonement (i.e., that in Jesus Christ God and man are inseparably united for our salvation), therefore docetic christology always tends toward speculation or mythological constructs projected onto God.

Note: both Ebionite and Docetic christologies posit an antithesis between divine truth and physical (historical) event. (The apostles, on the contrary, insist that “The Word become flesh, full of grace and truth…”.)
– in both Ebionite and Docetic christologies JC is contrasted with God or placed alongside God, and this the NT never does! According to the apostles, Jesus Christ is the effectual presence of God.

– if JC were not God, he couldn’t reveal God to us, for only through God may we know God.
– if JC were not man, he couldn’t be our saviour, for only as one with us is God savingly at work in our actual human existence.

(To say the same thing)
– if JC wasn’t really God then there was no divine reality in anything he said or did.
– if JC wasn’t really man then what God did in him has no saving relevance for human beings.

Arianism contradicts both of these essential poles, and puts forth both Ebionite and Docetic christologies; i.e., JC is neither unambiguously human with our humanity nor unambiguously God with God’s divinity: JC is a sort of “third thing”.

Athanasius, seeing what Arius was expounding, wrote, “begotten of the Father, only begotten, from the substance of the Father…true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father…”. Just to be sure that everyone knew what was meant, the proponents of the “homoousios” (“same substance”) attached a canon to the Nicene Creed: “It is anathema to say (i) `There was when he (the Son) was not.’ (ii) `Before being begotten he was not.’ (iii) `He came into existence out of nothing.’

In other words, the crucial section of the Nicene Creed mirrored the apostles’ insistence that faith in Christ coincides perfectly with faith in God.

Arius had taught:
– because of the uncompromisable transcendence of God, the being of God is unknowable and incommunicable. Therefore there can be no Son who is eternally of the same nature as the Father himself.

– like all things created out of nothing, the being of the Son is different from the being of the Father. Therefore the Father is incomprehensible to the Son, and therefore the Son cannot have or mediate any authentic knowledge of God, since the Son can only know what the Son has a capacity to know.

– while the Son is a creature, he is unlike all other creatures: the Son is neither properly divine nor properly creaturely.

Arius insisted: “JC is a Son of the Father only by an act of the Father’s will.”
Athanasius insisted: “JC is the Son of the Father from his very being, essential nature and reality as God. “God, in that he ever is, ever is the Father of the Son.”

homoousios versus homoiousios

The Greek letter iota — i — is the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet. How important is it? What is the difference between asking someone to run your business and asking her to ruin it?

(“homo” in Greek means “same’; in Latin “homo” means “man”!)
(“ousia” in Greek means “being”.)
(“homoousios” = “of the same being/nature/substance”; “homoiousios” = “of similar being/nature/substance.”)

The question answered by the Nicene Creed (Athanasius): is the Son of the same nature as the Father, or merely like the Father?” Plainly, if only “like”, the next question is “How much like? A little bit like or a lot like?”

To be sure, “homoousios”is not itself a biblical term. Nevertheless, said Athanasius, “It breathes the spirit of scripture.” In other words, what is really important isn’t the actual words of scripture but the meanings which they convey and the realities to which they point.

Because of the truth of “homoousios”, whatever we say of the Father we can say of the Son, except “Father”; and whatever we say of the Son we can say of the Father, except “Son”.

Any detraction from the Son detracts from the Father, since to deny the deity of the Son is to deny that God is eternally and intrinsically Father. (I.e., the Father is Father in that he is the eternal Father of the eternal Son, not because he is the Father of believers.)

The “homoousios” was a bulwark against both unitarianism (God is eternally triune) and polytheism (because the Father and the Son have the same nature, the Son isn’t a second deity; and because the Father doesn’t need the world to be Father — or to be love — pagan deities tended to need the world to be who they were.)


The Gospel-Significance of “Homoousios”

The gospel significance of “h.” is highlighted by one question: “What is implied if F. and S. are not of one being?”

(i) God is utterly unknowable, since (said Arius) no creaturely being can mediate knowledge of God. To say the same thing: it then cannot be held that there is oneness between what the gospel presents as the revelation of God and God himself. “Revelation” would be no more than human fantasizing projected onto “God”.

(ii) The gospel is not the self-communication of God, nor the self-bestowal of God. (I.e., God reveals and bestows “something”, but not himself.)

(iii) In JC God has not condescended to us, and his love (so-called) has stopped short of becoming one with us.

(iv) There is no ontological — and therefore no epistemological — connexion between the love of Jesus and the love of God. The supreme mockery then is that God is said to love us in Jesus, but God is not actually that love in himself. (According to the apostles, to believe in JC is to believe in God himself, not merely in a truth about God.)
There is — or might be — a dark, unknown God behind the back of JC. Athanasius insisted, “The knowledge of the F. through the S., and of the S. from the F., is one and the same.”

(v) The acts of JC are not the acts of God. I.e., if JC is not God, then there is no final authority or validity for anything he said or did for human beings. “No creature can ever be saved by a creature.” (Athanasius)
The giver of grace and the gift of grace are not the same.

(vi) Grace is a created medium between God and man. (In truth, grace is the self-giving of God in the incarnate one, in whom giver and gift are indissolubly one. Otherwise grace is regarded as a detachable quality, a “thing”.)

(vii) On the last day we shall be judged by a God who is arbitrary in that he bears no relation to JC and all that the latter stood for.

(viii) What Jesus does on the cross is simply a judicial transaction that punishes a third party. What Jesus does on the cross is not done by him as representative man, and therefore no provision is made for the humanity of all humankind.

(Athanasius insisted that “The whole Christ (God and man) became a curse for us.” I.e., to save us God cursed our fallen humanity and cursed himself in cursing it. “It was not just a man who suffered and died for us, but the Lord as man; not just the life of a man that was offered to save us, but the life of God as man.” Athanasius’ pithiest statement in this regard was, “Our resurrection is stored up in the cross.”)

Karl Barth maintained that at the time of the Nicene controversy the Athanasian “homoousios” was the most significant theological statement since the apostles.

What do we think? Where is the church today?

In the later 500s Gregory of Nyssa journeyed to Constantinople and found all one hundred congregations there to be Arian. His immediate remark wasn’t a lament or a grumble or a wail; it was, “I have work to do.”