Athanasius and the hand of Arsenius

In the fourth century a man lived in Alexandria, in Egypt, whose name was Athanasius. He was a leader in the Church, eventually becoming bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius defended the Christian faith from heretics who wanted to change the Church’s teachings. However, his leadership was controversial, and four times he was expelled from Alexandria by decree of the Emperor.

Alexander was bishop in Alexandria before Athanasius. At that time, a presbyter in the same city, a man named Arius, reasoned his way to a new understanding of God. Arius concluded that only God the Father is eternal and almighty; he taught that the Father created God the Son and then created everything else that exists through the Son. “There was a time,” Arius taught, “when the Son did not exist.” This teaching was condemned by Alexander, but Arius persuaded many Christians to believe his teaching, which led to contention in the Christian Church.

When the Emperor Constantine heard of this trouble, he called for a meeting of Christian leaders to study the Bible and resolve the issue. More than 250 bishops attended (the traditional number is 318, but other numbers are also published), along with other church leaders. Athanasius was at the time the leading deacon from Alexandria, and he was one of the chief speakers at the meeting. After being exhorted by the Emperor to come to an agreement, and after praying and studying the Bible, the meeting produced a statement that described Jesus as “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” All but two bishops in attendance agreed with this statement, and many Christians still speak these words today when they gather to worship and to learn about God.

When Alexander died, Athanasius was named bishop in Alexandria. But Arius still had many supporters who hated Athanasius. They went to the Emperor, complaining that Athanasius had collected a high tax in Egypt and had given the money to a man plotting to overthrow and replace Constantine as Emperor. Constantine commanded Athanasius to appear before him and questioned him about the charge, but Athanasius was able to prove his innocence. This only angered his enemies further, and they accused Athanasius of other severe crimes. This time Constantine called for a church council; but Athanasius, hearing that the council would be held in Caesarea—where he had many enemies, including the bishop—refused to attend. His enemies used this to persuade Constantine that Athanasius must be guilty of some crime, and so the Emperor called for another council, this time in Tyre, and Athanasius was directly commanded to be present.

In Tyre the enemies of Athanasius presented a woman who claimed that Athanasius had lodged at her house and had raped her. When he arrived, Athanasius entered the meeting accompanied by a friend named Timotheus. When Athanasius was called upon to reply to the charge, he remained silent and Timotheus spoke. He said to the woman, “Have I, O woman, ever conversed with you, or have I entered your house?” She pointed her finger at Timotheus and screamed, “It was you who robbed me of my virginity; it was you who stripped me of my chastity.” Athanasius and Timotheus revealed their rule, and Athanasius was thus vindicated.

The two men wanted to question the woman further to learn who had paid or persuaded her to accuse Athanasius. Before they could do so, however, another charge was raised against Athanasius. His enemies said that he had murdered a bishop named Arsenius, removed his hand, and used it to work magic spells. These opponents had earlier persuaded Arsenius to go into hiding. They even had a box with a mummified hand which they claimed to have taken from Athanasius. Arsenius remained hidden for a while as the rumor was spread about his magical hand, so many people had heard this rumor before the hearing in Tyre. But by this time Arsenius had gotten bored with hiding, had left his hiding place, and had been found and recognized by friends of Athanasius. They therefore spoke up during the council, asking if anyone was present who would recognize Arsenius. Several people said they could, and Arsenius was produced. To add to the suspense, Arsenius was wearing a robe with long sleeves that concealed his hands. Athanasius asked him to show his hands, and Arsenius slowly showed the group first one hand and then the other. Athanasius then asked if Arsenius had a third hand which Athanasius could have stolen from him; the answer, of course, was no.

Even after all this, the enemies of Athanasius further accused him of threatening to cut off the grain shipment from Egypt to Rome. At this charge, Constantine ruled that Athanasius had to be exiled from Alexandria and take up residence in Treves, a city now called Trier, in Germany. This Athanasius did. After Constantine had died (about two years after the sentence exiling Athanasius), his son Constantinus recalled Athanasius, revealing that his father had exiled him, not as punishment, but as protection from his enemies. Athanasius returned to Alexandria, to the great joy of most of the Christians there. But on three more occasions he was exiled by decree of the Emperor. The final occasion, the order was not merely exile, but execution; this order was given by Julian the Apostate. Athanasius found a boat and began traveling by river away from the city. The officer appointed to execute the bishop followed in another boat. Somehow one of the friends of Athanasius got to him and warned him that he was being chased. Athanasius turned his boat around and began to head back toward the city. He approached the boat of the officer, who called to him, asking, “How far off is Athanasius?” “Not far,” the bishop answered. The officer continued the pursuit, and Athanasius returned to the city, where he hid safely until Julian died in battle against the Persians.

Athanasius was bishop of Alexandria for forty-five years, including the seventeen years that he was exiled from the city. He died peacefully in bed in his own home, roughly seventy-five years old. His feast day is observed May 2. J.

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Historic Perspective

Jesus Christ established the Holy Christian Church by his preaching, his ministry, and his authority. He selected apostles and sent them to proclaim his message of repentance and redemption through his sacrifice and his resurrection. Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church. After Jesus died and rose again, he sent the Holy Spirit to his Church, and his apostles began preaching in Jerusalem and Judea. Their mission expanded to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Traveling through the Roman Empire, the apostles founded congregations faithful to Jesus Christ and his message. Congregations were established even outside the Roman Empire in Ethiopia, India, and other places.

As the apostles wrote the books that were gathered as the New Testament, they countered distortions of their message. One distortion was that of the legalists or judaizers, who tried to include laws and regulations in the Church’s message of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Another distortion was that of the Gnostics, who tried to blend Greek philosophy with the message of the Church. Platonists and Stoics thought that the ideal world consisted of mind or spirit. They saw the physical world as tainted and evil. Gnostics declared that the world had been made by an inferior god, but that sparks of divinity had fallen into the world, becoming people. They changed the message of Jesus and the apostles, denying that Jesus had taken on a human body, that he had suffered and died on a cross to redeem sinners, and that he rose again and promises resurrection to all his people. The apostles and later Christian writers rejected these false teachings.

For three hundred years, Christianity and various Gnostic movements coexisted with many other religions in the Roman Empire. The Romans were always happy to add another god, but they did not wish any god to claim exclusive power and authority. Christians were often ignored, sometimes tolerated, and sometimes persecuted for their rejection of other gods. When Constantine came to power, he made Christianity legal and respectable, even declaring himself to be a Christian. Church buildings were constructed and Christians preached openly. Constantine discovered, though, that two competing versions of Christianity were being proclaimed. One said that Jesus, as the Son of God, is eternal and almighty, equal to the Father in every way. The other said that Jesus, as the Son of God, was created by the Father and is not almighty and not equal to the Father. Constantine called for a council of Christian leaders to settle this dispute. They met, prayed, studied the Bible, discussed what it says, and issued a document which declares that Jesus is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds were made, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Being of one substance with the Father….” Anyone who claimed to be a Christian and denied these statements was labeled a heretic.

This council set a precedent for the Christian Church. Over the following centuries, additional councils gathered to consider other disputes within the Church, most of which concerned the two natures of Christ (the relationship of his divinity and his humanity). After prayer, Bible study, and discussion, Truth was distinguished from heresy, and statements were written to provide Christians a clearer understanding of Truth. In these councils, church leaders generally were treated as equals, but the greatest respect was given to the church leaders from five cities: Jerusalem, Antioch in Syria, Alexandria in Egypt, Rome, and Constantinople.

Three hundred years after Constantine, a great challenge to Christianity arose in Arabia. Muhammad (according to Muslim tradition) was puzzled by the many versions of religion represented in the city of Mecca, including various groups of Christians who called one another heretics. Instead of studying the Bible for himself, he turned to prayer and meditation. One day a being of light appeared to Muhammad. Claiming to be the angel Gabriel, he promised Muhammad messages from God. For the rest of his life, Muhammad received and shared those messages, which are gathered together as the Quran. Like the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, the Quran says that there is only one God, who is the Creator of all that exists. This God sends prophets to the world, telling people how to live their lives and threatening judgment and punishment on those who break his rules. The commandments of the Quran are much like those found in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. Even some historical accounts from those books are reported also in the Quran. Jesus, though, is labeled a prophet and no more than a prophet. The Quran declares that God has no Son. It requires every person to be his or her own savior rather than looking to Jesus as Savior.

This new religion emerged from Arabia with military power, conquering lands from India to Spain, including the cities of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria. Christians and Jews were tolerated in Muslim Lands as “peoples of the book,” but they paid higher taxes than Muslims and were ineligible for government jobs. Many Christians converted to Islam. Meanwhile, Christianity survived in Europe, in the Byzantine Empire, and in pockets elsewhere in Africa and Asia, even as far away as China, as well as a minority in the Muslim empire.

The two remaining centers of Christianity, Rome and Constantinople, grew increasingly suspicious of each other. They debated whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, or from the Father alone. They differed in determining when to celebrate Christmas and Easter. They differed over the place of religious artwork, or icons, in the Church. Most significantly, though, they debated about authority. The patriarch in Constantinople remained subject to the Byzantine emperor, but the pope in Rome even crowned emperors. Their debates peaked in 1054, when the pope declared that anyone who denies that the pope is the Vicar of Christ and the head of the church on earth is a heretic, while the patriarch declared that anyone who calls the pope the Vicar of Christ and the head of the church on earth is a heretic. Those who agreed with the pope called themselves Catholic Christians, while those who agreed with the patriarch called themselves Orthodox Christians, labels which remain to this day.

Over the centuries, the Church endured times of corruption and scandal and times of reformation. In the 1200s, heresies were battled (such as the Albigensian, or Cathari, movement, which claimed that believers could stop sinning in this world and no longer needed the Church and its sacraments), while successful reforms were led by Dominic and Francis, among others. These reformers created new orders in the Church which established universities in the major cities of Europe. After a century of political turmoil—which at one point included three men claiming to be the true pope—the Church became less flexible, condemning as heretics such reformers as Jan Huss and Martin Luther.

The reformation that faced this hostility led to a fracturing of the Church. Later waves of reform created further divisions. By the twentieth century, hundreds of denominations had been created. They were labeled in various ways: some for individual reformers (Lutheran, Mennonite, Wesleyan), some for unique teachings or practices (Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal), and some for their forms of organization (Congregational, Episcopal, Presbyterian). Many carried labels which rightly belong to all true Christians (Church of God, Church of Christ, Christian Church, Apostolic, Evangelical, Orthodox, Catholic). Often those that are not called Catholic or Orthodox are lumped together as Protestant in spite of their many differences. Meanwhile, many of the heresies rejected by the early Church’s councils were revived. Russellites (now called Jehovah’s Witnesses) teach that Jesus, as the Son of God, is created, neither eternal nor almighty. Many Protestant groups teach new versions of Nestorianism and Pelagianism. Legalism is rampart among Christians. Newly rediscovered Gnostic writings are described as if they have equal weight to the apostolic writings of the New Testament.

Overlaying this history of the Church is the history of change regarding communication. Sets of scrolls used two thousand years ago were replaced by the codex, a set of flat sheets attached along one edge (commonly referred to as a book). Handwritten texts were superseded by printed texts when the Chinese technology of the printing press was adapted for European literature. Wood-pulp paper replaced cotton-rag paper, making books and other publications far less expensive. Electronic communication through computers and the internet, along with electronic books, are but the latest wave in the variety of ways that God’s Word is shared (as well as various interpretations of that Word).

Throughout the history of the Church, Christian leaders have spoken strongly against heresies. Paul wrote harsh words about the legalists. Martin Luther was highly critical of the pope and those who supported him. Written communication in any form is hindered by the lack of facial expression, body language, and tone of voice which assists in spoken communication. This is especially true in the present age of electronic communication. As a result, sometimes discussions of doctrine deteriorate into mutual rejection and insults.

All of this is simply context to my upcoming post about how we speak to one another—and to the rest of the world—about God’s Truth. J.

Seven Mysteries of the Christian Church–Introduction

…according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight, making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forward in Christ… (Ephesians 1:7-9).

God wants to be known and loved by the people he has created. Yet God is far beyond human understanding; he is essentially unknowable. The mind of even the most saintly Christian falls short of comprehending the full identity of the Lord. The best a Christian can do in this lifetime is to accept the things God says about himself and to love the God revealed in his messages, even when God’s own descriptions seem to defy the best thinking his people can achieve.

In his letters, the apostle Paul sometimes mentioned the “mysteries” that had been entrusted to him. In modern thought, a mystery is a novel or movie about a crime that has been committed. In a modern mystery, a detective examines clues and eventually determines the truth about the crime and the person who committed that crime. Such mysteries are solved through the use of reason and logic. The detective succeeds because of his or her ability to comprehend what is seen and what he or she has been told. When Paul used the word “mystery,” he was not talking about puzzles that can be solved. The apostle used the word “mystery” in its earlier sense, meaning something that cannot be known until it is revealed.

You do not know my name until I tell you my name. You might, with careful and deliberate research, be able to find my name. Or, if you were with me, you might over time be able to guess my name. The easiest way for you to know my name, though, is for me to tell you my name, or for me to have it printed on the cover of a book. My name is a mystery that can be revealed, but the nature of the true God is an even greater mystery, something that can be known only when God chooses to reveal it to people.

Ancient Greek scientists and mathematicians were among the first people in the world to try to understand the world through reason and logic rather than through revealed messages of religion. These wise Greeks were determined to know how the world works, and they expected the world to make sense. One of their assumptions was that all numbers are related, and that every number that exists can be expressed as a ratio, or fraction, made of two other numbers. Any number that could not be expressed in that way was, in their opinion, “irrational.” As they studied the world around them, though, they found numbers that are irrational. If you divide the distance around a circle (the circumference) by the distance across the circle (the diameter), the result is irrational, a number that cannot be described as a ratio of two other numbers. If you divide the diagonal distance across a square by the length of any of the square’s sides, the result is another irrational number. Greek geometers had to accept the existence of numbers that their reason and logic labeled irrational.

Modern science has detected many things about the world around us that seem illogical and unreasonable. Light is a paradox: it acts like a stream of particles, but also like waves of energy. Most of the particles of which matter is made defy logical understanding. An electrical engineer can create a device powered by a circuit of moving electrons, but a nuclear physicist cannot identify just one electron or tell you where that electron is and how fast it is moving. The rules that govern objects large enough for us to see and hold do not apply to the tiny pieces of which those objects consist. Euclid’s laws of geometry and Newton’s laws of physics only match the world we observe; underneath the observed world lies a world that is very different, a world of paradox and mystery.

If the created world is full of paradox and mystery, then it comes as no surprise that the Creator is also a Being of paradox and mystery. The god who fits into human comprehension and understanding would be a poor and weak god, hardly deserving of human worship and praise. The nature of God is not beneath human reason and logic; the nature of God is far above human reason and logic. When his mysteries have been revealed, people can begin to use reason and logic to describe and discuss those mysteries. If God had not told us about himself, no philosopher or scientist could ever have invented him.

This is not to say that a Christian must abandon reason and logic to talk about God or to believe in him. Reason and logic are part of God’s creation just as the senses of sight and hearing and touch are created by God.  Christians are not called to believe the mysteries because they are absurd. Christians are called to believe the mysteries because they are true. In Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll reports this conversation between Alice and the White Queen:

“Now I’ll give you something to believe. I’m just one hundred and one, five months, and a day.”

“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.

“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again; draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said; one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Christians do not practice believing impossible things as the White Queen did. Christians accept the mysteries of the faith because they trust God. Their trusting relationship with God causes them and enables them to believe the paradoxes that the world calls irrational and unreasonable, because Christians know that God is bigger than our minds and bigger than the world which he created.

How do Christians know which mysteries to believe? God authorized certain messengers to tell his people what to believe. He sent Moses and the prophets to speak his messages and to put them into writing; then Jesus authorized the apostles to speak and to write about him. The authority of the prophets and the apostles comes from Jesus himself, so in the end Jesus has revealed the mysteries of the faith and has told his people what to believe.

In the early years of the Church, meetings were called to discuss these mysteries and to find ways to describe and discuss them in reasonable and logical ways. The creeds and confessions of the Christian Church are not meant to add anything to the Bible or to replace the Bible. Their purpose is to summarize the Bible so Christians can discuss the mysteries contained in the Bible. Creeds and confessions are used by Christians to teach others the Christian faith. They are used by Christians to speak to one another about what they believe. They are used by Christians to speak to God, saying aloud to him that we believe what God has told us about himself.

Creeds and confessions are used to describe the truth, and they also were written to identify errors. Some of the creeds even say that whoever does not believe the statements they contain is not truly a follower of Jesus Christ. As recently as one hundred years ago, a group of Christian preachers in the United States made a list of “fundamental” truths that they said are believed by every Christian. They went on to say that anyone who did not believe one of those fundamental teachings was not really a Christian. The author of this book has no authority to declare what is truth and what is error. The author of this book has no authority to judge any person and his or her relationship with Jesus Christ. This book is written to describe the mysteries that Christians have believed and taught over the centuries. Therefore, if any reader feels that the words in this book are judging or condemning his or her faith, rest assured that this book has not been written for that purpose. Christians can disagree with one another without rejecting or condemning each other.

This book is written to describe the mysteries about God as they are revealed in the writings of the prophets and apostles chosen by God and as they have historically been understood and restated by Christians. It is written with the hope that God’s people will rediscover the awesome wonder that comes from realizing that God is far more grand and glorious than our minds can comprehend. Christian faith is no intellectual exercise to define God with words and sentences. Christian faith is a relationship with God which touches every part of the Christian life: mind, heart, and spirit. That which we do not understand we still rejoice to believe, accepting the mysteries of the Christian faith as part of the beauty of the relationship we have with the Lord.