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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Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #7: Did the Council of Nicaea invent the Trinity in the year 325?”

A great amount of information about the Council of Nicaea (325) is easily available on the Internet and in many books. Given that fact, it is surprising that conspiracy theories about the Council continue to be shared and believed. Dan Brown’s character Teabing manages to make more false statements in one page of The Da Vinci Code than I have included in entire true-false quizzes used in my college history classes.

The Roman Emperor Constantine had a vision which led him to become a Christian. He delayed his baptism until the day of his death, not because he was insincere in his faith, but because he wrongly thought that Baptism would remove only past sins and was therefore best delayed to the end of life. Constantine made many public confessions of his Christian faith. He was well-informed about the doctrines of Christianity, and he supported all the teachings of the Church.

Constantine was appalled to learn of a controversy among Christians in Egypt over the divinity of Christ. Arius held that Jesus was created by God the Father and therefore a lesser being to the Father. Athanasius held that the Father and the Son were equally God with the Holy Spirit, all three eternal and unchanging and divine, equal in power and authority and glory. Arius had a pleasant personality and good rapport with other Christians; Athanasius was a bit more unlikeable, but he happened to be right. To clear the air of this controversy, Constantine summoned a council to meet in the town of Nicaea. He invited all the bishops of Christianity to attend. At least 250 arrived. (The traditional number is 318, but 250 is the lowest estimate.) The Emperor, the bishops, and their assistants prayed, studied the Bible, and discussed what it says about the Father and the Son. The Council wrote a document, the Nicene Creed, which was approved by all but two of the bishops in attendance.

The Council did coin new words to summarize what the Bible says about God, but it was determined to stick to what the Bible teaches and not to create new doctrine. The most controversial word at the time was not Trinity (meaning three in one), but homoousios, translated into English as “being of one substance.” The entire phrase that contains that word identifies Jesus as “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”

Was this idea new? Even the Torah identifies the Trinity, consisting of the Lord, the Angel of the Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord. In passages such as Genesis 22 and Exodus 3, the Angel of the Lord speaks of God in both the third person (he, him) and the first person (I, me). In the creation account at the beginning of Genesis, God speaks to himself in the plural (“Let us make man in our image”). Many messianic passages in the Hebrew Bible identify the Messiah as God or as the Son of God. (Psalm 2 is a good example of this.)

The New Testament is not shy about declaring Jesus to be the Son of God. Paul uses that phrase about Jesus many times (Romans 1:4, for example). John beings his Gospel by writing, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Later he quotes Jesus as saying, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father… I am in the Father and the Father is in me…” (John 14:9-10) Much of the letter to the Hebrews was written to assert the equality of Jesus with his Father.

Why, then, does Jesus say, “the Father is greater than I”?(John 14:28)? The most succinct explanation comes from another document, written well after the Council of Nicaea. Jesus is equal to the Father in regard to his divinity and less than the Father in regard to his humanity. It took several Church Councils to sort through the language needed to talk about Jesus. He is one Person but has two natures—a divine nature and a human nature. The human nature is part of creation and subject to the will of the Father, but the divine nature is equal to the Father in every way. Because Jesus is without sin, his two natures are in complete agreement with each other.

“God is love” (I John 4:16). A Unitarian God can only possess love; He/She/It could never be love. But the Trinitarian God has love as the very basis of his being. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit. The Son loves the Father and the Spirit. The Spirit loves the Father and the Son. This God who is love created the universe as a gift of love. Into this universe he placed individuals whom he could love; individuals who could love him and could love each other. True love makes one vulnerable. By giving humans the freedom to love, God also allowed the freedom not to love. Humans have taken that path. But the love of God has not failed. God the Son entered creation to be a Ransom; to pay the price that frees humans from their failure to love. The Son became human—the Father and the Spirit did not. The Son was required to obey the commands of his Father, and he did so. The Son exchanged places with each human, clothing sinful humans in his perfection while taking the punishment sinful humans deserve on himself. The Son died on a Roman cross—the Father and the Spirit did not die. Human death separates the spirit from the body. The body of Jesus was buried; his spirit was in the hands of his Father in Paradise. But that spirit returned to his body on Easter, promising a resurrection to eternal life for all who trust in him.

The Council of Nicaea invented none of these teachings. They found all of them in the Bible and they summarized them in the Nicene Creed. Eighteen centuries later, Christians still use that Creed to summarize what we believe. We believe it because God said it through his prophets and apostles. The message has never changed. It will never change. The Word of God stands forever. J.

Nine ladies dancing

Basil and Gregory were two of the great theologians to rise in the Church after the time of Sylvester and Constantine. They defended the decisions of the Council of Nicaea, which described Jesus as “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten (not made) Being of one Substance with the Father.” For several decades after the council, opponents of those teachings continued to insist that Jesus is not equal to the Father, that he was created by the Father, and that only God the Father is Almighty. Thanks to writers such as Basil and Gregory, the teachings of the Bible as summarized by the Nicene Creed were preserved in the Christian Church.
Both men were highly educated in philosophy as well as in Christian doctrine. They were able to serve the Lord and the Church through their writing, explaining the mysteries of the Christian faith so more could believe them and receive God’s blessings through them. Many other generations of the Church have also been blessed by such writers: Augustine, Martin Luther, and C. S. Lewis come to mind. God always blesses his Church at the times that his people most need his help.
May you revel in whichever writers have helped you to understand the Word of God and the teachings of his Church. J.