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Athanasius, Champion of the Trinity

By Rebecca Morecraft
November 01, 2008
“[T]he Athanasian Creed1 is precisely and logically theological … [T]his creed is extremely important and represents a major victory of Western Christianity.”2 — R. J. Rushdoony

I want to tell you a story about two men. One man was very wicked in that he tried to change the truth of God into a lie. He met a terrible end. The other man was righteous because he defended the truth of God and would not give it up, no matter what men threatened to do to him. I pray with all my heart that you and I will be like the second man, Athanasius.

Athanasius was born in Alexandria, Egypt, around the year A.D. 297, just sixty years after the first known public church was built.3  At about age sixteen, he was taken under the care of Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, who sponsored him as a student in the “Didascaleion,” a famous catechetical school where he probably studied under revered teachers such as Origen and Clement, and where he undoubtedly learned grammar, logic, and rhetoric, disciplines that would enable him to boldly defend Biblical truth.4  Early in his life, Athanasius began carefully explaining God’s Word to those who had been converted from paganism. And, although he respectfully listened to his teachers, he was a serious student of the Word of God and constantly compared Scripture with Scripture, carefully examining every teaching of man before accepting it as the truth.

Athanasius wrote essays5 on the nature of the Incarnation of Christ, addressed to a new Christian he was teaching. As he formulated his thoughts and wrote them down, God was preparing him to stand for the truth of Christ’s divinity against a heresy of tidal-wave proportions. False ideas about the truth found in Scripture are called heresies, and those who teach them are called heretics.

The early church called councils (meetings of pastors and Bible teachers) to discuss and pray about new doctrines men began to teach. They wanted to be sure the men didn’t make things up from their own minds but taught only what the Bible said. The Bible has no mistakes in it and is the only reliable guide for us to understand what God thinks about … well, about everything! When a mere man decides he has a better idea about something than God, that man is foolish. Such a man was Arius, a priest from Libya, who challenged the belief that Christ had existed eternally with God the Father. Although this may seem unimportant at first, our very salvation depends on the Biblical truth that God the Son, the only God-man, could atone for our sins. Someone had to tell Arius he was wrong, no matter how many stood against him! That man was Athanasius.

Athanasius pointed out that Arius taught three very wrong ideas: (1) Christ is a created being; (2) Christ is not eternal; (3) Christ is not of the same essence with the Father. Many men liked these views because they made man seem just as important as God, or at least closer to being a sort of “god” like Arius believed Jesus was. How very foolish! God promises us in His Word that the foolishness of men will be brought to nothing. I will tell you how Arius met his terrible end in just a few minutes.

Arius’ false views soon became widely popular. “All over the Empire, Christians could be heard singing a catchy tune that championed the Arian view: There was a time when the Son was not!”6 Even the emperor, Constantine, favored Arius’ heretical views because they made him feel god-like—if Jesus was created, a mere man without immortality and not equal with God the Father, then was not he, the emperor, as great or greater than Jesus? He told those in power to find those who opposed Arius’ new doctrine and persecute them. If they didn’t change their minds about Arius’ teachings, they were to be killed! What do you think Athanasius did? Although his life was in danger, he did not flinch nor back down. He simply refused to compromise God’s Word and continued to boldly proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God, equal with the Father and Spirit in substance, power, and glory.7

Disagreements concerning this doctrine became so widespread and serious that a church council was called in order to discuss the doctrine of the Trinity and reach a conclusion: whose view was right, Athanasius or Arius? The world held its breath to find out who would win this battle, a battle more important than any physical battle with spears and swords, for the “fullness of the Godhead” was at stake!

Athanasius had become Archdeacon of Alexandria and as such, was allowed to accompany his patron, the Bishop Alexander, to the first Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, called to iron out these disagreements concerning the Trinity. The newly converted emperor, Constantine the Great, was anxious to see these disagreements come to an end, for, “Division in the church,” he said, “is worse than war.”8  Athanasius was allowed to speak and defend the truths he held dear at this meeting: “Those who maintain, ‘There was a time when the Son was not,’ rob God of His Word, like plunderers,” he asserted.9 Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus, Syria, tells us that Athanasius “contended earnestly for the apostolic doctrines, and was applauded by their champions, while he earned the hostility of their opponents.”10 A man approached the short, dark-skinned bishop, who was scornfully called “the black dwarf” by his enemies,11 and asked angrily: “Athanasius, why do you not admit it [that Arius is right]? You are fighting a losing battle. Do you not know that at this moment the whole world is against you?” Here is one man’s description of what happened next:

Athanasius threw back his shoulders and drew a long breath. He looked straight into the face of his heckler. His probing eyes flashed like the Northern Lights as he uttered the memorable words, “Is the world against Athanasius? So be it. Then Athanasius is against the world!”12

Arius’ views about the Trinity were declared heretical at the Council of Nicea, and the orthodox views of the Trinity were spelled out concretely in the Nicene Creed.13 But although Arius was exiled, his friends in places of political power helped him regain his influence. He was invited to come back to the city of Alexandria and preach, spreading more of his false teachings to the gullible people who loved his convincing voice. Bishop Alexander heard that Arius was on his way to preach to a large crowd of admirers, and his eyes filled with tears as he fell to his knees, praying: “If Arius comes tomorrow to the church, take me away, and let me not perish with the guilty. But if Thou pitiest Thy Church, as Thou dost pity it, take Arius away, lest when he enters heresy enter with him.”14

The next morning, as Arius and his retinue were making their way to the church where he was to preach to large crowds of people, he had a smile on his face. This was his triumphant procession! Suddenly, the procession stopped. Arius was in terrible pain and left the group to be relieved. After some time, one of his friends walked over the hill to find him. “Arius,” he called. “Are you alright?” To his dismay, he found Arius dead, for he had collapsed and drowned in a ditch that was used as a latrine! This horrifying death was viewed as an act of God, who will not let the wicked prosper forever. Dr. R. J. Rushdoony observes: “It was … a providential conclusion to the great intellectual and spiritual battle of Nicea.”15

Even after the death of Arius, Athanasius was forced to hide for his life. His concealment, however, only lasted for four months when an order came for his return; and from this time in February of 366, at the age of seventy, God allowed him to spend the rest of his life working hard to advance Christ’s Kingdom on earth by stirring the hearts of men to a greater zeal for God. He never stopped in his efforts to refute heretics, to build churches, to rebuke ungodly rulers, to comfort faithful bishops, and to strengthen the cause of Biblical truth. He made use of every minute of time, even writing papers defending orthodox Christianity and devotional writings while in exile.16 One of the most important contributions of his life was in listing what he believed were the books that should constitute the New Testament. His list comprised the books we use today. “In these [twenty-seven writings] alone the teaching of godliness is proclaimed,” he wrote. “No one may add to them and nothing may be taken away from them.”17 In the spring of A.D. 373, at a good old age, Athanasius ceased from all his work. “Having consecrated one of his presbyters his successor, he died quietly in his own house. His ‘many struggles,’ according to his panegyrists [those who praise him], won him ‘many a crown.’ He was gathered to his fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, who had contended for the truth.”18

His epitaph is Athanasius contra mundum, “Athanasius against the world” … Athanasius stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, “whole and undefiled,” when it looked as if all the civilized 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. It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.19

Arius will answer to God for his heretical beliefs someday when God judges men and nations. However, God used this terrible time in the history of His church to cause the truth about the Trinity to be more closely examined and openly proclaimed. He used a humble, courageous minister, Athanasius, as a powerful instrument to achieve this glorious victory. God works wondrous deeds when His people are more concerned about His honor and glory than about their own well-being. You see, God is never frustrated by the sinfulness of men. He causes all things to work together for our eventual good and His eternal glory (Rom. 8:28)!

I pray that you and I will be like Athanasius who would not back down nor compromise the truth of God’s Word, even when his life was threatened. Be bold as a lion when you face God’s enemies, for it is God who stands with you and He will never be defeated, using even the sufferings of His servants as they strive against principalities and powers to accomplish His purposes. Stand with Athanasius, the champion of the Trinity, and declare, “I will defend the truth of God’s Word, even if the world is against me; in the strength of the Lord, I will stand against the world!

Appendix 1:

The Athanasian Creed20

Whoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic* faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this:

That we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity.

Neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance.

For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.

Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost.

The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Ghost uncreated.

The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.

The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal.

As there are not three Uncreated nor three Incomprehensibles, but one Uncreated and one Incomprehensible.

So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Ghost almighty.

So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God.

And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.

So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Ghost Lord.

And yet they are not three Lords, but one Lord.

For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by Himself to be God and Lord.

So we are forbidden by the catholic religion to say, There be three Gods or three Lords.

The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten.

The Son is of the Father alone, not made nor created, but begotten.

The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son, neither made nor created nor begotten, but proceeding.

So there is one Father, not three Fathers;

One Son, not three Sons;

One Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.

And in this Trinity none is before or after other;

None is greater or less than another; but the whole three Persons are coeternal together and coequal, so that in all things, as is aforesaid,

The Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.

He, therefore, that will be saved must think thus of the Trinity.

Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believes faithfully the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; And Man of the substance of His mother, born in the world; Perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood; Who, although He be God and Man, yet He is not two, but one Christ:

One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking the manhood into God; One altogether, not by confusion of Substance, but by unity of Person.

For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead; He ascended into heaven; He sitteth on the right hand of the Father, God Almighty; from whence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies and shall give an account of their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire.

This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.

* The term catholic here means “universal” or God’s people throughout history and does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church.

Appendix 2:
The Nicene Creed21

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,

And of all things visible and invisible: And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God; begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; Being of one Substance with the Father; By whom all things were made: Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man: And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried: And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures: And ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father: And He shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end. And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; Who spake by the Prophets: And I believe one Catholic* and Apostolic Church: I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins: And I look for the Resurrection of the dead: And the life of the world to come. Amen.

* The term catholic here means “universal” or God’s people throughout history and does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church.

Appendix 3:
Athanasius on Christ, the Image of God in Man, our Hope for Salvation, and Victory over Death

We were made “in the likeness of God.” But in course of time that image has become obscured, like a face on a very old portrait, dimmed with dust and dirt. When a portrait is spoiled, the only way to renew it is for the Subject to come back to the studio and sit for the artist all over again. That is why Christ came—to make it possible for the divine image in man to be recreated. We were made in God’s likeness; we are remade in the likeness of His Son.

To bring about this re-creation, Christ still comes to men and lives among them. In a special way He comes to His church, His “body,” to show us what the “image of God” is really like. What a responsibility the church has, to be Christ’s “body,” showing Him to those who are unwilling or unable to see Him in providence, or in creation! Through the Word of God lived out in the Body of Christ they can come to the Father, and themselves be made again “in the likeness of God.”

If ... it is …by faith in Christ that death is trampled underfoot, it is clear that it is Christ Himself and none other who is the Archvictor over death and has robbed it of its power. Death used to be strong and terrible, but now, since the sojourn of the Savior and the death and resurrection of His body, it is despised; and obviously it is by the very Christ who mounted on the cross that it has been destroyed and vanquished finally.

When the sun rises after the night and the whole world is lit up by it, nobody doubts that it is the sun which has thus shed its light everywhere and driven away the dark. Equally clear is it, since this utter scorning and trampling down of death has ensued upon the Savior’s manifestation in the body and His death on the cross, that it is He Himself who brought death to nought and daily raises monuments to His victory in His own disciples. How can you think otherwise, when you see men naturally weak, hastening to death, unafraid at the prospect of corruption, fearless of the descent into Hades, even indeed with eager soul provoking it, not shrinking from tortures, but preferring thus to rush on death for Christ’s sake, rather than to remain in this present life?

If you see with your own eyes men and women and children, even, thus welcoming death for the sake of Christ’s religion, how can you be so utterly silly and incredulous and maimed in your mind as not to realize that Christ, to whom these all bear witness, Himself gives the victory to each, making death completely powerless for those who hold His faith…? No one in his senses doubts that a snake is dead when he sees it trampled underfoot, especially when he knows how savage it used to be; nor, if he sees boys making fun of a lion, does he doubt that the brute is either dead or completely bereft of strength. These things can be seen with our own eyes, and it is the same with the conquest of death.

Doubt no longer, then, when you see death mocked and scorned by those who believe in Christ, that by Christ death was destroyed, and the corruption that goes with it resolved and brought to end.


1. See Appendix 1 to read the Athanasian Creed.

2. R. J. Rushdoony, The Foundations of Social Order (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1998), 72.

3. Mark Galli and Ted Olsen, eds., 131Christians Everyone Should Know (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2000), 17f.

4. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. II, 9th ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1878); public domain selection quoted by Christian Classics Ethereal Library, www.ccel.org.

5. St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1946).

6. Ibid., 18.

7. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Questions 5 & 6.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Encyclopaedia Britannica; public domain selection quoted by Christian Classics Ethereal Library, www.ccel.org.

11. Galli and Olsen, 131 Christians Everyone Should Know, 17.

12. Henry Coray, Against the World: The Odyssey of Athanasius (Neerlandia, Alberta, Canada: Inheritance Publications), 38–39.

13. See Appendix 2 to read the Nicene Creed.

14. Quoted in R. J. Rushdoony, Foundations, 15.

15. Ibid.

16. See Appendix 3 for excerpts from the devotional writings of Athanasius.

17. Galli and Olsen, 131 Christians Everyone Should Know, 19.

18. Encyclopaedia Britannica; public domain selection quoted by Christian Classics Ethereal Library, www.ccel.org.

19. C. S. Lewis, introduction to St. Athanasius: On the Incarnation (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1946), xvii, xviii.

20. This creed was probably written either by St. Augustine or Ambrose of Milan and was named for the champion of the Trinity, Athanasius.

21. An early version of the Nicene Creed was hammered out at the Council of Nicea, A.D. 325. Later councils tightened the wording leading to its present form.


Topics: Biblical Law, Church History, Creeds, Theology

Rebecca Morecraft

Becky Morecraft is thankful to be married to Dr. Joe Morecraft, pastor of Chalcedon Presbyterian Church in Cumming,GA. They have been married for 39 years and have four children and seven grandchildren. Becky loves to sing with her sister, Judy Rogers, to read and write. She is grateful to her parents and grandparents for teaching her to love the Lord at an early age and to appreciate her heritage.

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