Athanasius’ Defense of the Incarnation

“I and the Father are one.”

- John 10:30

Polycarp did not seek out martyrdom, but he was willing to die for his confession when that was the price he had to pay for his faithfulness to Christ. Other models of faith from the early centuries of the church also suffered much for the sake of Jesus and His truth, but not all of them ended up being executed for their profession. Today we will consider one of these men—Athanasius of Alexandria, who faced much opposition as he defended Jesus’ identity as the incarnation of God Himself.

Athanasius served as the bishop of Alexandria during the most intensive period of the Arian controversy. The Arians were followers of Arius, a teacher who had become famous for his denial of the deity of Christ. Arius taught that the Son of God was merely a creature. As the first of God’s creations, the Son is worthy of honor, Arius said, but He is not worthy of our full worship and adoration because He does not possess the same nature as God. Arius’ views were condemned in AD 325 by the Council of Nicaea, which formulated the core of what we today refer to as the Nicene Creed. Nicaea proclaimed that the Son of God and the Father are homoousios (of the same essence or substance). Following the teaching of Scripture, the church fathers at Nicaea insisted that the Father and Son share equally in everything that makes God who He is. They have the same divine attributes, and one is not more or less God than the other.

Despite the fact that Nicaea condemned Arian views, Arianism enjoyed a resurgence of popularity after the council. Arian church leaders who had been condemned at Nicaea were restored to their positions by the Roman emperor. In fact, at times it seemed as if the whole world had become Arian in the decades after the Council of Nicaea. Athanasius, who became bishop of the leading city of Alexandria in 328, was one of the notable exceptions to the rule. Emperor Constantine exiled Athanasius from his bishopric for refusing to change his views regarding Arius’ heresy. Over the subsequent decades, as support for Arianism waxed and waned among the highest levels of the Roman government, Athanasius would be exiled four more times for his defense of Nicene orthodoxy.

Athanasius considered the preservation of truth in the church more important than position or power. He is an excellent model of the true servant of God—one who is absolutely committed to the teaching of Scripture, which is the very truth of our Creator.

Coram Deo

Old heresies rarely die. Instead, they get repackaged and republished. Today, sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses promote views that are almost identical to the views of the ancient Arians. It is therefore incumbent upon us to know the truth of Scripture on essential matters of the faith so that we can give an answer when we see these heresies come our way. Spend some time studying Christology this week so that you can be prepared to defend the faith.

Passages for Further Study

Micah 5:2
John 1:1–18
Philippians 2:5–11
Colossians 1:15–20

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.