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Arius and Athanasius: Early Christian Disputes

Original Posted Date: June 5, 2006 – Monday – 11:02 AM

It was about 300 years after the death of Christ, and things were going pretty well for the Christian church. In the West, persecution by Rome had ceased due to Constantine’s Edict of Milan, which ended all religious persecution across the empire and restored the wealth that had been stolen in previous years.

As is human nature, now that they weren’t under direct threat Christians started arguing with each other. The Bible had not been canonized yet, so there were many different “flavors” of Christianity, not yet one catholic (Greek for “universal”) faith.

It was a theologian named Arius started all the trouble. His question appeared harmless at first glance, “How could Jesus Christ have been God in the same way as God the Father”.

Arius was actually very moderate for the time; he did not deny the divinity of Christ, but considered him a “lesser god”. And he was able to use accepted scriptures of the time to back himself up. Being a musician, he set this to song and the debate spread across the land.

Arius’ bishop had an assistant named Athanasius, who strongly disagreed with Arius. Jesus Christ was fully and completely God, and also fully and completely Man. He was equal with the Creator, as was the Holy Spirit. Thus the concept of the “Trinity” was made concrete. Athanasius also believed that to deny the full divinity of Christ was to earn eternal damnation.

A theological war broke out, with both sides supported at some points and banished at others. Athanasius himself was banished at least 5 times, although not all banishments were due to theology. This controversy went on for quite some time, and for some believers it continues to this day.

Near the end of his life, Arius gained a chance to sway things his way, with Constantine calling him back from exile and commanding Athanasius to reconcile Arius with the Church. Athanasius refused to do this; and Arius gained entrace with the Emporor. After he presented his Creed, Constantine declared his works orthodox and ordered Alexander (Arius’ and Athanasius’ old bishop) to give Arius communion. But quite suddenly Arius died under unusual and embarrasing circumstances, most likely due to poisoning.

So in the newly forming Universal Church, Athanasius view of God prevailed; and he went on to be a very influential theologian; even to being the first to identify the New Testament Canon, and today he is considered “The Father of Orthodoxy”.
Whether or not he murdered Arius, Athanasius has been criticized for using physical force, bribery, and excommunication to enforce “Gods” will. His defense was that he was saving future Christian souls from Hell; a justification repeated many times throughout history. Father of Orthodoxy indeed.

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