Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dr. Mark Achtemeier: "The Hidden Error in 'Biblical' Arguments Against Gay Marriage"

In a Church History class I am teaching for the St. Benedict School for Ministry, we just finished studying about the second-century St. Irenaeus and his defense of the Gospel.   I always try to demonstrate why the figures we study in Church History matter; and a shining example came up today when Christopher Johnson, of the Midwest Conservative Journal, pointed his readers to an article in the Huffington Post by Presbyterian theologian, Dr. Mark Achtemeier, entitled "The Hidden Error in 'Biblical' Arguments Against Gay Marriage."  The article is Dr. Achtemeier's attempt to air his views and to score some points with a favorable audience (Huffington Post readers) as well as to promote his latest book, The Bible's Yes to Same-Sex Marriage: An Evangelical's Change of Heart.

In his article, Dr. Achtemeier cites Irenaeus as one who helped him find a methodology for getting past the way traditional Christians have used the Bible to condemn homosexual behavior.  Here is what Dr. Achtemeier has to say:
In the early 2000s, I was working hard to keep lesbian and gay persons out of the ministry of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA). I did this in part because I thought the biblical case against gay relationships was straightforward.  The standard arguments cited eight fragmentary quotes scattered throughout the Bible.  I thought that was enough to settle the matter.
I was wrong.  As I recount in my recent book, my settled convictions were shaken when I started to see how the results of those traditional condemnations produced blatant contradictions with the Bible's teaching about the fruits of righteousness and the nature of God.  These contradictions convinced me that something about the exclusionary teaching didn't add up.  What I couldn't understand was how this traditional teaching could be mistaken when it was grounded in quotes from the Bible.

I found help with this puzzle in the teaching of a second-century church leader, named Irenaeus of Lyons.  Irenaeus in his day was struggling to keep his flock from being led astray by false teachers who were proclaiming their own fabricated versions of "Christianity."  These counterfeit faiths bore little resemblance to anything that Jesus and his disciples had taught, but in spite of that the false teachers were still able to back up most of what they said with Scripture quotes.  This was very confusing to Irenaeus' flock, and I discovered that these second-century Christians were asking the same question I was: How could a teaching be mistaken or unfaithful when its proponents could back it up with quotes from the Bible?

Irenaeus explains how this can happen.  Imagine, he says, that a skilled artist has created a mosaic picture made out of colored stones.  All these multicolored fragments together form a beautiful portrait of a king.  But now suppose that another artist comes along and disassembles the original mosaic, sorting all the stones into little colored piles.  This second artist re-assembles the stones into a new mosaic, and he travels around showing off the picture, saying "Behold the King."  Only this time, in place of the original portrait, the new arrangement of stones forms a crudely-drawn picture of a dog.  Every single stone in that new mosaic comes from the original portrait. But that does not make it a true picture of the King!

This, says Irenaeus, is what the false teachers have done with Scripture.  Like the individual stones making up a mosaic, they have taken individual quotes from all over the Bible.  But the quotes have been pulled out of their original contexts and rearranged in such a way that they no longer form a true picture of the Bible's message.  Individual scripture quotes can lose their connection to the "true portrait" of God's love in Christ that is the Bible's overarching focus.

I myself had learned to support the categorical condemnation of same-sex relationships by appealing to scattered fragments of Scripture.  But Irenaeus helped me understand that being able to cite Bible passages in support of a particular teaching is no guarantee that the teaching is either true or faithful. Where does that leave us?  (Read the rest here.)
The problem with Dr. Achtemeier quoting Irenaeus to say that the Bible’s “big picture” is something other than the sum of its parts when it comes to homosexuality is that Ireneaeus, in his work, “Against the Heresies,” condemns the libertine practices of the Gnostics, including homosexual practice, by quoting the very same passages from the Apostle Paul that are still cited by orthodox Christians today.  Now read Irenaeus, in his own words, and notice the way in which he quotes Scripture:
[The apostle], foreseeing the wicked speeches of unbelievers, has particularized the works which he terms carnal; and he explains himself, lest any room for doubt be left to those who do dishonestly pervert his meaning, thus saying in the Epistle to the Galatians: “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are adulteries, fornications, uncleanness, luxuriousness, idolatries, witchcrafts, hatreds, contentions, jealousies, wraths, emulations, animosities, irritable speeches, dissensions, heresies, envyings, drunkenness, carousings, and such like; of which I warn you, as also I have warned you, that they who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”  Thus does he point out to his hearers in a more explicit manner what it is [he means when he declares], “Flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”  For they who do these things, since they do indeed walk after the flesh, have not the power of living unto God.


As, again, the same apostle testifies, saying to the Corinthians, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not err,” he says: “neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,* nor thieves, nor covetous, nor revilers, nor rapacious persons, shall inherit the kingdom of God.  And these ye indeed have been; but ye have been washed, but ye have been sanctified, but ye have been justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God.”  He shows in the clearest manner through what things it is that man goes to destruction, if he has continued to live after the flesh; and then, on the other hand, [he points out] through what things he is saved.  Now he says that the things which save are the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Spirit of our God.

* For those who are unfamiliar, "abusers of themselves with mankind" is one of the ways the ancient Greeks referred to those who committed homosexual acts.
So, actually, if we look at Irenaeus’ own application of these “time-tested principles of biblical interpretation” it shows: (1) that Irenaeus quoted Scripture to condemn immorality in precisely the same way that traditional Christians do today; (2) that he used the same Scriptures from Paul to say that homosexual behavior is among a whole list of acts that are wrong, and (3) that Dr. Achtemeier is twisting both the Scriptures and Church History with regard to Irenaeus in order to support same-sex marriage.

Irenaeus wrote his best-known surviving work, Againtst the Heresies, primarily to combat the challenge of the Gnostics to orthodox Christianity.  In that work (to which Achtemeier alludes in the quotation from his article) Irenaeus accuses the Gnostics of taking isolated passages of Scripture out of their original context in order to fabricate false doctrines that are not supported by Scripture as a whole.  There is a great deal of difference between this Gnostic misuse of Scripture and the simple practice of ordinary Christians in assembling a list of Bible verses that address a particular subject or question.  

But the central premise of Dr. Achtemeier's argument comes when, he says:  "Fortunately, the church across the centuries has developed guidelines for interpreting Scripture that help keep our use of particular passages in touch with the true portrait of God's love in Christ."  Where does one find "the true portrait of God's love in Christ" if not in Scripture?

When we look at Scripture—for instance, when Jesus deals with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11)—we see that Jesus stands against the hypocritical Pharisees' attempt to stone the woman.  He demonstrates the love of God; but he does not overthrow the Mosaic law against adultery or condone the woman's sin.  In fact, he tells her, "go, and from now on sin no more.”  Calling sin what it really is and admonishing those who are engaged in it to sin no more is often the most loving thing we can do.

Whenever we start painting a portrait of Christ that is the product of our own sense of "fairness, love, kindness, compassion, etc." rather than the actual biblical portrait of Jesus, who is loving as well as completely holy and righteous, then we run into the danger of idolatry—forming an image of God according to our own needs, ideas, and purposes. 

Sadly, Dr. Achtemeier's "portrait of God's love in Christ" is merely the subjective creation of contemporary culture and liberal Christianity—an unbiblical image of Christ (derived from an extra-biblical gnosis) precisely like the one created by the ancient Gnostics to serve their libertine purposes so long ago.  In selling this portrait, Dr. Achtemeier is not being faithful to the biblical principles articulated by Irenaeus, but rather using the method of the very enemies of Christianity against whom Irenaeus wrote.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Slouching toward Capernaum

And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens?  No, you will go down to Hades.  For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.  But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you (Matthew 11:23-24).
Writing in the July/August issue of Liberty magazine, author Kevin Paulson says that the decline of Christianity in the increasingly secular West, even if true, is not likely to be permanent.
Predictions of the decline and fall of so-called “Christian America” have proliferated in the public media—both secular and otherwise—for the past several years.  In the spring of 2009 Newsweek’s cover article “The Decline and Fall of Christian America” was paralleled by a Christian commentator’s dour prediction of “the coming evangelical collapse.”  The latter article was both particularly insightful and dramatic in its forecast of diminishing biblical faith, the demise of thousands of ministries, millions leaving the evangelical fold, and denominations vanishing.
Paulson says that (though it may get worse before it gets better) the trend away from religion, like many societal trends, will see a pendulum-like reversal.
People with strong convictions of any kind often function best when believing themselves under siege.  So long as it is believed that contemporary trends and prevailing forces are inflicting notable harm on one’s cherished values, justification for one’s persistence in proffering and practicing an alternative is easily found.

This is even truer in the religious realm than in the secular.  During the great persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Decius in the third century A.D., the great Christian scholar Tertullian coined the memorable line that "the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church." Christendom has often flourished best in times of adversity, ostracism, and revilement.  Even the late U.S. senator Eugene McCarthy, running for his party’s presidential nomination in 1968, noted publicly—during the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in August of that year—that Christians frequently found a more vibrant faith when confronted with official hostility and perilous circumstances.  (Not perhaps the wisest statement for an aspiring U.S. president at that time, to be sure, but one difficult to gainsay from a historical perspective.)
One reason why this matters is that, increasingly, conservative Christians are being told that our pro-marriage ("anti-gay," anti-promiscuity), and pro-life ("anti-abortion") stands are unpopular, especially with the millennial generation, and that to survive in this climate we need to "moderate" our positions—that is, to compromise or abandon traditional, biblical moral teaching.

I believe a key consideration is that we are, right now, on the cusp of a societal change in which Western society is throwing off the sexual morality under which it has lived for 1700 years.  With surprising uniformity, when young people who have rejected Christianity are asked to give a reason, their answers all have to do with rejecting some aspect of traditional Christian sexual morality.

Liberal religionists, especially in the old-line Christian denominations, have cited this trend in their attempts to revise the moral teaching of their churches to be more accommodating to contemporary secular sensibilities.

The key, as I said, is that we are on the cusp of this trend.  Right now, throwing off traditional morality looks like the way to greater freedom.  I believe that this trend, as with so many others, is subject to pendulum-like swings—and a look at history reinforces my conclusion.

Remember that Christianity came into ascendancy in the Graeco-Roman world whose immorality resembles the post-Christian secular mores of our own day:  Promiscuity, homosexuality, and abortion were all very common in those days.

Parenthetically, let me point out Acts 15, where the Council of Jerusalem had to decide the manner of admitting Gentile converts to the Church.  The Council issued a letter to the new Gentile Christians which concluded with the following admonition:
It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements:  You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.  You will do well to avoid these things. (Acts 15:28-29)
Christians reading this passage today often find it odd that the Council had to admonish the new Gentile Christians to abstain from sexual immorality.  They were becoming Christians, of course they had to abstain from sexual immorality!  But we need to remember that the Church, heretofore consisting of Jewish followers of Jesus, had the background of the Law given to the Jewish people through Moses.  They and their forebears for two millennia had been taught that life was sacred.  Thus, for instance, abortion was unknown among the ancient Jews, while it was common among the Greeks and Romans of the same period.  Sexual relations outside of marriage and with members of the same sex were condemned unequivocally.

So the Jews who became the first followers of Jesus had already been instructed in the Torah and its moral teaching.  But for Greeks and Romans who became Christians, the cultural assumptions in which they had been brought up were entirely different.  Sexual immorality in Gentile society was almost as common as the air they breathed.  Hence the need for the Council of Jerusalem's admonition.

The new Christians would find themselves to be oddities in the Roman Empire.  They were hounded for their faith, persecuted and killed, often in the most gruesome of ways.  Yet, Christianity did not cease to exist because it was so out of step with the society of its day.  It did not die as a result of the persecution that was intended to exterminate it—it flourished!

For many in the Graeco-Roman world, the message of the Gospel was Good News indeed.  It was an escape from the mindless sensuality and depravity of the culture.  It was a worldview that brought order in the midst of chaos, dignity in place of degradation.  Far from seeing Christianity as bondage to a repressive morality, the Romans who accepted Christ saw his Way as the only true liberation.

So it will be again.  But this is a cycle that will take time to run its course.  We are only seeing the beginning of Western society's efforts to throw off Christianity.  It may take painful decades or even centuries for society to see that the radical autonomy, lawlessness, and sexual license they are experiencing is not the way of freedom but enslavement.  When that finally happens, they will, like the ancient Romans, turn to Christ.

The necessity of persevering while this cycle runs its course is a hard message to hear for comfortable, Western Christians who expect instant answers to prayer and victory in every conflict with evil—usually in the 60-minute space of a television drama.  We don't know what it is like to suffer the persecution that the early Christians faced, but we may find out.  Just as the Gnostics escaped persecution by accommodating themselves to Roman morality, some of our persecution may come from our nominal co-religionists who have, in fact, accepted the gospel of this age instead of the Gospel of Christ.

As the old country preacher said, "I've read the end of the Book, and I know who wins."  This much is true.  Jesus Christ himself is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  And, in the end, only those who enter through him will come to the Father (John 14:6).

In the meantime, for those Christians who may be called to face these tough times, I am reminded of the attitude of Ignatius of Antioch, on his way to death in the Coliseum, who wrote:
I am writing to all the Churches and I enjoin all, that I am dying willingly for God's sake, if only you do not prevent it.  I beg you, do not do me an untimely kindness.  Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God.  I am God's wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ. — Ignatius, Letter to the Romans
If that is to be us, are we willing?  Are we ready?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Why Israel's Attack on Gaza is Necessary

From the Wall Street Journal:

Gaza's newly acquired rockets put about 2/3 of Israel's people into the range of fire. 

From Wikipedia:
Since 2001 Palestinian militants have launched thousands of rocket and mortar attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip.  As of November 2012, the attacks have killed 64 people, mostly civilians, and injured thousands, but their main effect is their creation of widespread psychological trauma and disruption of daily life among the Israeli populace.  Medical studies in Sderot, the Israeli city closest to the Gaza Strip, have documented a post-traumatic stress disorder incidence among young children of almost 50%, as well as high rates of depression and miscarriage.
We would not expect any other nation to live under the threat of daily terrorism for so long, and we shouldn't expect Israel to do so either.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Teddy Roosevelt On Immigrants In America

In response to this news.

Theodore Roosevelt's ideas on immigrants and being an American, June 26, 1907.
"In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin.  But this is predicated upon the person's becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American...  There can be no divided allegiance here.  Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all.  We have room for but one flag, the American flag...  We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language... and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people."
~ Theodore Roosevelt 1907
And for those who say this doesn't sound compassionate, let me say that the most compassionate thing we can do for immigrants is to help them assimilate, rather than remaining in gangs and ghettos, unable to speak the language their newfound home, only to become wards of society rather than becoming meaningful contributors and participants in it.

Monday, July 07, 2014

What I wrote my Congressman about the humanitarian crisis on our border

Dear Representative,

As much as my heart goes out to the children who are pawns in this whole ordeal on our southern border, I believe we need a Congressional investigation into how this humanitarian disaster came about.  I have seen it reported in credible news sources that a federal government website was advertizing for transportation contractors as far back as January to handle the coming influx of these children.  I have also seen examples of the information flyer it is reported that many of the children had with them to tell them what to say to immigration authorities to maximize their chances of being allowed to stay in the US.

These children didn’t suddenly wake up one morning and tell their parents, “Adios, Mama and Papa, I am going walk across part of Central America (crossing multiple borders) and the whole of Mexico in the heat of summer to go to the United States.”

One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to see that this involved coordination—a coordinated effort to bring these children here and flood our border in an effort to destabilize our whole immigration process.  The American people deserve to know how and why this happened, and who is responsible, so this does not continue—for the sake of the children who are being exploited, as much as for us.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Casting all your cares on him, for He cares for you

The challenge each of us continually faces is “Who is in control in my life?”  Is it God or do I have to rely on my own efforts?

If the Lord really is #1 in my life, then I must resist my natural tendency to be afraid.  I can do this by drawing aside from the situation and bringing it to God in prayer.

In Philippians 4:6-7, the Apostle Paul tells us, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

When I quote this passage from memory, I often tend to leave out the words "with thanksgiving."  But those two words are the key.  If we are truly giving thanks for what God has done, it is nearly impossible to doubt what he can and will do in the future.  So those two words, "with thanksgiving" are essential in not being anxious, but in letting our requests be made known to God, or in the words of 1 Peter 5:7, "casting all your anxiety upon him, because he cares for you."

Prayer is our way of saying, “Heavenly Father, I know you love me and I know you want to guide me in the situations where I need your help.”

Jesus didn’t worry.  Instead he used to regularly draw aside to pray—to spend time with his Father.

We, as Jesus' disciples, would do well to follow his example and learn to bring our fears to our loving Heavenly Father.


Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Burger King introduces gay Whopper

(But only in San Francisco)

WPXI reports: 
"The Proud Whopper" comes in a rainbow colored wrapper and goes on sale Wednesday morning.
The burger chain’s Senior Vice President of Global Brand Management Fernando Machado says it "showcases who we are as a brand." (emphasis added)

Machado says the unusual burger also helps efforts to support the chains newest slogan "Be Your Way."
["Be your way!" ???  Are you kidding me???!!!]

Proceeds from the sale of the Proud Whopper will be donated to scholarships for LGBT high school seniors graduating in 2015 through its own Burger King McLamore Foundation.

The only real difference is the wrapper itself and the Proud Whopper costs the same as any other whopper.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

"He ascended into heaven..."

[Because every time Ascension Day rolls around, I read stories like this one, where someone tries to get value out of the Jesus' Ascension while denying that it actually happened, I am reprinting this piece I wrote in 2005.]
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.  They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. "Men of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand here looking into the sky?  This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven" (Acts 1:9-10).
Where is heaven?  Do you ever stop to think about it?  The Book of Acts tells us that Jesus ascended into heaven.  But where is heaven?

A friend of mine recently reminded me of a little chapel in Walsingham, England, that depicts the Ascension of Christ.  The ceiling of the chapel is painted like the sky with clouds, and sticking out of one of the clouds on the ceiling you can see a pair of feet!

However much we may believe in the Ascension of Christ, illustrations like this chapel ceiling seem quaint and make us laugh.  Skeptics, however, respond to such depictions by dismissing the reality of the Ascension altogether.  Liberal Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, in his article, “A Call for a New Reformation,” says, “The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.”

Similarly, the late Church of England Bishop, John A.T. Robinson said that because of astronomy and space travel we know that heaven and God aren’t “out there;” the place to look for God and heaven is “within.”  Robinson even cites Luke 17:21, “the kingdom of God is within you," in support of his view.  Well, of course, in context, the kingdom of God is at work in us and through us.  But the tendency of Robinson’s view is toward a pantheism which says that the only place God and heaven are to be found is within the creation and within us.

Cardinal John Henry Newman had a different view, which, to my mind, captures the truth quite well.  Commenting on the biblical passages where Jesus says the kingdom of God is “at hand,” Newman says that the kingdom runs alongside our world and is ever near it, and that someday, when we least expect it, our world will resolve itself into the kingdom of God.

Remember that Newman wrote this 100 years before scientists (and science fiction writers) started telling us about “parallel universes.”  Is the kingdom of God a parallel dimension to our own existence?  Perhaps it is.  That is why there may well be unseen angels hovering around us at this very moment.

Of course it entirely sensible that, for the disciples sake and for ours, Jesus is seen ascending into heaven.  For Jesus simply to have disappeared or faded away would have represented dissolution or annihilation.  Jesus ascends to show us he is going to a place—a place from which he will return—a place that is higher, better than where we are.

So where is heaven?  Is it “out there, somewhere?”  Is it above, below, within, or along side us?  The best answer we have concerning heaven is the promise of Jesus:
In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you.  I am going there to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am (John 14:2-3).
Heaven is God the Father’s house—the place where Jesus is and where we will someday be with him.  And if heaven is the place where Jesus is, then—wherever it may be—it will be perfect.

Saturday, May 31, 2014


H/T: Anglican Unscripted and The Quinton Report

The above ad appeared in the Charleston City Paper, an alternative weekly.  The text reads:

The Virgin Mary Followed by Bloody Marys

The ad, run by the Church of the Holy Communion, an Episcopal Church parish in Charleston, South Carolina, then goes on to list several restaurants in the area (Hominy Grill, Fuel, Cafe Lana, & Five Loaves) along with mentioning Spoleto festival venues are nearby.  The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion bills itself as an “Anglo-Catholic Episcopal Church.”

George Conger, commenting on Anglican Unscripted (51 minutes into the video), rightly noted that the ad flaunts the worst aspects of "Gin and Lace" Anglo-Catholicism.  This ad may have an ephemeral attraction for socialite Charlestonians who want a little religious ritual before their Sunday brunch, but it doesn't do much to commend the real reason why the Church exists.  In fact, it sends exactly the wrong message.
[P.S., If you want to know what the real business of the Church is, read my previous post.]

The Power of One

The Church today would be a different kind of place if it were not for a short, dark-skinned, red-bearded, half hermit who single-handedly fought an empire for the truth of the Gospel.  For much of the fourth century, A.D., it was Athanasius contra mundum—“Athanasius against the world”—and Athanasius won.

One letter.  To some historians his was a battle not worth fighting.  His argument hung on the stroke of a pen, a single letter, one iota—the Greek letter “i.”  But embedded in that slender distinction was the essence of the Christian faith, and Athanasius would defend it with his life.  “We are contending,” he wrote, “for our all.”

Up to this point, the Church’s major threats had all come from outside—Roman emperors who sought to work their will on Christians who steadfastly maintained that Jesus is Lord and not Caesar, and Greek philosophers who presented questions that the Church, in time, developed the ability to answer.

Bishops, who led God’s people after the death of the apostles, and whose chief duty is to guard the deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, shed much ink—and much blood—defending the ideals and ideas of Christian faith against the heavy tide of a hostile and haughty world.

But by the early 300s, egos and ambitions had begun drawing battle lines within the Church.  Christians were fighting Christians over theological positions.  Most of the differences formed around explanations of the Trinity:  Did Christians worship one God, or three?  Was the Father greater than the Son and Spirit, or equal?

Then around 318 came an upstart church leader named Arius, asking the question to rattle all questions:  Was Jesus even God at all?

One word.  The distinction boiled down to a single word, distinguished by the single Greek iota we have just mentioned.  Was the Son of the same substance (homoousios) as the Father, or was he merely of a similar substance (homoiousios) as the Father?   It was a controversy that not only occupied the minds of scholars but also the marketplace banter of everyday folk.  It demanded the attention of the Emperor Constantine, who summoned bishops from East and West to an unprecedented gathering in the city of Nicea, in A.D. 325.

When their two month meeting had ended, the resulting creed accurately declared Jesus Christ to be “very God of very God, begotten not made, of one substance (homoousios) with the Father.  Arius was declared a heretic, deposed and disgraced, and everyone assumed that the matter was closed.

Yet the matter continued to confuse and divide.  Constantine, who, like many leaders, valued unity of their institutions over the truth of the Gospel, ordered the new bishop of Alexandria to reinstate Arius as a member in good standing, a sharer in the Church’s communion.

One man.   But the new bishop was a man named Athanasius, who promptly told the Emperor that he could forget it.  According to one story, Athanasius stopped the Emperor’s procession through the streets one day, grabbing the horses of the Emperor’s carriage by the reins—an act that could have gotten him instantly killed by the Emperor’s guards—in order to warn the great Constantine that these matters of the Christian faith were even greater than he was. ]

The consequences were that important, and this is why:
  • If the Son is a created being, not of the same substance as God, then the Son is not God.
  • If the Son is not God, then his birth in the person of Jesus is not the incarnation of God. 
  • If God is not truly incarnate in the person of Jesus, then his atoning death is worthless.
“For he alone,” Athanasius wrote, “being Word of the Father and above all, was able to re-create all, and was worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father.  For this purpose the incorruptible word of God entered our world.  The Word is God from God; for ‘the Word was God’” (John 1:1).

In other words, if Jesus is anything less than God—whether angel, or exalted teacher, or new age cosmic avatar, his death and resurrection cannot be the atoning sacrifice that breaks the curse of human sin.  We can say that Jesus is our Savior, but if the reality of Jesus as God incarnate does not undergird our faith, we are just engaging in wishful thinking.

Naturally, Athansius’ defiance did not win him any friends at the imperial palace.  Constantine’s opinion of the young bishop took such a turn for the worse that he banished him to the uttermost western part of the Empire, sending him from Egypt to Gaul (modern France) in the dead of winter.  It was the first of five exiles he would endure throughout his 45 years as bishop, as he resisted imperial pressure for the sake of the Gospel.

Several emperors came and went during Athanasius’ lifetime, and he would be allowed to return—always to the delight of the people of Alexandria.  But then imperial pressure would heat up again, Athanasius would take his place in the fire, and no one who flinched from the truth of the Gospel would be allowed a moment’s rest in his presence.

Athanasius recognized that the Incarnation is a mystery.  No one could fully understand it.  But there are those whose pride, arrogance, and self-interest would not allow them to believe.  And Athanasius would not keep silent while they robbed God of his power and the Gospel of its truth.  “We take divine Scripture and set it up as a light upon its candlestick, saying: 'very Son of the Father, natural and genuine, proper to His essence, very and only Word of God is He…'  But let them learn that ‘the Word became flesh;’ and let us, retaining the general scope of the faith, acknowledge that what they interpret wrongly has a right interpretation.”

Other bishops, fearing a church split on their hands, pressed the compromise of the homoiousios—that Christ was of similar, and not the same, substance as the Father.  The change in the Greek word was so small—just one letter—that one would hardly notice it, a change in pronunciation so small that those reciting the creed could ignore it.  But to Athanasius it was the difference between life and death.

“God Himself made the decision to take on flesh and to become man and to undergo the death of the Cross, that by faith in Him, all who believe may obtain salvation….  Only so is our salvation fully realized and guaranteed.”

He would die, in 373, before the fruit of his labor could be seen.  But, in 381, bishops at the Council of Constantinople would uphold the doctrine of the deity of Christ that Athanasius taught.  The Nicene Creed would survive as the accepted understanding of the Trinity and of the Person of Christ.  The Church would go on, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to proclaim a pure Gospel to this day—because of the power of one letter, one word, and one man to demonstrate that the truth matters.