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.
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.