Athanasius Revisited
A Trinity Sunday Sermon

‘We believe in God’. That’s how our creed began today. That’s why we meet here today isn’t it, because we all believe in God?

Some people still consider it quite an admirable thing to believe in God. Others still see it as a sign of weakness. Certainly ‘believing in God’ is not as outdated as it used to be.

Nowadays people are much more spiritual than they used to be, say, a generation ago. Whereas a generation or so ago it was popular to believe that science had finally pushed back the frontiers of mystical belief to the point where belief in God was no longer necessary, nowadays God is back in fashion, and not only God but also angels and all sorts of spiritual beings and cosmic forces and truths which are out there.

‘I like the name of your Martial Arts school’ one rather ‘spiritual’ man said to me, referring to our business ‘Holy Trinity School of Martial Arts’. This guy was a leading instructor in Aikido (which is a particularly ‘spiritual/new age’ form of martial art in this country). He liked our name, at any rate, until I told him that we got the name from the church.

Spiritual is ‘in’, but church is still ‘out’. Gods and angels and mystical realities are popular topics of conversation nowadays, but the traditional Christian concepts associated with these things – repentance, grace, and self-sacrifice are not quite so popular. Even words such as ‘holy’ and ‘trinity’ may well be welcomed into conversation at the average dinner party, but a debate over the traditional doctrine of the Trinity will probably not be quite so welcome.

What is so unpleasant about the doctrine of the Trinity that we avoid discussing it?

Is it just that we find the whole thing so confusing that we prefer to keep it at an arms distance? Did Dorothy Sayers perhaps say it all a generation ago when she said that for most people the doctrine of the Trinity was that ‘The Father is incomprehensible, the Son is incomprehensible, and the whole thing is incomprehensible’? Perhaps we best just leave it that way, in all its Byzantine complexity and philosophical obscurity.

The doctrine of the Trinity can seem obscure and complex. But I want to suggest to you this morning that the reason for the unpopularity of the doctrine of the Trinity in our culture may be rooted in something much deeper. It may be that the doctrine of the Trinity confronts a little too directly our culture’s current conception of God.

Let me take you back very briefly to the fourth century AD, to a debate that culminated in the council of Constantinople in 381. It was a debate about what God was like, and more specifically, about the relationship between Jesus and God.

A man called Arius, rector of the influential parish of Baucalis in Alexandria, used to teach his flock that Jesus was very godlike – indeed that Jesus was ‘homoiousios’ – made of a similar substance to God our father. One day some faithful parishioner made a complaint to the bishop, saying that Arius was denying the Christian faith. And indeed Arius was called to account by his bishop, Alexander, and even moreso by Alexander’s archdeacon, Athanasius.

Athanasius countered that, according to the Scriptures, Jesus not just godlike, but was God. Jesus was not simply ‘homoiousios’ (of similar substance to God our Father), but was ‘homoousios’ (made of the same substance as God the Father). And so a debate began which raged for almost a century, which became the basis of three world-wide Church Councils, which went on through the reigns of three emperors, and which wasn’t settled until well after the death of Arius, and I think the death of Athanasius as well.

Homoousios or homoiousios, of like substance with the father or of the same substance of the father, Jesus is very close to God or Jesus is God – what’s the difference?   Quite a lot!

For one thing, Arius’ position made a lot of sense, logically.  A human being surely could not be God, without God ceasing to be God.  Therefore it makes sense to see it all in terms of a hierarchy.   God the Father is at the top of the ladder, Jesus the Son is on the next rung down, and perhaps we place the Holy Spirit on the rung below that.

The beauty of this hierarchy too is that it can help us to make sense of other religions as well.   God, Jesus and the Spirit occupy the top three rungs of the ladder, we might say, but there’s plenty of room for Buddha and Mohammed and any number of other godlike figures to take their proper places on the lower rungs.   It all makes a great deal of sense.

Athanasius’ position, on the other hand, doesn’t make much sense at all.   The very concept that Jesus is God, while the Father to whom He prayed is also God, and that while they are both clearly distinct and separate personae, they are both the one God, just doesn’t work as a coherent concept at all.

Holding the two of them side by side, it must be hard to envisage how Athanasius’ concept of God ever won the day.   One can only assume that this was a miracle of God’s grace for, I would suggest to you, while it was Arius’ concept of God that made sense, it was Athanasius’ concept of God that was more true to the Bible.

Indeed, I would suggest to you that what Athanasius did, in all his fumbling paradoxical language, was try to preserve for us something of the mystery of God as revealed in the Scriptures, whereas Arius simply followed the logic of popular culture.

Someone says ‘I find it hard to believe that Jesus could be God’.   My natural response might be to try and tell them something more about Jesus.   I have a feeling though that Athanasius would have probably rather challenged them about their concept of God.   ‘What sort of God do you envisage, such that you do not think Jesus could be this God?’

You see, when someone says ‘I find it hard to believe that Jesus could be God’, they obviously already have some predefined concept of God, such that they find it hard to approximate Jesus to that concept.

If you were an educated Roman citizen of the fourth century, whose mind had been shaped by the thinking of the great Greek philosophers, you probably grew up with a rather coherent concept of God as some distant ‘force’ that had been there from the beginning of time, and who embodied some eternal logic.   You probably already believed that your disembodied spirit was ultimately moving towards this God.   If this were your concept of God, it would be rather hard to envisage how the man Jesus could be that God, for Jesus was certainly a man.

Or what if you started out with a different concept of God?   What if your concept of God was the Hindu god Shiva – god as the eternally active cosmic birther and destroyer, the great god of the dance?   You’d probably find it equally hard to see how Jesus could be that God.

Or what if you started out with an Islamic concept of God – a deity who can hear you but cannot act on your behalf, and who demands complete obedience to his complex and explicit demands.   You’d probably find it hard to equate Jesus with this god too.

But, says Athanasius, what if, instead of starting with whatever concept of God our culture has given us, we turn the whole process on its head.   What if, instead of starting with our concept of God and trying to build Jesus into it, we start with Jesus, and try to shape our understanding of God around Him.

What if we try to be honest enough to say ‘we probably know nothing about God, except what we see and hear in Jesus’.   What if we stop pretending that we were born with some innate knowledge of who or what God is, and take as our starting point ‘Jesus is God!’

The problem with our spiritual culture is that we have swallowed some culturally acceptable concept of God that has very little to do with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

People in our culture quite happily speak of God as a sort of therapeutic force that can warm and inspire us, though very much ‘from a distance’.   God in our culture is someone or something that cares and strengthens but doesn’t ever get too involved – certainly not to the point of violating a person’s autonomy, and frankly, he isn’t really able to do very much anyway.

As one commentator said, our culture’s current concept of God is sort of like that guy who, when your car is broken down at the side of the road, drives by and says ‘hey, bad luck buddy, I hope things improve’ and then drives on – empathetic but ultimately ineffective, sincere but remote.

Now if that’s your concept of God – omniscient, omnipresent, distant and aloof – and somebody asks you ‘could Jesus be that God?’, well, it just doesn’t make any sense.

But what if we turn the whole thing in its head.   What if, instead of starting with this culturally defined concept of God, we start with Jesus?   What if we say, ‘well, I don’t understand much about God, but what I do know is that He had two arms and two legs and that he lived in the Middle East for a while, and that He liked parties, and that he touched lepers, and that he gave healing and dignity to people who had never known it before, and that He suffered and died for my sins, and that He rose from the dead on the third day and that He is coming again to bring human history to its point of fulfilment...’

That, I suggest to you friends, is the essence of ‘Trinitarian thinking’.   The doctrine of the Trinity was a historic decision of the church, that we must begin our thinking about God with the person of Jesus, because we are never going to know more about God than what we see in Jesus.   It means being humble, being Biblical, and being counter-cultural.

'We believe in God’ . That’s how our creed began today.   Well, that’s NOT actually how we began our creed today.   We began: ‘we believe in one God, the Father, the almighty, maker of heaven and earth’.   And we did not stop there but went on: ‘we believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.’   And then we continued to place this God in history ‘born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried, but on the third day rose from the dead.’

We don’t just ‘believe in God’.   And we don’t meet here simply because we all ‘believe in God’.   We believe in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and we believe some very specific things about this God!

We believe that this God is not simply here as our therapist, to assist us on our way to a more comfortable lifestyle and a bigger bank-balance.   We believe that this God makes quite explicit and difficult demands on us – indeed, that He wants to take control of our entire lives.   We believe that this God loves us deeply and that He bleeds and dies for us in Jesus.   We believe that this God comes to us again in the person of the Spirit and so lives and breathes among us.   We believe in one God - Father, Son, and Spirit – a unity in Trinity and Trinity in unity that is to be worshiped.   Amen.

Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, June 10th, 2001

Rev. David B. Smith
(the 'Fighting Father')

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of three

Fighting Father Dave

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