Athanasius vs. Arius and a Mormon in the Whitehouse?

A few weeks ago, a dear lady in our church asked me to consider teaching a series on cults. After giving it prayerful consideration I decided instead to teach a series on the development of Christology in early Christianity. I divided the series into four presentations: (1) Early Jewish Developments; (2) Early Greek Developments; (3) Athanasius vs. Arius: The Nicene Controversy; and (4) Chalcedon: Two Whats in One Who. I was surprised by the reception. Everyone was intensely interested in the material.

During the Q&A someone asked, “How can I vote for Mitt Romney if he doesn’t believe like I do?” Let me state that this blog is not about presidential politics. I responded, “Whoever you vote for, you’re not going to vote for pastor of the USA, but for president.” I explained that I don’t want a president to do theology because one thing we learned from the Nicene controversy is that the emperor doesn’t normally make a good theologian. I’m uncomfortable with applying a religious test to politicians because when this happens politicians usually are very adept in using religious faith to promote their political ends.

A recent post in the opinion pages of the New York Times said that evangelical Christians don’t like Mormons because of “Mormonism’s remarkable success and rapid expansion.” I don’t think so. It goes much deeper. As I was preparing for the presentation entitled “Athanasius vs. Arius” I began to realize that there are similarities between then and now – popular theological movements, politicians, angry preachers, and serious discussions about the identity of Jesus Christ. Many have suggested that the only difference between Arius and Athanasius was a single iota – the difference between homoousios and homoiousios.* Those familiar with the controversy know that the single iota makes all the difference in what and who is Jesus Christ.

During the Nicene controversy the Emperor Constantine was somewhat ambivalent. Even though, by some accounts, the word homoousios was suggested by Constantine, subsequent history demonstrates that he was never really committed to the creed. He disliked Athanasius and probably died favoring the Arian understanding of Jesus Christ. Constantine wanted peace in his empire and had no patience with the likes of Athanasius who risked the stability of the world over a single iota.

Likewise, many contemporary political observers don’t understand the uneasiness that many Protestants and Catholics have about the possibility of a Mormon president. It’s not about politics. It’s about theology. It’s about who is Jesus Christ. The Mormon understanding of Jesus Christ may not be identical to that of Arius, but homoiousios could indeed be used to explain the Mormon Christ, a Christ who is of similar substance of the Father, but not of the same substance of the Father. The fact remains that Mormons do not embrace the Nicene understanding of Holy Trinity or the Chalcedon definition of Jesus Christ.

Athanasius won the day at Nicaea, and homoousios eventually prevailed. But, the Arian understanding of Jesus had the support of the emperors and the majority of Christians throughout the empire for decades. My point is that ancient Nicene Christians were accustomed to being the “underdog.” That’s something that makes us nervous. That’s why the possibility of a Mormon president makes many evangelicals nervous – we don’t want to give Mormons the upper hand or legitimize a heretical Christology.

So, how should Nicene Christians respond if a Mormon becomes president of the United States? What if an avowed atheist becomes president? What if a Muslim is elected president? The answer is simple – we engage the public square with the gospel, not for the sake of politics, but for the sake of the Truth! Christians throughout the world do this every day. I recently received an email from a friend who pastors in Yangon, Myanmar. He was requesting my help in sending his children to a private school. If they attend the public school, then they must pray to Buddha and be indoctrinated in Buddhism. I must admit that this email caused me to seriously rethink the notion of state sponsored prayer in public schools in the United States. I don’t want the emperor doing theology, and I don’t want the state enforcing a civil religion that promotes a generic deity. I do want the state to protect religious freedom for all, and to promote the freedom of conscience.

Engaging the public square with the gospel “must be done properly and in an orderly manner” (1 Corinthians 14:40). During the Nicene controversy angry mobs of Arians and Nicenes rioted in the streets. One legend says that Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, accosted and slapped Arius during the council. Some Arians started a rumor that Athanasius had a rival bishop tortured and assassinated – a rumor that was later proved untrue. It’s likely that Arius was poisoned and murdered by one of his Nicene enemies. Athanasius was exiled five times because of his defense of homoousios. There is little wonder that Constantine despaired for the peace of his empire.

Christians are called to proclaim the gospel of Christ to the world. That means we engage in conversation with adherents of other religions, and we must do so with love. We must put away the sword of persecution and the fiery tongue of confrontation. We must be willing to turn the other cheek and suffer for the sake of Christ. Like Paul on Mars Hill, we must then humbly, boldly, and joyfully defend the Faith. Above all, we must not allow our defense of the Faith to become a tool of national politics.

*Athanasius and the Nicene bishops affirmed Jesus Christ is homoousios, that is, of one substance with the Father. This means that Christ is uncreated and eternally begotten of the Father. Arius and his followers insisted that Christ is homoiousios, that is, of similar substance of the Father. This means that Christ is not eternal, but created and therefore not fully God. The iota between homo and ousios means that Christ is not “very God of very God.”