It is fitting that on the feast day of St. Athanasius, we read the Lord Jesus say “The Father and I are one.” This is but one of many passages that were held up by the Church Fathers as they articulated and defended the divinity of the Son of God. Of course, the great churchmen were not simply proof-texting. The entire narrative theme of Scripture and the New Testament, not to mention the consistent testimony of the apostles and their successors, was that Jesus Christ was truly God with us. God the Son became man. The eternal Logos of God had come, as St. John writes earlier, to ‘tabernacle’ among man.
St. Athanasius was an ardent defender of the divinity of Christ. Despite many hardships, he persevered in teaching the truth of the faith and was very theologically influential at the council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Opposing Athanasius, and those aligned with him, were the Arians, so named after Bishop Arius who claimed that the Son of God was not truly God. The Arian heresy has never died out. Many people today take up his mantle, declaring the Son of God to be the most exalted creature or some other thing that is ultimately repugnant to the faith. Unitarian Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, are firmly in this camp.
When confronted with passages from today’s Gospel reading about the unity of the Son and the Father, Arians will typically argue that Jesus could only mean the Father and the Son were united in will and purpose. Analogous to their case would be when two people are aligned in a partnership of some kind. These individuals are ‘one’ in accord. The problem with this way of understanding the text is that it creates unsustainable tension when read in the broader context of the totality of Jesus’ recorded claims and self-understanding. Mere unity of purpose in the Father and the Son would not have been that controversial, certainly not enough to get Jesus on the short list of blasphemers worthy of death.
What the Arians continue to miss, and what St. Athanasius proclaimed, was that the divinity of Jesus Christ the Son of God, is the great mystery that Sacred Scripture and Apostolic teaching demands we affirm. By ignoring the proper communication of idioms and by foisting philosophical presuppositions that inherently limit what cannot be limited, the mystery of the incarnation - the inner life of God - is essentially reduced to a proposition that can only be contained within the creaturely mind. Arians draw a firm line on what they will accept as revealed truth and mystery, and therefore ultimately make God in the image of man.
We affirm with St. Athanasius that the Son of God is truly God. Of the same essence as the Father. God from God. Light from light. True God from true God. Begotten not made. Every Sunday we confess our faith and give our assent to the truth given to us directly from God through the teachings of God Himself in Christ and the Apostles.