Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Athanasius, Ontology, and the Work of Christ

by Hiram R. Diaz III

§ I. Introduction: Rethinking Church History?

There is value to examining our predecessors in the faith, be they the unnamed scribes who diligently produced copies of the Old and New Testaments, or the earliest proto-systematic theologians of the church who put their best and most prayerful effort into defending the faith against heretics, as well as teaching the sheep of Christ. Regarding the latter, i.e. the church fathers, we get a glimpse of how men living in a completely different time period interacted with their cultures — art, philosophy, law, science, and religion. This grants us the opportunity to examine our own beliefs, testing them for consistency with the Scriptures and with what the body of Christ has consistently taught throughout the ages.

The church fathers were not without errors, nor were they always entirely in error. Unfortunately, however, given their historically situatedness, they often employ language and ideas in an historically specific manner that lends prima facie legitimacy to proof-texts offered by Protestants, Romanists, and the Eastern Orthodox in defense of their respectively unique doctrines. Their writings can often be the source of confusion for Christians honestly seeking to understand historical developments in doctrine, and, what is more, can likewise serve as proof-texts for various heresies.

Oneness Pentecostal David K. Bernard, for instance, claims that Irenaeus — the author of the church’s greatest apologetical texts, Against Heresies — was
a prominent Christian leader who died around A.D. 200, had an intensely Christocentric theology and a firm belief that Jesus was God manifested in flesh. He held that the Logos which became incarnate in Jesus Christ was the mind of God, and was the Father Himself.[1] 
And in a similar vein, as Luke Wayne notes,
in their widely distributed pamphlet, "Should You Believe in the Trinity?" the Watchtower Society (the governing body of the Jehovah's Witnesses) claims that none of the writers of the early church believed in the deity of Christ or the triune nature of God.[2]
These groups appeal to proof-texts using language that appears to support non-trinitarianism, but which upon close examination does not.

The same proof-texting methodology used by Oneness Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witness is also observable in the writings of advocates of the doctrine of annihilationism. Perhaps most famously, Seventh Day Adventist Le Roy Edwin Froom, in his work The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers Vol. I, boldly asserts that the apostolic fathers “were all Conditionalists,”[3] a claim that finds repetition in the writings of many of Froom’s modern admirers among the annihilationists. Following in his steps, they attempt to grant their position historical grounding within the ranks of orthodox theologians of the early church by identifying “giants” of apologetics and theology as their own.