On May 2, we celebrate the feast of St. Athanasius. In a wonderful coincidence, we also start to read from Acts 15 that day. The common thread? Both involve Church controversies.
In Acts 15, the issue was circumcision: Should Gentile converts to Christianity have to be circumcised, and observe the Mosaic Law generally? After all, Jesus said that He came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17), but He also declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19).
Some Pharisee converts held that the Gentile converts should be circumcised and observe the Law. St. Paul thought that the ritual components of the Mosaic Law had been superseded by Jesus, therefore circumcision wasn’t necessary.
The dispute was resolved in favor of St. Paul’s position — which is why we’re not bound by the kosher laws today. But it’s important to understand the process by which that resolution was reached. The controversy was brought to the apostles in Jerusalem — sort of like the convening of a Church council. (In fact the gathering is sometimes called “the Jerusalem Council.”) The apostles listened, talked and prayed. Then they said something crucial: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us …”
Here are some things we need to notice. 1) Ultimately, it’s the Holy Spirit guiding the Church in times of controversy. 2) But the Spirit guides the Church through human beings — and that takes time. 3) The resolution always builds on Jesus’ words and deeds, but we have to figure out how best to understand those words and deeds.
In the time of St. Athanasius — 300 years later — the issue was the nature of Jesus: Was He simply human, fully divine, or something in between? After all, He says both “the Father and I are one” (John 10:30) and “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).
Some, following Arius, thought that Jesus was more than human but less than divine. They summarized their position by saying He was “of similar (but not the same) substance” as the Father. Others, like St. Athanasius, held that Jesus was fully divine — “of the same substance” as the Father.
The dispute was resolved in 325 A.D. at the Council of Nicaea in favor of St. Athanasius’ position — and even today we say that Jesus is “consubstantial” with the Father. But, again, it’s crucial to notice the process. The dispute was brought to a worldwide gathering of bishops. (In this case it’s known as an “Ecumenical Council.”) Ultimately it was the Holy Spirit guiding the Church. But the Spirit worked through human beings, and that took time. In fact, this debate continued in various forms for another 125 years, and all of the issues weren’t finally settled until the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Once again the resolution built on Jesus’ words and deeds. But once again it involved figuring out how best to understand those words and deeds.
The controversies in Acts 15 and the life of St. Athanasius follow a common pattern. Maybe, by studying that pattern more closely, we can engage the controversies of our own day with greater skill.