Most of us don’t think of knowing what time it is as a significant theological issue. Beyond showing up promptly out of respect for an acquaintance, or knowing when to get to church on Sunday, how could it be? According to Athanasius it could mean difference between heresy and orthodoxy. In his First Discourse Against the Arians he sets about answering objections to the Son’s deity from Scripture, showing that the Arians’ hermeneutics were hopelessly misguided and indeed, characterized by interpretive folly.
Bringing forward texts like Hebrews 1:4 “being made so much better to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs”, they argued from this that it is clear that the Son is made ‘better’ in which case he could not be eternal, uncreated, admitting of improvement. Athanasius says that this exegetical failure is rooted in their ignorance of time.
Appealing to the Eunuch’s question to the apostle Philip, “of whom does the Prophet speak, of himself, or of some other man?” (Acts 7:34), he expounds the very important interpretive rule that:
…it is right and necessary, as in all divine Scripture, so here, faithfully to expound the time of which the Apostle wrote, and the person, and the point; lest the reader, from ignorance missing either these or any similar particular, may be wide of the true sense… (7.54)
Athanasius notes how persistent the disciples were about understanding these particulars, especially the time, so that they would not fall into error:
…And the disciples, wishing to learn the time of what was foretold, besought the Lord, ‘Tell us,’ said they, ‘when shall these things be? and what is the sign of Thy coming?’ And again, hearing from the Saviour the events of the end, they desired to learn the time of it, that they might be kept from error themselves, and might be able to teach others; as, for instance, when they had learned, they set right the Thessalonians. who were going wrong. When then one knows properly these points, his understanding of the faith is right and healthy; but if he mistakes any such points, forthwith he falls into heresy… (ibid.)
Scripture also gives us the negative example of what happens when one is temporally disoriented:
…Thus Hymenæus and Alexander and their fellows were beside the time, when they said that the resurrection had already been; and the Galatians were after the time, in making much of circumcision now. And to miss the person was the lot of the Jews, and is still, who think that of one of themselves is said, ‘Behold, the Virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and they shall call his Name Emmanuel, which is being interpreted, God with us;’ and that, ‘A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up to you,’ is spoken of one of the Prophets; and who, as to the words, ‘He was led as a sheep to the slaughter,’… (ibid)
Arius and his followers were making Hymenaeus and Alexander’s mistake, not noting the time with respect to the texts in dispute. If they had, they would have observed that the apostle is not referring to the Lord with respect to his pre-incarnate state, but within the economy of salvation with respect to his humanity. That is the time when God “spoke to us by His Son” (Heb. 1:2), and the Son obtained a more excellent name than the angels (Heb. 1:3, 4). In other words, they didn’t understand the hermeneutical difference it makes that the story’s main character has a “history” that begins in eternity.
Christianity is a historical faith about things that took place in particular locations at precise times. Salvation is a dramatic reality which means that knowing which act we’re in can drastically impact the way we read the lines. While modern biblical studies have directed us to pay closer attention to the concrete socio-historical circumstances surrounding the texts, and recent narratival/canonical approaches have re-emphasized the redemptive-historical location of the text, Athanasius reminds us to keep an eye on the distinction between history and eternity.
Soli Deo Gloria