Chapter 4

Athanasius: Against the World


It pleases the Lord, the King of the church, in crucial times during the church's history, to raise men of fearless courage who are willing to sacrifice all for the cause of the truth. Such a man was Luther; such a man was Calvin; such men were the leaders of the "Separation" in the Netherlands in 1834; the Lord has blessed our own churches with such spiritual fathers; such a man was also Athanasius. At a most critical time he was raised up by God to defend the truth of the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ against almost all men in the church of his day. The epitaph attached to his name throughout all ages expresses the honored place Athanasius occupies: Athanasius contra mundum -- Athanasius against the world. It is striking that at such times as these, it is often just one man who stands in the gap in defense of Christ's cause. One man contra mundum.

Early Life

The birthplace of Athanasius was Alexandria in Egypt, the city in which was found one of the earliest seminaries of the early church, but also a city which was a seething cauldron of competing philosophies. Because of its strategic geographical position, it was a bustling center of trade and commerce where East and West met. Greek philosophy, Oriental mysticism, the Christian religion -- all clashed and fought for supremacy in this port city of Egypt on the Nile Delta.

Not a lot is known of Athanasius' early life. He was born in 296 of parents of high rank and great wealth. In keeping with the social status of his family, he received a classical and liberal education and became well-versed in Greek philosophy.

But also at an early time in his life he had come to know and love the Christian faith. The story, perhaps apocryphal, is told of a number of bishops of the Alexandrian church who, while meeting in the house of their chief bishop, saw through the window a group of boys on the street imitating certain rites of the church -- as children are wont to do. Watching, while one of the boys was going through the rite of the baptism of his playmates, they decided that the game had gone too far. After calling the boys into the house and quizzing them, they learned that the "baptizing bishop" was the young Athanasius. The chief bishop of Alexandria, named Alexander after the name of the city, took Athanasius under his wing and instructed him more carefully in the Christian faith. This was the beginning of a long period of close friendship between Alexander and Athanasius, the latter soon becoming the spiritual and theological superior of his mentor. Athanasius was soon made the private secretary of Alexander and deacon in the church of Alexandria.

The Great Controversy

The story of Athanasius is woven into the warp and woof of one of the greatest controversies that has ever troubled the Christian church, a controversy concerning the doctrine of Christ's divinity.

The great enemy of the church, Satan, the prince of devils, has one powerful weapon in his arsenal which he repeatedly uses to attack the stronghold of Christ's church: the weapon of false doctrine. Persecution is also such a weapon, but Satan had failed in his efforts to destroy the church with this weapon, for "the blood of the martyrs had become the seed of the church." Now he turned to false doctrine.

His weapon was aimed at the very heart of the Christian faith: the truth of Christ's divinity. If Satan could rob the church of that doctrine, the church would be destroyed forever. The Lord Himself had told His disciples that it was upon the rock of this confession that He would build His church, and the gates of hell would never prevail against it (Matt. 16:13-19). The apostle John had warned the church that everyone who denies that Jesus Christ is come into the flesh is of Antichrist (I John 4:3).

Because the church was still very young, no formulation of this doctrine had been made, and, indeed, there was much confusion over the point. How could God be the only true and living God, while at the same time both the Father and the Son were God? This was the question with which the church struggled. Various solutions to the problem had been proposed, but all had been rejected by the church as being contrary to the clear statements of Scripture. But what exactly Scripture did teach on this subject the church was not prepared to say.

Into this situation a man by the name of Arius set forth his solutions. He was a man of no little ability, but he was also vain and arrogant. he proposed that the Son, just because He was the Son, could not be God. Though perhaps He was eternal, He nevertheless had to be created. And if He was created, there was a time when He was not. Thus He taught that our Lord Jesus Christ was not God, but a creature, even though the highest of all creatures.

Because of Arius' influence in the church, his views were widely accepted and many began to defend what he taught. The result was that the whole church was torn by confusion, controversy, schism, and bitterness. The unrest reached also into the city of Alexandria. Here Alexander and his bishops saw the evil of the views of Arius and resolved to do all in their power to combat them. Alexander's deacon and secretary was God's man to help in this noble cause.

Constantine was the emperor of the Roman Empire and he had thought to give a decaying empire new life and unity by embracing and supporting the Christian faith and making it the faith of the empire. When he saw his fondest hopes about to be dashed to pieces by internal conflicts in the church, he resolved to attempt a settlement by calling an ecumenical council at which would be present delegates from the church in every part of the empire.

The Great Council

The council is the famous and venerated Council of Nicea which met in 325, the decisions of which are incorporated into the Nicene Creed.

The council met in the city of Nicea in the northwestern part of Asia Minor, on the shore near the Bosporus. Over 250 bishops from all parts of the Eastern Church were there; the emperor was present; a delegation from the West, sent by the bishop of Rome was present; Alexander and his youthful secretary were also there. Some of the members of the council came with bodies scarred and broken by the persecution of Diocletian which had ended only a little more than ten years earlier.

The council was divided roughly into three factions: one group of men who were determined to support Arius and establish his views in the church; an orthodox group to which Alexander and Athanasius belonged, very small, numbering only about 20 men, who were ready to fight long and hard for the truth of Christ's divinity; and the majority who stood somewhere between these two factions.

The orthodox group was, far and away, the most capable; and by their steady and biblical defense of the truth, finally prevailed upon a majority to adopt the solid orthodox position, that Christ is "very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father." In the formulation of this creed, Athanasius played a leading role and emerged from the council as the most able defender of the truth of the divinity of Christ. He was recognized as a man of outstanding "zeal, intellect, and eloquence."

One would think that the decision of this council would have settled the matter; for the truth was set forth, Arius was condemned, and the position which he took was anathematized. But this was far from the case. The controversy continued unabated in the church; in fact, it became more bitter, more rancorous, more divisive until the church was fairly torn to pieces by the struggle. While, generally speaking, the out and out Arians declined in influence, another party arose, basically Arian, but taking the position that while Christ was truly divine, He was of a "like essence" with God and not of the "same essence." This difference was expressed by two key words: the orthodox held to the truth that Christ was homo-ousios (of the same essence) with the Father; the semi-Arians, as they were known, held to the idea that Christ was homoi-ousios (or similar essence) with the Father. I am always a bit amused that people today can get excited about what they perceive to be useless hair-splitting in doctrinal controversies in the church, when the great truths of the divinity of Christ hung, in this controversy, on whether or not the little letter "i" ought to be included in this key word.

His Sufferings for the Truth

It was during this period of confusion and ecclesiastical chaos that the light of Athanasius shone brightly. In 328, after the death of Alexander, he became bishop of the church in Alexandria. While almost the whole world went chasing after the Arian heresy, Athanasius stood like a rock for the truth of Scripture and Nicene orthodoxy.

For his troubles he was banished no less than five times. Of the 46 years of his ministry as bishop of Alexandria, he spent 20 years in exile.

His first exile began with his condemnation at the Synods of Tyre and Constantinople. He was banished to Treves in faraway Gaul (now France) on the borders of the empire, where his enemies thought he could do no harm. He was banished by the emperor for refusing to permit Arian men to the table of the Lord. He was accused of being a disturber of the peace and a troubler in Israel. In fact, the hatred of his enemies was so intense that accusations of murder and fornication were hurled against him. The former accusation he proved false by presenting to the council the very man whom he was accused of murdering. His accusers were momentarily speechless, but continued their bitter attacks, and he was severed from his beloved congregation.

The fortunes of the orthodox party rose and fell with the particular emperor who happened to occupy the throne of the empire. And so, when a new emperor came to power, Athanasius was recalled from exile in 338 and returned to his congregation. But his enemies remained fierce and bitter. And so, once again, in 339 he was exiled. This time he fled to Rome to find safety with the bishop of Rome, Julius by name. The West was far more orthodox than the East and he found a sympathetic audience for his views. The time of this exile was spent in rallying the West to the orthodox position.

In 346 he was recalled, but again his labors in his congregation were interrupted. After ten years, a new emperor attempted to accommodate the Arians, and the enemies of Athanasius saw another opportunity to get rid of their opponent. In 356, while Athanasius was conducting a service with his congregation, 5,000 armed soldiers stormed the church building. Calmly, he began reading Psalm 136 and asked his congregation to respond. It was a moving moment. When he read: "O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good," his congregation responded: "For his mercy endureth forever." This time he went into the desert to spend time with the monks who had retired from the church to find God in their own peculiar ways. The time in the desert was spent in writing, and the content of his writings was the defense of the great truth that Christ is fully God and that the Arians were idolaters who worshiped strange gods, no different from the heathen.

Again he was recalled to his flock (362), but was almost immediately driven away by those who were stung by his attacks against them. As he left his weeping congregation, he comforted them with the words: "Be of good cheer; it is only a cloud, which will soon pass on." He escaped hired assassins on an imperial ship on the Nile and found refuge once again in the desert.

Once more he was able to return. Once more he was driven from his flock, this last time to find refuge for four months in the tomb of his father. By this time he was an aged man and longed to spend the last years of his life with his beloved sheep. The Lord granted this prayer, and he was able to return and spend the few remaining years of his pilgrimage with those whom he had so long and faithfully served.

His Character

This remarkable servant of God suffered as few are called to suffer. Yet he never once deviated from his defense of the great truth of Christ's divinity. He was a man of small stature, somewhat stooped, emaciated by fasting and many troubles, but fair of countenance, possessing a piercing eye and great power of presence. Though in his old age he became increasingly weary of the battle and the cares of the church, he never wavered from his position. Nor did he live to see his position finally vindicated at the great Council of Constantinople in 381, which emphatically reaffirmed the creed of Nicea.

His love for the truth was not rooted in a mere love of doctrinal speculation. He was intent on maintaining his position because he believed that the salvation of the church rested on the truth of Christ's absolute divinity. As he expressed it: The divinity of Christ is necessary for redemption because only God can do the impossible; i.e., only God can save poor sinners such as we are.

Other major accomplishments marked his troubled life. in 367, while temporarily at peace in his congregation, he wrote a pastoral letter to all the churches. This is an interesting footnote to history. The churches were, by this time, accustomed to celebrate Christ's resurrection on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox -- as we do to this day. The bishop of Alexandria was instructed to determine the date each year and inform the churches of the date. This instruction was due to the fact that the best astronomers were to be found in Alexandria. But the bishops of Alexandria took the occasion to write a pastoral letter to all the churches on some important point of doctrine. When this duty fell on Athanasius in 367, he took the occasion to instruct the churches in the canon of Scripture and to enumerate the books which rightly were the rule of the faith and life in the church. Athanasius' letter contained the 66 books of the Bible as we now have them, and excluded the apocryphal books.

He wrote extensively on many subjects, but concentrated on a defense of the great truths of the divinity of our Lord. Added to his many books was one which contained a biography of the venerated monk, Anthony. Athanasius himself lived an ascetic life and was much influenced by the desert monks who gave themselves to the isolation of the desert to live near to God. It remains to this day a classic of the solitary life.

Athanasius proved his greatness "in suffering, and through years of warfare against mighty errors and the imperial court." He was "Athanasius contra mundum" because this expresses best described "his fearless independence and immovable fidelity to the Scriptures."

"It was the passion and the life-work of Athanasius to vindicate the deity of Christ, which he rightly regarded as the cornerstone of the edifice of the Christian faith, and without which he could conceive no redemption. For this truth he spent all his time and strength; for this he suffered deposition and twenty years of exile; for this he would have been at any moment glad to pour out his blood. For his vindication of this truth he was much hated, much loved, always respected or feared. In the unwavering conviction that he had the right and the protection of God on his side, he constantly disdained to call in the secular power for his ecclesiastical ends, and to degrade himself to an imperial courtier, as his antagonists often did."

Gregory of Nazianzus, a contemporary, spoke of Athanasius in these words:

He was one that so governed himself that his life supplied the place of sermons . . . . He was a patron to the widows, a father to orphans, a friend to the poor, a harbor to strangers, a brother to brethren, a physician to the sick, a keeper of the healthful, one who "became all things to all men, that, if not all, he might at least gain the more."

May God be pleased to raise up such men in His church today.