Contra Mundum Redux
Mark Tooley on St. Athanasius
I am a United Methodist, but one of my greatest heroes in Christian history comes from the ancient church of Egypt. Athanasius lived 1,300 years before the founding of Methodism, but he was well known to Methodism’s founder. When the aged John Wesley wrote one of his final letters to William Wilberforce, he likened that crusader against slavery to an “Athanasius contra mundum.”
“Athanasius against the world.” For most of his almost 50 years as bishop of Alexandria, he truly was arrayed against the full breadth of the Roman Empire, defiantly defending the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity against pagans and Arian heretics. Parker Williamson of The Presbyterian Layman several years ago wrote a wonderful book, Standing Firm, describing the issues between the orthodox and heterodox at the Council of Nicaea, where the full and eternal deity of Christ was debated and ultimately affirmed.
Arius, an often admirable church leader, denied that Christ was eternally co-existent with the Father. For him, Christ was a creature, not the Creator. As the Arian slogan went, “There was a time when he was not.” Not unfairly, Williamson likened some of Arius’s supporters to modern church leaders who advocate theological “diversity.”
In contrast, Athanasius, a young priest and protégé of the orthodox Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, stubbornly resisted Arius’s theological innovations. Of course, Athanasius, who would soon succeed his mentor to the bishopric, prevailed at the Council of Nicaea in 325, which insisted in its creed that Jesus of Nazareth was “God from God, light from light, true God from true God” and the one “through whom all things were made.” It was a crushing victory, the bishops closing their creed with the declaration that “those who say, there was when he was not, and, before being born he was not . . . these the Catholic Church anathematizes.”
But though he prevailed at the council, Athanasius still faced a half-century of theological combat, as the Arians attempted to gain by practice what they could not gain in a council.
The Force of a Single Mind
One of my favorite descriptions of Athanasius comes from Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which devoted several chapters to the Arian controversy. No fan of Christianity, Gibbon nonetheless lavished his admiration on the zealous bishop of Alexandria who nearly single-handedly championed theological orthodoxy when it seemed all of Christendom was succumbing to Arius’s alternative brand of religion. Gibbon’s introduction of the heroic prelate captures the remarkable magnetism and forcefulness of Athanasius:
Athanasius was expelled from his throne five times and spent 20 years as an exile or a fugitive. Yet almost every province of the Roman empire was “successively witness to his merit, and his sufferings in the cause of the Homoousion [the doctrine of Christ’s co-substantiality with the Father], which he considered as the sole pleasure and business, as the duty, and as the glory, of his life.”
Although Gibbon thought Athanasius tainted by “fanaticism,” he acclaimed the archbishop of Alexandria as “patient of labour, jealous of fame, careless of safety.” And although not the greatest of orators or writers, Athanasius’s “unpremeditated style, either of speaking or writing, was clear, forcible, and persuasive.” For the Egyptian church leader, who interacted with every order of men from monk to emperor, the knowledge of human nature was his first and most important science. According to Gibbon, his political acumen and sense of timing were superb:
Gibbon chronicled how Athanasius contended with successive Roman emperors, who usually sided against the quarrelsome archbishop of Alexandria. The monarchs either supported Arianism or preferred political compromise over fidelity to the creed of Nicaea. That list of Roman princes against whom Athanasius contended ran from the great Constantine, through Constantine’s three “degenerate” sons, to Julian the Apostate, who recognized that orthodoxy and not Arianism represented the chief threat to his pagan revival, to Jovian, whose benign and brief reign offered Athanasius a brief respite, and finally to the cruel Valentinian and his brother Valens, an Arian who finally yielded to the more forceful Athanasius, who died peacefully while still occupying his archbishopric.
No less vexing were most of the empire’s bishops, almost none of whom, at least outside Athanasius’s own native Egypt, were willing to share in the persecutions the orthodox endured. Bishops in both East and West joined in synods and councils that denounced the archbishop of Egypt, hurled accusations against his theology and his character, and attempted to replace him, imprison him, and even kill him. They often had at their disposal the armies of the emperor, which occupied Egypt’s cathedrals and churches but never managed to apprehend the elusive bishop, who found refuge in the desert, in the monasteries, or in the homes of faithful supporters during his nearly 20 years of intermittent exile.
Whether from his bishop’s throne or from an obscure hiding place, Athanasius never compromised on the essentials or fell silent, his writings penetrating the far reaches of the empire even when the bishop himself was elusive. Although Arianism would endure beyond the life of Athanasius, its ultimate defeat within Christendom was achieved only because of his witness and exertions, operating under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whose full deity, along with that of the Son and of the Father, was the unfailing guidepost to the ostracized but never despairing bishop.
Athanasius’s crusade for orthodox renewal gives us plenty of examples to follow for our own work within modern and no less troubled churches. As I review his life, thirteen attributes come to mind that are relevant to our own time:
1. Discernment and focus. He devoted himself entirely to the most important issue of his era, a struggle for which he was uniquely qualified. He applied his energies where they would have the most effect. Although there were other heresies and threats to Christendom beyond the Arian challenge, Athanasius knew that the subtle attack upon Christ’s identity was the most insidious and therefore demanded the whole force of his personality and life.
2. Courage. Deficient in neither moral nor physical courage, Athanasius on more than one occasion risked his physical life when imperial troops were literally ramming the doors of his Alexandrine cathedral, and when he threw himself before the Emperor Constantine in a direct confrontation. Yet threats to his life were, though real, only periodic. In more demand was his moral courage, upon which he drew for nearly five decades of spiritual battle. He realized that the gospel is inherently controversial, incurring the resistance of both temporal and spiritual powers.
3. Persistence. Athanasius was not persuaded to change course, even by often overwhelming failure. His long exiles and persecutions he perceived as only roadblocks, not insurmountable obstacles. He realized that his campaign for orthodoxy would consume decades, and its results perhaps would not be realizable within his lifetime. Yet he persevered.
4. Confidence. For Athanasius, doubt is not of faith. He was not intimidated or discouraged for long because he was certain of the final outcome. The identity and power of the godhead as realized in the Trinity would more than survive the assaults of bishops and emperors beholden to the fashions of Arianism.
5. Inflexibility in principle and pragmatism in technique. Athanasius never compromised on core doctrine. He shunned offers that would end persecution if only Arianism were allowed equal time. He worshipped a jealous God. But he was flexible in the techniques by which doctrine would be defended, and he was open to new terminology to describe and explain the doctrine. “Homoousion,” a new term to explain that Christ is of one substance with the Father, was not a directly scriptural word and initially caused him misgivings. But the accuracy of the explanation persuaded him to adopt it.
6. Demand for reforming the entire church. Athanasius could have avoided much turmoil and distress had he simply governed his own Egyptian see with his own brand of orthodoxy without insisting on its application throughout the Church universal. But he knew he was a bishop responsible to the whole Church, not just to Egypt, and that apostasy anywhere ultimately affects all members of the Body of Christ.
7. Widespread appeal. Athanasius spoke to the whole church, not just to bishops, councils, synods, or emperors. He delivered his message, in person or by writing, to every province of the empire and nearly every branch of the Church, to both laity and clergy, in doctrinally specific but still plainspoken language.
8. Dependence on laity. For much of Athanasius’s ecclesiastical career, most bishops and probably most clergy were hostile to his message of orthodoxy. He relied on and provided spiritual leadership to laity, including many lay monks, who instinctively responded to his affirmation of orthodoxy. Athanasius did not believe that because the shepherds had failed, that the flock must be abandoned.
9. Boldness in public. Athanasius had a flair for the dramatic. And he was self-consciously polarizing, knowing that polarization could lead to clarity. The Emperor Julian the Apostate called him the “enemy of the gods,” an insult Athanasius no doubt relished. He liked surprise, when well orchestrated. He knew that the Christian life could not be lived successfully in tepid tones and that a large and active following can only be excited by bold colors. The trumpet sound must be certain.
10. Defense of character. He always rebutted the numerous assaults upon his personal integrity, knowing that fairly or not, in the minds of his contemporaries the orthodox cause was inextricably bound up with the archbishop of Egypt. When standing before a synod summoned to examine a charge that he had exterminated an ecclesiastical rival, he dramatically produced the supposedly murdered priest at the trial. When a church tribunal failed to clear his name, he even more dramatically traveled incognito to Constantinople, throwing himself before the horse of the surprised emperor, stating his defense in the street, rudely but persuasively.
11. Reliance upon the Scriptures. Athanasius did not have 2,000 years of Christian tradition upon which to rely. The Council of Nicaea had not yet been cloaked with the luster and deference of history. He pointed to Scripture as the final and fully reliable guide for the Christian faith.
12. Recognition of the importance and weakness of resolutions. There was no greater champion of the Nicene Creed than Athanasius. But he knew the creed by itself was ineffectual against apostate church leadership. For the creed to have feet, it must have faithful bearers.
13. Total war. Athanasius knew that orthodoxy and heresy could not peacefully co-exist within the Church. One would triumph. He employed every honorable tool within his reach to ensure that the right side would prevail.
A Fourteenth Lesson
It should be recalled that Athanasius waged his empire-wide spiritual combat against heresy while still performing the routine duties of a bishop: preaching, administering the sacraments, visiting his people from the mouth of the Nile to Ethiopia, conversing with equal comfort with both royalty and desert hermits. As Gibbon wrote, “In the various turns of his prosperous and adverse fortune, he never lost the confidence of his friends, or the esteem of his enemies.” Perhaps there should be a fourteenth lesson from Athanasius: Devotion to the cause of theological orthodoxy should not distract us from the mundane details of local ministry.
Of course, few of us who contend for the faith within our troubled churches have the advantages of Athanasius’s education, position, talents, providential placement in history, and courage. Yet the God who gave him guidance is also available to us. The attributes of persistence and confidence that bolstered the Egyptian bishop are not outside our reach.
The results of our actions within the Church may be nearly as consequential for the church’s future as were Athanasius’s. Like him, we may not live to fully witness the fruits of our work. But we can know with confidence that God will employ our labors for renewal to the benefit of his people and to his glory.
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“Contra Mundum Redux” first appeared in the April 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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