UMAction Briefing HomepageMark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy



May 31, 2000

Whether from his bishop’s throne, or from a obscure hiding place, Athanasius never compromised on the essentials nor fell silent, his writings penetrating the far reaches of the empire even when the bishop himself was elusive.

For over 12 year I have worked for renewal within the United Methodist Church, having done so in a full-time capacity for over five years. The main scoffers at this type of activity, at least within my own communion, are not the proponents of outright heresy, who are prominent but few in number. They are rather the institutionalists who reflexively defend the status quo, and the conservative cynics, who despair that any attempt to reclaim a liberal-led church is doomed to failure.

Part of my task is to persuade the former that the institutional status quo is not necessarily the Gospel way. (This point should be obvious to the heirs of Martin Luther and John Wesley, but unfortunately it often is not.) And I must also persuade the latter that apostasy is not a uniquely modern phenomenon, but one against which every generation of Christians dating to the early church has had to struggle.

For historical precedents, Methodists can look to Wesley’s struggles within the Church of England, and all Protestants can look to the Reformation. Catholics can look to Francis of Assisi or the Benedictines as orthodox renewalists, not to mention the current Pope. Orthodox can look to John Crysostom and many others. We can all look to St. Paul’s admonishments to apostate churches. The Lord warned us that the tares would always been intermingled with the wheat (until the final harvest), and that contending for the faith is ever an uncompleted task.

As a student of history I like to draw strength and guidance from historical examples. Increasingly, Athanasius is my favorite. His name is not commonplace to most Methodists, although Wesley was an admirer of the fourth century champion of Christian orthodoxy. In one of Wesley’s final letters, which he penned to John Wilberforce, he likened the anti-slavery crusader to an “Athanasius cum monde.”

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 Creed, most especially the Trinity, against pagans and Arian heretics. Parker Williamson of The Presbyterian Layman several years ago wrote a wonderful book, Standing Firm, that describes the issues between orthodox and heterodox at the Council of Nicaea, where the full and eternal deity of Christ was debated and ultimately affirmed. Williamson focuses especially on Arius, an often admirable church leader who, in what some defenders insisted involved little more than semantics, denied that Christ was eternally co-existent with the Father. For Arius, Christ was a creature, not the Creator.

Not unfairly, Williamson likens Arius and his supporters to more than a few modern church leaders who advocate theological “diversity.” In contrast, Athanasius, a young protégé to the orthodox Bishop Alexander of Alexandria during the Council of Nicaea, was stubbornly resistant to Arius’ theological innovations. Of course, Athanasius, who would soon succeed his mentor to the bishopric, prevailed at Nicaea. But he still faced a half century of theological combat, as the Arians attempted to gain by practice what they could not gain in creed.

One of my favorite descriptions of Athanasius comes from Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which notably devotes several chapters to the Arian controversy. No particular fan of Christianity, Gibbon nonetheless lavishes 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’ more comfortable brand of religion. Gibbon’s introduction of the heroic prelate deserves to be quoted at length, as it captures the remarkable magnetism and forcefulness of Athanasius:

We have seldom an opportunity of observing, either in active or speculative life, what effect may be produced, or what obstacles may be surmounted, by the force of a single mind, when it is inflexibly applied to the pursuit of a single object. The immortal name of Athanasius will never be separated from the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity, to whose defence he consecrated every moment and every faculty of his being. Educated in the family of Alexander, he had vigorously opposed the early progress of the Arian heresy: he exercised the important functions of secretary under the aged prelate; and the fathers of the Nicene council beheld with surprise and respect, the rising virtues of the young deacon. In a time of public danger, the dull claims of age and of rank are sometimes superseded; and within five months after his return from Nice [Nicaea], the deacon Athanasius was seated on the archiepiscopal throne of Egypt. He filled that eminent station above forty-six years, and his long administration was spent in a perpetual combat against the powers of Arianism. Five times was Athanasius expelled from his throne; twenty years he passed as an exile or a fugitive; and almost every province of the Roman empire was successively witness to his merit, and his sufferings in the cause of the Homoousion [the doctrine relating to 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. Amidst the storms of persecution, the archbishop of Alexandria was patient of labour, jealous of fame, careless of safety; and although his mind was tainted by the contagion of fanaticism, Athanasius displayed a superiority of character and abilities, which would have qualified him, far better than the degenerate sons of Constantine, for the government of a great monarchy. His learning was much less profound and extensive than that of Eusebius of Caesarea, and his rude eloquence could not be compared with the polished oratory of Gregory or Basil; but whenever the primate of Egypt was called upon the justify his sentiments or his conduct, his unpremeditated style, either of speaking or writing, was clear, forcible, and persuasive. He has always been revered by the orthodox school, as one of the most accurate masters of the Christian theology; and he was supposed to possess two profane sciences, less adapted to the episcopal character; the knowledge of jurisprudence, and that of divination. Some fortunate conjectures of future events which impartial reasoners might ascribe to the experience and judgment of Athanasius, were attributed by his friends to heavenly inspiration, and imputed by his enemies to infernal magic.

But as Athanasius was continually engaged with the prejudices and passions of every order of men from the monk to the emperor, the knowledge of human nature was his first and most important science. He preserved a distinct and unbroken view of a scene which was incessantly shifting; and never failed to improve those decisive moments which are irrecoverably past before they are perceived by a common eye. The archbishop of Alexandria was capable of distinguishing how far he might boldly command, and where he must dextrously insinuate; how long he might contend with power, and when he must withdraw from persecution; and while he directed the thunders of the church against heresy and rebellion, he could assume, in the bosom of his own party, the flexible and indulgent temper of a prudent leader.

Gibbons chronicles how Athanasius contended with successive Roman emperors who usually sided against the quarrelsome Archbishop of Alexandria, either because they were Arian enthusiasts or because they preferred accommodation to uncompromising creeds. 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 to the cruel Valentinian and his brother Valens, an Arian who finally yielded to his more forceful subject, 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’ own native Egypt, were willing to share in the persecutions that orthodoxy’s adherents 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 personal character, attempted to replace him, imprison him and even extinguish his life. 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 monastaries, or the homes of faithful supporters during his nearly 20 years of intermittent exile.

Whether from his bishop’s throne, or from a obscure hiding place, Athanasius never compromised on the essentials nor 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 thanks to the witness and exertions of Athanasius, operating under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whose full deity, along with that of the Son and of the Father, were the unfailing guideposts to the ostracized but never lonely bishop.

Athanasius’s crusade for orthodox renewal leave us plenty of examples to follow for our own challenges within the modern but no less troubled church. In reviewing his life, 13 attributes come to mind that are relevant to our own time:

  1. Focus: He devoted himself entirely to the most important issue of his era, for which he was uniquely qualified. He applied his energies where they would have the most effect. Although surely 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 Alexandrian 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 was undeterred.

  4. Confidence: For Athanasius, doubt is not of faith. He was not intimidated nor long discouraged 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 and pragmatism: 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 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 his 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. He knew he was a bishop responsible to the whole church, not just to Egypt, and that apostasy anywhere ultimately affected all members of the Body of Christ.

  7. Widespread appeal: He spoke to the whole church, not just to bishops, councils, synods or emperors. Athanasius 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 his ecclesiastical career, most bishops and probably most clergy were hostile to his message of orthodoxy. Athanasius did not believe that because the shepherds had failed, that the flock must be abandoned. He relied on and provided spiritual leadership to laity, including many lay monks, who instinctively responded to his affirmation of orthodoxy.

  9. Boldness: 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 that 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, the orthodox cause was, at least in the minds of his contemporaries, inextricably bound up with the Archbishop of Egypt. When standing before a synod summoned to examine a charge that he had exterminated an ecclesiastical revival, 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: Unlike we, Athanasius did not have 2,000 years of Christian tradition upon which to rely. The Council of Nicea 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. Recognized 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: In the mind of Athanasius, 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.

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, performing visitations 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 14th lesson from Athanasius: devotion to the cause of theological orthodoxy should not distract us from the mundane details of local church ministry.

Of course, few of us who contend for the faith within our troubled churches have the advantages of Athanasius’ education, position, talents, historical timing 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 no less outside our reach. The consequences of our actions within the church may nearly be as consequential for the future as they were for him. Like him, we may not live to fully witness the fruits of our work. But we can know that God will employ our renewal labors to the benefit of countless generations of Christians to come.

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