Institute on Religion and Democracy
May 31, 2000
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 Wesleys 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. Pauls 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 Wesleys 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 Gibbons 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. Gibbons 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 Christs 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 Constantines 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 empires bishops, almost none of whom, at least outside Athanasius own native Egypt, were willing to share in the persecutions that orthodoxys 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 bishops 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.
Athanasiuss 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:
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.