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One Man’s Joy Stood Against the Whole World

Athanasius (298–373)

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

The church father Athanasius has been dubbed Athanasius contra mundum — “Athanasius against the world.”

The title comes from Athanasius’s lifelong battle to explain and defend the deity of Christ when it seemed that the whole world was abandoning orthodoxy. Athanasius stood steadfast against this overwhelming defection from orthodoxy, even though the dawn of triumph appeared only at the end of his life.

Arius’s Heresy

The war was sparked in 319. A deacon in Alexandria named Arius, who had been born in 256 in Libya, presented a letter to Bishop Alexander arguing that if the Son of God were truly a Son, he must have had a beginning. There must have been a time, therefore, when he did not exist.

Athanasius, who was born in 298 in Egypt, was a little over 20 when the controversy broke out — over 40 years younger than Arius (a lesson in how the younger generation may be more biblically faithful than the older). Athanasius was in the service of Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria. Almost nothing is known of his youth.

In 321 a synod was convened in Alexandria, and Arius was deposed from his office and his views declared heresy. Athanasius at age 23 wrote the deposition for Alexander. This was to be his role now for the next 52 years — writing to declare the glories of the incarnate Son of God. The deposition of Arius unleashed 60 years of ecclesiastical and empire-wide political conflict.

Eusebius of Nicomedia (modern-day Izmit in Turkey) took up Arius’s theology and became “the head and center of the Arian cause” (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, xvi). For the next 40 years, the eastern part of the Roman Empire (measured from modern Istanbul eastward) was mainly Arian. That is true in spite of the fact that the great Council of Nicaea in 325 decided in favor of the full deity of Christ. Hundreds of bishops signed it and then twisted the language to say that Arianism really fit into the wording of Nicaea.

The Empire’s Flash Point

When Athanasius’s mentor, Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, died on April 17, 328, three years after the Council of Nicaea, the mantel of Egypt and the cause of orthodoxy fell to Athanasius. He was ordained as bishop on June 8 that year. This bishopric was the second in Christendom after Rome. It had jurisdiction over all the bishops of Egypt and Libya. Under Athanasius Arianism died out entirely in Egypt. And from Egypt Athanasius wielded his empire-wide influence in the battle for the deity of Christ.

Within two years after taking office as Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius became the flash point of controversy. Most of the bishops who had signed the Creed of Nicaea did not like calling people heretics, even if they disagreed with this basic affirmation of Christ’s deity. They wanted to get rid of Athanasius and his passion for this cause. So Athanasius was accused of levying illegal taxes. There were accusations that he was too young when ordained, that he used magic, that he subsidized treasonable persons, and more. Constantine did not like Athanasius’s hard line either and called him to Rome in 331 to face the charges the bishops were bringing. The facts acquitted him, but his defense of the Nicene formulation of Christ’s deity was increasingly in the minority.

Eventually, Athanasius was condemned and fled in a boat with four bishops and came to Constantinople. The accusers threw aside their previous indictments and created another with false witnesses: Athanasius had tried to starve Constantine’s capitol by preventing wheat shipments from Alexandria. That was too much for Constantine, and even without condemning evidence he ordered Athanasius banished to Treveri (Trier, near today’s Luxembourg). Athanasius left for exile on February 8, 336.

Seven-Year Absence

Constantine died the next year, and the empire was divided among his three sons, Constantius (taking the East), Constans (taking Italy and Illyricum), and Constantine II (taking the Gauls and Africa). One of Constantine II’s first acts was to restore Athanasius to his office in Alexandria on November 23, 337.

Two years later, Eusebius, the leader of the Arians, had persuaded Constantius to get rid of Athanasius. He took the ecclesiastical power into his hands, declared Gregory the bishop of Alexandria, put his own secular governor in charge of the city, and used force to take the bishop’s quarters and the churches. Athanasius was forced to leave the city to spare more bloodshed.

This was the beginning of his second exile — the longest time away from his flock. He left on April 16, 339, and didn’t return until October 21, 346. Constantine’s other two sons supported Athanasius and called the Council of Sardica (now Sophia in Bulgaria), which vindicated him in August 343. But it took three years until the political factors fell into place for his return. Athanasius was finally restored to his people with rejoicing after seven years away.

From the Devil’s Jaws

On January 18, 350, Constans was murdered. This freed Constantius to solidify his power and to attack Athanasius and the Nicene theology unopposed. The people of Alexandria held off one armed assault on the city by the emperor’s secretary Diogenes in 355, but the next year Constantius sent Syrianus, his military commander, to exert the emperor’s control in Alexandria.

On February 8, 356, soldiers broke into Alexandria’s largest church as Athanasius prepared the worshipers for communion the next morning. While the soldiers entered, Athanasius took his seat and told the deacon to lead the congregation in Psalm 136. Each time the congregation responded back, “for his steadfast love endures forever,” the soldiers advanced toward Athanasius, who refused the bishop’s pleas for him to flee until all the people were safe. A group of monks and other leaders finally seized Athanasius and removed him from the scene amid the confusion of the crowd. He would remain away from his people for the next six years.

But at the darkest hour for Athanasius and for the cause of orthodoxy, the dawn was about to break. This third exile proved to be the most fruitful. Protected by an absolutely faithful army of desert monks, no one could find him, and he produced his most significant written works: The Arian History, the four Tracts Against Arians, the four dogmatic letters To Serapion, and On the Councils of Ariminum and Seleucia. It is one of the typical ironies of God’s providence that the triumph over Arianism would happen largely through the ministry of a fugitive living and writing within inches of his death.

Athanasius returned to Alexandria on February 21, 362, by another irony. The new and openly pagan emperor, Julian, reversed all the banishments of Constantius. The favor lasted only eight months. But during these months Athanasius called a synod at Alexandria and gave a more formal consolidation and reconciliation to the gains he had accomplished in the last six years of his writing. It had a tremendous impact on the growing consensus of the church in favor of Nicene orthodoxy. Jerome says that this synod “snatched the whole world from the jaws of Satan,” and Archibald Robertson calls it “the crown of the career of Athanasius” (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, lviii).

The rallying point that this synod gave for orthodoxy in 362 enabled the reuniting forces of Eastern Christendom to withstand the political Arianism under Emperor Valens, who reigned from 364 to 378.

End of the Exiles

But in October 362 Athanasius was again driven from his office by Julian’s wrath when the emperor realized that Athanasius took his Christianity seriously enough to reject the pagan gods. Again he spent the next fifteen months among the desert monks. The story goes that he was freed to return by a prophecy by one of the monks that Julian had that very day fallen in battle in Persia. It proved true, and Athanasius was restored to his ministry on February 14, 364.

A year and a half later Emperor Valens ordered that all the bishops earlier expelled under Julian should be removed once again by the civil authorities. On October 5, 365, the Roman Prefect broke into the church in Alexandria and searched the apartments of the clergy, but the sixty-seven-year-old Athanasius had been warned and escaped one last time — his fifth exile. It was short because a dangerous revolt led by Procopius had to be put down by Valens, so he judged it was not time to allow popular discontent to smolder in Athanasius-loving Alexandria. Athanasius was brought back on February 1, 366.

He spent the last years of his life fulfilling his calling as a pastor and overseer of pastors. He carried on extensive correspondence and gave great encouragement and support to the cause of orthodoxy around the empire. He died on May 2, 373.

Out-Rejoice Your Adversaries

What then may we learn about the sacred calling of controversy from the life of Athanasius?

Athanasius stared down murderous intruders into his church. He stood before emperors who could have killed him as easily as exiling him. He risked the wrath of parents and other clergy by consciously training young people to give their all for Christ, including martyrdom. He celebrated the fruit of his ministry with these words: “in youth they are self-restrained, in temptations endure, in labors persevere, when insulted are patient, when robbed make light of it: and, wonderful as it is, they despise even death and become martyrs of Christ” — martyrs not who kill as they die, but who love as they die (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, 65).

Athanasius contra mundum should inspire every pastor to stand his ground meekly and humbly and courageously whenever a biblical truth is at stake. But be sure that you always out-rejoice your adversaries. If something is worth fighting for, it is worth rejoicing over. And the joy is essential in the battle, for nothing is worth fighting for that will not increase our everlasting joy in God.

Courage in conflict must mingle with joy in Christ. This was part of Athanasius’s battle strategy with his adversaries:

Let us be courageous and rejoice always. . . . Let us consider and lay to heart that while the Lord is with us, our foes can do us no hurt. . . . But if they see us rejoicing in the Lord, contemplating the bliss of the future, mindful of the Lord, deeming all things in His hand . . . — they are discomfited and turned backwards. (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, 207)

Athanasius would have us learn from his life and the life of his heroes this lesson: even if at times it may feel as though we are alone contra mundum, let us stand courageous and out-rejoice our adversaries.