Athanasius ‘Contra Mundum’

As Emperor Constantine and his retinue were returning from a hunt near Constantinople in 335, a slight, auburn-haired figure jumped onto the trail and signaled for him to stop. As the party raised their weapons, the man exclaimed, “Emperor, I am Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, and I demand a just tribunal!”1


Ten years earlier, in 325 during the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea, Athanasius had come to prominence as one of the ecclesiastical advisors to Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria. It was at this council that Athanasius began his lifelong articulation and defense of the faith the Church confesses in the homoousian doctrine—that the Father and the Son are of the same divine substance. Athanasius was arguing against the Arians, who denied any true relationship between God the Father and the Son, whom they saw as a member of the created order, albeit the firstborn of all creation. If the Son is not like the Father in every respect, Athanasius insisted, then the Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ was not fully divine and human salvation was at stake.


At the conclusion of the Council, only a small minority of bishops present refused to sign the Creed (most likely only five out of over three-hundred), and they were excommunicated. Athanasius and his supporters had won the theological battle, but the political struggle would prove to be considerable. Five months after the Council, Bishop Alexander died and was soon succeeded to the episcopal throne by Athanasius. In spite of his youth, Athanasius’ first few years as the bishop of Alexandria were peaceful and quite profitable. But that was not to last. Within the next two years, the political exigencies of a vast empire mandated that almost all the Arian bishops be restored to their seats of authority. These heretics had gained substantial ecclesiastical and political power under the guidance of Eusebius of Nicomedia, the new ecclesiastical advisor to emperor Constantine. The new alliances demanded that Athanasius be silenced and that the Creed of the Council of Nicaea be give a uniquely Arian interpretation.


When Athanasius refused, Eusebius and the other Arians reported falsely that the bishop had mistreated them at Nicaea, forcing them into submission. A group of prelates was called to hear these reports in Tyre in 335, and though the accused brought witnesses who could testify to his innocence, the “court” was predisposed to favor the Arians. Athanasius was declared guilty and forced to flee from Tyre. It was then that he traveled to Constantinople to confront the emperor and his fellow huntsmen on the trail. Though a hearing was granted and Constantine himself attended, the proceedings went badly, especially when concerns about economic relations with Egypt were raised. This hint of financial loss sent Athanasius into exile to Trier in the Rhineland.


Athanasius spent the rest of his life tossed between banishment and prominence, with as many as seven exiles over the 47 years of his episcopate. Some lasted several months; others, years. When he was free to resume his work as bishop, he led his sector with wisdom and his favor with the laity continued throughout his intermittent exiles. Indeed, it was always the political wrangling of leaders and not the will of the people which drove him into seclusion.2 Exiled by every emperor during his lifetime (with the exception of Constans) Athanasius sometimes found shelter with other religious officials, or with nomadic monks in the desert. Once he even spent several months camped out in his father’s tomb. But none of the time was wasted, for it was then that Athanasius wrote a number of works, including a series of theological treatises Against the Arians, and the biography of the much beloved St Antony,3 which kindled revival within the church of Alexandria.


His life was turbulent; choosing to be a prophet who stood for the full divinity of Christ, he earned the “prophet’s wage,” namely persecution. But neither his courage nor his joy faltered. In On the Incarnation, a work written in his youth, even before the Council of Nicaea, Athanasius cheerfully exhorted his readers to “have no fear.”4 Such was the spirit of the man the people deemed “Athanasius contra mundum,” “Athanasius against the world.” But the bishop was not so much “contra mundum” as he was wholeheartedly set on living for Christ, and it was with this spirit that Athanasius, indeed, overcame the world.




Footnotes:

1 Cornelius Clifford, “St. Athanasius,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 2, eds. Charles G. Herbermann, Edward A. Pace, Conde D. Pallen, Thomas J. Shahan, and John J. Wynne (New York: Universal Knowledge Foundation, 1907), 38.

2 “Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, Theologian, Doctor,” Society of Archbishop Justus Website, http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/152.html (accessed February 29, 2008).

3 St. Antony was a mentor of St. Athanasius, who spent the majority of his life and ministry in the Egyptian desert, exhibiting great piety.

4 Athanasius, On the Incarnation (New York: St. Vladimir’s, 1998), 50. In other editions, see section 21.

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