Let’s do a thought experiment. Suppose the teaching of the Catholic Church was this: God created the Son, and thus Jesus has no divine nature, and God is not a Trinity of Persons.

There was a time 1,700 years ago when this almost happened.  The notion that Jesus was not divine – what we now call the Arian heresy – saw the light of day among a majority of bishops.  The battle over this may well have been the most crucial battle for truth in all of Church history.  Extraordinary concepts hung in the balance.  The Church as we know it today – if it survived at all – would be far different had the Arians prevailed.  Our understanding of who Jesus is, of the Eucharist, of the Trinity, of apostolic teaching were all at stake.

Several key saints in the 4th century fought off the spreading Arian belief that the Son was a created being. All of them were important.  But one stood out: St. Athanasius.  It is fair to say that, if it were not for Athanasius, we might all be Arians today.

Let’s go back to the mid-300s. Athanasius, exiled Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, stood at the foot of a massive sand dune on the edge of the Sahara where he had been banished.  He was not in a good mood.  This was not the first time the Arians had banished him from his diocese.  What to do this time?  I have it on good authority (my imagination) that he was tempted to reach into his golf bag, pull out his sand wedge and a handful of golf balls, and let fly at the mounds of sand in front of him.  Maybe even pull out his driver so he could pummel his frustrations away. And I wouldn’t blame him.  It was perfectly understandable for Athanasius to vent at the Arians who, not unlike the woke crowds of today, used their power to cancel their enemies.  But instead, Athanasius chose to continue the fight for what he knew to be true – that “the Word was God” (John 1:1).

The Emperor Constantine, himself a recent convert to Christianity, issued the Edict of Toleration in the year 313.  The days of severe persecution of Christians were finally over and a long-sought new era of freedom and growth was on the horizon.  But as they say, be careful what you ask for.  A mere 5 years later, Arius, a priest from Alexandria, was now free to disseminate his ideas and began to claim that, although Jesus was indeed the Son of God, he was not God.  He was created by God. His mantra was, “there was a time when the Son was not.” No doubt his reading of Scripture formed much of the basis for his claim.  The dicey practice of using proof texts to support a position was as common then as it is now.  Passages such as Christ was “the first-born of all creation,” (Colossians 1:15) certainly were on his mind, even as other passages supported Christ’s divinity.

Arius was aggressive and gifted in garnering publicity.  Dozens of bishops were attracted to this new theological concept and a rift developed among the bishops and scholars in the still-young Church.  Constantine, disapproving of the division, used his authority to call a Council to resolve the dispute (foreshadowing church-state commingling in the future).  His directive: “Bishops: stop fighting and work this out.”   

So, the Council of Nicaea was held in 325.  Athanasius, then a young deacon and an assistant to the Bishop of Alexandria, attended and played a significant role.  He observed that an impressive 300 of the world’s 1,800 bishops were in attendance.  After much debate, the bishops present overwhelmingly condemned the teachings of Arius and declared that the Son of God was indeed divine, “one in being” or “consubstantial” with the Father.  Much of the Nicene Creed which we pray at Mass on Sundays came from this Council. 

The attending bishops thought that the Council settled the matter.  Unfortunately, it did not.  Many of the 1,500 bishops who did not attend remained attracted to Arius’s teaching, and Arius and his supporters continued to press the issue in the ensuing years.  At one point in mid-century, maybe half the bishops were Arian.  Ponder that for a moment. 

Then Constantine died.  His son and successor, Constantius, embraced Arianism and tried to muscle it in as the official teaching of the Church.  That was behind several of the FIVE times that Athanasius, who became Alexandria’s bishop not long after the Council, was thrown out of his diocese and sent packing into exile.  

The reason Athanasius was exiled five times was that he chose to fight his way back each time.  He could have packed it in after any of his exiles.  But he put down his sand wedge, prayed intently for God’s help, and worked the phones and internet of his day (perhaps slower than 5G). Through his contacts with Church officials, popes, and other stalwart allies – along with his sterling reputation as a saintly man and formidable scholar – he kept his “Nicaeans” in the game.

 About that sterling reputation.  His enemies were not fond of that.  So they sought to take down their most feared opponent by trumping up a murder charge against him.  However, when the supposed murder victim showed up, alive and well and obviously not murdered, their plan backfired.  (Alas, fake news is not new.)

Athanasius had help.  Among his fellow warriors were his good friend, St. Anthony the Abbot, considered the founder of monasticism, St. Basil, St. Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem (who also was booted from his diocese several times over this), St. Ambrose, who succeeded an Arian bishop at Milan, and St. Hilary of Poitiers, who was enormously effective at refuting Arianism.  Hilary once refused to attend a synod at Milan because the attending bishops were planning to condemn Athanasius.  And there were others.

Athanasius, who died in 373, did not live to see the defeat of Arianism. It was mostly put to rest in Christian areas by the Council of Alexandria eight years after he died, as the bishops finally reached a consensus opposing it.  Arianism did catch on among some of the Germanic tribes who, in the ensuing century, poured down on the Roman world, bringing an end to the Empire, and it lingered in the Middle East.  And some historians say that an Arian presence in Arabia helped to facilitate the spread of Islam in the 7th century since Arians and Muslims both rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. This may have made Islam seem more reasonable.

We can be grateful to Athanasius for our understanding of the nature of Christ as we know it today – and to the Holy Spirit, whose guiding hand was upon Athanasius and his fellow defenders of the divinity of Christ.

3 Comments

  • Elizabeth Petrides Posted May 24, 2022 2:23 pm

    This is a test. Report of trouble leaving a comment has been received.

  • https://tkescorts.com/ Posted August 14, 2023 10:29 pm

    When I originally commented I appear to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on every time a comment is added I receive four emails with the same comment. There has to be a way you can remove me from that service? Many thanks!

    • RP Posted August 17, 2023 6:26 pm

      Thank you. I will work on it. I may need simply to delete your comment. If it happens again, let me know. R

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