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As illustrated in other articles in this issue, the fourth century was a very interesting time in the history of the church. Having undergone a great deal of persecution as a despised religion in the eyes of Rome, the conversion of Constantine and the Edict of Milan in 313 brought about a policy of toleration for Christianity. The external threats to the church having somewhat subsided, internal threats once again began to mount. Heresy was not new to the church. The apostle Paul took on the challenge of the Judaizers in the first century, and, among others, Irenaus refuted the Gnostics and Marcionites of the second century. In the fourth century, the number one heresy was the teaching of a presbyter in Alexandria named Arius, concerning the person of Christ. Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, refuted the teaching of Arius and his followers and this eventually led the emperor Constantine to call the first ecumenical council in Nicaea during the winter of 324–325.
Controversy is never a pleasant thing, but in the life of the church some of the most bitter controversies have yielded the sweetest and most enduring fruit. The Arian controversy produced not only the Nicene Creed of 325 (which is still recited in many churches today) but it also brought to the fore a truly heroic figure of the faith, namely, Athanasius of Alexandria. Born around 296, Athanasius was somewhat of a theological prodigy and was brought up from an early age in the home and under the tutelage of Bishop Alexander. At the time of the Council of Nicaea, Athanasius was a deacon and attended the council as a secretary for Alexander. Even in the role of secretary, Athanasius was a significant contributor to the wording of the creed. But it was in the aftermath of the council that Athanasius’ legacy was forged as he ascended to the office of bishop in 328 upon the death of Alexander. There are three things concerning this champion of orthodoxy that I would like to commend to the contemporary church for consideration.
First of all, Athanasius was driven in his rebuttal of Arianism by its practical implication. In other words, in this finely nuanced theological debate he was concerned about the implications of this heresy on salvation. Two of Athanasius’ writings reflect his practical and pastoral concerns. On the Incarnation outlines the fact that in the incarnation, God the Word, Jesus Christ, became human to renew what was human, to sanctify what had become corrupt in Adam. And in Against the Arians, he asserts that God alone initiates and accomplishes salvation, and he argues that it was necessary for our Savior to be both fully human (to renew humanity) and fully divine (to accomplish reconciliation).
Evangelical Christians have a tendency to stand back from theological controversies assuming that it’s just a matter of theologians flexing their intellectual muscles in speculative debates that have no bearing on personal faith. While there may be instances where this is true, many of the current controversies, such as the “Lordship debates,” “E.C.T.” (Evangelicals and Catholics Together), and the “New Perspective” controversies are very practical. And, like Athanasius, we must understand their implications in relation to the “faith once delivered.”
A second thing we can learn from Athanasius is that unity should not be sought apart from, or at the expense of, truth. The Council of Nicaea produced the creed that established the orthodox formula of the nature of Christ. All those who did not conform to this creed were deemed to be heretics, and this resulted in the exile of Arius and those who sided with him. Ten years later, key leaders of the church prevailed upon the Emperor Constantine to restore Arius. Constantine in turn wrote a letter to Athanasius (who had become a bishop by this time) urging him to receive Arius “whose opinions had been misrepresented.” Athanasius refused to re-admit Arius and his followers on the grounds that “there could be no fellowship between the church and the one who denied the divinity of Christ.” Seeing that the Emperor and many of his fellow officers were pushing for restoration, concession would have been easy if not understandable for Athanasius, but he would not budge. The lesson for us is obvious: when those with whom we have fellowship depart from the fundamentals of the faith, it is nothing less than a breach of that fellowship. This is the clear teaching of Scripture: Galatians 1:6–9; 2 John 7–11; Jude 3–4. Separation is painful, but sometimes it is necessary. The eventual restoration of Arius and his followers eventually led to Arianism becoming dominant in the Eastern provinces of the church.
A third thing we can learn from Athanasius is bold tenacity for truth. The restoration of Arius and his followers eventually led to Athanasius’ expulsion in 335. Although he was restored shortly before the death of Constantine in 337, this was only the beginning; in all, Athanasius was exiled five times. Two things can be gleamed from Athanasius’ expulsions. First, he did not allow the experiences to make him bitter or wallow in pity. Like Paul during his various imprisonments, Athanasius was quite productive while in exile. Second, exile did not cause this saint to cave in and compromise. Our adversary seeks to wear us down in his assaults, and if the first attack doesn’t do the trick maybe the third or fourth will. Athanasius was just as bold for truth after his fifth and final exile as he was after the first. What can we learn from this courageous man of faith? We can learn that the Gospel is defended or denied in the doctrines we hold and that Christian fellowship is first a matter of doctrinal unity. Finally, we must firmly hold to the Gospel in spite the consequences.