Even if there has been no golden age in church history, learning about what our forefathers endured is very encouraging. We see in many of them the kind of courage that the psalmist talked about when he called on God’s people to wait on the Lord (Ps. 27:14). They show us the kind of uncompromising commitment to Christ that He demands in their willingness to die for the gospel if it proves necessary (Matt. 10:39).
Some of those who were willing to die for Jesus were never actually martyred for their faith. But they faced circumstances in which death was realistically possible, if not likely, and their willingness to hold fast to biblical orthodoxy despite the threats to their lives and livelihoods is a picture of the same single-minded devotion to Christ that the martyrs had.
Athanasius, the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria, is one of the chief examples of a man who was willing to die for Christ even though it never actually came to that. During his lifetime, the church faced the threat of Arianism, a heresy named for a well-known teacher in the church. Arius taught that the Son of God was a godlike creature but not truly and fully divine. This heretic said Christ was worthy of honor because He was God’s first creation through whom all else was created. Still, Arius believed the Son was, ultimately, a mere creature. According to Arianism, “there was a time when the Son was not.” At the Council of Nicea in AD 325, the church met to deal with Arianism, and affirmed the orthodox biblical teaching by declaring that the Son is homoousious (of the same essence) with the Father and fully God in His own right.
Nicea did not end the Arian controversy. Athanasius became bishop of Alexandria in 328, and he affirmed the Nicene doctrine. However, Emperor Constantine, who had called the Council of Nicea in the first place, grew sympathetic to Arianism, and many bishops continued to hold to Arian beliefs. Athanasius refused to admit Arians into the church, and various emperors banished him several times from his bishopric. Despite this threat to his life and work, Athanasius would not give in to the Arians.
Today we celebrate Athanasius with the phrase Athanasius contra mundum, or “Athanaisus against the world.” Athanasius stood against heretics in the church and the power of Rome to proclaim orthodox biblical Christianity. We remain grateful for his defense of orthodoxy and for helping us understand what Scripture teaches about Jesus.