ATHANASIUS

By

JOHN SHEARER

 

 

THE conversion of Constantine brought the Pagan persecution of the Church to an end. The heathen temples were deserted, their treasures rifled, their sacrifices stopped. It was no longer a crime to be a Christian. Christians now became full of hope. With a Christian Emperor on the throne, surely the long desired Millennium had dawned at last!* But the Church militant never ceases from war in this world. The foe without had scarcely fallen when the foe within began to stir and discover its power. Unitarianism (the denial of the Diety and Lordship of Christ)* long secretly preparing, now came clearly into the open, and the Church entered upon that heroic struggle for its faith which has made the Fourth perhaps the most critical in the long roll of the Christian centuries.

 

[As the doctrine of the Diety of Christ was openly denied during the time of Athanasius; the doctrine of the Millennium is openly denied today. How many Christians understand the deep significance of the Millennium?]

 

The conflict began at Alexandria, in Egypt, where the aged Alexander was Archbishop. Arius, his principal priest, challenged his faithful teaching on the Person of Christ, arguing vehemently that, though vastly superior to man, our Lord was yet inferior to God. In a word, Arianism was a deadly blow aimed at the very heart of our Faith, the Diety of Christ.

 

History has preserved a life-like portrait of the first Unitarian - his long lanky frame, subject to strange convulsive writhings, the premonitions of his sudden and horrible death; his face of corpse-like whiteness, his tangled mass of hair. Yet this ungainly man, now in his sixtieth year, had a sweet voice and winning manners. He had great ability, solid learning, and his life was blameless. Many were his devoted friends, and on women especially he seemed to cast a spell. As in St. Paul's day, the enemy - stirred up devout and honourable women to oppose the Gospel. Noble ladies of the great Capital accepted his teaching, and 700 consecrated virgins were among his devotees. His whole strength was put into the conflict, and every device was used to win his cause. He composed popular songs that taught his doctrine, his famous Thalia, and set them to rollicking drinking tunes, which were sung everywhere, even by the rabble in the streets. The City was filled with the clamour of the controversy and for a time it was a positive obsession, ousting every other subject from men's minds. "Ask the price of bread in Alexandria," an eyewitness reports, "and you are told 'the Son is subordinate to the Father.' Ask your servant if the bath is ready and he replies, 'the Son arose out of nothing'!" From Egypt the strange excitement spread through the Empire, and at last Constantine himself resolved to intervene. Failing in his first efforts, he called a great Council of the Church, a World Conference which met at Nicaea, in Asia Minor, in 325, and here Athanasius comes into view, the young David whom God had prepared to fight the Unitarian Goliath.

 

Athanasius was now barely twenty-five. He was very small in stature, almost a dwarf, but his bright serene face had an angelic beauty. He was richly gifted in speech, intensely alive and energetic. His little body was animated by a spirit of indomitable resolution. As the archdeacon and spokesman of the old archbishop, he confronted Arius at every critical point.

 

More than any other man then living, Athanasius understood the deep significance of Nicaea. In the centre of the Assembly, on a kind of throne, was placed a copy of the Four Gospels, and well he knew that the Honour of Christ and the very life of the Church were bound up with the Faith of that Book. If Arius triumphed, Christ would be dethroned, the Word of God would suffer a fatal displacement, and the Church would henceforth be like a ship on a perilous sea without chart and compass. With passionate earnestness, bringing every power of his being into the fullest exercise, he battled for the Faith of the Bible and the Glory of Christ. The Assembly was awed and deeply moved as it listened. It perceived that in this young man God had found a mouthpiece, that the Spirit of God spake by him, that to oppose him was to fight against God. Arius was utterly defeated. The first great Creed of the Church was formulated, and to this day the creed of Nicaea is recognised as one of the mightiest bulwarks of the Christian Faith. In every Confession that has since been framed the great Truth it established finds its first and rightful place and often in the very words of Athanasius. We should study long and deeply its great sentences which assert the Deity and Work of Christ, for here is the truth that revives in every Revival. "We believe in one Word Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only begotten, that is to say, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, by whom all things were made, both things in heaven and things in earth, who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh, and was made man, suffered and rose again on the third day; went up into the heavens, and is to come again to judge the quick and dead."

 

Alexander died shortly after the close of the Great Council, and the young Athanasius succeeded him. Alexandria was then the greatest seat of learning in the world, and its archbishop had an influence that was potent in every part of the Empire. But from the very start he was beset with most serious difficulties and danger. Defeated in the open, Arianism continued its evil work in secret. It found support in high places, even in the Emperor's palace! Constantia, sister of the Monarch, like so many titled ladies of her time, favoured Arius. The faith of Constantine was feeble and uninformed, and this dearly loved sister had no difficulty in undermining it. Gradually he was won over and Athanasius was commanded to restore the heretic and thus undo all the great work of Nicaea. He refused, and with that refusal he renewed his struggle with the great powers of this world and with the powers of darkness that control it. The struggle lasted forty-six years, almost to the last day of his life, and it has made his name forever famous in the great proverb, "Athanasius contra mundum," that is, Athanasius against the world! We must try to understand it.

 

How seductive, how mighty, is the fallacy of numbers! Again and again there has been a time in history when all men everywhere and always have asserted a thing denied by one man only and lo, all men have been utterly wrong and that one man utterly right! Here is the final test of faith. Will you hold to your faith if the whole world is against you? Surely what the whole world believes must be right! Are we not justified in regarding as an intensely conceited and most obstinate fool, the man who dares to set his view of truth against that of the whole community, the whole state, the whole world? Now Athanasius did this very thing. Having secured the royal favour, Arianism set out to conquer the world, and, for a time, it succeeded. Wealth and high place, comfort and security, were on its side. The royal frown, poverty, exile and death were the lot of him who held the Faith, the Faith of Nicaea, the Faith of the Bible. Alas, that we must record it! - The men who had withstood the Pagan persecution, who had braved the fires of martyrdom under the Caesars, could not resist the combined allurement and threat of Arian Emperors! One by one they yielded, and there came at last a time when the whole world was Arian and Athanasius stood alone, - alone with God! His Faith firmly rooted in the Word of God, "like the tree planted by the rivers of water," he faced the embattled might of four Emperors. Five times he was thrust out of his high office and driven into exile, becoming a fugitive in almost every part of the Empire. Abuse and reproach were heaped upon him. He was accused of cruel oppression, of sacrilege and murder. A price was placed on his head and, like David, pursued by the malice of Saul, he was "hunted like a partridge on the mountains." He had to hide "in dens and caves of the earth" and once even in his father's tomb. Like David he was in constant peril and, like him, he was constantly and marvellously preserved. And to the end he retained the same beautiful serenity and peace of mind that distinguished him at Nicaea, for he had the absolute assurance that comes only to the man who has planted his feet firmly on the Eternal Rock of the Divine Word, and knows that no power of earth or hell can move him.

 

In the Church of St. Theonas on a memorable night the fury of his adversaries reached a terrible culmination. The people were gathered at midnight, in a watch-night service, preparing for the solemn Communion of the following day. Suddenly an army of 5,000 soldiers invested the Church, beating on the doors, demanding entrance. Athanasius quietly seated himself and asked his deacon to read the 136th Psalm, every verse of which ends with the jubilant refrain, "for the mercy of the Lord endureth forever." As the psalm proceeded the doors were burst open, the soldiers poured into the Church and a shower of arrows descended upon the people. A scene of unspeakable horror followed. The worshippers were slain and their dead bodies piled in heaps. The consecrated virgins were seized and stripped. Yet Athanasius, though he swooned and fell, again escaped by a miracle as when his Lord passed unscathed through the angry mob at Nazareth.

 

Though his fellow bishops, his brethren in the ministry, yielded in the hour of dreadful testing, though "they all forsook him and fled," "the common people heard him gladly," and there were times when the whole City seemed moved by the Spirit, when parents entreated their children and children their parents, to devote their lives to God when every home in Alexandria seemed to become a Church. He lived to old age, and like the Apostle John, after long and lonely exile he was permitted to die in peace, in the midst of his brethren.

 

The mission of Athanasius was not simply for his own time. It was for all times and perhaps pre-eminently for our own. He has shown us that a man can stand alone with God in an evil day, that he can stand unmoved like a rock in mid-ocean, that all the billows of Satanic hate will beat upon him in vain, if his strength is indeed in God. And he has shown that it is to such a man God commits the precious deposit of His Truth, to bear it, like a faithful courier, through the enemy's country, to hold fast the Faith when all others deny it and pass it on to the next age. We possess the Faith to-day because, in that long past day of awful testing, Athanasius stood firm.

 

- The Story of Revival.

 

FOOTNOTES.

 

1. The bitter opposition which true Christians can offer to our Lordís coming Millennial Reign on Earth is exceedingly painful. Dr. David Smith commented thus:- "Millenaranism, which had a considerable vogue in pietistic circles a generation ago, but which, I thought, had now gone the common way of absurdities in a more or less sane world, is a stupid and prosaic perversion of Jewish apocalyptic. Prophecy-mongering is an unwholesome farrago of charlatanry, ignorance, and vanity, and I had thought its day was past. Its record would be entertaining were it not so deplorable."

 

2. On the exact contrary, the early Church were Millenialists to a man. Dr. Bonar says:- "Millenarianism prevailed universally during the first three centuries. This is now an assured fact and presupposes that Chiliasm was an article of the Apostolic creed." So Mosheim:- "The prevailing opinion that Christ was to come and reign a thousand years among men before the final dissolution of the world, had met no opposition till the time of Origen." It is significant that it was the Church of Rome that wiped it out. In 373A.D. the Council of Rome under Pope Damasus "formerly denounced Chiliasm" (Millennialism).