Athanasius’ fight against heresy in the fourth century is a wonderful example of contending for “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 1:3). Athanasius was born around AD 298 and lived in Alexandria, Egypt, the chief center of learning of the Roman Empire.
In AD 313 Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan changed Christianity from a persecuted religion to an officially sanctioned one. A few years later, Arius of Alexandria, a presbyter, began to teach that, since God begat Jesus, then there was a time when the Son did not exist. In other words, Arius said Jesus was a created being—the first thing created—not the eternal Son of God; Jesus was god-like, but He was not God.
As Arius began promulgating his heresy, Athanasius was a newly ordained deacon and secretary to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria. Athanasius had already written two apologetical works, Against the Gentiles and On the Incarnation of the Word. Upon hearing Arius’s false teaching, Athanasius immediately refuted the idea that the Son is not eternal: the “begetting” of the Son, or the “uttering” of the Word, by the Father, said Athanasius, denotes an eternal relationship between the Father and Son, not a temporal event.
Arianism was condemned by most of the bishops of Egypt, the country where Arius lived, and he moved to Nicomedia in Asia Minor. From there Arius promoted his position by writing letters to church bishops throughout the world. Arius seems to have been a likable person with a gift for persuasion, for he attracted many bishops to share his viewpoint. The church was becoming divided on the issue of Christ’s divinity. Emperor Constantine sought to resolve the dispute over Arianism by calling a council of bishops, which met in Nicaea in Bithynia in Asia Minor, in the year 325. Athanasius attended the council with his bishop, and there Athanasius was recognized as a lead spokesman for the view that the Son is fully God and is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.
At the Council of Nicaea, Athanasius’ view was in the majority. All that was needed was to formulate a creedal statement to express the consensus. Initially, the council sought to formulate from Scripture a statement that would express the full deity and eternal nature of the Son. However, the Arians agreed to all such drafts, interpreting them to fit their own views (Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, the spiritual heirs of Arius, have similar interpretations). Finally, the Greek word homoousious (meaning “of the same substance, nature, or essence”) was introduced, since that was one word that could not be twisted to fit Arianism. Some of the bishops balked at using a term not found in Scripture; however, they eventually saw that the alternative was a statement that both sides might agree to, even though one side’s understanding was completely different from the other’s. The church could ill afford to be unclear on the question of whether the Son is truly God (or, as the Arians said, “a god”). The result was that the council adopted what we now call the Nicene Creed, declaring the Son to be “begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”
Of course, the Arians refused to accept the council’s decision; also, many orthodox bishops had wanted wording less divisive than that of the Nicene Creed—something that the Arians would accept but still sounded doctrinally firm to orthodox ears. All sorts of compromises to and variations of Nicaea were put forward.
In 328 Athanasius succeeded Alexander as bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius refused to participate in negotiations with the Arians, wary of compromise on such an important issue. Once the search for common ground took priority over sound doctrine, Athanasius feared, the truth would be lost. More and more of the other bishops accepted Arianism. Emperor Constantine himself sided with the Arians. But Athanasius continued to vigorously defend the full deity of Christ against the leaders and theologians of his day, refusing to allow Arians into his church. For this, he was regarded as a troublemaker by various emperors, and he was banished several times from his city and his church. At times, it seemed Athanasius was the sole proponent of Christ’s deity, a doctrine that he vehemently defended. Athanasius’ unmoving dedication to biblical truth in the face of severe opposition led to the expression Athanasius contra mundum, or “Athanasius against the world.”
Eventually, Christians who believed in the deity of Christ came to see that the Nicene Creed could not be abandoned without consigning the Logos to the role of high-ranking angel. The careful wording of the Nicene Creed was a proper expression of biblical truth. The Nicene Creed was later confirmed at the Council of Constantinople in 381, a final triumph that Athanasius did not live to see (he died in 373).
Beyond defending the faith, Athanasius also helped identify the canon of Scripture. It was the duty of the bishop of Alexandria to write to the other bishops every year and tell them the correct date for Easter (Alexandria had the best astronomers in that time). Naturally, Athanasius’ annual letters contained other material as well. One Easter letter of Athanasius is well-known for listing the books that ought to be considered part of the canon of Scripture, along with other books suitable for devotional reading. For the New Testament, Athanasius lists the 27 books that are recognized today. For the Old Testament, his list is identical to that used by most Protestants, except that he omits Esther and includes Baruch. His supplementary list of “devotional” books contains Wisdom, Sirach, Tobias, Judith, and Esther.
Athanasius lived in a troubled time in the history of the church, and we owe him a debt of gratitude for his insight, courage, and steadfastness. With his knowledge of the Word, Athanasius was able to identify the wolves in sheep’s clothing that were infiltrating the church, and, through his commitment to biblical truth, he was able to stand firm and ward off their attacks. By the grace of God, Athanasius won.