I, Athanasius

Accused of murder and exiled five times, Athanasius did not lead a dull life. Later, he even had a creed named after him.

by Rev. Gordon A. Beck

Although I have an unusual name for the final years of the 20th century, it was a common-enough name in the decades leading up to the fall of Rome in A.D. 410.

During my lifetime (A.D. 295–373), members of the Christian (that is to say, catholic) Church suffered physical persecution (under Emperors Diocletian and Galerius) and political persecution (under Emperor Julian the Apostate). Yet, probably the most devastating form of “persecution” rendered to the church during these years came from within the church itself.

One Arius, raised in Libya and schooled in Antioch (and who dreamed of being bishop of my hometown of Alexandria, Egypt), craftily shaped teachings and applied them to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Gifted in logic and skilled in the rhetorical art of persuasion, Arius taught that since God was called Father, there must have been a time when He was not a Father. It followed, then, in Arius’ thinking, that there must have been a time when God’s Son, Jesus, was not.

The upshot of Arius’ teaching was that Jesus, created out of nothing at some later time by the Father, was not equal to the Father. Not only that, He was not even like the Father—that is, He was not of the same substance—because He had been created out of nothing.

I, on the other hand, contended that, if this were all true (and I vehemently insisted it was not), that if Jesus had been created out of nothing at a later time and was therefore a lesser Being than the Father, then He simply could not be my Savior.

The debate between Arius and me in my culturally rich city of Alexandria grew so heated that my mentor, the orthodox Bishop Alexander, finally had to call a council. The result of which was that Arius, my nemesis, was condemned.

At this point, both Bishop Alexander and I thought we had got rid of Arius and his teachings. But we soon found out differently, for Arius, who could subtly shade or change his teachings to suit different situations, had cleverly won many sympathizers from all over the eastern part of the empire.

Eusebius of Nicomedia was one such admirer of Arius. Having heard of our condemnation of Arius, Eusebius was prompted to write Emperor Constantine, who had (nominally, at least) given himself to the cross at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, where he had defeated his pagan rival for emperor, Maxentius. Since that historic event, Constantine considered himself the protector of the Christian faith and responsible for the harmony of the Roman Empire.

Upon receiving Eusebius’ letter, Constantine was moved to call a council of Christian Church leaders from all over the empire to the seaside town (in present-day Turkey) of Nicea. Here, some 300 bishops, many of whose bodies had been broken and torn in earlier persecutions, met to work through an orthodox teaching of the Trinity.

Moved by the physical plight of many of the bishops, Constantine sympathized with them and granted them authority to decide what would be the official teachings concerning the Trinity. I, at this time, was not yet a bishop but rather a deacon, which meant that I could not speak up publicly as a bishop could. Nonetheless, it was I who composed the responses to Arius’ teachings that Bishop Alexander used.

Some attribute the key term homoousios (“of the same substance”) to me, some to Emperor Constantine, and some to one of the earlier church fathers, because the term does not appear in the Bible. But the bishops, after lengthy debate (the Council of Nicea lasted through much of the summer of A.D. 325), settled on this term to describe the relationship of God the Father to God the Son. In doing so, they confirmed the Son’s position in the Trinity as being equal with the Father.

This critically important term–homoousios–obviously ran counter to Arius’ teachings. And, once again, he was condemned—this time being excluded from the communion of the orthodox churches and sent into exile. (Actually, exile was not always the horrible fate you might think it was. It was a fairly common practice, really. I myself was exiled five times in my lifetime.)

Still, what had befallen his friend Arius did not sit well with the influential Eusebius, who, though he had signed a loyalty statement to the Nicene Creed, came up with several charges against me. The most serious of these charges accused me of murdering one Arsenius, an illegally ordained bishop from Hypsele, Egypt.

According to the charge, I had killed Arsenius while he was hiding out among the monks of the Thebaid (an area around Thebes, Egypt). In the course of murdering him, I had allegedly cut off one of his hands. Later, I had supposedly bragged that I had used the rest of his body for magical purposes. Eusebius’ lackeys now crudely presented the severed hand in a box as proof that I had murdered Arsenius.

Constantine, always seeking to maintain harmony in his empire, decided to bring me to trial in Tyre. He was going to this Mediterranean coastal town anyway to celebrate his 30th year as emperor and to dedicate a great new church there.

Tyre, at this time was a hotbed of Arian bishops, so I knew beforehand that a fair trial would be out of the question. To stand a chance, I would have to fend for myself.

Being acquainted with the monastic life of the Thebaid monks, knowing their native Coptic tongue, and now having been elected to the prestigious office of bishop of Alexandria, I was able to get in touch with the very-much-alive Arsenius and persuade him to come to Tyre incognito.

Forced to stand in the trial room as if I were a common criminal, I asked that Arsenius, whom I had completely covered with a linen cloth, be brought to the witness stand.

Then, having got several Arian representatives in the audience to affirm that they would recognize Arsenius if they saw him, I pulled the cover off the man. The audience was shocked, for many had come to believe their own lie.

I said, “Show me your left hand.”

Arsenius stretched out his left hand.

“Show me your right hand.”

He held out his right.

“Do you have a third hand?”

“No.”

John Arcaph, one of those who had brought the charges against me, bolted from the room. But Eusebius, who was made of sterner stuff, claimed that I had escaped justice by working magic.

Though I had exposed them as liars and frauds, the Arians were not through with me. Sometime later, in the capital city of Constantinople, they brought a new charge against me: that I had kept grain shipments from Alexandria from reaching Constantinople.

This was a serious charge, for Nile Valley grain was needed to feed the poor of Constantinople, the seat of the emperor. Sensing the depth of the Arian opposition against me, Constantine sent me into exile to Trier, Germany, the site of another palace of the Roman emperors.

Meanwhile, Arius, eager to be reinstated into the communion of the church, came to Constantinople and gained a hearing before the theologically obtuse emperor. Appalled by this, my mentor, the now aged Bishop Alexander, is said to have prayed that either Arius or he might be taken from this life before such an outrage to the faith could be permitted.

The next day, Arius was found dead in a pool of blood in a public bath of Constantinople. His followers ascribed his death (once again) to the bad magic of his enemies. Those who knew of Bishop Alexander’s prayer credited it to the judgment of God. And the general public, looking for a more natural cause, pointed to the hemorrhaging of a diseased heart.

Meanwhile, I was off to Trier to spend the first of five exiles owing to the political and physical pressures of the Arians, who remained a strong force within the church and empire until my death. During all this time, my stand, which I frequently wrote about and clarified on the basis of Scriptural evidence, was that the Son, Jesus, my Savior was of the same substance (homoousios) as the Father.

This was a crucial truth to defend because the salvation of humankind depends on the fact that God was in Christ reconciling mankind to Himself. It may surprise you, but I did not write the Athanasian Creed that many of you in the 20th century profess at least once a year, typically on Trinity Sunday (June 7 this year). That creed bears my unusual name because it clearly states the orthodox faith concerning our Triune God, for which I was willing to suffer many hardships, even death if need be.

I am Athanasius, the lifelong defender of the catholic, that is, the universal, faith.

Reprinted from the June 1998 issue of THE LUTHERAN WITNESS. LCMS congregations may reprint for parish use. All other rights reserved. Text copyright © 1998 Gordon A. Beck.

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