Athanasius Contra Mundum. This is a famous Latin saying that means: “Athanasius Against the World.” The man to whom this refers is St. Athanasius of Alexandria, a 4th century bishop from Egypt who found himself embroiled in the great Arian controversy of that period. Now, it’s important to understand that 4th centry Arianism has absolutely nothing to do with the 20th century racist ideology of Aryanism. It is named after a man named Arius, who was a North African priest who sought to solve a problem. The problem was the relationship of Christ to God the Father. If there is only one God, how are we supposed to understand how the Father and the Son relate to each other? To preserve monotheism, Arius argued, the Son couldn’t be God in the same way that the Father is. If He were, then there would be two gods. So, Arius concluded, the Son is not divine in the same way that the Father is divine. He must be a creation of the Father – the greatest of God’s creatures, the mediator between God and Creation, but a creature nonetheless. Arius’ conclusion became widely accepted at that time, enjoying the support of the emperor, which led to its popularity among the most influential people in the empire, including many if not most of the Church’s bishops. There was even Arian propaganda in the form of sailors’ sea shanties which led to the spread of the heresy throughout the Mediterranean. Arianism, like all heresies, was attractive because it sought to solve a mystery by demystifying it.
But this solution didn’t sit well with Athanasius. He argued that the Son cannot be a creature, that He must be just as divine as the Father, and no less eternal than the Father. Citing the Nicene Creed (the same one we recite each Sunday), Athanasius defended the orthodox Catholic belief that the Son is consubstantial – of the same divine substance – with the Father. His outspoken defense of the co-equal divinity of Christ with the Father was so intense and unwelcome, that Athanasius suffered great persecution at the hands of his political and theological enemies. He was sent into exile five times because of his stubborn refusal to endorse Arianism. Why was Athanasius so obstinate in taking this theologically extreme position regarding Christ’s divinity? Because he understood the stakes involved. If the Son is not God in the same way that the Father is God, then His sacrifice on the cross is of insufficient value to benefit us, and that which is central to our faith – God’s redemption of His fallen Creation – is lost. Arius’ “solution” would drain the Incarnation of its power.
It might be difficult for us to understand the intensity of the struggle over Arianism in the 4th century. The average person in our day gives little consideration to theological controversies. For some reason we don’t seem to have an appreciation for how important it is to have a proper understanding of the nature of God and the nature of humanity and how those seemingly obscure questions directly impact the way we order our lives. In the 4th century, the debate over the divine nature of Christ was something that almost everyone in that period would have had an opinion about – like politics and sports in our age. They understood that religion was wrapped up with reality and vice versa.
Improbably, considering the power and influence of his antagonists, Athanasius was ultimately vindicated. Remaining steadfast, he preserved true Catholic teaching, revealing that sometimes the extreme position is the only orthodox one. This extreme position preserves the central mystery of our faith, allowing us to marvel at what God has done for us in becoming man and offering Himself as a sacrifice to reconcile us to Himself. St. Athanasius is truly one of the great men in history. His feast day is tomorrow (May 2).