Athanasius of Alexandria: One Man against the World

4 min

Have you ever felt that you were the only one standing for truth? Has it ever seemed that the pull of error was stronger than the pull of truth? There was a time in early Christian history when the doctrine of the eternal divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ was under tremendous attack throughout the world. In that day of error and compromise, one man, a faithful pastor from Alexandria, stood boldly against heresy to defend the cause of truth. His name was Athanasius.

The exact year of the birth of Athanasius is unknown, although it was probably around A.D. 297. He was born to Christian parents in the city of Alexandria in northern Egypt. This city was where scholars had translated the Septuagint from Hebrew to Greek. Alexandria was also the city of Apollos, the Apostle Paul’s helper, and was known throughout the world as a center of learning. In Alexandria, Athanasius had the benefit of a good education.

A story from Athanasius’s childhood relates that Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, looked out a window and observed a group of boys playing by the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. He saw that they were “playing church” by imitating a baptismal service. The boy that was playing the pastor’s role was Athanasius. The curious bishop went out to the shore to converse with the boys about the importance of those things that they were imitating in sport. The sincerity of young Athanasius so impressed the bishop that he took him under his instruction and appointed the boy to become his helper—and eventually his secretary.

By the year 325, Athanasius had been ordained as a deacon in the church of Alexandria. He accompanied the bishop to the Council of Nicӕa, a council called by the emperor to handle some dangerous doctrinal controversies.

At this time in church history, a heresy known as Arianism was spreading its pernicious influence throughout the world. A teacher named Arius had popularized the false teaching that Jesus was not eternally divine. Although Arius was probably not the founder of the heresy or the originator of the doctrine, it became known by his name.

Arianism emphasized the supremacy of God the Father. The heresy allowed some level of divinity to the Son but denied the Son’s eternal nature and divinity. In the false teaching of the Arians, the Son only attained divinity at His baptism and was granted deity by the Father for a limited time and purpose. Arius appealed to such Scriptures as Christ saying “my Father is greater than I” (John 14:28) to support his views.

The matter was debated in earnest at the Council of Nicӕa. Although he was but a young man and only a deacon, Athanasius took a prominent role in the debate and became one of the champions of truth against error. He exposed the errors of Arius, pointing to the statement made by Jesus that “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30). He also leaned heavily upon the opening verses of John’s Gospel and the assertion by Paul in the epistle to the Colossians that Jesus was the Creator of all things. (See Colossians 1:15–17.)

Eventually, Arianism was condemned by the council and the famous Nicene Creed was formulated:

We believe in one God, the Father almighty,
maker of all things visible and invisible; 
And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, 
begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, 
from the substance of the Father, God from God, 
light from light, true God from true God, 
begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, 
through Whom all things came into being, 
things in heaven and things on earth . . . .

Arius was not content at all with this decision. Following the council, he continued to spread his destructive teachings throughout the church. Meanwhile, Athanasius was elevated to take the place of the dying Alexander, becoming Bishop of Alexandria in 328. He was officially too young, not having yet attained the required age of 35. But his doctrinal integrity and his skills in defense of the truth earned him the rank, in spite of his youth.

The Arian party, under the dangerous leadership of Arius, continued to grow in power and popularity. Seditious lies were spread against Athanasius and the orthodox party. Over the next several years, Arius gained the ear of the Emperor Constantine, and the orthodox party of Athanasius was brought into contempt throughout the empire. The First Synod of Tyre in 335 recognized Arianism, revoked the decision at Nicӕa, and restored Arius to favor.

Athanasius was ordered to restore Arius to communion. Yet, he steadfastly refused to offer the Lord’s Supper to a false teacher that denied the eternal divine nature of the Lord Jesus. Thus, Athanasius was forcibly exiled, and Arius was granted communion by the Bishop of Constantinople.

Athanasius prayed that God Almighty would intervene to prevent such an apostate teacher from defiling communion by coming in an unrepentant state to the Lord’s Supper. To the astonishment of all, as Arius advanced in a pompous procession to the church to receive communion, he was suddenly seized with abdominal pain! An early church historian described the awful scene when the false teacher was seized with “a violent relaxation of the bowels” and how “together with the evacuations his bowels protruded, followed by a copious hemorrhage.” The man who erred in teaching regarding Christ’s divinity died in agony, barred by God’s judgment from taking the Lord’s Supper.

In spite of this dramatic demonstration by God, Athanasius continued to be despised. Some even suggested that followers of Athanasius poisoned Arius to bring about such a scene. Arianism continued to spread until it seemed that Athanasius alone stood as defender of the eternal deity of the Son of God.

Athanasius was exiled five times for his defense of the truth. On one occasion a fellow bishop urged him to compromise, asking Athanasius if he knew that the entire world was against him. Athanasius replied by saying, “Is the world against Athanasius? Then Athanasius is against the world.”

From this statement came the oft-repeated Latin phrase associated with the courageous defense of unchanging truth made by this faithful pastor: Athanasius contra mundum, et mundus contra Athanasium. The translation: “Athanasius against the world, and the world against Athanasius.”

Today, Athanasius is regarded as the “Father of Orthodoxy” and is one of the few church fathers to hold the title “The Great.” He was of small stature and was emaciated by many long hours of fasting and prayer during his numerous exiles in the Egyptian deserts. Athanasius died in 373, with the growing hope in his heart that truth was finally prevailing against error and that orthodoxy had indeed gained the upper hand against heresy. He cared not for wealth, position, power, or Imperial favor so long as he remained faithful to the truth that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God. Athanasius is one of the few men honored today by Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Protestants alike as a faithful defender of the truth of God.

Sources and Further Reference:
Leithart, Peter J. Athanasius. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011.
Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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