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Athanasius Contra Mundum - Opposing Arianism

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Athanasius (296-373) is particularly remembered for his courageous stand for the full deity of Christ against the Arians. Under the changing policies of the various emperors, Athanasius was exiled five times.

He was born around 296, and had a long life, which almost lasted through the entire Arian Controversy. He was a deacon in the church in Alexandria, and accompanied the bishop Alexander to the Council of Nicaea in 325. Athanasius became the most outspoken supporter for the full deity of Christ proclaimed in the Nicene Creed, which described Jesus as the same substance (‘homoousius’) with the Father.

He succeeded Alexander as bishop of Alexandria in 328, when he refused to re-admit Arius to the church, following Arius’ statement of faith. The Arian bishop, Eusebius of Nicomedia, succeeded in condemning Athanasius at Tyre in 335, falsely accusing him of murder and treason, causing his first period of exile in Trier, lasting until 337.

After the death of Constantine, Athanasius was allowed to return to Alexandria for two years. However, after Eusebius of Nicomedia was appointed as bishop of Constantinople, he used his influence with Emperor Contantius to have Athanasius exiled a second time, from 339 to 346. This time he fled to Rome, to take shelter in the Western Church, which had remained Nicaean. While in Rome, he commended the practices of the ascetics in the Egyptian desert, and so introduced monasticism to the Western Church, particularly through his book, ‘The Life of Anthony’. Athanasius was again condemned at the Councils of the Eastern Church at Antioch in 341 and at Philippolis in 343, but was supported at the Western Church Council of Serdika in 343.

He was again allowed back to his position as bishop of Alexandria by popular demand, following the death of Gregory of Cappadocia in 346, when he was left in peace for ten years. Once Constantius was sole emperor of both parts of the Roman Empire, Arianism began to be forced on the Western Church. In 353, Athanasius was once again condemned at the Council of Arles. His church was surrounded by an army of 5000 men in an attempt to arrest him. He managed to escape, taking refuge among the monks in the Egyptian desert, where he wrote many of his books. After the victory of Arianism at the two councils of Rimini and Seleucia in 359, Athanasius became what must have felt like a lone voice standing for the Nicaean position of the deity of Christ. This has led to the well-known expression, ‘Athanasius contra mundum’ (Athanasius against the world).

During the reign of Julian the Apostate, Athanasius was again allowed back in 362, following the murder of his replacement, George of Cappadocia. However, he was again briefly exiled for the fourth time, by Julian, probably because he had become too powerful in Egypt. He was restored once again following the death of Julian, when Jovian became emperor in 363. His last exile was in 365 when Emperor Valens deposed all bishops who had been previously deposed by Constantius and restored by Julian. He was restored in 365, and spent his last years in peace, until he died in 373. This was only a few years before the conclusion of the Arian Controversy at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

Athanasius’ main argument against the Arians was over salvation. His principle theological standpoint was that ‘Christ was made man that we might be made divine’. In his understanding, it was essential that Christ was both fully divine and fully human to make salvation of sinful mankind possible. This meant that the Arian position rendered Jesus an ineffective agent of salvation.