Athanasius Contra Mundum (Against the World)
Christians’ lives in the Roman Empire changed dramatically in the early part of the fourth century. After an intense period of empire-wide persecution under the Roman emperor Diocletian, Christianity began to be not just tolerated but embraced by the imperial government under Constantine. That did not mean, however, that the church’s troubles were over.
Now that the pressure of persecution was lifted from the outside, there were problems growing inside the church. In particular, some church leaders were seeming to suggest that Christ and God the Father are not equally God. In response, the first ecumenical (whole-church) council, meeting in the city of Nicaea in the year 325, articulated an important biblical teaching about Jesus: that God the Father and God the Son are not just similar in their essence (homoiousios), but the same in essence (homoousios). This council clarified that Jesus was never created—He is just as eternal and just as divine as God the Father is.
The council of Nicaea is relatively well-known. Less-well-known is that for a whole generation after 325, the teaching of Nicaea remained under very strong attack. For the next fifty years it was often the heretical Arian party who had the most power in the church and the empire. The orthodox, biblical understanding of who Jesus is remained very much under threat, and church leaders who embraced the teaching of Nicaea often did so at great personal cost.
One young man present at the council of Nicaea was named Athanasius. Not long afterwards, Athanasius became the leader of the prominent church of Alexandria (in Egypt). Athanasius was fiercely committed to the full divinity of the Son of God, and he advocated for that teaching tenaciously even when other emperors rose to power who strongly favored the heretical, Arian point of view.
This was not just a matter of words for Athanasius. Holding to the truth when the powers that be had thrown their official weight behind the opposite position was a hazardous choice for anyone, and for Athanasius it proved to be very costly. In the forty-five years between the beginning of his leadership in Alexandria and his death in 373, he was deposed and banished from his home city five different times, living in exile for about 20 years during that period. Often during his career it seemed the whole world was arrayed against him and against the truth about who Jesus really is, and it’s for that reason that ever since he has been known by the phrase “Athanasius Contra Mundum”—“against the world.”
Grace-Based Action Point
Today the church faces many challenges both from outside and from within. But very few of us—so far—have had to give up much personal security or even convenience as a result of our commitment to the truth. Athanasius’s life should remind us that it’s not just when the dragon of persecution comes that our faith is tested. It’s when the subtle serpent of deception slithers in during periods of relative peace. The world is against you because the world is against Christ. That means Christ is calling you to take a stand with Athanasius contra mundum, against the world. Only then can you faithfully bear witness to the good news of Christ that is for the world.
Yours in Christ,
P.S. For a short biography of Athanasius, read this section from Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, volume 3. For more detail, read Henry Chadwick’s The Early Church starting here (p. 136 in the print version). If you’d like to read something by Athanasius himself, I’d highly recommend his very short On the Incarnation. As an added bonus, the print version of this book has a wonderful introduction by C.S. Lewis about why we should read old books and not just new ones (also available here).