Athanasius: The Rest of the Story
A constant temptation for the church historian is to turn historical personalities into unassailable figures who could do no wrong. Such readings of the historical evidence may often comport well with the narrative of the appropriate time period that we have chosen to reconstruct, but by offering a one-dimensional picture they fail to do justice to the actual persons and events of previous time periods. A clear example is the treatment of Athanasius. In most accounts of the fourth century, Athanasius is presented as the strident champion of Nicene orthodoxy, valiantly upholding the homoousios (consubstantiality) of the Father and the Son. Athanasius’ foe in this fight that lasted for several decades was Arius, the immoral heretic whose goal was to distort and pervert the church’s pure gospel teaching, along with Arius’ theological followers scattered throughout the empire, including some of the Emperors themselves. For his fidelity to biblical truth, Athanasius faced exile five times, and considered himself and others allied with him as martyrs for the standard of Christ. Eventually, by his persistent striving, orthodoxy won the day and heresy was vanquished.
While there is much truth to this account as it is often given, it must be modified by several important facts. For example, Athanasius’ character was maligned by his enemies in his own day, and although such mudslinging was the common fare in doctrinal debates in the ancient church whether the charges were true or fabricated, it seems that in the case of Athanasius not all of the charges were false. His own election as bishop of Alexandria might have been illegal and was definitely enforced. He was known to resort to violence to achieve his ends and encouraged his followers to do the same. Such accusations were the basis of Athanasius’ deposition and exile at the Council of Tyre in 355, rather than his adherence to the Nicene standard (even though theological tensions were certainly lesser motivating factors). Furthermore, there is evidence that Athanasius was not the leading light that he is often assumed to be during the crucial years of the fourth century. It is possible that he only possessed the ascendency in his home base of Egypt, and he was not as significant in the later stage of the conflict raised by the so-called ‘Neo-Arian’ theology of Aetius and Eunomius.
Moreover, the traditional account of Athanasius’ enemies and his response to them is somewhat inaccurate. It was only gradually that Athanasius came to see the usefulness of the term homoousios (though the same theology is essentially there previously). He defends it for the first time in the early 350s, some thirty years after the Council of Nicaea (325). Furthermore, it is possible that Arius was reacting to the theology of Athanasius (actually his predecessor Alexander) out of a conservative commitment to scriptural language and church tradition. In fact, the notion of Arius as the fountainhead of an ‘Arian’ conspiracy against which the great Alexandrian was to a large degree the creation of Athanasius himself, with the help of Marcellus. This polemical strategy was an useful tool wielded by Athanasius against his enemies, one so effective in fact that by the following century it seems to have already become the common way the story was told. Finally, Athanasius was himself somewhat of a transitional figure. Later Nicene theology developed beyond Athanasius’ own theology in significant ways, and fully blossomed in later figures such as the Cappadocians, Didymus the Blind, Augustine of Hippo, and Cyril of Alexandria.
The above recounting is not intended to detract from the amazing story of Athanasius, to minimize the way that he sacrificially and steadfastly maintained his commitment to biblical truth, or to downplay the beauty of his theology. It is rather to give a fuller picture of the man and his times. Church history is messy and complicated business because it is the story of fallen people who are on their way to being redeemed. In fact, such an awareness only magnifies the providence of God even more, since he can still use such broken vessels to carry forth his purpose in the world.
– This revised version of the fourth century can be found in a nice summary in Frances Young and Andrew Teal, From Nicaea to Chalcedon, 2nd ed. (Baker, 2010), 40-72; a fuller accounting is in R. P. C. Hanson, The Search for a Christian Doctrine of God (Baker, 2006) and Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy (Oxford, 2004).