May 2nd is the feast of St. Athanasius (ca. 296-298 – 2 May 373) The 20th bishop of Alexandria, he was at the center of one of the greatest controversies to face the church. He was exiled 5 times by Roman emperors because of his stance for orthodoxy and he is also the first person to list the 27 books which make up the canon of the New Testament.
It’s sometimes difficult to appreciate events in history unless you were there. We know the stories handed down to us from tradition, or the media, or a textbook, but the distance tends to numb us to the situation, especially when our world is built on the results of those events. This can be seen in something like the Declaration of Independence. For Americans, who have grown up in the land of the free, we may know about the American Revolution, because we grew up here. We grew up without the monarchy, in a system of government that was formed at the time of the Revolution and has for us been the “way it’s always been”. For those who lived during the Revolution, it must have been very different, a big leap of faith, conflict between those who were still loyal to England and those who wanted independence, setting up a constitution for a new nation, a lot of trial and error and of course a big war to fight to gain it all.
In my thoughts I often think about the Christological controversies of the early church. Today the creeds are recited in mass, doctrines like the trinity taught in the catechism. it’s all second nature for us. In the time of Athanasius, the term “Trinity” was still very undefined. It was used, but still left a lot of room for interpretation. Arianism was one of those interpretations. The controversy here was over the nature of the Son, was Jesus “consubstantial” with the Father or not? Was the Son created? Was he not Eternal like the Father? Or was he just a part of creation, a creature like us with no divine nature? These were the issues that confronted Athanasius and for which he fought, sometimes in what must have seemed like a great losing battle as even the emperors sided with Arius. But Athanasius prevailed and the church built it’s creeds a little tighter to explain the God they professed.
To many, I suppose this all may seem like just a fight over words, and ideas. But in truth had Arianism prevailed we would have seen a whole different world today. History would have changed and the effects of that philosophy would have built a completely different set of consequences to follow. Hillary Belloc thought it would have left the Empire and Europe with a more Islamic style belief. I cannot say one way or the other. What I will say is that I do know things would have been different and probably not in a good way. Arianism was popular with the military and it appears this was a good part of it’s backing, so maybe Rome would have conquered the church, and instead of the balance seen through the middle ages of “church and state” there may have been no separation there and the church would have been run by the state. Popes would not have stood up to Emperors who tried to tamper with the faith, but would rather have been forced to build it’s beliefs in accordance with the beliefs of the secular authorities.
Athanasius is known as the Father of Orthodoxy for his valiant stand, and the “Athanasian Creed” is attributed to him, the first words of which in latin are Quicumque vult, which means Whosoever will.
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.