The great Arian controversy of the 4th century led to the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Constantine the king, intent upon unity and peace throughout his realm, called for bishops throughout the kingdom to meet together in Nicea to resolve the great controversy which was dividing the church and the people.
A young man, secretary to Alexander, by the name of Athanasius, arrived with the major disputants, Alexander and Arius. Young, scholarly, and given to thoughtful and logical writing, he did not take any public part in the proceedings. Yet, it is likely that his circulars and encyclicals written on behalf of his bishop, Alexander, had a profound effect on the outcome of the council.
After debate, arguing, demonstration, and veiled threats from the emperor, the council finally adopted the creed which has become known, obviously, as the Nicene Creed. It affirmed the full deity of the Lord Jesus Christ, ruling against the Arians who insisted that He was a created being, higher than man, but lower than God. The council had decided on “homoousios” or of the same-substance, against “homoiousios” or of like-substance. “O” had triumphed over “i.” It appeared that orthodoxy and truth had carried the day.
But a doctrine imposed by the forced will of imperial power and enforced by threat and the sword, will never prosper. Arianism was down, but not out.
Athanasius had become the foremost champion of the doctrine of the eternal Sonship and eternal existence of the Son of God, not out of a dry theological mind set, but from a strong conviction of the importance of the doctrine. He realized that if Christ is not the Son of God, possessed of full deity, then He could not be our Savior. Nothing less than the entire truth of Christianity was at stake. Remove Christ from the place which the Word of God affords Him, and there is no basis upon which the superstructure of Christianity can rise.
Unlike Constantine who saw the debates as minor and trifling differences between theologians, Athanasius saw the danger for what it truly was: a death blow to Divine truth.
Arianism soon regrouped and began to change its tack. Having lost in the public forum of debate, it switched to the private councils of lobbying and politics. Its adherents slowly ascended to places of responsibility within Constantines government and to places of authority within the church. From this vantage point, they began a fresh attack. The attack, however, was not so much against the doctrine, but against Athanasius himself.
When Alexander, bishop of Alexandria died in 328, Athanasius became the bishop in his place. Recognizing the full import of the Arian teaching, he refused to admit into his church any who held the doctrine of the Arians. The Arian sympathizer informed the emperor that Athanasius was causing division within the church and destabilizing the peace and unity which the emperor prized. Once again, the emperor displayed his preference for unity and peace over truth. He ordered Athanasius to admit all who desired admittance. Athanasius refused. This startled the emperor who was not accustomed to anyone refusing or disobeying his orders. It thrilled the Arians. They began to see that the way to deal with Athanasius was political and not doctrinal.
The next step in their plan was to accuse the bishop of murder. The charge was that he had murdered a fellow bishop named Arsenius, and that he was using the dead mans hand for magical purposes. They would even produce the hand which they had managed to acquire in a small box.
The emperor ordered Athanasius to appear at a Synod in Antioch. Athanasius friends were able, after a frantic and almost kingdom-wide search, to locate Arsenius, with two intact hands, alive and well, in hiding, in Tyre. The emperor dismissed the charges with a strong remonstrance to the Arians.
But Arians, just like those who come to your door on Saturdays, have remarkable resilience. In July of 335, they asked for a Synod in Tyre to face Athanasius with charges of “arbitrariness and cruelty in his treatment of others.” Knowing that the evidence had been stacked against him, Athanasius fled directly to Constantine and asked for a change to Constantinople. The Arians countered by changing their accusation. They now accused him of “threatening to prevent a shipment of grain from Egypt to the capital.” On hearing this, the emperor banished him without a trial to Treves in Gaul.
Thus began a series of exiles under different emperors. Over a course of 17 years, he was exiled five different times as emperors and politics changed. A “strong inflexible, champion of the truth, he was also a scholar and a man willing to suffer for his convictions. He stood unswerving on his insistence of doctrinal truth and purity. At times, the tide was against him. As one historian has noted, it was “Unus Athanasius contra orbem,” or, “One Athanasius against the world.”
Throughout the fourth century, the church and the empire went back and forth between Athanasius and the Arians. As emperors changed, the lobbyists changed and with them their influence.
Athanasius died without seeing the end of the doctrinal controversy. But eight years after his death, a new emperor, Theodosius, removed Arians from all positions of authority in the church and in the government, reaffirming the teaching of the Nicene Creed. Truth had triumphed.
The sad and almost ruinous results of the marriage between church and state, can be seen in the events surrounding Athanasius. While persecution had ceased, problems multiplied. Not only did wrong doctrine arise, but a new instrument (the state) was now available to impose its doctrinal decisions upon all. More and more, the wisdom of God seen in the formation of local autonomous assemblies is evident. Yet, we must appreciate the courage and cost to men such as Athanasius who stood for the truth of God in dangerous days.