Posted On June 11, 2013

A Bishop, A Heretic, and The Culture War of Today

by | Jun 11, 2013 | Church History

Before you sign off thinking this is just another boring blog post about the early church, the contemporary church needs to heed the warnings of the past—if we are to press onward in the culture war of today.

Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria

I have been studying the early church, their trials, mission, and how they loved the Scriptures and Christ. One of the early church fathers which I highly admire was Athanasius (296-373). He was very well educated in philosophical thought, a pupil of the Alexandrian school and Greek language, saturated in the Scriptures, withstood three emperors, and forever dedicated his life to stand up for Christ and the opposition of the Arian teachings (that Jesus could not be God, but was created and therefore had a beginning, not always existing). To Athanasius, Jesus was the Word incarnate, He always was, is, and will be, and he adamantly professed his deep conviction, without apology.

For instance, it is recorded that once when Athanasius was to be exiled, he took a ship to Constantinople and surprised the Emperor Constantine, by hurling himself before his royal chariot, seizing the horse’s reins, to climb aboard and reprimand him concerning the proper doctrine of the faith.

Athanasius was a bull-dog of a servant for Christ, yet people that knew him described his love and gentleness regarding the grace and mercy of Christ. He was a true man of God, elected and nominated by Alexander himself as “the good, the pious, a Christian, one of ascetics, a genuine bishop.”[1] However, like every good story, there is an antagonist, and his name is Arius.

Arius, The Heretic

Arius was no slouch of intellect; he was well educated too and became a fierce opponent of Athanasius. However, unlike Arius, Athanasius would prove not to hate his fellow man, only his erroneous theology. Arius was very vindictive and persistent in that his doctrine was correct, but was reprimanded and removed by the church. That never stopped Arius or his flowers. When Constantine had exiled him for his error and persuasion, the Arians did not cease their cunning and deceit. They managed to somehow deceive the Emperor’s court to forgive and pushed for reinstatement of Arius, which Constantine tried. He gave orders for Athanasius to reinstate him, but Athanasius saw through their deception and refused. For it, he was exiled (he was exiled 5 times throughout his life).

Many times, Arius and the Arians brought up preposterous and outlandish claims regarding Athanasius, here’s one account:

“In the year 335…One story was, that [Athanasius] had killed an Egyptian bishop, named Arsenius, that he had cut off his hand, and had used it for magical purposes (…was said by his enemies to be a sorcerer!), and the dried hand of a man was shown, which was said to be that of Arsenius. But when the time came for examining this charge, what was the confusion of the accusers at seeing Arsenius himself brought into the council! He was dressed in a long cloak, and Athanasius lifted it up, first on one side, and then on the other, so as to show that the man was not only alive, but had both his hands safe and sound. The leaders of the Arians had known that Arsenius was not dead, but they had hoped that he would not appear. But, happily for Athanasius, one of his friends had discovered Arsenius, and had kept him hidden until the right moment came for producing him.”[2]

Upon the unsuccessful attempt to have Athanasius deposed, the Arians could not defame his character or Christian witness, so they conjured up lies and presented them to the Emperor stating that Athanasius was going to block the exporting and importing of grains and food to Egypt. While Constantine may not have believed it, he did exile Athanasius (again!) to Treves. But the Alexandrian church loved their bishop and prayed for him continually and would not allow Arius’ reinstatement; but the Emperor had other wishes!

For Arius’ hatred, many think his death was fitting, but Athanasius proved to be fuller of grace. Here is what is described as Arius’ last day:

“The bishop of Constantinople, whose name was Alexander, and who was almost a hundred years old, was grievously distressed at this; he desired his people to entreat God, with fasting and prayer, that it might not come to pass, and he threw himself under the altar, and prayed very earnestly that the evil which was threatened might be somehow turned away: or that, at least, he himself might not live to see it. At length, on the evening before the day which had been fixed for receiving Arius into the Church, he was going through the streets of Constantinople, in high spirits, and talking with some friends of what was to take place on the morrow. But all at once he felt himself ill, and went into a house which was near, and in a few minutes he was dead!…But Athanasius, although he felt the awfulness of the unhappy man’s sudden end, did not take it on himself to speak in this way.”[3]

The Culture War of Today

So, what can we learn from Athanasius and Arius; this one thing, the church has always and will always be opposed by culture—that is the message of the Cross. Arianism was no novelty doctrine; it was steeped in intellect and human wisdom, it persuaded people to think and rationalize God; while Athanasius’ preaching of the Cross, the Trinity, and Jesus as God incarnate, was thought as foolish.

Why do we perceive today that homosexuality, inclusivism (all ways lead to heaven), or false “religions of peace” are any different? Today, the church needs more men (and women) like Athanasius—people of character, integrity, conviction, truth, and love. Yes, love—but love as the modern culture knows it, is not love, but appeasement and acceptance of sin. True love, one which God sent by His Son, our only Master and Savior, Jesus Christ, and one which was sent by His Holy Spirit, convicts us of wrong and should terrify and mortify us. True love exposes sin as what it is—separation from a holy God whose only desire is for us to be closer to Him. But the teaching of sin in this culture is viewed as intolerance and ignorance.

This does not mean that I point fingers at people, but I self-examine me, my life, and live accordingly. I uphold the truths of the faith and let people know that there is forgiveness, redemption, and a new life at the Cross. That sin is sin, and true love is what Jesus did for us. In this time, the church must focus on being diligent in grace, mercy, and forgiveness, while holding strong to the fundamentals of the faith.

Church, stand with love and courage, as the writer of Hebrews states, “And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (11:32-38 ESV).

[1] Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers: Athanasius, Select Works and Letters. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson) Ch. II. 4. xxxvii.

[2] Church History A.D. 33-604: Chapter XII: St. Athanasius, (Accessed June 4, 2013).

[3] Church History A.D. 33-604: Chapter XII: St. Athanasius, (Accessed June 4, 2013).

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  1. Weekly Roundup 6/10-6/15/2013 - Servants of Grace | Servants of Grace - [...] A Bishop, A Heretic, and The Culture War of Today by Matthew Fretwell  [...]

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