So how’s your Latin? Even if it is not very good, it is not too hard to figure out what this phrase means. It is, simply, “Athanasius against the world.” Of course you need to know a bit about church history to appreciate its significance. And it is a great story to be aware of.
The immediate background to it is this: The Alexandrian Bishop and theologian fought a lengthy battle against the heresy of Arianism. When it looked like the entire Roman Empire was moving away from orthodoxy into Arianism, a concerned colleague exclaimed, “The whole world is against you!” Unfazed, Athanasius made the famous response, “Then it is Athanasius against the world.”
But let me provide a fuller account of this remarkable man and his important work. Born around 296 in Alexandria, Egypt, we know little about his early years. But from 303 to 312 the great persecution of Emperor Diocletian took place, only stopped by the conversion of Emperor Constantine.
As a youth he would have been well aware of the suffering, persecution and martyrdom taking place all around him. For example, Bishop Peter of Alexandria was martyred in 311. With Constantine the hard-core persecution came to an end, but other great concerns still presented themselves. A major concern was the ongoing theological debate about the elucidation and confirmation of biblical Christology.
Determining the precise understanding of Christ – especially his two natures in one person – was being carefully worked out during this period. From very early on of course the full deity of Christ was faithfully adhered to. But debates about how one is to understand the person of Christ, as well as the triune God, were still taking place.
A minister at one Alexandrian church, Arius, took issue with the teachings of Alexander, who became bishop there in 313. Alexander spoke of the real unity of Father and Son, and sought to maintain the unity of the Trinity, while affirming the unique role of the three persons of the Trinity.
Arias believed that Jesus was not of the same substance as the father, and in fact claimed he was a created being. Christ the Son was not coequal and co-eternal with the Father, Arius claimed, and was simply a creature – but the greatest of all created beings.
Alexander steadfastly opposed such teachings, as did his young charge Athanasius. In 320 a council was held in which Arius was excommunicated. But the controversy did not subside. Constantine, wishing for order, encouraged that the dispute be settled at an ecumenical council. In 325 the Council of Nicea was held, and the overwhelming majority supported the orthodox position.
Indeed, out of some 300 bishops assembled, only two resisted the Council’s position. Arius was condemned as a heretic and was sent into exile. The Council, following texts like John 1:1-18 especially, affirmed the eternal pre-existence of the Son, and the fact that he was of one substance with the Father. Christ was not to be seen as some intermediary demi-god between God and creation, but as the creator God himself.
The Nicene Creed reads in part: “We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made.”
But all this too did not stop Arius and his supporters. They continued to push their views, and for a while actually gained the upper hand. Arius died in 336 and a year later Constantine died. The Emperor’s son sided with the Arian position.
In the meantime Athanasius had become bishop of Alexandra in 328, when Alexander died. He was the leading figure in the fight against Arianism. His time as Bishop lasted around 45 years until the time of his death (373). During this period, he actually spent over 17 years in five different exiles ordered by four different Roman Emperors.
The theological battles against Arianism raged for decades, but were eventually settled by several events, including, in part, the death of Arius, and the Council of Constantinople in 381. At this council a revised Nicene Creed was officially adopted, and the orthodox position held sway henceforth.
Of course there have always been heretical Arian-like groups throughout church history that have attacked the orthodox teachings on the deity of Christ and the Trinity. Cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses of course deny the eternality of the Son and the Trinity. And like the Arians, they also posit the Logos as an intermediary between the Creator and creation.
But if it were not for the relentless and tireless efforts of Athanasius, it is certainly possible that orthodox Christianity could have been supplanted early on in church history by heterodox Arianism. Thus all the abuse, persecution and suffering he had to endure in the name of standing up for biblical orthodoxy makes him one of the greatest of church fathers. And he was an outstanding theologian as well, with many of his important theological treatises penned while in exile. Consider his great works such as Contra Gentes, and de Incarnatione.
Without Athanasius the face of Christianity might have been much different than what we know it to be. He often single-handedly fought for biblical truth while resisting heresy. We owe a great debt of gratitude to this great man. His persistence and courage has been a light for many.
Indeed, as but one example, recall the important letter written by John Wesley to a discouraged William Wilberforce on 24 February, 1791: “Unless the divine power has raised you up to be as Athanasius contra mundum, I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God is with you, who can be against you? Are all of them stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.”
So always remember this important war cry, especially when things look bleak and overwhelming: Athanasius contra mundum.
For Further Reading
There are plenty of resources available here, including the various works on church history and the history of doctrine. But let me draw your attention to just two books recently written by just one author, Peter Leithart. His 2010 volume, Defending Constantine (IVP) is superb, as is his 2011 work Athanasius (Baker).
(Australians can get these books at Koorong, while others can get them at places like amazon.)