1 John 5:1-5; Psalm 36(37):3-6,30-31; Matthew 10:22-25
|Saint Athanasius (295 - 373)|
He was born in Alexandria. He assisted Bishop Alexander at the Council of Nicaea and later succeeded him as bishop. He fought hard against Arianism all his life, undergoing many sufferings and spending a total of 17 years in exile. He wrote outstanding works to explain and defend orthodoxy.
Athanasius’s passion for the truth seems tactless to many of us today, to the point where some Catholic devotional works even express embarrassment over it. This is grotesque. Before we congratulate ourselves on being more gentle and civilised than Athanasius and his contemporaries, we should look at the lack of charity that characterizes academic controversies today (from string theory to global warming) and the way that some of the participants are willing to use any weapon that comes to hand, from legal persecution to accusations of madness to actual assault. The matters in dispute with the Arians were more important than any of these scientific questions. They were vital to the very nature of Christianity, and, as Cardinal Newman put it, the trouble was that at that time the laity tended to be champions of orthodoxy while their bishops (seduced by closeness to imperial power) tended not to be. The further trouble (adds Chadwick) is that the whole thing became tangled up with matters of power, organization and authority, and with cultural differences between East and West. Athanasius was accused of treason and murder, embezzlement and sacrilege. In the fight against him, any weapon would do.
Arianism taught that the Son was created by the Father and in no way equal to him. This was in many ways a “purer” and more “spiritual” approach to religion, since it did not force God to undergo the undignified experience of being made of meat. Islam is essentially Arian, granting Jesus a miraculous birth, miracles, death (though not crucifixion) and a resurrection, but all as a matter of God demonstrating his power by committing more spectacular miracles than usual.
Arianism leaves an infinite gap between God and man, and ultimately destroys the Gospel, leaving it either as a fake or as a cruel parody. It leaves the door open to Manichaeism, which mixes Zoroastrian, Buddhist and Gnostic elements into Christianity, so that God is good but creation is bad (or at worst, a mistake) and the work of an evil anti-God. Only by being orthodox and insisting on the identity of the natures of the Father and the Son and the Spirit can we truly understand the goodness of creation and the love of God, and live according to them.