Sometimes compromise is best, but other times it simply won’t work. The story of Athanasius is one of a theologian’s refusal to give even an inch for the sake of collegiality, because of which Christianity survived as we know it today. I don’t have many theological heroes, but Athanasius is definitely among them.
He became the symbol of orthodoxy in the early fourth century, when Christianity was quickly spreading through the Roman Empire. The quibble was, on its surface, a disagreement about timing. The rival party (Arians) claimed that God the Father had begotten the Son at some point in time, but the orthodox party insisted that God the Son was eternal—just like the Father—and that his identity as begotten was an eternal aspect merely of the Father’s relationship to the Son and not some moment in time. But where does it say that in the bible?
It doesn’t. Apparently, the Arians were quite happy to use scripture as their basis for defining who God the Son really was. In fact, they quite openly asked the others to figure out which passages of scripture would be used to craft a statement of faith that all could sign. The Arians were excellent biblical theologians, and they had already figured out how each and every passage of scripture could be interpreted to suit their needs. (As the Daily Office website points out, the Watchtower Society—a.k.a. Jehovah’s Witnesses—as inheritors of the Arian heresy are very good at doing the same thing: http://www.missionstclare.com/english/May/morning/2m.html#Essay). But that wouldn’t do for Athanasius.
He wasn’t prepared to yield on these important points. He wasn’t willing to let scripture speak for itself. He needed a way to clarify the issue at hand, put a stop to the Arian heresy, and ensure that orthodox Christianity would triumph. So Athanasius led the way for the Church to develop a statement of faith that wasn’t purely scriptural. Instead, it was in many ways a new thing. And that’s the real leap that Athanasius deserves credit for.
From time to time, it’s easy to find a lowest common spiritual denominator and let that be the final word. It would be easy to say to someone, “As long as we’re reading the same bible, I’m sure we’ll find a way to agree.” But that isn’t how it works. Good faithful people are reading the bible in radically different ways. Some say one thing is God’s will, and others say the exact same thing is anathema. Real agreement and spiritual growth only comes when we’re willing to trust the Holy Spirit to lead us off the page.
As the gospel lesson for Athanasius’ day (Matt. 10:22-32) states, “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” Actually, the Spirit does work if we let it. Conflict can lead to truth if we trust that God will guide our work. We might be wrong—Arius was well-intentioned. But eventually we will discover truth if we’ll stand for something. Athanasius didn’t want watered-down Christianity, and it’s a good thing he didn’t.