Athanasius (ca. 295-373) was a fourth century pastor, theologian, and leader who loved God with all of his heart and stood strong against the onslaught of Arian heresy, even when no one else would stand with him. As I mentioned last week, if Athanasius did not stand, the church could well have fallen, and therefore we ought to give thanks to God for him and consider him a hero.
However, I suspect that if we were to meet Athanasius, many of us would not like him. He was rough around the edges, to say the least. Christopher Hall calls him a “theological cage fighter” who was simultaneously “courageous, cagy, and cunning” (Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, 57). Robert Payne concurs, adding that he was implacable, intense, and derisive of his enemies. “There was something in him of the temper of the modern dogmatic revolutionary: nothing stopped him. The Emperor Julian called him, ‘hardly a man, only a little manikin’” (quoted in Hall, 57).
Indeed, even his good friend Gregory said that he was simultaneously “a pillar of the church” and one who possessed “all the attributes of the heathen” (Hall, 57). Please take a moment to let this sink in. Athanasius was a hero of the church, to be sure, but he was a broken hero. In his zeal for truth, he hurt many people and fell short of accurately displaying the heart of Christ, who is the truth.
And yet, despite his serious, and sometimes inexcusable brokenness, the grace of God poured over and through the life of this man. On the one hand, the love of God in Christ has covered a multitude of his sins. The debt for his sinful thoughts, harsh words, and hurtful actions was paid in full on the cross, and thus Athanasius will enjoy unhindered fellowship with our God and Savior forever. God allowed him to live with this thorn in his flesh, but God did not permit the thorn to ultimately destroy him.
On the other hand, the very qualities that hurt so many people also allowed Athanasius to stand against exceedingly strong forces. It is impossible to describe in so short a space how much power was arrayed against this man, but in his grace, God used Athanasius’ stubbornness to protect and prosper biblical truth. Because of this very quality, the Arian heresy is considered heresy instead of orthodoxy, and thus Athanasius presents us with a stark, and perhaps stunning, example of God’s grace working through weakness.