MANN TALK: Athanasius: Saint or Terrorist?

by Perry Mann
Perry Mann
Perry Mann

An encyclopedia says of Saint Athanasius (293-373): “His life is intimately connected with the progress of the Arian controversy, and he was by far the most formidable antagonist encountered by that heresy. Athanasius advocated the homoousian doctrine according to which the Son of God is of the same essence or substance with the Father, whereas Arius maintained that the Son was of different substance from that of the Father, but the first of creation and more than man.”


An encyclopedia says of Arius, a Greek ecclesiastic and theologian: “He came into prominence in 318 A.D. on account of his views concerning the Trinity, affirming that if the Son were truly a son, there must have been a time when he did not exist. His views were condemned by a council of one hundred Egyptians and Libyan bishops but the controversy rapidly spread throughout the church, until it attracted the attention of the Roman emperor Constantine I, who called the council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) to settle the dispute. ... Arius himself was banished to Illyria and his writing were publicly burned and interdicted.”


Evelyn R. Smith, an ardent Trinitarian, who writes an essay on faith regularly in the Charleston Gazette, hails the sainthood of Athanasius and goes to lengths extolling the virtues of the formidable antagonist of Arianism and the stalwart proponent in defense of the Trinity. Further, she writes: “By his stalwart acts of courage, his personal holiness, and dogged determination, he saved Christianity from compromising the Gospel, particularly in the area of the unity of the Godhead, and the separation of church and state. By doing so, he suffered great periods of loneliness and deprivation.”

She is particularly thankful that Athanasius listed the “inspired books of the New Testament ,” which corresponds exactly to the New Testament books we have in our Bible today. And she quotes him as saying: “These are the fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these.”


In When Jesus Became God, a book written by Richard E. Rubenstein, the reader gets a more objective view of Athanasius, who for his labors on behalf of Trinitarian orthodoxy earned himself a posthumous sainthood. In the book, the author quotes from Constantine and Eusebius by Timothy D. Barnes: “In Alexandria, he [Athanasius] maintained the popular support which he enjoyed from the outset and buttressed his position by organizing an ecclesiastical mafia. In later years, if he so desired he could instigate a riot or prevent the orderly administration of the city. Athanasius possessed a power independent of the emperor which he built up and perpetuated by violence. That was both the strength and weakness of his position. Like a modern gangster, he evoked widespread mistrust, proclaimed total innocence--and usually succeeded in evading conviction on specific charges.”


Rubenstein writes the following with regard to Athanasius’s character and actions in the battle between Arians and anti-Arian, particularly in Alexandria, the jurisdiction of his power: “Bishop Athanasius, a future saint and uninhibited faction fighter, had his opponents excommunicated and anathematized, beaten and intimidated, kidnapped and imprisoned, and exiled to distant provinces. His adversaries, no less implacable, charged him with an assortment of crimes, including bribery, theft, extortion, sacrilege, treason and murder. At their instigation, Athanasius was condemned by church councils and exiled from Alexandria no less than five times, pursued on several occasions by troops dispatched by a Christian emperor to secure his arrest.”


Athanasius, as I see him after reading Rubenstein’s book, was an ecclesiastical Machiavel who chose expediency over morality and was not averse to any tactic to achieve an end that he knew would make the church a worldly force. His end was that the church accept and incorporate into its official belief the Nicene Creed; that is, that Christ and God are one and the same and of the same essence, that God came to earth in the form of the Son, died for man’s sins on the Cross, rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven to sit at the right hand of God. And that belief in him was essential to life eternal.


Arius could not intellectually accept the enigma of the Trinity. He raised the obvious question: If Christ was the son of God then Christ came after God, his Father, and thus could not be equal to Him. Athanasius knew that such a belief, if allowed to spread would cut the ground from under the church and also from under his position and power. So he fought Arianism with every device, deceit and tactic he had at his command, believing, I am sure, that God approved of all that he did.


And Athanasius was right. If at the Council of Nicaea the attending bishops had voted for the Arian view of Jesus’s nature; that is, had voted that Jesus was not divine but just unique in his moral stature; and they had not endorsed the Nicene Creed, particularly that declaration that assured those who believed in Christ that they would obtain thereby eternal life in Paradise, the church would have floundered and come to nothing. For the bishops to have proclaimed that Jesus was no more than a moral teacher who taught men how they should relate to one another and how they should treat one another and that their reward was not hereafter but now, said reward depending upon the fidelity of their lifestyle with that of him who taught that man should love his neighbors with no less love than he loved himself, their proclamation would have changed the course of history radically and reduced the Christian hierarchy to charitable works instead of saving souls through sacraments.


I conclude that Athanasius was more a political zealot than a man of God; that he had no interest whatever in the separation of church and state, his interest confined to the use of the state for his end; and that whatever he had to do with the listing of the books of the New Testament was actuated by his dream of the church as a worldly power. The irony of his sainthood is that he used to gain his ends every means of action and words that were inconsistent with Christ’s life and teachings.

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Perry Mann is a former teacher, a lawyer, a former prosecuting attorney of Summers County and a columnist for Huntington News Network. He lives in Hinton, WV. He was born in Charleston, WV in 1921. For David M. Kinchen's review of "Mann & Nature," a collection of Perry Mann essays, click:

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