Giant Light from the 'Black Dwarf'

by Pastor Dan Miller

Editor’s Note: This article was reprinted with permission from Dan Miller’s book Spiritual Reflections.
AthanasiusHis detractors, who were as vicious as they were many and formidable, called him the “black dwarf.” He was really a giant. Although his contemporaries mocked his physical appearance, he stands tall on the pages of Church history and serves to this day as a beacon of brilliant light to those who follow his Lord. Those who invest time and energy in advancing the cause of Christ do well to consider the legacy of Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373 A. D.).

Born of humble circumstances, Athanasius grew up in anonymity somewhere along the Nile River in Egypt. Acquainted throughout his formative years with ascetic hermits (reclusive, religious desert-dwellers who did not eat much) he learned early on to eschew the empty promises of material wealth. A humble, simple man, he took seriously the call to deny self and to serve Christ alone (Matthew 9:23-25).

In his Lord’s service, Athanasius never attained status as a particularly eloquent speaker or sophisticated intellectual. He never seemed to comprehend the intricacies of Greco-Roman culture. He also shunned the pompous style, political machinations, and selfish ambitions typical of so many bishops of his day. While lesser men fought over church positions, Athanasius fled to the desert to hide among his hermit friends when rumors circulated that he was the favorite to succeed the dying Alexander as bishop of Alexandria. But popular support swept Athanasius into the position against his will in 328. It was the same year that Emperor Constantine lifted an earlier-imposed ban on a theologian named Arius, thus setting the stage for a major theological battle which Athanasius was destined to lead.

While lacking every seeming prerequisite, Athanasius’ influence over the Church and the Roman Empire grew to immeasurable proportions. Why this was the case deserves a lengthier treatment, but three representative characteristics of this man’s ministry serve to challenge servants of Jesus to this day.

First, Athanasius was a man of tenacious conviction. Most notably, he was convinced through his study of Scripture that Jesus Christ was fully God. Although this teaching was under fire by Arius and numerous emperors who believed Jesus was not God, Athanasius refused to yield. Athanasius had come to understand that the very essence of the Christian faith and the dynamic of his personal relationship with Christ hinged on this fundamental truth. “Jesus whom I know as my Redeemer,” he told the Nicean council, “cannot be less than God.” So while Arius proclaimed that Jesus was of a “heteros ousios” (different substance) than the Father, Athanasius passionately insisted that Jesus was of the “homo ousious” (same substance) as the Father (Colossians 2:9).

From a political standpoint, the debate between Arius and Athanasius was never viewed as a petty, intramural squabble between competing theologians. Since Christianity had been recently tapped as the best chance to provide cohesiveness to the crumbling Roman Empire, Athanasius suffered dearly for his divisive insistence upon the deity of Christ. Seven times, for a total of sixteen years, he was banished from Alexandria by an irate emperor. On another occasion, armed troops came to his church to capture him, but his unarmed parishioners resisted the troops while a number of his associates helped him escape to the desert.

Believing the faith hinged on the difference between heteros and homo, Athanasius was vehemently accused of compromising the unity of the entire empire over a diphthong! But Athanasius was a man of deep conviction and so with great energy he continued to write and preach and testify to the full deity and humanity of Christ in the teeth of opposition from emperors and theologians alike. In the end, his firm and persevering grip on the rudder of the doctrine of the deity of Christ maintained the Church’s theological course against the violent storms of the Arian heresy.

It is safe to say that Athanasius is no hero in a pluralistic day such as ours. He is a hero for those who believe in absolute truth. Athanasius knew the truth, believed the truth, and refused to relinquish it either to the interest of his own safety or to grand political purposes. His example is beneficial for Christian servants laboring in a culture that is fast losing the spiritual and psychological ballast of heart-felt conviction about anything important.

Second, Athanasius was a man of patient endurance. Under constant pressure to relinquish his beliefs and to accommodate the purposes of the empire, under constant threat of physical harm and banishment, Athanasius pastored the church at Alexandria for 45 years (328-373)! While he had every opportunity to seek greener and safer pastures, and while many wished he would, Athanasius chose to stay in the cauldron of Alexandria.

By contrast, ours is a transient, self-centered, super-sensitive day in which we are as quick to run as we are to be wounded. Certainly the time may come for a servant to leave a ministry. But Athanasius demonstrates for us the all-too-seldom-seen staying power of a servant that understands the ministry is not about ease or self-promotion but about the defense of the faith (Jude 3). Today, it seems, self-interest not truth drives our feelings and actions. For Athanasius, it was happily otherwise.

Third, Athanasius was a man of humble integrity. While he lived his life in the company of emperors and bishops, while he wrote and lectured on finer points of doctrine, while his words swayed ecumenical Church Councils and directly affected the political agenda of the Empire, Athanasius focused his energies on shepherding his flock at Alexandria. In a day of corrupt leadership, Athanasius was deeply revered by commoners for his moral integrity and devout way of life. When the emperor was warned that Athanasius boasted the power to single-handedly stop the flow of wheat from Alexandria to Rome by means of a simple appeal to the dock-workers of Alexandria, the emperor took the threat seriously.

Athanasius was, at the end of the day, a shepherd of spiritual sheep, and he never forgot it. While his theological contributions steered the course of the Church, he succeeded on the wings of popular support won in the trenches of faithful, daily ministry to common people. As these people observed the humble yet courageous devotion of a man filled with passion for the truth, they saw a living picture of Jesus and it mattered not to them what emperors or theologians thought of his credentials. Hated, banished, maligned, ridiculed, attacked, threatened—it mattered not to them, they knew the man, and they knew that man knew Jesus.

Dan MillerDan Miller has served as senior pastor of Eden Baptist Church (Savage, MN) since 1989. He graduated from Pillsbury Baptist Bible College (Owatonna, MN) with a B.S. degree in 1984. His graduate degrees include an M.A. in History from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and M.Div. and Th.M. degrees from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He is nearing completion of D.Min. studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Dan is married to Beth, and the Lord has blessed them with four children.
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