One day, in Alexandria, a bishop was standing by a window in his house, which looked out over the sea. He had invited some people to dinner, and they were late in coming, and he was waiting. When they came they found the bishop so interested in what he saw out of the window that they looked also. On the shore of the sea a little group of boys were "playing church." One was the minister, the others were the congregation. The boy who was the minister called up the others one by one and baptized them in the sea; and this he did just as it was done in church, saying the right words and doing the right acts: The bishop beckoned to the boy. "What is your name?" he said. And the boy answered, "Athanasius."
Some years after, when Athanasius had come to the last year of school, the bishop took him into his own house, and he became his secretary, and the bishop loved him as a son. The lad desired to be a minister in earnest, and the bishop taught him, and at last ordained him.
Now the minister of the largest church in Alexandria was named Arius. He was a tall, pale man, careless in his dress, and with his hair tumbling about his head, but kind and pleasant to everybody whom he met, and a great preacher. His church was always crowded, and he was much admired for his goodness and his eloquence. But Arius and the bishop did not agree. And one time, in the presence of a large number of ministers, at a convention, Arius said aloud and publicly that the bishop was not a good teacher of religion. The bishop, he said, was seriously mistaken.
Alexandria, at that time, was much like Athens when it was visited by St. Paul. It was a place where the people loved to argue and debate.
Now, there are two quite different things about which men may argue. They may debate matters which can be decided by weights or measures; as, for example, the height of a house. And they may come to a speedy decision about which there is no further doubt. Or they may debate matters which nobody understands or can ever understand completely; as, for example, the question whether human beings have any existence before they are born. Here one may say, "Yes, the soul of each man has always been in the world, now in a tree, now in a lion, and, at last, in the man"; while another may say, "No, the soul and the body came into being at the same time." And such a question they may go on debating forever, because neither can prove his position. The Alexandrians were fond of discussing these hard problems. They were, therefore, greatly interested in the debate between Arius and the bishop, and everybody took part in it, on one side or on the other.
Arius said to the bishop, "You teach that Christ is only another name for God, and that there is no difference. How can that be, when God is the Father and Christ is the Son? Is not the Son different from the Father? Is He not, indeed, inferior to the Father? There must have been a time in the far spaces of eternity when the Son began to be, when He was created like the rest of us. He is, of course, divine but in an inferior position." At this the bishop was filled with horror and declared that Arius was either making Christ a creature like man, or at least was robbing Him of so much of His greatness that He was not truly divine, or was setting such a difference between Him and God that there were two gods according to his teaching, two distinct Gods.
This is not the place in which to discuss this difficult matter, as they discussed it in Alexandria. This much, however, may be said, that Arius in taking the names "Father" and "Son" literally, and making such inferences from them, was putting Christianity in danger of a pagan invasion. For if there may be two distinct gods, the Father and the Son, why not twenty, why not two hundred? We have to remember that a great part of all the people of Alexandria and everywhere else were pagans, and believed in many gods. Out of this the Christians had been saved. They had daily evidence of the confusion and doubt and evil living into which that belief brought men. Thus the doctrine of Arius, while to some it seemed reasonable enough, to others was an attack upon the very central meaning of religion.
The emperor of the Roman world, at that moment, was a Christian. Constantine was the first Christian emperor. One day, as he was crossing the Alps at the head of an army, on his way to fight for the Roman throne which he presently won, he saw a bright light in the sky, like a blazing cross. And that night, in a dream, he saw Christ coming to him and telling him to go to battle with the cross upon his banner. Then when he was victorious, and was made at last sole ruler of the world, he took the side of Christianity. He stopped the long series of bitter persecutions. He put an end to the effort which had been made by emperor after emperor to destroy the Church. He became, in a way, a Christian; though not a particularly good one.
So when the debate which Arius began spread from Alexandria to other cities and threatened to divide the Christians into contending armies, Constantine interfered. One of his great hopes in siding with the Christians was thereby to bring about the unity of the people; and here were the Christians themselves divided. He determined to stop it by calling a great Christian council to decide the question.
The appointed place was Nicæa, near to where Constantine soon founded the city of Constantinople. To Nicæa, then, came bishops from all parts of the empire, from Carthage and Italy and Spain in the West, from India and Persia in the East. Some were lame and some were blind after the tortures of the persecutions. The president for the eastern churches was Eusebius of Nicomedia, the president for the western churches was Hosius of Cordova. All Christendom was represented. With the bishop of Alexandria came Athanasius.
The purpose of the council was to present to the world a statement of the true belief of Christians concerning the nature of Christ. This they did in terms which were afterwards used in what is called the Nicene Creed. Arius refused to sign it, and a few others agreed with him. They were expelled from the Church. Then the council was disbanded, and Constantine and everybody else thought that the trouble was happily ended. As a matter of fact, it was only begun.
No sooner had the bishops returned to their homes than the contention arose anew. Some liked the Nicene decision; others, as they considered it further, were not satisfied. And the unsatisfied ones were influential at the court. One was the chaplain of the emperor. Constantine was thus persuaded that Arius was right, after all. And what Constantine thought was the immediate opinion of many who knew little about it but were very anxious to stand well with Constantine. Against these Arians was Athanasius. Old Bishop Alexander had now died, and Athanasius had been made bishop in his place.
The dispute became a struggle between Alexandria and Constantinople, between Athanasius and Constantine. Arius himself presently died. He had been received by the emperor, and an order was issued that he should be restored to the communion of the Church. The old man was actually on his way to the service when he was seized with a bitter pain, so that he stopped in the street and sought refuge in the nearest house. The triumphal procession waited for him at the door. At last a man came out and said that Arius was dead. Constantine too came to the end of his great life, but his sons who succeeded him were on the Arian side.
Athanasius was banished from his city, and came back only to be banished again. Once on his return the rejoicings were so great that in after years, when the youth of Alexandria praised the splendor of any festival, the old men said, "Yes, but you should have been here on the day when Pope Athanasius came home."
Troops were sent to Alexandria. Athanasius was besieged in the church where he was holding service. It was in the night, and the great church, crowded with worshipers, was dimly lighted with lamps. The soldiers broke down the doors, and with drawn swords made their way through the congregation, in the midst of wild disorder, to the chancel. Athanasius was rescued by his friends after being nearly torn in pieces. He escaped to the desert.
One time he was pursued by his enemies on the Nile. As he rounded a bend of the river, in the dusk, he ordered his rowers to turn back. His pursuers came on with all haste and in the dusk of the late afternoon the two boats met. "Have you seen Athanasius?" the soldiers called across the water. "Yes," replied the bishop, "he is not far away!" Thus he escaped again.
This life of hardship and danger Athanasius lived because he was not willing to deny what he held to be the faith. The whole Church seemed to be against him. Council after council was called by the emperors, attended by hundreds of bishops, making Arian creeds. The whole empire was thrown into confusion. Athanasius, on the other side, was preaching sermons and writing books and letters. The one man defied the Church. And he gained the victory! Year by year, it became plain that the theology of Arius was filled with confusion. People were perplexed by the long series of different Arian statements of belief. Athanasius maintained the divinity of Christ, in whom God dwelt among men. People were dismayed at the energy with which the Arian court used the swords of soldiers to maintain its side. The Church grew weary of the fierce debate. Then the last of the Arian emperors fell in battle with the Goths, and the war was ended. Theodosius, who followed him, was of the faith of Athanasius.