Encouragement from the Black Dwarf
I have been in pastoral ministry for quite some time, and in church ministry in general for what seems like my entire life. It has not always been easy, in fact a lot of times I have desired to quit and move on to something, anything easier. Many times I have desired to abandon the struggles, to just leave and go somewhere else where I could do ministry peacefully and quietly. To be perfectly honest there were times, far too many to count, that I had contemplated leaving the ministry entirely. It was in these times that I drew great encouragement from various figures in the annals of church history, and from one individual in particular – The Black Dwarf of Alexandria who lived and died in the 4th century. Let me share his story with you, so that you may be encouraged by his life as I have been.
Athanasius was born somewhere near the Nile River in Egypt early in the 4th century. Though his beginnings were inauspicious his impact on the history of Christianity can not be understated. He was a very short man with dark skin, and those who knew him gave him the moniker the “Black Dwarf,” yet despite his small stature he was and is a towering figure for the church. It is not an over-exaggeration to suggest that he is one of the top 5 most significant figures in the history of the church.
Athanasius became the bishop of Alexandria (Egypt) in 328 and remained at this post until his death in 373. His writings range from the interesting – Life of Saint Anthony (a story of an early solitary monk) – to the outstanding – De Incarnatione (On the Incarnation), which is a classic work on the incarnation of Christ and is still worth a read 1600+ years later. Yet it is not his writings or his holding of a significant post in the early church that make him worthy of our admiration. No, many lesser men have written greater books and held more influential posts. What makes Athanasius a man worthy of esteem is his spiritual tenacity, his unyielding faith and his commitment to stand for the truth of Scripture no matter the cost.
Athanasius was 25 years old at the first ecumenical council of the church in 325 – the Council of Nicea – and his role was that of observer not participant. This council was called to deal with Arian doctrine. Arius, a presbyter in North Africa, believed that “there was a time when he (Jesus) was not.” Arius believed that Jesus was subordinate to the Father in both function and nature. That Jesus was of ‘like’ divinity with the Father, but was not of the same divinity. Obviously the church in the 4th century saw this as heretical doctrine and thus called a council at Nicea to refute Arianism. They also saw the need to develop a positive Trinitarian statement that would provide the church with a solid and universal theological decision and thus settle theological debate. The Council met, developed its statement, banished the Arian leaders, and had the support of nearly every bishop in attendance. It appeared in 325 that Arian doctrine was defeated and expunged from the Empire. The Council of Nicea and the truth it stood for, it seemed, had won the day. This was not to be the case for very long.
For 5 years after the Council of Nicea its decision was held firmly and completely by the church. But by 330 things in the church began to turn significantly toward pro-Arian belief. The theological situation between 330 and 370 became so permeated with Arian doctrine that the great Jerome would comment from Palestine after the ascendency of an Arian Emperor that, “The whole world groaned in amazement at finding itself Arian.” Yet, Arian doctrine would not ultimately win the day. The reason – the Black Dwarf. But it wasn’t easy.
During the time when Arian doctrine was sweeping through the early church, Athansius stood alone as its main and strongest opponent. In fact, Athanasius would stand alone in this opposition so much so that a saying began to develop during those years - Athanasius contra mundum, which means Athanasius ‘against the world.’ As C.S. Lewis keenly observed: “[Athanasius] stood up for the Trinitarian doctrine, ‘whole and undefiled,’ when it looked as if all the civilized world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius – into one of those ‘sensible’ synthetic religions…which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen.”
There are many things about Athanasius’ life that have been and are a challenge and encouragement to me. But I want to focus on just one – his perseverance in the truth no matter the cost or consequence. During the pro-Arian days between 330 and 360 Athanasius was exiled 5 times and banned from his bishopric 3 times. Let me repeat that: in 30 years Athanasius was thrown out of the Empire 5 times – to be exiled was to be escorted beyond the borders of the Empire by armed guards and told not to return upon pain of death – and banned from acting as bishop in Alexandria 3 times. Yet in all of this Athanasius remained staunchly faithful to the truth of God’s word. He would not budge, he would not back down, he would not shut up. Each time he was exiled he was eventually allowed to return, and each time he returned he continued to preach and teach the truth of God’s word the same way he always had, knowing that another exile would not be far off. Each time he was banned and was allowed to return to his post he did the same thing. Athanasius never lost sight of the need to defend the truth of God’s word; he never pandered to the desires of people; he never bowed to his opposition even if they included other bishops or the Emperor himself; he simple stood for the truth of the Word of God come what may. He stood when others fell, he preached when others fell silent, he confronted when others backed down, he was strong in the truth when all others were weak in it, he persevered when others gave up, he returned and returned and returned again, when others simply stayed away.
And guess what? After all this battling for the truth, Athanasius never saw its victory. In 373 God called Athanasius home. It wasn’t until the further work of the Cappadocian Fathers (Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus) and the final decision of the Council of the Constantiople in 381 that his hard work, sacrifice and spiritual stubbornness for the truth would win the day. Yet though he never saw his victory, we have Athanasius to thank for almost single-handedly maintaining the purity of the faith in some of its darkest hours.
What a fantastic legacy! What a great encouragement to stand for the truth of God! What a challenge for us to be as he was - singularly obedient to his Lord!
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1).
Soli Deo Gloria