Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 295-373)
As historical leaders of the church go, Athanasius is one of the most influential yet least known. His contributions are not as spectacular or world-changing as say a Luther or a Calvin, but his efforts to preserve the orthodox doctrine laid down for us from Scripture was no less important than those who followed him.
Athanasius grew up just as Christianity became the accepted and majority religion of the Roman Empire after almost 300 years of brutal persecution. With wide acceptance and no fear of persecution, however, came new problems for the church. Not only did worldly influence creep into the church, but new challenges to accepted Biblical truth gained new strength, all in the name of compromise and unity. The Roman Empire and the vast majority of leaders in the church wanted a compromise to the theological issue of the nature of Christ. The most dangerous view, at least in the lifetime of Athanasius, was the heresy put forward by Arius and his followers, (called Arianism) who questioned the very deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity.
The controversy dealt with many issues, but at its essence it came down to one word, and actually, one letter. The Arians stressed the humanity of Jesus, so much so that they began to put forth the idea that Jesus was in fact not God, but a created being. They used the word homoiousios to describe the nature of Jesus in relation to God, which meant “of similar substance.” Athanasius used the term homoousios, which meant “of the same substance.” The difference is one letter, and actually a very small letter in Greek called an iota. The Anglicized version of iota is called a jot, known to us through the old phrase of paying attention to “every jot and tittle.”
Emperor Constantine wanted peace and unity in his empire, and an iota was definitely inconsequential to him. He urged compromise at the Council of Nicaea in 325, but Athanasius won the day in affirming the Biblical nature of Christ, at least temporarily. Arius and his followers hounded him for the rest of his life. He was exiled 5 different times for 17 of his 45 years as a bishop because of his views, but he never wavered.
So was Athanasius fighting over minute details? Was he spreading discord in the church equivalent to a present-day church-split over carpet color or whether to have padded pews or not? Hardly. Although the letter is small, the theological ramifications for including that iota when speaking of the nature of Christ are immense. It would be equivalent to saying “Jesus is God” as opposed to “Jesus is a god.” That is not insignificant.
We are saved from God’s wrath by God. Only the God-man Jesus can satisfy both the human requirement of a perfect life, as well as bear the weight of God’s wrath poured out upon Him in payment for our sin. Not only that, but we are commanded to worship the one true God, and if we conceive of Him as something He is not, we commit idolatry. We never grasp God perfectly, but we must understand who He is based on what the Bible says, not what we think in our own minds.
We can learn from Athanasius’ example. Although the world around him urged compromise and told him that he was causing so much trouble with such a little thing, he held firm. Our world does the same. Our culture and those around us beg us each day to give in, to not take this “religious stuff” so seriously. In the name of unity they ask us to minimize and neglect the essentials of our faith. We can compromise on non-essentials, but when it comes to the essentials of our faith, even something as small as an iota is a tiny detail worth fighting for.