George Hodges (essay date 1911)
SOURCE: Hodges, George. “Athanasius 296-373.” In Saints and Heroes: To the End of the Middle Ages, pp. 15–26. New York: H. Holt and Company, 1911.
[In the following excerpt, Hodges relates how Athanasius came into conflict with the Arian-dominated church over the issue of the nature of Christ.]
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 come 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...
(The entire section is 1801 words.)