When the Only Choice is Dissent

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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In the year 328, the man we now call Saint Athanasius succeeded Alexander in Egypt as bishop of Alexandria—a center of early Christianity. For the previous fifteen years, (beginning with the First Council of Nicea in 313), Athanasius had been cast in the role of chief apologist for orthodoxy, arguing against Arius and his followers for the full divinity, the eternal divinity of Christ.

While such a defense may now seem unnecessary, the climate of the times was anything but amenable to our orthodox understanding of Christ as the co-eternal Son of God. In fact, while the language of Nicea plainly stated the full divinity of Christ—affirming that the Son was of the same essence, the same substance, and co-eternal with the Father—that language had come to be challenged in favor of modifications that would allow, as well, the Arian interpretation of the Son as a creature brought into being by the Father.

Following the death of Alexander, the Arians were increasingly insistent that the language of Nicea be softened to be more acceptable to the growing and increasingly powerful Arian constituency.

While nearly every magistrate, bishop, and theologian of the Empire—not to mention Emperor Constantine and his immediate successors—supported the Arian cause, Athanasius would not acquiesce to any compromise of the Nicean formulation. From this, the familiar phrase Athanasius contra mundum (or “Athanasius against the world”) was coined. And for his famous stand against the majority opinion, Athanasius was universally condemned. In the tumultuous years that followed, he was subsequently banished into exile (and, as the controversy continued, returned to his episcopal seat) no fewer than five times while the language of our faith was being hammered into now-familiar shape.

In the interim, various compromises were attempted, and in each case the result rejected as untenable, failing to preserve the uniqueness of both Christ and the Christian Faith. In 381, the Council of Constantinople reaffirmed the language of Nicea in a final conciliar triumph that Saint Athanasius did not live to see.

The minority view (even when proclaimed by a single person “against the world”) must be heard. These days, we sometimes seem to think that American democracy protects free speech, a free press, and free association simply because we Americans are such good sports. In our daily conversations, we sometimes seem to think our duty is simply to tolerate the yammering of the unpopular few. Such an understanding of democratic discourse (or of conciliar discourse) is an impoverished and pointless formality. Our duty, now and ever, is to hear the unpopular view.

This is not simply because we are such longsuffering and generous folk, but because the minority view, the dissenting opinion, the guy who “won’t see reason” is there to help us make our own opinions better.