Athanasius, also called “Athanasius the Great,” or “Athanasius the Apostolic,” if you’re Coptic, was a priest and bishop who lived in the Third and Fourth centuries, and who is best known as much for what he was against as for what he was in favor of. At the Council of Nicea in 325, he fought against Arias and his followers, who held the position that the Son of the Trinity is of a different substance (i.e., not one and the same) from the Father and the Spirit. It was this fight over the substance of the Persons of the Trinity that led the Church to create the Nicean Creed, that somewhat convoluted document that lays out that we believe that the Son (Jesus Christ) is “of one substance with the Father.” The key Greek word in that sentence is homoousios (meaning “of one substance,” or “consubstantial”). The Arians believed that the word should be homoiousios (meaning “of like substance”), thus the phrase “one iota of difference.”
That Athanasius would go to the mat for one iota of difference in the creed is surely enough to nominate him for a place in the Museum of Grumpy Contemplatives. He had many conflicts during his lifetime, and while he was bishop (called Pope by the Coptic Church) of Alexandria, he was exiled not once, not twice, but FIVE times. In one conflict, he was pitted against some Arians whom he had kicked out of the church, who then took their case to Emperor Constantine. The Arians argued that Athanasius’s real goal was to keep valuable grain shipments meant for Constantinople all for himself, and the Emperor, being more concerned about temporal matters like grain, sided with them. He was exiled on and off for the remainder of his time as bishop, usually based on the whims of whomever was Emperor at the time, and whether or not the Arians had power and control in Alexandria. It is significant to note that Athanasius outlasted four separate emperors, and his position on the substance of the Son and the Father eventually became the orthodox position of the Church.
During his times of exile, Athanasius often retreated to the Egyptian desert, where he hung out with a group commonly called the Desert Fathers (and Mothers, if we’re being honest with ourselves!). The Desert Fathers were featured in another entry into the Museum of Grumpy Contemplatives way back in 2015, and you may recall from that post that they had dedicated their lives to prayer and self-denial, and spent most of their time praying the Psalms, making rope, starving themselves, and passing out tidbits of monastic wisdom. It was while in the desert that Athanasius did most of his serious thinking and writing, and from which he encouraged a monastic movement within the Eastern Church that is still an influential part of that branch of the Christian family tree.
One of the most significant contributions that Athanasius made while bishop was towards the creation of the canon of the New Testament. In 367, he wrote an Epiphany letter to his diocese that included what we now consider the 27 canonical books of the New Testament, and which was probably the first time that list had been compiled in that way.
The life and work of Athanasius prove that one can be a Grump and still marvel in the wonder of God’s love and the mysteries of faith. That’s why he makes a perfect candidate for the Museum of Grumpy Contemplatives. Although his ministry was defined by controversy and quarreling with the Arians, he still managed to find time to take up the contemplative life of the Desert Fathers (albeit, it was because he had been exiled!), and to contribute to our understanding of the nature of God and of Jesus Christ the Son. So, the next time you find yourself thinking, “You know what? I really hate those Arians over there!” (only replace “Arians” with whatever group of dummies you choose), just remember that even the grumpiest of grumps can still find grace in the light of God’s love.