Jerome’s famous quip “Athanasius versus the world” has been echoed throughout church history as a dramatic characterization of the Arian controversy, in which Athanasius became the sole defender of orthodoxy amid a church that had been given over to Arianism, and was ruled over by Arian emperors. Indeed, Jerome’s imagination cannot be blamed too much for this summary, as Athanasius himself presents his situation as something close to that throughout his writings. According to Athanasius, Arianism was a widespread heresy that deceived at times the bulk of the church. Athanasius is looked back upon as one who alone had the wisdom to see through Arian attempts to subvert the church through ambiguous creedal wording, who insisted despite the odds that the word “homoousias” must be accepted to describe the relation of the Son to the Father as the only possible safeguard against the rampant heresy.
And yet while Athanasius was certainly orthodox in his theology and effective in his efforts to rid the church of Arianism, we must question the validity of some points of this popular narrative. Among the most glaringly odd things in this narrative, as told by Athanasius in his own writings, were the myriad synods held by the Arians after the council of Nicea in which they rejected the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and proclaimed their faith. While Athanasius treats the councils that met and Creeds they composed after Nicea as Arian, other orthodox authors such as Hilary of Poitiers, who likewise favored the “homoousian” articulation of the Trinity and rejected Arianism, did not view these most of these synods as such. Rather, Hilary saw the majority of these synods as orthodox, even though they often eschewed the controversial term “homoousias” (see Hilary of Poitiers on Correct and Incorrect Understandings of Co-essentiality).
The historical facts appear different when we look at more than merely Athanasius’s recounting of events. When we actually observe the many councils held in the decades following Nicea, we see that the many church fathers assembled at these councils did not accept Arianism at all, but rather condemned it just as strongly as the council of Nicea had. They did, however, often reject the word “homoousias”, as the word was associated with modalism, and so favored other expressions to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity.
The substance of their doctrine, however, was no different than that held by the orthodox homoousian fathers; the Son was acknowledged to be of exactly the same divine nature as the Father, and co-eternal with Him. They simply wished to express their belief in classical trinitarianism without using the controversial word “homoousias” -a word which was ultimately not necessary to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity orthodoxly (this fact is most clearly demonstrated by the fact that scripture teaches the doctrine of the Trinity without the word, and most of the pre-Nicene fathers were also able to accurately articulate their beliefs on the Trinity without employing the word). Correctly understood as fathers like Athanasius and the Council of Nicea intended it, the word ‘homoousias’ could be helpful in articulating classical trinitarianism; but the word proved to be too confusing, and was ill understood by the majority of Christians. Its meaning was ambiguous, and allowed for other meanings than that intended by men like Athanasius and Hilary.
Because of this most synods held after the council of Nicea during the Arian controversy avoided the term; in Athanasius’s eyes, this made them Arian. But this opinion is not supported by truth, as these councils took great pains to show that they rejected Arianism, explicitly condemning it, and teaching the doctrine of the Trinity as the church in previous centuries had; without the word ‘homoousias’. Among these councils were that of Antioch in 345, and the Council of Sirmium in 351.
Athanasius’s willingness to at times label everyone who would not articulate the doctrine of the Trinity in exactly the same words as he as “Arian” reveals him to have really been a bit of a radical; the vast majority of the church supported using more traditional language, while still believing the same orthodox doctrine. He slanderously labeled large assemblies of bishops who rejected Arianism and embraced orthodoxly just as strongly as he did as “Arian”, as well as emperors who rejected Arianism. Understandably, neither the church nor these emperors appreciated this; thus we may find that “Athanasius versus the world” was indeed true, but was more self-inflicted than it is usually made out to be. Athanasius did not face widespread opposition because of widespread support for the Arian heresy, but because he was himself a radical who insisted that everyone who rejected the wording he favored was an Arian.