Every year on the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas, which was last week, memes circulate about St Nick having slapped the heretic Arius at the Council of Nicaea. This event apparently has no basis in history. But more disturbing is the seeming celebration of it. I saw one tweet in which a mother shared her husband was telling their children about it.
Should we celebrate slapping heretics? What about torturing them? Or burning at the stake? Or simply jailing them?
Presumably these memes are meant to be humorous. Hahaha. Too many people around the world day suffer violence because of their religious beliefs. Many of them are seen as heretics in their communities. It’s not very funny.
Arius was a heretic because he rejected the eternal deity of Christ, which Nicaea rightly affirmed. Let’s celebrate his defeat in debate, but let’s not celebrate a mythological punch in the face. Persons of his views should never have church office, but they don’t merit violence.
The point is additionally important because there is a caricature that Christian orthodoxy as affirmed at Nicaea was coercively imposed by the Emperor and subsequently sustained by the sword of the Empire.
“Every line in the Creed’s is a statement of the victor,” recently declared Rev. Dr. David Anderson Hooker of the Kroc Institute at Notre Dame. “Since Constantine there has yet to be an expression of Christianity that has not become oppressive,” he added.
So Christian orthodoxy is violent and oppressive. The allegation is ironic per Nicaea, where the chief advocate of orthodoxy was Athanasius. This young priest and later Bishop of Alexandria won the debate within the council. But he did not become a favorite of the Empire, which preferred order over orthodoxy.
The historian Edward Gibbon, no fan of Christianity, recalled:
We have seldom an opportunity of observing, either in active or speculative life, what effect may be produced, or what obstacles may be surmounted, by the force of a single mind, when it is inflexibly applied to the pursuit of a single object. The immortal name of Athanasius will never be separated from the catholic doctrine of the Trinity, to whose defence he consecrated every moment and every faculty of his being. Educated in the family of Alexander, he had vigorously opposed the early progress of the Arian heresy: he exercised the important functions of secretary under the aged prelate; and the fathers of the Nicene council beheld with surprise and respect the rising virtues of the young deacon. In a time of public danger the dull claims of age and of rank are sometimes superseded; and within five months after his return from Nice the deacon Athanasius was seated on the archiepiscopal throne of Egypt. He filled that eminent station above forty-six years, and his long administration was spent in a perpetual combat against the powers of Arianism. Five times was Athanasius expelled from his throne; twenty years he passed as an exile or a fugitive; and almost every province of the Roman empire was successively witness to his merit, and his sufferings in the cause of the Homoousion, which he considered as the sole pleasure and business, as the duty and as the glory of his life. Amidst the storms of persecution, the archbishop of Alexandria was patient of labour, jealous of fame, careless of safety; and although his mind was tainted by the contagion of fanaticism, Athanasius displayed a superiority of character and abilities which would have qualified him, far better than the degenerate sons of Constantine, for the government of a great monarchy.
Here’s one anecdote of persecution that Athanasius suffered, as Gibbon recounted:
Athanasius had indeed escaped from the most imminent dangers; and the adventures of that extraordinary man deserve and fix our attention. On the memorable night when the church of St. Theonas was invested by the troops of Syrianus, the archbishop, seated on his throne, expected, with calm and intrepid dignity, the approach of death. While the public devotion was interrupted by shouts of rage and cries of terror, he animated his trembling congregation to express their religious confidence by chanting one of the psalms of David which celebrates the triumph of the God of Israel over the haughty and impious tyrant of Egypt. The doors were at length burst open: a cloud of arrows was discharged among the people; the soldiers, with drawn swords, rushed forwards into the sanctuary; and the dreadful gleam of their armour was reflected by the holy luminaries which burnt round the altar. Athanasius still rejected the pious importunity of the monks and presbyters who were attached to his person; and nobly refused to desert his episcopal station till he had dismissed in safety the last of the congregation. The darkness and tumult of the night favoured the retreat of the archbishop; and though he was oppressed by the waves of an agitated multitude, though he was thrown to the ground, and left without sense or motion, he still recovered his undaunted courage, and eluded the eager search of the soldiers, who were instructed by their Arian guides that the head of Athanasius would be the most acceptable present to the emperor. From that moment the primate of Egypt disappeared from the eyes of his enemies, and remained above six years concealed in impenetrable obscurity.
Gibbon further described:
The despotic power of his implacable enemy filled the whole extent of the Roman world and the exasperated monarch had endeavoured, by a very pressing epistle to the Christian princes of Ethiopia, to exclude Athanasius from the most remote and sequestered regions of the earth. Counts, praefects, tribunes, whole armies, were successively employed to pursue a bishop and a fugitive; the vigilance of the civil and military powers was excited by the Imperial edicts; liberal rewards were promised to the man who should produce Athanasius, either alive or dead; and the most severe penalties were denounced against those who should dare to protect the public enemy. But the deserts of Thebais were now peopled by a race of wild, yet submissive fanatics, who preferred the commands of their abbot to the laws of their sovereign.
Athanasius was protected by lowly monks and lay people while rulers and armies sought his destruction. He was hardly the tool of Empire, whose sword instead tormented him and other orthodox bishops.
Of course, there were many times when Rome and subsequent regimes across centuries persecuted religious dissenters in the name of orthodoxy, though often there were other underlying and more self-serving motivations. But orthodoxy has been as often the target of persecution as the beneficiary.
Christian orthodoxy is challenged and even persecuted in every culture and time. It commands total obedience to a constant Gospel standard over and against the spirit of every age. Orthodoxy is not simply the creed of Nicaea but the core ethics transmitted with it, which include the sanctity of all human life from womb to grave, and the sacredness of male-female marriage mirroring Christ the eternal Groom to His eternal Bride, the Church.
The Church when faithful proclaims orthodoxy across cultures and all times, in season and out. Its tenets call for voluntary adoption by the devout, never coercion or threats. The Church’s power is moral and spiritual, not violent. All persons are image bearers of God and merit respect of conscience and person, including heretics.
Saint Nicholas never slapped Arius. Presumably Nicholas, who was himself persecuted, would agree with G.K. Chesterton that orthodoxy needs no coercion, but is itself a great and dangerous adventure, the greatest of all, whose fruit and destination are abundant life and safe harbor forever.